From French Vassals to a World Power
In today’s world, the English monarchy frequently makes headlines. Less powerful than ever, the royal family holds an essential position in English culture and society. If someone gets married, or has a baby, the whole world practically shuts down!
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that English history is defined by the history of the monarchy.
Somewhat surprisingly, the formation, growth, and evolution of the Kingdom of England is defined by its close ties with France.
Its story helps explain England’s rise to power on the world stage.
The Island of Great Britain in the 9th Century
Before Roman times (c. 200 BC – c. 500 AD), the island of Great Britain looked a lot different from how we see it during the Middle Ages. Instead of being a powerful player on the European scene, pre-Roman Britain was hanging out in the background. People lived there, but they were far from unified. Most descended from central European Germanic tribes. The largest group was the Anglo-Saxons.
The Romans eventually conquered the island in the first century BC. Like many other Roman conquests, Britain prospered thanks to Roman roads and laws.
Knowing who is in charge plays a big role in helping people get along.
So, when the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 AD, this political unity all but disappeared. The region broke into smaller, less powerful kingdoms. Some were more powerful than others, but they mostly coexisted in peace.
These seven kingdoms were: East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, Kent, Essex, Sussex, and Wessex. They existed mainly in the southern half of the island.
This arrangement worked for a few hundred years. But the lack of a clear political leader put a target on Britain’s backs. Expanding groups from elsewhere in Europe, mainly the Vikings, saw this as an opportunity for a new home.
The Arrival of a Common Enemy Unites The Anglo-Saxons
The arrival of a common enemy often helps people get along. Would the men of Middle Earth have united if Sauron and his Orcs did not threaten their very way of life?
Most likely not.
In Great Britain, this common enemy was the Vikings. These were people from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway with a shared cultural heritage. They are also known as the Norse.
The Vikings crashed the shores of Great Britain in the middle of the 9th century looking for a new home. Initially, they were quite successful. They conquered the kingdoms of East Anglia, Northumbria, and Mercia. But when they moved against the Kingdom of West Saxony, often called Wessex, in 871 AD, they ran into a brick wall.
The armies of King Alfred the Great were too strong, and the Viking advance stopped in its tracks.
Alfred ruled until his death in 899 AD. When he did say goodbye to this world, he was the unspoken leader of the remaining kingdoms of England. His son, Æthelstan, took over and became the first true king.
The first recorded reference of the “King of the Anglo-Saxons” came in 927 AD, during the rule of Æthelstan.
The early years of this kingdom’s history were unstable. Competing lords made frequent challenges to Æthelstan’s power. But his son, Edgar the Peaceful, used the Church to further solidify his own power and stabilize the kingdom.
For the purposes of our story, the rise of Alfred the Great and his heirs marks the beginning of the Kingdom of England. But big changes were on the horizon.
Norman Conquest and the Modern English Crown
The story of the Kingdom of England took a turn when the king, this time King Edward, died without an heir. Whenever it was unclear who would take the throne, politics became pure chaos. It’s a very common story in the Medieval world.
For the English monarchy, this happened in 1066 AD.
Without a clear heir, the English lords got together and chose Harold Godwinson as their new leader. A strong leader with a powerful army, he looked to be the first leader of a new era of English history. But others throughout Europe also had their eyes on the prize that was Great Britain.
Seeing an opportunity, Edward’s cousin, William, who was also the Duke of Normandy, a powerful duchy (territory) in what is now France, gathered his armies and crossed the English channel.
The two sides met at the Battle of Hastings, fought in October 1066. There, disaster struck for the English. Harold was killed by an arrow and his army, fighting to the last man, was completely destroyed. This opened the road for William to march further into England and establish himself as the next English king.
Now, the political situation was all cleared up and the two nations, England and France, would live happily ever after.
NOT. SO. FAST.
As the Duke of Normandy, William, who many called William the Conqueror for obvious reasons, was technically a vassal (inferior) of the King of France.
So this made England a part of France?
Well, not really. It was still an independent kingdom, but its king owed allegiance to another king.
Confused? You should be.
Essentially, the King of England was free to dictate the affairs of their kingdom. But they would still have to respond to calls of service made by the King of France.
If this doesn’t solidify the idea that Medieval politics were a complex web of familial relations that were constantly shifting, then nothing will…
The important thing to remember was that it was a big ol’ mess.
Nevertheless, the modern English monarchy is descendent from these first Norman kings. This sort of makes the roots of the English crown French? But not for long.
France and England “Duke” it Out
Right off the bat, the Norman conquest of England created conflict in Western Europe. And it would continue to do so for the next two hundred years.
Since the King of England was also the Duke of Normandy, they naturally had their two feet in two different doors.
On the one hand, they were concerned with ruling England and maintaining power. But in France, they were also interested in expanding their control over other regions of France. This would allow them to increase their influence over the King of France and expand their own autonomy.
Often, these interests outweighed their interests in England, causing the English monarch to spend a lot if not all of their time in France. In fact, many of them spoke French as their first language.
Things got messy in 1144 AD when Geoffrey of Anjou, a county in central France, became the Duke of Normandy by marriage. Together, they claimed the English crown, but they were unable to win it in battle from Stephen II.
Even though he lost in war, Geoffrey managed to make an alliance that made his son, Henry, the heir to the English crown. This might sound weird. But Geoffrey’s wife, Matilda, was Stephen II’s cousin, so it all kind of worked out and made sense.
Medieval politics, right!?
Upon taking over, Henry II ruled all of England and about half of France, launching an empire known today as the Angevin Empire. The name comes from his roots in Anjou.
Almost One But Eventually Two
This did not last long, though. Like all greedy conquerors, Henry II and his heirs sought to expand their power further into France. This sparked conflict between the two kingdoms.
During the 14th century, a series of conflicts broke out that almost led to the full conquest of France by England.
They fought for a century in what we now call the Hundred Years’ War. The second half of this hundred years was also marked by a civil war in England known as the War of the Roses.
Essentially, so much war in France, and so much defeat, caused much of the English nobility to turn away from trying to control lands in France. After all, there was an ocean in between and it was quite hard to gain an upper hand.
This conflict finally came to an end in 1428 AD when the English were defeated, primarily through the heroics of Joan of Arc, and driven once and for all from French lands.
In the end, after 400 years of holding hands and fighting at the same time, the English crown finally separated from the French nobility. This created a separate and unique government to rule over the English people.
This isn’t to say the English and French didn’t fight again. They most certainly did. It just never had the same flavor as it did from the rise of the Norman kings to the end of the Hundred Years’ War.
The English Renaissance and Expansion
While it might seem natural to think losing the Hundred Years War was a sad thing for England (who likes losing anything), it actually made things a lot better. It brought a never-before-seen stability to the English monarchy that helped quiet internal conflicts and let the country grow.
Trade and commerce began to flourish, and population levels also expanded, helping the country rebound after the devastation of the Black Death.
It also helped establish a newfound sense of English identity. For so long, English politics had been tied up in French affairs. But once separate, England began to assert itself as its own entity.
All of this helped usher in a new era in English society, one of peace and prosperity and cultural development. Plus, as the country grew, and because it no longer had territory outside of the British isles, it encouraged exploration and expansion.
The English were at the forefront of European colonialism and by the 18th century had one of the largest and most powerful international empires the world has ever seen.
Connecting Past with Present
Today, England operates as a republic, with Parliament making the laws and governing the people. But the monarch remains an important figure, both culturally and politically.
While power has changed hands numerous times, the story of the English monarchy from the early days of Alfred to the present helps explain how modern England emerged and how it became one of the largest and most powerful nations in the world.
Written by Matthew Jones