“Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” is a quote attributed to Henry II of England that preceded the death of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. The quote is also expressed as “turbulent priest” or “meddlesome priest“. The king’s words were misinterpreted as an order, prompting four knights from Normandy […]
England in the Middle Ages
England in the Middle Ages concerns the history of England during the medieval period, from the end of the 5th century through to the start of the Early Modern period in 1485.
When England emerged from the collapse of the Roman Empire, the economy was in tatters and many of the towns abandoned. After several centuries of Germanic immigration, new identities and cultures began to emerge, developing into predatory kingdoms that competed for power. A rich artistic culture flourished under the Anglo-Saxons, producing epic poems such as Beowulf and sophisticated metalwork.
Withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain was followed by invasions of the barbarian peoples (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians) who occupied about one half of the British Isles by the end of the 6th century. Barbarian invasions resulted in the formation of seven Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms also known as the Heptarchy: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex although there were other political units as well which played more important role than it was previously thought.
The Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity in the 7th century and a network of monasteries and convents were built across England.
Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex eventually became predominant over other kingdoms but Wessex subdued Mercia and Northumbria during the reign of Egbert of Wessex (802-839). However, the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms were unable to withstand the Danish invasions which started at the end of the 8th century and resulted in the establishment of Danelaw in today’s northern and eastern England.
In the 8th and 9th centuries England faced fierce Viking attacks, and the fighting lasted for many decades, establishing Wessex as the most powerful kingdom and promoting the growth of an English identity. Despite repeated crises of succession and a Danish seizure of power at the start of the 11th century, by the 1060s England was a powerful, centralised state with a strong military and successful economy.
Successors of Alfred the Great, Ethelred and Edmund continued his policy and won back the lost territories. Edmund took possession of Northumbria in 927 and became the first king to have direct rule over all England. His successor Edgar (959-975) managed to unify England and was also recognized overlord by the kings of Scotland and Wales. However, the Danish invasions were renewed at the end of the 10th century.
Danish king Canute the Great conquered England and crowned himself King of England in 1016. The Saxon royal family lived in exile in Normandy during the period of Danish rule but returned to England in 1042. The sons of Canute the Great turned out to be incapable and the English throne was taken over by Edward the Confessor.
He ruled England from 1042 until his death in 1066 but he was unable to assert his authority over the powerful earls and barons. The most powerful was Godwin, Earl of Wessex whose son Harold was chosen King of England after Edward’s death in 1066.
The successor of Edward the Confessor, Harold II managed to defeat Harald III of Norway who claimed the English throne at The Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. However, he was decisively defeated in the Battle of Hastings by William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy in the same year.
William the Conqueror continued the conquest of England until 1071 when he put down the last resistance. England became deeply influenced by the Norman-French culture.
Most of the Saxon estates and titles were given to the Norman noblemen but their holdings were widely scattered. In addition, William the Conqueror forced the landowners to take oath of fidelity directly to him. William further strengthened his authority by the Oath of Salisbury in 1086 which made loyalty to the king superior over loyalty to any subordinate feudal lord. He ordered the registration of all properties issued in a land register called the Domesday Book to improve taxation. In addition to establishment of an efficient financial policy, William the Conqueror also initiated major reforms of the church. He replaced the foreign prelates with Saxon bishops and took over the administration of the churchly affairs provoking the English Investiture Controversy which broke out during the reign of his successor William II “Rufus”.
William II (1087-1100) who was second born son of William the Conqueror succeeded his father as King of England. The eldest son inherited Normandy and the youngest, Henry Beaclere inherited 5000 pounds of silver. The great barons who were dissatisfied with such division rebelled against William II in 1088. William managed to suppress the rebellion of the barons and invaded Normandy when Robert departed on the First Crusade in 1096. However, he became very unpopular in England and came into conflict with nobility and clergy.
William II died in suspicious circumstances on a hunt in the New Forest in 1100. He was succeeded by his youngest brother Henry I (1100-1135) but his brother Robert who returned from the Crusades invaded England to seize the throne in 1101. Robert’s attempt failed and the struggle between the brothers ended with Henry’s invasion in Normandy and imprisonment of Robert in 1106. One year later Henry I settled the investiture controversy with a compromise: Henry I renounced lay investiture in return for guarantee that homage would be paid to the king before consecration. On the death of his only son Prince William, Henry I suggested to be succeeded by his daughter Matilda, Countess of Anjou. His plan was rejected by the English nobility which displeased the idea of a female reign and an eventual Angevin influence in England.
Thus Henry’s was succeeded by his nephew, Stephen of Blois (1135-1154) whose rule was marked by a civil war which broke out after the invasion of Matilda in 1139. Stephen was defeated and temporarily deposed in 1141. He managed to regain the throne but Matilda retained the western part of England until her departure in 1148. The threat of a French invasion in Normandy forced both sides to sign a peace agreement in 1153 and to reach a compromise which designated Matilda’s son (the future Henry II) as Stephen’s successor.
