The History of Medieval England from 1066-1413

Kings of England

Anglo-Norman Angevin/Plantagenet
William I (1066-1087) Henry II (1154-1189) Edward I (1272-1307)
William II (1087-1100) Richard I (1189-1199) Edward II (1307-1327)
Henry I (1100-1135) John (1199-1216) Edward III (1327-1377)
Stephen (1135-1154)
(Succession contested by Matilda, daughter of Henry I)
Henry III (1216-1272) Richard II (1377-1399)
Henry IV (1399-1413)

The Norman Conquest

In 1066 William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, defeated the Anglo-Saxon king Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Most of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy were quickly destroyed and replaced with William's Norman followers. After William consolidated control of England, his sons William II and Henry I spent much of their time trying to secure their authority in both England and Normandy at once. They spent much of their time in Normandy. Back in England, the Anglo-Norman nobility rapidly transformed the political and cultural scene, making French the primary language of power and literature.

The Civil War between Stephen and Matilda

On Henry I's death the throne was claimed both by his daughter Matilda and by Stephen, son of William the Conqueror's daughter Adela. Matilda, known as Empress Matilda because she had been married to the Emperor of Germany until his death, was not popular, and the Anglo-Norman barons had Stephen (1135-1154) crowned. Matilda married a powerful French lord, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou and Maine, and continued to press her claim. Gradually, support shifted in her direction due to discontent with Stephen's rule. By the 1150s a political solution was worked out in which Matilda abdicated in favour of her son Henry of Anjou, and Stephen agreed to make him his heir.

The Angevin Empire

Henry II (1154-1189) became king on Stephen's death. Henry's father was nicknamed Plantagenet (French for 'sprig of broom'), and Henry's dynasty is therefore called the Plantagenet Dynasty. His accession to the throne meant that the English king now held extensive territory in France: Normandy, Anjou, and Maine. Because Henry's hereditary lands were in Anjou, the territories he ruled are sometimes known as the 'Angevin Empire'. These territories were extended by an advantageous marriage. In 1152 Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the largest landholders in France secured a divorce from the French king, Louis VII. She promptly married Henry, bringing under his control the the lands of Aquitaine and Gascony in southern France. When Henry became king of England two years later, he controlled territory from the Scottish border to the Spanish border, including about a third of France.

Henry II is chiefly known for his stormy marriage with Eleanor, whom he imprisoned for many years for her support of her three sons' attempts to wrest power from him, as well as for his conflict with Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas had once been Henry's friend and Chancellor, but they fell out in the 1160s over who had issue over clerics suspected of committing crimes, and more generally over the extent of secular and ecclesiastical jurisdiction. The tale goes that Henry, in a fit of exasperation, exclaimed: 'Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest', and then forgot his words. But in 1170 four of his knights took them seriously and killed him on the floor of Canterbury Cathedral. Henry later admitted responsibility for Thomas' death, and, soon after, miracles were reported. Thomas à Becket eventually became a saint, and his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral became a site of pilgrimage. Henry's reign is associated with extensive judicial reforms which created the basis of Common Law, the foundation of the legal systems of most English-speaking countries today, including the United States of America.

Henry's three sons were Henry (d. 1183), Richard I (1189-1199), and John (1199-1216). The last is famous for having tried to usurp the throne from Richard, the political scenario which forms the backdrop for the Robin Hood legend. More importantly, after he became king, he entered an unwise marriage with the fiancée of a French nobleman, which gave the French king and excuse to invade Normandy. In this way, the English throne lost most of William the Conqueror's original duchy to the French. John's son was Henry III (1216-1272). Henry's son was Edward I (1272-1307). He is chiefly known for his having annexed Wales, after which time the heir to the English throne has received the title Prince of Wales. He also engaged in an extended conflict with Scotland, which forms the backdrop for the film Braveheart. He was succeeded by his son Edward II (1307-1327) and his grandson Edward III (1327-1377).

