How the English Kings of the twelfth-century extend their power compared to that of of the French Kings of the period?

Today I will discuss how the English kings extended their power in the twelfth-century and compare their methods to that of the French Kings. I have decided to assess this in four ways, these being,how royal power was extended ‘theoretically’and ‘physically’, and how the church aided the extension of royal power through ‘theoretical’and ‘physical’ means. By using the word ‘theoretical’ I intend to convey that this applies to precedence and laws put in place as opposed to ‘physical’ acts suchas personal decisions and the tangible products of these decisions.

The Kings of England extended their royal power through many ‘theoretical’ outlets and assets. A major example of this being the Domesday Bookwhich was compiled under the orders of William the Conquerorin 1086(The Domesday Book Online, 1999). To this day it is not entirely known the purpose of The Domesday Book as almost as soon as it was compiled it would have been out of date and the information not strictly true. However there are some theories. One theory is that it was a sheer display of power;this would have definitely been noticed by the native Anglepopulation and was another Norman ideal thatcame along with the invaders. Something on this scale had never before been done; thiswas a massive achievement and signalled the full extent of William I’s power and reach over the people of the realm. Another, more impactful, theory is that the Domesday Book served as a method of precedence for how land disputes should be dealt with. This does seem very plausible as the Dialogue of the Exchequer states “an appeal is made to the book itself, the evidence it gives cannot be set at naught or evaded with impunity … because … it is not permissible to contradict its decisions”(Douglas and Greenaway, 1981). I believe that this shows that this Book represents the Kings judgement on land disputes as this implies that even if the King is absent from court, this book can be used by his advisors and peers to relay his decree in his stead. This would be a very effective way of extending royal power across the realmas it allows theKing to dispense justice, even when he wasn’t in England.

If it is true that the Domesday Book is to primarily settle land disputes, preserve the rights of land owners and to discourage those who wish to questionthese rights “with impunity”(Douglas and Greenaway, 1981). Then this draws significant similarities to the French system of the Royal Charter. The Royal Charter was distributed to landowners by the French King to legitimise any land they held, if you didn’t have a Royal Charter, you didn’t legitimately own your land, regardless of how you came about it (inheritance etc); this is the same as the Domesday Book. Despite this, the Domesday Book represents a strong centralised government which used the method of Administrative Kingship to rule effectively, where all decrees come from the centre to the people andthe Lords are obliged to go to the Kings demesne to settle disputes. Administrative Kingship also allowed the kingdom to operate in the Kings absence, a luxury the French did not have, it had aconsensus so there wasregimes and procedures set out for any eventuality that may occur while the king was far away. France on the other hand, operated off a barebones version of Itinerant Kingship, a system that had worked well many other Kings such as Barbarossa in Germany, but in France the King had not commanded as much respect as his German counterpart. Itinerant Kingship involves, in this case, the French King goingto the Barons to distribute royal influence and to give out Royal Charters rather than them coming to him; the complete opposite of the English method of rule. The French methods, were as such, flawed in their execution and required much negotiation in order to enter the land of a vassal, whereas the English King ruled absolutely, giving no debate to the extension of his royal power.

Another ‘theoretical’ basis which affected the extension of royal power was the image of the King. The English Kings and theFrench Kings, where treated very differently, the English King could not be questioned or judged by mortal man as he was chosen by god, and any action against him could be deemed as against God himself. The Dialogueof the Exchequerspeaks of how the king may commit “arbitrary acts” but how “nevertheless their actions ought not to be discussed or condemned by their subjects”(Douglas andGreenaway, 1981), however in France this was a very different story. The French King was indeed asuperior member of state, but he had to act alongside the aristocracy and speak on their behalf where as in England, he commanded the aristocracy and they spoke on his behalf. Suger of St Denis writes of how Hugh of La Puiset rebelled against King Louis the Fat (Louis VI) and he mentions of how before he engaged Hugh in battleto take his land and castle he could “do very little without negotiating with Hugh”(Suger, trans, Cusimano and Moorhead, 1992). This speaks volumes about how Louis had to abide by the rights of his vassal even if said vassal was a rebel. This would simply not happen in England as the king was the pinnacle of power in England, over everyone but God himselfwhich allowed the Kings of England to extend royal power far more easily than the French in this way.

The ‘theoretical’ differences between England and France can be witnessed further in the methods they had to conduct themselvesas men and as rulers. Henry I of England was dubbed the “Lion of Justice” because he “fought the French and extracted money from his subjects” (Clanhcy, 1998, p.47)this along with Dialogue of the Exchequer’s claim that he may commit “arbitrary acts” (Douglas and Greenaway, 1981) portrays the English kings as borderline tyrannical, and that they can openly be powerful and dominant and be proud of their overwhelming influence. Whereas the image that emerges of the French Kings shows them as very careful to commit arbitrariness and to assert full royal power as they may be judged as tyrants and it was a right that a French Vassal could legally rebel if his rights were impeached. Suger describes of how Louis had to obtain a valid reason to go against Hugh how they “begged the king with many pleas to give aid” (Suger, trans, Cusimano and Moorhead, 1992). Without this justificationit would have beentoo dangerous for Louis VI to risk, he did not want a civil war or to lose his throne and possibly his life, the French kings were far more modest than their English counterparts in extending Royal power in this way.

