A History of England in the Middle Ages

By Tim Lambert

William, Duke of Normandy, was crowned King of England on 25 December 1066. However, at first, his position was by no means secure. He had only several thousand men to control a population of about 2 million. Furthermore, Swein, king of Denmark also claimed the throne of England. At first, the Normans were hated and they had to hold down a resentful Saxon population.

One method the Normans used to control the Saxons was building castles. They erected a mound of earth called a motte. On top, they erected a wooden stockade. Around the bottom, they erected another stockade. The area within was called the bailey so it was called a motte and bailey castle.

The Normans soon began building stone castles. In 1078 William began building the Tower of London. William stayed in Normandy from March to December 1067. When he returned to England his first task was to put down an uprising in the Southwest. He laid siege to Exeter. Eventually, the walled town surrendered on honorable terms.

Although Southern England was now under Norman control the Midlands and North were a different matter. In 1068 William marched north through Warwick and Nottingham to York. The people of York submitted to him- for the moment and William returned to London via Cambridge and York.

However, in January 1069 the people of Yorkshire and Northumberland rebelled. William rushed north and crushed the rebellion However the rising in the north fanned the flames of rebellion elsewhere. There were local risings in Somerset and Dorset. There was also a rebellion in the West Midlands. Furthermore, a Saxon called Edgar, the grandson of Edmund Ironside, a previous Saxon ruler led a force of Irishmen to North Devon. However local Norman commanders crushed the uprisings and drove out the Irish.

It was not over yet. In the autumn of 1069, King Sweyn of Denmark sent an expedition to England. When the Danes arrived in Yorkshire the local people rose in rebellion once again. William marched north and captured York. The Danes withdrew from northern England. This time William adopted a scorched earth policy. William was determined there would not be any more rebellions in the north. In 1069-1070 his men burned houses, crops, and tools between the Humber and Durham. They also slaughtered livestock. There followed years of famine in the north when many people starved to death. This terrible crime was called the harrying of the north and it took the north of England years to recover.

Meanwhile, the Danes sailed south. They plundered Peterborough and took the Isle of Ely as a base. Many Saxons joined the Danes. These Saxon rebels were led by a man called Hereward the Wake.

However, in June 1070 King William made a treaty with King Sweyn and the Danes left. The Saxons kept on fighting in the Fens but by 1071 they were forced to surrender. Hereward escaped. William was now in control of all of England

After the Norman Conquest, almost all Saxon nobles lost their land. William confiscated it and gave it to his followers. They held their land in return for providing soldiers for the king for so many days a year. William also changed the church in England. In those days the church was rich and powerful and the king needed its support. William replaced senior Saxon clergymen with men loyal to himself. Lanfranc, an Italian, replaced Stigand, the Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury. (With the agreement of the Pope). Lanfranc then deposed Saxon bishops and abbots and replaced them with Normans. Among the lower ranks of society, there were also changes. In the late Saxon times, the peasants were losing their freedom. This process continued under the Normans. On the other hand, slavery declined. (It died out by the middle of the 12th century).

In 1085 William decided to carry out a huge survey of his kingdom to find out how much wealth it contained. The result was the Domesday Book of 1086. William died in 1087 and he was succeeded by his son, also called William (he is sometimes called William Rufus because of his reddish complexion). His brother Robert became Duke of Normandy. William the Conqueror was a ruthless man. However, a writer of the time did say this about him; ‘he kept good law’. The eleventh century was a lawless age when a strong ruler who kept order was admired.

Rufus was not a supporter of the church and was deeply unpopular with the clergy. Among other things, they criticized him and his courtiers for having long hair. (In his father’s day short hair was the fashion). The clergy thought long hair was effeminate.

However, in many ways, Rufus was a capable king. Under him, the barons were in an awkward position because most of them held land in Normandy as well as in England. Many of them wanted a single man to rule both. So in 1088, there was a rebellion in eastern England. The rebels hoped to dispose of Rufus and make his brother Robert ruler of both England and Normandy. However, Rufus crushed the rebellion. A second rebellion in 1095 was also crushed.

