Feudal Britain: The Completion of the Medieval Kingdoms, 1066-1314

By G. W. S. Barrow | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
IN THE TIME OF KING EDWARD

I. The countryside and the peasants

NEAR the beginning of his account of English law, a writer of the early twelfth century declared: "The kingdom of England is divided into three parts: Wessex, Mercia, and the land of the Danes." The fact that this writer was ignoring altogether Northumbria beyond the River Tees only serves to emphasise the extremely provincial quality of the country which William of Normandy conquered. Between Wessex, the region south of the Thames, and Mercia, between Thames and Mersey, provincial differences were not fundamental. But these two provinces together were sharply marked off, in custom and social structure, from the territory known as the "Danelaw ", which comprised about fifteen counties on the east side of England, reaching from Thames to Tees, and bounded on the west roughly by the line of the Roman road called Watling Street. At the two extremities of Wessex, the counties of Cornwall and Kent, neither of which had formed part of the original West Saxon kingdom, exhibited highly individual features. Similarly, within the Danelaw itself, there were four distinct territories, Yorkshire, the shires between Humber and Welland, those between the latter river and the region of London, and East Anglia ( Norfolk and Suffolk). By 1066, all these districts, divergent as they might be in character, had been brought within one system of administrative divisions, or "shires ", corresponding almost exactly to the counties of the present day. There were also smaller divisions, known as "hundreds" in the south and midlands, "wapentakes" in the northern Danelaw, which were of particular importance for taxation, keeping the peace, and dispensing justice. The extreme north of England, "Norteisa" ("north of Tees") as the Normans afterwards called it, was neither shired nor divided into hundreds. It consisted of a number of semi-independent lordships, of which the largest were the earldom of Northumberland (between the Tyne

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