The Medieval Period (1066-1485)



The Normans, or “North Men,” were descendants of the Vikings who had invaded the coast of France in the 9th Century. Over the years, these people had adopted many French ways. They had become devout Christians. They had accustomed themselves to speaking a dialect of the French language. They had organized themselves according to French political and economic systems of the times- feudalism.

William I

William, Duke of Normandy, had family ties to Edward the Confessor, the English King. When Edward died in 1066, the Saxon witan- the council of elders- Chose Harold II as King. William of Normandy, meanwhile, claimed that Edward had promised him the throne. William thereupon led a few thousand Norman and French troops across the English Channel to assert his claim by force.

Battle fo Hastings

He met King Harold at the Battle of Hastings near a seaside village in southern England. Harold was killed, and William emerged victorious. He then headed to London, brutally crushing all resistance. At Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, William The Conqueror took the throne of England as King William I.

Over the next 5 years, William consolidated his victory. He Suppressed the Anglo-Saxon nobility and confiscated their lands. He saw to it that the Normans controlled government at all levels. The Normans conducted their business in Norman French or Latin. They gradually remade England along feudal lines.

Act of Homage

Feudalism had taken root on the European continent at a time when no central government was strong enough to keep order. Under the circumstances, nobles had to rely on their own warriors for help. The system they created was an exchange of property for personal service. The person who granted the property was the lord or overlord. The person who received it was the vassal. The vassal promised service to his lord in a ceremony called the Act of Homage. At the same time, the vassal usually pledged his faithfulness by taking the Christian vow of Fealty.

In theory, all the land belonged to the ruler. The King kept some of it for his personal use, granted some to the Church, and parceled out the rest among his powerful supporters. He gave these supporters noble titles- usually “Baron”- and the special privileges that went with them. The parcels of land granted to the Barons were known as fiefs.

Feudal Harvest

As a vassal of his overlord, each baron was obliged to pay certain fees of taxes. He was also expected to supply a specified number of knights, or professional soldiers, should the king require them. In return for their services, knights usually received smaller parcels of land, called manors. The peasants who worked these manors were the lowest class in the feudal system, the serfs. Manors became the basic community of the feudal system. Most were self-sufficient, using their own craftsmen to provide nearly all their needs.

In the 11th century, Europe had no nation-sates with firm political boundaries. William and the Norman kings who followed him- William II, Henry I, and Stephen of Blois- held feudal domains in both England and France. Since the had two realms, Norman Kings had far wider responsibilities than Saxon kings had faced. The situation also meant that English barons dissatisfied with their overlord could cross the English Channel and stir up trouble on the other side.

Saxons and Normans

Like a great many of history’s conquerors, the Normans thought themselves vastly superior to the people they had conquered. The invaders treated Saxons and Danes as not quite human and sniffed at their language as unworthy of respect. The Normans substituted their dialect of French in the law of courts as well as in the conduct of business in general. To this day, French words such as “bail” and “sergeant” remain embedded in the language of English law.

Traces of Norman discrimination against the Saxons have lingered for centuries. Sir Walter Scott, in his 19th century novel Ivanhoe, noted one aspect of Norman superiority. In the field, he wrote, “A domestic animal us often referred to by it’s Saxon name- swine, sheep, or ox. When the same animal appears on the dinner table, however, it takes a French name- pork, mutton, or beef.” In other words the raising of farm animals was considered a Saxon activity, whereas the more elegant pursuit, dining, befitted the Normans.

Henry II

Although Norman influence continued for centuries, Norman rule ended in 1154 when Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou and Maine came to the throne as Henry II. Henry founded the royal house of Plantagenet, otherwise known was Angevin (from Anjou), line of English monarchs. A strong committed ruler, Henry established a record as one of England’s ablest Kings. He had an avid interest in government and a keen understanding of the law.


