Writers in England in the twelfth century displayed national prejudices with no sign of shame. For the mid-twelfth-century author of the Deeds of King Stephen, Scotland was a potentially wealthy land, but its inhabitants were brutal, barbaric, and 'filthy'. The English could be equally unpopular with others, and were also criticised by their own: 'the English are noted among foreigners for their persistent drinking' wrote the learned John of Salisbury. Such a capacity to identify and contrast peoples by distinguishing characteristics is a feature of a sense of national identity.
Yet such developing views are the more striking because England had been conquered twice in half a century, in 1016 by the Scandinavian Cnut, in 1066 by the Norman William the Conqueror. For much of the next century and a half England, and to a lesser extent the rest of the British Isles, would remain part of an assemblage of lands spanning the English Channel. And if the assemblage had a centre, that centre was Rouen, in Normandy.
How, then, did the identity of the English emerge, given the imposition in 1066 of a continental governing class? Some, such as William the Conqueror's archbishop of Canterbury, said they hoped to learn to be Englishmen. However, such immediate and deliberate adoption of a culture - even if it was whole-hearted - appears uncommon. Rather the assimilation was more gradual, and had many causes of which the following are just three. In part, assimilation resulted from aristocratic families dividing their lands between different branches, with separate English and Continental branches developing. In part it stemmed from inter-marriage with the English. In the late 1170s the royal treasurer could write that 'with the English and Normans living side-by-side and intermarrying, the peoples have become so mingled that no-one can tell - as far as free men are concerned - who is of English and who of Norman descent.' And in part it derived from process whereby the inhabitants of England distinguished themselves from those in less economically developed parts of the British Isles, who were condemned as ecclesiastically, socially, and culturally backward.
At the same time, other elements we might suppose to be characteristic of national identity were absent. Land-holding crossed borders, not just between England and Normandy but also between England and Scotland - the contenders for the Scottish throne the 1290s were descendants of major Anglo-Scottish families. Language was still less an indicator of identity. The supposedly barbarous twelfth-century Welsh lord might display feats of multilingualism which few today could rival - with knowledge of Welsh, French, English, and perhaps Latin. French indeed unified the aristocracies from the Capetian realm of France to southern Scotland. It was in French that much of their entertainment literature was written, for example the great epic The Song of Roland, the earliest manuscript of which has an English origin.
Wealth, lordship and political control
Ely Cathedral, a grand example of Norman architecture
In the mid-1180s the monks of Abingdon Abbey accused their hated custodian of, amongst other wrongs, economic illiteracy. He had stated that not all the oats in Berkshire could supply the monks' horses. To this the monks replied 'that the house of Abingdon is always rich in good wheat, and he who has wheat can buy oats'. The economy of England had been growing at least from the tenth century, and was characterised by increasing markets and growing towns. By the twelfth century, one of the ways in which English writers disparaged other peoples, notably the Welsh and Irish, was to depict their economies as primitive, as lacking markets, exchange and towns. At the same time, kings and lords deliberately sought to stimulate the wealth of their country, as can be most clearly seen by the introduction of coinage and the establishment of boroughs by David I of Scotland and his successors.
Within such an economy, there was clearly room for men to rise by increasing wealth. At the same time, it remained a notably hierarchic society, and the process of Conquest itself strengthened the role of lordship. Domesday Book, the product of William I's great survey of his realm in 1086, shows that the eleven leading members of the aristocracy held about one quarter of the realm. Another quarter was in the hands of fewer than two hundred other aristocrats.
These nobles had received their lands by royal grant, and in turn gave some of their lands to their own followers. Such a form of land-holding is often regarded as an element of feudalism, a form of social organisation once routinely held to have been introduced by the Normans in 1066. In recent years there has been considerable debate about the problems arising from the use of the term 'feudal', a debate wittily foreseen by the great Victorian historian, F. W. Maitland, who stated that '"Feudalism" is a useful word, and will cover a multitude of ignorances.' Nevertheless, whatever the wider problems of writing of 'feudalism', the process of Norman conquest and settlement did tie closely together a variety of types of lordship - regarding protection, service, and jurisdiction - and linked them to the bond of land tenure, the holding of what men at the time referred to as a feudum or fief.
The strength of lordship could result in royal weakness and the break-up of large-scale political control. This had happened in areas of France during the eleventh century and in England during civil war of the reign of King Stephen, 1135-54. Yet it would be wrong to see aristocracy and king, lordship and kingship as necessarily opposed. In the first place, kings were lords, and exploited the common powers of lordship as well as their own peculiar royal rights. Secondly, kings and lords often regarded one another as their natural companions, engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship. And thirdly, in England both kings and aristocrats continued to operate in political and judicial arenas other than those defined by lordship. Most notable amongst these were the counties or shires which the Normans inherited from the Anglo-Saxons. The long endurance of these, still important to the present day, contrasts with developments in many continental areas. In their self-interested preservation of the machinery of Anglo-Saxon government, the new Norman rulers did learn to be English, and in so doing helped to determine the future political and administrative development of their conquered lands.