8.1 The 11th Century
Norman Conquest (1066)
The title of this unit "1066 and all that" is an allusion to the humorous book by Walter C. Sellar and Robert J. Yeatman published in 1930. In their half-serious way the authors describe the Norman Conquest as "a Good Thing, as from this time onwards England stopped being conquered and thus was able to become top nation" (p. 17). Be this as it may, the Norman Conquest is the historical starting point of the ME period and the date of 1066 is usually taken as the dividing line between the Early and High Middle Ages.
The Norman Conquest
Edward ‘the Confessor’, who became king in 1042, was the last representative of the West-Saxon royal family on the English throne. When he died in 1066, he left no immediate heir, which raised the problematic question of his succession. The most likely candidates were Harold, son of Godwin, the powerful earl of Wessex, and William, duke of Normandy. Edward had married Godwin’s daughter so that the earl’s family were in a position to regard themselves as rightful claimants to the English throne. However, Edward was half-Norman (by his mother Emma) and had been brought up in Normandy; thus, relations to the continent had always been very strong during his reign. Furthermore, Norman sources claimed that in 1064, or perhaps early 1065, Harold visited William in Normandy as Edward’s ambassador, to swear an oath of fealty.
Who wants to be a ... king?
Stephen of Blois
Such was the state of affairs when the king died on 6 January 1066. Harold immediately brought forward his claim to become king of England, supported by the archbishop of Canterbury, who was also present at the king’s deathbed and confirmed that the king had given succession to Harold in his last hours. Yet, the new king was threatened not only by William, but also by Harold Hardrada, king of Norway. In the end it was William who had all the luck. Although high winds made it impossible for him to embark his troops in Normandy and make his journey to England, it was just this weather condition which blew the king of Norway and his troops to the north of England. Harold successfully defeated the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge near York, only to learn that, in the meantime, William had crossed the Channel and had landed in the heart of his earldom. He moved south with great speed, taking only a small portion of the exhausted forces he had at Stamford Bridge.
On 14 October, the English and Norman armies met near Hastings. Harold’s forces gathered on the crest of a hill and formed a wall of shields. The ensuing battle lasted all day, and the English position was very strong at first. But, sections of Harold’s army seem to have been enticed down the slope in pursuit of real or feigned retreats of the Normans, and then cut off and overwhelmed. Thus, gradually the English troops were broken up although the centre held until dusk. It all came to an end, however, when Harold was killed. William quickly advanced to Dover and then to Canterbury, where he received the submission of Winchester. But it was mainly London where the core of the English resistance had gathered. William, therefore, had the city encircled, leaving a trail of devastation until the English nobles finally met him and offered their fealty. He was acclaimed king in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066.
The Battle of Hastings
The consequences of the Norman Conquest can hardly be underestimated. They had their effect on all aspects of life, from the influence of the Norman-French language spoken by the new rulers on the further development of English, the nearly complete effacement of the Anglo-Saxon ruling class in both the secular and religious sphere, to new administrative, legal, social, and cultural phenomena.
The Doomsday Book
Survey of England (1086)
In order to strengthen his authority and to have his kingdom’s wealth registered in a systematic way, William I gave orders to compile a great survey of all the landed possessions in England in 1086. Groups of royal officers were sent out conducting public inquiries and thus listing all feudal estates in written form. The various pieces of information were arranged by counties, and within each county, according to the possessions and tenures of the major secular and ecclesiastical landholders.
Eventually, the officers had gathered all the relevant information according to the values and resources of each county’s manors thus providing the king with a reliable assessment of taxes due to the crown. What is more, the list of all the feudal estates gave William the means of exacting oaths of allegiance from all his tenants and sub-tenants. The Doomsday Book is undoubtedly one of the greatest administrative achievements of the Middle Ages. Today, the manuscripts are preserved in the Public Record Office in London.
