The crisis of kings and nobles
The crisis of kingship
During the fourteenth century, towards the end of the Middle Ages, there was a continuous struggle between the king and his nobles. The first crisis came in 1327 when Edward II was deposed and cruelly murdered. His eleven- year-old son, Edward III, became king, and as soon as he could, he punished those responsible. But the principle that kings were neither to be killed nor deposed was broken.
Towards the end of the fourteenth century Richard II was the second king to be killed by ambitious lords. He had made himself extremely unpopular by his choice of advisers. This was always a difficult matter, because the king's advisers became powerful, and those not chosen lost influence and wealth. Some of Richard's strongest critics had been the most powerful men in the kingdom.
Richard was young and proud. He quarrelled with these nobles in 1388, and used his authority to humble them. He imprisoned his uncle, John of gaunt, the third son of Edward III, who was the most powerful and wealthy noble of his time. John of gaunt died in prison. Other nobles, including John of Gaunt’s son, Henry duke of Lancaster,
did not forget or forgive. In 1399, when Richard II was busy trying to establish royal authority again in Ireland, they rebelled. Henry of Lancaster, who had left England, returned and raised an army. Richard was deposed.
Unlike Edward II, however, Richard II had no children. There were two possible successors. One was the earl of March, the seven-year-old grandson of Edward Ill's second son. The other was Henry of Lancaster, son of John of Gaunt. It was difficult to say which had the better claim to the throne. But Henry was stronger. He won the support of other powerful nobles and took the crown by force. Richard died mysteriously soon after.
Henry IV spent the rest of his reign establishing his royal authority. But although he passed the crown to his son peacefully, he had sown the seeds of civil war. Half a century later the nobility would be divided between those who supported his family, the "Lancastrians", and those who supported the family of the earl of March, the "Yorkists".
Wales in revolt
Edward I had conquered Wales in the 1280s, and colonised it. He brought English people to enlarge small towns. Pembrokeshire, in the far southwest, even became known as "the little England beyond Wales". Edward's officers drove many of the Welsh into the hills, and gave their land to English farmers. Many Welsh were forced to join the English army, not because they wanted to serve the English but because they had lost their land and needed to live. They fought in Scotland and in France, and taught the English their skill with the longbow.
A century later the Welsh found a man who was ready to rebel against the English king, and whom they were willing to follow. Owain Glyndwr was the first and only Welsh prince to have wide and popular support in every part of Wales. In fact it was he who created the idea of a Welsh nation. He was descended from two royal families which had ruled in different parts of Wales before the Normans came.
Owain Glyndwr's rebellion did not start as a national revolt. At first he joined the revolt of Norman - Welsh border lords who had always tried to be free of royal control. But after ten years of war Owain Glyndwr's border rebellion had developed into a national war, and in 1400 he was proclaimed Prince. But after 1410 Glyndwr lost almost all his support as Welsh people realised that however hard they fought they would never be free of the English. Owain Glyndwr was never captured. He did for Wales what William Wallace had done for Scotland a century earlier. He created a feeling of national identity.
The struggle in France
By the end of the fourteenth century, the long war with France, known as the Hundred Years War, had already been going on for over fifty years. But there had been long periods without actual fighting.
When Henry IV died in 1413 he passed on to his son Henry V a kingdom that was peaceful and united. Henry V was a brave and intelligent man, and like Richard I, he became one of England's favourite kings.
Since the situation was peaceful at home Henry V felt able to begin fighting the French again. His French war was as popular as Edward Ill's had been. Henry had a
great advantage because the king of France was mad, and his nobles were quarrelsome. The war began again in 1415 when Henry renewed Edward Ill's claim to the throne of France.
Between 1417 and 1420 Henry managed to capture most of Normandy and the nearby areas. By the treaty of 1420 Henry was recognised as heir to the mad king, and he married Katherine of Valois, the king's daughter. But Henry V never became king of France because he died a few months before the French king in 1422. His nine-month-old baby son, Henry VI, inherited the thrones of England and France.
As with Scotland and Wales, England found it was easier to invade and conquer France than to keep it. Soon the French began to fight back. Foreign invasion had created for the first time strong French national feeling. The English army was twice defeated by the French, who were inspired by a mysterious peasant girl called Joan of Arc, who claimed to hear heavenly voices. Joan of Arc was captured by the Burgundians, and given to the English. The English gave her to the Church in Rouen which burnt her as a witch in 1431.
