To conclude, we may state that when England was conquered by the Normans in 1066, two peoples with two different and well-established identities encountered. Though their relationship was deeply marked by hostility at the beginning, a radical change had taken place in their relationship by the end of the twelfth century (Thomas 57, 69). “Normanitas”, a product of the eleventh century, as G. A. Loud argues, declined in the twelfth century when the Normans established themselves in the kingdom (Ashe 55). However, the Norman aristocracy did not merely accept the English identity. Llater, by the thirteenth century, it had even become part of their political agenda and propaganda (Thomas 71). It is even more surprising that the identity of the conquered triumphed over the identity of the conquerors.
Nevertheless, there was a period of transition between these two identities. During this period, hostility towards the other ethnicity persisted with some authors as is well illustrated by William of Malmesbury’s comment on the different treatments of the figure of William the Conqueror: “Normans and English, incited by different motives, have written of king William: the former have praised him to excess; extolling to the utmost both his good and bad actions: while the latter, out of national hatred, have laden their conqueror with undeserved reproach” (258; bk. 3, Preface). On the other hand, others who issued from mixed background were not as strict in their opinion— the manner in which they represented the English past and identity was ambiguous. One of them was William of Malmesbury.
William of Malmesbury first depicts the Anglo-Saxons, though pagans, as a nation elected by God to occupy Britain and punish the sins of its inhabitants. In Britain, they are converted to Christianity. However, gradually, they turn away from God and God sends other invaders to punish them, the Normans. On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxons are also portrayed as a brave nation willing to sacrifice their lives for their country. Nevertheless, the Normans are depicted as superior.
By presenting the invasions of the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans as God’s punishment for the sins of Britain’s inhabitants, William of Malmesbury manages to justify both of them. His presenting of the Normans as superior must have suited the demands of the society he was living in. On the other hand, by defending certain qualities of the Anglo-Saxons, he could have remained loyal to his English origin at the same time. However, it does not seem that Anglo-Saxon past would play an essential role in constructing English identity in this period.
3The Late Middle Ages (1204–1485)
The late Middle Ages were a turbulent period. England, as well as most of Europe, was stricken with wars, revolts, plagues, disease and famine (McDowall 43). However, it was also a period of an unprecedented development of the sense of English national awareness and identity.
In the second half of the twelfth century, the political and cultural ties of England to the Continent, and to France in particular, were very close. The kings of England ruled over a large part of western France. Their nobles possessed lands in Normandy, spoke French as their first language, read or listened to French romances and saints’ lives and went to France to attend tournaments. The higher clergy were often trained in the schools and monasteries of northern France. The English church was subordinated to the authority of the Pope. In fact, England was truly distinctive only in its government (Kramer 39; Haigh 94). Despite the development of feudalism, the English kings enjoyed “a precocious degree of both power and authority unrivalled in any other European kingdom at that time” (Haigh 94).
By the end of the late Middle Ages, however, the image of England radically changes. As a result of a number of changes, by 1450, it had become a nation with a sense of separate identity and an indigenous culture (Haigh 94).
3.1England, English Identity and the Anglo-Saxons in the Late Middle Ages
In 1154, after disputed successions which followed the death of Henry I, the son of William of Normandy, Henry II became the King of England. However, being also Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou and Duke of Aquitaine, he brought together several inheritances under his rule. The so called Angevin Empire which he thus created lasted until 1215, when it collapsed under King John. It covered a vast territory stretching from Scotland to the Pyrenees and the Angevin (or Plantagenet) family became the most powerful dynasty in Europe (Kramer 37–42). Nevertheless, this early developed and strong monarchy was also very soon limited by Magna Carta (Haigh 96–97), a document which limited royal rights (Kramer 42).
Moreover, Parliament played an important role in late medieval government. Waging wars was expensive and the kings had to persuade their subjects to pay taxes. Therefore, whenever the merchants and gentry provided the king with money, their political strength increased. Slowly, early forms of representational government developed (Kramer 39; McDowall 43). The first parliament was summoned by Simon de Montfort in 1265 (Nangonová 28). The commons’ representatives have been its permanent members since 1337 (Gillingham and Griffiths 134). In order to persuade them, well-developed methods of communication and propaganda were used. The preambles of official proclamations, songs, ballads, sermons, coronations, royal progresses, the formal entries of kings and queens into towns and even the works of writers became an instrument of propaganda (Gillingham and Griffiths 135–36). John Gillingham and Ralph A. Griffiths state that “in the fifteenth century, authors rarely produced their works unsolicitedly” (136).
