Many thanks to Janet Backhouse, editor of the Winchester Archaeology and Local History society (WARG) newsletter, for an illuminating review of my book, Myth of England. WARG was set up to protect the ancient artefacts of Winchester’s long history from damage by developers, but has since evolved to become the local amateur history society. Much of the important action of English history took place around Winchester. The capital of the Wessex earls, who came to rule England, it was also the first capital for the Norman kings, who took over the private lands of the Wessex earls as their personal fief. William II Rufus set out from Winchester on his final journey to meet the sharp end of an arrow in the New Forest. King John also set out from Winchester to go to Runymede to sign the Magna Carta. Henry V collected his treasure here before setting out for France on his fateful attempt to marry a French girl. The bishop of Winchester was traditionally the second richest man in England, with a diocese that stretched from the Channel port at Southampton to Southwark on the South Bank of the Thames. Janet’s own vast knowledge of Winchester history added a curious rhyme about King John, which given that it was written by my namesake, A. A. Milne, I should have known, but didn’t.
Whilst history has always been written by the victors, this is the story of a period of 500 years when Monarchs, mainly not English, inflicted swingeing taxation on the populace. At school, I was taught a great deal about the glories of Monarchs and battles won, but never about the infrastructure which supported these – often tyrants – and how they demanded money to fund their exploits, subsequently, often deliberately ruining their creditors to avoid honouring repayment agreements. With the Domesday Book auditing taxation and the Bayeux Tapestry (actually an embroidery probably worked in Canterbury) showing justification for taxation, the lower classes were in for a rough time. William saw
himself as the First King of England, Rex dei gratia, not by election.
We know of William ‘The Conqueror’ defeating King Harold but, not of the apparent enigma. Did you know he never insulted Harold’s memory, hailing him for his bravery? He also banned slavery and capital punishment in England, although castration was permitted, and slaves did not pay taxes anyway!! All this whilst taking from the poor English and giving to the rich Normans, creating an organized system of taxation.
William must also have seen the many advantages of keeping Winchester as the seat of government, building a Castle and Cathedral church. Meanwhile, the Bishop of Winchester levied taxation on merchants by locking the city gates, where he stationed his tax collectors during the sixteen days of St. Giles Fair, and also legislating that no private sales of goods were to be made within seven leagues of the city during that time.
Henry II decided the amount of an amercement (fine) not on the merit of the ‘crime’ but dependent on how much money he needed at the time. A.A. Milne tells us that ‘King John was not a good man – he had his little ways’, and his brother, Richard (The Lionheart) was not the movie hero depicted, but so aggressive and disliked, to the extent his brother offered a ransom, not to have him released from captivity, but to keep him there!
It was not until 1362, when the Statute of Pleading made English the official language for Parliament, that all nobles and the king were required to speak English well enough to conduct official business. It is thought that Henry IV (1367-1413) reigning from 1399, 333 years after the battle of Hastings, was the first English king to speak English as his first language.
Had I more space I would happily continue to add snippets of little known information, such as the precipitation of a supply chain crisis by Edward III, in requisitioning all ships, but I recommend you read it for yourselves.