Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England by Alison Weir


  By the mid-- twelfth century the indigenous Saxon population had come reluctantly to accept the Norman yoke. Henry I had attempted to ease relations with the conquered people by marrying a princess of the deposed Saxon line in 1100, only to suffer the disparaging jeers of

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  his barons for doing so. There was no mistaking the demarcation line that ran through English society: Norman magnates held most of the land, most Saxon earls having been ousted; Norman laws held sway; and Norman-French was to remain the language of the court, the upper ranks of the hierarchy, and the law courts until the late fourteenth century. Latin was from 1066 the official language of government. Only the native population spoke what is now called Middle English, although there is some evidence that their masters made some attempt to learn it. Yet it was not until the fourteenth century that important works of literature would be written in the vernacular and English would emerge as the dominant tongue. The Norman conqueror had been nothing if not thorough.

  During Eleanor's time, however, there were signs that the two races were beginning to intermingle. Where once English kings had addressed their subjects as "French and English," by the thirteenth century they were referring to them as purely "English."

  The King was the supreme power in feudal England, answerable only to God. There was no parliament, and government was essentially carried out personally by the King and his Great Council of lords, both spiritual and temporal, on whose loyalty he relied. The personality and abilities of a king were of crucial importance to the welfare of his kingdom.

  It was taken for granted that the crown would pass from one member of the ruling family to another, but despite the efforts of Henry II, the law of primogeniture-- succession of the first-born-- was not properly established until the thirteenth century. Prior to that, the candidate nominated by his predecessor usually succeeded, his accession being confirmed by popular election (in theory at least), an essential part of the coronation rite.

  A king was deemed to rule "by the grace of God," whom he was legally deemed to represent on Earth. The ceremony of crowning, established in recognisably its present form in the reign of Edgar during the tenth century and based on the rituals used by the Pope to crown the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne in 800, conferred sanctity and a form of priesthood upon a king. Hitherto he had been styled merely "lord," but once crowned and anointed he was invested with divine authority to rule and could begin his reign proper. Until the time of Edward I (ruled 1272-1307), regnal years were always dated from the day of the King's coronation. It was to underline the sacred nature of their kingship that the early mediaeval sovereigns held ceremonial crown-wearings at Easter, Whitsuntide, and Christmas, at which the Litany was recited and there was great feasting and solemnity.

  The sanctity of monarchy was universally accepted throughout

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  Christendom. Kings from Henry I onwards laid hands on their scrofulous subjects in the firm conviction that the royal touch could effect a cure. Yet despite their semidivinity kings had obligations to their subjects, which they were bound to honour by the terms of their coronation oath: to keep the peace in Church and state, to forbid violence and wrongdoing, and to show equity and mercy in all their judgements. How they went about this was very much a matter of personal interpretation, however. "The prince is controlled by the judgement of his mind alone," commented John of Salisbury, one of the finest scholars and political observers of the age.

  John also believed that a king should be able to read and write, so that he could read about the law of God and "think about it every day." Furthermore, a king "must not plead ignorance of the law of God by reason of his military duties."

  The King was the fount of justice. Lords who administered their own courts held their authority from him. William I and his successors had adopted and in some cases revised the laws of the Saxon kings, and Henry II insisted that his Constitutions of Clarendon (1164) merely restated the laws and customs of his grandfather Henry Fs time, which was not strictly true. In an age that saw the codifying of canon and civil law throughout Europe, Henry was responsible for several significant changes in the common law and the administration of justice.

  It was the King's business to appoint the chief officers of Church and state, to determine foreign policy, to make war or peace, and to act as supreme commander of his armies, which he would often lead in person. To finance all this, he drew revenues from his crown lands, collected his feudal dues, and imposed taxes as he thought necessary. As the fount of justice, he promulgated and maintained law and order and presided, often in person and always in spirit, over the supreme court in the land, the curia regis, or King's Court.

  By 113 5 London was eclipsing Winchester as the metropolis and chief city of the whole kingdom-- it would be recognised as the capital by the end of the century-- yet England had, at this time, no central seat of government. The royal court was itinerant, moving from castle to castle, and most of the chief departments of state travelled with it. During his reign Henry II established these departments at Westminster, which became the centre of royal bureaucracy and justice. Simultaneously, Westminster Abbey, built by Edward the Confessor in 1065, and the Palace of Westminster, dating from Saxon times, became the focus for royal ritual and ceremonial, as they still are today.

  The chief minister of the early Angevin kings was the justiciar, who exercised judicial and political power and often acted as regent in the King's absence. The justiciar was head of the Court of the Exchequer,

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  which controlled the royal finances. The Exchequer was responsible for collecting royal revenues, for adjudicating on cases connected with them, and for auditing the royal accounts. The royal treasure was stored in the Lower Exchequer, under strong guard, while in the Upper Exchequer officials would convene around the Board of the Exchequer, a table spread with a checkered cloth, its design incorporating an abacus that was used to check returns made by sheriffs. Sums received would be recorded by means of notches on wooden tally sticks, and transactions of the Exchequer were listed on long parchment scrolls stored in pipes-- the Pipe Rolls.

