Home / West in the Middle Ages 481 A.D. - 1485 A.D. / The Conquest of England 1066-1265

The Conquest of England 1066-1265

IN THE DIM LIGHT of early morning, the Frenchmen were preparing for battle. Squires helped the knights put on their armour, grooms brought up the horses‚ archers tested their bows, foot soldiers began to assemble, while mounted messengers hurried busily here and there. The date was October 14, 1066 and before the sun set that day a kingdom would change hands and a new era in English history would begin. The battle, one of the most decisive ever fought, would be known as the Battle of Hastings.

The cause of the battle was ambition — the driving ambition of Duke William of Normandy to win himself a kingdom and a crown. The son of a Viking pirate chief, William inherited the French duchy of Normandy in 1035, when he was only eight years old. At the age of twenty he began to govern Normandy himself and he proved to be a stern and able ruler. Under his firm guidance, Normandy prospered and its population increased, until William had become the French king’s most powerful vassal. Unable to seek new lands and glory in France, because of his feudal oath of loyalty to the king, William decided to invade England.

Anglo-Saxon England was a loosely knit, rural land which had never really recovered from the Viking raids. The petty kingdoms ruled by Anglo-Saxon chiefs had finally been absorbed into the Viking empire of King Canute. Then, during Edward the Confessor’s reign, the country again became weak as the feudal lords struggled with each other for power. One of these lords, Harold Godwinson, seized the English crown for himself. Three weeks after Harold had taken the throne‚ Duke William crossed the English channel with an army of 5000 men and landed 41 Pevensey Beach.

Now King Harold and his hastily gathered army had taken a position on a hill about six miles from the town of Hastings, blocking off the road to London. William had little choice but to advance against the English; behind him lay the sea. Besides, he had come to conquer and was ready to fight. He gave the signal for the attack, the trumpets sounded and the battle began.


All day the battle went on. The French bowmen sent swarms of arrows into the enemy line, but the English troops‚ most of them infantrymen, stood firm. Then William ordered his horsemen into the battle. He led them himself, together with his brother Odo. Except for his bulging belly, William looked like the tough warrior he was. A chronicler described him as being “of just stature, extraordinary corpulence, fierce countenance; his forehead bare of hair; of such strength of arm that it was often a matter of surprise that no one was able to draw his bow which he himself could bend when his horse was on full gallop; he was majestic whether sitting or standing, although the protuberance of his belly deformed his royal person. . .”

Suddenly the minstrel Taillefer, brandishing his sword, rode ahead of the others, straight into the midst of the English. Although he was quickly killed, his feat roused the French knights and they, too, charged the English line. The English struck back with their heavy axes, slicing off arms and cutting down the Frenchmen’s horses. William’s left wing crumbled and some of the English rushed down the hill after the fleeing men. This was a mistake. William swiftly brought his horsemen around and crushed the English who had dared to leave their places on the hill.


Even so, the English might have won the battle, but William was a master strategist; he reasoned that the enemy might make the same mistake again. He was right. He led another charge, pretended to retreat, lured a large number of the English troops into the open and crushed them. The rest of the English continued to fight. At last, when it was almost night, an arrow pierced King Harold’s eye and he toppled from his horse. The French knights immediately fell upon him and hacked him into pieces. With their leader gone, the English soldiers fled or surrendered on the field. After nine hours of fighting, the battle was over. William had won a crown and a kingdom.

From Hastings, William led his troops up the road to London. News of his great victory went before him and the people of London decided to submit to the Normans. Many of their nobles and leaders came out to welcome William the Conqueror and surrender the city formally and on Christmas day of 1066 he was crowned king of England.

The land that William had conquered had few large cities. The people were mostly farmers and even in London, the country’s largest city, the people kept cows and chickens and tended the fields. The only other cities of any size were York, to the north and Bristol, in the western part of the country.

The entire land was divided into thirty-four regions called “shires”– a term which appears in the names of many English counties, such as Devonshire and Hampshire. Each shire was divided into smaller areas called “hundreds,” which, in turn, were made up of still smaller areas known as “hides.” A hide was equal to about 120 acres. A “shire court” was held twice a year and once a month the “hundred court” met. Both courts had been set up to settle disputes, judge points of law and decide such questions as the amount of Danegeld each person must pay. They were attended by representatives of the crown, church officials, sheriffs, land owners and farmers.