England was now beginning to lose an extremely costly war. With the loss of Gascony in 1453, the Hundred Years War was over. England had lost everything except the port of Calais.
The Wars of the Roses
Henry VI, who had become king as a baby, grew up to be simple- minded and book-loving. He hated the warlike nobles, and was an unsuitable king for such a violent society. But he was a civilised and gentle man. He founded two places of learning that still exist, Eton College not far from London, and King's College in Cambridge. He could happily have spent his life in such places of learning. But Henry's simple-mindedness gave way to periods of mental illness.
England had lost a war and was ruled by a mentally ill king who was bad at choosing advisers. It was perhaps natural that the nobles began to ask questions about who should be ruling the country. They remembered that Henry's grandfather Henry of Lancaster had taken the throne when Richard II was deposed.
There were not more than sixty noble families controlling England at this time. Most of them were related to each other through marriage. Some of the nobles were extremely powerful. Many of them continued to keep their own private armies after returning from the war in France, and used them to frighten local people into obeying them. Some of these armies were large. For example, by 1450 the duke of Buckingham had 2,000 men in his private army.
The discontented nobility were divided between those who remained loyal to Henry VI, the "Lancastrians", and those who supported the duke of York, the "Yorkists". The duke of York was the heir of the earl of March, who had lost the competition for the throne when Richard II was deposed in 1399. In 1460 the duke of York claimed the throne for himself. After his death in battle, his son Edward took up the struggle and won the throne in 1461.
Edward IV put Henry into the Tower of London, but nine years later a new Lancastrian army rescued Henry and chased Edward out of the country. Like the Lancastrians, Edward was able to raise another army. Edward had the advantage of his
popularity with the merchants of London and the southeast of England. This was because the Yorkists had strongly encouraged profitable trade, particularly with Burgundy. Edward returned to England in 1471 and defeated the Lancastrians. At last Edward IV was safe on the throne. Henry VI died in the Tower of London soon after, almost certainly murdered.
When Edward IV died in 1483, his own two sons, the twelve-year-old Edward V and his younger brother, were put in the Tower by Edward’s brother Richard of Gloucester. Richard took the Crown and became King Richard III. A month later the two princes were murdered. William Shakespeare's play Richard III, written a century later, accuses Richard of murder and almost everyone believed it. Richard III had a better reason than most to wish his two nephews dead, but his guilt has never been proved.
Richard III was not popular. Lancastrians and Yorkists both disliked him. In 1485 a challenger with a very distant claim to royal blood landed in England with Breton soldiers to claim the throne. Many discontented lords, both Lancastrians and Yorkists, joined him. His name was Henry Tudor, duke of Richmond, and he was half Welsh. He met Richard III at Bosworth. Half of Richard's army changed sides, and the battle quickly ended in his defeat and death. Henry Tudor was crowned king immediately, on the battlefield.
The war had finally ended, though this could not have been clear at the time. Much later, in the nineteenth century, the novelist Walter Scott named these wars the "Wars of the Roses", because York's symbol was a white rose, and Lancaster's a red one.
Scotland experienced many of the disasters that affected England at this time. The Scots did not escape the Black Death or the other plagues, and they also suffered from repeated wars.
Like the English kings, the Scottish kings were involved in long struggles with their nobles. Support for France turned attention away from establishing a strong state at home. And, as in England, several kings died early. James I was murdered in 1437, James II died in an accident before he was thirty in 1460, and James III was murdered in 1488. The early death of so many Scots kings left government in the hands of powerful nobles until the dead king's son was old enough to rule. Naturally these nobles took the chance to make their own position more powerful.
As in England, the nobles kept private armies, instead of using serfs for military service as they had done earlier. This new system fitted well with the Celtic tribal loyalties of the Highlands. The word for such tribes, "clan", means "children", in other words members of one family. But from the fourteenth century, a "clan" began to mean groups of people occupying an area of land and following a particular chief. Not all the members of a clan were related to each other. Some groups joined a clan for protection, or because they were forced to choose between doing so or leaving the area. The clan chiefs were almost completely independent.
By the end of the Middle Ages, however, Scotland had developed as a nation in a number of ways. From 1399 the Scots demanded that a parliament should meet once
a year, and kings often gathered together leading citizens to discuss matters of government. As in England, towns grew in importance, mainly because of the wool trade which grew thanks to the help of Flemish settlers. There was a large export trade in wool, leather and fish, mostly to the Netherlands.