Henry II (1154-1189) was the first English King of the Plantagenet-Angevin dynasty. In addition to the English throne, he inherited Normandy, Maine, Touraine, Brittany and Anjou, and greatly extended his territories in France through marriage with Eleanor of Aquitaine. Thus Henry II ruled the territory from northern England to the Pyrenees. On his accession to the English throne, he had to deal with the nobles who erected castles without permission and established themselves as independent rulers during Stephen’s reign. Henry II immediately destroyed all illegal castles and brought the nobles under his control, while his military reforms strengthened the English military power. He also reformed the finances and judicial system which introduced the trial by jury. Henry’s attempts to gain jurisdiction over clerical trials provoked a conflict with the Archbishop Thomas Becket which ended with assassination of the latter in Canterbury Cathedral. The assassination made Becket a martyr, while Henry gave up his demand for jurisdiction over the clergy.
Henry’s succession plans provoked a rebellion of his sons in 1173-1174. He managed to crush the rebellion of his sons but he was defeated by his son Richard (the Lionheart) in alliance with his greatest rival, Philip II of France in 1189. Thus Henry II was succeeded by his eldest son Richard I (the Lionheart) who ruled England until 1199 although he spent less than six months in England. Richard I departed on the Third Crusade amost immediately after his coronation.
England was more or less successfully governed and also withstood the pressure of King Philip II of France despite his absence. Richard’s brother and successor John I (1199-1216) lost most of the English possessions on the continent. His rule was also marked by the Great Charter (Magna Carta) signed at Runnymede in 1215 which limited the power of English Kings.
John’s attempt to evade the provisions of the Great Charter resulted in a civil war known as the First Barons’ War (1215-1217) which ended with accession of his minor son Henry III (1216-1272) to the English throne. He reissued the Great Charter but the need of additional financial sources forced him to accept the Provisions of Oxford which greatly limited the monarchical power in 1258.
Henry later renounced the Provisions of Oxford and provoked a civil war known as the Second Barons’ War (1264-1267). The royal forces were defeated by the baronial forces led by Simon de Montfort in the Battle of Lewes in 1264, while Henry III and his heir to the throne Prince Edward were taken captive. De Montfort became de factoruler of England and summoned the first directly-elected parliament in Medieval Europe. However, he was killed in the battle against Prince Edward one year later. Simon’s followers continued the struggle until 1267 when King Henry III restored his authority.
Henry III was succeeded by his son Edward I (1272-1307) who was at the time of his father’s death on the Ninth Crusade. He returned to England in 1274 when he was crowned. Edward’s reign is notable for his conquest of Wales in 1282 and for his attempt to conquer Scotland. However, the majority of historians agree that the legal and constitutional development during Edward’s reign was of greater significance than his military achievements. He played an important role in defining the English common law and he is often referred as Edward the Lawgiver or the English Justinian. Edward’s inner politics was also marked by the formation of the Parliament which began to meet regularly during his reign. His successor Edward II (1307-1327) did not pursue his father’s policy and did not had the capacity to govern. In 1311, the barons forced him to accept the appointment of a committee of 21 lords ordainers which limited the king’s power over finances and appointments, while the Scots decisively defeated the English forces at Bannockburn in 1314 and restored their independence. Edward II was forced to abdicate and was most likely murdered at Berkley Castle in 1327.
Edward II was succeeded by his son Edward III (1327-1377) who was a minor at his accession to the throne. The regency was held by his mother Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer, Earl of March until 1330 when Edward killed Mortimer and forced his mother to retire. His rule was characterized by the outbreak of the Hundred Years’ War which started favorable for England. The English forces won all the major battles but the English advance was halted by the outbreak of the Black Death that swept over western Europe in 1348-1349. Warfare was renewed in 1369 but it was marked by the French victory in the Battle of La Rochelle in 1372.
The enthusiasm for the war waned and Edward’s successor Richard II (1377-1399) had to face general unrest reaching its height with the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was provoked by the new tax poll of 1380 to finance the Hundred Years’ War. Richard II managed to suppress the revolt by promising the abolishment of serfdom and further reforms. However, he forgot about his promise after he reestablished order although serfdom in England began to decline and practically disappeared by 1450.
Richard’s despotic rule brought him into conflict with the barons. Henry of Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford took advantage of Richard’s absence in Ireland and general dissatisfaction with his rule, and forced him to abdicate in 1399. Henry of Bolingbroke was crowned as Henry IV (1377-1413) and founded the Lancastrian dynasty. His reign was characterized by the persecution of the Lollards, followers of John Wycliffe which also marked the reign of his successor Henry V (1413-1422). The latter renewed the claim to the French throne resulting in renewal of the war against France. The English forces severely defeated the French in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, while Henry V conquered much of Normandy and concluded formal alliance with the Duchy of Burgundy that had taken Paris. In 1420, Henry V forced Charles VI of France to sign the Treaty of Troyes according to which Henry would marry Charles’ daughter Catherine and would be recognized as heir to the French throne after Charles’ death. However, both Charles VI and Henry V died in 1422.