  The King's second minister was the chancellor, who headed the Chancery, the royal secretariat, which issued in the King's name writs concerning administrative and legal matters. Because the chancellor also served as the King's chaplain and head of the royal chapel, he was always in holy orders. The chancellor was not only the monarch's spiritual adviser but also his personal assistant and keeper of the King's seal. Royal seals had been used to authenticate documents from the time of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066), since not every sovereign during this period could write his name. The chancellor attended meetings of the Exchequer and took charge of the administrative work of the royal household. The Chancery was also responsible for the issue of charters conferring privileges and land grants, Letters Patent making temporary grants, and Letters Close, which contained secret orders for royal officials. From 1199, the issue of these letters was recorded on long rolls known as Patent Rolls and Close Rolls.

  The King ruled in consultation with his chief nobles, who formed the nucleus of what was in effect a military aristocracy, whose power was centred on the castles they built to subdue and dominate the land. Introduced after the Norman Conquest, castles were originally simple affairs consisting of a wooden tower known as a keep or donjon, which would house the great hall and lord's solar, where he and his family slept: privacy was a privilege only of those of high rank, and everyone else bedded down on pallets in the hall. The tower would be built on an earthen mound (the motte) surrounded by a wooden palisade and moat. Within the palisade was the bailey, an open area housing workshops, stables, and a kitchen; the latter was always built separately because of the risk of fire. In uncertain times, the villagers, who looked to their lord for protection against invaders, could take refuge in the bailey with their livestock until the danger had passed.

  During the twelfth century, many timber castles were rebuilt in stone wit
h square keeps, which made them better able to resist a siege. The walls of these newer castles were very thick and had only arrow slits for windows. Often draughty and damp, with unpaved earthen floors

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  strewn with rushes, the new castles were heated by open fires in the central hearth of the great hall, the smoke escaping through a vent in the ceiling, or by braziers in the smaller rooms. Built-in fireplaces were rare in England during this period, since the design of keeps could not easily accommodate chimneys; yet we know that Queen Eleanor had one installed at Winchester.

  Each castle was under the control of a constable, who was entrusted with keeping the peace in the region during his lord's absence. When the lord was in residence, however, he would hold court, attend to local affairs, dispense justice, and oversee administration.

  Knights, who fought on horseback, belonged to the lower ranks of the military elite, and often found warfare a lucrative business. Their daily rate of pay rose steadily in the twelfth century: by 1189, it was one shilling (5p). On top of that, they could expect to profit from taking enemy knights for ransom or from sharing the spoils of war. There were around seven thousand knights in England at this time.

  One of the most favoured knightly pursuits was the tournament, which became popular in France in the eleventh century but was not legalised in England until 1194, by Richard I. Early tournaments were merely occasions for brutal battle practice; they began with single combats called jousts and ended with a violent melee over a wide area. Deaths and injuries were commonplace; Eleanor herself was to lose one of her sons in a tournament. Nevertheless, knights could earn rich prizes and good money at tournaments, which became popular social gatherings.2

  England was divided into shires, each under the control of a sheriff (shire-reeve). He represented the King and was supposed to safeguard the crown's interests in the shire, which was divided into administrative divisions called hundreds. The sheriff enforced the King's justice in the shire courts and ensured that royal revenues and debts were collected. His was a lucrative office and its holders were never very popular: witness the Sheriff of Nottingham, of Robin Hood fame. Until the time of Henry II, the magnates had often extended their influence by appropriating shrievalties for themselves, but Henry replaced them with professional administrators and made them more accountable for their actions and finances.

  There was a high incidence of violent crime during this period. There was, of course, no police force, and local enforcement of law and order was left to the sheriffs, lords of the manor, and local communities. Every so often the King's itinerant justices would visit each shire in turn, to hear all pleas at the shire court. The King himself and the judges who followed his court would hear individual cases as they

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  travelled around the kingdom. Later it became customary for the royal justices to sit on the King's Bench at Westminster and hear civil and criminal cases.

  Convictions were hard to secure because the machinery of justice was often inadequate. If they witnessed a crime, ordinary people could raise the hue and cry, inciting everyone to chase after a wrongdoer. A felon might claim sanctuary in a church, usually for no longer than a fortnight; if he escaped, he risked being declared an outlaw.

  There were several ways of determining a person's guilt. The Normans had introduced two procedures invoking divine judgement: trial by ordeal-- either by water or fire-- which was commonly resorted to up until Henry lis reign, and trial by combat-- if the loser was not killed, he would be hanged. Finally there was trial by jury, an old Anglo-Saxon process, which became the accepted procedure from the time of Henry II.

  Punishments were severe. William I had abolished capital punishment, preferring the very efficacious deterrent of mutilation, but it had been restored by Henry I, although the royal courts were judicious in its use. Male murderers were hanged, females burned to death; rapists were castrated, arsonists burned at the stake. For slander or false accusation, a man could have his tongue cut out. The most common punishment was a fine, which hit poor felons hardest.

