A short English history, 1066 – 1485
This period of English history is the story of 2 dynasties, the Normans and the Angevins (Plantagenets). It is a story of great social and political upheaval, of war, treason and murder. It begins with the killing of one monarch in battle (Harold II), and ends with the killing of another (Richard III) in the same fashion.
An Age of Dead Kings
In an age when politics was linked so closely to the dynasty which ruled the nation, a smooth succession from one generation to the next was vital. In the century and a half after the Norman Conquest of 1066, however, this was anything but the case. William the Conqueror was killed in a riding accident (1087) while fighting against his son Robert, and William Rufus (II) was killed in a hunting accident (1099) when his brother Henry (I) was conveniently nearby to take the English crown. King Stephen fought a 19-year long campaign against his cousin Matilda to keep control of England (1135 – 1154). Henry II died a disillusioned man after having been militarily humiliated by his son Richard (1189), and King John died (1216) in the midst of a civil war, with French forces in control of a good portion of England.
A Quiet Land?
Despite this disturbance, however, England itself was only rarely threatened. Only once between 1067 and 1216 was it seriously threatened by an outside power, when the baronage rose up against King John and invited Prince Louis of France to come over to England to take over. It was probably only John’s early death which prevented this enterprise from being successful. The baronage’s grievances against the monarchy had been personal ones, and many nobles could not bring themselves to fight against John’s 9 year-old heir Henry (III). After 1220, there was no serious foreign invasion attempt until 1588, and no successful one until 1688.
That is not to say that England was a country at peace with the wider world. Far from it. One of the reasons William the Conqueror invaded England was that he wanted to harness her resources to aid him in his never-ending struggle to remain the master of Normandy. Although the link between England and Normandy was frequently severed, before being finally cut in 1204, it nevertheless served to embroil England deeply in the murky world of European politics. It also created a legacy which would, over a century after John lost control of Normandy, again lead an English monarch to venture into France to wage a war of conquest.
The 100 Years War
The Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453) cast a long and dark shadow over the final century and a half of the period, and would ultimately be a factor in the collapse of Plantagenet power in England. It was without doubt one of the main causes of the Wars of the Roses (1455 – 1487), the intermittent but occasionally bloody internecine struggle amongst the English nobility which eventually allowed an obscure but incredibly lucky and astute Welshman from an obscure (and illegitimate) scion of the Plantagenet dynasty to place himself on the throne.
England in 1485 was, to some extent, not too different from England in 1066. She was battered, bruised and humiliated, with many members of her native nobility dead (on the battlefield at Hastings in 1066, on the battlefields and execution blocks of the Wars of the Roses in 1485). England was almost a clean canvas again, with Henry VII being faced with many of the same problems which William the Conqueror and his successors had tackled in the years after 1066. However, there were some fundamental differences. Kingship was no longer just about who was the greatest warrior – that had been proven at Bosworth Field in 1485, when the military brilliance of Richard III was overcome by the caution and tenacity of Henry VII’s forces. Politics rather than war would (generally) be the watchword of the Tudor monarchs. Parliament, the concept of which was (perhaps) first enunciated by Simon de Montfort in the 13th century, was a factor in English political life. Most importantly, though, there was an extra 4 centuries of history which Henry could look to in order to take on board lessons which his predecessors had been forced to learn the hard way.
Text by Angel Reckless Rodent