Tocontinue with my assessment of how the kings of England extendedtheir power in this period, I find it necessary to examine how they asserted their royal power in a ‘physical’ manner. One major contrast that the English Kings had to the French Kings was that they didn’t always need to meet their rebellious vassals in battle. As previously mentioned the Lords of the realm would come to the king to address matters, similar to this system was the system of using sheriffs to collect taxes. A sheriff would be given a quota to raise in taxes and anything he raised over that amount was his to keep, however if he didn’t reach that quota he would have to pay back what he owed. In addition to this, the king took note of which sheriffs were truly loyal and in their cases he would keep delaying their repayment so they needn’t worry about paying back their debt immediately. However if a sheriff/vassal who owed money decided to be disloyal the king could legally call for all his debts to be repaid instantly, which would normally result in the bankruptcy of the vassal in question and hence an end to their rebellion. Clanchy suggests that both this and “The strange appearance of the table and the high rank of those around it should have been enough to impress upon most sheriffs the hazard of defrauding the king of his revenues”(Clanchy, 1998,), which ultimately allowed the King to extend royal power with little to no bloodshed. The French Kings, however, did not have this power and instead needed to meet rebels in battle and for a valid reason. Louis VI did not kill Hugh as he could not run the risk of being a tyrant and instead “the castle of Le Puiset had been totally demolished and Hugh imprisoned in the tower of Château-Landon”(Suger, trans. Cusimano and Moorhead, 1992), which shows that he had to be lighter in his punishments and go through the risk of physical warfare. Henry I of England, however, gave some very harsh punishments indeed, “Thus he blinded the court of Mortain, who had fought against him at Tinchebrai, and thieves were likewise blinded and castrated. In 1125 all the moneyers (minters of coin) in England were sentenced to have their right hands cut off and be castrated” (Clanchy,1998, p.46). Henry could easily do this as he could not be questioned or contradicted, whereas Louis VI could and hence could not extend or assert Royal Power as effectively as Henry.

The Church also aided the English kings in a ‘theoretical way’ to extend royal power. In England the Church served the king as he was Gods appointed on Earth “all power is of God the Lord. It is not therefore unreasonable or improper for ecclesiastics to take service under kings”(Douglas and Greenaway, 1981) and to do this they served to give the King council and to aid him in the collection and management of taxes, as shown by the claim:“no matter what may be, or appear to be, the origin or manner of acquisition of wealth, those who by their office are appointed to keep the revenues should not be remiss in caring for them” (Douglas and Greenaway, 1981). Despite their service under the King, they did not see themselves as slaves or mere servant of the King, but they saw a moral responsibility to serve him and they soon became more important than the aristocracy for extending royal power for this reason, this attitude can be seen in the claim “the Exchequer has evolved its rules not by hazard but by the deliberations and decisions of great men”(Douglas and Greenaway, 1981) which shows that they have a feeling that they are the “great men” who carry out the kings will and a content attitude to serve their highness.In France, a similar attitude was present, but not in the same capacity, the claim that “Hugh of St-Germain-des-Prés, Odo of St-Remi at Reims, Thomas and Macaire of Morigny, Alvise of Anchin, or Gilduin of St-Victor, were also expected to sit on commissions to decide ecclesiastical disputes, to undertake occasional ecclesiastical embassies, and to give council too their king” (Grant and Lesley, 1998, p.8) portraysthat while the French church served with the King they did not serve under the king, this representsthe Church as a very separate entity with its own rights andthat it can decide how and when to serve the king, unlike in England where they feel they have to do so. It is clear from this that England benefited from an extended reach in royal powersmore than France did thanks to the Church.

Finally, I will assess the Churches contribution to the extension of Royal Power through ‘physical’ means. In England, Rodger the Bishop and Randulf Flambard administered the country for “half a century”(Clanchy,1998, p.49)serving as the king’s guardians.They were instrumental in maintaining the long lasting system of Administrative Kingship so that the King could go and fight wars back home in France. For their service, ecclesiasticsgained the protection of the King as suggested by the claim that the king has to “preserve their rights, especially in matters not inconsistent with truth and honour”(Douglas and Greenaway, 1981). France had a similar system, but again, like I stated previously, the Church were working with the King not strictly for him. Suger of St Denis servedas regent in 1147 when Louis VII went on crusade and his main duties otherwise were to negotiate with their Anglo-Norman rivals and with the Popes (Grant and Lesley, 1998, p.8). In this case, both the English and French Churches served in vital positions for the Kings but just on different levels of authority but both were vital at extending royal power.

I deduct that the English kings extended their power through ‘physical’ and ‘theoretical’ practices involving government and the church. They did this very effectively, far more effectively than the disparate nature of France’s attempts to do the same thing. In conclusion, the English Kings superseded that of the French Kings abilities to extend royal power thanks to their superior methods in government andin using the church.


Clanchy, MT, (1998) “Chapter 3: Norman Government (1087-1135)”. T England and its rulers, 1066-1272: with and epilogue on Edward I (1272-1307), (p.47) Malden (Mass): Blackwell©

English Historical Documents II, 1042-1189, ed. D.C.Douglas and G.W. Greenaway, 2nd. edn. London, 1981, pp. 523-609

Grant, Lesley, (1998) “Chapter 1: Interpreting Suger”. Abbot Suger of St Denis: church and state in early twelth-century France, London: Longman

Suger, The Deeds of Louis the Fat, chapter 20, year: 1112, transl. R. Cusimano and J. Moorhead (Washington DC, 1992)

The Domesday Book Online(1999). Available online: [Accessed 11/11/2016].

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