The English government in the High Middle Ages was considered to be significantly better than governments in Europe. What were the unique characteristics and features of the English government that made it sophisticated? How did the Norman Conquest of England impact this system of governance? Let’s find out.
Even before the Norman Conquest, the English government was one of the most sophisticated in all of Europe. Its administrative structure was remarkably uniform, by early medieval standards.
The whole of the kingdom of England had been divided up into administrative units that were known as ‘shires’. The shires were all roughly the same size and shape, and within each shire, a royal official known as a ‘shire reeve’, or a ‘sheriff’, as the word would develop, operated as relatively loyal and efficient royal administrators.
Learn more about the Norman conquest.
Use of Written Documents in Government
Anglo-Saxon kings were also rather precocious in their use of written documents to run their government. On the European continent, in 1066, kings tended to rely on verbal laws, on oral transmission, to get their administrators to do what they wanted.
They would call people in, and tell them, “I want you to stop filching all of my tax money, and give it to me instead,” and then would send them out again. This was a rather inefficient way of running a government, relying simply on the spoken word, because during the time that a person was traveling to and from them, they really had no way of expressing their will to their administrators.
English officials relied on written documents known as ‘writs’ from a rather early date, and were able to bombard their local officials with requests and demands, and in general, were able to keep them in line, to a degree that would have made any continental king rather envious.
This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Permanent Seats of Government
Another sign of the precocity of the Anglo-Saxon government was the way in which it came up with developments that continental rulers would emulate only later. It concerns the establishment of permanent seats of government.
One of the most striking aspects of medieval governments was their mobility. They were constantly on the move. Kings and their entourages were traveling from domain to domain, and estate to estate, eating up all the food in one place, and then moving on to another.
Note that all medieval governments were peripatetic—they were constantly on the move—but Anglo-Saxon kings were less peripatetic than most. They had established certain places where their institutions resided permanently. Instead of the government coming to you, you had to go to the government.
One such place was Winchester, where Anglo-Saxon kings had established a royal treasury, which simply stayed there. Why was it so important to have a permanent seat of government, rather than a peripatetic or wandering one?
Well, if the government is constantly on the move, it has the advantage of being able to eat at a lot of different places, but it puts severe limits on the size and sophistication of the government. Only a certain number of people could be brought along, as they roamed throughout the kingdom. Once there’s a permanent seat of government, though, the government can get bigger, and more complex.
Constant movement also limited the ability of medieval kings to keep records. It was not possible to drag the Library of Congress around, and only very simple written records could be kept, if any at all, while the government was on the move.
Once a permanent seat of government was established, though, such as the Anglo-Saxon treasury at Winchester, it could keep more written records, more detailed written records, which made the government more efficient.
The Domesday Book
This sophisticated government fell into the hands of the Norman conquerors virtually intact. In subsequent centuries, the new rulers of England, whom we will call the Anglo-Normans, to reflect their mixed status at this point, were constantly in the forefront of institutional development.
Perhaps the most remarkable sign of the sophistication of English government after the Norman Conquest is a document called the Domesday Book. The Domesday Book was compiled in 1086, and it was essentially a national census of the kingdom of England.
As censuses go, the Domesday Book was something of a failure. It was not complete. It missed towns, for example, and entire regions of England simply were never visited by those who compiled Domesday Book. It was filled with mathematical errors, and clearly missed, perhaps, 97 to 98 percent of the population.
Nonetheless, no other medieval monarch was in a position to even attempt to take a national census, except the rulers of England, in 1086, and no medieval ruler had attempted a national census.
The last time that anyone had done so had really been in the days of the Roman Empire. The Roman emperors were always taking censuses, but no one had had the wherewithal, or the desire to do so, prior to 1086.
Learn more about the Magna Carta.
English Government Became More Sophisticated Under the Anglo-Norman Kings
Accounting is perhaps not the most exciting topic in all of history, certainly not when compared to crusading, but nonetheless, it deserves a place in our consideration of medieval government.
A government accounting office, whose job was to oversee income and expenditures, was established at a remarkably early date within the kingdom of England, by a king named Henry I. It was called the ‘exchequer’, and the English exchequer was located from the 1150s onward at one place, at Westminster near London.
The king’s sheriffs, or shire reeves, were required to come to the exchequer a certain number of times a year. They had to account for all of the royal revenues within the areas under their jurisdiction. The king’s accountants would sit and calculate how much was owed, and which fines were supposed to have been collected.
The way they kept track of expenditures and income was by moving counters on a large tablecloth that was checkered, hence the name the exchequer.
The English government began to keep detailed records of the exchequer and how it operated at a very early date. These were known as ‘pipe rolls’. Pipe rolls are a fantastic source of information about medieval England. The oldest surviving pipe roll dates back to 1129.
So sophisticated had the English government grown that handbooks were written for those who had to work in it, training manuals, essentially, including one written in the 1170s called the Dialogue of the Exchequer, and you couldn’t find anything comparable on the European continent at this date.
Common Questions about the English Government Before and After the Norman Conquest
In the High Middle Ages, the entire kingdom of England had been divided up into administrative units known as shires. These units were all about the same size and shape, and within each shire, a royal official known as a shire reeve operated as royal administrators. Over time, shire reeve transformed into sheriff.
In the High Middle Ages, Anglo-Saxon kings were known for their use of written documents to run their government. English officials relied on written documents known as writs, that were used to issue their local officials with requests and demands.
The Anglo-Saxon kings had established a royal treasury at Westminster, which was one of the first permanent seats of government in England. This enabled the English government to become bigger and more complex.
The Domesday Book was an official document compiled by the English government in 1086. It was essentially a national census of the kingdom of England. Even though the Domesday Book was sort of a failure, because it was incomplete, missed towns and entire regions of England, and was filled with mathematical errors, it was still an exceptional document. Because no other medieval monarch was in a position to even attempt to take a national census, except the rulers of England in 1086, and no medieval ruler had attempted a national census.