Meanwhile, Rufus captured the area we now call Cumbria from the Scots (until his reign it was part of Scotland). Rufus also forced the Scottish king to submit to him as his feudal overlord. William Rufus was hit by an arrow while hunting in the New Forest. We will never know for certain if it was an accident or (as seems more likely) he was murdered.

Following the ‘accidental’ death of William Rufus his brother Henry seized the royal treasure in Winchester and was crowned king of England. His brother Robert became Duke of Normandy. Henry, I was born in 1068 and he was well educated. When he seized the throne he issued a charter promising to rule justly. He also gained favor with his Saxon subjects by marrying Edith, a descendant of Edmund Ironside. Very importantly he also had the support of the church.

Henry proved to be a capable monarch. He also had many illegitimate children but he only had one legitimate son called William. In 1119 the king of France recognized William as the heir to the English throne and heir to the Dukedom of Normandy. However, William drowned in 1120 when his ship, the white ship, sank. Henry was left without an heir. Before he died in 1135 Henry made the barons promise to accept his daughter Matilda as queen.

However when Henry died in 1135 his nephew Stephen also claimed the throne and many barons supported him. Matilda was abroad when her father died and Stephen was crowned king of England. Yet Matilda would not give up her claim to the throne and she had many supporters too. As a result, a long civil war began which went on till 1154. These years were called the ‘nineteen long winters’. Fighting only ended when, shortly before his death, Stephen agreed to recognize Matilda’s son Henry as his heir. Following Stephen’s death in 1154 Matilda’s son became King Henry II. He proved to be a strong and capable ruler.

Henry II was the first Plantagenet king. He was born at Le Mans in France in 1133. He was a highly educated man known for his violent temper. However, Henry did not just rule England. He also ruled large parts of France. From 1150 he was Duke of Normandy. From 1151 he was Count of Anjou. By marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine he became the lord of that part of France. Later he also became ruler of Brittany. As an adult, Henry spent more time in France than he did in England.

Henry proved to be a strong king. During the long civil war, many barons built illegal castles. Henry had them demolished. Furthermore, Henry reformed the law. He appointed judges who traveled around the country holding trials called assizes for serious offenses. However, clergymen had the right to be tried in their own courts. The penalties were often very lenient. Henry felt that was unfair and he tried to force the clergy to allow themselves to be tried in his courts. Not surprisingly they resisted. So Henry made his friend Thomas Becket Archbishop of Canterbury. However, as soon as Becket was appointed he refused to submit to the king’s wishes.

According to tradition in 1170, while Henry was in Normandy he lost his temper and shouted ‘will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’. Four knights took him at his word and they went to England and killed Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. Public opinion was horrified by the murder. Eventually, Henry was forced to do penance. He walked barefoot through Canterbury while monks lashed his bareback.

Henry also had trouble with his sons because he refused to give them any real power. In 1173-74 Henry faced a rebellion by his four eldest sons assisted by their mother. Henry put down the rebellions and he forgave his sons. However, his wife was held a prisoner for the rest of Henry’s reign. In 1189 Henry faced another rebellion. This time his youngest son, John joined the rebellion. That broke his heart and Henry died in 1189.

Clifford’s Tower in York

Richard I was born in 1157. In his own time, he was a popular king because he was a successful warrior. However, he neglected his kingdom to fight in foreign wars.

Saladin had captured Jerusalem in 1187 and Richard was determined to win it back. He left England as soon as he could in 1190. He arrived in the Holy Land in 1191. Richard had some success but he failed to capture Jerusalem, the main prize. In 1192 he made a treaty with Saladin. However, on his journey home, he was imprisoned by the Duke of Austria. Richard’s subjects were forced to pay a huge ransom to release him (in 1194). After his release, Richard returned to England but he soon left for Normandy. He never saw England again. While besieging a castle Richard was hit by a crossbow bolt. He died in 1199 and was followed by his brother John.