TASK 1 (Library sleuth activity)
Around the middle of the 12th century, the Norman dynasty was supplanted by the Plantagenets in England. Henry II and his queen Eleanor of Aquitaine ruled over a cross-Channel empire which reached from the North of England to the Pyrenees. From then on, English social and cultural life was not only influenced by Norman, but to a much higher degree by central French models. In the following chapters, we will present to you the reigns of Stephen of Blois, the last Norman king of England, and of Henry II, the first Plantagenet, as prominent representatives of 12th-century English history.
The Reign of Stephen of Blois (1135-54)
Stephen of Blois (c.1097-1154), king of England from 1135 to 1154, was the third son of Stephen, count of Blois and Chartres, and Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror. He was brought up in the household of his uncle Henry I of England. In 1127, and again in 1133, he was among a number of English magnates whom Henry I persuaded or forced to take an oath of fealty to his daughter the empress Matilda as heir to the throne. This served further to recognize the hereditary right of her son, Henry of Anjou (Plantagenet). This procedure was necessary because a ruler who was female and, above that, married to the count of Anjou was repugnant to the Normans. Consequently, upon the death of Henry I (December 1, 1135), despite their oaths of fealty, many of the bishops and great lords of England gave Stephen a warm welcome when he speedily crossed the Channel and was subsequently crowned at Westminster in December 1135. He had easily won the support of the citizens of London, of his brother Henry of Blois, bishop of Winchester, and of the enormously influential Bishop Roger of Salisbury.
How to become the King of England
For some time, things went rather smoothly, but in 1137 Stephen missed an opportunity of winning Normandy from Matilda and her husband. In 1138 Robert of Gloucester, Matilda’s half brother, took up arms in her support. Matilda came to England in September 1139 and quickly made the West country an Angevin stronghold. What followed was a long civil war (particularly hard fought in 1141-44) which brought great misery and devastation to the country. In the Peterborough version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle this period was portrayed as "19 winters during which Christ and his saints slept". At last, a compromise was reached between the opposing parties, which ensured the succession of Matilda’s son, Henry of Anjou (Plantagenet), to the throne after Stephen’s death. This solution was generally welcomed and when Stephen died on October 25, 1154, a new period of strong monarchic government began with the accession of Henry Plantagenet.
Henry II (1154-1189)
Henry II (b.1133) was one of the most powerful rulers in western Europe at the time. In 1150, his father Geoffrey Plantagenet transferred the duchy of Normandy to Henry, and in 1151, he added Anjou. In 1152, Henry’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine brought him her rich duchy as his third great acquisition in France. After King Stephen had recognised him as his heir, he eventually became king of England in 1154.
Henry succeeded peacefully to the English throne, meeting no resistance from an aristocracy tired of fighting after the long civil war that had been instigated by the claims to the throne of both Stephen and Matilda. He quickly restored the powers of the monarchy and reclaimed royal rights as they had been before Stephen’s reign. His contemporaries were seemingly impressed by his powerful and vigorous personality. He was constantly on the move around his vast dominions in England and France, his household always one step behind him. He even extended his power to Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, thus ranging high among medieval European rulers as regards his range of activities and his degree of lasting success.
Henry also showed an interest in scholarly and intellectual pursuits;
he read books regularly, and, according to the chronicler Walter Map,
understood all the languages from the coast of France to the River Jordan.
It is known, however, that he normally spoke in French or Latin. Yet,
in the field of literary and cultural activities, he was by far surpassed
by his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Born in 1122, Eleanor was the eldest child and heiress of William X, duke of Aquitaine. She was married to the young Louis VII of France in 1137, but they were divorced in 1152. She had already met Henry, who was 11 years her junior, before her separation from Louis and seems to have fallen in love with him immediately. They married in 1153 and this allowed her to found her own literary court where she surrounded herself with troubadours and artists from her southern territories. Under her patronage, the ideals and codes of courtly love began to emerge. It was particularly her son Richard ‘the Lionhearted’ who inherited her love of music and poetry, and her daughter Eleanor took the characteristic Angevin style of building with her to Castile.
