In 1066 William the Conqueror defeated the Saxon King Harold and took his throne by force. A king must be a powerful leader and warrior to defend his throne from enemies. He also had to show that he was religious so that the Church would support him. To show his wealth, power and piety William built many churches, including Battle Abbey.
1066-1087 William I and the barons
William’s rule, and even his life, depended on his barons and bishops. They kept order, collected taxes and gave William troops when he fought wars. William needed their support but had to stop them becoming too powerful. In 1086 he commissioned Domesday Book to find out what lands his barons owned so that he could tax them, but he could also find out how powerful they were. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle said:
‘[King William] sent his men over all England into every shire and had them find out how much land he had. He also recorded how much land his archbishops had and his bishops and his abbots and his earls. He also recorded how much each landholder in England had in land or livestock and how much money it was worth.’
1135-1154 Stephen and Matilda – the great dispute
William the Conqueror died in 1087, and was succeeded by two of his sons, William Rufus (1087-1100) and then Henry I (1100-1135) but there was already much fighting over the crown. When King Henry I died in 1135 there followed a dreadful time of Civil War. Henry’s daughter, Matilda, claimed the throne but so did Henry’s nephew, Stephen. Barons supported Stephen or Matilda. Some switched sides for their own advantage. Royal authority declined and barons became more powerful, like kings in their own lands extending their castles or building new ones and keeping their own private armies. Roger of Wendover wrote about this in his chronicle. He describes how King Stephen was forced to move around the country defeating his opponents, whilst the rebels fortified their castles against him.
1154-1189 Henry II and the restoration of order
Eventually an agreement was reached. Stephen ruled until his death in 1154 and then Matilda’s son Henry II took the throne. He ruled over an empire of lands in France and England and restored royal authority over the barons. He took control of their castles and made them obey royal judges in royal courts rather than running their own law courts with their own laws. Henry II left the monarchy richer and stronger than ever before. His Great Seal which was used to approve a new law or charter showed the two sides of Henry II: the wise and powerful ruler but also the mighty and forceful warrior who would not tolerate opposition.
The reign of King Richard (1189-1199)
But Henry II’s sons were less wise and careful rulers than he had been. Richard the Lionheart was hardly ever in England. He was constantly involved in wars to protect (and sometimes to increase) his family lands in France and he fought in the Crusades. Richard used the efficient tax system created by Henry II to make the barons pay even higher taxes to fund his wars.
The reign of King John 1199 to the present day (1215)
On Richard’s death in 1199 his brother John continued to tax the kingdom to pay for wars in France. The barons began to grumble. John’s wars were expensive. Worse still they ended in defeat in 1214. John also quarrelled with the Church and in 1208 Pope Innocent III placed England under an Interdict which meant all the churches were closed and John’s subjects were told to disobey him. Peace was finally made with the Church in 1214.
Where does the balance of power lie before Magna Carta?
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