The Post-Norman Medieval Period (1120 – 1485)

by Teresa Eckford


]]>Support our sponsors Henry I (b. 1068; r. 1100-1135) married Edith/Matilda of Scotland (b. 1080, d. 1118)

Stephen (b. 1096/97; r. 1135-1154) married Matilda of Boulogne (b. 1103/05, d.1152)

Maud (b. 1102, d. 1167) married 1) Henry V – Holy Roman Emperor (d.1125); 2) Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou

Henry II (b. 1133; r. 1154-1189) married Eleanor of Aquitaine (b. 1122, d. 1204)

Richard I (b. 1157; r. 1189-1199) married Berengaria of Navarre (b.1163/65, d. ?)

John (b. 1167; r. 1199-1216) married 1) Hadwisa of Gloucester (b. 1176?, d. 1217 – div. 1199); 2) Isabella of Angouleme (b. 1187, d. 1246)

Henry III (b. 1207; r. 1216-1272) married Eleanor of Provence (b. 1223?, d. 1291)

Edward I (b. 1239; r. 1272-1307) married 1) Eleanor of Castile (b. 1244/45, d. 1290); 2) Marguerite of France (b.1279/82, d. 1317/18)

Edward II (b. 1284; r. 1307-1327 – x) married Isabella of France (b. 1292/95, d. 1358)

Edward III (b. 1312; r. 1327-1377) married Philippa of Hainault (b. 1313/14, d. 1369)

Richard II (b. 1367; r. 1377-1399 – x) married 1) Anne of Bohemia (b. 1366, d. 1394); 2) Isabella of Valois (b.1389, d. 1409)

Henry IV (b. 1367; r. 1399-1413) married 1) Mary de Bohun (b. 1369/70, d.1394); 2) Joan of Navarre (b. 1370, d. 1437)

Henry V (b. 1387; r. 1413-1422) married Katherine of Valois (b. 1401, d. 1437)

Henry VI (b. 1421; r. 1422-1461/1470-1471 – x) married Marguerite of Anjou (b. 1429, d. 1482)

Edward IV (b. 1442; r. 1461-1470/1471-1483) married Elizabeth Wydeville (b. 1437, d. 1492)

Edward V (b. 1470; r. 1483 – x) declared illegitimate in June 1483, died probably sometime that summer

Richard III (b. 1452; r. 1483-1485) married Anne Neville (b. 1456, d. 1485)

Henry VII (b. 1457; r. 1485-1509) married Elizabeth of York (b. 1466, d. 1503)

x – denotes death of unnatural causes


The period 1120 – 1485 began with a Henry and ended with one. The intervening centuries saw many changes: the rise of the towns, the development of Parliament, the signing of the Magna Carta, the murder of four kings, the devastation of the Black Death, the emergence of a strong English economy based on wool and cloth and war both external and internal.

Stephen and Matilda’s War:

The first major event of that period was the Civil War between Stephen and Maud. Stephen (Henry I’s nephew) usurped Maud’s throne upon her father’s death in 1135. She invaded England in 1139, causing civil war. The loyalty of the barons was split and in the end Stephen prevailed during his lifetime, though Maud’s son inherited the throne. The civil war resulted in near anarchy at times. Stephen was not an overly effective monarch, being swayed by his emotions and often ignoring good advice from those who had his best interest at heart. (Read more about Stephen and Matilda.)

Henry II and his Sons:

When Henry II took the throne he set about restoring the rule of law. A well educated prince, he was very interested in justice and the law. He also had a wicked temper that resulted in the death of his former Chancellor turned enemy, Thomas a Becket. Henry’s need for complete control drove his sons and wife to rebel and when he died in 1189 England was a more organized and better run country, but Henry died alone, deserted by his family.

During the twelfth century Europe experienced some major changes in thought and culture as a result of the Crusades to the Holy Land. Crusaders brought back new ideas in philosophy, history, science, military tactics, medicine and mathematics, as well as items such as carpets, different fabrics, perfumes and furniture.

England’s Crusader king, Richard I, backed by English knights, came closer than anyone to winning back the Holy City of Jerusalem in 1191, but failed in the end, only then to endure more than a year of captivity in Germany. Though celebrated as a hero in the Robin Hood legends, Richard used England only as a source of revenue, preferring to live and fight in France. His mother Eleanor had him created Duke of Aquitaine in 1169 and he spent more time there than in England, so his behaviour is not overly surprising. He and his wife, Berengaria, whom he married while on Crusade, never had any children.

