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A Surfeit of Lampreys: A Surfeit of Success: 12th Century England

Exactly 877 years ago today, on 1st December 1135, King Henry I died, allegedly from over indulging himself on lampreys (one of favourite meals). His ‘surfeit of lampreys’ caused an acute intestinal reaction (possibly food poisoning) that led to a speedy end. Death from such an outwardly ludicrous cause was a somewhat inglorious conclusion to an illustrious reign. This year, 2012, marks the centenary of the birth of Charles Dickens; and Henry’s premature death is the sort of ‘comical’ demise one associates with some of the characters penned by that celebrated 19th century author. Such a judgement might be a little harsh. Over the past year, I hope that my monthly Blogs on Henry I’s reign have demonstrated his great success as Ruler of England (and Normandy) between 1100 and 1135. Indeed, such were Henry I’s achievements that the monks of Peterborough Abbey declared on Henry’s death: “He was a good man, and people were in great awe of him. No one dared injure another in his time. He made peace for man and beast.” [EHD, Volume II, page 209] Such an assessment, coming from the compilers of The Anglo/Saxon Chronicle, is praise indeed.                                                                                                                                     Over the past two years, 2011 and 2012, my monthly Blogs have analysed the reigns of King Henry I (1100 to 1135) and King Henry II (1154 to 1189). In analysing these two distinguished monarchs, I have also, from time to time, inevitably touched on the reigns of Stephen, Richard I and John. That is, my blogs have in effect covered the whole of the 12th century, so I think it is thus very fitting for me to conclude this December 2012 Blog by analysing and assessing the twelfth century as a whole.

(A) The Achievements of 12th Century England

There were, of course, setbacks to progress in the 12th century, notably the breakdown of government in Stephen’s reign (1135 to 1154). The Third Crusade of 1189 to 1192, right at the end of the 12th century, also caused tension and problems. Yet, overall, the 12th century witnessed gains to English Society.

(1) Economic Growth.

The 12th century was a period of marked economic growth. There was investment in agriculture, transport, and general building. According to John Hatcher and Mark Bailey, the volume of currency in circulation in England  greatly increased in the 12th century; from roughly £25,000 to £37,500  around the time of King Henry I’s accession (1100), to about  £250,000 at the time of King John’s accession in 1199 [Hatcher & Bailey, ‘Modelling the Middle Ages’, OUP, (2001), page 138]. This increase in currency circulation probably reflected the increasing proliferation of markets in 12th century England. The population of England also doubled in the 12th century, from roughly 1.5 million in 1100 to about 3 million in 1200 (and these figures might be even higher). Nor did this population increase imply a lessening of GDP per head. In fact, according to Hatcher & Bailey, real GDP per head might well have increased in the 12th century [Hatcher & Bailey, page 159].

(2) General Social and Political Progress for Specific Groups

In a perhaps generalised way, the condition and status of certain groups in English Society did appear to improve in the 12th century; even if these improvements were not uniform throughout the century. For example, beginning with King Henry I’s Coronation Charter in 1100, the rights of widows were increasingly protected throughout the 12th century. In fact, on one level, the 12th century was a period of political advance for women. Several notable female rulers played vital roles in 12th political life in England: Queen Edith Matilda, Matilda of Boulogne, The Empress Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The Jewish minority in Angevin England also seemed to prosper for most of the 12th century (with the obvious exception of the 1190 Pogroms). The Jewish population in Angevin England increased to a maximum total of 5,000 by 1200, and this population increase was accompanied by a geographical spread throughout England. Up to a point, positive central government activity by English Kings helped this Jewish expansion (see my September 2011 Blog for details).

(3) Development of English Common Law

This was the greatest single achievement of 12th century England.

