16. A peasant’s life in the
17. The church in the
18. Education in the
19. Children in the Middle
20. Food in the Middle
21. Clothes in the Middle
encompass one of the most exciting and turbulent times in English History. The
Medieval people of the Middle Ages were warlike, they have even been described
as barbaric. The Crusades exposed the Europeans to a more refined culture. The
elegance of the Far East, with its silks, tapestries, precious stones,
perfumes, spices, pearls, and ivory prompted a change in culture with a new and
unprecedented interest in beautiful objects and elegant manners. But meanwhile
the battles for new territory and power raged on in Middle Ages History. The
History of the Middle Ages covers the major historical events which occurred
during the period from 1066 - 1485. The History of the Middle Ages starts in
England with the Battle of Hastings in 1066 which ended the period classified
as the Dark Ages. The events in Middle Ages History continue down the timeline
until 1485 which ends the War of the Roses, the start of the Tudor
dynasty and the emergence of the Renaissance.
The life of
all the classes was dominated by the feudal system. The society was organized into
a kind of pyramid. At the top of the pyramid was the king. Below him were the
barons or tenants-in-chief. The king granted them land and in return they had
to provide soldiers in time of war.
The church was
an important part of the feudal system. The church owned vast amounts of land
and livestock. Furthermore the peasants had to give a one tenth of everything
they produced (crops, eggs, animals) to the church. Many bishops and abbots
were very rich and powerful.
In the Middle
Ages the king ruled by divine right. In other words people believed that God
had chosen him to be king and rebellion against him was a sin. However that did
not stop rebellions! Kings had limited power in the Middle Ages and rebellion
was easy. A great deal depended on the personality of the king. If he was a
strong character he could control the barons. If he were weak or indecisive the
barons would often rebel. Warrior kings who fought successful wars were the
most powerful as they were popular with the nobility.
the medieval England
of Normandy, was crowned King of England on 25 December 1066. However at first
his position was by no means secure. He had only several thousand men to
control a population of about 2 million. Furthermore Swein, king of Denmark
also claimed the throne of England. At first the Normans were hated invaders
and they had to hold down a resentful Saxon population. In 1078 William began
building the Tower of London.
stayed in Normandy from March to December 1067. When he returned to England his
first task was to put down an uprising in the Southwest. He laid siege to
Exeter. Eventually the walled town surrendered on honorable terms.
Southern England was now under Norman control the Midlands and North were a
different matter. In 1068 William marched north through Warwick and Nottingham to York. The people of York submitted to him for
the moment and William returned to London Cambridge and York.
changed the church in England. In those days the church was rich and powerful
and the king needed its support. William replaced senior Saxon clergymen with
men loyal to himself.
in 1087 and he was succeeded by his son, also called William (sometimes called
Rufus because of his complexion).
definitely not a supporter of the church and was deeply unpopular with the
clergy. Among other things they criticized him and his courtiers for having
long hair. (In his father's day short hair was the fashion).
many ways Rufus was a capable king. Under him the barons were in an awkward
position because most of them held land in Normandy as well as in England. Many
of them wanted a single man to rule both. So in 1088 there was a rebellion in
eastern England. The rebels hoped to dispose of Rufus and make his brother
Robert ruler of both England and Normandy. However Rufus crushed the rebellion.
A second rebellion in 1095 also crushed.
was hit by an arrow while hunting in the New Forest. We will never know for
certain if it was an accident or he was murdered.
'accidental' death of William Rufus his brother Henry seized the royal treasure
in Winchester and was crowned king of England.
Henry I was
born in 1068 and he was well educated. When he seized the throne he issued a
charter promising to rule justly. He also gained favor with his Saxon subjects
by marrying Edith, a descendant of Edmund Ironside’s. Very importantly he also
had the support of the church.
to be a capable monarch. He frequently quarreled with his brother Robert, Duke
of Normandy. In 1101 Robert invaded England, landing at Portsmouth Harbor but
by the treaty of Alton he agreed to go home again. However the peace did not
last long. In 1105 Henry invaded Normandy. In 1106 he won the battle of
formed a royal zoo in England with exotic animals such as lions, leopards,
lynxes, camels and a porcupine.
