The Medieval period

Course: United Kingdom: History and Political System
Book: The Medieval period
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Date: Wednesday, 24 July 2024, 1:52 PM

The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages were a period of massive social change, burgeoning nationalism, international conflict, terrible natural disaster, climate change, rebellion, resistance and renaissance.

The Britain of Henry II, and of his sons Richard I and John, was experiencing rapid population growth, clearance of forest for fields, establishment of new towns and outward-looking crusading zeal. Legacies of the Norman invasion of 1066 remained. The aristocracy spoke French until after 1350, so saxon 'ox' and 'swine', for example, came to the table as French boeuf and porc.

Plantagenet dynasty (1154 – 1485)

The dynasty produced such varied characters as the energetic Henry II, arguably one of England's greatest monarchs and his legendary son, Richard the Lionheart, who led the Third Crusade against Saladin into the Holy Land. The highly aesthetic Henry III and his son, the indomitable Edward I, who conquered Wales and became known as the Hammer of the Scots for his campaigns into that country, where he fought William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, the most famous of Scotland's sons, and Henry V, the conqueror of France, who bequeathed the diadems of both countries to his pious and ineffectual son, Henry VI.

The later Plantagenets became divided into the Houses of Lancaster and York which descended through different sons of King Edward III. The Yorkist King Richard III was the last of his house.

Magna Carta

In 1215, an alliance of aristocracy, church and merchants force King John to agree to the Magna Carta, a document in which the king agrees to follow certain rules of government. Later kings frequently confirmed and reissued this document, the most famous in English constituional history; it was sometimes referred to as the Great Charter of the Liberties of England. In fact, neither John nor his successors entirely followed them, but the Magna Carta is remembered as the first time a monarch agreed in writing to abide formal procedures. Although Magna Carta did not settle the conflict between John and his barons, it soon came to be regarded as the fundamental cornerstone of English constitutional law.

Black Death

The 14th century in England saw the Great Famine and the Black Death, catastrophic events that killed around half of England's population. The Black Death was the worst disease in recorded history, killing 50% of the population in a year. Chronic malnourishment weakened the population, perhaps making people more susceptible to the Black Death, the worst disease in recorded history, which arrived in Europe in 1347 and in England the following year. The plague returned in a series of periodic local and national epidemics. The plague only finally stopped at the end of the seventeenth century.

Hundred Years' War

English kings in the 14th and 15th centuries laid claim to the French throne, resulting in the Hundred Years' War. Historical tradition dates the Hundred Years War between England and France as running from 1337 to 1453. In 1337, Edward III had responded to the confiscation of his duchy of Aquitaine by King Philip VI of France by challenging Philip’s right to the French throne. Edward III formally assumed the title 'King of France and the French Royal Arms'.

The overseas possessions of the English kings were the root cause of the tensions with the kings of France, and the tensions reached right back to 1066. William the Conqueror was already duke of Normandy when he became king of England. His great-grandson Henry II, at his accession in 1154, was already count of Anjou by inheritance from his father and duke of Aquitaine (Gascony and Poitou) in right of his wife Eleanor.

England's King John lost Normandy and Anjou to France in 1204. His son, Henry III, renounced his claim to those lands in the Treaty of Paris in 1259, but it left him with Gascony as a duchy held under the French crown. The English kings’ ducal rights there continued to be a source of disquiet, and wars broke out in 1294 and 1324.

In 1453 the English had lost the last of their once wide territories in France, after the defeat of John Talbot’s Anglo-Gascon army at Castillon, near Bordeaux.

Its origins in national war experience gave that patriotism a chauvinistic edge that continued to colour English popular attitudes to foreigners and especially to the French for a very long time. Francophobia runs as a recurrent thread through the English story from the 15th century down to the start of the 20th, when finally the Germans replaced the French as England’s natural adversaries in the popular eye.

The Wars of the Roses (1455–1485)

The Wars of the Roses were a series of dynastic civil wars for the throne of England fought between supporters of two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet: the Houses of Lancaster and York. They were fought in several sporadic episodes between 1455 and 1485, although there was related fighting both before and after this period. The nobles were divided into two groups, one supporting the House of Lancaster, whose symbol was a red rose, the other the House of York, whose symbol was a white rose. Three decades of almost continual war ended in 1485, when Henry Tudor (Lancastrian) defeated and killed Richard III (Yorkist) at the Battle of Boswort Field. Henry Tudor married Edward IV's daughter Elizabeth of York to unite the two houses. The House of Tudor subsequently ruled England and Wales for 117 years.

Henry VII's victory in 1485 typically marks the end of the Middle Ages in England and the start of the Early Modern period.

Medieval English society

The Free

At the top of the English social scale stood the king and nobility. Senior churchmen (abbots and bishops) were also barons with noble status. About 200 of these men formed England's ruling elite. Crown, nobility and church owned about 75% of English land.

Immediately below the nobility were knights. Knighthood was not hereditary; instead, men were made knights as a reward for outstanding service or because they had become wealthy enough.

The other class of freemen were "sokemen" (or socmen.) Roughly one in six of the population were sokemen, and they owned about twenty per cent of the land. They were especially numerous in East Anglia. Sokemen held in socage; they had security of tenure provided they carried out certain defined services often including light labor services and paying a fixed rent. Their land was heritable.

The Unfree

The largest class of the population were villani. (Those born to servile status were also called nativi.) About four in ten people were villani tied to the land. They did not own the land but farmed their own holdings (about 45 per cent of all English land,) which they were allowed to occupy in exchange for labor services on the landowner's demesne. The exact services required from villani varied in accordance with local customs and agreements. A common arrangement was three days work each week (more in harvest time).

A lower class of villeins were known as bordars or cottars. These occupied very small plots of land for personal use, which like the villani they did not own, but for which they had to pay rent and/or labor services. Although they constituted about one third of the population, bordars only occupied about five per cent of the land.

At the very bottom of the social scale were slaves who owned no land at all. These constituted slightly less than one in ten of the population at the time of Domesday Book. During the 12th Century many of these slaves were given holdings and became bordars.