At the beginning of the reign of King John, in 1204, Normandy was recovered by the French. As Nigel Saul argues, England thus became separated from her closest mainland partner. The Anglo-Norman nobility became definitely English. The language of political debate also changed. The terms “liberties” and “inheritances” were replaced by “nations” and “commmunities” (Saul 8). A growing national feeling may be partly observed in the reign of Henry III: “the . . . opposition of the nobility to Henry III’s foreign expeditions, to the aliens whom he patronized at Court and to the papal clerks whose intrusion into English benefices he permitted, marked the novel development of baronial nationalism in reaction to the policies of the monarch” (Haigh 94). Though it may have been rather disguising the struggle for the king’s favour, the concept of “alienness” figured in political debate (Saul 8-9).
Despite the breakdown of the Angevin Empire, close relations with Continental Europe continued, both political and cultural. Chivalry long represented a unifying force of the European elites (Saul 10-11). However, at the end of the thirteenth century, with the break out of wars in northern Europe, the pervasive feeling of solidarity between the European elites started to change. Perceptions of ethnicity gradually sharpened (Saul 11). According to Saul, nationalism became a very useful concept during the reigns of the three Edwards. It helped them to gain popular support for their cause (12) which was represented by foreign wars (Haigh 94). While the conquest of Wales in the 1280s was presented as “the civilizing mission of a superior nation towards barbarians” (Haigh 94), two wars were particularly important for the development of English identity – the war with Scotland (1296–1328) and the war with France, the so called Hundred Years War (1337–1453) (Saul 12). The mythical history of Britain (especially that associated with King Arthur) should have justified the rightfulness of Edward I’s conquest of Wales and Scotland and of Edward III’s and Henry V’s incursions into France (Haigh 106).
A distinctive English culture was also developing. From the second half of the fourteenth century, the use of English as the language of an elevated literature was growing (Haigh 96) while the knowledge of French was in marked decline before the end of the fourteenth century (Gillingham and Griffiths 144); the English Perpendicular style was developing in architecture (Haigh 96). With the establishment of national orders of chivalry (the first of them being the Order of the Garter founded around 1348), royal and national allegiance started to dominate solidarities of chivalry. By the mid- to late fifteenth century, the ties between the English and European nobility were weakening and the monarchy itself was becoming less cosmopolitan (Saul 12).
The institution which united people of all nations was the Church (Saul 12). However, religious changes that endangered the traditional links between England and the universal Church were taking place during the late Middle Ages. From the thirteenth century onwards, the English religion was becoming increasingly anti-papal. From Edward I’s reign, English kings were gradually taking control over the Church (Haigh 96) and the Church of England was acquiring its English character (Gillingham and Griffiths 137). The lay hostility to papal authority also partly gave birth to Lollardy, “England’s first heresy”, founded by John Wycliff at the end of the fourteenth century (Haigh 96). His translation of the Bible into English became an instrument of religious reform. As David McDowall writes, “if the Lollards had been supported by the king, the English Church might have become independent from the papacy in the early fifteenth century” (50). Also, saints in the late Middle Ages were increasingly becoming patrons of nations. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, St George became the patron saint of England (Saul 15–16).
Thorlac Turville-Petre maintains that “the establishment and exploration of a sense of a national identity is a major preoccupation of English writers in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries: who are the English; where do they come from; what constitutes the English nation?” (121). In fact, it is a current trend among scholars and historians to identify the discourse of English to the late thirteenth century and early fourteenth century (Rouse 70).
However, according to Donald Scragg, apart from chroniclers and historians, few authors of the late medieval period were interested in the Anglo-Saxon period. Major writers showed no interest at all for this subject. Nevertheless, some of the major Anglo-Saxon kings continued to attract attention. They appear, for example, in the early thirteenth-century The Proverbs of Alured or the early fourteenth-century verse romance Athelston in which, as Scragg notes, tenth-century names are used merely for “nostalgic effect” (6–7).
In fact, it was the myth of Trojan origins of the English which dominated from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries (Kumar 204). In England, it reached its zenith in the 1130s in Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) written by a Welsh bishop Geoffrey of Monmouth. In his History, Geoffrey of Monmouth combined Trojan origins with the tale of Arthur3, who is depicted as a descendant of Trojan kings, and created a British identity on the basis of a Celtic past. According to him, Britons trace their origins to Brutus, great-grandson of Aeneas, who settled in Britain with his companions after the fall of Troy (Bradley 81–82). Though immediately condemned by some contemporaries, the work influenced British history for centuries (Swanson 61).
However, Robert Allen Rouse asserts that while major canonical Middle English authors are much more preoccupied with classical or Arthurian pasts than with that of the Anglo-Saxon period, “we find an extensive and enduring interest in the deeds and actions of the figures of England’s Anglo-Saxon past” in more popular literature (Rouse 8).
In the following part of this chapter, I will investigate the relevancy of the claims of the growing national feeling in the romance of Guy of Warwick and the role of the Anglo-Saxon past in this process.