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Rise of Nat'l States



Between 1050 and 1300 (a period sometimes called the High Middle Ages), political as well as economic and social change was evident in Europe.  Major trends included:

A revival of TRADE

The growth of CITIES

The growth of a new MIDDLE CLASS

An increase in the POWER OF KINGS at the expense of the feudal nobility.

Because FEUDALISM could not meet the demands of a new and progressive society in the making, it was on the decline.

The greatest weakness of feudalism was ITS INABILITY TO GUARANTEE LAW AND ORDER

For example, ruffians could enter a village and demand protection money from the peasants.

Feudalism provided no consistently effective agency to deal with such ruffians.

The inefficiency inherent in the feudal system also HINDERED ECONOMIC PROGRESS.

Trade and commerce spread over ever larger areas, but the boundaries of many tiny feudal principalities acted as barriers to this expansion.

Along the Seine River, for example, there were tolls every six or seven miles.

 The ills of feudalism could be cured only by the creation of unified and centralized NATIONAL  STATES. The creation of these large territorial units would:

Remove the irritating tolls and tariffs imposed by local barons.

Advance trade.

Make a uniform currency possible.

Establish justice.

The Norman Conquest

In 1066, the death of the childless Anglo-Saxon ruler Edward the Confessor gave the duke of Normandy a HEREDITARY CLAIM to the English throne.

The Anglo-Saxon assembly, however, denied this claim and chose Harold Godwirisson as king.

This triggered the swift CONQUEST OF ENGLAND by the powerful Normans.

William was crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey, both by right of heredity (Edward's mother was a Norman) and by right of conquest.

 William the Conqueror
As king, WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR (r.1066-1087) directed all of his policies at a single goal -- the increase of his own power within the context of feudalism.

He introduced the Norman system of CENTRALIZED FEUDALISM into England by requiring all nobles to become his vassals and to swear an oath of allegiance directly to him.

He modified the old Anglo-Saxon system of government by adding local courts, sheriffs, and commissioners (inspectors and tax collectors) who were RESPONSIBLE TO THE CROWN.

He increased his power by requiring all freemen of England to bear arms for the king so that he did not have to rely on his nobles' armies. (If a noble revolted against the king, William had his OWN ARMY to crush the rebellion.)

He ordered an accurate census of the property and property-holders in his realm (known as the DOOMSDAY BOOK) as a basis for collecting all the feudal dues owed him.

 Henry II
After the Norman kings (William and the three kings who ruled after him), England came under the rule of HENRY II (r. 1154-1189), the founder of the Plantagenet dynasty.

 His chief contribution to the development of the English monarchy was to increase the jurisdiction of the ROYAL COURTS at the expense of the feudal courts. This produced three major results:

A permanent system of CIRCUIT COURTS presided over by itinerant justices.


A body of law common to all England (COMMON LAW)

 The Magna Carta
Henry II's youngest son, JOHN (r 1199-1216), was considered by his nobles to be a cruel and unscrupulous king.

In 1215, his nobles rebelled against his rule and forced him to agree to the Magna Carta

This document bound the king to observe all feudal rights and privileges.

 The importance of the MAGNA CARTA is not in its original purpose but in the potential it held for  future expression of these two principles:

The king is not above the law

The king can be compelled by force to obey the law of the land.

By the late 900's the name France referred only to A SMALL REGION AROUND PARIS. What was vaguely thought of as a kingdom was really just a group of feudal states. Consequently, France lagged far behind England in developing a national state.

 The Capetian Kings
Beginning in 987, with HUGH CAPET, the Capetian Kings tried to gain more strength than the nobles.

 LOUIS VI (r. 1108-1137) gained full control over his royal lands (the ile de France) and put down the barons who threatened his power.

 His grandson, PHILIP II AUGUSTUS (r. 1l80-l223), became more powerful than any of his vassals and won Normandy, Anjou, and other English holdings in France from King John.

 LOUIS IX (r. 1226-1270) set up a system of royal courts, outlawed private wars and trial by combat, endeavored to hear personally his subjects' problems and complaints, but did not seek prior consent of his council before issuing edicts.

The unification of SPAIN was a more complex process than that of either England or France.

The customary rivalry between the feudal aristocracy and the royal authority was complicated by another significant element -- a religious crusade.

Unity required the EJECTION OF THE MUSLIMS, with their alien religion and civilization.

Unity also called for the INTEGRATION of several distinct Christian states.

 The process would not be completed until the 15th century.  However, by the end of the 13th century, Moorish political control was confined to Granada.

Although they had initial success in building a strong state at home, the German kings dissipated their energies by seeking to possess Italy and the dream of empire.

For hundreds of years German rulers pursued this objective.

In the face of resistance from the Italian cities, the treachery of the German nobles, and the opposition of the papacy, the GERMAN KINGS FAILED TO ACHIEVE THEIR GOAL.

 In both GERMANY AND ITALY after 1250, DISUNITY AND WEAKNESS PREVAILED. National unification was delayed until the 19th century. 



Send mail to Dr. Edrene S. Montgomery  with questions or comments about this web site.
Copyright 1999-2000 Edrene S. Montgomery
Last modified: October 31, 1999