By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William and Mary
The relationship between France and England, and the complexity it reached, was perhaps the most important political consequence of the Norman Conquest. But what was the reason for the complexity in the France-England relationship? And what were key consequences of this fraught relationship?
Kings of England Wanted to be Treated as Equals
Technically, the dukes of Normandy who had conquered England in 1066 were vassals of the kings of France. That is to say, they were feudal dependents of the kings of France. They owed the kings of France homage and fealty.
Once they had conquered England, though, the dukes of Normandy got to enjoy the title of ‘king’. As a result, in one sense, they were subordinate to the kings of France, and had to answer to the kings of France, but at the exact same time, they were equals of the kings of France.
This aberrational situation that was created by the Norman Conquest led to much bloodshed in future centuries, as kings of France and kings of England tried to work out the exact nature of their relationship.
Kings of England, not surprisingly, liked to emphasize the element of equality in their relationship, whereas the kings of France were always looking for ways to emphasize the fact that the Anglo-Norman kings were subordinate to them, and had to do what they said, under certain circumstances.
Learn more about the Norman conquest.
How Did the Kings of England Gain Control Over Western France?
The rather hostile relationship between kings of France and kings of England grew only more fraught, thanks to a series of coincidences that occurred in the 1150s.
These coincidences allowed the kings of England to become rulers over, essentially, the western half of France, and to gain landholdings in France that dwarfed the possessions of the kings of England. During the 1150s, the kings of England came to be rulers over a collection of territories that historians like to refer to as the Angevin Empire.
How the kings of England came to control the western half of France, thereby making their relations with the kings of France even more complex, is a rather complicated story.
A king of England by the name of Henry I died in 1135, and he left behind only one legitimate child. She happened to be a woman by the name of Matilda. He had fathered about 22 illegitimate children of whom we know, but they were not eligible to inherit the throne; only the daughter, Matilda.
Matilda married one of the most important members of the French aristocracy, an individual by the name of Geoffrey Plantagenet. He was the Count of Anjou, and Anjou was a rather large region in the northwest of France.
Matilda’s right to rule did not go unchallenged, even though she was the only direct heir of Henry I. A cousin of hers by the name of Stephen seized the throne in 1135. Throughout the rest of his reign, which lasted until 1154, Stephen was constantly at war with Matilda, and with Geoffrey Plantagenet, who was trying to protect Matilda’s claim to the throne.
The years between 1135 and 1154 were relatively anarchic by English standards, because there was a civil war within the ruling family. Aristocrats tried to do the things that aristocrats did when royal authority was weak. They built private castles, and tried to establish their own rights of lordship. However, they did not succeed in breaking as free of royal control as their counterparts on the continent did.
The civil war between Matilda and Stephen raged on until a compromise was finally reached, and under the terms of this agreement, Stephen promised that when he died, the son of Geoffrey Plantagenet and Matilda could become the next king, and the son in question was named Henry Plantagenet.
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Who Was Henry Plantagenet?
Henry Plantagenet, son of Matilda and Geoffrey, was a very fortunate person during the 1150s. Henry Plantagenet became Duke of Normandy in 1150. He inherited the county of Anjou from his father in 1151. In 1152, he married one of the most attractive and sought-after heiresses in all of Europe, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
After his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry Plantagenet gained control of the large and important region of Aquitaine in southwestern France. Then, finally, in 1154, when Stephen died, Henry Plantagenet became king of England, or Henry II.
As a result of these various inheritances and his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II then ruled a huge collection of territories, including England, and much of western and northern France, and these territories constituted the Angevin Empire.
The possessions of the kings of England dwarfed the territories of the kings of France, yet, they were still technically subordinate to the kings of France.
The Norman Conquest of 1066 was an especially important event in the history of medieval England. For centuries to come, England would be ruled over by a French-speaking, Anglo-Norman aristocracy.
With the formation of the Angevin Empire in the 1150s, the English monarchy reached its high medieval zenith, at least in terms of its geographical extent. However, the English kings would have to defend the vast territories they had acquired. Because the kings of France would attempt to take back the lands that had fallen into the laps of their rivals across the English Channel.
Learn more about Philip II of France.
Common Questions about the Relationship between France and England after the Norman Conquest
The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 made the already complex relationship between England and France even more complex. The Norman kings of England were technically subordinate to the kings of France, but after becoming kings of England they wanted to be treated as equals. But the kings of France continued to view them as subordinates. This led to bloodshed over the next few centuries.
Matilda was the rightful heir to the English throne after the death of her father, Henry I in 1135. However, a cousin of hers named Stephen seized the throne in 1135 and held onto it till 1154. During this period, Stephen was constantly at war with Matilda, until an agreement was reached between them that guaranteed the son of Geoffrey Plantagenet and Matilda the throne after Stephen’s death.
Before becoming the king of England, Henry II became the duke of Normandy in 1150, and inherited the county of Anjou from his father in 1151. After his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry Plantagenet gained control of the large and important region of Aquitaine in southwestern France. So, when he became king of England in 1154, Henry II ruled a huge collection of territories, including England, and much of western and northern France, and these territories constituted the Angevin Empire.
Geoffrey Plantagenet was the Count of Anjou, which was a large region in the northwest of France. He was married to Matilda, the daughter of Henry I.