England in the Middle Ages
1. Feudal system
2. Kings of the medieval England. William I
3. William Rufus.
4. Henry I
5. Henry II
6. Richard I
7. King John
8. Henry III
9. Edward I
10. Edward II
11. Edward III
12. Richard II
13. England in the 15th century
14. The wars of the Roses
15. People. Rich people in the Middle Ages
16. A peasant’s life in the Middle Ages
17. The church in the Middle Ages
18. Education in the Middle Ages
19. Children in the Middle Ages
20. Food in the Middle Ages
21. Clothes in the Middle Ages
Middle Ages encompass one of the most exciting and turbulent times in English History. The Medieval people of the Middle Ages were warlike, they have even been described as barbaric. The Crusades exposed the Europeans to a more refined culture. The elegance of the Far East, with its silks, tapestries, precious stones, perfumes, spices, pearls, and ivory prompted a change in culture with a new and unprecedented interest in beautiful objects and elegant manners. But meanwhile the battles for new territory and power raged on in Middle Ages History. The History of the Middle Ages covers the major historical events which occurred during the period from 1066 - 1485. The History of the Middle Ages starts in England with the Battle of Hastings in 1066 which ended the period classified as the Dark Ages. The events in Middle Ages History continue down the timeline until 1485 which ends the War of the Roses, the start of the Tudor dynasty and the emergence of the Renaissance.
The life of all the classes was dominated by the feudal system. The society was organized into a kind of pyramid. At the top of the pyramid was the king. Below him were the barons or tenants-in-chief. The king granted them land and in return they had to provide soldiers in time of war.
The church was an important part of the feudal system. The church owned vast amounts of land and livestock. Furthermore the peasants had to give a one tenth of everything they produced (crops, eggs, animals) to the church. Many bishops and abbots were very rich and powerful.
In the Middle Ages the king ruled by divine right. In other words people believed that God had chosen him to be king and rebellion against him was a sin. However that did not stop rebellions! Kings had limited power in the Middle Ages and rebellion was easy. A great deal depended on the personality of the king. If he was a strong character he could control the barons. If he were weak or indecisive the barons would often rebel. Warrior kings who fought successful wars were the most powerful as they were popular with the nobility.
Kings of the medieval England
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 invaders and they had to hold down a resentful Saxon population. 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 Cambridge and York.
William had 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.
William died in 1087 and he was succeeded by his son, also called William (sometimes called Rufus because of his complexion).
Rufus was definitely 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).
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 also crushed.
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 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.
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’s. Very importantly he also had the support of the church.
Henry proved to be a capable monarch. He frequently quarreled with his brother Robert, Duke of Normandy. In 1101 Robert invaded England, landing at Portsmouth Harbor but by the treaty of Alton he agreed to go home again. However the peace did not last long. In 1105 Henry invaded Normandy. In 1106 he won the battle of Tichenbrai.
Henry also formed a royal zoo in England with exotic animals such as lions, leopards, lynxes, camels and a porcupine.
Meanwhile Henry had many illegitimate children but he only had one legitimate son called William. William drowned in 1120 when his 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 of food poisoning at the age of 67 many barons felt a woman could not rule England and they supported Henry's nephew Stephen. So 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 in 1135, which went on till 1154.
The 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. 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 had 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 offences.
Henry also had trouble from his sons because he refused to give them any real power. He had 8 children of whom 4 died in infancy. Four sons survived, Henry, Geoffrey, Richard and John the youngest. 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.
Richard I was born in 1157. In his own time he was a popular king because he was a successful warrior.
But in 1194, when coming back from the Jerusalem, he was imprisoned by the Duke of Austria. Richard's subjects were forced to pay a huge ransom to release him. 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.
John proved to be a failure. John fought a war against the king of France from 1200 top 1206, as a result of which he lost most of his lands in France. 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 place 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 to 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 barons patience was exhausted. Finally in 1215 civil war broke out. In June 1215 John was forced to accept a charter known as Magna Carta at Runnymede. 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.
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 Magna Carta laid down that no free man could be arrested, imprisoned or dispossessed without the lawful judgment of his peers or without due process of law.
