Other History Topics

Brief overview of the Battle of Hastings

On the 14th October 1066, the Battle of Hastings was fought between Duke William II of Normandy and the Anglo-Saxon king Harold Godwinson. Harold’s defeat triggered the Norman conquest of England and the beginning of a new age in England’s rich monarchical history.

To call the battle the Battle of Hastings is actually misleading, since it was actually fought seven miles away from Hastings, near the modern town of Battle, although the 1087 Domesday Book ordered by William the Conqueror did describe it as the Battle of Hastings.

Less than four weeks before the battle, the northern English army had been defeated by King Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Fulford. Harold had been waiting on the south coast, expecting an invasion by William, but Hardrada’s invasion forced him to rush north where he defeated the Norwegians at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on the 25th September.

Conscious of the imminent Norman invasion, Harold immediately marched his battered troops south again on an exhausting journey averaging 27 miles a day. Having received news of William’s arrival on the way, Harold arrived at the battleground and took up a defensive position on top of Senlac Hill.

Contemporary accounts of the battle frequently contradict each other, so specific details are not known. However, most historians accept that the Anglo-Saxons formed a shield wall that was broken after the Norman knights staged a feigned retreat. Harold was killed on the battlefield. His exact cause of death isn’t known, but signalled the collapse of the English forces. William was crowned King of England on the 25th December.

Chaos in Westminster as William of Normandy crowned king of England

On the 25th December 1066, William of Normandy was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey. The event ended in chaos as Norman guards outside mistook the sounds of the cheering crowd inside for the start of a riot.

William, having defeated the English king Harold at the Battle of Hastings on the 14th October 1066, was forced to fight on after a number of English nobles nominated Edgar the Ætheling as the new king. When he crossed the Thames at Wallingford in early December he was met by Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who just a few weeks earlier had elected Edgar as king. However, he immediately abandoned Edgar and submitted to William, who soon marched to Berkhamsted where Edgar himself gave up his claim to the throne.

William’s coronation in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day saw both Norman and English nobility in attendance. Norman troops were stationed outside the abbey and in the surrounding streets in case of trouble while the coronation itself was conducted by Geoffrey, the Bishop of Coutances, and Ealdred, the Archbishop of York. The account of Orderic Vitalis, the Anglo-French chronicler of Norman England, tells how the assembled nobles cheered loudly when asked if they agreed to William becoming King of England.

The troops outside mistook these cheers for a fight between the Normans and English inside the church, so set fire to some of the English houses nearby before charging into the Abbey itself. The arrival of the troops panicked the coronation guests, many of whom fled the Abbey while the bishops frantically finished the ceremony amongst the commotion.

History Through Art – The Bayeux Tapesty

Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious

The Power of the Medieval Church

Pope Urban II and the launch of the First Crusade

On the 27th November 1095, Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade with an impassioned speech at the Council of Clermont. The Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos had appealed to the Pope for support against invasion by the Seljuk Turks, and many historians argue that Urban II took advantage of the situation as a way to reunite Christendom under the papacy.

By the 11th Century, Christianity had secured a stable base across most of Europe. However the Byzantine Empire was on the very periphery and faced continuous threats from Muslim conquests. The city of Jerusalem had been in Muslim hands since 638, but ongoing wars between different Arab dynasties had resulted in it being captured by the Seljuks in 1076. When their army began threatening to attack Constantinople, Alexios appealed to the Pope for assistance.

There is no record of how many people responded to the Pope’s call, but estimates suggest anywhere between 60,000 and 100,000 of which a large number were ordinary peasants. Exactly why so many people chose to “take the cross” is also a question subject to fierce debate. Certainly some nobles went in the hope of seizing riches along the way, but a large number of crusaders almost certainly did so out of piety.

Although Pope Urban had intended the Crusade to depart on the 15th August 1096, large numbers of peasants and low-ranking knights set off earlier on what became known as the People’s Crusade. Poorly disciplined and with little to no military training, these Crusaders killed thousands of Jews in the pogroms of 1096 before even leaving Europe.

Empress Matilda

Matilda, the ‘Lady of England and Normandy’: an overview

Matilda, the daughter of King Henry I of England, was declared the ‘Lady of England and Normandy’ on 7 April 1141 in advance of a coronation that never took place.

Matilda had married the future Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V, in 1114 after which she ruled Italy as Empress Matilda. Her father had intended for his only legitimate son, Matilda’s younger brother William Adeline, to inherit the English throne after he died but he himself had died in the White Ship disaster in November 1120.

King Henry was desperate to ensure his family’s succession. Consequently, following the death of Matilda’s husband in 1125, she returned to her father’s court. Henry nominated her as his heir in the event that he had no sons, and required his barons and court to swear an oath of loyalty to her. Three years later she was married to Prince Geoffrey of Anjou to whom she bore three sons, including the future Henry II.

Despite the oaths sworn to recognise Matilda’s claim, the death of her father in 1135 prompted a succession crisis. Matilda was in Anjou at the time and her cousin, Stephen de Blois, quickly moved to secure the crown for himself. Matilda’s subsequent invasion of England prompted a Civil War that became known as the Anarchy.

During the Battle in Lincoln in 1141 Matilda captured Stephen and imprisoned him, opening the door for her coronation. However, despite being proclaimed ‘Lady of England’ in Winchester by senior clergymen, Matilda was unpopular in London and was forced to retreat before her coronation took place. The war dragged on for a number of years, but Matilda returned to Normandy in 1148. Her son later ascended to the English throne as Henry II, the first Angevin king.

The murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral

On the 29th December 1170, Thomas Becket – the Archbishop of Canterbury – was murdered in front of the altar of Canterbury Cathedral. He had been appointed by Henry II to the most important religious position in England in 1162, but was slain after some of the king’s men interpreted one of their ruler’s angry outbursts as the desire to have Becket killed.

Thomas Becket was appointed Chancellor by Henry in 1155. In this job he proved himself to be a loyal member of the king’s court and so when Theobald, the existing Archbishop of Canterbury died, Henry saw his chance to dominate the church by appointing Becket to succeed him.

Having a loyal friend in the most senior religious position in England made sense to Henry. However, as Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket’s allegiance quickly switched to siding with the church. This frustrated Henry, who asked Becket to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon in 1164 to extend the king’s authority over the clergy. Becket refused, and shortly after being summoned to the king to explain his actions fled to France.

Becket returned in 1170 but, after excommunicating members of the clergy for supporting Henry, found himself the target of an angry outburst by the king – which almost certainly wasn’t  “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Whatever Henry did say, however, it was enough to encourage four knights to travel to Canterbury and kill him inside the Cathedral. It is said that the fatal blow split his skull. Becket was canonised by the Pope barely two years after the murder, and in 1174 the king himself walked barefoot to Canterbury in penance.

Saladin and the capture of Jerusalem in 1187

On 2nd October 1187, the Siege of Jerusalem came to an end when Saladin captured the city from the crusaders who had ruled the city since 1099. Having been defeated at the Battle of Hattin on 4 July 1187, the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem was left with only its capital city having not been captured by Saladin’s armies. The siege lasted for just twelve days before Jerusalem’s leader, Balian of Ibelin, agreed to surrender the city.

King Guy had been taken prisoner during the Battle of Hattin, leaving Balian as the most senior noble in the Kingdom. Having travelled to Jerusalem to rescue his wife and family, Balian was persuaded to stay and lead the defence of the city although this meant breaking an oath he had sworn to Saladin that he wouldn’t stay in Jerusalem for more than a day.

Arriving at the city on the 20th September, Saladin provided an escort for Balian’s wife and children who were moved to safety in Tripoli. Meanwhile, he began a relentless assault on the city that eventually led to a breach in the wall. Although the attacking army was unable to gain access to the city, the lack of knights available to maintain the city’s defence led Balian to negotiate the surrender. In return for unconditional surrender, Saladin agreed that anyone who paid a ransom would be able to leave the city in safety. He later freed thousands more who were unable to pay, but approximately 15,000 inhabitants were enslaved.

Two years later, the Third Crusade was launched to reconquer the Holy Land from Saladin.

Overview of the accession and coronation of King John

On the 27th May 1199 King John was crowned at Westminster Abbey.  The previous king, his brother Richard, had died after being shot in the shoulder by a crossbow.  John ruled for seventeen years before contracting dysentery while in Kings Lynn, an illness from which he later died.  John’s reign saw him lose control of the Angevin Empire, lose the crown jewels in the mud of East Anglia, and lose significant monarchical power under the terms of the Magna Carta.

 

John’s claim to the throne wasn’t entirely clear-cut since Arthur, the son of John’s older brother Geoffrey, was another possible heir.  His claim was also supported by a large contingent of French nobles, and the French king Phillip II himself, who hoped to fragment the Angevin Empire.  This laid the foundations for John’s ongoing struggles in mainland Europe, which gradually eroded his control over the lands of the Angevin Empire.

The fact that John succeeded in his bid to be crowned was significant.  Medieval monarchs got their legal authority from their coronation, where they swore the coronation oath and were then anointed, girted, crowned, invested and enthroned. However, although the coronation gave the King the legal authority to rule the country, it was still based on him abiding by the coronation oath.  Rebellious barons argued that John failed to do this since, like his predecessors, he sometimes took executive decisions on the basis that the king was above the law.  This set in motion calls for a ‘law of the land’ that was to result in the Magna Carta.

Magna Carta: a brief summary

On the 15th June 1215, Magna Carta – one of the most famous documents in the world – was approved by King John when he added his seal to it in a field at Runnymede near Windsor in England.  Latin for ‘the Great Charter’, Magna Carta was issued to deal with the political crisis facing John due to a group of rebellious barons.

Magna Carta is so celebrated because, for the first time in English law, it confirmed the principal that everyone – including the king – was subject to the law of the land and gave all free men the right to justice and a fair trial. This sounds incredibly progressive, but the reality is that at the time many people in England were not free men – they were villeins who could only seek justice from their lord.

Furthermore, although many people celebrate the 1215 Magna Carta, it ultimately failed to solve the dispute between John and the barons.  Just 10 weeks later Magna Carta was declared ‘null and void of all validity for ever’ by Pope Innocent III in a papal bull. This led to the First Barons War, a civil war that erupted in September and that was still being fought when John died a year later.

Magna Carta was reissued many more times by subsequent monarchs, and the 1225 version was finally entered onto the statute roll in 1297. Although almost all of its clauses were repealed or superseded in the 18th and 19th Centuries, Magna Carta is still regarded as a symbol of individual freedom against despotic rulers.