Medieval Part II

The period between the Black Death and the accession of the Tudors was a turbulent but formative chapter of England’s story. It witnessed wars and aristocratic feuding, with at times a rapid succession of monarchs. But it was also a time when the gentry and a new class of lawyers and merchants became increasingly influential, and an era that saw the triumph of the English language.

Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland

Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland, was home to John of Gaunt, one of the most powerful noblemen in 14th-century England

PLAGUE AND REVOLT

During the reign of Edward III (r.1327–77) the great pestilence of 1348–9 killed between a third and a half of England’s population. The most immediate of its many effects was an acute labour shortage. Survivors demanded higher wages and bond men refused to do unpaid ‘service’ for feudal masters. Attempts to fix wages and prices at pre-plague rates only increased resentment.

Edward III’s grandson and successor Richard II (r.1377–99) inherited a bankrupt treasury and discontent over reverses in the conflicts with France later known as the Hundred Years War (1337–1453). In 1381 simmering grievances erupted into the Peasants’ Revolt.

But the tottering feudal system was not the only institution being challenged. For the first time in English history, the doctrines as well as the actions of the Church were being attacked, by John Wycliffe and the Lollards.

Bow Bridge in Cumbria, on the road to Furness Abbey

15th-century Bow Bridge was used by hundreds of travellers and pilgrims on the route to Furness Abbey, Cumbria, one of the richest Cistercian monasteries in England. Many monasteries became popular pilgrimage destinations in this period.

POWER OF THE CHURCH

Yet religion remained all-pervasive in daily life, though the focus of piety changed from monasteries to parish churches. These were now being built in the distinctively English Perpendicular style of architecture.

Many people sought salvation by paying to have prayers said for them in chantry chapels, and undertaking pilgrimages. This swelled the increasing number of travellers on the country’s roads.

Stained-glass window of Richard II

The coronation of Richard II (r.1377–99), depicted in a stained-glass window at Winchester College. Richard was increasingly resented for bestowing patronage on his favourites at the expense of the rest of the nobility. The distribution of wealth and influence was a frequent cause of friction between king and nobles in the 14th and 15th centuries.
© Historic England Archive (BB93/26596)

ROYAL UPHEAVALS

In 1399, Richard II was deposed and murdered by Henry IV (r.1399–1413), the first of the many upheavals to afflict the monarchy during this period. Though assailed from many quarters, Henry held onto his throne, and his Lancastrian dynasty was reprieved by the achievements of his son.

The greatest of all English warrior kings, Henry V (r.1413–22) won a startling victory over the French at Agincourt (1415), achieved largely thanks to the all-conquering English longbow. By the time of his premature death he was ruling half of France.

Manuscript illustration of the Battle of Agincourt, 1415

The Battle of Agincourt, 1415, depicted in a 15th-century French manuscript. Henry V’s victory against a much larger French army was one of the key engagements in the intermittent series of conflicts later known as the Hundred Years War (1337–1453), fought over the English claim to the French throne and over English territories across the Channel.
© Bibliothèque nationale de France (Chroniques Bruges, f.208)

THE WARS OF THE ROSES

More dangerous was the increasingly fashionable expression of power and status through the recruiting of private armies of liveried retainers. These contributed to the breakdown of order as Henry VI (r.1422–61 and 1470–71) proved incompetent to rule, and rival aristocratic factions contended to control both monarch and kingdom.

These feuds developed into a series of short campaigns (and often bloody battles) fought at intervals between 1455 and 1485, during which the Crown changed hands six times. Cannon were used in some sieges, but the longbow remained the dominant weapon.

The Yorkist Edward IV (r.1461–70 and 1471–83) eventually emerged victorious. But his brother Richard III (r.1483–5) alienated supporters by seizing the throne from his nephew Edward V (r.1483). Richard was defeated and killed at Bosworth (1485) by the Lancastrian heir, Henry Tudor.

COMMUNICATIONS, COOKERY AND COMMERCE

Increasingly, the language of government records was English, instead of Norman-French or Latin. Pioneered as a literary language by Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340–1400) and his contemporaries, English was used for everyday communications by a more literate population. Letters in English between families appeared, as did the first English autobiography.

Cookery books and books of etiquette in English reflect the ceremonious serving of elaborate meals, one aspect of the conspicuous consumption that characterised 15th-century upper-class life. Another was the building of impressive semi-fortified mansions masquerading as castles, sometimes financed by the profits of war in France.

The multiple wars of this period had comparatively little impact on towns – now almost totally dominated by merchant and craft guilds – or on commerce. Woven cloth was steadily replacing raw wool as England’s chief export.

With its French territories finally lost in 1453, England’s chief trading partners were Flanders and north Germany. In 1476 William Caxton, a merchant who had worked in both places, imported the first printing press into England, heralding a revolution in communication.

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