The Anglo-Saxon kings of England had faced the same problems as the early kings of France and Germany. In addition, they followed certain old Anglo-Saxon customs which gave them still more problems. The army and navy, for example, were made up mainly of landholders who were supposed to serve in the armed forces whenever they were called up for duty. It was hard to discipline such men. In fact, William was able to cross the Channel without a battle because the men of the English navy had grown tired of waiting for the invasion and had gone home to gather the harvest. The English kings were also hindered by a group of advisers known as the “witan.” While these advisers had little power and their duties were vague, they could make it difficult for the king to reach a decision on any matter.

William the Conqueror promptly introduced into England the feudal system of western Europe. He combined it with the firm central government he had developed in Normandy and he set out at once to assert his authority over the nobles. Scattered revolts and uprisings throughout England gave him the excuse to claim all the lands of the country as his own. He declared that, by rebelling, the nobles had forfeited their lands and that they now belonged to the king.

Having made the entire kingdom into his personal domain, William then began to reward the nobles who had helped him by giving them grants of land. He destroyed strongholds which might be centers of rebellion and built new castles throughout England, putting them in charge of his most loyal followers. No castle or manor house could be built without William’s permission and no nobleman could get permission to build until he had furnished proof of his loyalty to William and pledged his military support. Each lord was told exactly how many knights he must provide in case of war and private wars among the nobles were strictly forbidden. The nobles were also forbidden to issue money; only the king had that right.


Although William brought feudalism to England, he made sure that the king had power over the feudal lords. He made just as sure that he would have power over the church. In this he was unlike the other monarchs of Europe, who, when they were not feuding with the church, sought its support against the nobles. From the beginning, William was determined to rule supreme. He appointed bishops and abbots. The English church could not carry out any papal commands without the king’s approval.


One of the unintended results of the conquest was the creation of the English language. For some years after the conquest, nobles and members of the court spoke Norman French, while the rest of the people continued to speak their ancient Anglo-Saxon tongue. Gradually the two languages merged, to become, in time, Middle English and then modern English.

Like Charlemagne two centuries before, William traveled constantly about the land, attending to government matters, sitting in on legal cases, visiting nobles. He traveled with a huge party of nobles, knights and servants, and if they prolonged their stay at a castle, they could bring their host close to bankruptcy. A steward’s records show that once, in a few days of Christmas feasting, William’s party devoured 6,000 chickens, 1,000 rabbits, 90 boars, 50 peacocks, 200 geese and 10,000 eels, as well as thousands of eggs and loaves of bread and hundreds of casks of wine and cider.


One of William’s greatest achievements came in the last years of his life, when he ordered the compiling of the “Domesday Book.” This was a survey of his entire kingdom and all its resources. He sent agents to every shire in England to find out “the name of each manor, who held it in the time of King Edward, who holds it now; the number of hides; the number of plows on the demesne, the number of those of the men; the number of villeins; the number of cotters; the number of serfs; the number of freemen; the number of sokemen; the amount of forest; the amount of meadow; the number of pastures; the number of mills; the number of fishponds; how much it has been increased or diminished; how much it was all worth then; and how much now; how much each freeman and sokeman held and holds there. All this three times over, namely, in the time of King Edward and when King William gave it, and as it now is, and if more can be had than is had. . . Filling two huge volumes, the Domesday Book was an invaluable social record and became one of England’s treasures.

William’s reign, which changed the course of English history, ended in 1087. At the age of 64, while in France, in an area north of Paris, making war against Philip I of France, William was stepped on and crushed by his horse. He was succeeded by the eldest of his three sons, William II, who was known as William Rufus and William the Red. William II taxed his people mercilessly, and he was killed in 1100 by an arrow shot by an unknown person.

