J. Kelly Robison

Essay Exam Examples

The following question is not one students are likely to find on an exam. It is useful, however, as an example of a possible essay question. Whether or not you are studying European History or American History, the question itself is unimportant. What is important is what you can learn from reading the two sample essay answers to the question.

Many students often complain that they do not understand the criteria the professor uses to determine grades. First of all, the essay must answer the question posed by the exam. Secondly, the answer must be well organized. This means that it should following a standard essay format with an introduction that includes a thesis statement, followed by more in-depth analysis in the body of the essay. With these items in mind, read the following essay question, then read each of the two answers and determine which one would likely receive the higher grade.


Please write an essay around the following theme: "From 1066-1272, the Norman and Angevin kings laid the foundation of English self-government both by their strengths and by their weaknesses."

Essay A

The history of England as a nation-state began in 1066, at which time William of Normandy defeated Harold Godwinson at Hastings and established a modified feudal system. To begin the sweeping changes of the next few centuries, he used what was at hand to build the foundations of his government, and did so with strength and efficiency. Previously, the shires of Anglo-Saxon England had been governed by an earl, a bishop, and a sheriff acting through a semi-annual county court. William retained much of this local government but simplified the class system and legal system. He redistributed almost all the land among his supporters under four forms of feudal tenure: military, frankenmoin (church), socage (burgage in the towns), and sergeantry. He compiled an account of the people and lands of his realm in one of his greatest achievements, the Domesday Book. With the aid of his lawyer, Archbishop of Canterbury (Lanfranc), he even established control over the church. He made his curia regis, a council replacing the Anglo-Saxon witan, meet regularly, and in its meeting in 1086, William imposed the oath of premier loyalty to himself on all his mesne tenants.

Strong but lacking restraint, William's son, William II (Rufus, 1087-1100) trebled the crushing Danegeld tax and acquired Normandy from his brother Robert. Henry I (1100-1135) continued his predecessor's firm rule but was more cautious. In his Coronation Charter, he formally abandoned the cruel taxation of William Rufus and then established sufficient order to make the country safe for travelers. He developed a corps of officials within the curia, improved administration, and settled the investiture problem with the church (1107). Through his ability to select able servants, he became one of the greatest kings of England.

However, Henry's plan for his daughter Matilda's succession was defeated, after years of anarchy, by his nephew Stephen of Blois who ruled from 1135 to 1154. As a man he was chivalrous, but as a king weak. Through a treaty with Stephen, Henry Plantagenet succeeded to the throne when Stephen dies in 1154. The second son of Matilda, Henry II, was the first Angevin king of England.

Ruling until 1189, Henry II destroyed or brought under his control all unlicensed castles in his kingdom. His reign was highly successful in almost all areas except in the area of the relationship with the church. Implicated in the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury (1170), Henry was forced in the end to concede the full right of the church to punish clergy (Benefit of Clergy).

Richard the Lionhearted (1189-1199), despite his romantic character, should be listed among the weaker Angevin kings. His absentee reign was notable for the expense of his crusades, ransom, and war with Philip Augustus. Even so, it was John I (1199-1216) who represented the worst of Angevin weaknesses. It was during his reign, however, that the Magna Carta, the foundation of English liberty was signed. John was forced by barons, townsmen, and churchmen to fix his seal to the Charter on June 15, 1215. Containing sixty-three chapters, it granted rights to each of the classes that combined to secure it.

John's son, Henry III (1216-1272), succeeded to the throne when he was only nine years old. Henry III was a good man but not comparable to Henry I as a rule. Under him the Magna Carta was reissued in final form in 1225.

Thus it is clear that both the strong and weak Norman and Angevin kings took part in laying the foundations of English self-government.

Essay B

The strengths of Britain's rulers from 1066-1272, represented by the administrative abilities of William I, Henry I, and Henry II, developed the efficient machinery necessary to a modern state. Their major efforts were toward the strengthening of the royal position relative to other feudal elements, toward better finance, and toward the improvement of law and its enforcement. Profiting from his experience with European feudalism, William was careful to limit the power of the barons by scattering their lands and by making mesne tenants swear primary fealty to himself. At the local level he exploited the values of Anglo-Saxon shire government to dilute the power of the baron even at home and to extend civil law at the expense of ecclesiastical courts.

Henry I and his grandson Henry II exploited the resultant strength of the royal position. Their demands for more efficient collection of revenue created specialized officers from the curia regis, first in the secretarial area (chancery) and then in finance (the exchequer). For revenue, they tended more and more to by-pass feudal dues in favor of fees levied by their own officials from the public. All these moves resulted in a class of public servants who developed a certain autonomy and could carry on effective government even without the royal presence, as under Richard I.

It was primarily the efforts of these rulers to increase revenues that led to the improvement of law. To extend the king's law over the conflicting local, feudal, canon, merchant, and Roman civil systems, they employed resident royal justices in shires, writs, sworn inquests, and circuit courts, inventions which formed the foundations for the common law, trial by jury, and the grand jury.

The momentum of these institutional growths, continued through the reign of Henry III, included the development of coroners, justices of the peace, trial by jury, and the king's bench in the area of law; taxation of real and personal property, an income tax, poll tax (a failure) in finance; and a large expansion in record keeping.

The consequences of the weaknesses and corruption of other rulers in this period were indirect. The failure of Stephen to use the strength of the royal position to keep the peace taught the country the value of executive power, well used. The absence of Richard provided a vacuum in which the new bureaucracy could prove its capacity to stand on its own feet. It was, however, the rapacity of John which provided the stimulus for institutionalizing a power counter to the king's. The Magna Carta's greatest statement, institutionally, is its claim that the king is subject to law, not above it. It is this central idea, emerging in the reign of a weak and harassed king, that made British royalty an integral part of the strong government which William and the two Henrys had created for their own purposes.

Now that you have read each essay, which one answers the question? Which essay is best organized? Which essay states, up front, what the answer to the question is? Which essay uses only informatino pertinent to the question? When you have determined the answers to these questions, you are on your way to understanding how professors grade essays and writing better essays yourself.

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