Henry’s concerns with legal matters led him into direct conflict with the Church. By the 12th century, the Church had grown ever more powerful, obtaining authority to put clergymen on trial in Church-run courts. Henry sought to curb some abuses connected with this privilege. When the archbishop’s seat at Canterbury fell vacant, he appointed his friend, Thomas Becket to the position, expecting Becket to go along with royal policy. (His inside man, he was hoping.) Instead, Becket defied the king and appealed to the Pope. (He took his new found position very seriously.) The Pope sided with Becket, provoking Henry with rage.

Becket Martyr

Some of Henry’s knights misunderstood the royal wrath. In a fit,  Henry II was said to have outburst something along the line of, “Would no one rid me of this meddlesome priest!” In 1170, four of the knights went to Canterbury and murdered Becket in his cathedral. Henry quickly condemned the crime and tried to atone for it by making a holy journey, or pilgrimage, to Becket’s tomb. Becket became a famous Christian Martyr and thereafter, Becket’s shrine at Canterbury became a common English means of showing religious devotion. The character’s in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, for example, make just such a pilgrimage.

Richard and John

The next king, the eldest surviving son of Henry II at his death, Richard I “The Lionheart,” spent most of his reign staging military expeditions overseas during the Crusades. His activities proved costly, and his successor, King John, inherited the debts. John tried to raise money by ordering new taxes on the barons and saved money by curtailing services such as the sending of judges to local districts to settle quarrels. The barons resisted these measures, bringing England to the edge of civil war. To avert further trouble, King John at last agreed to certain of the barons’ conditions by putting his seal to the Magna Carta (Latin for “Great Charter”).

Magna Carta Funny

In this document, the king promised not to tax land without further meeting with the barons. He also said he would choose as his officers only those “who know the law of the realm and mean to observe it well.” The Magna Carta produced no radical changes in government, yet many historians believe the document’s restrictions on power marked the beginning of constitutional government in England.

Four Kings

Constitutional government continued to develop under subsequent kings. During the reign of Henry III, the Great Council of barons who advised the king came to be called Parliament. Henry’s successor, Edward I, became the first king to summon a parliament partly elected by “free men”- a term that included some ordinary townspeople as well as barons. By the end of the 13th century, Parliament had already been established as a cornerstone of government in the British Isles.

Medieval London

It was no accident that some members of the Parliament were now represented townspeople. In the 13th century, towns were becoming increasingly important in English life. The Crusades, a series of religious wars in the 11th to the 13th centuries, had stimulated trade between Europe and the Middle East. As trade expanded, so did Europe’s trading centers. The largest of these centers in England was London, originally built by the Romans. Four times more populous than any other English community, London had already achieved status as a city.

Medieval Forge

In London and elsewhere, townspeople organized themselves into guilds, or associations, of various sorts. The two most significant types were merchant and crafts guilds. Merchant guilds were formed in an effort to promote business  within a town, often at the expense of other towns nearby. As these guilds became more powerful, some of them virtually took over town governments. Craft guilds, like our modern labor unions, sought to protect the interests of workers such as weavers, carpenters, and tanners. They also tried to assure the quality of work these craftspeople produced. Such organizations operated in a world in which advancement was tightly controlled. A young person typically entered a craft as an apprentice, or beginner, and worked his way up the ladder, sometimes reaching the highest rung as master craftsman.

Black Death

The growth of towns meant that wealthy was no longer restricted to land ownership, which remained a privilege of nobility. Unfortunately, it also meant that people lived much closer together, often under conditions that were far from sanitary. When infectious diseases came to England, they spread havoc in the towns. The worst epidemic, the great plague called The Black Death, swept the island in 1348 and 1349, killing a third of the population.

Lancaster Kings

By the time of the Black Death, England had already passed into the period known as the Later Middle Ages. This period lasted from the beginning of the 14th century to the end of the 15th. During those years, the house of Lancaster replace the Plantagenets on the throne, only to be replaced in turn by the house of York. The Lancastrian kings were Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI, all of whom became central figures in the historical dramas of Shakespeare.

