Norman and Plantagenet Kings of England

Norman Castle in England
Norman Castle in England

The conquest of England in 1066 brought with it a completely new ruling dynasty. The Norman kings, beginning with William I, began a social and legal revolution in England. They also succeeded in unifying England and blurred the lines between Saxons and Normans.

The Plantagenet kings composed a long dynasty that included the related families of Anjou, Lancaster, and York. However, most historians seclude the Angevins from the Lancastrians and the Yorkists because of the historical development of the Wars of the Roses.

The Norman kings included the following rulers:
William I (the Conqueror): 1066–1087
William II (Rufus): 1087–1100
Henry I (Beauclerc): 1100–1135
Stephen: 1135–1154
Matilda (Maude): 1141

The Plantagenet rulers were
Henry II: 1154–1189
Richard I (Lionheart): 1189–1199
John: 1199–1216
Henry III: 1216–1272
Edward I (Longshanks): 1272–1307
Edward II: 1307–1327
Edward III: 1327–1377
Richard II: 1377–1399

William I, originally the duke of Normandy and the second cousin of Edward the Confessor, emerged victorious from the Norman Conquest of England and seized control of the English throne on Christmas Day, 1066. Within five years William I contained numerous rebellions and subdued the country.

His reign was highlighted with the creation of the Domesday Book, a survey of landownership used to collect taxes and the most comprehensive and detailed record of a country’s physical resources produced in Europe during the Middle Ages. William I died on September 9, 1087, from complications of a wound received in battle.

William II, or Rufus, was the second son of William I. He received England upon the death of his father. William I’s eldest son, Robert, received Normandy. William Rufus’s rule was categorized by heavy taxes and animosity between Crown and clergy.

On August 2, 1100 William II was shot in the eye with an arrow while on a hunting expedition and died childless and unmarried. Because of his unpopular reign, many historians believe his death was not an accident.

Henry I, brother of William Rufus and the youngest son of Edward I, ascended the throne of England upon the death of his brother. He was nicknamed Beauclerc (fine scholar) because of his educational background.

Through his skilled use of court politics, he established the exchequer, or the royal treasury, during his reign. Henry I had hoped to leave his throne to his only surviving daughter, Matilda, but upon his death the throne was offered to Stephen of Blois.

Stephen, Henry I’s nephew and grandson of William the Conqueror, was ill equipped to respond to the demands of the monarchy and his lack of authority over the quarreling and power hungry English barons erupted into civil war and strife during 1135–54.

The government that Henry I had constructed was in jeopardy of collapse, and the church and Crown continued their deepening animosity. He was briefly overthrown in 1141 when Matilda (known also as Maude) and her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, entered London and claimed the throne.

She ruled briefly but was removed from the throne by Stephen’s rallying troops. Questions of succession continued until the Treaty of Wallingford was signed. Under this agreement, Stephen would rule unopposed until his death, at which time the throne would pass to Matilda’s son, Henry of Anjou.

Henry Plantagenet, count of Anjou, succeeded Stephen as Henry II in 1154. As the first of the Angevin kings, Henry II was a European ruler rather than an English king because of the size of his empire and the fact that he was the richest prince in Europe at the time of his ascension to the throne.

Henry II’s rule is often remembered as one of the most effective of English monarchs’. Most important at this time were the revival of royal justice and the foundation of English common law applicable to all of England.

Henry’s reign also included his quarrel regarding the power of church courts with Thomas Becket, Henry’s former chancellor and archbishop of Canterbury, which led to the latter’s martyrdom at Canterbury cathedral in 1170.

The latter years of Henry II’s reign included several rebellions ignited by his sons, backed by the kings of France and Scotland and encouraged by Eleanor of Aquitaine Henry’s vivacious wife.

Richard I ascended the throne in 1189 but only lived in England for less than a year of his entire reign. Instead, he fought in the Crusades, fell captive to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI in Germany, and continued to fight for lands lost in France. While he was away, the government built by Henry II continued to collect taxes and survive. He died from battle wounds in April 1199, leaving no heirs.

John, the fourth son of Henry II, ruled England in 1199 after many years of trying to steal the throne from his brother Richard. Nicknamed Lackland, John was the stereotypical wicked king; he taxed the English system in every possible manner.

During his reign England lost her French possessions, Pope Innocent III excommunicated John from the church for refusing to install Stephen Langton as the archbishop of Canterbury, and taxes consistently increased.

The barons, led by Langton, confronted John at Runnymede and forced him to accept the Magna Carta, or Great Charter, in 1215. The document confirmed popular liberties and restated the rights of the church and the English people.

