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King Arthur, ‘Once and Future King’

King Arthur, ‘Once and Future King’By Michael Wood

The fantastical tale of King Arthur, the hero warrior, is one of the great themes of British literature. But was it just invented to restore British pride after the Norman invasion? Michael Wood puts the king in the spotlight.

A great theme

The core myths of the Celtic peoples centre on the great cycle of stories based on the life and exploits of King Arthur. These legends link Arthur to a common poetic idea of Britain as a kind of paradise of the West, with a primeval unspoiled past. Together they add up to the greatest theme in the literature of the British Isles.

Together they add up to the greatest theme in the literature of the British Isles.

The historic figure of Arthur as a victorious fifth-century warrior, leading Britons into battle against Saxon invaders, has so far proved impossible for historians to confirm. In fact the one contemporary source that we do have for the time, ‘The Ruin and Conquest of Britain’ by the British monk and historian Gildas (c.500-70) gives somebody else’s name altogether as the leader of the Britons.

So where does the legend come from? Why has Arthur – the ‘once and future king’ of the poet Thomas Malory – remained so important to us, and why has he been important in the past?

First layer of the legend

The King Arthur that we know of today is a composite of layers of different legends, written by different authors at different times. He appears in his first incarnation in the ‘History of the Britons’, written in 830 and attributed to a writer called Nennius.

Here Arthur appears as a heroic British general and a Christian warrior, during the tumultuous late fifth century, when Anglo-Saxon tribes were attacking Britain. In one of the most pregnant passages in British history, Nennius says:

Then in those days Arthur fought against them with the kings of the Britons, but he was commander [dux bellorum] in those battles.

Nennius then gives a list of 12 battles fought by Arthur, a list that belongs in an old tradition of battle-list poems in Welsh poetry. Some of the names appear in other early poems and annals, stretched over a wide period of time and place, and the list represents the kind of eclectic plundering that was the bard´s stock-in-trade.

So the 12 battles of Arthur are not history. One man could not possibly have fought in all of them. The 12 battles are in fact the first signs of a legend.

Historic Arthur

In the turmoil of the period following the Norman invasion in 1066, Celtic literature experienced a flowering. Much of it concerned stories of the Welsh and the other Celtic Britons in glorious triumph against their new masters. A shower of new histories also sprung forth, introducing the Normans to the culture and the past of the Celts. All such stories need a main protagonist, a hero to lead the troops, and this is where Arthur fitted in.
Much of it concerned stories of the Welsh and the other Celtic Britons in glorious triumph against their new masters.

Already known in Welsh poetry and in Nennius’s history, he was an obvious contender. And with that background it is perhaps unsurprising that it was another Welsh writer who propelled Arthur from being just a Celtic warrior to being a mythical super-star.

The writer was Geoffrey of Monmouth, who spent his working life in Oxford and here produced his momentous work ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’. Geoffrey claimed the work was based on a secret lost Celtic manuscript that only he was able to examine. But it’s really a myth masquerading as history, a fantastical tale of the history of the British Isles, which concentrates its key pages on King Arthur and his wondrous deeds.

In this work, for the first time, Arthur’s whole life is told – from his birth at Tintagel to his eventual betrayal and death. There´s Guinevere and Merlin, there´s the legendary sword Caliburn (later known as Excalibur), and even the king´s final resting place at Avalon – though it’s not yet identified with Glastonbury.

At the time it was written Geoffrey´s book had a tremendous influence, and over 200 manuscripts still remain in existence. Its impact was as great in Europe as it was in Britain. Geoffrey had an expert way of mixing myth with fact, thus blurring reality – and this blend attracted a mass audience, perhaps in the same way that works such as The Da Vinci Code do today.

The Holy Grail

At the same time, the stories of Arthur began to bloom in the Celtic lands of northern France. This French connection began soon after the Norman Conquest, when Henry II of England married the vivacious and beautiful Eleanor of Aquitaine. In their court the two worlds of French and English literature intermingled, and poets and troubadours transformed the Arthur legend from a political fable to a tale of chivalric romance.