Scotland's alliance with France brought some benefits. The connection with France helped develop education in Scotland. Following the example of Paris, universities were founded in Scotland at St Andrews in 1412, Glasgow in 1451 and at Aberdeen in 1495.
Government and society
The year 1485 has usually been taken to mark the end of the Middle Ages in England.
Society was still based upon rank. At the top were dukes, earls and other lords. Below these great lords were knights. They were "gentlemen farmers" or "landed gentry" who had increased the size of their landholdings, and improved their farming methods. This class had grown in numbers. Edward I had ordered that all those with an income of £20 a year must be made knights. This meant that even some of the yeoman farmers became part of the "landed gentry", while many "esquires", who had served knights in earlier times, now became knights themselves.
Next to the gentlemen were the ordinary freemen of the towns. By the end of the Middle Ages, it was possible for a serf from the countryside to work for seven years in a town craft guild, and to become a "freeman" of the town where he lived. The freemen controlled the life of a town. Towns offered to poor men the chance to become rich and successful through trade.
In the beginning the guilds had been formed to protect the production or trade of a whole town. Later, they had come to protect those already enjoying membership, or who could afford to buy it, from the poorer classes in the same town. As they did not have the money or family connections to become members of the guilds, the poorer skilled workers tried to join together to protect their own interests. These were the first efforts to form a trade union. Several times in the fourteenth century skilled workers tried unsuccessfully to protect themselves against the power of the guilds. The lives of skilled workers were hard, but they did not suffer as much as the unskilled, who lived in poor and dirty conditions. However, even the condition of the poorest workers in both town and country was better than it had been a century earlier.
In fact, the guilds were declining in importance because of a new force in the national economy. During the fourteenth century a number of English merchants established trading stations, "factories", in different places in Europe.
One of the most important of these factories was the "Company of the Staple" in Calais. The "staple" was an international term used by merchants and governments meaning that certain goods could only be sold in particular places. The other important company was called the "Merchant Adventurers". During the fourteenth century there had been several Merchant Adventurers' factories in a number of foreign towns.
Wages for farm workers and for skilled townspeople rose faster than the price of goods in the fifteenth century. There was plenty of meat and cereal prices were low. But there were warning signs of problems ahead. More and more good land was being used for sheep instead of food crops. Rich and powerful sheep farmers started to fence in land which had always been used by other villagers. In the sixteenth century this led to social and economic crisis.
Meanwhile, in the towns, a new middle class was developing. By the fifteenth century most merchants were well educated, and considered themselves to be the equals of the esquires and gentlemen of the countryside. The lawyers were another class of city people. In London they were considered equal in importance to the big merchants and cloth manufacturers.
By the end of the Middle Ages the more successful of these lawyers, merchants, cloth manufacturers, exporters, esquires, gentlemen and yeoman farmers were increasingly forming a single class of people with interests in both town and country.
The development of Parliament at this time showed the beginnings of a new relationship between the middle class and the king. Edward I had invited knights from the country and merchants from the towns to his parliament because he wanted money and they, more than any other group, could provide it. But when Edward III asked for money from his parliament, they asked to see the royal accounts. It was an important development because for the first time the king allowed himself to be "accountable" to Parliament.
During the time of Edward Ill's reign Parliament became organised in two parts: the Lords, and the Commons, which represented the middle class. Only those commoners with an income of forty shillings or more a year could qualify to be members of Parliament. This meant that the poor had no way of being heard except by rebellion. The poor had no voice of their own in Parliament until the middle of the nineteenth century.
The alliance between esquires and merchants made Parliament more powerful, and separated the Commons more and more from the Lords.
There was another important change that had taken place in the country. Kings had been taking law cases away from local lords' courts since the twelfth century, and by the middle of the fourteenth century the courts of local lords no longer existed. But the king's courts could not deal with all the work. In 1363 Edward III appointed "justices of the peace" to deal with smaller crimes and offences, and to hold court four times a year.
These JPs, as they became known, were usually less important lords or members of the landed gentry. They were, and still are, chosen for their fairness and honesty. The appointment of landed gentry as JPs made the middle classes, that class of people who were neither nobles nor peasants, still stronger. Through the system of JPs the landed gentry took the place of the nobility as the local authority. During the Wars of the Roses the nobles used their private armies to force JPs and judges to do what they wanted. But this was the last time the nobility in Britain tried to destroy the authority of the king. The JPs remained the only form of local government in the countryside until 1888. They still exist to deal with small offences.
