The successor of Edward the Confessor, Harold II managed to defeat Harald III of Norway who claimed the English throne in 1066. However, he was decisively defeated in the Battle of Hastings by William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy in the same year.
William the Conqueror
William the Conqueror continued the conquest of England until 1071 when he put down the last resistance. England became deeply influenced by the Norman-French culture. Most of the Saxon estates and titles were given to the Norman noblemen but their holdings were widely scattered. In addition, William the Conqueror forced the landowners to take oath of fidelity directly to him. William further strengthened his authority by the Oath of Salisbury in 1086 which made loyalty to the king superior over loyalty to any subordinate feudal lord. He ordered the registration of all properties issued in a land register called the Domesday Book to improve taxation. In addition to establishment of an efficient financial policy, William the Conqueror also initiated major reforms of the church. He replaced the foreign prelates with Saxon bishops and took over the administration of the churchly affairs provoking the English Investiture Controversy which broke out during the reign of his successor William II “Rufus”.
William II (1087-1100) who was second born son of William the Conqueror succeeded his father as King of England. The eldest son inherited Normandy and the youngest, Henry Beaclere inherited 5000 pounds of silver. The great barons who were dissatisfied with such division rebelled against William II in 1088. William managed to suppress the rebellion of the barons and invaded Normandy when Robert departed on the First Crusade in 1096. However, he became very unpopular in England and came into conflict with nobility and clergy.
William II died in suspicious circumstances on a hunt in the New Forest in 1100. He was succeeded by his youngest brother Henry I (1100-1135) but his brother Robert who returned from the Crusade invaded England to seize the throne in 1101. Robert’s attempt failed and the struggle between the brothers ended with Henry’s invasion in Normandy and imprisonment of Robert in 1106. One year later Henry I settled the investiture controversy with a compromise: Henry I renounced lay investiture in return for guarantee that homage would be paid to the king before consecration. On the death of his only son Prince William, Henry I suggested to be succeeded by his daughter Matilda, Countess of Anjou. His plan was rejected by the English nobility which displeased the idea of a female reign and an eventual Angevin influence in England. Thus Henry’s was succeeded by his nephew, Stephen of Blois (1135-1154) whose rule was marked by a civil war which broke out after the invasion of Matilda in 1139. Stephen was defeated and temporarily deposed in 1141. He managed to regain the throne but Matilda retained the western part of England until her departure in 1148. The threat of a French invasion in Normandy forced both sides to sign a peace agreement in 1153 and to reach a compromise which designated Matilda’s son (the future Henry II) as Stephen’s successor.
King Henry II
Henry II (1154-1189) was the first English King of the Plantagenet-Angevin dynasty. In addition to the English throne, he inherited Normandy, Maine, Touraine, Brittany and Anjou, and greatly extended his territories in France through marriage with Eleanor of Aquitaine. Thus Henry II ruled the territory from northern England to the Pyrenees. On his accession to the English throne, he had to deal with the nobles who erected castles without permission and established themselves as independent rulers during Stephen’s reign. Henry II immediately destroyed all illegal castles and brought the nobles under his control, while his military reforms strengthened the English military power. He also reformed the finances and judicial system which introduced the trial by jury. Henry’s attempts to gain jurisdiction over clerical trials provoked a conflict with the Archbishop Thomas Becket which ended with assassination of the latter in Canterbury Cathedral. The assassination made Becket a martyr, while Henry gave up his demand for jurisdiction over the clergy.
Henry’s succession plans provoked a rebellion of his sons in 1173-1174. He managed to crush the rebellion of his sons but he was defeated by his son Richard (the Lionheart) in alliance with his greatest rival, Philip II of France in 1189. Thus Henry II was succeeded by his eldest son Richard I (the Lionheart) who ruled England until 1199 although he spent less than six months in England. Richard I departed on the Third Crusade amost immediately after his coronation. England was more or less successfully governed and also withstood the pressure of King Philip II of France despite his absence. Richard’s brother and successor John I (1199-1216) lost most of the English possessions on the continent. His rule was also marked by the Great Charter (Magna Carta) signed at Runnymede in 1215 which limited the power of English Kings.