Perhaps the most important among the court writers was Chrétien de Troyes, who worked for Eleanor´s daughter Marie de Champagne. Chrétien is probably the greatest medieval writer of Arthurian romances, and it was he who turned the legend from courtly romance into spiritual quest. The mysterious Holy Grail, one of the most captivating motifs in all literature, first appears as part of the Arthurian legend in Chrétien’s unfinished poem ‘Perceval, or the Story of the Grail’ (1181-90):

A girl came in, fair and comely and beautifully adorned, and between her hands she held a grail. And when she carried the grail in, the hall was suffused by a light so brilliant that the candles lost their brightness as do the moon or stars when the sun rises. After her came another girl bearing a silver trencher. The grail was made of the finest pure gold, and in it were set precious stones of many kinds, the richest and most precious in the earth or the sea.

Chrétien´s image of the grail, luminous and other-worldly, became a mystical symbol of all human quests, of the human yearning for something beyond, desirable and yet unattainable. With that, the Arthur legend entered the true realm of myth.

Arthur becomes political

By the time the Tudor king Henry VII came to the throne in 1485, chivalric tales of Arthur’s knightly quests and of the Knights of the Round Table, inspired by Chrétien de Troyes, had roused British writers to pen their own versions, and Arthur was a well established British hero. Thomas Malory’s work the Death of Arthur, published in 1486, was one of the first books to be printed in England.

It is a haunting vision of a knightly golden age swept away by civil strife and the betrayal of its ideals. Malory identified Winchester as Camelot, and it was there in the same year that Henry VII´s eldest son was baptised as Prince Arthur, to herald the new age.

It is a haunting vision of a knightly golden age swept away by civil strife and the betrayal of its ideals.

In the meantime Geoffrey of Monmouth’s tome had not been forgotten, and Arthur was also seen as a political and historical figure. Nowhere was this more true than in the minds of 16th-century rulers of Britain, trying desperately to prove their equal worth with their sometimes-ally sometimes-foe Charles V, the great Holy Roman Emperor.

The young prince Arthur did not live to be crowned king and usher in a true new Arthurian age, but in 1509 his younger brother became Henry VIII and took in the message. He had the Winchester Round Table of Edward III repainted, with himself depicted at the top. Here he was shown as a latter-day Arthur, a Christian emperor and head of a new British empire, with claims once more to European glory, just as Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory had described.

Victorian revival

The 19th century in Britain was a time of great change, and the Industrial Revolution was transforming the nation irrevocably. But this situation produced great doubt and uncertainty in people’s minds – not just in the future direction of the world but in the very nature of man’s soul. As we have seen, at times of great change the legend of King Arthur, with its unfaltering moral stability, has always proved popular, and so it proved again in the reign of Queen Victoria.

The Victorian Arthurian legends were a nostalgic commentary on a lost spirit world.

Thus, when the Houses of Parliament were rebuilt after the disastrous fire of 1834, Arthurian themes from Malory´s book were chosen for the decoration of the queen´s robing room in the House of Lords, the symbolic centre of the British empire. And poems such as Tennyson´s ‘Idylls of the King’ and William Morris´s ‘The Defence of Guinevere’, based on the myth, became extremely popular. In addition, the Pre-Raphaelite painters produced fantastically powerful re-creations of the Arthurian legend, as did Julia Margaret Cameron in the new medium of photography.

The Victorian Arthurian legends were a nostalgic commentary on a lost spirit world. The fragility of goodness, the burden of rule and the impermanence of empire (a deep psychological strain, this, in 19th-century British literary culture) were all resonant themes for the modern British imperialist knights, and gentlemen, on their own road to Camelot.