Rebellion broke out again and this time the rebel barons invited a French prince to come and rule England. John conveniently died in October 1216.
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 Monfort defeated and captured the king at the battle of Lewes. They also captured his eldest son Edward. Simon de Monfort called a parliament made up of representatives from each county and each borough. It was the first English parliament.
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’s death 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 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 Herby in Nottinghamshire. Edward erected crosses at each of the places where her coffin rested on its way to Westminster Abbey.
Meanwhile 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 long shanks 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.
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 or lover 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.
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.
The 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 taken prisoner. In January 1327 Edward abdicated in favor of his son. Edward II was murdered in September 1327.
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 longbow men rained arrows down onto the French sailors. Men with swords, axes and spears fought 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 crushed by English longbow men 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.
However in 1348-49 disaster struck. The Black Death reached England and it killed about 1/3 of the population. Afterwards there was a severe shortage of labour 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 respect of persons.
Despite his loss King Edward continued to beat the French. On 19 September 1346 the English won another great 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 July 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 July 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, fearing he was going to attack the king. Afterwards the king managed to calm the rebels and persuaded 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.
However 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 and Bolingbroke then became Henry III. Richard II died in 1400. (He was probably murdered).
England in the 15th century
Henry III reigned until 1413. It was a troubled reign. Henry III 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 longbow men won a great victory over the French 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.
Moreover 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 afterwards 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.
The Wars of The Roses.
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. Afterwards 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. Afterwards 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 10 May 1471. The battle proved to be a great Yorkist victory. Afterwards Edward ruled unchallenged until his death 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 this parents 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.
Rich people in the Middle Ages.
The main pastime of the upper class was hunting. Lords hunted deer with packs of dogs and killed them with arrows. They also hunted wild boar with spears. Both men and women went hawking. In the evenings they feasted, danced and played board games such as chess and backgammon. In the mid-15th century playing cards arrived in England.
When he was not hunting the noble or knight was fighting. Their wives were also kept busy. They had to organize the servants and generally run the household.
Knights also took part in tournaments. These events drew large crowds of spectators. At them knights fought with wooden lances, swords or maces. This was called jousting. There were also tourneys (fights between teams). Tournaments often lasted four days. Two days were for jousting, one was for tourneys and one was for archery competitions.
A Peasant’s Life In The Middle Ages.
For peasants life was one of toil. Most people in the Middle Ages lived in small villages of 20 or 30 families. The land was divided into 3 huge fields. Each year 2 were sown with crops while one was left fallow (unused) to allow it to recover. Each peasant had some strips of land in each field. Most peasants owned only one ox so they had to join with other families to obtain the team of oxen needed to pull a plough. After ploughing the land was sown. Men sowed grain and women planted peas and beans.
Most peasants also owned a few cows, goats and sheep. Cows and goats gave milk and cheese. Most peasants also kept chickens for eggs. They also kept pigs. Peasants were allowed to graze their livestock on common land. In the autumn they let their pigs roam in the woods to eat acorns and beechnuts. However they did not have enough food to keep many animals through the winter. Most of the livestock was slaughtered in autumn and the meat was salted to preserve it.
However life was not all hard work. People were allowed to rest on Holy days (from which we get our word holiday). During them poor people danced and wrestled. They also played a very rough form of football. The men from 2 villages played on a 'pitch' which might include woods and streams! There were no rules so broken limbs and other injuries were common. People also enjoyed cruel 'sports' like cockfighting and bear baiting. (A bear was chained to a post and dogs were trained to attack it). Gambling was also common.
The church in the Middle Ages.
In the Middle Ages religion was a vital part of everyday life. All children were baptised (unless they were Jewish) and everyone attended mass on Sunday. Mass was in Latin, a language that ordinary people did not understand.
Bishops ruled over groups of parishes called dioceses. They usually came from rich families. Bishops lived in palaces and often took part in government. Things were very different for parish priests. They were poor and often had little education. Parish priests had their own land called the glebe where they grew their own food. They lived and worked alongside their parishioners.