  The Church administered its own courts, presided over by archdeacons or bishops, which adjudicated on disputes over wills and on matters such as heresy, annulment, sexual misconduct, and other cases touching the cure of souls. Ecclesiastical courts also dealt with offenders in holy orders who had committed civil crimes, usually imposing more lenient sentences. Even the lowliest clerks could claim this "benefit of clergy," which Henry II thought to be unfair: his attempt to reform the system was one of the major causes of his quarrel with Thomas Becket.

  Much of England was then covered by forests. During the Middle Ages, the continual clearance of forest areas was so commonplace as to merit little mention in the records, yet in this period the forest was regarded chiefly as "the sanctuary and special delight of kings, where, laying aside their care, they withdraw to refresh themselves with a little hunting. There, away from the turmoils inherent in a court, they breathe the pleasure of natural freedom."3 So seriously did the early mediaeval kings take the sport of hunting that they set aside vast acres of land for their own use, built numerous hunting lodges in the royal forests (of which the most notable was the spacious palace of Clarendon, near Salisbury, recently excavated), and introduced a series of savage forest laws designed to prevent the King's subjects from poaching

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  his game, a hazardous business at the best of times since predatory wolves still roamed the forests of England in the twelfth century. The Norman kings had executed or mutilated those who transgressed these laws, but Henry II and his successors preferred to punish them with imprisonment or a fine.

  In England, as elsewhere, the feasts of the Church, her holy days and saints' days, governed the Christian's year, and the parish church was the focal point of social life in every village. Shrines to the Virgin Mary and the saints, many containing holy relics, were to be found everywhere and were the objects of special veneration and pilgrimages. In every city and town, and throughout the countryside, men raised the most beautiful churches to the glory of God.

  The Archbishops of Canterbury and York were rivals for the primacy of England until the fourteenth century. The ultimate ecclesiastical authority was the Pope, who was regarded as the successor to St. Peter, but the Church was mainly run by bishops, and bishops in the twelfth century were chiefly politicians, businessmen, and administrators. Some, such as Hugh of Avalon, Bishop of Lincoln, had a genuine aura of sanctity, but they were the exception rather than the rule, most preferring to seek high office and influence in the service of the King. Most of the great offices of state were filled by bishops, some of whom were even appointed sheriffs. Thus did the Church spread its influence over secular affairs. Indeed, many bishops were very worldly men, who lived like princes and spent more time indulging themselves with hunting, entertaining, building projects, and the acquisition of wealth than they did on their spiritual and pastoral duties.

  At the other end of the scale, a village priest, living on his glebe-land and caring for the souls of his flock, often earned a mere pittance, for he was required to rely on tithes imposed on the parish, which were usually paid in kind, and he often had a family to support. William I had forbidden English priests to marry, on penalty of a heavy fine, but even as late as the reign of Henry II it was common for a priest to keep "a hearth girl in his house who kindled his fire but extinguished his virtue. His miserable house [was] often cluttered with small infants, cradles, midwives and nurses."4 It was not until 1181 that this practice was forbidden by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

  There were nine thousand parishes in England. Many parish priests were sincere men who carried out their duties with simple faith and humanity, but there were many more who were often drunk, lax, or so illiterate that they could not properly read or fully interpret for their flock the offices and services of the Church, which were all in Latin,

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  its universal language. Many priests, and even some of the higher clergy, p
referred to preach in English.

  The twelfth century witnessed a great monastic revival, with the founding of several new orders with stricter rules: the Cistercians, who built their abbeys in the northern wildernesses laid waste by William I, reclaimed the land for sheep farming, and became England's foremost wool producers; the Augustinian canons, whose double houses admitted both men and women in holy orders; the Carthusians, who lived under an austere rule requiring them to embrace a life of solitude and silence; and the Order of Fontevrault, especially dear to Eleanor of Aquitaine and her family.

  In England, a programme of monastic reform had been imposed by William I. Most of the Norman kings founded abbeys in England, such as those at Reading and Faversham, whose respective founders Henry I and King Stephen were buried in the churches they had endowed. William I and his queen, Matilda of Flanders, founded or endowed several abbeys in Normandy, notably at Caen, where they were entombed.

  The religious houses were not just the refuge of those who wished to retreat from the world and live lives dedicated to God. They fed and cared for the poor, healed the sick, dispensed alms, and gave shelter to travellers. Many were cradles of learning, preserving in their libraries ancient books, documents, and manuscripts, and training their monks in the arts of illumination and calligraphy so that they could produce Bibles and devotional works glorifying God-- most books were about religious subjects-- or new chronicles and annals recording the history of their house or of England itself. The Church therefore enjoyed a monopoly over the written word.

  The expensive art of illumination had been imported from Byzantium, thanks to the expansion of trade with the Eastern Empire, and there are some exquisite English examples from this period, notably the Byzantine-influenced Winchester Bible. Manuscripts were written mainly in the rounded Carolingian minuscule script, which had not yet given way to Gothic lettering. Most books were bound with leather-covered oak boards, but some were lavishly adorned with gold or metal filigree work, ivory reliefs, or precious stones.

 
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