Modern myth

Today the tale has lost none of its appeal. Camelot was ‘discovered’ at Cadbury, in Somerset, in the 1960s, and many books on the subject have been written in the past few decades. Films such as John Boorman´s Excalibur (1981), Robert Bresson´s Lancelot (1972) and Jerry Zucker’s First Knight (1995) were pre-cursors to Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 Hollywood epic King Arthur. Historians have also identified a real fifth-century Arthur – a prince and recognised warrior who died fighting the warring Scottish Picts.

But in the end it is perhaps his myth that is in any case more important than his history.

Has any of this helped verify the King Arthur of our story books? Maybe not. But in the end it is perhaps his myth that is in any case more important than his history. Over the centuries the figure of Arthur became a symbol of British history – a way of explaining the ‘matter’ of Britain, the relationship between the Saxons and the Celts, and a way of exorcising ghosts and healing the wounds of the past.

In such cases the dry, historical fact offers no solace, it is myth that offers real consolation, not in literal, historical fact but in poetic, imaginative truth. And a body of myth like the Arthurian tales therefore represents in some magical way the inner life of our history as Britons, over many hundreds, even thousands, of years. In this sense the fabulous myths really do serve Britain and make Arthur, perhaps, the real ‘once and future king’.

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6 Trailblazing Women in Medieval Times

Six trailblazing medieval women

Everyone has heard of Joan of Arc or Eleanor of Aquitaine, but which other women were important during this 1,000-year period? As Susan Signe Morrison explains, evidence abounds concerning medieval women who were doctors, musicians, writers, theologians, explorer and scientists…

Submitted by: Emma Mason
Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179). (Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), a scientist, doctor of medicine, musician, philosopher and theologian, is “acclaimed as the most accomplished of medieval women”, says Susan Signe Morrison. (Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images)

First female playwright: Hrotsvit of Gandersheim (c935–c1000)

 

The 10th-century Saxon canoness Hrotsvit of Gandersheim called herself ‘the strong voice of Gandersheim’. She had many firsts to her credit: first medieval playwright; first female playwright; first female German poet and first female German historian.

Dedicating her works to various members of Emperor Otto’s family, Hrotsvit was highly educated in both the quadrivium (music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy) and the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic), as well as key writings by Christian theologians. Hrotsvit was also well-versed in Roman pagan authors, whose immoral comedies featured love affairs and women of suspect reputation, embodying the worst of misogynist beliefs. Hrotsvit took these well-plotted, but immoral, plays and turned them into morally admirable dramas featuring worthy women and weak men. Girls stood up to those who did not let them lead the lives they chose.

Hrotsvit put to vellum the first-known dramas since the classical period. Her plays extol females, from strong virgins to prostitute saints, willing to sacrifice themselves for God. What could have been happier for a devout medieval Christian than to end up in heaven? Her heroines include young girls, one as young as eight, who stand up defiantly under torture and humiliation from pagan Roman officials.  One holy virgin tells the violent emperor, “I have called him a fool, I now call him a fool, and I shall call him a fool as long as I live.” Nothing frightens her.

Hrotsvit uses misogynistic stereotypes about women – that they are more physically weak than men, for example – to argue the very opposite. Hrotsvit even has two fallen women as her heroines, who exemplify the category of the ‘holy harlot’, as seen most famously in the life of St Mary of Egypt.

Hrotsvit of Gandersheim

Hrotsvit presents Emperor Otto the Great with her Gesta Oddonis, in the background is Abbess Gerberga. Woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, 1501.  (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Fighting crusader: Margaret of Beverley (c1150–c1214/15)

The 12th-century Margaret of Beverley, born in Jerusalem to her English pilgrim parents, returned to the Holy Land just as the great Muslim leader Saladin decided to reclaim Jerusalem from Christian control. Margaret lived in Jerusalem as the city came under siege by Saladin’s troops in September 1187. Mobbed with refugees from other defeated cities, Jerusalem was surrounded by enemy soldiers. No food or water could enter. Everyone living in this urban nightmare had to participate in its defence.