King John proved to be a failure. Between 1202 and 1204 the king of France managed to capture most of the lands in France held by John. Afterward, John was given the nickname Soft Sword. He also, in 1205, began an argument with the Pope over who should be the new Archbishop of Canterbury, John’s choice or the Pope’s. As a result in 1208, the Pope placed England under an interdict, which meant that religious services could not be held. In 1209 he excommunicated John. Finally, in 1213, John was forced to submit.

Meanwhile, John alienated many of his subjects. They claimed that he ruled like a tyrant ignoring feudal law. He was accused of extorting money from people, selling offices, increasing taxes, and creating new ones whenever he wished. Matters came to a head after John tried to recapture his lost lands in France in 1214 but failed. The baron’s patience was exhausted. Finally in 1215 civil war broke out.

In June 1215 John was forced to accept a charter known as Magna Carta. The charter was meant to stop the abuses. It stated that the traditional rights and privileges of the church must be upheld. It also protected the rights and privileges of the aristocracy. Merchants who lived in towns were also mentioned. However ordinary people were overlooked.

Yet Magna Carta did uphold an important principle. English kings could not rule arbitrarily. They had to obey English laws and English customs the same as other men. Furthermore, the Magna Carta laid down that no free man could be arrested, imprisoned, or dispossessed without the lawful judgment of his peers or due process of law.

John had no intention of keeping the terms of the Magna Carta so he appealed to the Pope. On 24 August 1215, the Pope declared the Magna Carta invalid. The result was a civil war in England. barons invited a French prince to come and rule England. However, John conveniently died in October 1216. After his death, the Magna Carta was reissued.

John was succeeded by his nephew Henry. He was crowned in great haste in Gloucester by the Bishop of Winchester. (The Archbishop of Canterbury was in Rome). Henry III was only 9 years old in 1216 and at first two regents ruled on his behalf. The first problem was the French prince Louis, who had been invited by rebel barons to come and be king of England. However, in 1217 Louis was forced to leave.

Henry began to rule in his own right in 1227 and he soon alienated the barons by ignoring their traditional rights and privileges. Worse, in 1254 the pope was fighting in Sicily. Henry III offered to fund the pope’s wars if the pope agreed to let his son, Edmund, become king of Sicily. The pope agreed but Henry failed to provide the promised money.

In 1258 he turned to his barons for help. They were infuriated by his scheming and refused to do anything unless Henry agreed to a new charter known as the Provisions of Oxford. At first, Henry reluctantly agreed but in 1260 he renounced the provisions. Civil war resulted and in 1264 rebels led by Simon de Montfort defeated and captured the king at the battle of Lewes. They also captured his eldest son Edward. Simon de Montfort called a parliament made up of representatives from each county and each borough. It was the first English parliament.

However, Edward escaped and in 1265 he defeated the barons at the Battle of Evesham in Worcestershire. By then Henry was becoming senile so Edward took control of the government until his father died in 1272. Although he was not a great king politically Henry III was a patron of the arts. He rebuilt Westminster Abbey. Furthermore, during his reign, England’s first university, Oxford, was founded.

Edward I was 33 when he became king. He had already taken part in a crusade in 1270-71 and was gaining a reputation as a warrior. However, Edward was determined to rule not only England but also all of Britain. Llewellyn the Prince of Wales was summoned to pay homage to King Edward several times but each time he made some excuse. In 1276 Edward declared him a rebel and sent an army to Wales. In 1277 Llewellyn was forced to accept a peace treaty by which he lost much of his territory. In 1282 the Welsh rebelled but in 1283 the rebellion was crushed and Edward became the ruler of Wales. In 1301 Edward made his son Prince of Wales.

In 1290 Edward expelled all Jews from England. Also in 1290, Queen Eleanor died at Harby in Nottinghamshire. Edward erected crosses at each of the places where her coffin rested on its way to Westminster Abbey.

In 1286 King Alexander III of Scotland died. His heir was his 2-year-old granddaughter. However, she died in 1290 leaving the Scottish throne vacant. There were two claimants, John Balliol, and Robert Bruce. King Edward (also known as Longshanks because of his height) offered to mediate and decide who should rule. He chose John Balliol. However, Edward was determined to make the Scottish king his vassal. Naturally, the Scots objected. So in 1296, Edward invaded Scotland. He defeated the Scots and deposed John. William Wallace led another rebellion in Scotland in 1297 but he was captured and executed in 1305.

