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

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

CHAPTER XI
HENRY II's EMPIRE

OF his thirty-five years as king, Henry Plantagenet spent some twenty south of the English Channel. We have seen his Norman predecessors showing a similar apparent neglect of their kingdom, but in Henry's case the reasons were essentially different. Born and buried in France, more of a Norman than an Englishman and as much an Angevin as either, there are nevertheless grounds for believing that Henry II had a greater love for England and a better opinion of its inhabitants than any king since the Conquest. The fact was that Henry found it an easier matter to govern England than to hold together the vast continental dominions of which inheritance and marriage had made him nominally master. To understand why this was so we must look briefly at the component territories of what, even in Henry's own time, was recognised as his "empire"

Through his mother Henry II was Duke of Normandy, inheriting to the full the status and rights enjoyed by William the Conqueror. Thanks largely to Henry I, twelfth-century Normandy was a highly centralised feudal principality, over which the duke maintained a control firmer than that exercised by any other secular ruler in western Europe. It is almost certain that the experience of the dukes as kings of England furthered their development of Norman government. For example, there grew up during the century a Norman exchequer, which held its sessions at Caen, where the treasure was kept, and closely resembled in staff and function the exchequer of England. Again, Normandy was governed in the duke's absence by a seneschal whose position was very similar to that of the English justiciar. He kept the duke's peace, and supervised the management of his demesnes, which under Henry II were being extended through a systematic recovery of lands alienated by his predecessors. Ranking almost equally with the seneschal, however, was an hereditary officer of more feudal type, the Constable, recalling the fact that Normandy was still more like the private fief of a great baron than an

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