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Making history

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 - opens new window
Great and Little Domesday
Document (125k)
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.

Domesday Book

Domesday 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.


Magna Carta - opens new window
Magna Carta
Document (838k) | Transcript

Magna Carta

Magna 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 force.

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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