Meanwhile, in England, Edward called the model parliament in 1290. As well as lords it contained 2 knights from each shire and 2 representatives of each borough. Edward I died of dysentery in 1307. He was 68.

From the start, Edward II alienated the barons by showering gifts and honors on his favourite Piers Gaveston. As soon as he became king Edward made Gaveston Earl of Cornwall (a title with rich estates). Normally a member of the royal family was given the title and the barons were very annoyed. Furthermore, in 1307 Gaveston married the king’s niece.

In 1308 Edward II married Princess Isabella of France in Boulogne. However, before he left the country for France Edward made Gaveston regent to rule England in his absence. Twice the barons forced Edward to banish Gaveston but both times he returned. Finally, in 1312 some barons kidnapped Gaveston and had him beheaded. In 1314 Edward II suffered a total defeat at the hands of the Scots at Bannockburn. The battle assured Scottish independence and in 1323 Edward was forced to make a truce with the Scots.

Finally, Edward alienated the barons by having an affair with a young man called Hugh Despenser. Isabella fled to France. With her lover Roger Mortimer, a rebel English Earl she plotted her husband’s downfall. In 1326 Isabella and Roger led an army from France. The English people welcomed them. Hugh Despenser was hung, drawn, and quartered and King Edward II was made a prisoner. In January 1327 Edward abdicated in favor of his son.

Meanwhile, on 1 February 1327, his son Edward III was crowned. However, he did not rule until 1330 when he staged a coup. In October, with friends, he entered Nottingham Castle through a secret tunnel. He entered his mother’s bedroom and arrested her lover Mortimer.

In 1337 Edward claimed the throne of France. War began in 1338. The French raided Southampton. Then on 24 July 1340, the English annihilated the French fleet off Sluys. English longbowmen rained arrows down on the French sailors. Men with swords, axes, and spears fought hand to hand. To finance his wars the king had to raise taxes and to do that he needed parliament’s co-operation. As a result, parliament became more powerful during his reign. In 1340 the Commons and the Lords began meeting separately.

Edward continued to have success in war. On 26 August 1346, the French were severely defeated at Crecy. Then on 17 October 1346, the Scots were severely defeated at Neville’s Cross near Durham. The English army was led by William La Zouche, Archbishop of York, and David II of Scotland was captured.

In 1348-49 disaster struck. The Black Death reached England and it killed about 1/3 of the population. Afterward, there was a severe shortage of labor and as a result, wages rose. Men began to move from village to village to get better wages, undermining the institution of serfdom. Parliament tried to peg wages at their 1349 level. The measure did not work and only caused resentment among the peasants.

One of the victims of the plague was the king’s daughter, Princess Joan, who died in Bordeaux. The Black Death was no respecter of persons. Despite his loss, King Edward continued to beat the French. On 19 September 1346, the English won another decisive victory at Poitiers and the French king was captured. In 1360 the French were made to accept a humiliating peace treaty and pay a ransom for their king. Finally, Edward III died in 1377. He was 65.

Richard II was just 10 years old when he was crowned.

In 1381 he was faced with the peasants’ revolt. It was sparked off by a poll tax. On 13 June the rebels marched on London and sympathizers opened the gates to them. The king and his ministers took refuge in the Tower of London while the rebels opened the prisons and looted the house of John of Gaunt, an unpopular noble. On 14 June the king met the rebels at Moorfield and made them various promises, none of which he kept.

The next day the king went to mass at Westminster and while he was away the rebels broke into the Tower of London and killed the Archbishop of Canterbury and several royal officials who had taken refuge there. They confronted the king on his way back from mass. The mayor of London stabbed the leader of the rebels, Wat Tyler fearing he was going to attack the king. Afterward, the king managed to calm the rebels and persuaded them to go home by making various promises. The rebels demanded the end of serfdom. At first, the king promised to grant it. However, as soon as the rebels dispersed he broke all his promises. About 200 of the ringleaders were hanged. However, serfdom continued to decline of its own accord and by the 15th century, it had virtually disappeared.

