Portal:Medieval Britain

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The Medieval Britain Portal

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Map of Lordships in Medieval Scotland, c. 1230.

Great Britain during the Middle Ages (from the 5th century withdrawal of Roman forces from the province of Britannia and the Germanic invasions, until the Early modern period) was fragmented into a number of independent kingdoms. By the High Middle Ages, after the end of the Viking Age and the Norman Conquest, the kingdoms of England and Scotland emerge as the main poles of political power.

The medieval period in England can be dated from the arrival in Kent of Anglo-Saxon troops led by the legendary Hengest and Horsa. Subsequently the Brythonic, Celtic powers were conquered by Jutes, Angles and Saxons Germanic tribes, from the contemporary Angeln and Jutland areas of northern Germany and mainland Denmark. Political takeover of other areas of England proceeded piecemeal and was not completed until the tenth century. Similarly, the end of the medieval period is usually dated by the rise of what is often referred to as the "English Renaissance" in the reign of Henry VIII of England, and the Reformation in Scotland, or else to the establishment of a centralized, bureaucratic monarchy by Henry VII of England. From a political point of view, the Norman Conquest of England divides medieval Britain in two distinct phases of cultural and political history. From a linguistic point of view the Norman Conquest had only a limited effect, Old English evolving into Middle English, although the Anglo Norman language would remain the language of those that ruled for two centuries at least, before mingling with Middle English.

At the height of pre-Norman medieval English power, a single English king ruled from the border with Scotland to the border with Wales to the border with Cornwall. After the Norman Conquest, English power intruded into Wales with increasing vigour, but the process of consolidation was continuous and is not just a medieval feature. The other problem with suggesting such a unity is that the various states had relations with Scandinavia and Continental Europe which are excluded by the concept. For example, northern Scotland often had closer ties with Norway and France (see Auld Alliance) than England or Wales in the medieval period, with Orkney and Shetland only becoming part of Scotland in 1471. Southern England, due to its proximity to Normandy, Flanders and Brittany, had closer relations with them than the other regions. (read more . . . )

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John of England signs Magna Carta. Illustration from Cassell's History of England (1902)
Magna Carta (Latin for Great Charter, literally "Great Paper"), also called Magna Carta Libertatum (Great Charter of Freedoms), is an English charter originally issued in 1215. It required the King to renounce certain rights, respect certain legal procedures and accept that his will could be bound by the law. It explicitly protected certain rights of the King's subjects, whether free or fettered — most notably the writ of habeas corpus, allowing appeal against unlawful imprisonment.

Magna Carta was the most significant early influence on the extensive historical process that led to the rule of constitutional law today. Magna Carta influenced the development of the common law and many constitutional documents, such as the United States Constitution. Many clauses were renewed throughout the Middle Ages, and continued to be renewed as late as the 18th century. By the second half of the 19th century, however, most clauses in their original form had been repealed from English law.

Magna Carta was the first document forced onto an English King by his subjects in an attempt to limit his powers by law. It was preceded by the 1100 Charter of Liberties in which King Henry I voluntarily stated that his own powers were under the law.

In practice, Magna Carta mostly did not limit the power of the King in the Middle Ages; by the time of the English Civil War, however, it had become an important symbol for those who wished to show that the King was bound by the law.

Magna Carta is normally understood to refer to a single document, that of 1215. Various amended versions of the Magna Carta appeared in subsequent years however, and it is the 1297 version which remains on the statute books of England and Wales. (Read more...)

Selected biography

Effigy of Rhys ap Gruffydd, St. Davids Cathedral 1810 engraving by John Conlon

Rhys ap Gruffydd (1132 – 28 April 1197) was the ruler of the kingdom of Deheubarth in south Wales. He is commonly known as The Lord Rhys, in Welsh Yr Arglwydd Rhys, but this title may not have been used in his lifetime.[1] He usually used the title "Prince of Deheubarth" or "Prince of South Wales", but two documents have been preserved in which he uses the title "Prince of Wales" or "Prince of the Welsh".[2] Rhys was one of the most successful and powerful Welsh princes, and after the death of Owain Gwynedd of Gwynedd in 1170 was the dominant power in Wales.

Rhys's grandfather, Rhys ap Tewdwr, was king of Deheubarth, and was killed at Brecon in 1093 by Bernard de Neufmarche. Following his death, most of Deheubarth was taken over by the Normans. Rhys's father, Gruffydd ap Rhys, was eventually able to become ruler of a small portion, and more territory was won back by Rhys's older brothers after Gruffydd's death. Rhys became ruler of Deheubarth in 1155. He was forced to submit to King Henry II of England in 1158. Henry invaded Deheubarth in 1163, stripped Rhys of all his lands and took him prisoner. A few weeks later he was released and given back a small part of his holdings. Rhys made an alliance with Owain Gwynedd and after the failure of another invasion of Wales by Henry in 1165 was able to win back most of his lands.

In 1171 Rhys made peace with King Henry and was confirmed in possession of his recent conquests as well as being named Justiciar of South Wales. He maintained good relations with King Henry until the latter's death in 1189. Following Henry's death Rhys revolted against Richard I and attacked the Norman lordships surrounding his territory, capturing a number of castles. In his later years Rhys had trouble keeping control of his sons, particularly Maelgwn and Gruffydd, who maintained a feud with each other. Rhys launched his last campaign against the Normans in 1196 and captured a number of castles. The following year he died unexpectedly and was buried in St David's Cathedral. (read more . . . )

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Canterbury tales mural
Credit: Ezra Winter Photo by:Carol Highsmith
A modern mural illustrating the characters from Chaucer's book the Canterbury tales (Read more...)

Topics

Early Middle Ages (7th to 11th centuries): England in the Early Middle AgesScotland in the Early Middle Ages, Wales in the Early Middle AgesAnglo-Saxon EnglandViking Age

High Middle Ages (11th to 15th centuries): England in the High Middle AgesScotland in the High Middle AgesWales in the High Middle AgesNorman England (1066-1154) • House of PlantagenetHouse of Dunkeld (1058–1286)House of Balliol (1292–1338)History of the Jews in Medieval England

Late Middle Ages (14th and 15th centuries): England in the Late Middle AgesScotland in the Late Middle AgesWales in the Late Middle AgesHouse of Lancaster (13991471) • House of York (14611485) • House of Bruce (1306–1371) • Transition to Early Modern Britain

Arts: English historians in the Middle AgesMedieval Welsh literatureAnglo-Saxon literatureAnglo-Norman literatureMiddle EnglishMedieval Scottish literatureAnglo-Saxon artViking Art

Conflict: Norman ConquestHundred Year WarWars of Scottish Independence


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  1. ^ Turvey pp. 91–2
  2. ^ In a charter concerning a grant to Chertsey Abbey he uses princeps Wall[ie] while a charter dated 1184 concerning Strata Florida Abbey uses Walliar[um] princeps. See Pryce pp. 96–7, 168–9, 171–4
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