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Medieval England

Steven Muhlberger

England, Wales, and Scotland

This lecture  will be devoted to insular politics, relations with Wales and Scotland.  This was a period when both countries found themselves under more intense English and Norman pressure, pressure that produced some important changes in Welsh and Scots politics and culture.

Both Scotland and Wales were poor, divided and lightly populated countries. Geography had much to do with this situation. Both were located in the Highland Zone of Britain, which was a mountainous, cold, rainy area, not very suitable for arable agriculture.

G.W.S. Barrow, an eminent historian of medieval Scotland, has said:

"If one takes the modern map of Scotland and considers the enormous number of names on it which contain an element denoting marsh or bog, the wonder is that any room was found at all for permanent habitation." [Barrow, Feudal Britain
In fact, not much room was found. Barrow himself estimates that there were no more than a third of a million inhabitants within the modern limits of the country in 1100, compared to two million or more in England. Today, in the age of industrialization, Scotland supports roughly 5 million people.

Wales, which is very mountainous, was in a similar position. Herding was more important than plowing as a means of supporting the population. Wales is a much smaller country than Scotland, and the population would have been smaller: Even with extensive industrial development, it supports less than three million people today.

Neither country was politically unified. Wales, which could easily be put into a square 140 miles on a side, with plenty of room for ocean, had never had a single ruler.  The position of the many Welsh rulers was much like that of the petty English kings of the seventh century. The princes were warlords, surrounded by a retinue of professional warriors.

The weakness of Welsh princes was aggravated by two factors, besides the poverty of the country. The Welsh were semi-nomadic and thus hard to control. Also Welsh inheritance customs called for equal division of the father's property among his sons. The one unifying factor was the dominance of a single language and the existence of a Welsh high culture, consisting for the most part of poetry and music as cultivated in the courts of princes.

No such unifying factor could be found in Scotland in the year 1100. In fact, the country we call Scotland had no single name at that time. The word Scotia applied to the area between the Firth of Forth and the Moray Firth, an area inhabited by Picts and Scots and ruled, at least in theory, by the King of Scots.

Other areas, although they might owe some allegiance to the King of Scots, were not part of Scotia.
Lothian, around Edinburgh, was an English-speaking district with close connections to Northumbria.
Strathclyde or Cumbria was an ancient British land that straddled the modern border between England and Scotland. The people of Galloway were called Picts by outsiders, but they were actually a unique blend of Britons, Irish-Scots, and Norwegians. The islands of Orkney, the Hebrides and Man were considered part of Norway.

The King of Scots was the only ruler within the boundaries of modern Scotland who was strong enough to call himself king, and he could, on good days, exercise a certain overlordship over the rest.

Both Wales and Scotland were fairly isolated from the European mainstream. The condition of the church in those areas is a good indicator. Wales's most important bishop dwelt at St. David's in the south, and there was a bishop of Scotia at St. Andrew's. Otherwise there was nothing like a settled diocesan structure in either country. Unlike England or most other countries, there were no fixed episcopal sees, and of course no network of parish churches.  Monasteries were usually closely controlled by the families that had founded them.  In twelfth-century terms, both countries' churches were exceedingly unreformed.

When the Normans took England the resulting disorder was seen by Welsh and Scots (of various sorts) as an opportunity to pour over a border that in normal times was not so easy to penetrate. On both borders, in fact, disaffected English noblemen were allied with the raiders.

Of course William the Conqueror was not the man to tolerate any nonsense of this sort. His policies had an important effect on how England and Wales related for the rest of the Middle Ages.

In most parts of his new kingdom, William eliminated the power of earls. On the Welsh border, however, he quickly erected what are often called "palatine earldoms." These were districts where the earl exercised power almost independently of the king. An example of a palatine earl was William fitz Osbern, who was made earl of Hereford in 1066 or 1067. He was given most of the land in Herefordshire, possession of its chief castle, and jurisdiction over its inhabitants. In return for this semi-regal status, he was expected to do one thing for his overlord William: He was to keep the Welsh out of England.

 The status and identities of the border lords changed often in the twelfth century, but the policy of entrusting extraordinary powers to them became a set one. Such warlords, who are often called the marcher lords, were not content to merely defend England; they used their position to conquer and colonize as much of Wales as they could.  Norman techniques of castle building and systematic aggression worked well against the Welsh.

During the reign of William Rufus, the king and his marchers struck deep into south Wales and seized several strong points, including Pembroke. The marchers followed this offensive up with colonization -- peasants from Flanders and elsewhere were planted in the newly conquered territory to be a trustworthy population. This type of penetration was much more than had ever been accomplished by Anglo-Saxon rulers, and opened Wales up to an unprecedented flood of English and continental influences.

Not that Wales was absorbed into England. The marcher lords themselves prevented that.  Their march developed into a turbulent frontier zone with its own unique characteristics.

