Law and Order issued by William – William I was succeeded by his red-haired son, William Rufus. He levied high taxes from the barons; helped himself to money that belonged to the monasteries. Nobody liked him; most people hated him; and everybody was delighted when he was killed in 1100 while hunting in the New Forest.
His death was supposed to be the result of an arrow accidentally let off in his direction by Sir Walter Tyrell. But was it really a mistake? There were many who believed that Sir Walter had done England an excellent service.
William Rufus was suceeded by his younger brother, Henry I (1100-35). Henry had only one legitimate son, and he was drowned in the Channel. Consequently, his daughter, Matilda, became his heir.
England had never been ruled by a queen, and the barons were not too keen on the idea. They invited her cousin, Stephen, to take over the throne. But Matilda, not unreasonably, objected.
While Stephen and she fought for the crown, centralized government – the safeguard of law and order – came close to breaking down. The barons, especially, exploited the lack of royal supervision. They plundered their peasants’ land; violently settled personal feuds; and built more clastles.
By the time of Stephen’s death, the country needed a strong and wise ruler to pull it together. Fortunately Matilda’s son Henry II – who succeded Stephen in 1154 – was just the man.
Henry had already inherited the French provinces of anjou, Normandy and Maine from his father. Later, he married the divorced wife of the French king, Eleanor, who presented him with the duchy of Aquitaine. These possessions on the Continent became known as the Angevin Empire. But Henry is better known as the first Plantagenet, king – after Planta Genista, the Latin name for the sprig of bloom he made his emblem.
The new monarch was short, sturdy, and inclined to put on weight. When he flew into a rage, which was often, his eyes became blood-shot. But he was extremely intelligent and had enormous energy. Even when he was in church, he wrote and dictated. Life at court became spartan. As for the courtriers, those less energetic than the king were almost perpetually tired.
But Henry brought back law and order to England. He introduced a system of travelling judges. He detested the ordeal method of determining guilt, and empowered juries to give verdicts in criminal cases. He disliked the death penalty; even a murderer was punished either by the loss of a hand, or else by imprisonment and a fine.
Since he was always on the move, government departements were established to manage his affairs. The most important was the Exchequer. It was set up in the city of Westminster – which, therefore, became the capital.
Henry’s chief adviser was a man named Thomas Becker. He made Becket Chancellor and gave him great wealth and power. In 1162, he appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury. The church had always had its own courts for the trial of offending clergyment.
Henry thought they were being too lenient; he expected Becker to control them. But Becker refused. The King and Archbishop quarrelled. Henry became even more angry when, one day just before Christmas, 1170, he heard that Becket had dismissed some English Bishops. In a fit of rage, he exclaimed, ‘Whill no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’
Four knights slipped away to do what they imagined to be their sovereign’s bidding. Henry tried to recall them, but it was too late. They murdered backed on the altar steps at Canterbury.
Three years later, Becket was made a saint. In 1174, Henry – still feeling a deep sense of guilt – ordered the monks to flog him as he walked through the streets of Canterbury.
Read the next article : A King and the Crusades