The missing centuries
I only have two recurrent nightmares. One is about revisiting History Finals at Oxford. [I might share the other another time.] I am sitting in a cafe or a pub with growing awareness that final exams are only a week or two away. And to my mounting horror, and initial disbelief, it is made known to me that there are several centuries of which I had not previously heard. Roughly the fourteenth to the eighteenth ! Quite a sizeable gap. About five hundred years in all.
There is some rational explanation for this. When I went up to Oxford in 1964 I thought I knew quite a lot of history. Or, to be more precise, I knew quite a lot about the coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas Day AD 800; and a bit about European history of the following four centuries. And I also knew quite a lot about the 1930s.And I had written what I thought was the definitive piece of work on ‘Anti-Fascism in the English Public Schools, 1933-39’. Sadly, when I left Oxford three years later, I didn’t know much more than that.
Which might explain why I am now reading EL Woodward’s History of England. A book that hadn’t passed my eyes since the 1960s. The book is now almost as old as I am [it was first published in 1947], but it does give me an overview of the missing centuries. And it is encouraging me to open a few other history books that are languishing on the shelves.
The thirteenth century
What I may once have known about the thirteenth century has long since disappeared. So I struggled through Powicke’s book in the Oxford History of England series, The Thirteenth Century, 1216–1307 [ published in 1953]. The century began with Richard I [1189-99] better known as Coeur de Lion or the Lionheart, because of his reputation as a warrior. Richard was also Duke of Normandy, Aquitaine, and Gascony, and spent more time overseas, on crusade or defending his French territories, than he did in England. He died after being shot by a cross-bow at the siege of Chalus, in the Haute-Vienne, and his entrails are buried there. He was succeeded by his brother, John [1199-1216], whom Woodward describes, following AA Milne, as “an able, bad man, violent and lazy by turns and always treacherous.” Under King John England lost Normandy and other French lands, which led to the collapse of the Angevin Empire and contributed to the rising power of the French Capetian dynasty. The barons were anxious to assert their rights against the increasing power of the king. This struggle led to the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215. This technical document promised the protection of church rights, protection from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, new taxation only with baronial consent, and limitations on scutage and other feudal payments. It is seen, rightly or wrongly, as a significant step in the evolution of the English constitution.
The difficulty of restraining royal power without resorting to rebellion is one of the main themes of the long reign of Henry III [1216-72]. But the rebellious barons were rarely united. The best known of the barons is Simon de Montfort, a fine soldier and a friend of the leading churchmen and scholars of his age. But Simon’s army was defeated at Evesham in 1265 by the king’s son, Edward, Simon himself was killed , and his supporters scattered.
Edward I [1272-1307] was on the way home from the Ninth Crusade when his father died. He was tall and handsome [except for a drooping eyelid], and a much abler man than his father. He dealt successfully with a rebellion in Wales led by Llywelyn ap Gruffyd, which effectively put an end to the chance of Welsh independence. The impressive, concentric castles at Beaumaris, Caernavon, Conway, and Harlech are a reminder of Edward’s Welsh campaigns, and a clear statement of his intent to rule permanently in North Wales. Scotland was a more difficult problem; the country was bigger and further away from the centre of English power. Since conquest and assimilation was not feasible, Edward tried rather to subordinate the king of Scotland to his overlordship. In 1292 the Scottish crown was awarded to his nominee, John Balliol, but the Scottish people forced him into rebellion. Although Edward defeated the Scots under William Wallace at the battle of Falkirk in 1298, he died in 1307 on his way northwards to put down another rebellion. [Within a decade an English army was defeated at Bannockburn in 1314.]
The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries
The two centuries that followed the death of Edward I are an almost complete blank in my dwindling historical memory. My copy of the Oxford History of England, volume V, The Fourteenth Century, 1307–1399, by May McKisack [published in 1959] has gone missing. So I have been turning the pages of [my water-damaged copy of] George Holmes: The Later Middle Ages, published in 1962. Instead of attempting to summarise these years, which would bore any surviving readers to death, I would like pick out three issues.
The Hundred Years’ War, 1361-1453
The Hundred Years’ War was an ongoing struggle between the kings of England and France. It lasted with long intervals for nearly a hundred years. The nub of the problem was that when William I became King of England in 1066, he was also as Duke of Normandy a vassal of the King of France. And, when in 1259 at the Treaty of Paris Henry III renounced his claims to the Duchy of Normandy, he was confirmed as the Duke of Aquitaine in south-west France, and continued to be a vassal of the king of France. The kings of England also claimed intermittently, at times of a disputed succession, that they were rightful heirs to the French throne.