Henry had many illegitimate children but he only had one legitimate son called
William. William drowned in 1120 when his ship sank. Henry was left without an
heir. Before he died in 1135 Henry made the barons promise to accept his
daughter Matilda as queen.
Henry died of food poisoning at the age of 67 many barons felt a woman could
not rule England and they supported Henry's nephew Stephen. So Stephen was
crowned king of England. Yet Matilda would not give up her claim to the throne
and she had many supporters too. As a result a long civil war began in 1135,
which went on till 1154.
only ended when, shortly before his death, Stephen agreed to recognize
Matilda's son Henry as his heir. Following Stephen's death in 1154 Matilda’s
son became King Henry II. He proved to be a strong and capable ruler.
Henry II was
the first Plantagenet king. He was born at Le Mans in France in 1133. However
Henry did not just rule England. He also ruled large parts of France. From 1150
he was Duke of Normandy. From 1151 he was Count of Anjou. By marrying Eleanor
of Aquitaine he became the Lord of that part of France. Later he also became
ruler of Brittany. As an adult Henry spent more time in France than he did in
to be a strong king. During the long civil war many barons had built illegal
castles. Henry had them demolished. Furthermore Henry reformed the law. He
appointed judges who traveled around the country holding trials called assizes
for serious offences.
Henry also had
trouble from his sons because he refused to give them any real power. He had 8
children of whom 4 died in infancy. Four sons survived, Henry, Geoffrey,
Richard and John the youngest. In 1173-74 Henry faced a rebellion by his four
eldest sons assisted by their mother. Henry put down the rebellions and he
forgave his sons. However his wife was held a prisoner for the rest of Henry's
In 1189 Henry
faced another rebellion. This time his youngest son, John joined the rebellion.
That broke his heart and Henry died in 1189.
Richard I was
born in 1157. In his own time he was a popular king because he was a successful
But in 1194,
when coming back from the Jerusalem, he was imprisoned by the Duke of Austria.
Richard's subjects were forced to pay a huge ransom to release him. After his
release Richard returned to England but he soon left for Normandy. He never saw
England again. While besieging a castle Richard was hit by a crossbow bolt. He
died in 1199 and was followed by his brother John.
John proved to
be a failure. John fought a war against the king of France from 1200 top 1206,
as a result of which he lost most of his lands in France. He also, in 1205,
began an argument with the Pope over who should be the new Archbishop of
Canterbury, John's choice or the Pope's. As a result in 1208 the Pope place
England under an interdict, which meant that religious services could not be
held. In 1209 he excommunicated John. Finally, in 1213, John was forced to
alienated many of his subjects. They claimed that he ruled like a tyrant
ignoring feudal law. He was accused to extorting money from people, selling
offices, increasing taxes and creating new ones whenever he wished. Matters
came to a head after John tried to recapture his lost lands in France in 1214
but failed. The barons patience was exhausted. Finally in 1215 civil war broke
out. In June 1215 John was forced to accept a charter known as Magna Carta at
Runnymede. The charter was meant to stop the abuses. It stated that the
traditional rights and privileges of the church must be upheld. It also
protected the rights and privileges of the aristocracy. Merchants who lived in
towns were also mentioned. However ordinary people were overlooked.
did uphold an important principle. English kings could not rule arbitrarily.
They had to obey English laws and English customs the same as other men.
Furthermore Magna Carta laid down that no free man could be arrested, imprisoned
or dispossessed without the lawful judgment of his peers or without due process
broke out again and this time the rebel barons invited a French prince to come
and rule England. John conveniently died in October 1216.
succeeded by his nephew Henry. He was crowned in great haste in Gloucester by
the Bishop of Winchester. (The Archbishop of Canterbury was in Rome). Henry III
was only 9 years old in 1216 and at first two regents ruled on his behalf. The
first problem was the French prince Louis, who had been invited by rebel barons
to come and be king of England. However in 1217 Louis was forced to leave.
