Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Medieval Shires, Sherrifs & The Division Of England

Here's an interesting little question ... how exactly was England managed in medieval times?

We have already talked a few times about how castles helped to cement feudalism in England in our medieval castle history page but how was the country actually managed?

The answer ... it was divided into shires, each shire being under the control of a sheriff (which derives from the term shire-reeve). The sheriff was the king's representative and it was his job to safeguard the interests of the English Crown.

A shire was generally divided into administrative divisions called "hundreds" - for an example see here on Wikipedia. The king's justice would be enforced in the shire courts and being a sheriff was a lucrative if unpopular job as there was a great deal of scope for corruption. Eventually thanks to King Henry II the sheriffs were replaced by professional administrators.

In England of course the great medieval shires still carry their names proudly - Yorkshire, Lancashire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire to name just a few.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Medieval Feudalism & A Military Society

Medieval life is a fascinating subject for study. From medieval worship to medieval feudalism there's a wealth of information available for study. Loyalty and allegiance were particularly complex matters with pros and cons on both sides and whilst we don't profess to be experts on the subject, we wanted to share a little of what we do know in this blog post.

Early medieval Britain and indeed Europe as a whole was dominated by feudalism, particularly in the 12th century. There was no concept of nationhood and patriotism was not something people could relate to. Your loyalty was to your ruler.

Europe was split into principalities called feudatories, each one being ruled by a king, duke or a count. The ceremony of homage was commonplace; this was where a kneeling vassal placed his hands between those of his overlord and promised him service and obedience. However, this was not all one way as an overlord was expected to offer protection, friendship and support to any of his vassals in trouble.

Medieval Europe was basically a military society with warfare being the business of kings and noblemen. There might be much blood spilled but afterwards it was usual for a truce to be signed and things would return to normal - except of course for the peasants and townsfolk who suffered greatly.

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Monday, July 20, 2009

The Divine Right of Kings

When exactly did kings start to become divine and give rise to the well known phrase about "royal blood"? Looking back across history including medieval history it doesn't appear to make any sense ... so how did this come about?

We turn to Alison Weir's book on the medieval queen Eleanor of Aquitaine for the answer. To quote an extract ....

"The ceremony of crowning was established in the reign of Edgar during the 10th century and was based on the rituals used by the Pope to crown the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne back in 800 AD."

This conferred sanctity and a form of priesthood on the king. Prior to this the king was styled merely as a lord. This coronation gave him divine authority. Prior to Edward I the regnal years were always dated from the year of the coronation.

The early medieval kings held ceremonial crown wearings at Easter, Whitsuntide and Christmas. The Litany was recited and there would have been feasting and prayer. All this to reinforce the idea of royalty being sacred.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Medieval Queen: Eleanor of Aquitaine

It is not often that we get the chance to talk about powerful women in the Middle ages. However Eleanor of Aquitaine had more power and influence than most nobles during the 12th century. She would be married to two kings and have as sons three more kings. On top of this she ruled with her second husband from the Scottish borders down to the Pyrenees.

Her inheritance was the Angevin Empire. Back in the 12th century there was no France as we know it today. The King of France basically ruled the area around Paris and the rest of France was in practice largely outside his control. The Lords who ran the dominions spread throughout France might have looked upon the King as their overlord but this was a relationship which could be challenged. The Angevin empire ran from Normandy southwards to Gascony and the border with Spain - interestingly it excluded Brittany to the west.

The broad outline of Eleanor's life is as follows ...

1122 to 1204

Louise VII of France & Henry II of England

10 children - 5 boys and 5 girls
2 daughters to Louis, 5 boys and 3 girls to Henry.

Other interesting points
Second crusade, revolt against Henry II
In popular fiction - "The Lion in Winter" plus many appearances in stories of Ivanhoe and Robin Hood.

For further details on Eleanor's life the Wikipedia entry is quite good. We hope to write more posts soon on this amazing medieval woman.

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Friday, July 17, 2009

A Great & Terrible Medieval King - Edward I

One relatively well known fact in Cumbria is that back in medieval times Lanercost Priory was, for a short time, the centre of government for the UK. However the circumstances around this are less well known. We have blogged about medieval Lanercost previously - see our Medieval Court In Cumbria post.

A book well worth reading to learn and understand more about the king's time at Lanercost is the biography of Edward I by Marc Morris "A great and terrible King" in which he tells of the events of 1306 and 1307 when the King was at the end of his life.

Having earned his nickname as the "Hammer of the Scots", August 1306 saw him travelling across Northumberland, staying at Hexham Abbey. From here progress westward was slow but eventually the retinue reached Lanercost where it stayed as 1306 turned into 1307. For more about that medieval winter in Cumbria read our previous Winter Home For A Medieval King post.

Reversals in the Scottish campaigns galvanized Edward I and by mid March 1307 he finally reached Carlisle. It was from here that he planned his next campaign. Even though seriously ill he rode out at the head of the hastily assembled army and headed for the Solway Firth. It took 10 days to cover 6 miles .... a truly sad indication of his health and on 6 July he stopped at Burgh by Sands. The next morning, a Friday and the Feast of St Thomas, he died.

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