Beginning with King Henry I’s Coronation Charter in 1100, the 12th century saw a continual series of ground-breaking measures that collectively  established the Common Law in England (and Wales): one of the glories of European Civilisation:-

  • Leges Henrici Primi (1115) This measure designated serious crime, and enshrined the principle of Appeal. See my October 2012 Blog.
  • Assize of Clarendon (1166) This measure dealt with the criminal law, including the rights of the principal law officers. See my February 2011 Blog
  • Inquest of Sheriffs (1170) This measure enshrined the supremacy of the government over the law officers. See my March 2011 Blog.
  • Assizes of Novel Disseism & Mort d’Ancestor (c.1176) These were major innovations in civil law, dealing with rights of property. See my October 2011 Blog.
  • The General Eyre (1194) As part of the 1194 General Eyre (General Tour of Inspection by the King’s Justices), Justicar Hubert Walter ordered that, in each English shire, three knights and a clerk should act as ‘Keepers of the Pleas of the Crown’. This meant that they would be responsible for collecting and retaining evidence for criminal cases that would then be heard by the King’s Justices. This vital measure is the origin of the modern Coroner System. Note that the 12th century law officers (sheriffs) were not included as ‘Keepers of the Pleas’. Even now, our modern police force is not directly linked to the Coroner’s Court.

It is a remarkable record of legal progress, and the principles of 12th century Common Law still greatly influence English-speaking nations today: the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc. Nor have I included all the 12th century Common Law Edicts. The Jury System was written into the above Assizes. A measure of the greatness of the English Legal System in the 12th century is to contrast it with the legal structure of early 19th century England (supposedly a more ‘civilised’ era). By 1800, the English Legal System had become so convoluted (if not corrupt), that a ridiculous total of 200 crimes carried the death penalty (many of them being trivial offences). In contrast, the 12th century saw the death penalty confined to about six offences (Pleas of the Crown).  The 18th Century still conjures up an image of refined gentility, with its classical architecture, polished manners, and baroque music; yet it was also the age of the notorious (and nefarious) ‘Black Act’ of 1723. That legally abominable Act of Parliament introduced the Death Penalty in Britain for over 50 criminal offences, many of them utterly trivial (such as destroying fish ponds while disguised). It goes without saying that such a legally bizarre measure as the 1723 Black Act, would have been inconceivable in the more civilised 12th century.

(B) Final Conclusion

I began this final Blog on King Henry I by suggesting that perhaps his strange demise had overtones of a Charles Dickens novel. In retrospect, I think that Anthony Trollope would be a more appropriate author, especially when viewing the 12th century as a whole.

In the ending of the final novel of his famous Barset Series (‘The Last Chronicle of Barset’); Anthony Trollope writes: “And now, if the reader will allow me to seize him affectionately by the arm, we will together take our last farewell of Barset.” To paraphrase that celebrated author, ‘We will together take our last farewell of 12th century England.’

Like Anthony Trollope’s Barset Novels, the 12th Century was filled with a host of distinguished dramatis personae:-

  • Renowned Fighting Monarchs, such as King Richard the Lionheart of England (reigned 1189 to 1199), and King William the Lion of Scotland (reigned 1165 to 1214).
  • Illustrious Female Rulers, such as Edith Matilda (Queen Consort of England 1100 to 1118) and Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine (Queen Consort of France, 1137 to 1152 and Queen Consort of England, 1154 to 1189).
  • Exceptionally talented administrators, such as Justicar Bishop Roger of Salisbury (de facto Justicar c.1110 to c.1125) and Archbishop Hubert Walter (Chief Justicar of England, 1193 to 1198).
  • Leading Financiers, such as Aaron of Lincoln (lived from 1125 to 1186).
  • Profound Philosophers, such as Archbishop Anselm (Archbishop of Canterbury, 1093 to 1109). Anselm was the originator of the ontological argument for the existence of God.
  • Talented Welsh Princes, such as Rhys ap Gruffudd of Deheubarth. He was known as The Lord Rhys (Yr Argwydd Rhys). King Henry II made him Justicar of Deheubarth in 1171.
  • Gifted young persons whose lives were sadly (and prematurely) ended, such as Prince William the Adelin (lived from1103 to 1120). Prince William was Henry I’s son and heir; he tragically died in the White Ship Disaster of 1120.
  • Flawed Icons, such as Thomas Becket (Archbishop of Canterbury between 1162 and 1170).
  • Villains, such as Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, who died in 1144. He was the original ‘robber baron’, who took advantage of the breakdown of law and order in King Stephen’s reign to ransack Cambridgeshire and the Fens in 1144. Towards the end of the 12th century, Richard Malebisse took advantage of the anti-Semitic hysteria generated by the Third Crusade to play the leading role in the massacre of the York Jewish Community in 1190.
  • Exceptionally talented monarchs, such as King Henry I (reigned 1100 to 1135) and King Henry II (reigned 1154 to 1189).The latter king is probably the greatest monarch ever to reign in England.

