Medieval England History: Life in England in the Middle Ages

The middle age period covers from around the year 400 through to 1485 and is divided into three periods known as the early middle ages, the high middle ages and the late middle ages. Great Britain as it was known comprised of England, Scotland and Wales as Ireland was a separate country during this period. Here we take a look at England during the middle ages, how we lived, worked and what life was like in general.

Anglo Saxon England

The Anglo-Saxon period covers approximately four hundred years from the fifth century through to the ninth. Many things changed and evolved throughout this period including religion with barbarians who invaded first through to Christians who came to preach the bible influencing the future of the country. The first settlers were from Germany and settled in England following the fall of the Roman Empire.

The German settlers replaced many of the Roman buildings with wooden structures of their own and also spoke their own unique language that was the front runner to spoken English today. As far as religion goes once St Augustin came to England most of the country converted to Christianity. The early settlers were very tribal and split into more local groups but by the ninth century there were just four kingdoms namely Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria.

Saint Augustine

St Augustine

Wessex was the kingdom that survived following the Viking invasions. Anglo-Saxon rule ended in 1066 following the death of Edward the Confessor. Edward nominated Harold to take over as king as Edward had no heir but Harold was defeated by the Normans at the Battle of Hastings bringing the Anglo-Saxon era to a close.

Anglo-Saxon Homes

Anglo Saxon House

In Anglo-Saxon times everyone of every generation lived in the one house from the smallest baby through to the oldest grandparent or even great grandparents if they lived that long. A typical Anglo-Saxon Home was a wooden construction with a thatched roof being one of a number of dwellings that were built close together surrounding a central hall. These houses were small by today's comparison comprising of one room only with a fire and a hearth that heated the home and was used for cooking and light. Anglo-Saxons hung a cooking pot over the fire suspended by a chain to cook their food.

Anglo-Saxon Work

The main source of work for the Anglo-Saxon was farming which all the family played a part in. The men folk did the heavy work such as the chopping down and clearing of trees so the land could be cultivated to grow crops and keep animals. Oxen were used to pull the ploughs that tilled the fields, while children would herd the cows and sheep with dogs. Other occupations the Anglo-Saxons worked at included

  • Carpenters who made furniture, wheels, carts  and wooden bowls
  • Blacksmiths who made swords, knives, tools
  • Potters created pottery
  • Cobblers who made shoes and leather goods
  • Jewellers who made items for the rich

What Did the Anglo-Saxons Invent/Introduce?

The Anglo-Saxons may not have strictly invented the following items but they did introduce them to England changing the way we lived forever. The plough transformed their lives as it made tilling the fields and planting much easier. They also introduced the horse collar meaning horses could be used instead of oxen to pull the ploughs bringing speed and efficiency to the process. The stirrup for riding was also credited to the Anglo-Saxons as was the water mill.

Anglo-Norman England

William the ConquerorWilliam the Conqueror

Anglo-Norman England began around 1066 when the Norman invaders defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings. William the Conqueror of Normandy became William I and established the Norman dynasty, while they ruled England until the mid-eleven hundreds. The invasion and subsequent conquering of England by William was no mean feat, while England was considered as the perfect example of how life should be led and was much admired throughout Europe.

The first thing the Normans did was to carry out a census of the population, this document became known as the Doomsday Book. They imposed a feudal system on the country and built some magnificent castles. The first Norman castle constructed of stone was built in Wales. The Normans invaded Wales building castles as they went and quickly subjugated the population. A typical Norman built castle at that time was Rochester Castle in Suffolk built in the eleventh century. Further buildings and dates worthy of note involving the Normans are

  • The building of Canterbury Cathedral
  • The Tower of London
  • The Doomsday Book
  • Oxford University is founded
Rochester Castle

Rochester Castle

The Feudal System

Prior to Williams's invasion we see Anglo-Saxon people enjoying their freedom to work at their chosen trades or to farm the land. Following the invasion a feudal system was forced upon the people making the once landowners and farmers of England now peasant farmers who had to swear allegiance to whoever was above them. The system was as follows

  • A quarter of the land was taken by William for himself
  • A quarter of the land went to the church in Rome
  • The other half was divided between a dozen people who were loyal to William
  • These people were tenants in chiefs who were also responsible for raising an army if required
  • Knights were put in charge by the tenants in chiefs
  • Finally came the peasant farmers who swore allegiance to the knights

Ultimately, everyone in the land, no matter how high their station or lowly their places in society were became accountable to the King.

Norman Knight

A Norman Knight

What Did the Normans Eat?

The Normans loved spicy food and would flavour their meals with nutmeg, caraway seeds, ginger, cardamom and pepper. They celebrated Christmas and held amazing feasts although these were most likely held by the rich and powerful. Norman people were allotted food according to their station in life, were seated according to their hierarchy and also used crockery and utensils according to their station too.

Noble people ate pheasants, peacocks, wild boar, jellies and custards, while peasants ate salted or pickled food such as pickled herrings, bacon, vegetable soups and bread. Nobles drank wine, while peasants drank ale and some diners would eat from stale bread rather than using a plate. Entertainment was provided in the homes of the rich with minstrels and acrobats keeping the guests enthralled.

The Late Middle Ages

Knight on Horse

The Late or High Middle Ages in England covered from the eleventh through to the end of the thirteenth centuries and was a time of great change and upheaval. From social changes, rebellion and the Black Death through to the Renaissance that had such an influence on Europe and England the Middle Ages always holds a fascination for us. We tend to look at it as a romantic time with knights, chivalry, banquets and majestic castles but in reality for the masses life was far from easy.

