Book Review: The Struggle For Mastery

The Struggle For Mastery: The Penguin History Of Britain 1066-1284, by David Carpenter

Between 1066 and 1284 there was a great deal of conflict within the British Isles over mastery. Through England had long been more powerful than the other realms within the isles, throughout this period there were a great many conflicts within as well as between different kingdoms, as kings, princes, local rulers, nobles, and even peasants sought to attain their ambitions through military, diplomatic, and political means. The beginning and end points of this book are definitely chosen with care, as there was a fundamental change in English behavior relative to its neighbors once England was ruled over by a militarily powerful Norman elite which long had French ties which connected them with continental affairs. One of the unfortunate effects of the extinguishing of English power in Normandy was the eventual intensification of English power within the British Isles, something which proved to be an unpleasant matter for the Irish, Welsh, and Scottish before too long. Although ultimately English supremacy over Ireland was highly contested throughout the next few centuries and England’s domination of Scotland was not immediately lasting, by the end of the 13th century England has a very mighty position within the British Isles, making it perhaps inevitable that they would eventually try their hand at domination of France, but that is the subject for another book, I suppose.

This book is more than 500 pages long but only has sixteen chapters, many of which are quite large. The book begins with a list of maps and genealogical tables, a preface, maps, as well as money, technical terms and names of people and places. After that the first couple of chapters discuss the different peoples (1) as well as economies of Britain (2) during the middle of the eleventh century when the book begins. After that comes a look at the Norman conquest of England between 1066 and 1087 (3) as well as the relationship between Wales, Scotland, and the Normans from 1058-1094 (4). This is followed by Britain’s relationship with the Anglo-Norman realm from 1087-1135 (5). After this there is a chapter on the remodeling of Britain during the troubled and anarchical reign of King Stephen, King David of Scotland, and the various Welsh rulers of the time (6). After this comes a discussion of King Henry II and the impact of his reign on both Britain and Ireland (7) as well as the reigns of Richard the Lionheart and William the Lion of Scotland (8). After this comes the reign of King John (9) as well as several chapters that discuss the minority of King Henry III and its sequel as well as the reigns of Llywelyn the Great and Alexander II of Scotland (10), Britain during the personal reign of Henry III (11), and the Tribulations of Henry III, the triumphs of Alexander the III and Llywelyn the Prince of Whales in the third quarter of the thirteenth century (12). After this the author discusses the structures of society during this period (13), church, religion, literacy, and learning (14), the Parliamentary state of Edward I (15), and conquest and coexistence in Wales and Scotland (16), after which the book ends with genealogical tables, a bibliography, and an index.

One of the things this book gets right is the way that it addresses a great many concerns and not only military and political history. Now, I do not think it should be a surprise that I greatly appreciate both military and political history, of which this book has a good deal of. But what elevates this book is that it views the military and political matters of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland in a context that includes a great many concerns that are less obvious but still of vital importance, including matters of economics, demography, and religion. All too often our understanding of the context of the history of the High Middle Ages, where this book takes place, is limited to a few names and dates, and this book really fleshes out the details and shows how the various realms of the British Isles were deeply interconnected with each other and how it was that the Isles themselves were connected to what was going on in continental Europe, at least to the extent that first the Welsh (unsuccessfully) and then the Scottish (more successfully) attempted to create an alliance with France to oppose English domination, and how it was that Edward I was able to pull off his taxation while John I was not, lessons which have a lot to teach students of history as well as students of the proper use of authority.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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