Detail from the Bayeux tapestry, which depicts the Norman conquest of England in 1066. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)
1066: The battle of Hastings and the Norman conquest
The Norman conquest of 1066 marked a dramatic and irreversible turning point in English history. Events began with the battle of Hastings, in which the Anglo-Saxon king Harold II attempted to defend his realm from the Norman invasion forces of William, Duke of Normandy (later known as William the Conqueror).
Harold’s English troops numbered around 5,000, compared to a well-equipped Norman force of 15,000 infantry, archers and cavalry. Although the English had some initial success using shield-wall tactics, they proved no match for William, who was a formidable warlord. English defences were eventually broken down and King Harold was killed. His crushing defeat and gory death on the battlefield is famously recorded in the Bayeux tapestry, which was completed in the 1070s.
Following William’s success at the battle of Hastings – dubbed by Andrew Gimson the “most durable victory of any monarch in English history”– William the Conqueror set about transforming the face of Anglo-Saxon England. He skillfully secured his hold on the lands he had invaded, replacing the English ruling class with Norman counterparts and building defensive fortresses at strategic points throughout the kingdom.
Under William the feudal system [a hierarchical system in which people held lands in return for providing loyalty or services to a lord] was introduced, the church reorganised and England’s links to Europe strengthened. The legacy of 1066’s Norman conquest can still be seen today in Britain’s language, culture and social structure.
A portrait of William the Conqueror from the ‘Historia Anglorum, Chronica majora’. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
1085: The Domesday Book is completed
The Domesday Book is England’s earliest surviving public record, unsurpassed in depth and detail until the introduction of censuses in the 19th century.
Towards the end of the 11th century England came under threat from Danish invaders. William the Conqueror (who had himself been an invader two decades earlier) realised the need to catalogue the country’s financial resources in order to assess how much taxation he could reap from the land to fund a potential war. He therefore commissioned a massive survey of England’s landholdings and financial assets. The monumental resulting document, the Domesday Book, extensively catalogues the kingdom’s taxable goods and records the identities of England’s landholders at the time.
The Domesday Book is significant because it provides a unique and remarkably rich historical source for medievalists. Its vast amount of information offers historians, geographers, linguists and even lawyers invaluable insights into the nature of England’s government, landscape and social structure at the time. The book now survives in two volumes: Great Domesday and Little Domesday.
1095: The First Crusade is decreed
Pope Urban II’s official call for “holy war” in 1095 heralded the beginning of centuries of religious conflict. The crusades were a significant and long-lasting movement that saw European Christian knights mount successive military campaigns in attempts to conquer the Holy Land. Religious conflict peaked during the 12th and 13th centuries and its impact can be traced throughout the Middle Ages.
Muslims in the Holy Land were not the only target of the crusades. Crusade campaigns were directed against a variety of people viewed as enemies of Christendom. Military campaigns against the Moors in Spain and Mongols and pagan Slavs in Eastern Europe have now also been recognised by historians as part of the crusade movement.
The crusades had a huge impact on medieval life in Britain. People from all walks of life were involved – everyone from peasant labourers to lords and kings took up the fight for Christendom. Richard the Lionheart (r1189–99) considered the quest to conquer the Holy Land to be so important that he was absent from England for many years of his reign, waging war in the Middle East.
These intercontinental military expeditions also had a much wider impact on global relations. They led to an unprecedented interaction between east and west, which had an enduring influence on art, science, culture and trade. Meanwhile the shared fight for Christendom arguably also helped to foster ideological unity within Europe. In the words of historian Linda Paterson, the crusades “transformed the western world and left a profound legacy in inter-cultural and inter-faith relations nationally and worldwide”.
A battle during the crusades. Miniature from the ‘Historia’ by William of Tyre, 1460s. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
1170: Thomas Becket is murdered
Bloody proof of overflowing tensions in the ongoing power struggle between the medieval church and crown, the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170 has gone down in history for its shocking brutality.
In 1155, after enjoying a successful career in the clergy, Becket (1120–70) became chancellor to King Henry II. Friendship and rapport developed between the two men and in 1161 Henry appointed Becket as archbishop of Canterbury.
However, following Becket’s appointment as archbishop, his harmonious relationship with the king was short-lived. Trouble began to emerge as it became clear that Becket would now fight for the interests of the church, often in opposition to the wishes of the crown.
