THE MIDDLE AGES (1066-1485)
Perhaps the most famous date in British history is 1066, when William the First (William the Conqueror) invaded England with an army of soldiers from Normandy (in north-west France). The Normans were originally Vikings, who had moved to north France in about AD 900. William defeated the Saxon king (Harold) at the Battle of Hastings: Hastings is a town on the south coast of England. The story of the invasion is told in pictures in the Bayeux Tapestry. This was the last time that England was successfully invaded by a foreign army.
The kings in the Middle Ages built many castles across England and Wales to make the area secure. The Tower of London was built at this time to protect London from enemies sailing up the river Thames, and the kings lived here during the Middle Ages. Edward the First built many castles in Wales to control the country (for example: Caerphilly Castle, Harlech Castle or Caernarfon Castle). Castles were also built in the north of England to protect against attacks from the Scottish. Warwick Castle is another famous castle built in this period. Fewer castles were built after this period because the invention of cannons made them less useful.
The Tower of London
The system of government at that time was known as the feudal system. The king owned all the land, but divided this between barons and the Church. The barons had their own private armies, and agreed to pay taxes and fight for the king. They lived in houses known as manors. The private armies which they controlled were led by trained soldiers known as knights, who would ride horses and wear metal suits of armour to protect themselves in battle. Yeomen were farmers, who were free but had to do some work for the baron. Serfs (peasants) were owned by the baron and had to provide food in exchange for their security - they were not allowed to leave the manor without permission. This created a class system: people still talk of an upper class, middle class and working class, although the definition of these terms is no longer clear.
The Christian church became rich and powerful in England and Wales under the Normans. Many churches and cathedrals were built, including those at Chichester and Durham. The headquarters of the Church in England was at Canterbury in Kent. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a famous long poem about the stories of people travelling to the town: this is known as The Canterbury Tales. The Pope (based in Rome) was the leader of the Christian church in Europe. The lands around Jerusalem were regarded as holy by Christians. This area was controlled by Arabs during the time of the Dark Ages, but Christians were still allowed to go there to visit their holy places. However, in the early Middle Ages this area was invaded by Turks, and Christians in Jerusalem were attacked. The Pope ordered Christians to go there to attack the Turks, and there were a number of wars known as the Crusades. The legend of Robin Hood is based on this period of history, during the time when Richard the First was away from England fighting the Third Crusade (shortly before 1200).
(museum in Nottingham)
The power of the king was limited by an agreement known as the Magna Carta in about 1200: this was the starting point of the system of democracy and of the legal system in Britain. There are still four original copies: one in Lincoln Cathedral, one in Salisbury Cathedral and two in the British Museum. A parliament was later established. The early kings used to call meetings of barons and bishops (this became the House of Lords), but a second assembly was also created which included local representatives (this became the House of Commons).
England and France spent many years fighting each other, especially in the period known as the Hundred Years War. At one time England ruled almost all of France, helped by victories at the battles of Crécy in the time of Edward the Third and Agincourt in the time of Henry the Fifth. However, a rebellion against the English was led by Joan of Arc, and by the end of the Middle Ages the English had lost nearly all of the land in France.
The Black Death was a disease carried by rats which spread through much of Europe. About a third of the population of Britain were killed by this, with England being affected particularly badly. This meant there were fewer serfs (peasants) to farm the land, and those who survived had to work harder for no extra benefit. When the king tried to increase taxes to pay for the war against France, peasants attacked their lords and marched to London, asking for higher wages and their freedom. This was known as the Peasant's Revolt. Although the king promised to help them, the leaders of the revolt were killed after they returned home.
William Caxton set up the first printing presses in England at the end of this period. Books started to be produced in English, not just in Latin or French. The printing process helped to establish a standard form of English. It also helped to spread of education and the ideas of the Renaissance, which started in Italy in the 1400s.
There were a series of battles between the House of York (whose family symbol was a white rose) and the House of Lancaster (whose family symbol was a red rose), the leaders of which both wanted to rule England. These fights were known as the Wars of the Roses. The final result was a victory for Lancaster's Henry Tudor (Henry the Seventh) at Bosworth Field. He ended the fighting between the families by marrying a member of the House of York. This was the start of the Tudor period.