Civil War and King Stephens Reign

The death of Henry I in 1135 saw William the Conquerors grandson Stephen seize the throne plunging the country into a civil war that was to last for twenty years! Everyone suffered greatly whether they were of noble birth or from the peasant's ranks although the ordinary folk were greatly oppressed at this time with some even enslaved. Torture was common place in order to extort information about goods or gold and possessions, while many starved to death. The war ended when Stephen died and Henry II came to the throne.

Henry II did bring a modicum of peace to England and it was under his reign that Thomas a Beckett became Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry thought as the two were friends that he would have power over the church but Thomas had different ideas and the two became firm enemies culminating in Henry having Thomas murdered in Canterbury Cathedral.

Slaves Serfs and Lords

In 12th century England a man's status was more complicated than that of his counterparts in the rest of Europe. English serfs could be tied to the land and answerable to the lord. Some were free men paying rent, while some were half free and owed a service to their master as well as paying rent. However in England a free man's status could change to that of a serf if he couldn't pay his taxes, while a serf could be raised to free man status.

Serfs could also achieve freedom by escaping and living in a borough for a whole year plus one day evading capture, while their wife and family also became free too. Once granted freedom a man had to take his turn standing guard over the borough and remember to pay his taxes.

The Rule of King John

King John's Tomb

King John's Tomb

King John was not a popular king and was among the worst oppressors of the people in English history. The king was violent, a tyrant, greedy and an altogether horrible person. He ruled by fear imposing huge taxes on his subjects using the money to pay for mercenary soldiers who would do his bidding. With support of the barons King John ran rough shod over everyone. John even argued with the pope and was excommunicated because of this. Following many years of suppression the barons revolted and demanded that King John acknowledge the Charter of Liberties of Henry I the charter was predecessor to Magna Carta. King John was forced to sign Magna Carta one of the most important documents in history, while Magna Carta is the charter our laws and justices still adhere to today.

The Establishment of Parliament

Henry III was against the people having any say in how the kingdom was ruled he believed that he should be the one divine ruler. Simon de Montfort Earl of Leicester was powerful and took Henry hostage demanding he give in to the earls demands. Fifty years after Magna Carta on January 20th 1265 Simon de Montfort called elected representatives from every county and town to gather together to speak on behalf of the people they represented. This was the first meeting of parliament and the representatives even had their expenses paid just like MPs do today. By 1298 the powers of taxation were also taken over by parliament.

The Plague

The Plague or the Black death was one of the most virulent and devastating pandemics in English history. It is thought over two hundred million people died throughout Europe with at least 1.5 million victims hailing from England. The plague lasted from 1348 to 1350 and indeed was to strike again six times by the year 1400. The plague is thought to have originated in Asia and affected the peasants of England dreadfully culminating in the peasant's revolt of 1381.

We now know that the plague was an airborne disease and was not passed on by fleas and rats, while once you contracted the plague you would be dead in a matter of days rather than weeks. The problem for the poor was that they all lived so close together in very confined spaces therefore it was virtually impossible not to be affected. Rotting bodies littered the streets, while medical science was unable to offer any relief of symptoms never mind a cure.

Peasants were starving due to there being no-one left to plough the fields or grow any food stuffs with whole villages of people being eliminated. Peasant labour was in high demand due to the shortage of workers and peasants began to move around the towns and cities gaining better pay as their services were needed. The government tried to stop this movement making the peasants furious resulting in the peasants revolt of 1381.

A Childs Life

Children in the middle ages led very different lives to children today. Noble children were looked after by nurses or servants and saw very little of their parents. Boys would learn how to be a page from the age of around seven, while girls would learn how to run a household. Boys also learned how to fight and would go on to become a squire or a knight.

Children also married very young in the middle ages with girls as young as twelve married off in an arranged union made by their parents. Poor children started working for their family around the age of seven and were far less privileged than noble children although usually peasant children could select their own marriage partner.

Life Expectancy

We tend to think that life expectancy was really short in the middle ages and while to some extent this is true it was not always the case. Many of course died in childhood but many did reach the age of forty. If you could survive your childhood and teenage years you could by and large expect to live maybe to your fifties with many reaching their sixties and a minority reaching the ripe old of age of seventy or eighty.

The Houses of Lancaster and York: The War of the Roses

The Roses

The Plantagenet monarchs began with Henry II followed by Richard I or Lionheart as he was known. King John I was next followed by Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, Edward III and Richard II. Next came Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI who became king at the tender age of nine months.

The War or the Roses was a series of battles fought between the houses of Lancaster (red rose) and York (white rose) between 1455 and 1485. The conflict began as both sides of this family were descendants of Edward III so believed that they were the rightful heirs to the throne.

Richard III who is one of the most famous kings in English history represented the house of York and was immortalised in history at the Battle of Bosworth Field where he died in battle fighting King Henry VII the first Tudor king. Henry VII became king after Richards's death and joined the house of Lancaster with York when he married Elizabeth of York who subsequently gave birth to Henry VIII. The Tudor rose was then designed bringing together the white and red roses of both sides.

Notable Dates of the Middle Ages in England

  • Battle of Hastings 1066
  • The Doomsday Book 1086
  • Death of William the Conqueror 1087
  • The Civil War Ends 1154
  • King John Seals Magna Carta 1215
  • King Edward Expels Jews from England 1290
  • The Hundred Years War begins between England and France 1337
  • The Black Death comes
  • The Peasants Revolt 1381
  • The Battle of Agincourt 1415
  • Hundred Years war Ends 1453
  • Reign of Richard III 1483 to 1485
  • Henry VII defeats Richard III at Bosworth Field 1485