Sunday, 9 August 2015

The French are coming... Fiefdom to freedom in Norman Britain.

Episode two of the documentary series  The British, particularly resonates with me as I live in the small market town of Waltham Abbey where King Harold, the defeated king of the Anglo Saxons is purported to be laid to rest and we may be very soon embroiled in the same kind of archeological investigations of those searching for Richard III in 2013.

The episode is entitled People Power and begins on Christmas Day 1066 when William the Conqueror, the first Norman King and forebear of  our own handsome Prince William, is being crowned at his coronation. The Anglo Saxons have no reason to trust him. They are right. Within two months later William begins what is to be called the Harrying of the North.North Allerton was one town in Yorkshire targeted . 150,000 people die or flee the country and lands held in trust by generations for over 1000 years  are burned and laid to waste. Norman Lords who take over these lands are hated. 

Fearing attack above all things the Norman Lords spend taxation funds on forts and castles and a massive programme of construction begins. Rochester in Kent is a prime example, built with walls four metres this to withstand all marauders and a network of similar erections go up across England at Launston,Exeter, Southampton in the West, Dover in the south, Norwich in the East and Scarborough in the North.

The land is broken up. Where before 4000 Saxon Lords had shared control, 200 Norman Barons took over, grabbing land easily due to the fact that the fortified network was never more than a day away to crush a rebellion.

1085, the biggest census in history is commissioned. Every spit of land, every head of cattle and every household is recorded, the result higher taxation. Norman Barons are much more demanding of their serfs. This document is nearly a thousand pages and runs to two million words and was copied by hand with ink and feather in Latin by a single scribe! The Anglos Saxons call it The Doomsday Book, the book of Judgement.

The Book was a vivid illustration of how the land was structured and it's wealth. Two thirds of the populace were bonded to the land and thus were chattels rather than citizens. An amazing truth to consider is that of the six richest people in British History, when comparative inflation rates are taken into account, four were Barons of this time.

With fortification , came beautification. For the first time places of worship had vaulted ceilings, flying buttresses, the idea that as their right to this land was Divinely gifted, that by raising these architectural wonders into the heavens, it made it easier to access the Lord. When you consider how long it would take to erect these cathedrals and the sheer amount of money necessary to fund the builds, they were quite astonishing.

As an aside:

Books such as The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett are a brilliant way to learn more about this period . It is a meaty read and a real doorstop, but I heartily recommend it!

1096 sees the start of the religious genocide of the The Crusades, the pious attempt to force Christianity on the people's of the Holy land were also a more mercenary effort to obtain more lands to demand fealty from; to build personal wealth and power. By 1099 the armies had reached Jerusalem where tens of thousands of both Muslim (Moor) and Jewish lives were lost. Fighting rages for two hundred years.

The great bounty of the British Isles was suddenly brought to a halt by two years of incessant rains that affected harvests and food supply. Half a million Britons were killed. The poor are forced to take extraordinary measures to survive. With a quarter of England being forested and all of it considered Royal Land, any food taken from their rich reserves was considered poached and the penalty was death. However the edict from  the king that all men should be a accomplished Archer meant that brave men with the willingness to try, could defend themselves against royal troops with the very weapon they had been forced to become proficient with. the Long Bow. Sometimes made with yew that afforded a lot of spring for tensile strength in the string, at full extension the power required to hold the string could be 35 kg or about 70llb. Real life poaching heroes gave rise to the ever present myth of the gallant robber who steals from the rich to aid the poor.

As the country recovers from the effects of the inclement harvest conditions a new threat comes from across the sea. The tiniest little creature carried on the bodies of black rats in cargo boats from the European mainland. 25 Million people had already tied but now the Black Plague had hit our shores. A single flea bite could be all that caused an infection. The buboles found on the lymph nodes with the nasty black colouring and the gangrene in the extremities were bad enough and death could happen in a matter of days after internal bleeding forced internal organs to shut down. If however it spread the the lungs it became airborne and mutated into the pneumonic plague which unfortunately was even more contagious.

The contagion decimated the population and the issue of how to deal with so many dead bodies became imperative. Riots were breaking out over the umber of bodies being left unburied and plague pits began to be dug with innumerable cadavers being thrown into the holes. In London where two hundred people could be lost on any given day, under the sites of the newest build on our skylines, a pit one hundred and twenty five metres long was found.

The reduced populace meant that skilled traders and artisans were more in demand and so began to demand more money for their services. Brentwood in Essex was the scene of a mass revolt when the landowners demanded a huge poll tax. They beat back the Tax collectors and so begins the first mass rebellion of the working folk in British History. Termed The Peasant's Revolt, it turns out to be far more complex and sophisticated.

The ordinary people become organised and professional, literate men drafted secret messages to galvanise support across Essex and Kent and the resulting assault on the Tower Of London where the King's treasurer sits, results in his beheading and despite the ring leaders being rounded up and executed, within two generations the working people of Britain are free to move around, choose their own masters and bargain for their own rates of pay so that when in  1415 the good menfolk of this country are called upon, they are free to decide whether they should fight for their King.

When Henry V rides out into battle at Agincourt in 1415 it is with an army of Free men, no longer serfs, but individuals choosing to protect king and more importantly I suspect, Country with their very lives. Here their lives have merit and to offer oneself on the battle field was a far nobler thing that to know you have no choice, Do or Die  in the purest sense of the phrase. 

( the most handsome of the Shakespearean Henry's)

The French outnumbered the Brits on the battlefield at 15,000 with more than half of that number nobles, but the king had professional soldiers with contractual rights on his side with over half of his amassed troops being longbow archers able to shoot twelve arrows a minute, a rate of fire faster than any weapon to be used for the next four hundred years. It was the biggest military victory to date. We had risen from defeat at the hands of French born invaders and become fighters for individual freedoms, coming out from under the boot of the Barons to become fighters for freedoms both at home in our towns and cities and in defence of the realm.

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