Edward III and the Hundred Years War

Edward III's fifty-year reign saw the glory days of medieval England. In 1328, the French king Philip IV died without an heir. Edward, whose mother was Philip's daughter, immediately claimed the French crown. Naturally, the French barons refused to accept him and instead elected Philip of Valois, the king's cousin, to the throne. Thus began the Hundred Years War, really a series of conflicts between 1377 and 1453. Edward was extremely successful militarily and, with the help of his son, Edward the Black Prince (because of his black armour) extended English control over Normandy and about half of France. The conflict brought vast amounts of wealth back from the Continent, and Edward's court became the glory of Europe, in which the king self-consciously styled himself as a new King Arthur. But by the 1370s Edward was aging, and his son, stricken with dysentery, had to retire from the battle field. The French began to regain their losses, and English public opinion began to turn against the war. Edward III died in 1377, the year after his son, and the Black Prince's son Richard II (1377-1399) became king.

Richard II

Richard was only ten years old when he came to the throne, and his early years were dominated by the politics of his uncles John of Gaunt and Thomas of Woodstock. Both were heavily invested in the war with France and encouraged the collection of taxes to fund new campaigns. This ultimately lead to the Great Revolt of 1381 (sometimes erroneously called the Peasant Revolt) in which public anger over this financial burden combined with simmering social discontent over worker's rights led to rioting in London. The thirteen-year old Richard faced down the mob, but not before much destruction had taken place. When Richard turned twenty-one in 1389, he took control over the government and began a pacifist foreign policy, instead concentrating on securing increased personal control over England. This, combined with Richard's extravagant spending on courtly luxuries, ultimately led to internal discontent, and, when Richard confiscated the lands of John of Gaunt's exiled son Henry, the latter received overwhelming support in his attempts to win them back by force. Richard was forced to cede the throne to his cousin, who became Henry IV (1399-1413). Henry and the other descendants of John of Gaunt are called Lancastrians, because John was Duke of Lancaster.

The Black Death and the Economy

Between 1347 and 1450 there were periodic outbreaks of bubonic plague, known as the Black Death, a bacterium carried by fleas. The disease originated in Asia and first reached England in 1348. During the next hundred years it killed half the population of Europe, or more. As a consequence, there were acute labour shortages, allowing workers to ask for higher wages and encouraging them to seek higher-paying jobs in the cities, which grew in population, as a result. These were in fact trends that were already underway as a result of the economic success of the feudal system, but the population depletion accelerated the process and turned a gradual change into an economic and political crisis. In 1351 Edward III's government was forced to pass the Statute of Labourers, which capped wage earnings. This contributed to tensions which eventually led to the Great Revolt of 1381 in the early years of Richard II. Despite government attempts to regulate the economy, people continued to generate new wealth from higher wages and the profits of war. This led to considerable social mobility and led to lively (and politically charged) debates over the models of society propounded by earlier social theorists.

Religious Developments

In the Middle Ages the Church had jurisdiction over the moral and spiritual aspects of people's lives, particularly in the matters of marriage and sexual relations. The Church offered many opportunities for education (all universities were religious institutions) and social advancement, but its officials (known collectively as clerks) were frequently corrupt. This had been a problem since Henry II's day, but the fourteenth century saw the growth of an organised counter-reaction by reformers known as Lollards. The Lollards followed the doctrines of John Wycliffe, an Oxford scholar who argued in 1377, when Edward III refused to pay levies to the Pope, that Parliament had the right to limit Church power. Wycliffe had considerable support at court until 1379, when he began to attack the English Church and repudiated the doctrine of transubstantiation. He was brought several times before Church authorities for his view that worldly authority came directly from God and was forfeited by the sinful (the implication being that the Church had forfeited its authority through its corruption). He believed that priestly mediation was not needed for a relationship with God and that Christians should govern themselves through close adherence to Scripture. To this end, he undertook an English translation of the Vulgate, or Latin Bible. Wycliffe further held that the clergy should imitate the poverty of Christ. Finally, Wycliffe disavowed serfdom and warfare. Wycliffe was suspected of fomenting social unrest, and his ideas certainly influenced those who led the Great Revolt of 1381. Wycliffe died in 1384, but his followers continued to be active until the end of Richard II's reign. Lollards were frequently persecuted (and even burnt) in the fifteenth century. In the sixteenth century, Lollardy would be absorbed into the greater movement towards Protestantism.

Note: Important events and concepts have been placed in boldface, but you should also know the names of the monarch and dynasties associated with these events and concepts, as well as their relative chronology.

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Last Update: 23 January, 2003