William’ s second son was out of the country on a crusade and Henry I, the youngest of the three sons, took the opportunity to seize the throne. He proved to be a vigorous and efficient ruler. He organized a secretarial department of the government known as the Chancery and a treasury department known as the Exchequer. The treasury department took its name from the custom of laying out tax payments on a long cloth marked out in squares, or chequers. Each square indicated a certain amount of money and special markers were placed on them to show how much money had been paid in and how much was still owed. In this way, even a tax collector who could not read could tell how much money he had yet to collect.


After Henry died in 1135, his nephew, Stephen of Blois, became king, but Henry’s daughter, Matilda, also claimed the throne and England was torn by civil war. Without a strong king to hold them in check, the nobles fought and murdered and tortured and plundered. So bad were the nineteen years of Stephen’s reign that a chronicler wrote; “I cannot and may not tell of all the wounds, and all the tortures . . . inflicted upon the wretched men of this land. . . . Then was corn dear, and flesh [meat] and cheese and butter, for there was none in the land — the wretched men starved with hunger — some lived on alms who had been erewhile rich; some fled the country . . . and it was said openly that Christ and His saints slept.”


Then, in 1154, Henry Plantagenet of Anjou became king. This was the same Henry of Anjou who married Eleanor of Aquitaine after she was divorced from Louis VII of France. Short, stocky, red-haired and freckled, a man of boundless energy and keen intelligence, Henry II was one of the greatest kings of England. He had an uncontrollable temper and when he was carried away by rage he would roll on the ground, crying, shouting, swearing. He fought many wars on the continent and he quarreled time after time with his sons and with his wife, whom he finally threw into prison. At the same time, he put down the nobles, restored the power of the monarchy and brought peace and order to the land. Perhaps even more important, he made many reforms in the law — reforms that led to trial by jury and greater justice for all Englishmen. Henry’s many changes in the law established important principles and would have an influence far beyond his own times; they were the foundation of the legal system of Britain and the United States.

Early in his reign, Henry appointed Thomas Becket, an educated but not very well known churchman, as his chancellor, an important officer of the realm. Although Becket was more than ten years older than Henry, the two men were soon inseparable — they rode together, drank together, feasted together. Becket became the young and inexperienced king’s closest friend and most trusted adviser. There was much to advise Henry on, for he was interested in everything that went on in his kingdom. He rewrote the tax laws, introduced traveling judges to administer quick and honest judgment and formed a special Court of the King’s Bench. He ordered the building of county jails and dikes for flood control. He saw to it that beer and bread were sold at fair prices and were of good quality. To strengthen and enlarge his kingdom, Henry made a number of military expeditions to Ireland, Scotland and France. Becket served as his aide, went on diplomatic missions and sometimes even fought in the field.

Finally, Henry appointed Becket as archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church in England. As part of his campaign to restore the power of the monarchy, Henry was trying to win control over church affairs and he expected Becket to support and help him. To his shocked surprise, he found that Becket jealously guarded the rights of the Church. Now that he was archbishop, Becket felt that he owed loyalty only to the Church. The two men who had once been friends opposed each other on many issues. Their sharpest and most bitter disagreement was over the right of the Church to place clergymen on trial in its own courts instead of the royal courts, to punish them if necessary and to allow them to make legal appeals to the pope.


For six years the struggle between Henry and Becket went on. Once Becket fled to France, returning only after Henry, under pressure from the pope, agreed to make peace with him. But there could be no real peace between them. They continued to oppose each other, until, in a fit of wild rage, Henry cried out, “What cowards I have about me that no one will deliver me from this lowborn priest!”


Four of Henry’s knights believed that he wanted Becket dead. They left the court and set out for Canterbury. Henry was soon sorry for his outburst; it could not have been the first time he said something in anger and regretted it later. This time he could not stop the violence his words had touched off. The four knights attacked Becket as he celebrated mass at the high altar in Canterbury cathedral and killed him with their swords.

A wave of horror swept over England and spread to the Continent. Henry, too, was horrified. When he learned of the murder in the cathedral, he shut himself off from everyone for three days, neither eating nor drinking. Pope Alexander promptly placed Henry’s duchy of Normandy under interdict — a punishment, almost as terrible as excommunication‚ which forbade the sacraments and Christian burial to all the people of Normandy.

