Conflict, Identity and Social Change: State-Formation in Medieval Britain and Europe

Course Material 2023/24

The implications of the Norman Conquest for the emerging English state will provide a bridge into a consideration of continued state-formation in England in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Under sustained pressure of war within the context of Angevin and Plantagenet rule, this period saw the creation of a highly centralised legal system, a restriction on the capacity of the king arbitrarily to extract money from his realm in the form of Magna Carta, and the consequent and critical emergence of a sophisticated state infrastructure, including fora for representation – most obviously Parliament. The Lords and Commons in Parliament handled the critical question of how a realm ruled by law rather than arbitrarily was to pay for defence in the face of sustained threats from its neighbours. Relations between ruler and ruled under these novel circumstances were tested and negotiated. A greater sense of the realm and its interests, the duty of the king to represent the common good, and a more developed sense of English identity, naturally emerged. At the same time, in Scotland, Wales and France, the same great geo-political and ideological forces that drove change in England were producing parallel effects elsewhere: the development of Wales and its later Conquest by the English, emerging Scottish identity and the Scottish Wars of Independence, and the Hundred Years War were all consequences of this. 

But it was not only among England and its neighbours that such developments occurred. Across wider Europe, despite many differences of geography and polity, similar changes were taking place. The common themes underlying these were: first, the influence of theory; secondly, developments in the practical capability of governments; last, but by no means least, rivalry over land, jurisdiction and sovereignty meant that much state-development took place in the crucible of warfare. In central and southern Europe this was particularly seen in relations with stronger neighbours (e.g. the German and Byzantine Empires) and the Papacy; and, within this context, state-formation was implemented through legislation, and through importing and adopting key institutions. Consequences for ruler and ruled were substantial, and the implications for national consciousness profound – an issue explored throughout a changing historiography whose resonances continue to sound today. 

The debate about state-formation is fundamental to the Anglo-Saxon period. Key themes include the emergence of a chancery and centralised bureaucracy, the use of law, the system of coinage (especially the reform of c. 973) and the challenges of ruling an enlarged kingdom after the conquest of Northumbria in 927.