Becket began to challenge the king over a wide range of issues and their turbulent disagreements lasted several years. Their relationship disintegrated to such an extent that between 1164 and 1170 Becket lived in France to avoid Henry’s wrath. He returned to Canterbury in 1170 but was soon in conflict with the king again, this time over the excommunication of high-ranking clerics.
This dispute was the final straw for Henry. According to popular legend he lost his temper with the archbishop, asking “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Believing this to mean that the king wished Becket dead, four knights travelled to Canterbury to seek out the archbishop. On 29 December 1170 they brutally murdered Becket in his own cathedral.
In 1173, three years after his death, Becket was canonised. His murder transformed him into a martyr figure and his shrine at Canterbury Cathedral became a major European pilgrimage site. The priest’s murder was extremely damaging to Henry’s reputation and in 1174 Henry visited Becket’s tomb to pay penance for his actions.
A late 12th-century illustration of the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170. (CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
1215: Magna Carta is signed
Sealed by King John at Runnymede on 15 June 1215, Magna Carta (meaning ‘great charter’) has become one of the founding documents of the English legal system.
At the time of its creation, however, the document’s long-lasting significance was not immediately recognised. Following a period of political and military upheaval in England, John was reluctantly forced to sign Magna Carta as part of peace negotiations with rebel barons. Drafted as part of a peace treaty, the initial document contained specific grievances dealing expressly with King John’s rule. At the time the agreement had little impact, as King John swiftly backtracked on its promises, prompting civil war.
Magna Carta’s real significance lay elsewhere. Buried within its many clauses were certain adaptable core values that ensured its influential legacy in English history. As the first document to establish that everyone, including monarchs, was subject to the law, Magna Carta laid the foundation for legally limiting the power of the sovereignty. Its 39th clause, meanwhile, ensured the right of all ‘free men’ to a fair trial.
The fundamental principles laid down in these clauses proved central to the establishment of the English legal system. The original document was adapted several times in subsequent years and three of the clauses from the original Magna Carta still remain on the statute books today. These establish the liberties of the English Church (Clause 1), the privileges of the City of London (Clause 13) and the right to trial by jury (Clauses 39 & 40).
1314: The battle of Bannockburn
The battle of Bannockburn saw Scottish leader Robert the Bruce take on the English king Edward II in a pivotal conflict in Scotland’s fight for independence.
In 1296 Anglo-Scottish tensions spilled over into open warfare when English forces under Edward I invaded Scotland. By 1314 the Scottish Wars of Independence had been raging for many years and Edward II’s hold over Scotland had begun to crumble. In an attempt to restore his grasp on the kingdom Edward II amassed a large body of troops to relieve Stirling Castle, which had been besieged by the forces of Robert the Bruce. However, Edward’s attempt to regain control backfired, as the Scots prepared to face the English forces head-on in what became the battle of Bannockburn.
The battle took place on 23 and 24 June 1314. Although the English force boasted greater numbers, the Scottish were well trained and well led, fighting on land they were motivated to defend. Their knowledge of the local land also worked in their favour, as they tactically targeted terrain that would be difficult for Edward’s heavy cavalry to operate on. English casualties were heavy and Edward was forced to retreat.
Bannockburn dealt a significant blow to English control over Scotland and Edward’s withdrawal left swathes of northern England vulnerable to Scottish raids and attacks. Robert the Bruce’s victory proved decisive for Scotland, solidifying the country’s independence and strengthening his grip over his kingdom. In 1324 Robert finally gained papal recognition as king of Scotland.
1348: The Black Death comes to Britain
The summer of 1348 saw the first outbreak of the bubonic plague in England, leading to an epidemic of huge proportions. The disease is estimated to have killed between a third and a half of the population – a devastating and unprecedented death rate.
Known as the Black Death, the bubonic plague was caused by a bacterium now know as yersinia pestis. Without any knowledge of how it was transmitted the disease spread like wildfire, particularly in urban areas. The writer Boccaccio saw the plague ravage Florence in 1348 and described the symptoms in his book The Decameron: “The first signs of the plague were lumps in the groin or armpits. After this, livid black spots appeared on the arms and thighs and other parts of the body. Few recovered. Almost all died within three days, usually without any fever”.
