medieval period of history of the British Isles from 500 to 1500 CE

In Britain and Ireland, the Middle Ages are regarded to have begun with the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, ending with the Tudor Period in the 15th century.

Understand edit

Britain and Ireland historical travel topics:
CeltsMedievalEarly modernIndustrial BritainBritish Empire

The Roman Empire held present-day England and Wales as the province Britannia, while the other regions of the islands remained independent, populated by Celts. The withdrawal of Roman troops in the early 5th century was followed by the migration period, in which various Germanic peoples settled parts of Great Britain. The Angles and Saxons from northern Germany were the most numerous of these, hence the blanket term "Anglo-Saxon", but smaller numbers of people from different tribes also settled at the same time: Jutes from modern Denmark, Frisians from the Netherlands, and Franks from Belgium and northern France. The Anglo-Saxon culture gradually took over the eastern and southern parts of the island, with the Angles giving their name to the language (Ænglisc), and later to the people who spoke it (Angelcynn) and the part of the island they inhabited (Englaland).

The British form of Vulgar Latin died out, unlike on continental Europe where the Romance languages endured Germanic rule, and the British Celtic or "Brittonic" culture was forced into a continuing retreat into the west and north of the islands. One offshoot of refugees was founded in Brittany in present-day France on the mainland of Europe.

The Germanic tribes consolidated into seven major kingdoms following their arrival on the island, and further consolidated into four kingdoms by the eighth century. This period is known as the Heptarchy, comprising of the kingdoms of East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex. Before the rise of the Franks under Charlemagne (whose advisor Alkuin was born in Great Britain), the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms came to be the centres of Germanic scholarship and had the most substantial production of written material in both the vernacular and Latin in the entirety of the Germanic speaking world at that time. Unfortunately, we have lost all but four books of Anglo-Saxon poetry and lots of the prose in part due to King Henry VIII's dissolution of English monasteries, which had previously preserved the old books.

Viking and Norman invasions edit

Statue of Alfred the Great (King of the Angles and Saxons, 886-899) in Winchester.

The 8th to 11th centuries are remembered as the Viking Age. The east coast of Great Britain, as well as Ireland, were invaded by seafarers from Norway and Denmark. Areas under Norse rule were known by the umbrella term "Danelaw". At the time Old Norse and Old English were close enough to one another to allow "Norse" and "Anglo-Saxon" neighbours to communicate with each other, which they frequently did during trade or intermarriage, no matter what their leaders thought of such things. The Vikings were thus assimilated over time and the English language lost most of its inflections (which were too different from those in Old Norse and thus hindered communication). In turn, the English language gained Norse loanwords - not all of them giving a flattering image of the culture-contact. The Normans, descendants of Vikings who settled in northern France together with some people from Brittany who wished to take revenge for what they saw as Anglo-Saxon oppression, invaded England under William the Conqueror, who established Norman rule in 1066.

High Middle Ages edit

The Norman invasion heralded a period today known as the High Middle Ages, marked by relative stability and urbanisation, the rise of institutions such as guilds, knight orders and universities, and the construction of cathedrals and castles (see Castles in Britain and Ireland). In England, the Normans came to make up the senior civil servants and clergy. The Normans and Anglo-Saxons came to mix over generations, creating a unified England. England took part in some of the Crusades to the Holy Land.

The period between 1066 and the end of the Hundred Years War also saw a steady process of "Anglicisation" of the invader monarchs. Were they at first Dukes of Normandy first and English kings second, they would slowly but surely embrace the "peasant's tongue" that was English (but not before giving it a wealth of French derived terms and curious distinctions like a French based term for the meat and an Anglo-Saxon term for the animal) and consider England their primary realm. Their definitive loss of any significant influence over French domestic policy forced them to focus more on England and - with the Tudor conquest - Ireland. The language that was almost never written in the first century after the 1066 conquest would emerge again as a literary language with the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer much changed due to Norman-French influence, the continuing loss of inflection almost completed and a spelling and to some extent phonetic character much more familiar to a modern English speaker than the decidedly more alien Old English.

The first unified kingdom in what is now Scotland was the Kingdom of Alba, which was formed through the merger of two Celtic peoples known as the Picts and the Scots. Scotland remained an independent kingdom until the Union of the Crowns in 1707, repelling English invasions along the way.

The first steps towards the "Rights of Englishmen" took place in this era, but it was much more of a tug of war between the nobility, Parliament and royalty than a steady march to progress. The King came to call nobility, clergy and on some occasions representatives of well to do male citizens to his service as an advisory body which slowly but surely morphed into something akin to the Parliament of the modern era, albeit with no formal powers. In the Magna Carta, King John was forced to grant a lot of rights to the nobility and despite the ability of later kings to rescind much of those privileges it would later serve as a rallying cry for rebellions against the king that demanded more rights for the nobility or even commoners.