Forced to stay, Margaret willingly set to work. “[L]ike a fierce virago, I tried to play the role of a man,” her brother records her saying. She told how “During this siege, which lasted 15 days, I carried out all of the functions of a soldier that I could. I wore a breastplate like a man; I came and went on the ramparts, with a cauldron on my head for a helmet. Though a woman, I seemed a warrior, I threw the weapon; though filled with fear, I learned to conceal my weakness.”

The heat was blistering. The soldiers inside had to battle continually to prevent their enemies from entering. Women helped by using weapons and machines such as catapults when not enough men were available, filling in ditches and providing food and drink. Once, when Margaret gave water to the men to drink, a catapult sent a millstone over the walls. It burst apart. A small piece of stone flew off and struck her, causing blood to gush out. Margaret carried the scar throughout her life.

About two weeks after the tumult had begun, the siege was over. Later enduring imprisonment, torture and humiliation, Margaret ultimately gained her freedom and returned to Europe, becoming a Cistercian lay-sister in a French nunnery.

Scandalous nun: Heloise d’Argenteuil (c1100–64)

By the time she was not yet 20, Heloise d’Argenteuil was renowned as the most educated woman in Europe. Peter Abelard, arguably the most brilliant philosopher of his time, had already caused an uproar among the intellectual classes. No diplomat, Peter alienated respectable older theologians, making enemies.

Heloise’s uncle, Fulbert, a clergyman at the church of Notre-Dame on the Île-de-France in Paris, hired Peter, who gladly took on the role of tutor to this young girl. Peter later wrote how he intended to break his lifelong chastity with this student entrusted to him.  Featuring a pregnant teenager and the older teacher who seduced her, this scandalous affair stemming from 1118 became the gossip of Paris.

Soon after they met,  Heloise and Peter exchanged amorous glances, looks that transformed into touches. As Peter openly confesses, “My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages.” They soon were enjoying carnal embraces. “[O]ur desires left no stage of lovemaking untried, and if love could devise something new, we welcomed it”. Heloise’s uncle remained oblivious, until he caught the lovers together. Meanwhile, Heloise was thrilled to learn she was pregnant.

The couple secretly wed. But Peter ignored Heloise after being tragically castrated by the henchmen of her vengeful uncle. In return, Heloise wrote brilliant, angry and passionate letters. Boldly proclaiming, “It would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called your whore,” she understands her passion to be authentically motivated; the true whores are those women who marry for position and money. Amazingly, scholars once refused to believe that a woman could have written such intelligent letters. Ultimately, Heloise became abbess at the Paraclete, a religious hermitage with daughter houses, six of which were set up under Heloise’s rule. She remained abbess until her death.

Héloïse d’Argenteuil with Peter Abélard,

Héloïse d’Argenteuil and Peter Abélard. (© Quagga Media/Alamy Stock Photo)

Audacious innovator: Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179)

Female scientists were active in both practical and theoretical medicine. The most famous of all is Hildegard of Bingen, who transcends categorisation. Scientist, doctor of medicine, musician, philosopher, theologian, mystic – Hildegard is acclaimed as the most accomplished of medieval women. A resident of medieval Germany, she explained confounding theological notions such as that of the Trinity (the Father, Son and Holy Ghost).  Standing up to male superiors in the church, she often succeeded in getting her desires, including founding a new convent.

Hildegard wrote about the human body, even using poetic language to describe reproduction from the woman’s perspective. Her music, much performed today, reflects her view that humans create music in an attempt to recapture the cosmically harmonious paradise lost with the fall, when Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden. In Hildegard’s Ordo virtutum, a liturgical drama in song, the devil fights with the soul’s virtues; only the devil has a speaking role.

Hildegard’s other writings include theological, cosmological and visionary works. “Let no man be so audacious as to add anything to this writing lest he be blotted out from the book of life,” she asserts. While many medieval women turned to the divine to find meaning in their interior lives, Hildegard also commented publicly on state and church politics.  Creating voluminous letters to the pope and churchmen, she corresponded on issues of salvation and church organisation. Between 1158 and 1170 she also undertook four preaching tours – extraordinary in a time when women were expected to obey St Paul’s injunction to not teach or speak in the church.