In the words of Anthony Trollope, “To them all I now say farewell” (except Geoffrey de Mandeville and Richard Malebisse); but it is certainly not a case of farewell to my Angevinman Blog! In 2013, I hope to take a chronological  leap of 250 years into the mid-fifteenth century. The delights of the ‘Wars of the Roses’ await me and, hopefully, my readers.

Have a Happy Advent and Christmas!

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The White Ship Disaster Re-visited

As Professor Green has written:” The wreck of the White Ship was the worst personal and political disaster of Henry’s life.” (‘Henry I’, by Judith Green, CUP, 2009: page 164). In one fell swoop, Henry lost his only legitimate male heir, William Adelin, two other children and other close friends and companions.

On the night of 25th November 1120, Prince William the Adelin and his young companions had set sail on the ‘White Ship’, intending to cross the Channel. The White Ship met with disaster, being holed just off the coast of Normandy (Barfleur), resulting in the deaths of virtually all the passengers, including Prince William. The author of the contemporary Anglo/Saxon Chronicle lamented: “Their death was a double grief to their friends – one that they lost this life so suddenly, the other that the bodies of few of them were found anywhere afterwards.” (EHD, Volume II, page 196.) The contemporary historian, William of Malmesbury, went further: “No ship ever brought so much misery to England; none was ever so notorious in the history of the world.”(EHD, Volume II, page 323.) This latter judgement may come close to hyperbole; but it is not too far from the truth.

In my November 2011 Blog, I have already described the details of the White Ship disaster, including the series of chance factors that contributed to the shipwreck. The best account of the White Ship disaster is by Professor Green. (See her recent biography ‘Henry I’, pages 164 to 167.) In my November 2011 Blog, I analysed the impact of the White Ship disaster mainly from the viewpoint of King Henry II. The White Ship disaster was a chance event that paved the way for the ultimate accession to the English throne of Henry of Anjou. The White Ship disaster removed Prince William from the succession to the English Crown: Henry I’s only surviving legitimate heir was then his daughter, the Empress Matilda. The future Henry II was the eldest son of The Empress, so he had a legitimate claim to the Crown of England, a claim he was to realise in 1154. In this November 2012 Blog, I shall concentrate on the impact of the White Ship disaster on the reign of King Henry I.

The Impact of The White Ship Disaster on  the reign of King Henry I.

As explained in my previous blogs, Henry had gained the English Crown in August 1100 in exceptional circumstances. His brother, King William II, had died in a freak hunting accident in the New Forest, and Henry just ‘happened to be on the spot’. He effectively grabbed the throne in a royalist coup d’état; in the process out-manoeuvring his elder brother, Robert Curthouse, Duke of Normandy.

Although Henry I faced formidable opposition to his royal authority in England between 1100 and 1101, he managed to survive (see my July Blog). From then on, Henry ‘grew into his kingship’, and the first twenty years of his long reign were very successful.

(A) King Henry I’s Reign 1100 to 1120: Innovation and Success

(1) Re-Unification of England and Normandy.

After successfully scheming against Robert between 1100 and 1101, Henry took the offensive against Robert’s authority in Normandy by invading Normandy in 1106 (ironically with English soldiers). The result was Henry’s glorious success against Robert at the battle of Tinchebrai in 1106 (see my September 2012 Blog). Henry was now ruler of both England and Normandy. Henry’s authority as ruler of Normandy was confirmed in August 1119 in his defeat of the French King, Louis VI at the battle of Bremule (see my March 2012 Blog).

(2) Financial Reform

In about 1110, Henry and his financial advisors (such as Bishop Roger of Salisbury)  began to develop a system of financial accounting that led to the institution of  the Exchequer in the second decade of Henry’s reign (see my April 2012 Blog). This major financial innovation, together with the institution of the Pipe Rolls, was to literally transform the administration of English government in the 12th century and beyond.

(3) Legal Reforms.

Beginning in August 1100 with his Coronation Charter (see my August 2012 Blog), Henry I and his advisors (again including Bishop Roger) were to make important changes in the development of English Law, building on Anglo/Saxon foundations. Further notable legal innovations were enshrined in the 1115 ‘Leges Henrici Primi’, (see my October 2012 Blog) King Henry I fully deserves his sobriquet: ’The Lion of Justice’.  The key developments in the evolution of English Common Law occurred under King Henry II: the superstructure of English Common Law was erected in his reign (through the assizes). Even so, King Henry I’s reign laid the groundwork of English Common Law. Both were obviously necessary if English Common Law was to be successfully constructed.

