Great Britain: Medieval England
A new era in English history began with the Norman Conquest. William I introduced Norman-style political and military feudalism. He used the feudal system to collect taxes, employed the bureaucracy of the church to strengthen the central government, and made the administration of royal justice more efficient.
After the death of William's second son, Henry I, the country was subjected to a period of civil war that ended one year before the accession of Henry II in 1154. Henry II's reign was marked by the sharp conflict between king and church that led to the murder of Thomas à Becket. Henry carried out great judicial reforms that increased the power and scope of the royal courts. During his reign, in 1171, began the English conquest of Ireland. As part of his inheritance he brought to the throne Anjou, Normandy, and Aquitaine. The defense and enlargement of these French territories engaged the energies of successive English kings. In their need for money the kings stimulated the growth of English towns by selling them charters of liberties.
Conflict between kings and nobles, which had begun under Richard I, came to a head under John, who made unprecedented financial demands and whose foreign and church policies were unsuccessful. A temporary victory of the nobles bore fruit in the most noted of all English constitutional documents, the Magna Carta (1215). The recurring baronial wars of the 13th cent. (see Barons' War; Montfort, Simon de, earl of Leicester) were roughly contemporaneous with the first steps in the development of Parliament.
Edward I began the conquest of Wales and Scotland. He also carried out an elaborate reform and expansion of the central courts and of other aspects of the legal system. The Hundred Years War with France began (1337) in the reign of Edward III. The Black Death (see plague) first arrived in 1348 and had a tremendous effect on economic life, hastening the breakdown (long since under way) of the manorial and feudal systems, including the institution of serfdom. At the same time the fast-growing towns and trades gave new prominence to the burgess and artisan classes.
In the 14th cent. the English began exporting their wool, rather than depending on foreign traders of English wool. Later in the century, trade in woolen cloth began to gain on the raw wool trade. The confusion resulting from such rapid social and economic change fostered radical thought, typified in the teachings of John Wyclif (or Wycliffe; see also Lollardry, and the revolt led by Wat Tyler. Dynastic wars (see Roses, Wars of the), which weakened both the nobility and the monarchy in the 15th cent., ended with the accession of the Tudor family in 1485.
Sections in this article:
- The Thatcher Era to the Present
- <named-content content-type="electronic">The 1960s and 70s</named-content><named-content content-type="print">The Late Twentieth Century</named-content>
- World War II and the Welfare State
- World War I and Its Aftermath
- Victorian Foreign Policy
- Economic, Social, and Political Change
- The Growth of Empire and Eighteenth-Century Political Developments
- The Stuarts
- Tudor England
- Medieval England
- Early Period to the Norman Conquest
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