Henry VI (1422-1461) was an infant at the time of his accession to the throne, while the French recognized the son of Charles VI, Charles VII as king of France. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester became the regent of the Kingdom and protector to Henry VI, while John, Duke of Bedford continued the war against France. However, the French forces led by Joan of Arc lifted the Siege of Orleans in 1429 and the English were forced to withdraw from the continent by 1453.
At the same time occurred struggles between the barons for the influence over Henry VI leading to the outbreak of a civil war known as the Wars of the Roses that started almost immediately after the end of the Hundred Years’ War.
Henry VI became insane shortly before the birth of his son Edward in 1453 and Richard, Duke of York was declared protector of the realm.
Henry VI reestablished his authority two years later and excluded Richard from the royal council provoking a struggle over the throne between the House of Lancaster (red rose) and the House of York (white rose). In 1461, the English crown was assumed by Edward IV of York (1461-1483) with help of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick but the civil war continued. The alliance between Edward and Earl of Warwick had fallen apart and Warwick liberated Henry VI and restored him to the throne in 1470. Edward was forced to flee but he returned to England one year later, and defeated and killed Warwick and nearly all the remaining Lancastrian leaders. The Lancastrian line virtually extinguished after the assassination of Henry VI in 1471 and the only rival left was Henry Tudor who was living in exile. The English throne was seized by Richard, Duke of Gloucester (1483-1485) upon Edward’s death and probably had both sons of Edward IV murdered.
Richard’s unpopularity reached its lowest point and greatly contributed to his downfall. He was defeated and killed by Henry Tudor in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 due to desertion and switching sides of his key allies.
Henry Tudor ascended to the English throne as Henry VII (1485-1509) and founded the Tudor dynasty which ruled England until 1603.
Eleanor of Aquitaine
Eleanor of Aquitaine, a queen in her own right. She was born in 1122 and married King Louis VII of France when she was only fifteen years old. However, their marriage was annulled as she was unable to giver her husband a son and she married Henry II. Eleanor had many children, including Richard the […]
Ælle of Sussex
Ælle was the first king recorded by the 8th century chronicler Bede to have held “imperium”, or overlordship, over other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, thus the first King of England. A tenacious and violent Saxon warlord he conquered what is now Sussex, the borders of which, became his Kingdom. A Wodenist he fought a war of destruction […]
Hengist and Horsa
The Jutish warrior brothers Hengist and Horsa, leaders of ‘The Men of Kent’. Hengist and Horsa were recognised by the early English study group Engliscan Gesithasas as the first leaders of the English during the migration period, or Adventus Saxonum, from Upper Germany and Denmark. The impact of these early English arriving in numbers and the war chiefs such […]
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles make the English some of the first to record their own history as a people in text. A year by year account is given in nine manuscripts beginning at the year 60 BC and continuing to 1154 AD. Some are kept in the Parker Library in Cambridge University. They are thus also […]
Aethelflaed Lady of the Mercians ruler of Mercia 911 to 918
House: House of Mercia and Wessex (joining the Angles and the Saxons)Parents: Father Alfred the Great – Mother EalhswithBorn: c. 870Died: 12 June 918 Tamworth, StaffordshireBurial: St Oswald’s Priory, Gloucester She was a formidable military leader and came at a time of great threat from Viking incursions into England and was a true credit to her father. Æthelflaed […]
Thomas Becket (1118 – 1170)
St. Thomas Becket, Martyr, Archbishop of Canterbury, born at London, 21 December, 1118; died at Canterbury, 29 December, 1170. Thomas à Becket, was born on December 21, 1118, the son of Gilbert à Becket, an English merchant and at one time Sheriff of London, and a French Mother, Matilda of Caen in Normandy. He was […]
Saint Augustine of Canterbury
Augustine was sent by Pope Gregory to Kent in 597 to convert Britain to Christianity. His first success was converting king Aethelbert (partly due to his wife Bertha already being Christian). In 598 he founded the first church in Canterbury and was the first Archbishop. He created 12 dioceses. In 603 he had instructions from […]
Sutton Hoo Treasure
Every graphic you see has been generated electronically from original 2D photographs, drawings and diagrams and given depth and lighting in an attempt to reproduce them in their original condition. Each legend will explain what the original item was, condition it was found in and any assumptions I have made in the re-generation. I am […]
This is the story of the Sutton Hoo Burial. An archaeological dig that had profound importance for our understanding of Anglo Saxon life and especially the respect they must have shown to their rulers when they eventually died. I do not intend to write prodigious amounts on this subject because there are many books and […]
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