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The Middle Ages in Britain

Conflicts Within and Beyond

Generally, the Middle Ages, or the medieval period, extends from the end of the Roman Empire in AD 476 until 1485. However, this section primarily discusses the time following the Norman Conquest, a period marked by almost incessant warfare.
The English monarchs engaged in conflicts with the Welsh, Scottish, and Irish lords over territorial control. In Wales, English rule was established effectively. In 1284, King Edward I of England enacted the Statute of Rhuddlan, integrating Wales into the Crown of England. Massive fortresses, such as Conwy and Caernarvon, were constructed to uphold this authority. By the mid-15th century, the final Welsh revolts had been suppressed. English laws and the English language were imposed.
The English monarchs did not fare as well in Scotland. Robert the Bruce led the Scots to victory against the English in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, keeping Scotland untouched by English conquest.
At the onset of the Middle Ages, Ireland was a sovereign nation. The English initially arrived in Ireland as a military force to aid the Irish king, but they stayed to establish their own settlements. By 1200, the English governed an area of Ireland known as the Pale, centered around Dublin. Some significant lords in other regions of Ireland recognized the authority of the English king.
During the Middle Ages, the English kings also waged several wars abroad. Many knights participated in the Crusades, in which European Christians battled for control over the Holy Land. The English monarchs also waged a protracted war with France, known as the Hundred Years War (which in fact lasted 116 years). One of the most notable battles of the Hundred Years War was the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, in which King Henry V's greatly outnumbered English army defeated the French. The English departed France in the 1450s.

The Plague - The Black Death

The Normans instituted a system of land ownership known as feudalism. In exchange for military support, the king granted land to his lords. Landowners were required to provide a certain number of soldiers to serve in the army. Some peasants owned their own land, but the majority were serfs. They had a small portion of their lord's land where they could cultivate crops. In exchange, they had to work for their lord and were not permitted to relocate. This system also evolved in southern Scotland. In northern Scotland and Ireland, land was owned by members of 'clans' (prominent families).
In 1348, a disease, likely a type of plague, arrived in Britain. This was known as the Black Death. One third of the population of England perished, with a similar proportion in Scotland and Wales. This remains one of the most catastrophic events to have ever impacted Britain. Following the Black Death, the diminished population reduced the demand for cereal crops. Labor shortages ensued, and peasants began to request higher wages. New social classes emerged, including large landowners (later referred to as the gentry), and individuals began to migrate from the countryside to towns. In these towns, increasing wealth fostered the development of a robust middle class.
In Ireland, the Black Death caused many deaths in the Pale, resulting in a temporary decrease in the area controlled by the English.

During the Middle Ages, the foundations of today's Parliament were laid. Its roots can be traced back to the king's council of advisors, composed of important nobles and church leaders.
Until 1215, there were minimal formal restrictions on the king's power. However, that year, King John was compelled by his noblemen to accede to several demands. The result was a charter of rights known as the Magna Carta (or the Great Charter). The Magna Carta enshrined the concept that even the king was subject to the law. It safeguarded the rights of the nobility, limited the king's ability to tax, and restricted his power to legislate and alter laws. From then on, the king would need to involve his nobles in decision-making.
Parliaments were summoned in England for the king to consult his nobles, particularly when the king needed to raise funds. The number of attendees at Parliament increased, and two separate sections, or Houses, were established. The House of Lords comprised the nobility, major landowners, and bishops. The House of Commons was made up of knights, typically smaller landowners, and affluent individuals from towns and cities, who were elected. However, only a small portion of the population was eligible to vote in elections for the Commons.
A similar parliamentary system evolved in Scotland. It had three houses, known as Estates: the lords, the commons, and the clergy.
This era also saw significant developments in the legal system. The principle of judicial independence from the government began to take root. In England, judges developed 'common law' based on precedent (i.e., adhering to past decisions) and tradition. In Scotland, the legal system developed slightly differently, with laws being 'codified' (i.e., written down).

Establishing a Unique Identity

The Middle Ages bore witness to the formation of a unique national culture and identity. After the Norman Conquest, the king and his noblemen conversed in Norman French, while the peasants persisted in speaking Anglo-Saxon. Over time, these two languages coalesced into a single English language. Some modern English words, such as 'park' and 'beauty,' are based on Norman French words, while others, such as 'apple,' 'cow,' and 'summer,' stem from Anglo-Saxon. In modern English, it is often the case that two words have very similar meanings, one derived from French and the other from Anglo-Saxon. Examples of this include 'demand' (French) and 'ask' (Anglo-Saxon). By 1400, English had become the language of official documents, the royal court, and Parliament.
In the years leading up to 1400, Geoffrey Chaucer penned a series of English poems about a group of pilgrims journeying to Canterbury. To pass the time, the pilgrims decided to tell each other stories along the way. These poems, which describe the travelers and some of their stories, comprise The Canterbury Tales. This collection was one of the first books to be printed by William Caxton, the first person in England to use a printing press for book production. Many of the stories remain popular today, with several adapted into plays and television programs.
In Scotland, many people continued to speak Gaelic while the Scots language also evolved. Several poets began to write in the Scots language, including John Barbour, who penned The Bruce, a poem about the Battle of Bannockburn.
The Middle Ages saw a transformation in the architecture of Britain. Castles were erected in numerous locations throughout Britain and Ireland, largely for defense. While many stand in ruins today, others, such as Windsor and Edinburgh, are still in use. Grand cathedrals, such as Lincoln Cathedral, were also built and continue to serve as places of worship. Many of these cathedrals boasted stained glass windows depicting stories from the Bible and Christian saints, with the glass in York Minster being a well-known example.
During this period, England emerged as a significant trading nation, with English wool being a particularly valuable export. Foreigners arrived in England to trade and work, many of whom possessed specialized skills. This group included weavers from France, engineers from Germany, glass manufacturers from Italy, and canal builders from Holland.

The Wars of the Roses

The Wars of the Roses was a civil war that started in 1455, fought to determine the rightful king of England. The war was between the supporters of two rival families: the House of Lancaster, represented by a red rose, and the House of York, symbolized by a white rose. This conflict reached its climax with the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, where King Richard III from the House of York was killed. Following the battle, Henry Tudor, who led the House of Lancaster, ascended to the throne as King Henry VII. To unify the warring factions, Henry married Elizabeth of York, King Richard III's niece. This union marked the beginning of the House of Tudor, whose symbol was a red rose with a white rose at its center, signifying the alliance between the Houses of Lancaster and York.

Make Sure You Understand

  • The Middle Ages was a period of frequent wars, both within the British Isles and overseas.
  • Parliament began to develop, starting as the king's council and evolving into two separate Houses.
  • Land was owned through a system known as feudalism.
  • The Black Death caused significant social changes due to massive population loss.
  • English language and culture evolved significantly during this period.
  • The Wars of the Roses led to the establishment of the House of Tudor.