British History - Medieval

An early example of a Norman Motte and Bailey type castle
The period began with a battle for the English throne: William, Duke of Normandy vs. Harold Godwinson for the Saxons. The outcome was a clear victory for the Normans and England became the subject of the newly crowned William I and his barons.For the nearly 400 years there was a succession of Kings and Queens that extended (and lost) English rule into France, Wales, Ireland and Scotland.
The Castle was an icon of Medieval England and Europe. They were usually situated at a position of significant strategic importance, such as a river crossing. They were intended as a refuge for the local lord and his retinue and as a base for local military operations.
Castles consisted of:
  • a motte on which stood a keep where the lord and his family lived
  • a bailey - an area adjacent to the keep that was enclosed by a wall often surrounded by a ditch or moat filled with water.
Early castles were made of wood - they weren't all that secure but they were cheap and relatively easy and quick to build. Later castles were of stone and could enclose huge areas of land such as at Dover Castle in Kent. Networks of castles were used to control the locals with great success, superb examples being the ones in North Wales located at Caernarfon, Conwy, Beaumaris, Rhuddlan and Denbigh amongst others.


On 14th October 1066 two rival armies faced each other near the town of Hastings on the south coast of England: on one side were the Saxons led by King Harold II, on the other the Normans led by Duke William of Normandy. The battle they fought was one of the most significant events in English history and had far reaching consequences for the nation that came into being as a result.
Why did the battle happen?
When Edward the Confessor died in 1066 he had no heir to continue as king. There were several powerful people that wanted to be King of England and each had their own reason or excuse for being it:
Earl Harold Godwinson - Harold was the Earl of Wessex and was descended from the brother of King Alfred the Great as well as several of the Danish kings that had ruled England over previous years. After the King, the Earl of Wessex was the most powerful man in Anglo-Saxon England. Harold declared that, on his death bed, Edward had specified him as successor to the English throne. As Harold was in England and close to the King and his council he was in the best position to claim the throne when Edward died in January 1066.
Duke William of Normandy - William was related to Edward. Edward had spent much of his early life in exile in Normandy and had many friends and family there. Whilst Edward was King Harold Godwinson had been shipwrecked in Normandy and was taken to William, who treated him well, and the two became friends. William later announced that Harold had sworn an oath to support him in his claim for the English throne.
King Harald Hadrada - Harald was a Norwegian king who claimed decent from some of the earlier Scandinavian Kings of England and he used this link to support his claim for the English throne. Harald also had an alliance with Tostig Godwinson who had fallen out with his brother Harold.
Where did the battles take place?
There were actually three battles in 1066. Harald Hadrada and Tostig landed with a Viking army in Yorkshire and defeated the local Earls at the Battle of Fulford. Harold Godwinson marched north and defeated Harald and Tostig at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Then Harold marched south again to face William, who had landed with his army near Hastings.
These battles happened simply because each claimant wanted the power and wealth that came with the Kingship, they were even prepared to die for it.
1066 - Saxon, Viking and Norman movement
What happened during the battle of Hastings?
On September 28th 1066 William landed near a place called Hastings on the south coast of England. The first thing he did was build a wooden castle. Then he started to ravage the local countryside to encourage Harold to do battle.
Harold had been busy in the North. Harald and Tostig had defeated the northern Earls Edwin and Morcar and were resting their army near York. Harold responded by marching 200 miles north in 5 days to surprise Harald and in a hard fought battle defeated him at a place called Stamford Bridge. The Norwegians had arrived in about 300 to 500 hundred boats, but so many of their men had been killed that they only needed 24 boats to return home. The battle however had also been costly to Harold. Nevertheless, on hearing that William had landed, he immediately set off south again with his army.
The two armies met on October 14th at a place called Senlac hill, about 6 miles inland from Hastings, near the modern village of Battle (named after the event).
Despite being depleted and tired from the battle at Stamford Bridge Harold was determined to defeat the Normans. The Saxons formed a Shield Wall at the top of Senlac Hill, their intention being to defend it. The front line consisted of heavily armed Huscarls and Thegns, behind them were the lesser Thegns and the Fyrd armed with whatever they could find. The position was well suited to defence as the Normans had to approach up a fairly steep hill before they could engage in battle.
Troop positions at the Battle of Hastings 1066
William arranged his infantry in a line with his Normans in the middle and his allies on either flank. There was a line of archers in front of the infantry and the cavalry was lined up behind them.
The battle opened with the opposing armies shouting taunts at each other. Then the Normans advanced and the archers started to shoot arrows into the Saxon line. This had little real effect as the shield wall protected the Saxons from the arrows. The Saxons did not have any archers and this caused Williams archers to stop as they relied on arrows being shot back to re-supply them.
The Norman infantry and cavalry then engaged the shield wall but found it impossible to break it. When a group of allied cavalry retreated some members of the Saxon shield wall chased them down the hill but, once out in the open, they were soon slaughtered. The Normans recognised this as being a weakness of the Saxon line and deliberately started to attack and retreat from the Saxon line, each time drawing more Saxons out in to the open, where they were quickly killed.
At one point it was feared that William had been killed but he took off his helmet and rode up and down the Norman ranks to let them know he was still alive.
The Saxon line slowly thinned down as the front line was replaced by men from the less well armed second line. It was late in the afternoon when the Norman archers resumed their attack, this time aiming higher over the shield wall. This was when Harold is said to have received an arrow in his eye, which killed him. Another story says he was cut down by Norman knights. Whichever is true, Harold was killed at this time and the Anglo-Saxon army lost faith and began to retreat. Harold's personal bodyguard carried on fighting around his dead body until the last man, but by nightfall William's army was victorious.
What happened after the battle?
William stayed around Hastings for two weeks in the hope that the Saxon nobility would offer submission to him, but none came. So he assembled his army and marched on London. By the time he arrived the English lords had lost their appetite for battle and reluctantly submitted to him. William was crowned king on Christmas Day 1066 at Westminster Abbey.
Saxon War Axe
The most experienced and loyal troops available to Harold at Hastings were his Huscarls. They were few in number having recently taken heavy losses at the Battle of Stamford Bridge and during the forced march south to Hastings.
Their principle weapon would have been the long war axe, which they would have been highly effective against the Norman horses. It required two hands to use and it would have been necessary for others in the shield wall to protect the axe bearer whilst he was engaged in combat.