During the Later Middle Ages, the feudal system went into a steep decline. As new towns appeared, feudal notions of land tenure seemed more outdated. After the Black Death swept across England, a massive labor shortage increased the value of peasant’s work. More and more landowners began to pay their farmers in cash, giving these workers a greater sense of freedom. Along with freedom went frustration, as peasants began complaining about discriminatory laws and onerous taxation. Finally, in 1381, peasants in southern England staged a revolt, demanding among other things, an end to serfdom. Although the revolt was eventually crushed, many of its causes continued, and so did the peasants’ discontent.

John Wycliffe

At about the time of the Peasants’ revolt, other complaints were being directed at the Church. They came from an outspoken scholar, John Wycliffe, who thought that religion traveled far from its roots. Wycliffe opposed all forms of wealth among the clergy. He showed only scorn for monks, calling them men with “red and fat cheeks and great bellies.” He believed that all religious authority sprang from the Bible, not from the Church.

Wycliffe directed the translation of the Bible into English in the hope of making it more accessible to the people. He also helped to organize an order of  “poor priest” known as Lollards. Eventually the archbishop of Canterbury moved against the Lollards as heretics, people who attack Church doctrine and undermine Church authority. Yet the Lollards continued to spread Wycliffe’s teachings for a number of years after the scholars death.

The Red and White Rose

Just as the English Middle Ages has opened with a struggle for power, they closed with a similar conflict. This one began in 1453, when King Henry VI suffered the first of many bouts of madness. Parliament appointed his cousin Richard of York as temporary head of government. When Henry recovered briefly, Richard was forced from office, and Henry returned to the throne. Richard would not depart without a fight, however. The resulting civil war became known as the War of the Roses, for it pitted the House of York, whose symbol was the white rose, against the house of Lancaster, whose symbol was a red rose.

York Kings

In 1461, a Yorkist victory put Richard’s son, Edward, on the throne. As Edward IV, he ruled England until his death in 1483, when his eldest son, still a boy, became Edward V. Soon afterward, Edward V and his brother died mysteriously in the Tower of London while under the supposed protection of their uncle, Richard of Gloucester. The boys are famously referred to as the Two Princes in the Tower. Richard, accused by many people of these “Tower Murders,” had already proclaimed himself King Richard III.

First Tudor King

Two years later, Henry Tudor, a distant cousin and supporter of the Lancastrian kings, led a rebellion against the unpopular King Richard and killed him. Tudor, crowned Henry VII, later married Richard’s niece, Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV and sister of Edward V. By doing so, he united the houses of Lancaster and York and ended the War of the Roses. by the time Henry had established a new royal line, the House of Tudor, the English Middle Ages had ended.


Most societies have lived by a well-established set of ideals, and England of the Middle Ages was no exception. One set of standards by which people measured themselves during these years was the code of knightly behavior known as chivalry. The idea of chivalry first arose on the European continent at the time of the Crusades. Although the Crusades often involved brutality and bloodshed, they encouraged warriors to search for higher rules of conduct.

At first the code dealt mainly with loyalty and valor, both on and off the battlefield. By the 13th century, however, chivalry had grown considerably more complex. Every knight was supposed to pledge his service to a lady. He might also be expected to joust for his lady’s favor or to rescue maidens in distress.

French poets known as troubadours popularized this tradition in songs of gallant knights. Originally these songs were written in Romance, or Roman influenced languages rather than Latin, and so they were called romances. At the French court, it became important for knights to treat ladies with respect that bordered on reverence. Gradually the same ideal took root in the English court.

Gwen and Lancelot

One example illustrating the development of chivalry originated with the Celts. For example, after their defeat by the Anglo-Saxons, the Celts had told stories of a great hero, King Arthur. Historians cannot say for certain whether Arthur actually lived or not, tales about him are considered legends, a blend of fiction and fact. When Normans were battling the Anglo-Saxons they became interested in the old Celtic legends. In about 1136, a Welsh-born scholar, Geoffrey of Monmouth, drew upon his knowledge of Celtic legends and his readings of Bede to produce a History of the Kings of Britain. This fanciful history, though written in Latin, quickly popularized the supposed early Celtic King.

Because of the Normans’ French ties, the tales of Arthur spread not only in England but also in France. Another tale worthy of note is Tristan and Isolde.

Tristan and Isolde


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