The late 11th and 12th centuries in Europe were a time of good
order, prosperity and progress. An age when war was treated
almost as a sport, as something all upper-class men were expected
to practise, was not always peaceful. But increasing trade,
growing towns and safer travel were signs of better times. The
Norman rulers of England were not responsible for these improvements,
but they did something to make them possible.
Kings of England enjoyed one great advantage over other rulers.
England was a united kingdom, accustomed to royal government.
This was the achievement of Alfred and his successors. In more
recent times, with the rise of the great earls, the kingdom
had shown signs of breaking up into smaller pieces, but that
development was prevented by the Norman Conquest.
William the Conqueror did not have to invent centralized government.
The system already existed, and a very thorough system it was,
right down to the courts of justice in every shire and hundred
(a hundred was a division of a shire). The English people were
used to regular taxation - one good result of Danegeld
(«Датские деньги», поземельный налог для
уплаты датским викингам) - and together with the huge
estates that William kept as royal property, the Norman monarchy
could count itself rich.
All that was needed was a strong man at the top. William was
such a man, and so were his sons, the rough, red-faced William
Rufus (shot in a hunting accident at the age of forty) and the
cool, clever Henry I.
William the Conqueror was, above all, a military leader. His
army had gained the kingdom for him, and his army had to keep
it. The first essential was to make sure of the loyalty of his
chief followers, which he did by rewarding them for their service
with land. William had about 200 tenants-in-chief (крупных
землевладельцев), or barons as they were later called,
to whom he gave large estates. He made sure that their estates
were scattered in different parts of the country, as he did
not want to run the risk of creating dangerous centres of power
for some future rebel.
building a castle
The tenants-in-chief carried out certain duties in return for
their lands. They were the king's representatives in the provinces,
and they had to attend his court and give advice if needed (the
king did not have to follow their advice). Most important of
all, they had to provide military service, not only by bearing
arms themselves, but also by bringing with them a certain number
of knights (the number depended on the size of their estates),
properly armed and mounted.
As a rule these knights were sub-tenants - men who held land
from the barons just as the barons held it from the king. Many
of them found it very tiresome to spend an agreed forty days
a year on military service, as they were more interested in
their farms. The custom grew up of paying Scutage,
'shield money', instead - the medieval way of buying yourself
out of the army.
The idea of land rented for military service was not new to
England. But the businesslike Normans made it the foundation
of society, a matter of strict contracts and official agreements.
The organization of the country in this military way certainly
did not suit everyone. The poor peasant farmer was struggling
to keep his independence in Anglo-Saxon times; under the Normans
he often became a serf, or villein (крепостной)
- not a slave (slavery was disappearing), but definitely 'unfree'.
He had to work for the local lord; he could not leave the village
or get married without the lord's permission. Of course, he
might have been no better off if the Norman Conquest had never
happened. He might even have been worse off, for not all peasants
went down in the world after 1066, and although he had so many
duties to his lord, the lord also had some duties towards him.
All the same, the English were a conquered nation after 1066.
William I might insist that no 'conquest' had taken place, but
many an Englishman, hiding from Norman soldiers in his ruined
house, must have laughed bitterly at such a notion. Hardly any
Englishmen were left in positions of power, and although William
Rufus might speak affectionately of 'my Englishmen, strong and
true', the law made it plain that Englishmen were different
from Normans. If a man was found murdered in any place and his
murderer not discovered, the local inhabitants had to pay a
fine - unless they could prove that the dead man was an Englishman,
and not a Norman.
the Tower of London
When we look at the magnificent buildings of the Normans -
majestic cathedrals like Durham, superb castles like the Tower
of London - we think of the skills of the stone-mason and the
vision of the masterbuilder. We forget the pain and exhaustion
of the labourers who were forced to haul the great stone blocks
into place. When we read about the efficiency of the Normans,
we think of orderly government and enforcement of law. It is
easy to imagine that the Normans brought 'civilization' to Anglo-Saxon
England, as the Romans brought it to Celtic Britain. But when
we ask exactly what this 'civilization' meant for ordinary people,
we often find it meant terror, distraction and death.
Eventually, the Normans and English merged into a single nation,
but there were few signs of reconciliation until the reign of
Henry I (1100-35). At the beginning of his reign Henry issued
a charter of English liberties, which promised to restore the
'good laws' of Edward the Confessor. He married an English princess,
a descendant of King Alfred, but gave her a French name (Matilda)
to make her sound more respectable to his Norman subjects. They
were scornful of Henry's pro-English policies and in private
called 'the king and queen simple old Anglo-Saxon names, Godric
When a business company takes over another firm, its directors
want to know as much about the new firm as possible. When the
Normans 'took over' England, one of their problems was that
they did not know a great deal about the country. If William
gave an estate in - for example - Gloucestershire to some French
knight (not all his men came from Normandy), the man must have
had a hard time finding out where the place was.
Of course, many English were willing to help: within a year
or two of the Conquest, William was using English soldiers against
English rebels. But there were no records to compare with the
records kept by a modern business company, let alone our modern
civil service, and William, as a good manager, wanted to know
Twenty years after the Conquest, when the country was fairly
peaceful, William organized a government inquiry into the state
of England. Its results were recorded in the Domesday Book
(«Книга страшного суда»).
compiling the Domesday Book
The purpose of the Domesday inquiry was to discover, in every
shire and hundred, who occupied the land, what were the local
rights of landlord and tenant, what were the local law courts,
how much land was cultivated, was there a working watermill,
or fish pond, and so on. The government wanted to know the exact
number of cattle and pigs kept, even chickens, and it wanted
an answer for the situation at present (in 1086), and for the
situation twenty years earlier, in the time of Edward the Confessor.
At each place a 'jury' of witnesses was assembled, who gave
their answers under oath.
The king did not carry out this huge inquiry just for curiosity.
He was interested in taxes, and taxation only works if the government
knows what there is to tax. The survey also told him how many
knights he could call on to fight a Danish invasion (which he
was expecting), and it provided evidence to settle the many
arguments over land ownership which had arisen since 1066.
extract from the Domesday Book
But for historians, the Domesday Book has a greater value.
It gives a detailed picture of everyday affairs in Norman England,
and it also shows what changes had taken place as a result of
the Norman Conquest.
History of Britain
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