Vocal feminist: Christine de Pizan (1364–c1430)

Feminist beliefs were espoused unashamedly by some trailblazing medieval women. The brilliant Christine de Pizan, for instance, was raised by an unconventional father who supported Christine’s desire to study and learn. Her arranged marriage at the age of 15 became a love match. When tragedy struck, cutting down both her father and husband in the prime of life, the 25-year-old Christine was suddenly left in charge of the extended household.

Christine had been left with no knowledge of how the financial accounts were arranged. She was even cheated by people claiming false debts. Initiating a feminist critique of marriage that still resounds today, she laments, “For it was the custom for married men not to talk about or declare the complete state of their affairs to their wives… it makes no sense unless women, instead of being ignorant, learn wise management of such matters.”

Christine had few options. “Now it was necessary for me to go to work, something which I, nurtured on the finer things of life, had not learned”. While initially she copied manuscripts as a scribe, she then became the first European professional female writer. Defying misogynist writers, calling anti-woman invective “hodgepodge, rubbish, and wasted words,” Christine boldly proclaimed to one anti-woman writer, “You have committed a great error without reason.”

In her masterpiece from 1404–5, The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine envisions an allegorical city populated only by women and ruled by the Virgin Mary. In this prose text, Christine asserts how women created all good culture, politics and science. Christine argued that women should be allowed to be what everyone should be given – the right to be human. Her final work extols a young maiden as embodying all that is fine about womanhood – none other than Joan of Arc.

Christine de Pizan, seated on a chair in carved wood. Miniature from a MS in the Burgundy Library, Brussels, 15th century. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Matchless matriarch: Margaret Paston (c1423–84)

With shades of Real Housewives of the Middle Ages, estate manager Margaret Paston protected her extended family’s vast properties during the War of the Roses, a time of violence and disruption. As adept and well-versed in legal intricacies as her male lawyer counterparts who were away in London, she defended the homestead, bidding her husband to send weapons such as crossbows, axes and protective garments should enemies attack.

In addition to protecting her lands and informing her husband of crises, Margaret undertook the activities that any woman would have to do to support an estate or even modest farm: making bread and wine, brewing ale, smoking ham and bacon, and drying fruit for the winter months. She oversaw the care of pigs, poultry and cows.  Needlecraft, such as embroidery, weaving, cloth making and mending, lay within a woman’s sphere. Given the Pastons’ estates and property, Margaret consulted with tenants, negotiated legal claims, and sought out (and gave) judicial advice.

Estate management also included selling products manufactured on the farm, such as foodstuffs, cloth and grain, as well as ordering supplies from larger cities in the area. Making and maintaining connections with powerful individuals who would support her during these political turbulent times, Margaret had to borrow jewellery when she finally met Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI.

Catherine Morland,  Jane Austen’s heroine in Northanger Abbey (1803), laments, “I read [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome….” Poor Catherine! If only she could come back today, when much medieval history focuses on gender and the everyday experiences of the vibrant, dynamic and unexpected lives of women from the medieval period.

 

Susan Signe Morrison is professor of English at Texas State University. Her award-winning historical novel, Grendel’s Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife, tells the story of the Old English poem, Beowulf, from the woman’s point of view. 

She can be found at amedievalwomanscompanion.com and susansignemorrison.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @medievalwomen.

10 Important Medieval Dates

10 medieval dates you need to know…

Don’t know the battle of Bosworth from the battle of Bannockburn? Confused between Magna Carta and the Domesday Book? We’ve got you covered. Here we bring you 10 key medieval dates you need to know…

Tuesday 22nd March 2016    Submitted by: Ellie Cawthorne  from BBC History Extra
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Detail from the Bayeux tapestry. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)
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.

 

William I

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”.

 

Crusades

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.

Thomas Becket

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 strangles plague victim

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.

Peasants revolt

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.

 

Agincourt

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.

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