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Norman Rule in England (History in a Nutshell No.15)

History is one of S.P. Austen's favourite topics and he is fascinated how it has shaped us all.

After the death of William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and King of England, his son William Rufus ascended to the crown becoming William II.

William the Conqueror's eldest son, Robert, had inherited the Dukedom of Normandy from his father and ruled over Normandy until his death in 1134. A second son, Richard, had been killed by a stag whilst hunting in 1081.

Therefore, William Rufus inherited the throne of England. He was the third son of the Conqueror, and was so named Rufus due to his reddish complexion and red hair, and was hated by the people of England for his oppression and cruelty. He reigned in England from the year 1087 to the first year of the new century, 1100.

Dissent Against the King

But there was a conspiracy against William Rufus to dispose of him and replace him with Robert, his elder brother, the Duke of Normandy. Bishop Odo was the principle amongst the plotters against the king. He sent his men to burn the crops on the king's land and to lay waste to the buildings and properties of those who gave their allegiance to the king. All the loot that they could carry was taken back to Bishop Odo's stronghold at Rochester Castle.

But Rufus raised his own militia and besieged Rochester Castle. But Odo had escaped to Pevensey. After more battles and sieges, Rufus and his forces emerged victorious, and Odo was driven off into exile in Normandy.

The Death of William Rufus

In August of the new century, 1100, Rufus was hunting in the New Forest, when he was struck by an arrow and killed. The younger brother of Rufus, Prince Henry, was part of the hunting party, and although we have no concrete evidence that he was involved in his brother the king's death, he immediately left the scene to secure the treasury.

Death of William Rufus. Attribution: Ridpath's Universal History 1895.

Death of William Rufus. Attribution: Ridpath's Universal History 1895.

Rufus apparently had dreamed the day before the hunting incident, that a doctor was letting out his blood and the blood poured out in a torrent. A monk warned him not to hunt the following day, but Rufus ignored the warning, and went to the hunt with a stomach full of alcohol. His fate was sealed.

Just three days after his brother's death, Henry had himself crowned as king. He would be the first English king with the name Henry, in a long line of famous Henrys to follow. Henry I put himself in good stead with the English people, upholding the ancient Saxon laws, and marrying Matilda of Scotland, daughter of the Scottish king Malcom Canmore. Matilda was also the great-granddaughter of Edmund Ironside who had been king of the English for a short spell before King Canute. Henry also imposed control over the Norman barons who had, under his father William's reign and his brother Rufus' rule, gained too much personal power.

These actions made Henry very popular in the eyes of the English people, in addition to linking him in marriage to the English Royal line, tying bonds with the Scots and curtailing the Norman barons and their abuses.

Henry I of England. Attribution: Cassell's History of England 1902.

Henry I of England. Attribution: Cassell's History of England 1902.

Feudal Rebellion

In September 1100 Henry's older brother Robert was up in arms against him and by the year 1106 Henry finally defeated Robert in battle at Tinchebrai in Normandy. It was a decisive battle, and thus the power of Norman policy passed from Normandy to London. In many respects, the English who had fought for Henry in this battle regarded this victory as their revenge for the defeat of Harold at Hastings 40 years previously. Robert was imprisoned in Cardiff and died there in 1134.

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Succession to the Crown in Doubt

Henry's son and heir to the throne of England, young William, aged 17, was returning to England from France in the winter of 1120 aboard the Royal vessel, The White Ship. But off the coast of Normandy the ship struck rocks and sank. William, heir to the throne, perished in the wreck.

After this tragic incident, King Henry tried to persuade his nobles to lend their support and allegiance to his daughter Matilda who to the English was known as Maud. His nephew, Stephen was heading the campaign to support Matilda, but upon Henry's death, Stephen claimed the throne for himself, ignoring the pledge made to his king.

Stephen took the throne in 1135. He was the son of William the Conqueror's daughter Adela, so he was of the Royal House, however, with a weak claim due to his overriding of Matilda. His reign from 1135 until 1154 saw rebellion and civil war, mostly due to his seizing of the crown over Matilda.

More Rebellions and Uprisings

Henry I had an illegitimate son, Robert of Gloucester. He was also a close supporter of Matilda (Maud) and was therefore no friend of King Stephen. But Stephen needed Robert's support if he were to maintain his crown and control over the country. Robert gave that support, but he made various conditions on which his loyal service might be had.

Stephen left for Normandy for a brief spell, and on his return there was anarchy in the country. The Scots under King David had begun to invade the north of England, the Welsh were also in rebellion, and Robert of Gloucester had raised an army in preparation for war against Stephen.

In the year 1139 Matilda attempted to claim her right to the throne and King Stephen was taken prisoner at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141. For almost a year, Matilda was in control of England, but by now, the two rival factions, one against her and the other against Stephen had created a civil war.

The civil war created chaos in the country, and the people were now starving. With an awful realisation, the people realised that they needed stability in the country if things were ever to return to normal. Above all else what was needed was a stable monarchy; a monarchy which would govern and direct the country efficiently and bring a lasting peace.

Rise of the Plantagenets

Robert of Gloucester had supported Matilda loyally, but in 1147 he died. It was her young son, Henry, aged 15 who now championed her cause. The family Coat of Arms depicted the broom plant, which in Latin is called the planta genista, and so he would become known as Henry Plantagenet, ending the reign of the House of Normandy which had begun with William the Conqueror.

Planta genista Badge of the Plantagenets.  Attribution: Sodacan.

Planta genista Badge of the Plantagenets. Attribution: Sodacan.

When King Stephen died in 1154 Henry Plantagenet arrived in England to claim his kingdom. A new era of kingship was about to begin.

Historical Sources:

Recording: This Sceptred Isle by Christopher Lee for the BBC Radio Collection

© 2019 S P Austen

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