The dramatic death toll had a significant impact on the social and economic landscape of Britain in the following decades. Writing for History Extra, Mark Ormrod has argued that in the long-run the epidemic led to a “real improvement in the quality of life” for medieval people. He suggests that “the drop in the population resulted in a redistribution of wealth – workers could demand higher wages, and tenant farmers could demand lower rents, giving the poor more expendable income”.
Death strangling a victim of the plague. From the 14th-century Stiny Codex.(Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
1381: The Peasants’ Revolt
The first large-scale uprising in English history, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 threatened to overturn the existing social structure and undermine the country’s ruling elite.
The revolt was prompted by the introduction of a third poll tax (raised to fund the war against France), which had a particularly damaging effect on the poor. Unrest began in Essex, spreading rapidly to East Anglia, St Albans, Bury St Edmunds and London. As events escalated, government ministers were attacked and their homes destroyed. The chaos reached a peak as rioters captured and executed the king’s treasurer and the archbishop of Canterbury.
Soon, the rioters’ demands extended far beyond abolishing the third poll tax. They called for the abolition of serfdom and outlawry, and the division of lordship among all men. They also railed against the corruption of the church, demanding that its wealth be distributed among the people.
Faced with the threat of escalating violence in his capital city, the 14-year-old King Richard II met with one of the central figures of the revolt, Wat Tyler, to discuss the rioters’ grievances. However, violence broke out at the meeting and Tyler was murdered by William Walworth (Lord Mayor of London). Following Tyler’s death, government troops sought out and executed those who had rebelled, and resistance soon died out.
A 15th-century image depicting the meeting between Wat Tyler and the revolutionary priest John Ball during the Peasants’ Revolt. (Prisma/UIG/Getty Images)
1415: Henry V defeats the French at Agincourt
Soon after becoming king of England in 1413, the ambitious young Henry V turned his attention to expanding his realm. During his father’s reign he had pushed for an invasion of France, and as the country was undergoing a period of political turmoil under its elderly monarch, Charles VI, it was the perfect time to launch an assault on the vulnerable kingdom.
After landing in France on 13 August 1415 and besieging the town of Harfleur, Henry’s troops marched on Calais. The French army met them at Agincourt and Henry’s men found themselves outnumbered as a bloody battle ensued. Despite this the French death toll was significant and Henry claimed victory.
Agincourt has gone down in history as a legendary victory for England and for Henry. However, historian Ralph Griffiths suggests that it was in fact a close-run and far from decisive battle. He argues that contemporaries exaggerated Henry’s achievements in France.
However, patriotic Agincourt propaganda undoubtedly had sticking power in the Middle Ages. The defeat proved devastating to French morale, while Henry’s reputation on the continent was enhanced dramatically. Henry was welcomed back to Dover with triumph and the story of his illustrious victory at Agincourt was celebrated for centuries to come.
A 15th-century image of the Battle of Agincourt. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)
1485: Richard III is defeated at the battle of Bosworth
The last significant clash of the Wars of the Roses, the battle of Bosworth saw the Lancastrian Henry Tudor (the future Henry VII) defeat Richard III in a bloody fight for the English throne.
Following Richard’s deposition of Edward V in 1483, Henry challenged the Yorkist king as a usurper. In August 1485 Henry launched an attack on Richard in an attempt to seize control of England. Richard’s army of 15,000 vastly outnumbered that of Henry, who had only 5,000 men. Confident of defeating his challenger, Richard was reportedly overjoyed at Henry’s arrival in England and even delayed facing his troops in order to celebrate with a feast day.
However, once the battle began, Richard’s strong initial position was undermined by the desertion of his troops and the defection of Lord Stanley (who had previously fought on the Yorkist side and commanded significant troops). The Yorkist forces were defeated and Richard was killed on the battlefield.
The discovery of Richard’s skeleton in Leicester in 2012 has told us much about how the defeated king met his death. Writing for History Extra, Chris Skidmore states that “several gouge marks in the front of the skull seem to have been caused by a dagger, perhaps in a struggle. The two wounds that would have killed Richard include the back part of his skull being sheathed off; if this did not kill him, a sword blade thrust from the base of the skull straight through the brain certainly would have done the job”.
As the last major conflict of the Wars of the Roses and one that heralded the end of the Plantagenet dynasty, the battle of Bosworth marked a significant turning point in British history. It signalled the end of the medieval era and beginning of the Tudor period.