King John has a far worse reputation than his brother. Richard supposedly named John his heir, superseding their nephew Arthur of Brittany, who was only a boy of 12 when Richard died in 1199. Much like the later princes in the Tower, Arthur disappeared, probably murdered on the order of his uncle, John, who had claimed the throne for himself with the backing of his mother, the indomitable Eleanor. John’s reign saw many disasters including the loss of Normandy and other French possessions to France, the Interdict (which meant the Churches were closed and the priests forbidden to perform marriages, baptisms, funeral rites etc.) as a result of John’s disagreement with the Pope, the Barons’ rebellion that led to the signing of Magna Carta resulting in more civil war and the threat of Invasion from France. John demanded high taxes, both from the nobles and from the Church, and when crossed, proved to be an implacable enemy. It is said he starved Maud de Braose and her son to death in the dungeon of one of his castles as a result of her husband’s inability to repay money owed to the Crown.

Rebellion, War and Treason:

Henry III was much different from his father, less of a leader and easily persuaded by counsellors interested only in their own self-aggrandizement. He did, however, patronize the arts and order the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey. Like his father he had problems with his Barons as a result of the foolish and extravagant way he ruled. They were led by his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort, which resulted in Henry’s capture at the Battle of Lewes. The following year, Henry’s son and heir, the future Edward I, defeated and killed de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham, thus marking the beginning of a distinguished military career. Henry lived another few years but apparently spent much of it senile.

Edward I was on Crusade when he inherited the throne of England, and remained in the Holy Land till 1274, when he and his Queen returned to England. Edward was very different from both his father and his great-uncle John, and similar in many ways to Richard I. Tall and handsome, he was a born warrior, but also an able administrator who recognized that the Barons should be consulted upon matters of state. Not only that he also looked to the “Commons”, lesser knights and burgesses from the town, for support and another source of taxation, hence his habit of calling frequent Parliaments. The Scots and the Welsh had learned the hard way not to rebel against Edward. He conquered both countries, executing the last of the Welsh princes daring enough to defy him and installing his own puppet as king of Scotland until William Wallace led a rebellion, followed by that of Robert the Bruce (who defeated the English at the Battle of Bannockburn.)

Edward II followed his father to the throne, but never really ruled well. Though tall and strong, he had no taste for war or for administration, preferring to depend on his favourite Piers Gaveston for advice, while showering him with gifts and honours. Once again the Barons revolted, demanded they be allowed to have control of the government and eventually executed Gaveston when his influence over the king continued. For a few years Edward settled down with his wife, Isabella of France, but soon became influenced by the Despensers, father and son. In 1326 Isabella led a revolt with her lover, Mortimer and overthrew Edward, placing their son Edward III on the throne. In 1327 Edward was murdered while imprisoned.

The Hundred Years War:

During the first three years of his reign Edward III tolerated the control of his mother and Mortimer, but in 1330 he rebelled, had Mortimer hanged and his mother shut away in Castle Rising in Norfolk. Married to Philippa of Hainault Edward appeared to live an idyllic family life – between 1330 and 1355 he and Philippa had 13 children, 10 of whom lived to adulthood. Edward’s reign also saw the beginning of the Hundred Years War in 1337 and the magnificent victories by the English at Crecy and Poitiers, as well as the formation of the Order of the Garter in 1348. Three notes of tragedy overshadowed his reign, though, the appearance of the Black Death in 1348, Edward’s own descent into madness after Philippa’s death in 1369 and the death of his son, The Black Prince (from a wasting disease) in 1376. That left 10 year old Richard of Bordeaux as heir.

Richard II had one of the unhappiest reigns in English history – in fact he was very similar to his great-grandfather Edward II. He too depended on favourites, defied parliament and many of his barons, and spent lavishly on his court. In 1381 the economic troubles that had been brewing since the Black Death exploded in the Peasants’ Revolt. The following year he married Anne of Bohemia – the marriage proved a happy one, despite the lack of an heir. Anne was a calming influence on Richard’s temper and when she died from the plague at the palace of Sheen in 1394, Richard was so devastated he burned the palace down. Two years later he married again, as part of a Peace Treaty with France. His bride, Isabella of Valois was only six years old and he appeared fond of the child, but their marriage was never consummated as he was ousted from the throne before she came of age. In 1398 Richard banished his cousin, Henry of Bolingbrooke and later seized his estates, further angering the Barons. The following year he travelled to Ireland, which proved a fatal mistake. Henry returned to England, rallied the Barons behind him and was waiting when Richard landed in Wales to take him prisoner. Parliament demanded his abdication and Richard was murdered in Pontefract Castle in 1401.

