Boris Smus

interaction engineering

The Story of Medieval England (audio)

In the grand scheme of things, the western world today is pretty great. To what do we owe its prosperity? I got curious about this and realized that the answer probably lies in the broader traditions of the anglosphere. I'd heard of the Magna Carta, and even seen it, but what was the big deal? Anyway, in my quest to understand, I came across this great series of lectures covering English history from around the 9th to the 15th century. Paxton does a great job of bringing life to what I've felt to be an often dry and confusing time and place. The narrative is mostly chronological, but once in a while, she pauses and explores an area in depth to great effect. I enjoyed the many cross-references the lecturer made throughout the lecture, her etymological diversions, and lively depictions of heroes and villans, and also references to popular culture (movies mostly).

English chronology, roughly speaking 900 - 1500

(Imagine reading these in the style of Drunk History, I think it works best)

In the 8th century, England was split into seven kingdoms, each with its own local lords. These kingdoms were loosely organized into counties called Shires, each overseen by a Sheriff. This structure was originally military in nature, each shire producing some quota of soldiers to fight on behalf of the local lord. During this period, England was plagued by Danish invaders. Eventually, all but Wessex came under Danish control, until the ruler of Wessex, Alfred the Great, pushed back against the Danes and reconquered all of England. This didn't last long though, and eventually the Danish and previous residents of England melded into one people. However this was a troubled time, full of chaos and internal strife and a lack of central control over the country. (TV show to watch: The Last Kingdom)

William the Conqueror was a Norman (ie. descended from Norwegians who had conquered and settled in the north of France). After a series of failed kings, England's succession was unclear. William crossed the channel and burned farms, cutting off the food supply to London, and sieging it. Eventually William controlled both Normandy and England. He effectively suppressed rebellion and got the nobles on his side. English society eventually subsumed Norman culture.

William's succession story is very colorful. Upon his gruesome death, his eldest son took England, while his middle son took Normandy. The eldest went on the first crusade, leaving England on lease to his brother. Meanwhile, Henry, the youngest of the three, got nothing. After his middle brother died in a hunting accident, Henry came to control both Normandy and England. Upon his return from crusade, Henry imprisoned his oldest brother for the rest of his life (30 years?!). As king, Henry I made many changes, instituted the exchequer post and appointed officials based on merit rather than birth.

Henry I's only son drowned in a drunken boat party. In his stead, Henry I favored his daughter Matilda who was married off to the Holy Roman Emperor. But queens weren't exactly a thing yet, so a succession dispute led to King Steven coming to power. Steven was and not a very kingly man, and not a very effective king. Anarchy and a civil war in erupted in England over Steven's legitimacy, with Matilda's vying to get Henry, her son from her second marriage onto the throne.

Eventually she succeeded, and Henry II's reign was focused on mending the damage done by the civil war, reuniting England and Normandy, and restoring it to grandpa William's glory. Henry II married Eleanor of Acquitaine, further expanding his empire into France. Sadly his reign was undone by a conflict with Thomas Beckett, formerly his right hand man, but now the archbishop of Canterbury. When he had Beckett killed for disobedience, he became deeply unpopular and Becket was canonized as a saint. (Movie: Beckett)

Henry II was succeeded by his son Richard I, know as Richard the Lionheart. He was extremely popular for his military prowess, as well as patronage of arts and literature, especially the new genre of Legends of King Arthur, and Courtly Love. He went on the third pilgrimage, by which point Saladin had already reconquered Jerusalem. But Richard succeeded in defeating Saladin at Acco, which remained European controlled for a century.

Upon Richard's death, he was succeeded by brother John. King John was not a good king, cruel, and petulant. John managed to lose all of England's holdings in France. He alienated his barons to such a degree that many of them banded together to impose a great charter (Magna Carta) on John, designed to curtail his power. This included trial by a jury of peers, and also no extraordinary taxation without cause. John got Pope Innocent to repudiate the Magna Carta. and eventually many English lords sided with the French, backing prince Louis as the English king. John's son Henry succeeded him, and managed to best Louis and win support of the English nobles with the help of William Marshall.