Eleanor of Aquitaine
Besides Eleanor, another strong-willed member of his immediate surrounding had a lasting impact on the reign of Henry II: Thomas Becket. Born at London in 1118 to a Norman merchant family, he was educated at Merton Priory and became a member of the household of the archbishop of Canterbury. His administrative talents marked him out for a rapid career so that in 1154, he was appointed archdeacon of Canterbury and, later that year, Henry II made him Chancellor of England. Their close friendship lasted eight years in which Thomas played an active part in the affairs of the state, supporting the king in his conflicts with the Church. Henry, in return, made him archbishop of Canterbury in 1161, thus granting him the highest clerical office in England.
Then it happened: torn between demands put on him by his secular responsibilities and his religious vocation, Becket opted for the latter and resigned the chancellorship. As a representative of the Church he became Henry’s most formidable opponent, claiming that he would obey only one lord: God. They fought their most bitter fights about the powers of the Church courts, which Henry wanted to see reduced and partly transferred to secular courts. Becket, however, refused to submit to the king’s wishes, and after a final stormy confrontation at a council of barons and bishops, Becket fled to France, where he appealed for protection to the pope.
Casket with relics of Thomas Becket
For six years Becket remained in exile, but returned to England in 1170 after a compromise had been reached. Yet, his very first actions - the excommunication of the archbishop of York and the two bishops who had assisted at the young King Henry’s coronation - enraged Henry to such a degree that four of his knights travelled to Canterbury to take revenge. In the late afternoon of 29 December, Thomas Becket was assassinated in his own cathedral, provoking a tide of indignation across the whole of Europe. Within a few months, many miracles were reported at his tomb, and less than three years after his death, he was canonized by Pope Alexander III in February 1173. During the following year, Henry did public penance at his adversary’s shrine - a shrine which was to become one of the principal centres of pilgrimage of medieval Christendom. Thomas Becket had become the most influential martyr in the history of the English Church.
Nonetheless, Henry’s hold on his vast empire remained secure; he even stood at the height of his power in the early 1170s. By this time, he had already decided that, after his death, his dominions should be partitioned between his three eldest sons. Henry was to have his father’s inheritance, namely Anjou, Normandy, and England; Richard was to have his mother’s inheritance, Aquitaine; and Geoffrey was to have the acquisition, Brittany. Later, he ruled that John, the youngest, should have Ireland. Yet, things did not go as smoothly as he had anticipated: his sons became rebellious, seeing that their father still retained all real power in his own hands. The deaths of two of his sons, the young King Henry in 1183 and Geoffrey in 1186, did not do away with Henry’s problems. It was obvious that he preferred John and this alarmed Richard, who formed an alliance with the French king Philip II Augustus. This brought Henry to his knees and, defeated, the old king died at Chinon on 6 July 1189.
12th century folks you should know about:
TASK 2 (Library sleuth activity)
The 13th-century is called "the greatest of centuries" by some scholars, because it is the era of outstanding cultural achievements. In 1209, Cambridge University was founded as a second English educational centre after Oxford (1169). In the 1220s, the Dominican and Franciscan friars came to England and were immediately successful in the towns and at the universities. This flourishing of cultural and educational life and the fact that only three kings, John, Henry III, and Edward I, ruled the kingdom during this century might lead to the assumption that the epoch was marked by peace and stability. On the contrary, in terms of politics, the reigns of John and Henry are characterized by a constant conflict between royal authority and rebellious magnates. Early in the century (1215) the baronial party won a decisive victory when they forced king John to sign the Magna Charta at Runnymede.
A century worth remembering
A dark period
By many historians the reign of king John is seen as the darkest period in medieval English history. In 1204 he lost Normandy to the French and in 1209 he was excommunicated by Pope Innocent III, who put the realm under the interdict at the same time, which meant that the king and his people were excluded from the sacraments and the churchmen from all ecclesiastical privileges. King John’s conflict with Rome culminated in 1213, when he had to pay homage to the Pope and held his kingdom as a fief of the Roman Church.