A Boy's tale

"The Normans have invaded our lands and are making us pay heavy taxes, taking all our wealth. They defeated our King Harold at a battle in the south near Hastings and built castles all over the country to keep us Saxons in order. We Northumbrians and Mercians don't want these unfair Norman laws or this new king called William; he's become known as 'the Conqueror' but we know he is really William the 'Bastard'. Our lords have called us to fight and we are going to York with our Viking friends to attack the castles the Normans have built there. This armour's very heavy but the older men say it will protect me; I hope so. I'm feeling very strange, sort of sickly in my belly - I don't know if I will be scared when the fighting starts, but I'm really excited at the moment."
The Saxons did indeed attack and defeat the Normans at York, we don't know what happened to the boy; if he survived the battle then life shortly after would have been immensely difficult for him. The attack on York was just one event in a general uprising against William in 1070 by the Anglo-Saxons and their Viking allies. William's response was swift and decisive; he marched north and laid waste large areas of Cheshire, Yorkshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire to such an extent that in some places human habitation was impossible for generations afterwards. This became known as the "Harrying of the North". William then entrusted these territories to his most reliable nobles and even gave some of them extra-special powers, in particular Cheshire was made a Palatinate effectively giving its Earl, Hugh Lupus, royal powers and privileges.

The Normans

The Normans came from a part of France called Normandy. They had origins in Scandinavia; Vikings who had settled in Normandy as part of a deal with the King of France. Over the years they had accepted the Latin culture and Christianity, adopted eastern bureaucracy and implemented good financial planning. Edward the Confessor had spent much of his early life in exile in Normandy whilst the Danish King Cnut ruled in England and during this time he had become accustomed to the Norman way of life. When William and his Normans came to England they brought with them a sound government, which combined with their strong leadership unified the country and eventually led to a national identity.

William the Conqueror

Norman Coat of Arms
William was born in 1027AD, the illegitimate son of Robert, Duke of Normandy. William succeeded his father as Duke of Normandy when he was only 7 and there were several failed attempts by competitors to replace him . At the age of 15 he was knighted by the King of France and by 19 he was successfully managing his own affairs and dealing with his difficult lords. In 1047 at the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes, near Caen, William finally defeated the rebellious Norman Barons to take full control of Normandy.
William had virtually been promised the English throne by Edward the Confessor when he had asked William for Norman support to defeat his father in law Earl Godwin in 1051. William was furious when Godwin's son Harold took the crown in 1066 on the death of Edward.
William organised an expedition to England to take the crown by force. He landed on the south coast near Hastings and defeated the Saxon army commanded by Harold, who was killed in the fighting. William was crowned at Westminster Abbey soon after but had to spend a lot of time and effort controlling the Saxon people who were unwilling to accept his rule.

Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry is a visual depiction of the conflict between Duke William of Normandy and Harold Godwinson, King of England over the right to wear the English Crown.
Norman03 Tradition has it that the tapestry was commissioned and created by William's wife Queen Matilda and her ladies, and is sometimes referred to as "La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde" - Tapestry of Queen Matilda. However it is now considered to have been produced on the order of Bishop Odo, William's half brother.
1066 The Battle of Hastings
William of Normandy defeats King Harold at the Battle of Hastings
After defeating Harold, William marched to London and crowned himself King on Xmas Day 1066
1072 The rebel leader Hereward the Wake stops his struggle against Norman invasion and surrenders to William
1078 William commissions work on what is now known as The Tower of London
1085 Perhaps recognised as William's greatest achievement The Doomsday Book is commissioned to record who owns what in Norman England.
1087 On the 9th September 1087 William dies, his second son William is crowned William II (William Rufus - redfaced)
1095 The English rebel under the Earl of Northumberland but is defeated easily by William II
1100 William II is killed in a hunting accident in the New Forest, his younger brother Henry seizes the throne and is crowned Henry I
1135 Henry I died in 1135 and left the throne to his daughter Matilda. Matilda was in Normandy at the time and her cousin Stephen claimed the throne for himself.
1139 Matilda lands with an army in Britain to reclaim her throne from Stephen
1141 Stephen is captured by Matilda at the Battle of Lincoln and marched to London to take the crown, however the people rebelled against her and she was forced to flee. Stephen was released when exchanged for Matilda's half brother Robert, captured by Stephen's forces.
1153 Civil War between Matilda and Stephen finally ends when they sign the Treaty of Winchester
1154 Stephen dies in October 1154, Matilda's son Henry was crowned Henry II
1170 Thomas Becket Archbishop of Canterbury (Henry's former chancellor and friend) opposed many of Henry's reforms particularly those in the clerical courts and for this he was exiled but in 1170 he returned. Henry was not happy with this and asked 'will no one rid me of this turbulent priest ?'
Four knights took Henry at his word and murdered Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, Henry was declared a murderer whilst Thomas Becket was revered as a martyr
1173 William I of Scotland invaded Northumbria but was captured by Henry's forces and was imprisoned in the French castle of Falaise where Henry forced William to declare that the English king was superior to the Scottish king. The English moved garrisons into all the major Scottish castles eg Edinburgh and Roxburgh.
1189 Henry dies and his son Richard is crowned Richard I. Although recorded as a great English king 'Coeur de Lion' when he came to the throne he spoke no English, had French parents and only spent 6 months in England after he took the throne.
Richard was the only king to participate in the Crusades when he joined the Third Crusade (or holy war) against the Moslem Turks. His army defeated the Turks at Acre and peace was arranged so the Christians could enter Jerusalem.
1199 On his way home he was shipwrecked and held hostage by Duke Leopold of Austria and then Emperor Henry VI. On his release he found his brother John had caused problems with France and in his attempts to regain control died whilst besieging the castle at Chalus in France.
On his death his brother John took the throne.
1204 John was unable to defend Normandy and lost control to French King Philip Augustus in August 1204.
1214 Following the loss of Normandy it was only a matter of time before the rest of the lands in France fell and in 1214 John's army was defeated by Philip Augustus at the Battle of Bouvines.
1215 Magna Carter or ‘great charter' was an attempt by John to stop the barons rebelling about the heavy taxes he levied on them. The document is a list of grievances and is the first document to limit royal rights.
The document worked for 3 months or so before the rebel barons broke the charter and civil war commenced.
1216 John's French disasters continued when the French invaded in 1216 aided by rebel barons. John however died of dysentery in October 1216.
John's son was pronounced successor and Henry III took the throne and immediately reinstated the Magna Carta. This move enabled the barons to pledge their allegiance to Henry and concentrate on defeating the French, this they achieved in 1217 at the battles of Lincoln and Sandwich.
1236 In 1236 we see a reference made to ‘parliament' taken from the French word to speak
1245 Henry instructs French architects to start construction of Westminster Abbey
1254 Two knights from each shire were chosen for Parliament and they held their first council meeting.
1259 Henry finally relinquishes any claim to lands on the continent at the Treaty of Paris in 1259
1264 Simon De Montfort, Earl of Leicester, became dissatisfied with Henry's management of finances and he and a number of other rebel barons launched a revolt eventually capturing the King and his son (later Edward 1) at Lewes in Sussex.
