The Norman conquest marked the beginning of a new era. The Normans brought a
new social system, known as the feudal system, based on a strict hierarchy that saw
the king at the top, under him the barons, then the knights and finally the peasants
and the serfs. The king gave the land to his barons in return for military service; the
same relationship linked the knights to the barons.
Twenty years after the conquest, William sent his men throughout England to make
a survey of the economic life of the country: in 1086 the record, known as
“Dornesday Book”, was written down and it became the first official census of the
English people and their possessions.
William had three sons but only two were to rule England: William Il (from 1087 to
1100) and Henry I (from 1100 to 1135 ) because Robert was given Normandy, of
which his father had been the duke. When Henry I died, his daughter Matilda didn’t
become the queen because the barons and the noblemen supported Henry’s
nephew from Normandy, Stephen, who was crowned in 1135. Matilda led a military
campaign against her cousin and captured him, but he was freed by his queen and
resumed his place on the throne of England. However, the members of the
aristocracy refused to take arms against one another and obliged Stephen and
Matilda’s son, Henry, to come to an agreement in 1153. It was agreed that Stephen
would rule until he died and then Matilda’s son should become the next king.
Henry Il was the first king of the Plantagenet dynasty, kings of England and France.
He is remembered as a great reformer, a founder of the English common law and a
creator of sound administration and justice. His first task was to reduce the power of
the barons, which he did with the help of professional soldiers. Then he sent
travelling judges round the land to administer the law which became known as
“Cornmon law” because it was used everywhere. Finally, Henry wanted to reduce
the power of the Church: to do this he made Thomas Becket, his chancellor and
friend, head of it. But, once Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket became an opponent
to the king and a defender of the interests of the Church; he refused to comply with
the Constitutions of Clarendon (1164) which gave the king authority in choosing the
bishops but, after being exiled, he was murdered by four knights (sent by the king)
in Canterbury Cathedral. He became a martyr and a saint and venerated in his shrine
in Canterbury by pilgrims all over England and Europe.