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|Medieval and early modern times saw
an ongoing struggle between monarchs and subjects. Strong monarchs
attempted to bend custom and practice to their own advantage.
Subjects, at various levels of society, were determined to preserve
their established rights and to obtain new concessions from
strong and weak monarchs alike.
Great and Little Domesday
The Crown had the right to call upon its subjects
to come to its aid, both in time of war and by payment of
taxes. But there was always a conflict between what the sovereign
needed to sustain the strength of the monarchy and the country
and what subjects were willing to contribute towards the development
of national strength.
This struggle is summed up by two key documents
from the medieval period: Domesday Book and Magna Carta. These
two documents form the core of our knowledge about how the
realm was governed in medieval times. They also show that
even in the distant past citizens and subjects could challenge
and control the power that kings and queens exerted over them.
Book is Britain's most famous public record. It is also
an example of how the machinery of government could be used
to collect and record information about people and property.
For medieval monarchs it was an invaluable source of information,
and it provided the basis upon which all subsequent landholding
was calculated. Besides being used to assess tax on land,
it showed William the Conqueror who his wealthiest subjects
were and their obligations to the Crown. But it also served
as a safeguard for landholders, since it provided them with
a formal record of their estates and helped to define their
status in relation to the Crown.
The Domesday Book consists of two volumes: Little Domesday,
covering Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk, which dates from 1086,
and Great Domesday, dating from 1086 to 1090.
Document (838k) | Transcript
Carta is an example of what citizens could force the Crown
to concede. It defined rights to justice and recorded many
customary legal practices for the first time, especially those
relating to inheritance rights, women's entitlements and military
service. Particularly important from the medieval point of
view, it attempted to define 'good lordship' - what subjects
could expect from their superiors.
Magna Carta also reveals the extent of the pope's influence
in England before the Reformation. Fearing the pope's reaction,
the clergy would not endorse the charter. Deprived of the
church's support, the barons decided to insert a clause establishing
a group of 25 lords responsible for ensuring that the Crown
observed the conditions of the charter. This 'security clause'
indicates that the charter was extorted from King John by
The pope was horrified by Magna Carta and annulled it. John
did not feel that he was bound by it and, with the 25 lords
already attempting to take charge of counties where they were
strong, civil war resulted. King John's death ended the crisis,
but the principle of broader control over royal power became
absorbed into English politics and society.
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