Wars of the Late Middle Ages edit

Statue of Richard III, Leicester

The Late Middle Ages from the 14th to 15th century were dominated by the Hundred Years War, in which the English House of Plantagenet tried to enforce claims to the throne of the Kingdom of France which dated back to their being descendants of William the Conqueror. Ultimately however, the English monarchy lost all territory they had held in mainland France and today the Channel Islands are the last remnant of the erstwhile Duchy of Normandy. The British monarchs continued officially claiming "King/Queen of France" in their long form titles until the French Revolution. The Hundred Years War was followed by the Wars of the Roses from 1455-1487, which pitted the House of Lancaster against the House of York in a struggle for the English throne. The victory of the House of Tudor (who were allies with the initially-defeated House of Lancaster) over the House of York in 1487 at the end of the Wars of the Roses is generally regarded to be the end of the Middle Ages in England, and the start of the English Renaissance. Shakespeare's "history plays" dramatise some of those parts of British history, but they do pick their favourites in accordance with the political climate of Shakespeare's times leading among other things to the widespread scepticism of Shakespeare's claim that Richard III was hunchbacked - only for that particular titbit to be proven true in the 21st century with the discovery of his remains.

The Middle Ages were followed by the English Renaissance. Under the House of Tudor, England annexed Wales and Ireland as client states, rose as a great power in the Age of Discovery, and reached its golden age during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), over time founding the British Empire.

Legacy and remembrance edit

The term Middle Ages was coined by Western European scholars of the 17th and 18th centuries, who dismissed the period as a "dark age" of savagery and superstition between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance.

As seen above, the 1,000-year long period known as the "middle ages" was much more complex, and to a large extent saw the foundation of the British monarchy, the universities, the English and Irish languages, the maritime tradition, the churches, the folklore, and many other institutions that make the islands what they are today. The 19th century Romantic movement revived interest in medieval history and legends, as English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalists rediscovered their past. Writers such as William Wordsworth and Alfred Tennyson re-interpreted the Arthurian legend which became an English "foundation myth" with countless adaptations, including the satirical Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

One of few surviving stories from the Early Middle Ages is Beowulf, an epic poem about dragons and dragon slayers intermixed with historical figures, which was studied by J.R.R. Tolkien and inspired some of the characters and events depicted in his works on Middle Earth. Since then, countless fictional worlds in the fantasy genre, including those featured in live-action roleplaying, have been based on Medieval Britain and its folklore.

The Heptarchy inspired the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros in George R. R. Martin's epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, which was adapted into the highly successful HBO television series Game of Thrones.

The Vikings left their mark in the culture of the isles. Hundreds of everyday words such as law, steak and window come from Old Norse. See also Vikings and the Old Norse#Old Norse heritage.

Gothic Revival was an architectural movement which began in mid-18th-century England. By the mid-19th century it was a dominant style of the English-speaking world, celebrating the Anglo-Catholic legacy. This revival influenced the prevailing style of churches, government buildings like the Palace of Westminster, countless railway stations and many wealthy private residences for over 150 years. Many university buildings of this period were also built in the Gothic Revival Style, perhaps most notably the oldest parts of the British "red brick universities" (e.g. Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield), and Yale University across the pond.

The 13th and 14th century ballads of Robin Hood were rediscovered in the 18th century, and the modern image of the legendary noble thief was shaped by books such as Ivanhoe' 'from 1819, and The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood from 1883.

England's rise to dominate Scotland and Ireland during the High Middle Ages is depicted – with a very tenuous relation to historical fact – in the 1995 film Braveheart, directed by and starring Mel Gibson.

The Wars of the Roses also served as inspiration behind the main storyline of A Song of Ice and Fire. This conflict left a lasting impact on English society which can still be felt today in the rivalry between Lancashire and Yorkshire.

Destinations edit

Map showing the present-day United Kingdom and Ireland
  • 1 Battle. The site of the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066, when the invading Normans under William the Conqueror beat the Anglo-Saxon army and killed the King Harold Godwinson. The Normans would eventually conquer all of England, William became the England's first Norman king and he ordered the Tower of London to be built.
  • 2 York (Jorvik (Viking name)). The ancient capital of the former Roman province of Britannia Inferior is rich in Roman, Viking, Norman and medieval English history. The city walls are well-preserved and within are the magnificent Minster, cobbled alleys and wharves, and a teetering castle stump.    
  • 3 Durham. Site of Battle of Neville's Cross 1346, English victory over Scottish forces.    
  • 4 Lincoln. One of England's largest medieval and Norman cities. Site of 1217's the Charter of the Forest and the Battle of Lincoln during the First Baron's War, where English victory saved England from French invasion.    
  • 5 Winchester. Capital city of Anglo-Saxon England from 871-1066 with a statue of Alfred the Great.    

See edit

  • 1 Cosmeston Medieval Village, Glamorgan, Wales.    
  • 2 Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore, Highlands, Scotland. The first open-air museum in Britain.    
  • 3 King Richard III Visitor Centre (Greyfriars), 4A St Martins, Leicester, LE1 5DB, +44 300 300 0900, . 10am until 4pm. Richard III was the last Monarch of England during the Medieval period and was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field. He was discovered buried in a car park in 2012.    
  • 4 Magna Carta Island. Here or somewhere in the environs in the place of Runnymede the Magna Charta was signed in 1215    
  • 5 Lindisfarne, England. An early Christian monastery at the Northsea rocky shore. The Norse raid at Lindisfarne in AD 793 usually marks the beginning of the Viking Age.    

See also edit

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