Conquered England: Kingship, Succession, and Tenure, 1066-1166

Conquered England: Kingship, Succession, and Tenure, 1066-1166

Conquered England: Kingship, Succession, and Tenure, 1066-1166

Conquered England: Kingship, Succession, and Tenure, 1066-1166

Synopsis

Conquered England argues that Duke William of Normandy's claim to succeed Edward the Confessor on the throne of England profoundly influenced not only the practice of royal succession, but also played a large part in creating a novel structure of land tenure, dependent on the king. In these two fundamental respects, the attempt made in the aftermath of the Conquest to demonstrate seamless continuity with Anglo-Saxon England severed almost all continuity. A paradoxical result was a society in which instability in succession at the top exacerbated instability lower down. The first serious attempt to address these problems began when arrangements were made, in 1153, for the succession to King Stephen. Henry II duly succeeded him, but claimed rather to have succeeded his grandfather, Henry I, Stephen's predecessor. Henry II's attempts to demonstrate continuity with his grandfather were modelled on William the Conqueror's treatment of Edward the Confessor. Just as William's fabricated history had been the foundation for the tenurial settlement recorded in the Domesday Book, so Henry II's, in a different way, underpinned the early common law procedures which began to undermine aspects of that settlement. The official history of the Conquest played a crucial role not only in creating a new society, but in the development of that society.

Excerpt

This book has been a long time in the making. With that dauntless intellectual ambition which was one of his many strengths, Walter Ullmann originally set me to work on a comparative history of medieval coronation ordines. I realized quite quickly that they could only be understood as one aspect of the varying processes of royal succession. This realization entailed a narrowing of my chronological and geographical focus.

In concentrating on England, I came to grasp that in the particular circumstances of the Norman Conquest, the coronation ordo, like other rituals, might remain unchanged in form, while its meaning was transformed by its continued use in novel circumstances. I then began to understand that those novel circumstances were to a large extent shaped by the premises of Duke William’s claim to the throne of England, which complied with Norman, not English, tradition. the whole kingdom was deemed to be King Edward’s bequest to William, as if it were a piece of land or a chattel; rightfully, it was William’s alone. But William eventually received his bequest only when he had put an end to Harold’s usurpation and been anointed as king. the wealth of the documentation produced by the new regime enabled me to trace how this justification of the Conquest played a large part in determining not only the practice of royal accession in conquered England, but also its tenurial structure. Legitimate royal authority ceased to be created by recognition (or ‘election’), as it had been previously in England, and began to be created by consecration. But the remorseless application of the king’s claim to the implementation of the Conquest entailed far more profound changes in tenure. If England was William’s alone, by force of Edward’s bequest, then any landholder, whether co-conqueror or surviving Englishman, had to acknowledge that he held by William’s favour. the kingdom was therefore William’s in a way in which it had never been Edward’s, and it was so because of, not despite, the elaborate show of seamless continuity with the Old English past. the truth or otherwise of the claim was irrelevant to its transforming influence. It provided the chronological framework of Domesday Book; every tenant’s right to the land which he held either directly or intermediately of the king was defined by reference to the king’s right. This meant that its influence extended far beyond William’s death.

Paradoxically, it was the clarity of the Conqueror’s claim to be the legitimate, direct successor of Edward the Confessor which helped to ensure that royal succession in early twelfth-century England would remain so chaotic. the chaos was a function of the inability of William and his successors to treat the kingdom as conceptually different from any other landed estate, and of the system of precarious dependent tenure which the claim had engendered. in turn it greatly exacerbated that precariousness, as the aggrieved seized the opportunity presented . . .

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