Quarrels broke out amongst the rebel barons allowing Edward to escape and raise a royal army, with which he defeated and killed De Montfort at the Battle of Evesham in 1265.
Henry never recovered following his release and Edward began to run the country in Henry's name.
1272 Henry dies and Edward becomes king
1283 St Paul's Cathedral (the original one eventually destroyed in the Great Fire of London) was completed in 1283
1297 Edward 1 was determined to extend his rule over Scotland and the Scots took an instant dislike to his policies. Edward's response was to invade Scotland forcing Scotland's King John to abdicate and English officials taking over.
- William Wallace a Scottish landholder's son raised an army to overthrow these officials. His tactics were initially successful against the better trained English army, defeating them at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 but Edward 1 managed to defeat him at Falkirk in 1298.
Wallace began a guerilla campaign against the English evading capture for a further 7 years until he was betrayed and captured by the English. He was taken to Westminster and found guilty of being a rebel to the English crown. He was executed on 23rd August 1305.
1306 The Earl of Carrick, Robert Bruce broke his allegiance to Edward 1 and declared himself King of Scotland at Scone on 25th March 1306. Robert was forced into hiding by the English but managed to defeat them in 1307 at the Battle of Loudon Hill.
- In the same year Edward 1 died, his last instruction to his son was to finish the conquest of Scotland.
1307 Edward II was not like his father and was generally considered incompetent relying on the advice of his favourites, particularly Piers Gaveston. He slowly began to lose strongholds captured by his father and the barons began to raise concerns over his leadership.
1312 The barons execute Gaveston at Kenilworth and Edward's wife Isabella leaves him with her lover Roger de Mortimer and the future Edward III
1314 Edward II met Robert Bruce's forces at the Battle of Bannockburn where the Scottish won an historic victory, Edward fled and this sealed the end of any English ideas of controlling Scotland.
1320 The Declaration of Abroath was a document produced by the Scottish lords to the Pope complaining of the English atrocities against the Scottish people and declaring
1327 Isabella and Roger de Mortimer return to England and murder Edward II. Although Edward III is pronounced King he is still only a teenager and Isabella and Roger de Mortimer control the country.
1328 Edward III accepts Scotland's right to full independent status
1330 The nobles supporting Edward III arrest Mortimer and execute him. Isabella is allowed to retire and Edward assumes full control.
1337 In 1337 England still held Gascony in France and Edward III still claimed the French throne this led the French to commence the Hundred Years War. The English had early success at Crecy in 1346 and Poitiers in 1356. But as war continued to drag on the English power in France gradually began to wane after 1360 and by 1370 virtually all of English possessions in France were lost.
1348 The bubonic plague which, as sweeping across Europe finally arrived in England in 1348. The disease termed The Black Death and was carried by fleas which, lived on the fur of rats.
Although there are no official records it is believed,
1377 Edward III dies and is succeeded by his grandson Richard II who was only 10. A Regency Council was set up to administer the government until 1380.
Unfortunately Richard's style of government did not sit well with the aristocracy and he came under attack in Parliament.
1381 The war with France meant high taxation and this caused more and more tension between the peasantry and the lords. In 1381 revolts broke out in the south east after the poll tax was introduced. They converged on London where they executed ministers and sacked buildings.
After the peasant leader Wat Tyler was executed Richard II intervened promising many concessions including abolition of serfdom.
1399 In 1399 whilst Richard II was in Ireland one of his exiled enemies Bolingbroke returned to London and seized the crown in Henry IV's name, this was a largely successful and popular coup although many thought this new Lancastrian dynasty had no right to the throne.
Henry later murdered Richard II in Pontefract in 1400
1403 The Percy family rebelled against Henry following the murder of Richard but Henry Percy was killed by the king in Shrewsbury in 1403. His father the Earl of Northumberland was also defeated by Henry IV at Branham Moor in 1408.
Henry also came under further pressure from Parliament as the Lancastrians began to change the Royal council and mismanage royal funds.
1413 Henry V takes the throne and begins to make new claims on the French throne.
1415 Henry V defeats a much larger French army at Agincourt and by 1419 the whole of Normandy was under English control.
1422 Henry V dies and Henry VI becomes King of both England and France even though he was only one.
1436 Henry VI comes of age and assumes control of the throne.