Under Henry III, the baronial conflicts continued. The Magna Carta was reinstated, but still Henry III and his barons had many disagreements. Especially on the foreign policy front, Henry III had many strange and foolish ideas, attempting to reconquer Poitu in France, to place his brother on the Sicilian throne, and to prevent lords from going on crusade. Every time the king asked for a concession, the barons would trade it for more political power. Eventually this led to the Treaty of Oxford, which extended the Magna Carta, giving barons more power to appoint councils and administrators to effectively run the country. Henry accepts the treaty but then reneged with the support of an invited arbitrator St. Louis, King of France. The barons rebelled and forced his hand. Simon de Montfort, leader of the baronial revolt also formalized the structure of the parliament (from parle) which was formerly entirely informally called by the king when he wanted to raise money. Now the parliament would meet regularly, and be composed of 2 knights from each shire, and 2 members from specific boroughs, elected locally. This structure clearly precedes that of The House.

Edward I, Henry III's son, succeeded him, to a collective baronial relief. He was much more level headed than his father. Edward went on crusade, just like the legendary and much loved Richard I. Edward passed many reforms to the common law. In my books, he is ultimately a villan. He passed an Edict which banned Jews from England, which lasted for the next 350 years, until Cromwell allowed their return in the 17th century. In the grand scheme, this may be a greater travesty than the Spanish Inquisition!

Edward II succeeded his well loved father, and had an unpopular reign. He was accused of homosexuality because of his closeness with his nearest advisor, Galston. The barons hated this so much, they successfully expelled Galston to France five times, and eventually murdered him. The barons attempted to rise up against the king, but their efforts were quashed. The rebellion's leader was murdered as retribution without a trial, which didn't help Ed's popularity. Also Edward II suffered humiliating defeat at the hands of Robert the Bruce in Scotland. Ultimately he was deposed by his barons and placed in prison, where he died, possibly by being disemboweled as punishment for his lifestyle choices. His wife allied herself with the Barons, and succeeded in getting their son Ed III to the throne.

Edward III started his career as king under the thumb of his mother and her lover. When he grew old enough, Ed III took over in a coup and took the reigns. For a while he was also a legitimate heir to the French throne through his mother's line. Ultimately he conquered a bunch of French lands, including Calais in the north which was strategically important because it was the opposing port to Dover and constituted the shortest crossing of the channel. Rodin's famous sculpture of the six nobleman of Calais depicts a an event that actually happened where Edward III picked out six noblemen of Calais to be hung for their subordination, but conceded when his pregnant wife begged for mercy. Generally a very successful Ed III is remembered fondly in contrast to his father.

To finance the Hundred Years War against France, Edward III introduced a tax that affected everyone, even the poorest. Previously taxes only applied to people that owned goods, effectively a wealth tax. This new head tax also rose over time. Also, papal patronage meant the pope instated high ranking clergy from Rome, barring local clergy. This is also the period of the Avignon "Babylonian captivity", when popes moved from Rome to southern France. During this Great Schism, there were sometimes 3 popes. I'd never heard of John Wycliffe and his followers (known as Lollards) but he was a sort of proto-Martin Luther, advocating similar reforms to Christian orthodoxy such as a direct relationship with God and redistribution of church-owned land. He even produced the Bible translated into vernacular English. This economic and clerical dissatisfaction led to the Peasant Revolt of 1381, which was the first popular (as opposed to Baronial) rebellion. It was eventually quelled but did demonstrate that the king increasingly had to listen to the people. The head tax was abolished.

Richard II was the grandson of Edward III. Richard's reign was completely dominated by what is called the Merciless Parliament, which strove to further curtail the power of the king. In retaliation Richard the second banished many of its members and denied inheritance to several opposing Lords. Eventually he was deposed by a new parliament and died in a prison cell in 1400. He was succeeded by Henry Bolingbrook, who came to reign as Henry IV. He was the first Lancaster of a long dynasty, eventually leading to the Tudors. His reign was short, succeeded by his son Henry V.

Henry V's reign was highlighted by successful conquest in France during the Hundred Years War, most notably, in the battle of Agincourt. This was largely due to internal divisions in France, but it made Henry V a popular king. His son and successor Henry VI managed to lose all of the English territories in France. By then, France was united again, and Henry VI had little interest in ruling was mentally unstable. The only English territory in France that remained was Calais, and England held it for the next century.