This deplorable state of affairs led to a serious rebellion of the nobility and the great magnates against the king in 1214. Eventually, John was compelled to sign the Magna Charta, acknowledging the constitutional framework of his father Henry II, which had defined the limits of royal prerogatives. A draft version was signed at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. Some days later, the final form was issued as a freely granted royal charter. This version was re-issued by John’s successor, Henry III, in 1216, 1217, and in 1225 in its final version, which is still valid in English statute law.
What is the fuss about?
The provisions of the Magna Charta guaranteed the liberties of the Church and the privileges of the barons and the citizens of London. A fixed royal court was to be held at Westminster as a constant institution of appeal to royal justice. The Great Charter comprises 63 clauses many of which confirm individual liberties such as reasonable royal charges in cases of inheritance or the protection of widows and wards against royal arbitrariness.
One of the outstanding achievements of the Magna Carta Libertatum was the maxim that no one should be imprisoned, forfeit his lands, or be exiled except by the judgement of his equals or common law. By these and other clauses, the royal prerogative was considerably curbed and it was foreseeable that king John’s successors would try to turn back the wheel of history.
Simon de Montfort’s death
In the long run, Magna Charta could not settle the conflict between the Crown and the leading magnates of the kingdom. Open rebellion against the king arose again in the years between 1258 and 1265, the so-called Barons’ War. Under the leadership of Simon de Montfort, the king’s brother-in-law, a coalition of barons tried to impose reforms on the king. Both parties, the baronial and the royal, were successful in turns. In 1264, however, the barons resorted to arms and won against their own king at Lewes. Only a year later, the king regained his power when he and his son, the future king Edward I, decisively defeated the baronial party at Evesham. Simon’s army was massacred at the battle and Simon himself was killed.
The Coming of the Friars
The term ‘mendicant’ as used in religion denotes a person who renounces the ownership of property and relies on the charity of others for his daily needs. In the Christian Church, the use of the term is limited to a member of a religious order that, in contrast to the monastic orders, does not allow the ownership of property, not even in common, if taken in its strictest sense.
In the 13th century, the two most influential mendicant orders were founded: the Franciscans by St Francis of Assisi in 1210, and the Dominicans by St Dominic in 1216. Within a generation of their founders’ deaths, the mendicant orders had spread all over Europe and into Asia, and their friars numbered tens of thousands. Friaries were established in all the great cities of western Europe, and in the universities, theological chairs were held by Dominicans and Franciscans. Later in the 13th century, the other great mendicant orders of Carmelites, Austin Friars, and Servites arose, and lesser mendicant orders sprang up in all directions. Because of this unchecked growth, the second Council of Lyons in 1274 decided to take necessary steps to suppress all orders except the ones named above.
St Francis’ life-story is impressive. He was born in c. 1181 as the son of a rich merchant of Assisi. He was brought up according to his rank and position in society, but already in youth he experienced a period of indecision and searching for the appropriate way of life. Finally, in 1206, he surrendered all the material comforts of his home to become a beggar inspired by Jesus’ words that one should give up everything and follow him. He took care of the lepers and others excluded from society, and he showed love and
St Dominic (c. 1170-1221) began his career as a Castillian nobleman and priest. He was involved in royal embassies to Languedoc, a stronghold of the heretical movement known as the Albigensians or Cathars. Yet, Dominic could not fully agree with the methods employed during the Albigensian Crusade (1208) because he preferred theological discussion and the example of personal poverty to counter the Albigensians rather than the use of force. Accordingly, he founded an order based on the principles of mendicant poverty, learning, and preaching which was confirmed by
The enormous success and popularity of the mendicant orders was mainly due to two reasons: the widespread criticism of the corruption and inefficiency of the Church establishment, and the spiritual demands put forward by an ever increasing and articulate urban laity. The wealth of monks and secular clerics, particularly those belonging to the higher ranks of the clergy, had brought disrepute to the Church, and more and more voices could be heard preaching the practice of austere poverty and a return to the simple life of Christ and his apostles. In addition, the rapidly growing city populations were in dire need of priests and the spiritual and moral guidance they were expected to provide.