Henry began to
rule in his own right in 1227 and he soon alienated the barons by ignoring
their traditional rights and privileges. Worse, in 1254 the pope was fighting
in Sicily. Henry III offered to fund the pope's wars if the pope agreed to let
his son, Edmund, become king of Sicily. The pope agreed but Henry failed to
provide the promised money.
In 1258 he
turned to his barons for help. They were infuriated by his scheming and refused
to do anything unless Henry agreed to a new charter known as the provisions of
At first Henry
reluctantly agreed but in 1260 he renounced the provisions. Civil war resulted
and in 1264 rebels led by Simon de Monfort defeated and captured the king at
the battle of Lewes. They also
captured his eldest son Edward. Simon de Monfort called a parliament made up of
representatives from each county and each borough. It was the first English
and in 1265 he defeated the barons at the battle of Evesham in Worcestershire.
By then Henry
was becoming senile so Edward took control of the government until his father’s
death in 1272.
was not a great king politically Henry III was a patron of the arts. He rebuilt
Westminster Abbey. Furthermore during his reign England's first university,
Oxford was founded.
Edward was 33
when he became king. He had already taken part in a crusade in 1270-71 and was
gaining a reputation as a warrior. However Edward was determined to rule not
only England but also all of Britain.
Prince of Wales was summoned to pay homage to King Edward several times but
each time he made some excuse. In 1276 Edward declared him a rebel and sent an
army to Wales. In 1277 Llewellyn was forced to accept a peace treaty by which
he lost much of his territory. In 1282 the Welsh rebelled but in 1283 the
rebellion was crushed and Edward became the ruler of Wales. In 1301 Edward made
his son Prince of Wales.
In 1290 Edward
expelled all Jews from England. Also in 1290 Queen Eleanor died at Herby in
Nottinghamshire. Edward erected crosses at each of the places where her coffin
rested on its way to Westminster Abbey.
Wallace led another rebellion in Scotland in 1297 but he was captured and
executed in 1305.
Edward I died
of dysentery in 1307. He was 68.
From the start
Edward II alienated the barons by showering gifts and honors on his or lover
Piers Gaveston. As soon as he became king Edward made Gaveston Earl of Cornwall
(a title with rich estates). Normally a member of the royal family was given
the title and the barons were very annoyed.
In 1308 Edward
II married Princess Isabella of France in Boulogne. However before he left the
country for France Edward made Gaveston regent to rule England in his absence.
barons forced Edward to banish Gaveston but both times he returned. Finally in
1312 some barons kidnapped Gaveston and had him beheaded.
The in 1314
Edward II suffered a total defeat at the hands of the Scots at Bannockburn. The
battle assured Scottish independence and in 1323 Edward was forced to make a
truce with the Scots.
alienated the barons by having an affair with a young man called Hugh
Despenser. Isabella fled to France. With her lover Roger Mortimer, a rebel
English Earl she plotted her husband's downfall. In 1326 Isabella and Roger led
an army from France. The English people welcomed them.
was hung, drawn and quartered and King Edward II was taken prisoner. In January
1327 Edward abdicated in favor of his son. Edward II was murdered in September
Meanwhile on 1
February 1327 his son Edward III was crowned.
However he did
not rule until 1330 when he staged a coup. In October, with friends, he entered
Nottingham Castle through a secret
tunnel. He entered his mother’s bedroom and arrested her lover Mortimer.
In 1337 Edward
claimed the throne of France. War began in 1338. The French raided Southampton. Then on 24 July 1340 the English
annihilated the French fleet off Sluys. English longbow men rained arrows down
onto the French sailors. Men with swords, axes and spears fought to hand.
To finance his
wars the king had to raise taxes and to do that he needed parliament's
co-operation. As a result parliament became more powerful during his reign. In
1340 the Commons and the Lords began meeting separately.
continued to have success in war. On 26 August 1346 the French were crushed by
English longbow men at Crecy. Then on 17 October 1346 the Scots were severely
defeated at Neville's Cross near Durham. The English army was led by William La Zouche, Archbishop of York and David II of Scotland was captured.