The condition of women
Little is known about the life of women in the Middle Ages, but without doubt it was hard. The Church taught that women should obey their husbands.
Marriage was usually the single most important event in the lives of men and women. But the decision itself was made by the family, not the couple themselves. This was because by marriage a family could improve its wealth and social position. Everyone, both rich and poor, married for mainly financial reasons. Once married, a woman had to accept her husband as her master. A disobedient wife was usually beaten. It is unlikely that love played much of a part in most marriages.
The first duty of every wife was to give her husband children, preferably sons. Because so many children died as babies, and because there was little that could be done if a birth went wrong, producing children was dangerous and exhausting. Yet this was the future for every wife from twenty or younger until she was forty.
The wife of a noble had other responsibilities. When her lord was away, she was in charge of the manor and the village lands, all the servants and villagers, the harvest and the animals. She also had to defend the manor if it was attacked. She had to run the household, welcome visitors, and store enough food, including salted meat, for winter. She was expected to have enough knowledge of herbs and plants to make suitable medicines for those in the village who were sick. She probably visited the poor and the sick in the village, showing that the rulers "cared" for them. She had little time for her own children, who in any case were often sent away at the age of eight to another manor, the boys to "be made into men".
Most women, of course, were peasants, busy making food, making cloth and making clothes from the cloth. They worked in the fields, looked after the children, the geese, the pigs and the sheep, made the cheese and grew the vegetables. The animals probably shared the family shelter at night. The family home was dark and smelly.
A woman's position improved if her husband died. She could get control of the money her family had given the husband at the time of marriage, usually about one-third of his total land and wealth. But she might have to marry again: men wanted her land, and it was difficult to look after it without the help of a man.
Language and culture
With the spread of literacy, cultural life in Britain naturally developed also. In the cities, plays were performed at important religious festivals. They were called "mystery plays" because of the mysterious nature of events in the Bible, and they were a popular form of culture.
The language itself was changing. French had been used less and less by the Norman rulers during the thirteenth century. In the fourteenth century Edward III had actually forbidden the speaking of French in his army. It was a way of making the whole army aware of its Englishness.
By the end of the fourteenth century, however, English was once again a written language, because it was being used instead of French by the ruling, literate class. But "Middle English", the language of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, was very different from Anglo-Saxon.
Two writers, above all others, helped in the rebirth of English literature. One was William Langland, a mid-fourteenth century priest.
The Canterbury Tales describe a group of pilgrims travelling from London to thetomb of Thomas Becket at Canterbury, a common religious act in England in the Middle Ages. During the journey each character tells a story. Collections of stories were popular at this time because almost all literature, unlike today, was written to be read out aloud. The stories themselves are not Chaucer's own. He used old stories, but rewrote them in an interesting and amusing way. The first chapter, in which he describes his characters, is the result of Chaucer's own deep understanding of human nature. It is a unique description of a nation: young and old, knight and peasant, priest and merchant, good and bad, townsman and countryman.
By the end of the Middle Ages, English as well as Latin was being used in legal writing, and also in elementary schools. Education developed enormously during the fifteenth century, and many schools were founded by powerful men. Many schools were also opened at this time, because there was a growing need for educated people who could administer the government, the Church, the law and trade. Clerks started grammar schools where students could learn the skills of reading and writing. These schools offered their pupils a future in the Church or the civil service, or at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
The Middle Ages ended with a major technical development: William Caxton's first English printing press, set up in 1476. Caxton had learnt the skill of printing in Germany. At first he printed popular books, such as Chaucer's Canterbury Taks and Malory's Morte d'Arthur. This prose work described the adventures of the legendary King Arthur, including Arthur's last battle, his death, and the death of other knights of the Round Table.
Caxton's printing press was as dramatic for his age as radio, television and the technological revolution are for our own. Books suddenly became cheaper and more plentiful, as the quicker printing process replaced slow and expensive copywriting by hand. Printing began to standardise spelling and grammar, though this process was a long one. More important, just as radio brought information and ideas to the illiterate people of the twentieth century, Caxton's press provided books for the newly educated people of the fifteenth century, and encouraged literacy. Caxton avoided printing any dangerous literature. But the children and grandchildren of these literate people were to use printing as a powerful weapon to change the world in which they lived.