Henry VI's death led to a succession dispute between two houses: Lancaster (red rose) and York (white rose), called the War of the Roses. At first York had the upper hand. Its leader Ed IV held the reigns until his death, and was succeeded by his son Edward V, a 12-year-old boy at the time. But his reign did not last long. Vying for power, Ed V's uncle Richard, invented a lie saying that Ed was a bastard. This led to a successful propaganda campaign in which Richard III successfully usurped the throne. But it backfired as most people could see through the lie. Richard III likely executed his young rivals in the Tower of London, and he was reviled by the people, often depicted as a hunchback and of short statue in retrospect.

Henry Tudor was part of the Lancaster faction, and had a claim to the throne. His first attempt to take over was thwarted by King Richard III, and he escaped to Bretagne in France. From there, he eventually amassed an army and met Richard III in battle. Due to his unpopularity, Richard's armies did not obey him at a critical moment. Henry Tudor was victorious, the War of the roses was Won by the Lancasters, and thus begins the Tudor lineage, a long period of English stability. To cement his position and end the civil war definitively, Henry VII married Elizabeth of York. He and his son Henry VIII then systematically eliminated all of the pretenders to the throne, and paved the way for English supremacy during the Renaissance.

Crazy etymological stuff

  • The name Easter comes from the pagan holiday Eostre. The apple does not fall far from the tree.
  • To liquidate comes from melting of coins and other metallic valuables. Obvious in retrospect, never thought of it.
  • Tolkien's Shire and modern police Sheriffs both trace back to medieval England.
  • A farthing comes from the word "fourth", because it's value is 1/4 of a penny.
  • The title Earl comes from Ealdorman, rooted in "elder". Crazy!
  • Chivalry comes from the French word for horse, cheval. Another obvious in retrospect case.
  • Heraldry is the study of coats of arms. The connection to newspapers named The Herald is present but convoluted.
  • The notion of bearing arms used to mean that you had a coat of arms, as an indication of status. This sure has morphed over time for sure!

Interesting thoughts and insights

It remains unclear to me what role Thanes played in 9th century England. Did they have several shires in their control?

The Domesday book is an impressively early systematic attempt to survey all of England. It was conducted by William the Conqueror in 1080s. Damn impressive for the time.

Apparently the switch from oxen to horses for agriculture happened from the 11th to 13th centuries, with a surge in commerce. Farmers were no longer subsisting, but producing extra, which would be sold at markets and fairs. Oxen are stronger than horses, but do not make very good riding animals. A second order effect of this switch was a change in the shape of farming fields. Previously, plots were long and narrow since oxen were very hard to turn. Now plots were much more variable in shape.

Paxton has a really great discussion on chivalry. This horse culture apparently was the delineating line between yeomen and elites. Tournaments began as multi person melee brawls and eventually morphed into formal affairs that we think of today, with jousting. This tracks the evolution of knights, which were originally hired mercenaries but ultimately became an upper class, sharing the table with earls and kings. This upward mobility of knights was greatly enabled by the church, when it condoned violence in the name of the crusades. Finally, the culture of heroism and going on crusades had much cache. Vividly, Paxton retells the story of a blind king of Bohemia charging into battle flanked by his two companions. He wanted glory in death and found it in Calais.

Written English temporarily died after the Norman conquest, and was supplanted by French. This lasted for a while, as the civic elite favored French and the religious elite favored Latin. Eventually written English made a big return with prominent works written in it including the Canterbury Tales, which interesting are about a group of pilgrims making their way to see the Tomb of Thomas Beckett. (Interestingly, French remained the Lingua Franca of Europe for a while, with Russia and other latecomers clearly falling under French influence as late as the 19th century.)

I think roughly speaking, society was ordered like this: serf (indentured servant), then yeoman (small landowner), then gentry (artisans, merchants), then knight, lord, and king. Rankings among the clergy still elude me, but an interesting topic for future reading.

I was struck that many historical "events" lasted much longer than I would have guessed. The three crusades spanned 3 centuries. The Black Plague ebbed and flowed also over 3 centuries. This is of course easy to see in retrospect, but it made me wonder what sorts of 3-century long historical events people of 2500 will remember about us?