The medieval period (1066-1485)

The successful Norman invasion of England in 1666 brought Britain into the mainstream of western European culture. Throughout this period the English kings also ruled over areas of land on the continent and were often at war with the French kings in disputes over ownership.

The Norman invasion was small-scale. The Norman soldiers who had been part of the invading army were given the ownership of land - and of the people living on it. A strict feudal system was imposed. Great nobles, or barons, were responsible directly to the king; lesser lords, each owing a village, were directly responsible to a baron. Under them were the peasants, tied by a strict system of mutual duties and obligations to the local lord, and forbidden to travel without his permission. The peasants were the English-speaking Saxons. The lords and the barons were the French-speaking Normans. This was the beginning of the English class system.

The strong system of government which the Normans introduced meant that the Anglo-Norman kingdom was easily the most powerful political force in the British Isles. The authority of the English monarch gradually extended to other parts of these islands in the next 250 years. By the end of the thirteenth century, a large part of eastern Ireland was controlled by Anglo-Norman lords in the name of the English king and the whole of Wales was under his direct rule. Scotland managed to remain politically independent in the medieval period, but was obliged to fight occasional wars to do so. The cultural story of this period is different. Two hundred and fifty years after the Norman Conquest, it was a Germanic language (Middle English) and not the Norman (French) language which had become the dominant one in all classes of society in England. It was the Anglo-Saxon concept of common law and not Roman law, which formed the basis of the legal system.

The political independence of Scotland did not prevent a gradual switch to English language and customs in the lowland part of the country. First, the Anglo-Saxon element here was strengthened by the arrival of many Saxon aristocrats fleeing the Norman conquest of England. Second, the Celtic kings saw that the adoption of an Anglo-Norman style of government would strengthen royal power. By the end of this period a cultural split had developed between the lowlands, where the way of life and language was similar to that in England, and the highlands, where (Celtic) Gaelic culture and language prevailed - and where, because of the mountainous landscape, authority of the king was hard to enforce.

In this period the Parliament began its gradual evolution into the democratic body which it is today.