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Lackland: The Loss of Normandy in 1215

Lackland: The Loss of Normandy in 1215

By Nick Barratt

History Today,  Vol. 54:3 (2004)

Introducton: Britons are drawn to events when their independence and freedom have been under threat, yet overwhelming odds have been defied. The Second World War brought the evacuation of the Dunkirk beaches, the Battle of Britain and D-Day. Victories at Trafalgar and Waterloo safeguarded Britain from Napoleon. The defeat of the Spanish Armada cemented the reputation of Queen Elizabeth. The dates we remember most are usually linked with triumph, or at least the aversion of disaster. In contrast one of the most important dates in English history – one which represents one of the greatest catastrophes ever to befall an English monarch – has been airbrushed from national consciousness.

Eight hundred years ago, in 1204, the political map of Western Europe was redrawn in the space of a few months when John, king of England and ruler of territories covering roughly two-thirds of modern France, was expelled from most of these continental lands by the French king, Philip Augustus. The consequences of this humiliating defeat still reverberate, particularly in relations between the English and their neighbours in the British Isles, attitudes to continental Europe, lingering concepts of British imperialism, and the significance of Magna Carta as a symbol of human rights. I believe this humbling defeat should be seen as a key turning point.

The kings of England from 1066 considered themselves first and foremost as landowners in Normandy and nominal subjects of the King of France but who, as a result of William the Conqueror’s invasion, had also acquired a royal title and access to England’s riches. The relative unimportance of England to them is illustrated by William’s division of his lands before his death in 1087; his eldest son Robert received the Duchy of Normandy, while his second son William Rufus took the secondary prize, becoming William II of England. Nevertheless, the fledgling Anglo-Norman realm was re-united under one ruler, when the Conqueror’s third son Henry I inherited England after Rufus’s death in 1100 and then defeated and imprisoned his brother Robert at the battle of Tinchebrai in 1106. A cross-Channel aristocracy developed, holding lands in both territories and having a vested interest in keeping them united in one ruler.

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