(B) King Henry I’s Reign 1120 to 1135: Quiescence and Consolidation

It is a truism in History that it is often a mistake to try to categorise different parts of a ruler’s reign; and it is the case that in the second half of his reign (after 1120), Henry I still at times displayed his characteristic reforming zeal and drive.

For example, his determination to retain control of Normandy never wavered after 1120, as was demonstrated by continued military and diplomatic  successes against his traditional adversary, King Louis VI of France (such as Henry’s victory at the Battle of Bourgtheroulde in 1124). King Henry I also showed he had lost nothing of his  administrative skills by his dextrous political manoeuvrings between the varying clerical factions at the Council of Gloucester between 2nd and 4th February 1123 (see my February 2012 Blog). Henry I’s finances also remained ‘rock solid’. The Pipe Roll of 1130 indicated a very healthy recorded income for Henry of £24,550. Just as impressive, the Roll indicates that the total moneys actually paid into Henry’s Exchequer in 1130 were £22,900 (Henry I was clearly more efficient at cracking down on tax evasion than the present Government!)

Yet, it is probably true that the second part of King Henry I’s long reign was marked more by governmental consolidation than by political innovation. The reason for Henry’s relative political quiescence after 1120 almost certainly lies in the White Ship Disaster. The loss of Prince William, his son and legitimate heir, was a savage blow to Henry’s morale from which he never entirely recovered. This was particularly the case as William’s death closely followed the death of Henry’s Consort, Queen Edith Matilda, in May 1118.                              Barfleur itself held such painful memories of William’s death that Henry never again used that port to cross the Channel after 1120. At the same time, Prince William’s drowning in November 1120 transformed the royal ambitions of William Clito, son and heir of Henry I’s brother and rival, Robert Curthouse. William Clito was now the obvious male successor to King Henry as King of England and Duke of Normandy. King Henry’s energies after 1120 were therefore increasingly directed at combatting William Clito’s growing ambitions, especially for most of the 1120s. It was not until William Clito’s death in July 1128, that Henry I was freed from anxiety about the threat to his succession from that quarter. However, worry over William Clito’s threat to the English succession was then merely replaced after 1128 by concern about the succession of Henry’s sole surviving legitimate heir, the Empress Matilda. It is no wonder that dynastic worries took up an increasing proportion of King Henry’s energy after 1120; and such dynastic concerns were entirely the result of The White Ship disaster.

Conclusion.

In her outstanding recent biography of King Henry I, Professor Green asserts that: “The wreck of the White Ship was the turning point of Henry’s reign.” [Judith Green, ‘Henry I’, CUP, 2009, page 168] To that extent, a chance event affected the whole course of one reign, and probably also the entire course of the 12th Century.

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The role of chance in History: The White Ship Disaster, 25th November 1120

It is Friday, 25th November 2011. Dusk is now falling late on in the afternoon, so perhaps it is fitting that I devote my November blog to a very sombre historical event. This is the wreck of the ‘White Ship’, which occurred exactly 891 years ago, just off the Normandy coast, on the night of 25th November 1120.  Although this tragic event happened just over twelve years before the birth of Henry II, the White Ship disaster had an important indirect impact on him. King Henry I’s son and heir, William Adelin* drowned in the shipwreck, thereby making Henry I’s only other legitimate child, his daughter Matilda, his heir. Henry II was the eldest child of Matilda and her husband Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, and Henry therefore had a legitimate claim to the English crown via his mother. However, if William Adelin had not drowned in the shipwreck, Henry would probably not have succeeded to the English crown, because William Adelin would have become king on Henry I’s death, and presumably then would have married and had legitimate heirs.

[* The title ‘Adelin’ was given to William, son and heir of King Henry I. The title is a variation on the Anglo-Saxon title, ‘Atheling’, which means ‘prince’ or ‘lord’.  It is especially appropriate to William, because his mother was an Anglo-Saxon princess, Queen Edith Matilda; and William himself was born in 1103 in Winchester, the seat of Anglo-Saxon government in Wessex.]

