Medieval Part I

Duke William of Normandy triumphed over King Harold and Anglo-Saxon England at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066. As King William of England (r.1066–87), he built Battle Abbey to mark his victory and atone for the bloodshed. Norman rule was to transform the way England was organised and governed.

Battle Abbey and Battlefield, viewed from across one of the monastic fish ponds

Battle Abbey and Battlefield, viewed from across one of the monastic fish ponds

CONSTRUCTION AND SURVEY

William and his knights, and the castles they built, transformed England and helped impose Norman rule. Norman clergy dominated the Church, and monasteries and churches were constructed in the new Romanesque or ‘Norman’ style of architecture.

William’s survey of England, Domesday Book (1086), recorded a land governed by the so-called ‘feudal system’. Every stratum of society was under an obligation of service to the class above. Punitive forest laws protected the royal hunting preserves – and reinforced the new regime.

William I seated on his throne, depicted in the late 12th-century Battle Chronicle, written by the monks of Battle Abbey.

William I seated on his throne, depicted in the late 12th-century Battle Chronicle, written by the monks of Battle Abbey.
© British Library Board (Cotton Domitian A.II f.22)

CIVIL WAR AND A STRONG KING

Baronial revolts plagued the Conqueror and his son, William Rufus (r.1087–1100), however.

William’s youngest son, Henry I (r.1100–35), brought peace and administrative and legal reform. But the country descended into chaos and civil war when Henry’s nephew Stephen (r.1135–54) was crowned king, despite the rival claim of his daughter Matilda.

Order was restored by Matilda’s son, Henry II (r.1154–89), the first of the Angevin or Plantagenet kings. A monarch of boundless energy and ungovernable rages, he travelled constantly through his vast dominions, stretching from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees. The many fortresses he raised included Dover Castle, rebuilt partly as a splendid stopover on the road to Canterbury and the shrine of his ‘turbulent’ priest, St Thomas Becket, murdered in his cathedral by Henry’s knights in 1170.

Henry’s later reign was clouded by his fraught relationship with his sons and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. When he died in France in 1189 he was at war with his eldest son, Richard, who had joined forces against him with the French king.

MAGNA CARTA

Richard I ‘the Lionheart’ (r.1189–99), was always abroad or on crusade. His younger brother John (r.1199–1216) was forced by his barons to sign Magna Carta (the ‘Great Charter’), which was intended to limit his powers, in 1215; but ultimately he ignored it. His incensed barons invited Prince Louis of France to invade in May 1216. John died in October 1216, with his nine-year-old son, Henry, assuming the throne in the midst of French invasion.

Louis conquered almost all of south-eastern England (though not Dover Castle), but retreated in 1217 after defeats in the Battle of Sandwich and in the streets of Lincoln. 

Reconstruction drawing of the great siege of Dover in 1216

Reconstruction drawing of the siege of Dover Castle in 1216, during the civil war between King John and his English barons. Here, French forces, supporting John’s enemies, undermine the castle’s northern defences.
© English Heritage (drawing by Peter Dunn)

KINGS, BARONS AND FAVOURITES

The long reign of Henry III (r.1216–72) saw further baronial unrest, from the late 1250s headed by Simon de Montfort. But after de Montfort’s death at the Battle of Evesham (1265) and the long siege of Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire, rebellion was finally suppressed. This was a time when chivalric ‘heraldry’ blossomed, enhanced by the craze for legends of King Arthur.

Edward I (r.1272–1307), another great castle-builder, united his barons behind the conquest of Wales (1277–84) and his attempts on Scotland. His Scottish policy proved disastrous for his less warlike son Edward II (r.1307–27), though, whose defeat at Bannockburn (1314) was followed by Scots raids far south of the border.

The king’s devotion to his low-born ‘favourites’, Piers Gaveston and then the Despenser family, enraged his barons. So when Edward’s spurned wife, Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, invaded from France in 1326, they quickly gained support. Edward was forced to renounce the throne in favour of his 14-year-old son, and was almost certainly brutally murdered at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire.

Tile from the Chapter House at Westminster Abbey displaying Henry III's coat of arms, the three lions of England

Heraldic floor tile in the Chapter House at Westminster Abbey depicting the three lions of England, Henry III’s coat of arms. The shield is flanked by centaurs and wyverns (beasts with dragons’ heads and serpents’ tails).

VICTORY IN FRANCE

Although Isabella and Mortimer initially governed, Edward III (r.1327–77) assumed control in his own right in 1330, ousting his mother and executing her lover.

Edward was a great warrior king, winning victories in France at Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) during the early years of the Hundred Years War. His armies included archers using longbows, which became the dominant English weapon of the later Middle Ages.

NEW SYSTEMS

Monasteries and churches flourished: from about 1170 the Romanesque was superseded by the new Gothic style of architecture. New religious foundations such as almshouses and hospitals cared for the poor and sick.

Towns grew in size and autonomy, as the old divisions between Normans and the English began to break down. English began to replace Norman-French as the dominant language. Commerce developed, helped by better coinage and the growth of the wool trade. But the growth of a money-based economy began to put the old feudal order under pressure.

Then, in 1348–9, the established order and the population were struck a devastating blow by the Black Death.

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