3 3. Medieval England

Clockwise, from top left: Detail of the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry, showing Harold Godwinson; 15th-century stained glass from York Minster, showing a scene from the ApocalypseSalisbury Cathedral, built in the 13th century; the 9th-century Ormside Bowl

 

The history of England in the Middle Ages or medieval period stretches from the end of the 5th century through to the start of the Early Modern period in 1485. When England emerged from the collapse of the Roman Empire, the economy was in tatters and many of the towns abandoned. After several centuries of Germanic immigration, new identities and cultures began to emerge, developing into predatory kingdoms that competed for power. A rich artistic culture flourished under the Anglo-Saxons, producing epic poems such as Beowulf and sophisticated metalwork. The Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity in the 7th century and a network of monasteries and convents were built across England. In the 8th and 9th centuries England faced fierce Viking attacks, and the fighting lasted for many decades, establishing Wessex as the most powerful kingdom and promoting the growth of an English identity. Despite repeated crises of succession and a Danish seizure of power at the start of the 11th century, by the 1060s England was a powerful, centralised state with a strong military and successful economy.

The Norman invasion of England in 1066 led to the defeat and replacement of the Anglo-Saxon elite with Norman and French nobles and their supporters. William the Conqueror and his successors took over the existing state system, repressing local revolts and controlling the population through a network of castles. The new rulers introduced a feudal approach to governing England, eradicating the practice of slavery but creating a much wider body of unfree labourers called serfs. The position of women in society changed as laws regarding land and lordship shifted. England’s population more than doubled during the 12th and 13th centuries, fuelling an expansion of the towns, cities and trade, helped bywarmer temperatures across Northern Europe. A new wave of monasteries and friaries were established, while ecclesiastical reforms led to tensions between successive kings and archbishops. Despite developments in England’s governance and legal system, infighting between the Anglo-Norman elite resulted in multiple civil wars and the loss of Normandy.

The 14th century in England saw the Great Famine and the Black Death, catastrophic events that killed around half of England’s population, throwing the economy into chaos and undermining the old political order. Social unrest followed, in the form of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, while the changes in the economy resulted in the emergence of a new class of gentry, and the nobility began to exercise power through a system termed bastard feudalism. Nearly 1,500 villages were deserted by their inhabitants and many men and women sought new opportunities in the towns and cities. New technologies were introduced, and England produced some of the great medieval philosophers and natural scientists. English kings in the 14th and 15th centuries laid claim to the French throne, resulting in the Hundred Years’ War. At times England enjoyed huge military success, with the economy buoyed by profits from the international wool and cloth trade, but by 1450 the country was in crisis, facing military failure in France and an ongoing recession. More social unrest broke out, followed by the Wars of the Roses, fought between rival factions in the English nobility. Henry VII‘s victory in 1485 typically marks the end of the Middle Ages in England and the start of the Early Modern period.

For more, see: Medieval England

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