  1. It is always interesting to speculate In History what would have happened if something that did happen hadn’t happened; but such counter-factual analysis can become too complicated. Probably more significantly, the White Ship Disaster highlights the importance of chance in History: how fortune can materially alter the course of History. Perhaps then History does only consist of a series of unique events, as the late Sir Karl Popper so brilliantly argued in his book, ’The Poverty of Historicism’, published in 1957. The events of the White Ship Disaster seem to support this Popper thesis. The tragic drowning of William Adelin changed the course of 12th century English politics in at least two main ways: firstly, as already mentioned, it meant that Henry’s daughter Matilda was now King Henry I’s heir, thus making possible the ultimate succession of the Angevin dynasty in England. Secondly, the succession of Matilda would very likely be opposed by Henry I’s nephew, Stephen. In fact, Stephen took possession of the English throne when Henry I died in 1135, thereby precipitating a murderous civil war with the Angevin supporters which lasted on and off for most of Stephen’s reign.
  2. Not only was the White Ship Disaster a major chance event, but was itself also made up of  fluke events on that fateful 25th November 1120:-

(i)              The main party, led by King Henry I departed from Normandy in the early evening out of Barfleur; but young William Adelin, accompanied by other young nobles did not wish to sail with his elders.

(ii)            A major contemporary chronicler, William of Malmesbury, now takes up the story (historians regard him as intelligent and reliable). William and “his boon companions” decided to launch their vessel, ’The White Ship’, later on, when it was dark.

(iii)           The young aristocrats then aimed to overtake the adults’ ship, by rowing their vessel too fast in dangerous waters at night.

(iv)           There were also casks of wine aboard the White Ship. According to William of Malmesbury, “these rash youths [were] flushed with wine” (as were the crew). The drunken helmsman paid little or no attention to his steering, and in consequence, the White Ship was holed by a large rock, submerged by the high tide. The ship capsized, with predictably dire results.

[For a detailed assessment and description of the White Ship disaster, readers can consult Judith Green’s ‘Henry I: King of England and Duke of Normandy’ (CUP).]

  1. There are of course other chance events in History which clearly do change the course of History. An example for the later Middle Ages would be the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses in 1453/55. King Henry VI had appeared to be in a strong position early in 1453, after seeing off Richard of York’s challenge the previous year. Then, in the space of only two months (in July/August 1453) the Lancastrian Government was hit by ‘a triple whammy’ of three chance events, which, in combination precipitated the Wars of the Roses. These three events were:- open conflict between the Percy & Neville families at Heworth Green (York); the English loss of Gascony to France after their defeat at Castillon; and finally Henry VI’s nervous breakdown. An example of the decisive nature of chance events in modern history was the ‘double whammy’ of the death of German Foreign Minister Stresemann and the effects of the Wall Street Crash within two weeks of each other in October 1929. This dual disaster probably finished off the fragile Weimar Republic in Germany, thereby paving the way for the Nazi Regime.
  2. But perhaps one can take this ‘chance theory’ too far. Fifty years ago in 1961, a seminal work was published by The University of Cambridge and Penguin books, called ‘What is History’ by E. H. Carr. In this important book, beloved of all S Level History students, E.H. Carr vigorously rejected the role of contingency as an important factor in historical change. Of course, there is much in Carr’s theory of the relative significance of historical causes. To take the two historical events discussed above.
  • It could well be argued that the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses was influenced by longer term factors. One was economic weakness in mid-fifteenth century England, aggravated by Henry VI’s financial impoverishment of crown assets. Another factor was the political & military impact of Henry VI’s disastrous policies in France from about 1440 onwards. It could also be argued that Weimar Germany was fatally weakened at its in birth in 1919 by having to accept the Versailles Treaty, and also by having a system of proportional representation which made coalition government too unstable.
  1. So, how significant was the White Ship disaster in affecting 12th century English politics? It surely stands out as a critical factor. It indirectly made possible the later accession of King Henry II to the English crown, with all the vital developments that flowed from his accession in 1154. It may be that the White Ship disaster is the exception that proves E. H. Carr’s rule; but it is also the case that the maritime catastrophe of 25th November 1120 demonstrates the plausibility of Karl Popper’s arguments. To adapt a well-known adage: ’You pays your geld (or scutage), and you makes your choice.’

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