Chapter 3 A Long and Illustrious History -Part 2 Revision

The second section of the chapter 3 “A Long and Illustrious History” concerns the Middle Ages. This period was after the Norman Conquest and lasted until about 1485. Britain was involved in wars for almost all of this time, both locally and abroad.

Wars in the Middle Ages

– Local Wars: Scotland, Wales and Ireland

  • In 1284 English King Edward issued the Statute of Rhuddian, which made Wales anannex to the Crown of England. The Welsh fought back, but the English built huge castles such as Conwy and Caernavon to oversee their rule. By the 15th century, the Welsh resistance had been defeated and English laws and language were introduced.
  • Scotland was more successful at resisting English rule. In 1314 Robert the Bruce led Scotland troops to victory at the Battle of Bannockburn, and Scotland remained free.
  • At the beginning of the Middle Ages Ireland was a separate country from Britain. The English sent armies to help the Irish king. After their work was done, the English armies built settlements and ruled an area near Dublin called the Pale. Some prominent lords in other parts of Ireland also agreed to English rule.

Wars Abroad

  • The English fought a long war with France. This was called the Hundred Years war, although it was 116 years long. The most important battle was at Agincourt in 1415. The English had an army, led by King Henry, that was much smaller than the French, and yet the English won. The English army left France by the 1450’s
  • Britain also took part in the Crusades, a series of wars in which European Christians fought for control of the Holy Land.
Land ownership

At the beginning of the Middle Ages, land ownership was decided using a system called feudalism that was used by the Normans. This changed after a sweeping illness, the Black Death, ravaged Britain.

  • –  Under feudalism, The King gave large amounts of land to lords, who ruled locally. In return for the land, the lords were required to send workers from among their people to serve in the King’s army.
  • –  The lords in turn, gave small amounts of land to their workers, also called serfs, to grow their own food. In return the serfs had to work for their lord and could not move away. There was also a smaller population of peasants, who were free and owned small amounts of land but were not obligated to a specific lord.
  • –  The feudalism system was based on people being assigned land either by the king or the lords. Most people lived in the country and there were not many towns or cities.

Black Death

In 1348, an illness called the Black Death began to grow in Britain. Historians now believe it was probably a form of plague.

  • –  One-third of the English, Scottish, and Welsh populations died. It was one of the worst disasters in British history. Many people also died in the Pale, the area of Ireland controlled by the British.
  • –  The population was so low that there were not enough workers. Peasants began to demand higher pay for their work. Working people began to move to the towns, leaving mostly the gentry, or land owners, in the countryside. This began to create a strong middle class in Britain, based in the towns.

Parliament and the Structure of Government

  • –  Until 1215, the King had a group of advisors, made up of noblemen and Church leaders, but no real limits on his power.
  • –  In 1215, the nobles forced King John to agree to a series of demands. These formed the document called the Magna Carta, or Great Charter. It established the following:
  • The King had to obey the laws of England.
  • There were limits on the ability of the King to collect taxes.
  • The King had to consult with the nobles before making or changing laws.

– After the Magna Carta was established, the number of people in Parliament grew. Two Houses were created:

  • The House of Lords was made up of the nobility, large landowners, and bishops.
  • The House of Commons was made up of knights, smaller landowners, and wealthy people from towns and cities. Members of the House of Commons were elected, although not everyone could vote.
  • A similar system was created in Scotland, consisting of three houses, called Estates. They were the Lords, the Commons, and the Clergy.

– During this time the British legal system was also developing, including the concept that judges were independent of the government. Common law also became established. Common law means that legal cases are decided by precedent or tradition, that is, legal decisions that came previously. In Scotland these laws were written down, or codified.

Development of English language and culture

Before the Middle Ages there was no national “British” identity. People identified with their local country: England, Scotland, Ireland, or Wales. This began to change.

  • –  At the beginning of the Middle Ages, the King and nobility spoke French, while the peasants spoke Anglo-Saxon. Gradually these two languages merged and a single language was used.
  • –  By 1400 all official documents in Parliament were written in English, and English became the preferred language of the King and nobility.
  • –  In the years before 1400 Henry Chaucer, an English poet, wrote the Canterbury Tales. This book tells the story of a group of people traveling to Canterbury on a pilgrimage. They tell each other stories to pass the time while traveling. These stories are written as poems and make up the book. The Canterbury Tales was one of the first books to be printed on a printing press in Britain. It was printed by William Caxton, the first man to use a printing press in the country
  • –  The Scots however, still spoke Gaelic, and a Scottish language was also developing. An example of this new language was seen in the poem, The Bruce, written by John Barbour. The poem is about the Battle of Bannockburn.
  • –  Great buildings were also built. There were many castles throughout the land. Most are in ruins but a few, such as Winsor and Edinburgh, are still in use. Cathedrals were also built, of which some are still used for worship. Lincoln Cathedral is an example.
  • –  Some of the cathedrals had windows of stained glass, which depicted stories of the Bible and the Christian saints. The glass in York Minster is an example of this.
  • –  England also became an important country for trade. English wool was highly prized. Also, craftsmen from all over Europe came to Britain to trade and work. Some examples were:
  • Glassmakers from Italy
  • Weavers from France
  • German Engineers
  • Canal builders from Holland