Relations between Scotland and England were somewhat more complicated. The king of Scots was no match for the king of England, but he was more dangerous to William the Conqueror than any Welsh prince. He lived closer to Northumbria than any King of England ever had, and was less of a foreigner to the Northumbrians than the man who ruled in London or Winchester. In the unsettled period right after Hastings, Malcolm Canmore was a potential champion to those in the north who wanted to resist England.

In 1073, William took an army and a fleet up the east coast of Scotland and marched right across the Firth of Forth and into the center of Malcolm's kingdom. Malcolm was forced to pay tribute and do homage to make him go home again. In 1080, Robert Curthose led a second great expedition to avenge a raid made by the Scots when Robert himself had been fighting his father in Normandy. The results this time were similar.

It is hard to see any sign that Malcolm really wanted to rule Northumbria.  It has been suggested that Malcolm used the opportunity to raid England to bolster his own position in Scotland.

The northern boundary of England stayed much where it had been under Edward the Confessor.

In fact, under Malcom, Scotland was opened to two waves of foreign influence, the first English, the second Norman. The English wave took place in the 1070s, when many noble refugees from Northumbria pulled up stakes and moved with all their portable wealth and settled in Lothian, what might be called Scottish Northumbria. The already-existing English element in the Kingdom of the Scots was thus reinforced.

The most important single English refugee was Queen Margaret, known to later generations as St. Margaret of Scotland. One must qualify the adjective English in her case. She was of royal English descent, but like her brother Edgar Atheling she had been raised in Hungary, and like him was a cosmopolitan. Her influence in Malcolm's court was immense. She is most noted for her determination to reshape up the Scottish church on the English or continental model.

Margaret's influence lived on in her sons. These descendents of Saxon royalty opened Scotland to Norman influence. Like their uncle Edgar Atheling, they enjoyed a great deal of favor from William the Conqueror and his sons, even though, like the Atheling, they could be seen as rivals for the English throne.

The greatest benefit, perhaps, was the way William Rufus helped the younger son, Edgar, establish himself on the Scottish throne. In 1093, Malcolm and his eldest son Edward were killed while leading an invasion of England. A traditionalist, anti-foreign party made Malcolm's brother Donald Ban king, and he expelled all the English and the Normans who had hung around Malcolm's court. In 1097, however, Edgar Atheling convinced William Rufus to give him an army so that he could put young Edgar on the throne of Scotland. The expedition was a success. William Rufus' action seems peculiar, until one reflects that William had replaced a potentially hostile king with one who depended on him to stay in power.

The line of brother-kings that began with Edgar introduced into Scotland a new Norman aristocracy, English methods of administration, and a further wave of church reform.

The most important of the sons of Malcolm and Margaret was David I, who ruled for thirty years between 1124 and 1153. He was the most Anglicized and Normanized of the bunch. He spent part of his youth at the English court. In 1107 his brother Alexander made him lord of Lothian and Cumbria, the southern and most English provinces of the Scottish crown. In 1114, Henry I married him to the richest heiress of England, Maud, a descendant of both William the Conqueror and Earl Waltheof. David became the earl of Northampton and Huntingdon in the southern Midlands of England, and a great vassal of the English king. In the ten years between David's marriage and his succession to the Scottish throne, he was a very important man in England. He was a travelling justice in Henry's administration, and a patron of religious houses all over England.

In Scotland, he introduced English-style government and the new style of monasticism into his  lands, built castles there, brought in Flemish and English townsmen to inhabit his towns, and revived the old episcopal see of Glasgow.

David  was modernizer of a type familiar in the 12th century, practicing for the day when he would be king. In 1124 he got his chance, and his reign marks the entrance of Scotland, at least the more accessible parts, into the mainstream of European development.

David promoted the reform of the Scottish church begun by his mother. He founded at least a dozen reformed monasteries, all offshoots of continental organizations. He was able to divide the kingdom into dioceses with fixed boundaries, just as in England or France, and give these new sees to foreign or native reformers.

His influence on secular politics was just as great. As Earl of Huntingdon, David had a number of Norman vassals, who held lands of him in return for knight service. He brought them with him into Scotland, as a group of retainers who would be especially dependent on him and provide him with valuable military resources. Among these families were the Bruces and the Stewarts, so famous in later Scottish history.

David I holds a peculiar position in British history. He did much to strengthen the Scottish crown by the use of English and Norman methods. He opened up Scotland to the vital culture of continental Europe. But in some ways he was more a Northumbrian king than a king of Scots. His personal power base was the great border zone between the Firth of Forth and the river Tyne, which he personally dominated -- especially in the years when his only son was Earl of Northumberland in England. David's own capital was in Carlisle, now an English city.

In the long term, his was not an easy position to maintain. In the twelfth century, it was possible for one king to be the vassal of another if neither felt his vital interests were threatened. But if conflict should come, the king of Scots' increased dependence on English and Norman elements in his kingdom would make life difficult for him.

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Copyright ©1999, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.