Post-classical history


A mid-thirteenth-century map of Great Britain by Matthew Paris (British Library)


From the Norman Conquest of England to the English Conquest of Wales is the narrative span covered by this book. The one began with Duke William of Normandy’s landing in 1066, the other concluded with Edward I’s Statute in 1284 which laid down the future government of Wales. At first sight it seems a very Anglo-centric period. The Normans master England and gradually become English. The English then master Wales before proceeding, at the end of the thirteenth century, very nearly to master Scotland as well. But this is only part of the story. After 1066 English monarchs gave far higher priority to their continental lands than they did to the intensification of their overlordship over Britain. This left plenty of space for the ambitions of the kings of Scotland and the Welsh rulers. ‘The Struggle for Mastery’ in the book’s title is the struggle not for a single mastery of Britain but for different masteries within it. The kings of Scotland aspired to bring much of northern England into their realm and for a while managed to do so. In other directions they expanded their power more permanently, thus creating the territorial extent of modern Scotland. The Welsh rulers strove both to recover areas lost to Norman conquerors, and assert dominion over one another. The princes of Gwynedd in the thirteenth century fashioned a principality of Wales in which they subjected all the native rulers to their authority. It was only in the last quarter of the thirteenth century that these separate masteries were swept away and replaced briefly by a single English mastery of Britain.

The book begins with two thematic chapters about the peoples and economies of Britain, the former dealing with questions of national identity. There are also two later thematic chapters, one about society, and the other about the church and religion. Between and around these chapters, the spine of the book is provided by a political and governmental narrative, beginning with chapter 3. Some readers attracted by ‘the story’ may prefer to begin there. The narrative offered is very much British in its form. Wales and Scotland appear for their own sake, not just when relevant to England. Sometimes their histories are treated in separate chapters, notably chapters 3 and 16, and sometimes integrated within chapters which also deal with the affairs of England. The plan throughout, rather than dividing the book into long separate sections about England, Scotland and Wales, has been to interlink their histories, showing how they were connected and how they moved together. The book also covers the English intervention in Ireland in the 1170s, and the interaction thereafter of English and Irish politics. Within the chapters which also deal with English affairs, asterisks show where sections on Wales, Scotland and Ireland begin. Asterisks are also used to indicate changes of subject matter within sections on England. Readers wishing to pursue separate themes will be able to do so with the help of the index.

British history in this period was the reverse of being self-contained. This book also reflects on how its course was influenced in new and fundamental ways by continental connections and developments, the theme of R. W. Southern’s classic essay ‘England’s first entry into Europe’. England, Scotland and Wales were all, in varying degrees, affected by the papal government of the church, the new international religious orders, the learning of the European Schools, the business of the crusade, and the castles, cavalry and chivalry of the Frankish nobility. Britain was also linked to the continent as never before by the way the ruling dynasty in England down to 1204 also ruled Normandy and after 1154 Anjou and Acquitaine as well. One consequence in England was the development of uniquely powerful institutions of government to keep the peace in the king’s absence and raise money to support his continental policies, a system which itself created an equally unique critique of that government, culminating in Magna Carta. If there is a watershed in British history during this period it was also provided by a continental event, the English king’s loss of Normandy and Anjou in 1204, which for the first time since 1066 confined him largely to England. As a consequence, he was able to devote far more time than before to the matter of Britain. The eventual conquest of Wales later in the thirteenth century was the result.

The book is based partly on my own reading of the primary sources and partly on the secondary literature. The amount of work produced by historians in recent years has been truly remarkable. It has invigorated the ‘old’ history of the period, the history of politics and the constitution, law and government, church and state, about which scholars have written since the days of Stubbs and Maitland in the nineteenth century. It has also opened up a series of ‘new’ histories, examining the theory and practice of queenship, the position of women, the commercialization of the economy, the predicament of the Jews (expelled from England in 1290), the standard of living of the peasantry, the emergence of the gentry, the changing structures of magnate power, the transition ‘from memory to written record’, the nature of national identity and the relations between England and the rest of Britain. The work of historians underlies what is said on every page. Because my debt is so large, to have recorded it in detail would have made an already long book impossibly longer. In the Bibliography I have, therefore, given a broad indication of the primary sources and then made suggestions for further reading. A full account of the secondary sources will be found under my name on the King’s College London History Department’s web site:

I am most grateful to Richard Huscroft and Janet Nelson for reading and commenting on parts of the book. The whole of it was read in draft by David Bates, Margaret Howell and John Maddicott. Their criticisms and suggestions have been immensely helpful and I am greatly in their debt. Quite apart from reading the book, Margaret Howell has given constant support and wise advice on all kinds of points of detail. I have received help from many academic colleagues who have answered questions, assisted on points of detail, debated matters of controversy, and sent me copies of their works in advance of publication. I would like to thank in particular Jim Bolton, Paul Brand, Dauvit Broun, Michael Clanchy, David Crook, Anne Duggan, Richard Eales, Charles Insley, Rees Davies, John Gillingham, Derek Keene, Paul Latimer, Samantha Letters, Chris Lewis, Phillipp Schofield, Beverley Smith, Keith Stringer, Nicholas Vincent, Anne Williams, Bjørn Weiler, and Patrick Wormald. I have learnt much from my doctoral students at King’s College London and have often made use of their work. Over the years I have been lucky in studying the period with a long line of able and industrious undergraduates and they too have contributed a great deal to the book.

David Cannadine, the general editor of the series, encouraged me with his enthusiasm and made important comments on an early draft. At Penguin, the patience, cheerfulness and understanding of Simon Winder, the commissioning editor, have supported me throughout.

I would like to thank the library staff of my own College, King’s College London, as well as the staff of the Institute of Historical Research, the University of London Library, the London Library and the Public Record Office. I am grateful to my colleagues in the History Department at King’s for shouldering extra burdens while I was on leave in 1995–6 and again in 1999–2000 when my Special Subject was not running.

My greatest debt is to Jane, Katie and James, who have had to live with a husband and father increasingly preoccupied by ‘the book’. All three have given staunch support. Without them I might have begun this book but I would never have finished it.

For the paperback edition of the book I have taken the opportunity to correct a number of errors present in the hardback version.

King’s College London
January 2003



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