When John died in 1216, his nine-year-old son, Henry, was accepted as king of England. He assumed the role of king in 1234 and confirmed the Magna Carta. However Henry III was an inept king who engaged in costly wars in an attempt to replenish his impoverished treasury, refused to defy papal decree, and provided appointments to foreigners rather than the English nobility.

This approach to government fueled antipapal sentiment and laid the foundation for the Reformation. It also provided opportunity for the rise of English nationalism. As English barons became more frustrated with Henry III’s choices and costly wars, they revolted and threw England into a period of civil war.

At one point Simon de Montfort briefly held power in 1264; however, he was killed in battle and power returned to Henry III and his son, Edward. There were some positive aspects of Henry III’s reign.

The population of London and the country rose substantially, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge were established, and the economy improved with the increase of agriculture. By the time Henry III died in 1272, he was monarch in name only, as the true power had already been transferred to Edward.

Edward I, known as Longshanks because of his height, was an accomplished soldier, statesman, and perhaps the most successful medieval monarch. Through his reign England recognized and retained many aspects of society, law, and government that survived centuries, civil war, and international conflict. Although Edward I could be considered ruthless and aggressive in many situations, he understood the delicate balance in which a monarch functioned.

He is credited with the creation of the modern-day Parliament. In 1295 Edward I summoned various representatives to his Model Parliament in order to raise more revenue. To this end parliament was used to conduct national business.

Edward I also supplied the courts of King’s Bench, Exchequer, and Common Pleas with judges; established a Court of Equity; and created a Chancery Court to provide redress in situations where other courts could not intervene. Edward accepted the Confirmation of Charters in 1297, which stated that taxes must have the assent of the realm.

Edward I also lived up to his ancestors’ attempts to expand the English empire. He conquered Wales in 1284 and chose to name his eldest son Prince of Wales in 1301, a title that has been bestowed upon the all firstborn male heirs to the present day.

Scotland proved to be a tougher conquest. Edward attempted to lay claim to Scottish lands by having his son marry Margaret, the legitimate heir to the Scottish Crown.

However she died en route to England, and Edward I invaded Scotland in 1296, defeated them, and was paid homage by the Scottish barons. William Wallace incited a riot against the English king in 1297, defeated the English army at Stirling, and continued to be a thorn in Edward I’s side until his capture and execution in 1304.

Robert Bruce, a distant claimant to the Scottish throne, continued to harass Edward I and his armies. The English were eventually defeated at Bannockburn under Edward II, but the animosity between the two nations continued for centuries.

Edward I’s biggest failure came in the form of his son, Edward II, who was feeble, lazy, and incompetent. Edward II also had a penchant for surrounding himself with foreigners, a trait that the English barons loathed. He carried on a homosexual affair with Piers Gaveston, which led to Gaveston’s exile and murder.

Eventually Edward II’s wife, Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, invaded England from France, forced Edward II to abdicate in favor of his son, and murdered him. Once his wife and her lover deposed Edward II, Edward III ascended the throne in 1327.

He quickly arrested and hanged Mortimer while imprisoning his mother for the last few decades of her life. Edward III was responsible for the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War with France in 1337 allegedly to support his claim to the French throne.

Initially England saw victories at Sluys (1340), Crécy (1346), and Calais (1347), giving them control of the Channel and the land. The bubonic plague, or Black Death, provided a short break from hostilities, but England resumed the fight with an invasion of France in 1355.

Edward, the “Black Prince” and eldest son of Edward III, found success at Poitiers (1356). The Treaty of Brétigny (1360) brought this phase of the Hundred Years’ War to a close. However, John of Gaunt, Edward’s third son, resumed the battle in 1369 when he invaded France again.

Under Edward III, English social life and economic history changed. He experienced relatively peaceful relations with the noble classes. Mercantilism began to replace feudalism. The taxation system was supported by commerce rather than land taxes.

Parliament found a bicameral cohesion as it divided into two houses representing the nobility and clergy, and the middle classes. In 1362 English replaced French as the national language of the realm. Treason was defined in 1352, and the office of justice of the peace was created (1361) to assist the sheriffs.

Unfortunately Edward III’s final years were marked by increasing senility, the death of the Black Prince, and disintegrating relations between the Crown and his subjects, due in part to Edward’s mistress, Alice Perrers.

Richard II, son of the Black Prince and grandson of Edward III, ascended the throne in 1377 at the age of 10. His rule was highlighted by his marriage to Isabella of Valois, daughter of Charles VI of France, in order to end further conflict with France.

He also subdued a Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 that resulted from the effects of the Black Plague’s strain on the economy. Rival factions continued to fight for governmental control, and in 1397, Richard II became embroiled in a struggle with some of the nobles for control.

First John of Gaunt, then his son, Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV), attempted to take the throne. Richard was usurped in 1399, imprisoned, and murdered. The Wars of the Roses had claimed their first victim in the former king.

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