1348-49 disaster struck. The Black Death reached England and it killed about
1/3 of the population. Afterwards there was a severe shortage of labour and as
a result wages rose. Men began to move from village to village to get better
wages, undermining the institution of serfdom. Parliament tried to peg wages at
their 1349 level. The measure did not work and only caused resentment among the
One of the
victims of the plague was the king's daughter, Princess Joan, who died in
Bordeaux. The Black Death was no respect of persons.
loss King Edward continued to beat the French. On 19 September 1346 the English
won another great victory at Poitiers and the French king was captured. In 1360
the French were made to accept a humiliating peace treaty and pay a ransom for
III died in 1377. He was 65.
Richard II was
just 10 years old when he was crowned.
In 1381 he was
faced with the peasants revolt. It was sparked off by a poll tax.
On 13 July the
rebels marched on London and sympathizers opened the gates to them. The king
and his ministers took refuge in the tower of London while the rebels opened
the prisons and looted the house of John of Gaunt, an unpopular noble. On 14
July the king met the rebels at Moorfield and made them various promises, none
of which he kept.
The next day
the king went to mass at Westminster and while he was away the rebels broke
into the tower of London and killed the Archbishop of Canterbury and several
royal officials who had taken refuge there. They confronted the king on his way
back from mass. The mayor of London stabbed the leader of the rebels, fearing
he was going to attack the king. Afterwards the king managed to calm the rebels
and persuaded to go home by making various promises.
demanded the end of serfdom. At first the king promised to grant it. However as
soon as the rebels dispersed he broke all his promises. About 200 of the
ringleaders were hanged.
serfdom continued to decline of its own accord and by the 15th century it had
powerful men in England hated Richard's close friends. In 1388 the so-called
Merciless Parliament had several of them executed. However in 1397 Richard II
got his revenge. He executed two of his enemies. In 1398 he banished Henry
Bolingbroke, Earl of Hereford. However in 1398 Richard went to Ireland and
while he was away Bolingbroke staged a coup. Richard II was deposed and
Bolingbroke then became Henry III. Richard II died in 1400. (He was probably
the 15th century
reigned until 1413. It was a troubled reign. Henry III faced a major revolt in
Wales at the beginning of the 15th century, which he eventually
His son, Henry
V, succeeded him. This king claimed the throne of France and in 1415 he went to
war. On 25 October 1415 the English longbow men won a great victory over the
French at Agincourt. In 1416 the Battle of the Seine gave the English control
of the Channel. Henry was a hero to his people. however he was cruel. He used
cruelty to try and force the French into submission. In 1418 Henry captured
Caen and his men massacred 2,000 civilians. Henry once said “war without fire
is like sausage without mustard”.
In 1419 Henry
V captured Rouen, the capital of Normandy and by the treaty of Troyes, 1420, he
was recognized as heir to the French throne. However Henry died in 1422.
his death the French began to win the war. In 1429 Joan of Arc lifted the siege
of Orleans. This proved to be a turning point and afterwards English fortunes
In 1443 Henry
VI sent the Duke of Somerset to France with an army and told him to 'use most
cruel and mortal war'. However by 1453 the English had been driven out of all
of France except Calais.
The Wars of
was plunged into a series of civil wars called the Wars of the Roses. In 1454
Edward VI was mentally ill and was incapable of ruling. The Duke of York became
regent. However at the end of 1454 Edward VI recovered and in January 1455 York
was forced to step down as regent. However York was unwilling to give up power
and he gathered an army. On 22 may 1455 the forces of York (known as Yorkists)
and the forces of the King (known as Lancastrians) fought a battle at St Albans. Afterwards the king was taken
prisoner and the Yorkists ruled in his name.
symbol was the white rose and the Lancastrian symbol was the red rose hence the
name of the wars).
1459 the queen gathered an army to fight the Yorkists. The two sides clashed in
September 1459. Afterwards the Yorkists took Ludlow. However when they were
offered a pardon most of the Yorkist soldiers deserted and their leaders fled
abroad. In November 1459 Parliament condemned the Yorkist leaders as traitors
(meaning the crown would confiscate their property).
surprisingly the Yorkist leaders returned to England with an army in June 1460.