Poverty as a Virtue
Quenching the thirst
The organization of the Church, which had been based on a rural, parochial system obviously could not cope with the changes brought about by urban structures and lifestyle. So, when the friars established themselves in the towns - often in the poorest localities - and brought religion to the destitute and outcasts of society, they satisfied a need which the parochial clergy could not.
Yet, the friars not only responded to the new needs of the age, but also to its new ideas: religious, intellectual, artistic. A new wave of mysticism had swept over Europe, fixing its attention mainly on the humanity of Christ, whose suffering as a human came to the forefront and was increasingly depicted by artists and craftsmen. The Franciscans in particular stressed the human nature of Jesus, who could thus more easily serve as a role model. Likewise, a new intellectual era had begun with the foundation of universities and the scholastic movement, and the friars actively participated in these institutions and discussions.
From rags to riches
Despite the enormous success and influence of the mendicant movement in the 13th century, the maintaining of the ideals they propagated proved unworkable in practice. The orders grew rich (many people left them their property in their wills), a stricter organizational structure with hierarchical features had to be introduced, and many of the original ideals came to be betrayed by corrupt friars. This explains why, in the 14th century, much social satire centres on friars and the tricks they played on people in order to extort money from them.
The 13th century and things you should remember:
TASK 3 (Library sleuth activity)
In many respects, the 14th century can be seen as an age of crises and catastrophes. The Black Death, for instance, decimated the population from 1348 onwards, and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 is an outstanding example of inner strife and social unrest as an immediate result of the economic crisis. The series of military campaigns to France, later called the 100 Years’ War, were expensive and aggravated the tight financial conditions of the Crown. On the other hand, the 14th century is an age of remarkable cultural achievements. It is the era of the great ME poets, Chaucer, Gower, and Langland; in English gothic architecture, it is the epoch of the decorated and later of the perpendicular styles; and it is the time of the fullest refinement of the code of chivalry in England. The higher aristocracy defined themselves as the social elite by manifesting this claim in splendid feasts and tournaments and by the foundation of knightly orders such as the Order of the Garter. In order to illustrate some of these aspects we selected the Great Plague and its consequences and the first part of the 100 Years’ War as topics of our presentation.
14th Century Summary
The Black Death
There were three great plague epidemics during the Middle Ages: in the 6th,
7th & 14th centuries.
The earliest epidemic spread from Ethiopia and reached the British Isles 541-6. But it affected mainly south-east Europe and the Middle East, where people tried to escape from the deadly illness by fleeing from the already highly depopulated cities into the desert mountains. Most waves of the 7th century affected the eastern Mediterranean, but the more severe plagues of 655-700 spread extensively in both the Islamic countries and western Europe. Northern England was affected in 664, 675-6 and 678.
In Ireland, the last two waves were known as the Children’s Plague, as they affected predominantly those born after the preceding epidemic. In the first half of the 8th century, further waves affected south-east Europe and the Middle East, but north-west Europe remained plague-free.In the 1340s, the plague spread again, this time from Central Asia. In 1246, it appeared at Kaffa from whence it spread rapidly by sea and by land to most parts of Europe. By 1348, it had reached Constantinople, Italy and France; England was affected in the winter of 1348/9 and by 1350, it had swept across Germany, Poland and Scandinavia. It is this pandemic which is now known as the Black Death. Once again, there were successive waves, continuing, for example, in England until the Great Plague of 1665. The plague caused the deaths of millions of people, leaving some areas totally depopulated. In England, the Black Death reduced the population by at least one third. In 1348, just before the onset of the great plague, the inhabitants totalled 3,700,000. The appalling death rate of the following three decades reduced that number to 2,200,000. One index by which to measure the deadliness of the bubonic plague is that of life expectancy at birth. This is calculated to have been 31 years in the final decades of the 13th century, but fell to 17 years in the period 1348-75.