English soldiers enjoyed two periods of overwhelming success in France under the warrior kings Edward III and Henry V in the years 1343-61 and again in 1414-22. But these victories were followed by periods of time in which the French kings regained control of their country and forced England into a defensive attitude. In 1346 Edward III crossed over to Normandy with an army of about 7,000 archers, 1,000 lances, and 1,700 horses, sacked the city of Caen, marched north to the Somme, and defeated the French army at Crécy. It was a classic victory of archers over cavalry, and the greatest of Edward’s battles. Seventy years later an English army under Henry V, a tough, ambitious warrior king, landed at Harfleur in Normandy in August 1415, marched north and in spite of their depleted numbers, defeated the French army at Agincourt, less than thirty miles from Crécy. Henry returned home a military hero. But within two decades the situation turned again. Morale of the French armies revived, inspired by the visions and charisma of Joan of Arc, the sixteen-year-old peasant girl. In 1430 Joan was captured by the Burgundians, sold to the English, put on trial for heresy and burned at the stake. An outrage. The English armies crumbled. The French under Charles VII regained Normandy in 1450, and then successfully invaded Gascony in 1453. The centuries of government by the Kings of England in France – the Duchy of Normandy, the Angevin Empire, the Duchy of Aquitaine, the claim to the French throne – were finally at an end. Apart from Calais, which they held for another century, the kings of England now ruled only in England
The Black Death
Those anxious about COVID-19 should skip this bit. The Black Death of 1349 was unmatched in its ferocity. But it began a long period ending only with the Great Plague of London in 1665 during which pestilence frequently recurred. The plague, which was carried by rats and had already ravaged much of Europe, probably arrived at Melcombe Regis in the summer of 1348. It spread like wild fire. Monasteries [closed communities] were sometimes nearly wiped out. In the enormous Diocese of Lincoln, just over 40% of the beneficed clergy died. In 1361 the plague returned as the ‘Second Pestilence’ or the ‘Pestilence of the Children’; it particularly attacked children and young people who had not acquired immunity in the early outbreak. And it recurred in 1368 and 1375.
It is estimated that in 1349 as many a third of the population may have died. And the plagues caused a long decline in population. England in the reign of Edward II [1307-27] had been a heavily populated country in which cultivable land was scarce. George Holmes comments: “it was probably not before the reign of Elizabeth I that as many people lived in England as had done in the reign of Edward II”. One of the consequences of the shrinking population was an increase in the importance of labour. Hired labour became twice as expensive. The king’s Council tried to fix scales of wages and prices, but medieval administration was never able to achieve uniformity.
The Wars of the Roses
“The Wars of the Roses were”, Woodward insists, “less important than the contemporaries of Shakespeare believed”. Although they lasted a generation, fighting was intermittent and the armies were quite small, only about 4,000 to 5,00 men on each side in the battles. The wars occurred because there was more uncertainty about the rightful succession to the throne than there had been since the twelfth century. The starting point was Bolingbroke’s usurpation of the throne in 1399. Bolingbroke, who took the throne as Henry IV, was the son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and grand-son of Richard II [1377-99]. When the Lancastrians showed themselves unfit to rule in the fourteen-fifties, there was an alternative claimant to the throne with a plausible claim.
This uncertainty would not have mattered to a strong king. Until 1454 the Lancastrians retained control of the government and avoided open war with York, but not without bitter opposition. In August 1453 Henry VI had his first spell of madness. In 1455 at the first battle of St Albans, often regarded as the beginning of the War of the Roses, the Yorkists were victorious, and Richard of York was again given the protectorate. In 1459 fighting broke out again; Yorkist armies captured the king, and the Duke of York for the first time claimed the throne for himself. But he agreed to accept the protectorship during Henry’s lifetime and the succession thereafter. In the following year, after further Yorkist victories, and Richard’s death, his son Edward, the new Duke of York assumed the Crown. as Edward IV.
The opening years of Edward IV’s reign [1461-83] are confused, as the king faced opposition from the Lancastrians and from his own brothers. When he died in 1483, his successor Edward V was only twelve. A minority always caused problems. The most powerful man in the kingdom was his brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who assumed the protectorate. Within three months of Edward IV’s death, Richard claimed that that the old king’s marriage had been invalid, that Edward V was therefore a bastard, and that he, Richard, was the rightful successor. Edward V and his younger brother were imprisoned in the Tower of London, and murdered soon after. He immediately took the throne as Richard III.
“Richard’s seizure of the throne”, writes George Holmes, “was the most sudden and ruthless of all the revolutions of the Wars of the Roses”. But his reign only lasted two years. In 1485, Henry Tudor, a grand-son of Henry V’s widow, landed with an army in Pembrokeshire. He advanced through Wales and the Marches, and at the battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485, Richard III was killed and the new Tudor dynasty began.
There may be no-one in the world who has the time and patience to have read this far. But I am writing primarily for my own amusement in a time of lock-down, and partly as an act of atonement for reading not done some five decades ago. Whether it will significantly improve my dream life remains to be seen.