Saturday, 2 January 2021

England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings

 As I noted a few posts ago, I read this:

Bartlett, R. (2000). England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075 - 1225. Oxford: OUP.

Very good it is too, and I got it for an excellent price for a second hand book in excellent condition.

The word I should use to describe the contents is ‘comprehensive’. It really does cover more or less everything you might want to know about life in England between the Norman Conquest and the coming of age of Henry II. As such, of course, it will not interest many wargamers.

As I mentioned before, the chapters in the book are thematic, so the book lacks a narrative thread. That has to come from other sources, but that is not hard to do. The reward for persevering is a much more rounded view of England as it emerged from the Norman Conquest and as life evolved over a hundred and fifty years.

The first thing covered are the problems related to the crown: who, exactly, ruled England. Among European nations of the time, England was a highly centralized state and, as such was a prize worth fighting for, as the centralization made taxation lucrative. As noted before, the problem after the Conquest was that the rulers of England tended to have one foot in England and one in Normandy. This also went for their most important nobles, and, if the Duke of Normandy was not the same person as the King of England could lead to significant problems and warfare. Mind you, the barons of Normandy were a pretty turbulent lot and the rules of surrounding territory were certainly willing and able to interfere and take advantage of any disputes.

The split led, of course, to two sustained periods of conflict. The first was between William I’s sons, the second between Henry I’s daughter and her cousin, Stephen. One of the things which are clear from my reading (and I have read a book on the Anarchy, the latter conflict, which I will come back to at a later date) is that warfare was rarely decisive and usually landed up in a mass of sieges. In the anarchy, there were two battles: The Standard and Lincoln, over nineteen years of activity. I am not sure you could count the sieges.

The absence of the King from England for frequent and lengthy periods did allow the development of some bits of English society and culture which we recognize today. The most obvious is English Common Law, which started to emerge under Henry I as some aspects of the system of justice were brought under more central control It would be nice to think that this was because it was felt that the King’s justice was better, less arbitrary, fairer or something than that meted out by manor, hundred or shire courts, but it seems that the most likely reason for the development was financial – the crown took the fines and fees.

Nevertheless, the development of a central system of justice and of taxation (the Exchequer became more key) and record-keeping does make England after, say, 1215, seem a bit more familiar. There are still oddities that I do not know the development of, such as serfdom. The development of Common Law meant that it became increasingly important to know who was a serf and who was free. The boundaries were not always that clear, and a lot depended on who you could get to swear that you were free, and what dues you had and had not paid.

Other things that strike are the development of monasteries and monastic orders in England, often under noble or royal patronage, and the development of the church as a whole. Bishops were often appointed from among the king’s clerks and there were inevitable clashes between crown and church, most notably, of course, with Thomas Becket. The use of excommunication as a means to bring recalcitrant monarchs into line grew, although its effects were not huge necessarily – more of an embarrassment particularly as the use of excommunication became a weapon in the clashes between church and state.

For a bit of wargaming input, there is a chapter on warfare during the period, although it is fairly short. Raising men was the problem as was money. The feudal host was still, in principle, available, as was the peasant militia, but both of these were often commuted to a tax to enable the hiring of mercenaries. The major innovation of the period was the spread of the castle, and hence, the bogging down of most campaigns in siege warfare. The castle was used to secure land, and as Bartlett notes, that was as true in 1216 as it had been after the Conquest. Bartlett even suggests that there was a form of warfare developed in the period ‘castle-based’, and notes that castles were built to oppose other castles. For example, Stephen built five counter-castles around the Angevin stronghold of Wallingford.

Perhaps the ‘anarchy’ of Stephen’s reign is a good example of what I have often said and most wargamers disagree with: battles are often not that important, what matters is holding land and taking it, and that requires sieges. This seems to be a rule of warfare at least until Marlborough, who, according to my copy of Chandler’s Marlborough as Military Commander fought ten major battles and twenty-six sieges yet is usually regarded as a master of the battle. Battles, of course, are the romantic’s decisive encounter. Sieges are the gritty reality of medieval and early modern warfare.

Before I digress to far, Bartlett’s is a fine book and covers things which would be of interest to some wargamers. For example, the breakdown of farm animals would probably inform many a medieval skirmish game (lots of sheep, apparently). Ideas about the founding of towns and trade would also be of interest, as would the structure of the aristocracy and settlement patterns across the country. In short, there is plenty of meat to go on, even if most wargamers would probably pass the book by.


  1. Sounds very useful for medieval (or medieval-flavoured fantasy) RPGs.

    1. Yes, there is a huge amount about how the world worked both physically and mentally. Even in fantasy worlds people have to eat, sleep and move around.