It is striking that there usually is a break of about 11 years between the successive plague waves but the cause of this phenomenon is unknown. The most important factor seems to be meteorological. It is known that worldweather patterns had been upset by volcanic darkness for 15 months in the years 536-7, so that by 539 famine affected Constantinople, despite the prosperity of the Byzantine Empire up to 535. Likewise in the 1340s, even Italy was suffering economically, whereas in north-west Europe wet seasons would in any case have led to a demographic crisis had plague mortality not intervened.
The Jews, who were blamed for transmission of the disease, were persecuted and massacred. The fear of death led to the growth of fanatical religious groups such as the Flagellants. The effect of the plague on agrarian society was complex, leading initially to attempts to reimpose feudal rights and services, and contributing to outbreaks of violence (for example the Peasants’ Revolt in England). But owing to the scarcity of labour, wages rose and humble tenant farmers and cottagers left the land and migrated to the towns and boroughs by the thousands. By the end of the 15th century, defections of this sort as well as the commutations of labour service by money payments led to the virtual disappearance of villeinage in England. The prominence of the now greatly augmented middle class, already prosperous and quite capable of making its influence felt, marks the end of feudal society.
Boccaccio’s Decamerone represents a literary response to the plague, although there are almost no examples of true plague art before 1400. Pestschriften were issued regularly with advice as to treatment, but comets and planetary conjunctions were often blamed for the onset of an epidemic.
The 100 Years’ War (Part I)
The date generally given to mark the beginning of the 100 Years’ War is May 25, 1337, on that day, the French king, Philip VI, invaded the duchy of Guienne in South Western France, which was held by the English king, Edward III, as a feudal fief. However, the reasons for the following series of military campaigns, truces, and peace treatises are more complex. Since the times of William the Conqueror, the English monarchy had posed a more or less serious threat to the French kings by the Norman and Plantagenet control over large feudal fiefs in France. In the course of time, the French kings had succeeded in regaining authority over those territories. What is more, the French had always helped Scotland in the wars against England, thus threatening the realm from the North. A further cause of aggression between England and France was their rivalry for the trade of Flanders and the control of the Channel. In other words, political reasons, feudal disputes, and the striving for economic power were the main causes of this series of wars which lasted until 1453.
How it came about
Edward II (1307-27)
Edward III (1327-77)
Richard II (1377-99)
On the surface, the immediate pretext for war was Edward III’s claim to the French throne. Edward’s mother, Isabella of Valois, was the sister of the French king Charles IV who died in 1328. Edward saw himself as the legitimate heir of the French king, as he considered his lineage to be more direct than that of Philip, who was a cousin to the deceased king. The French maintained that the crown could not be inherited through the female line. Therefore, the 100 Years’ War is not only a political conflict, but also a dynastic contention between the House of Plantagenet and the House of Valois.
What followed was not constant warfare, but rather a series of campaigns and battles with long interruptions of diplomatic negotiations and truces. The war can be divided into two phases: the first phase lasting from 1337 to 1386, and the second from 1414 to 1453. Within the period from the 1380s to 1414 there was no actual fighting at all.
War & Peace 1st phase: 1337-1386 2nd phase: 1414-1453
In 1338, Edward III immediately reacted to Philip’s seizure of Guienne by declaring himself King of France. He invaded Northern France and, in 1340, he won a decisive naval battle near Sluys in the Scheldt estuary. The French lost almost their entire fleet, as more than 200 ships were captured by the English. This first major battle of the 100 Years’ War resulted in the English control of the Channel in the following decades, in which the French navy was no longer a threat to England. The French king had to agree to a truce of three years, which Edward, however, broke, when he invaded France again in 1345.
The Battle of Sluys (1340)
The Battle of Crécy was the first great English land victory over the French. On August 26, 1346, Edward led his army of less than 10,000 men to the Northern French village, Crécy, near the Somme. The English archers mowed down more than a dozen waves of assaulting French knights. At Crécy, the revolutionary English way of fighting was successful for the first time in this war. A combination of men-at-arms and archers awaited the assault of the French cavalry. It was especially the archers who inflicted terrible losses on the French army. A trained longbow-man could shoot ten arrows a minute with great accuracy over a distance of 200 yards. The French army was virtually drowned in a shower of English arrows.