They landed at Sandwich and many people in Kent and London went over to their side. They fought a
battle at Northampton on 10 July
1460 and captured Henry VI. However in 1461 Queen Margaret, Henry's wife, won a
battle at Wakefield on 30 December 1460. The Duke of York was killed. Edward of
March took over the Yorkist cause and he proclaimed himself Edward IV on 4
March 1461. He won a great victory at Towton on 29 March 1461 and for some
years his rule was secure.
alienated his supporter the Earl of Warwick (The Kingmaker) by not allowing him
enough power. Warwick turned against him and won a battle at Edgecote on 26
July 1469. In 1470 Edward was forced to flee abroad but he returned the next
Lancastrians fought at Tewkesbury on 10 May 1471. The battle proved to be a
great Yorkist victory. Afterwards Edward ruled unchallenged until his death in
succeeded by his 12-year-old son Edward V. However before he could be crowned
the Bishop of Bath and Wells announced that this parents marriage was invalid.
Edward was therefore illegitimate and he could not inherit the throne. Both
Edward and his younger brother Richard were imprisoned in the tower and later
throne was offered to his uncle who became Richard III. However Richard's
position was undermined when his only son Eustace died. Henry Tudor landed in
Wales and led his army to Bosworth field where Richard III was killed in
battle. A new dynasty began.
in the Middle Ages.
pastime of the upper class was hunting. Lords hunted deer with packs of dogs
and killed them with arrows. They also hunted wild boar with spears. Both men
and women went hawking. In the evenings they feasted, danced and played board
games such as chess and backgammon. In the mid-15th century playing
cards arrived in England.
When he was
not hunting the noble or knight was fighting. Their wives were also kept busy.
They had to organize the servants and generally run the household.
took part in tournaments. These events drew large crowds of spectators. At them
knights fought with wooden lances, swords or maces. This was called jousting.
There were also tourneys (fights between teams). Tournaments often lasted four
days. Two days were for jousting, one was for tourneys and one was for archery
Life In The Middle Ages.
life was one of toil. Most people in the Middle Ages lived in small villages of
20 or 30 families. The land was divided into 3 huge fields. Each year 2 were
sown with crops while one was left fallow (unused) to allow it to recover. Each
peasant had some strips of land in each field. Most peasants owned only one ox
so they had to join with other families to obtain the team of oxen needed to
pull a plough. After ploughing the land was sown. Men sowed grain and women
planted peas and beans.
also owned a few cows, goats and sheep. Cows and goats gave milk and cheese.
Most peasants also kept chickens for eggs. They also kept pigs. Peasants were
allowed to graze their livestock on common land. In the autumn they let their
pigs roam in the woods to eat acorns and beechnuts. However they did not have
enough food to keep many animals through the winter. Most of the livestock was
slaughtered in autumn and the meat was salted to preserve it.
was not all hard work. People were allowed to rest on Holy days (from which we
get our word holiday). During them poor people danced and wrestled. They also
played a very rough form of football. The men from 2 villages played on a
'pitch' which might include woods and streams! There were no rules so broken
limbs and other injuries were common. People also enjoyed cruel 'sports' like
cockfighting and bear baiting. (A bear was chained to a post and dogs were
trained to attack it). Gambling was also common.
in the Middle Ages.
In the Middle
Ages religion was a vital part of everyday life. All children were baptised
(unless they were Jewish) and everyone attended mass on Sunday. Mass was in
Latin, a language that ordinary people did not understand.
over groups of parishes called dioceses. They usually came from rich families.
Bishops lived in palaces and often took part in government. Things were very
different for parish priests. They were poor and often had little education.
Parish priests had their own land called the glebe where they grew their own
food. They lived and worked alongside their parishioners.