The Wars of the Roses:

Shakespeare put the following words into the mouth of Henry IV “Uneasy lies the head that wears a Crown” (King Henry IV, Part II, Act III, sc. 1.) His usurpation of the throne laid the seeds for the later conflict between the Houses of Lancaster and York. Throughout his reign he faced rebellion, in the Marches, in Wales and from his son, who had served in Richard II’s court. When he died in 1413, afflicted by a disease of the skin, it is said that young Henry was waiting to take the crown from his head. Though this may have been just a story, it is indicative of the uncomfortable life he led after deposing his cousin and assuming the throne of England.

Henry V is another legendary King of England who died young after achieving great things. In 1415 he resumed the war with France by leading an invading force to free the citizens of Harfleur from a French siege then beating a numerically superior French army at the Battle of Agincourt. Three years later Normandy fell and in 1420 he concluded the Treaty of Troyes with the mad Charles VI, who agreed to name Henry his heir if he married Charles’ daughter Katherine. In 1422 Henry died of dysentery while on campaign in France, leaving Katherine a widow and his 9 month old son king of two countries.

Henry VI had a long minority, saw little of his mother and was crowned king of France at Rouen in 1431(he’d been crowned in England two years earlier). A devout, well educated young man, Henry had no administrative ability and allowed himself to be led and fleeced by ministers interested only in furthering their own ambitions, including his wife, Marguerite of Anjou. Like his grandfather, Charles VI of France, Henry was prone to periods of madness, beginning in the 1450s. His cousin, Richard of York, who had attempted to serve the king faithfully with no monetary recompense, took control of the government as Protector during the first bout in 1453-54. In 1455 the first of the battles of the Wars of the Roses was fought between the adherents of York, and those of the queen and Edmund Beaufort. Henry remained as a figurehead king until the defeat of the Lancastrian forces at the Battle of Towton in March of 1461, when Edward of York, Richard’s son, claimed the throne.

Edward IV, tall, handsome and an able warrior, took the throne when he was only 19 years old, helped by his powerful cousin, Richard, Earl of Warwick. For the first few years of his reign he continued to depend on Warwick, but in 1464 he married a commoner, Elizabeth Wydeville, while his cousin was arranging a marriage with a French princess. That decision resulted in his cousin turning against him and overthrowing him in 1470, to reinstate Henry VI (imprisoned since 1464) as king. After spending 6 months in exile in Flanders, Edward returned to England to face and defeat Warwick at the Battle of Barnet, and Marguerite’s forces at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Edward IV was a popular king in that he did not tax his subjects overmuch, depending instead on “gifts” from his wealthiest nobles, tightening customs regulations and the increading overseas trade.

During the final years of his reign Edward spent more time indulging himself in “wine, women and song”, relying on his younger brother, Richard of Gloucester to protect the Northern border from the Scots. In 1483 he fell ill after a boating accident and died at age 41, leaving his young son Edward as king, a boy caught between his mother’s powerful family, and his uncle Richard.

Edward was never crowned king. Brought up in Wales, tutored by his maternal uncle, Earl Rivers, he was not prepared for an early ascension to the throne. The Wydevilles had always resented Richard of Gloucester, as he resented their influence over the king. Thus it came as no surprise when Gloucester took control of the young king’s entourage as it travelled to London, after capturing Earl Rivers and imprisoning him.

In June 1483, Edward was declared illegitimate, as apparently Edward IV had precontracted himself to another woman before marrying Elizabeth. When the Commons offered the Crown to Richard, he accepted and the young king was joined in the Tower by his younger brother, the Duke of York. The Tower was not only a prison, but a Royal residence and it’s not surprising Richard chose to keep the boys there as they were a focal point for rebellion. They disappeared during the summer of 1483.

Richard III has been accused of murdering them, and while that can’t be proven, they did disappear while in his care leaving him at least somewhat responsible. Like Henry IV, he faced suspicion and rebellion, despite his genuine attempts to administer the country fairly. When Henry Tudor invaded England in 1485, at least half the nobles rallied to his cause. Richard, whose wife Anne had died earlier that year, made a desperate, but ill-advised charge directly at Tudor and was cut down in battle on Bosworth Field. The Tudor Myth began soon afterward, culminating in Shakespeare’s hideous, hunchbacked villain.


