Britain 1100

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BRIAN GOLDING LOOKS AT LIFE UNDER THE NORMAN YOKE DURING THE CONSOLIDATING REIGN OF HENRY I

ON AUGUST 2ND, 1100, William II Rufus was killed in a hunting accident in the New Forest. His body was immediately taken to Winchester Cathedral for burial. Three days later, his younger brother, Henry (who may possibly have been implicated in Rufus's death), was crowned at Westminster. The New Forest, Winchester, Westminster: all these sites have resonances in Anglo-Norman England. Though Anglo-Saxon kings had been keen huntsmen, the creation of a new landscape whose primary function was hunting rather than agriculture was a Norman innovation which came to be seen by contemporaries and later polemicists alike as the most enduring symbol of alien domination, the `Norman Yoke'. Winchester had long been the ritual capital of the Wessex dynasty, but Rufus was the last king to be buried there as Winchester inexorably shrunk from being the pre-eminent royal power base to merely an important regional and episcopal centre. Its ceremonial function was already being usurped by the new abbey of Westminster as the new centre of the English monarchy. Shortly before his death, Rufus had completed a magnificent new hall in the palace complex adjacent to the abbey, clearly proclaiming the imperial pretensions of the new order. Westminster Hall has remained at the heart of government for 900 years.

Henry I (r. 1100-35) inherited an administrative system of considerable sophistication. The long-established institutions of English government were the most highly developed in western Europe. A grid of hundreds (or their Anglo-Danish equivalents, the wapentakes) and shires overlay almost the entire country, though in the north governmental structures remained fluid. Through their courts justice was administered -- and to contemporaries Henry I was the `lion of justice' and the rex pacificus -- and taxes were raised. These were both onerous and efficiently collected. Here, too, royal writs were proclaimed conveying the executive will from the centre to the localities. Henry I was almost certainly the last king before Henry VII to die solvent. By expanding the competence of the royal courts, by maximising the profits of royal justice, and by the subtle use of patronage, the political centre of gravity was gradually shifting to the king's benefit. Under Henry royal administration grew both in the localities and at the centre. The Exchequer began to audit the sheriffs' accounts: it and the Treasury can be seen as the first `government departments' in England. However, in spite of this, royal government and administration, though increasingly systematised and reliant on written records, remained essentially personal, not bureaucratic.

When Henry I succeeded to the throne the Norman Conquest of England was substantially, though not entirely, complete. Early Norman incursions and settlement in Wales had been largely thrust back, to be resumed during Henry's reign, while there had, as yet, been no significant Norman penetration of Scotland. It was only with the accession of David I in 1124 that Normans settled the Lowlands by royal invitation, though there were already some cultural and religious ties fostered by Margaret of Scotland (1046-93), a descendant of the Wessex dynasty; both Anglo-Saxon and Norman exiles had taken refuge there. Neither had Normans yet ventured into the troubled waters of Ireland, though archbishops of Canterbury had begun to interfere in Irish ecclesiastical politics, and Ireland, too, had proved a convenient refuge for some, like the sons of Harold Godwineson, who were hostile to the Anglo-Norman regime.

At this point, therefore, the Norman settlement was essentially of England alone. Even here it was drawn-out and long unsure, and the northern shires were only fully colonised during Henry's reign. But this colonisation now encountered no opposition. In the years immediately following 1066, Anglo-Saxon resistance was endemic across the country, especially in the north: this was followed by a major baronial revolt in 1075, which involved not only disaffected Norman magnates, but Anglo-Saxons and Danes. …