In the Middle
Ages monks and nuns gave food to the poor. They also ran the only hospitals
where they tried to help the sick as best they could. They also provided
hospitality for pilgrims and other travellers (although as time went by there were
an increasing number of inns where you could pay to stay the night). In a
medieval monastery there was an almonry where food or money was given to the
poor, the refectory where the monks ate, the dormitory, infirmary and the
cloisters where the monks could take exercise. An almoner looked after the
poor, an infirmarian looked after the sick and a hospitaller looked after
As well as the
monks from the 13th century there were also friars. They took vows like but
instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to preach. Franciscan
friars were called grey friars because of their grey costumes. Dominican friars
were called black fairs.
in the Middle Ages.
In the Middle
Ages most people were illiterate but not all. Upper class children were
educated when they were pages. Among the poor the better educated priests might
teach some children to read and write - a little. In many towns there were
grammar schools where middle class boys were educated. (They got their name
because they taught Latin grammar). Boys worked long hours in the grammar
schools and discipline was severe. Boys were beaten with rods or birch twigs.
also chantry schools. Some men left money in their wills to pay for a priest to
chant prayers for their soul after their death. When he was not praying the
priest would educate local children.
Middle Ages literacy and learning gradually increased. By the 15th
century perhaps a third of the population could read and write.
From the early
13th century England had two universities at Oxford and Cambridge. At them
students learned seven subjects, grammar, rhetoric (the art of public
speaking), logic, astronomy, arithmetic, music and geometry.
the Middle Ages.
noble families saw little of their parents. When they were very young nurses
looked them after. When they were about 7 they were sent to live with another
noble household. Boys became pages and had to wait on lords and ladies. They
also learned to fight. At 14 a boy became a squire and at 21 a knight. Girls learned the skills they needed to run a household.
ended early for children in the Middle Ages. In upper class families girls married
as young as 12 and boys as young as 14. They did not normally choose their own
marriage partners. Their parents arranged their marriages for them. Children
from poor families might have more choice about who they married but by the
time they were about 7 or 8 they had to start helping their parents by doing
simple jobs such as chasing away birds when crops had been sown or helping to
weave wool. Children were expected to help the family earn a living as soon as
they were able.
Food in the
The rich ate
well. They ate beef, mutton, pork and venison. They also ate a great variety of
birds, swans, herons, ducks, blackbirds, pigeons and greenfinches. However the
church decreed that Wednesday, Friday and Saturday were fast days when people
were not allowed to eat meet. Rich people usually had fishponds so they could
eat pike and carp. They also ate fish caught in rivers or the sea.
The rich also
used spices. In the Middle Ages a new spice arrived in England. It was called
The rich ate breakfast
in private but they ate dinner at mid-morning and supper at 5 or 6 in the great hall. On special occasions they had huge feasts. The Lord and his lady sat at a table
on a raised wooden platform so they could look down on the rest of the
household. Often musicians entertained them while they ate. Rich people ate
their food from slices of stale bread called trenchers. Afterwards they were
given to the poor.
ate a simple and monotonous diet. For them meat was a luxury. If they were
lucky they had rabbit or pork. They also ate lots of coarse, dark bread and
cheese. They only had one cooked meal a day. In the evening the mother mixed
grain with hot water. She added vegetables and, if available, meat or fish to make
a kind of stew called pottage. In the autumn peasants gathered fruit and nuts.
In normal years the peasants had an adequate diet but if there was a famine
they might starve.
the Middle Ages.
Women wore a
nightie-like linen garment. However they did not wear knickers. They wore a long tunic (to their
ankles) and over it another garment, a gown. Women held their dresses with a
belt tied around their waists.
In the Middle
Ages both sexes wore wool but it varied in quality. It could be fine and
expensive or coarse and cheap. From the mid-14th century laws lay down which
materials the different classes could wear, to stop the middle classes dressing
'above themselves'. (Poor people could not afford to wear expensive cloth
anyway!). However, most people ignored the law and wore what they wished.
In the late
14th and 15th centuries clothes became much more elaborate. Fashion in the
modern sense began. For the wealthy styles changed rapidly. Women wore
elaborate hats and men wore long shoes.
wore practical clothes. If it was wet and muddy they wooden clogs.