England before the Norman Conquest

Edward the Confessor’s England

Blind arcade in Edward the Confessor’s Westminster Abbey completed 1066On his accession Edward the Confessor faced the problem of controlling a number of powerful aristocrats, notably the Earls of Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria. Late Anglo-Saxon society was, like that of other European countries, rigidly hierarchical. Social status depended on birth and family relationships, and power was gained through ownership of land, the principal source of wealth. Edward’s kingdom had a more centralised government than any other in Europe. Although the crown employed a very limited bureaucracy, much of the system of administration developed by the Norman kings was already in place. The shires (counties) and smaller land units, the hundreds and wapentakes, formed the basis of royal control and the county sheriff was an official of considerable importance who could raise an army and levy taxes. Shire courts heard secular and ecclesiastical cases and formed the basis of the justice system developed after the Conquest especially by Henry II.

York in 1000 (P.Ottaway)The Domesday Book, compiled in 1086, but giving details of England before the Conquest suggests it had a population of about 2 million. The vast majority lived on the land and were subject to the unchanging cycle of the agricultural year. Domesday Book also shows that a relatively few great lords owned a large proportion of the land. Another source of wealth in late Anglo-Saxon England was the towns, the largest of which, London and York, may have had 10,000 inhabitants or more. They were centres of craft, and of local and foreign trade which benefited from an efficient currency system based on the silver penny. The church was one of the greatest landowners and a sponsor of cultural activity and fine craftsmanship of which the Winchester school of manuscript illustration is a good example. The greatest achievement of Anglo-Saxon church architecture was the abbey church at Westminster built in the new Romanesque style by Edward Confessor.

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