Like the German king, also named Henry, who stood in the snow at Canossa, Henry also made a pilgrimage of penitence. Barefoot and wearing a hairshirt, he walked the streets of Canterbury to the cathedral. There, before the high altar, he bared his back and was flogged by a monk. To complete his penance, he agreed that the Church should have the right to put on trial and punish its clergy and that the clergy would have the right to appeal to papal courts.

Within two years, in 1173, Thomas Becket was canonized as a saint. The cathedral at Canterbury became a holy place of pilgrimage and it remained so until it was destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII. Although he was still popular with his people, Henry II’s last years were full of strife. His sons, Richard and John, were in constant revolt against him, aided by their mother, Queen Eleanor. In 1189, at the age of 56, Henry died. He had just been defeated in a war and his last words were: “Shame! Shame on a beaten king!”


Henry’s son Richard then came to the throne. Known as Richard the Lion-Hearted, he was a mighty warrior. He would long be remembered in legends that told of his courage and his great feats on the field of battle. If he had been as good at ruling as he was at fighting, he would have been a great king. During the ten years of his reign, he spent less than six months in England. His chief interest in his kingdom was to milk it of funds for his wars.

While returning from a crusade to free Jerusalem from Saladin, Richard was taken prisoner by Leopold of Austria. Leopold turned him over to Emperor Henry IV of Germany, who at that time was an ally of Philip Augustus of France. The German emperor refused to free Richard unless he was paid a ransom of 50,000 marks. To raise this enormous sum, new taxes were levied on the people of England, who also had to give up much gold, silver and other property. As soon as he was free, Richard hurried to England to raise still more money for a new war against France. During the fighting, when he was laying siege to a castle, Richard was struck in the shoulder with an arrow. Gangrene set in and within a few hours the Lion-Heart was dead.

Richard’s successor was his brother, John, who was crowned in 1199. He was cruel, treacherous, and greedy, but during his reign occurred two events which would bring lasting benefit to the English people. The first was the loss of most of the English possessions in France, including Normandy, Maine, Anjou, Touraine, and Brittany. Although it seemed a great calamity at the time, it helped to unify the people of the British Isles. Their fortunes now depended on the English state and not on the lands across the Channel. They stopped thinking of themselves as Saxons or Normans; instead, they thought of themselves as Englishmen.


The second event was the signing of Magna Carta, the Great Charter, which was the foundation of the rights of Englishmen. It came about because of John’s failure as a ruler, and particularly because of the crushing burden of the taxes he imposed. As discontent grew everywhere in England, the nobles determined that something must be done to check the king. Defying the king was dangerous and the nobles moved cautiously, slowly gaining support from the church and the townspeople. At last, when they were ready to act, a group of lords, church officials and town leaders presented King John with a petition known as Magna Carta. On June 15, 1215, in a meadow outside London, called Runnymede, the king affixed his seal to the document, agreeing to its demands.

The Charter consisted of sixty-three separate Chapters; it granted certain rights to the English people and limited the king’s power. Most important of all, it contained this statement: “No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or dispossessed, or outlawed or banished, or in any way destroyed . . . except by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny, or delay right or justice.”


Although it was the upper classes that at first benefitted most from Magna Carta, it eventually formed the basis of an English constitution. In submitting to the force of his nobles and signing the Charter, John was recognizing the right of the English people to make demands of the monarchy and to have a part in making the laws under which they lived. He was also accepting the principle that the king was subject to the law and could not stand above it — a principle that would hold for all the English kings to come.


Nevertheless, Magna Carta did not end the trouble between John and his subjects and his nobles rebelled against him. John rallied his troops to put down the rebellion, but he died in the midst of the campaign, after eating too many fresh peaches and drinking too much new cider. His nine-year-old son, Henry III, now became king. Although his regents managed to put down the revolt, the nobles went on trying to limit royal power and gain greater authority for themselves. Their leader was Simon de Montfort and in 1265 he succeeded in calling together representatives of all the townships and shires and establishing England’s first parliament. A new chapter in English history was beginning.

Check Also


Europe Annexes the African Continent

In 1871 there occurred one of the strangest meetings in history. The place was Ujiji …

Translate »