The powerful men in England hated Richard’s close friends. In 1388 the so-called Merciless Parliament had several of them executed. However, in 1397 Richard II got his revenge. He executed two of his enemies. In 1398 he banished Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Hereford. However, in 1398 Richard went to Ireland and while he was away Bolingbroke staged a coup. Richard II was deposed in 1399 and Bolingbroke then became Henry IV.

Henry IV reigned until 1413. It was a troubled reign. Henry IV faced a major revolt in Wales at the beginning of the 15th century, which he eventually crushed.

His son, Henry V, succeeded him. This king claimed the throne of France and in 1415 he went to war. On 25 October 1415, the English won a decisive victory at Agincourt. In 1416 the Battle of the Seine gave the English control of the Channel. Henry was a hero to his people. however, he was cruel. He used cruelty to try and force the French into submission. In 1418 Henry captured Caen and his men massacred 2,000 civilians. Henry once said ‘War without fire is like sausage without mustard.

In 1419 Henry V captured Rouen, the capital of Normandy and by the treaty of Troyes, 1420, he was recognized as heir to the French throne. However, Henry died in 1422. After his death, the French began to win the war. In 1429 Joan of Arc lifted the siege of Orleans. This proved to be a turning point and afterward, English fortunes waned. In 1443 Henry VI sent the Duke of Somerset to France with an army and told him to use ‘most cruel and mortal war’. However, by 1453 the English had been driven out of all of France except Calais.

Worse England was plunged into a series of civil wars called the Wars of the Roses. In 1454 Edward VI was mentally ill and was incapable of ruling. The Duke of York became regent. However, at the end of 1454 Edward VI recovered and in January 1455 York was forced to step down as regent.

However, York was unwilling to give up power and he gathered an army. On 22 May 1455, the forces of York (known as Yorkists) and the forces of the King (known as Lancastrians) fought a battle at St Albans. Afterward, the king was taken prisoner and the Yorkists ruled in his name. (The Yorkist symbol was the white rose and the Lancastrian symbol was the red rose hence the name of the wars).

However, in 1459 the queen gathered an army to fight the Yorkists. The two sides clashed in September 1459. Afterward, the Yorkists took Ludlow. However, when they were offered a pardon most of the Yorkist soldiers deserted and their leaders fled abroad. In November 1459 Parliament condemned the Yorkist leaders as traitors (meaning the crown would confiscate their property).

Not surprisingly the Yorkist leaders returned to England with an army in June 1460. They landed at Sandwich and many people in Kent and London went over to their side. They fought a battle at Northampton on 10 July 1460 and captured Henry VI. However, in 1461 Queen Margaret, Henry’s wife won a battle at Wakefield on 30 December 1460. The Duke of York was killed. Edward of March took over the Yorkist cause and he proclaimed himself Edward IV on 4 March 1461. He won a great victory at Towton on 29 March 1461 and for some years his rule was secure.

However, Edward alienated his supporter the Earl of Warwick (The Kingmaker) by not allowing him enough power. Warwick turned against him and won a battle at Edgecote on 26 July 1469. In 1470 Edward was forced to flee abroad but he returned the next year. Yorkists and Lancastrians fought at Tewkesbury on 4 May 1471. The battle proved to be a great Yorkist victory. Afterward, Edward ruled unchallenged until he died in 1483.

He was succeeded by his 12-year-old son Edward V. However before he could be crowned the Bishop of Bath and Wells announced that his parent’s marriage was invalid. Edward was therefore illegitimate and he could not inherit the throne. Both Edward and his younger brother Richard were imprisoned in the tower and later murdered.

Meanwhile, the throne was offered to his uncle who became Richard III. However, Richard’s position was undermined when his only son Eustace died. Henry Tudor landed in Wales and led his army to Bosworth Field where Richard III was killed in battle. A new dynasty began.

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