Much more happened than can be discussed in this brief survey, but there can be little doubt that the High and Late Middle Ages in England were a time of extreme cruelty, extravagant luxury for some, and often devastating poverty for the masses. The Black Death, however, didn’t discriminate. Many nobles died, including John of Gaunt’s first wife, Blanche of Lancaster, Queen Philippa and one of her daughters, and Queen Anne. The Hundred Years War finally ended in 1453, when England finally realized they could no longer afford to fight, after losing all their French possessions with the exception of Calais. By this point Parliament, which had developed considerably since the 1290s, had grown tired of the constant demands for money to finance a foreign war. Trade had sometimes suffered as a result of the war, but had not been held back completely, allowing some towns to grow and prosper. Though wool and cloth remained the primary exports, other merchants did manage to make money on exporting grains, hides, fish, tin, lead and coal, while importing and selling wine, spices, oil, silk, sugar, and fur.

The other major development of that period was that of the English language. In 1120, French was the language of the Court and nobility, but gradually, as the Norman conquerors intermarried with their Saxon subjects and vassals, the English language gradually replaced it so that in 1361 Parliament declared English its official language. John Wycliffe sponsored an English translation of the Bible in the 1380s at the same time Chaucer was creating his masterpieces of the language. By 1400, though the nobility still would have spoken French as well, English had achieved dominance.

If anyone has specific questions about this period, please do not hesitate to contact me, and I will find the answer. I have tried to keep my own biases out of my summary, but some may have sneaked in. If anyone finds any glaring errors, please let me know so I can make the appropriate changes. Also, anyone interested in reading historical novels set in the period can contact me – the list is a little long to add in here. I have a list of the Scottish monarchs and their wives for anyone who is interested.

My main sources for this brief survey are as follows:

  • Roberts, Clayton; Roberts, David. A History of England – Prehistory to 1714, Volume 1. New Jersey. Prentice-Hall, Inc.. Second Edition, 1985
  • Thomson, J. The Transformation of Medieval England – 1372-1485. New York. Longman Group, 1983
  • Weir, Alison. Britain’s Royal Families – The Complete Genealogy. London. Pimlico. Revised Edition, 1996
  • Williamson, David. Debrett’s Kings and Queens of Britain. London. Webb & Bower (Publishers) Ltd., 1986

Primary Sources in English include:

  • Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
  • William Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman

Primary Sources in Translation can be found in Elizabeth Hallam’s series (published by Viking):

  • The Plantagenet Chronicles
  • Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry
  • Chronicles of the Wars of the Roses

**You might also want to look for the following book: 1066 and All That – A Memorable History of England by W.C. Sellar & R.J. Yeatman. (Published by E.P. Dutton in 1931) – it’s a humorous look at the highlights of English history

The Black Death:

The most famous outbreak of this Plague occurred in Europe in the late 1340s, but “the first definitive bubonic plague epidemic in Europe” occurred in 540.

[1] It died out but was reintroduced in the mid-14th century via trading from the Mediterranean ports [2] and had devastating results. About a 1/4 to 1/3 of the European population died – approximately 20 million people. The most common form of plague was the bubonic one, which was transmitted to humans via flea bites. It usually manifested itself approximately six days later when the patient began vomiting, developed a “high fever and dark splotches on the skin”. The lymph nodes throughout the body developed “hard, painful swellings called ‘buboes'”, followed by “restlessness, anxiety, headaches, mental confusion, hallucinations, and finally coma…” [3] Death usually followed, but if the buboes burst the patient often did survive. Pneumonic plague was spread from person to person via bodily fluids and was highly contagious and deadly. Septicemic plague was transmitted by fleas, but the person died sooner and without the appearance of the buboes.[4] All in all a most unpleasant way to die.

The Black Death reached Dorset in June of 1348 and had spread throughout the country by August. It raged till sometime in 1349, then disappeared, only to reappear at regular intervals over the centuries that followed – 1361, 1369, 1375 etc. until the last major outbreak in 1665. It didn’t discriminate between rich and poor, though the poor suffered more since they were more likely to come in contact with it in the crowded cities. There was no real medical help, other than keeping the patient as comfortable as possible and praying that the buboes would break. “All England suffered from this sore affliction so that scarce one in ten of either sex survived. A the graveyards were not big enough, fields were chosen where the dead might be buried…It raged in England for a year or more, and such were its ravages, that many country towns were almost emptied of human life.” [5]

[1] Magner, Lois N.. A History of Medicine. New York. Marcel Dekker Inc.. 1992, p. 117

[2] Ibid., p. 118

[3] Ibid., p.116

[4] Ibid.

[5] Hallam, Elizabeth (Editor). Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry. Markham. Penguin Books Canada Ltd.. 1987, p.256


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