A new way
After Crécy, military action ceased until 1355 when Edward the Black Prince, the king’s eldest son, captured Bordeaux and raided Southern France for several months. It was also the Black Prince who won the second great English victory of the 100 Years’ War at the Battle of Poitiers on September 19, 1356. Philip’s successor, King John II of France, and the Duke of Burgundy were captured and led to London where they were held in chivalrous captivity until a ransom was paid. In 1360, peace negotiations were at last successful and laid down in the Treaty of Bretigny. The ransom to be paid for the French king was 500,000 pounds. The sum was never completely paid before John II died in English captivity in 1364. The other clauses of the treaty gave possession of large areas territories in France to the English Crown.
John’s son, Charles V, renewed the war against the English lands in France in 1369. Together with their Castillian allies, the French forces successfully harried the English territories in South Western France. Military failures, and above all economic problems at home, found the English on the losing side. The war was expensive and the Crown’s chest notoriously empty. The economic consequences of the plague and heavy taxation led to a tense political situation in England. After the death of the Black Prince in 1376 and that of his father in 1377, the young king Richard II and his regents were no longer capable of waging war against France. The French gradually regained control over the territories they had given up at Bretigny and the English were too weak to put up any form of effective resistance. Fighting ended in 1386 and a truce of 30 years was signed in 1396.
War, Exhaustion, Truce
Trouble in the 14th century
The topics we have selected to present the 15th century, the second phase of the 100 Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses, might give the impression that military action is the main characteristic feature of late medieval English history. Although it is true that these wars form the framework of the political history of the time, one should not forget that the 15th century is also the period of the invention of the printing press, the discovery of America, and many other achievements which make this century a period of transition between the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period.
From the Middle Ages into
The 100 Years’ War (Part II)
Henry IV (1399-1413)
During the reign of Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king, there was no fighting at all between England and France. The English king was too much occupied in securing his own position and, what is more, the clauses of the treaty of 1396 had provided a truce of 30 years. Besides, the domestic situation in France was not appropriate for a foreign war. Civil war and the permanent conflict between the House of Burgundy and the House of Orleans weakened the French monarchy.
Twelve years before the truce was intended to end, Henry V resumed the war. In 1414, he renewed the English claim to the French throne and invaded France in 1415. He seized the French port Harfleur and was intercepted by the French on his retreat to Calais. Henry’s 6,000 men faced about 25,000 French knights and soldiers near the village of Agincourt. Against all odds, the English won this decisive battle of the second phase of the 100 Years’ War because of their lightly equipped archers who had the advantage over their heavily armoured enemies in the rain and mud of the battlefield.
Henry V (1413-22)
The Battle of Agincourt (1415)
This victory paved the way for Henry’s success in the following years. Supported by the House of Burgundy, he took Rouen and Paris and controlled all of France north of the Loire. In 1420, a peace treaty was signed at Troyes virtually fulfilling the English aims of war. The French king, Charles VI declared his son illegitimate and recognized Henry V as his heir and regent. Henry married the French king’s daughter, Catherine of Valois, and returned triumphantly to England in 1421. During his attempt to fight the French opposition he died at Vincennes in 1422 leaving his cross-Channel kingdom to his one-year-old son, Henry VI.
Treaty of Troyes (1420)
The French king died in the same year and the dauphin claimed the throne
as Charles VII and was recognized south of the River Loire. In the north,
a regent ruled the kingdom in the name of Henry VI. The English invaded the
south of France and besieged the city of Orléans in 1428, which was
to become the turning point of the
100 Years’ War.
Henry VI (1422-61, 1470-71)
Joan of Arc (1412-31)
Under Joan of Arc, La Pucelle, the French forces freed Orléans, defeated the English and drove them north. Charles VII was crowned king at Reims in the same year. Joan of Arc was later captured by the Burgundians and sold to the English. In 1431, she was burnt at the stake as a relapsed heretic at Rouen. Her royal patron, Charles VII, successively regained control over the territories which his father had conceded to the English by skilful diplomatic and military action. In 1435, he entered into an alliance with the House of Burgundy, thus smashing the support of the English and took Paris in the following year.
