Blowing the dust off royal records

The Struggle for Mastery
September 10, 2004

The Scots came right into history, according to W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman's 1066 and All That , when Edward I decided to hammer them. It might have added that the Welsh barely figured in traditional English history until the same king extinguished the nascent principality of Wales.

If "British" history was largely rediscovered around the time of the first devolution referenda in 1979, then David Carpenter's The Struggle for Mastery: Britain 1066-1284 , the latest volume in the Penguin History of Britain, demonstrates just how far historians of Britain in the central Middle Ages have come over the past quarter of a century.

It offers a single history of England, Scotland and Wales from the mid-11th to the late-13th centuries, managing both to treat each country individually in detail and to show how they interacted. In doing so, Carpenter draws on the enormous body of recent research into English, Welsh and Scottish histories and builds on the work of distinguished scholars who have sought to integrate the histories of the constituent parts of the British Isles. Throughout the work, however, he offers his own penetrating and thought-provoking interpretations of the interrelationships between the countries.

The title is, fortunately, misleading in two respects. First, this is not only a political history, although it provides a much-needed new narrative of political change from the arrival of the Normans in England to the Edwardian wars of conquest. There are also thematic chapters examining the peoples, economies, societies and cultures of Britain, as well as the church and learning.

Second, Carpenter shows that there was not a single struggle for mastery in the British Isles, but several simultaneous ones. Needless to say, neither the Scottish king nor the Welsh princes ever aimed for supremacy over all Britain, but their histories should not be located within a broader British history merely in relation to the kings of England, who sometimes did.

Until 1290, the chief obstacle to Scottish royal supremacy in North Britain was not a threat from south of the Anglo-Scottish border but the enduring power of local chieftains and the Norwegian monarchy in western and northern Scotland. Nor were Welsh and Scottish relations with the kings and nobles of England always a tale of conflict or rivalry. Henry III showed a strong but largely dispassionate, paternalistic interest in Scottish affairs during the minority of Alexander III from 1249 to c . 1260, even though Alexander's father had striven to exploit Henry's difficulties as a child king; Alexander reciprocated by ignoring Henry's troubles between 1258 and 1267, focusing instead on outriding a brief revival of Norwegian power in the Western Isles. For their part, the 13th-century rulers of Gwynedd offered the most resistance to the English in Wales, but the creation of a powerful Gwynedd in the previous century owed much to the cultivation of its princes by the kings of England.

By considering the period of Norman penetration into Britain and the 13th century together, Carpenter highlights some interesting trends in British history. John Gillingham has shown how the ruling classes of 12th-century England, confident of the superiority of their French culture, developed a strong contempt for the other peoples of the British Isles; they might sometimes accord a grudging recognition of the good manners and breeding of Scottish nobles, but the Welsh and Irish remained beyond the bounds of civility.

It comes as a surprise, then, to see just how far the Welsh had evaded this stereotype by the time of Llywelyn the Last (d. 1282). This transformation was not merely a consequence of aristocratic intermarriage or adoption of Anglo-Norman stone castles and methods of warfare. Rather, just as the economies and aristocratic mores of England and Wales diverged after 1066, so they converged after 1200. By then, Aberffraw, principal manor of the princes of Gwynedd, had a higher ratio of wheat to oats than some Oxfordshire manors -whereas Llywelyn the Great had paid tribute to King John in 1211 in livestock in the late 10s, his grandson could raise over £9,000 in cash to appease Edward I.

The Welsh princes continued to wage conflicts against one another until the late 13th century but with less viciousness than before; meanwhile they dealt on equal terms with their English neighbours. The adaptation of the Welsh elites to the Anglo-Norman world throws the brutality of the Edwardian conquest of Wales into starker relief. It also begs the question why similar cultural normalisation never occurred in Ireland.

Much of the book's strength comes from Carpenter's superb knowledge of English royal records; the development of the Norman and Angevin kingdom of England is also treated fully. Yet this is far from dry constitutional history. It is written in a clear, engaging and often witty fashion; indeed, its colloquiality is occasionally startling.

The author breathes imagination into topics that are usually discussed in dusty academic terms only: the social relations of the Anglo-Norman honour, for instance, should be envisaged "less (as) a set of neat feudal pyramids than of a range of hills like that around Wastwater in Cumberland, hills of all shapes and sizes, merging into one another, some solid, others with their sides slipping into the lake". He writes with conviction and, one suspects, the book is a labour of love. It is to be hoped that Carpenter's enthusiasm and insight will communicate themselves to all students of medieval British history.

Daniel Power is lecturer in medieval history, Sheffield University.

The Struggle for Mastery: The Penguin History of Britain 1066-1284

Author - David Carpenter
Publisher - Penguin
Pages - 616
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 0 14 014824 8

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