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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

10 Facts You Didn't Know about Medieval English History

Picking up books on this era has become a fascinating hobby for me. The following is a compilation of some of the most surprising things I've come across in my limited study. If you're thinking this is too nerdy, you're right but... Onward!

  1. Slavery existed. After William the Conqueror became king of England in 1066, he took a census. 10% of the total population were slaves, with some areas being as high as 20%. Luckily actual slavery was outlawed at the beginning of the 12th century.
  2. King Richard the Lionheart was neglectful of England, cruel, and probably homosexual. This is not the image we have of Richard from Robin Hood! France was pleasant and glorious for Richard, England was “cold and always raining.” He spent only 6 months of his 9 year reign in England; his military prowess could not be surpassed but it came at the price of most brutal behavior; and he had an unusually close, most likely sexual relationship with both his brother-in-law, Sancho, and with the king of France, Philip (II) Augustus.
  3. England officially belonged to the pope. Yep, King John defied the power of the Church at a most unfortunate time: when it was ruled by the iron-willed Innocent III. Innocent responded by putting England under interdict and eventually excommunicating John (therefore damning him to hell). John relented and as recompense officially gave England to the pope in 1213. The pope let John rule England in fiefdom from then on but John never quite felt assured of his salvation, probably due to his nefarious lifestyle. He wore holy relics and charms around his neck until the day he died.
  4. Norman French was the spoken language of the court and the nobility up until the 14th century. Because William the Conqueror was from Normandy, government adopted this language. And what we now think of as a unified “English” language was originally only the dialect of southeast England around London and didn’t become widespread until centuries later.
  5. All adults drank red wine. White wine was for children, of course! When it came to food, seafood was abundant. Along with crappy bread. If you were lucky enough to be born a noble you might have dined on such widespread fare as eels and peacocks. Regardless though, the years of sweet wine eventually took their dental toll. Women carried handkerchiefs to hold over their mouths so as not to show their rotting teeth.
  6. William (the) Marshall was the greatest knight to ever live. He served three kings of England (Henry II, Richard, & John), and not only did he embody the best part of the system of chivalry but he once estimated that he participated in some 300 tournaments in his lifetime and was the champion in every single one! He was famed and universally admired throughout Europe.
  7. All adult males were required by law to practice archery every Sunday. This law mixed with the longbow provided some of the greatest archers the world has ever seen. In fact, skeletal remains show deformities from the physical exertion of firing a bow with a 60 lb. draw one's entire adult life. These archers were incredibly accurate and Robin Hood-like skill was considered the norm, not the exception.
  8. Roger Bacon, a Franciscan friar, invented gunpowder. Yes, it was invented in China too but he certainly never got the formula from a passing Chinese tradesman. No, this philosopher and scientist had an incredible mind and invented it in one of his many experimental pursuits. Unfortunately (though unsurprisingly) he was accused of sorcery.
  9. Under the 1st Tudor, Henry VII, England was the richest and most feared country in all of Europe. The greed and wealth of Henry VII was almost unfathomable. But Henry’s son, the infamous Henry VIII, spent it so frivolously that none of it remained when he left the throne to his own children.
  10. Families are rough. Families with rivals, supreme power, and bloody regime changes are rougher. Of the 21 rulers of medieval England since the conquest, the following are almost certainly true and morbid examples of royal-on-royal violence.
  • King John drowned or castrated to death his nephew and rival, Arthur of Brittany.
  • Queen Isabella used her lover to kill her husband, King Edward II, by sticking a hot poker up his, er... nether regions.
  • King Henry IV sent guards to stab to death his cousin, the deposed King Richard II while Richard was under house arrest.
  • King Edward IV had his predecessor, Henry VI, killed in the Tower of London. He officially died of "distress." Edward was crowned the next day.
  • Edward IV (again) - It is possible his rival's son and heir to the throne of England, Edward of Lancaster, died in battle. But it's equally likely the rival prince was killed after the battle on the king's orders.
  • Edward IV (third time's the charm!) executed his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, after he was convicted of treason. Edward had him drowned in a tub of George's favorite drink: Malmsey wine.
  • King Richard III OR King Henry VII secured the crown by killing the dead Edward IV's two young sons, the famous "Princes in the Tower." Their disappearance and manner of death is a great mystery to this day.

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