From 1449 onwards, the French regained nearly all the territories they had lost to the English in the 1420s. In 1450/51, they took Normandy and Guienne. Only Calais remained under English control when the war practically came to its end in 1453 without any peace treaty. The English claim to the French throne had ended forever.
Last phase to 1453
The Wars of the Roses (1455-85)
The name ‘Wars of the Roses’ is used to designate the dynastic conflict between the House of Lancaster and the House of York which resulted in military action and civil wars from 1455 to 1485. Both houses were of Plantagenet origin in that their representatives were direct descendants of Edward III. The king’s fourth son, John of Gaunt, became duke of Lancaster in 1362 and his sons and grandsons ruled England from 1399 to 1461 and from 1470 to 1471. John’s younger brother, Edmund of Langley, was created duke of York in 1385 and his descendants became kings as Edward IV and V and Richard III. This dynastic struggle was later called ‘The Wars of the Roses’, since the emblems of the white and red rose were attributed to the Yorkist and Lancastrian branches of the House of Plantagenet.
The war broke out in 1455 as the result of Henry VI’s insanity and, above all, because of the losses in France. The Yorkist opponents to the Lancastrian king won the first battles at St Albans (1455) and Northampton (1460) under the leadership of Richard Plantagenet, duke of York. But in the same year, York was defeated and killed at Wakefield.
Edward IV (1461-70, 1471-83)
In 1461, Richard’s son was acclaimed king by Parliament and crowned as Edward IV, the first Yorkist king of England. He defeated Henry VI and his queen Margaret, who escaped to Scotland until 1464 when they returned to England. Henry was captured in the next year and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Inner strife within the Yorkist faction brought Henry back to the throne in 1470 after Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, had driven Edward IV into exile in Holland. Only one year later, he returned with a large army and defeated his enemies at Barnet and Tewkesbury. Henry was dethroned for a second time and sent again to the Tower, where he died - probably murdered - in the same year.
Until his death in 1483, Edward’s rule was firmly established and his kingdom began to prosper again. The first English printing press was established at Westminster by William Caxton and silk manufacturing was introduced. Upon Edward’s death, his brother Richard usurped the throne and had himself crowned as Richard III. The legitimate heir, Edward V, a boy of twelve, was imprisoned together with his brother in the Tower of London. The children disappeared soon after Richard’s coronation, but whether he was guilty of their murder is still a matter of dispute.
Richard III (1483-85)
Wars of the Roses
Having no real chance of regaining sole power, the Lancastrians supported Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, against the last Yorkist king. At the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, Richard III lost his life and his kingdom. With Henry VII and the rise of the Tudor dynasty the Houses of York and Lancaster were united by marriage, because Henry’s queen was Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV. Thus the Wars of the Roses resulted in a strengthened Tudor monarchy: The financial resources and the political power of the Crown had been increased considerably by the inner strife between the old aristocratic houses. Very similar to the contemporary developments in France, the English monarchy was on its way to absolutism.
The 15th century:
A good survey is given in:
Lexikon des Mittelalters, s.v. ‘England, Geschichte’.
Two volumes of The Longman History of England comprise the period
of this unit, i.e.:
Frank Barlow. The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216. London 1972.
B. Wilkinson. The Later Middle Ages in England, 1216-1485. London1969.
Very readable and richly illustrated are the publications of the ‘Chronicle
Series’ edited by Elizabeth Hallam:
The Plantagenet Chronicles. London1986.
Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry. London1987.
The Chronicles of the Wars of the Roses. London 1988.
The Plantagenet Encyclopedia. London 1990.