In the Middle Ages monks and nuns gave food to the poor. They also ran the only hospitals where they tried to help the sick as best they could. They also provided hospitality for pilgrims and other travellers (although as time went by there were an increasing number of inns where you could pay to stay the night). In a medieval monastery there was an almonry where food or money was given to the poor, the refectory where the monks ate, the dormitory, infirmary and the cloisters where the monks could take exercise. An almoner looked after the poor, an infirmarian looked after the sick and a hospitaller looked after visitors.
As well as the monks from the 13th century there were also friars. They took vows like but instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to preach. Franciscan friars were called grey friars because of their grey costumes. Dominican friars were called black fairs.
Education in the Middle Ages.
In the Middle Ages most people were illiterate but not all. Upper class children were educated when they were pages. Among the poor the better educated priests might teach some children to read and write - a little. In many towns there were grammar schools where middle class boys were educated. (They got their name because they taught Latin grammar). Boys worked long hours in the grammar schools and discipline was severe. Boys were beaten with rods or birch twigs.
There were also chantry schools. Some men left money in their wills to pay for a priest to chant prayers for their soul after their death. When he was not praying the priest would educate local children.
During the Middle Ages literacy and learning gradually increased. By the 15th century perhaps a third of the population could read and write.
From the early 13th century England had two universities at Oxford and Cambridge. At them students learned seven subjects, grammar, rhetoric (the art of public speaking), logic, astronomy, arithmetic, music and geometry.
Children in the Middle Ages.
Children from noble families saw little of their parents. When they were very young nurses looked them after. When they were about 7 they were sent to live with another noble household. Boys became pages and had to wait on lords and ladies. They also learned to fight. At 14 a boy became a squire and at 21 a knight. Girls learned the skills they needed to run a household.
Childhood ended early for children in the Middle Ages. In upper class families girls married as young as 12 and boys as young as 14. They did not normally choose their own marriage partners. Their parents arranged their marriages for them. Children from poor families might have more choice about who they married but by the time they were about 7 or 8 they had to start helping their parents by doing simple jobs such as chasing away birds when crops had been sown or helping to weave wool. Children were expected to help the family earn a living as soon as they were able.
Food in the Middle Ages.
The rich ate well. They ate beef, mutton, pork and venison. They also ate a great variety of birds, swans, herons, ducks, blackbirds, pigeons and greenfinches. However the church decreed that Wednesday, Friday and Saturday were fast days when people were not allowed to eat meet. Rich people usually had fishponds so they could eat pike and carp. They also ate fish caught in rivers or the sea.
The rich also used spices. In the Middle Ages a new spice arrived in England. It was called sugar.
The rich ate breakfast in private but they ate dinner at mid-morning and supper at 5 or 6 in the great hall. On special occasions they had huge feasts. The Lord and his lady sat at a table on a raised wooden platform so they could look down on the rest of the household. Often musicians entertained them while they ate. Rich people ate their food from slices of stale bread called trenchers. Afterwards they were given to the poor.
Poor people ate a simple and monotonous diet. For them meat was a luxury. If they were lucky they had rabbit or pork. They also ate lots of coarse, dark bread and cheese. They only had one cooked meal a day. In the evening the mother mixed grain with hot water. She added vegetables and, if available, meat or fish to make a kind of stew called pottage. In the autumn peasants gathered fruit and nuts. In normal years the peasants had an adequate diet but if there was a famine they might starve.
Clothes in the Middle Ages.
In the Middle Ages men wore tunics. Some men wore shorts and all wore 'hose' (tights or stockings).
Women wore a nightie-like linen garment. However they did not wear knickers. They wore a long tunic (to their ankles) and over it another garment, a gown. Women held their dresses with a belt tied around their waists.
In the Middle Ages both sexes wore wool but it varied in quality. It could be fine and expensive or coarse and cheap. From the mid-14th century laws lay down which materials the different classes could wear, to stop the middle classes dressing 'above themselves'. (Poor people could not afford to wear expensive cloth anyway!). However, most people ignored the law and wore what they wished.
In the late 14th and 15th centuries clothes became much more elaborate. Fashion in the modern sense began. For the wealthy styles changed rapidly. Women wore elaborate hats and men wore long shoes.
Poor people wore practical clothes. If it was wet and muddy they wooden clogs.