“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 1a)

Plantagenet England 1225-1360 is one of the volumes of the New Oxford History of England. I have a vague plan to eventually buy & read the lot, but that’s a long way off (and anyway they’re not all published yet) – so far I’ve read England Under the Norman & Angevin Kings 1075-1225 (which was by Robert Bartlett) and now I’m starting this one. The break points between the volumes of the series are not at the ends of Kings reigns, nor at dynastic break points. So this volume starts part-way through Henry III’s reign, where he can be said to’ve taken control himself. And it ends with the ending of a phase of the Hundred Years War, even though that means that the full impact of the Black Death needs to be left till a later volume. This post is going to be about the first half of the introductory section* of the book, after that it goes through the politics of the time in chronological order followed by a thematic look through the society of the time.

*Originally it was going to be the whole of the introduction as I’ve finished reading it, but this post was getting very long so I’ve decided to split it up.

Orientation Dates

As it’s a more academic book the author assumes that the reader has a feel for the shape of the period – who reigned when, and how they were related, what the major political events were – the purpose of the book is to look at these things in detail. There is a chronology & genealogy at the end of the book as reference, but I’m going to pull out the Kings names & dates for orientation dates inside the subject of the book.

  • Henry III reigned 1216-1272, son of John I, married to Eleanor of Provence.
  • Edward I reigned 1272-1307, son of Henry III, married to Eleanor of Castile then Margaret of France.
  • Edward II reigned 1307-1327, son of Edward I & Eleanor, married to Isabella of France (who overthrew him & had him murdered).
  • Edward III reigned 1327-1377 initially under his mother’s regency, son of Edward II, married to Philippa of Hainault.

In my other Chapter by Chapter posts I’ve been using mostly English history to orient myself when thinking about a different country’s history, this time I’ll put a few reminders of things that happen elsewhere.

  • Saint Louis IX (builder of Sainte-Chapelle) ruled France 12261270.
  • Genghis Khan died in 1227.
  • Reconquista of Spain is well underway in this period, the last Muslim Emirate (Emirate of Granada) is founded in 1238 after the defeat of the Almohad Dynasty by the Christian Spanish Kingdoms and remains the only Muslim run region of the Spanish Peninsula from then until its defeat in 1492.
  • Seventh Crusade from 12481254.
  • Eighth Crusade in 1270.
  • Ninth Crusade from 12711272.
  • China re-unified under Kublai Khan (post) in 1279.
  • Philip VI of Valois reigned in France 13281350, starting the Valois dynasty.

(Most of those I had to resort to wikipedia for, tsk tsk!)


The Environment

The introductory section of the book is broken into three chapters & the first one is about how the lives of the people in this era were nasty, brutish & short! Prestwich starts with a discussion of the climate across this century & a half. From the various sources (both chronicles that note weather & records of harvests) it seems that the climate gradually got colder across this period, and more unsettled. He thinks that the gradual cooling was compensated for by farmers, but the increased volatility caused problems. Particularly notable bad weather occurs in the years 1258-1259 and 1315-16. He ties the first to a known volcanic eruption which has left evidence in Greenland ice cores, but there’s no known explanation for the latter.

Population grew during the beginning of this era – peaking around 1300 and remaining roughly stable till the collapse at the Black Death. At its highest the population was probably 5 million (for reference wikipedia says the 2011 population of the Greater London built up area was 9.8 million, the population of the Greater Manchester built up area was 2.6 million). Analysis of skeletal remains shows a lot of disease in the population & that’s just what one can see traces of in bones. 90% of the population died before the age of 45, average life expectancy was around 30. But if you made it to 20 you might expect to live another 20 or 30 years, and if you made it to 50 you’d probably live till old age. People were short, but not as short as in Victorian times – average of 5’7.25″ for men, 5’2.5″ for women. Contemporary sources record much death from accident, or violence, as well as famine & disease.

Prestwich also discusses the landscape the people lived in. This was stable across the period, and was mostly composed of farmland. The exact practices of farming varied from region to region (because of tradition as well as suitability of crops) and this shaped the landscape. Most land wasn’t wooded, but there were areas of woodland & parks as well as forests & chases. The latter were a legal distinction – in a forest common law didn’t hold, instead the area was under forest law which restricted what the people who lived there could do (in favour of keeping the area suitable for royal hunting). Chases were non-royal forests.

The animals of the countryside still included wolves in remoter areas, for instance there are records of the loss of farm animals to wolves in Lancashire in 1303-4 although the number wasn’t large. Rabbits were a recent introduction & carefully looked after in warrens – the first documentary evidence for them in England was in 1235. Given how important rats are as a vector of the Black Death it’s surprising there’s not much evidence for a large population of them either in documents or via archaeology. Domestic animals were mainly horses, cattle, sheep & pigs, and they were all smaller and yielded less meat/milk/wool than their modern counterparts. Sheep were the main animals kept, with some estates having flocks of several thousand. Dogs were kept for hunting & pets included cats. Prestwich mentions documentary evidence for several plagues amongst farm animals – in particular there is evidence for a lot of animal disease in the 1310s, which also had the worst weather & worst harvests.

The buildings of the era ranged from castles to wooden shacks. There were around 400-500 castles during this time period, the figure varies depending on how you define castle, and castles defined aristocratic lordship. Many of them had building work done on them during the period, but not many new castles were built. As you move down the social scale buildings are still used to demonstrate your social standing – gentry had manor houses or moated buildings. There were about 5,000 moated sites by the end of the period, and about 70% of these came into existence between 1200 & 1325. Abbeys and churches also loomed large in the landscape, but these didn’t change much over the period with no major new monastic foundations. Peasant housing is harder to find evidence for as it was mostly built from wood which doesn’t leave much trace particularly when there’s been much rebuilding on a site. Longhouses weren’t unknown, but often the house was separate from the barn. What little evidence there is for cost of peasant housing suggests it was cheap & not well made (unsurprisingly) – Prestwich mentions a report of a house collapse which killed the woman who lived there & the value of the timber in the house was put at only 18d.

Most of England lived in villages or towns, rather than isolated farms, with settlements in the north & west more dispersed than those in the rest of the country. The growth of population through the first half of this era saw a proliferation of towns. And even walled towns show signs of expanding outside their boundaries. Even large towns weren’t particularly big – London might’ve had a population of around 70,000 by 1300 and no other town was bigger than 20,000. For reference, wikipedia says that in 2011 there were ~179k people living in the Ipswich built up area, and even the 70th most populous built up area in England has ~100k people living there. The East Kilbride built up area in Scotland has about the same population in 2011 as London did in 1300. For contemporary reference Prestwich says 1300 era London was in a similar league to Paris or Florence – however my copy of The New Atlas of World History (by John Haywood) lists Paris as the 4th most populous city of the world in 1300 at 228k (beaten by Hangzhou & Dadu in China and Cairo, all at or just above 400k). Population figures for this era are sufficiently vague & a matter of interpretation that I doubt Prestwich & Haywood actually disagree significantly. Towns don’t sound terribly nice places to live – as well as the omnipresent threat of fire they were crowded, unhygenic & smelly. And not just in modern eyes – Prestwich gives a few quotes from contemporary sources about the unpleasantness of particularly towns.

Technologically speaking there were skilled craftsmen & slow improvements to techniques, but not many striking breakthroughs. Gunpowder is introduced in Edward I’s reign, but the primitive guns don’t have much effect on the period. Timekeeping does start to change, with the beginnings of the move from measuring time by the patterns of daylight or the monastic day to clocks measuring the passing of hours & minutes. Power was provided by wind, water & animals. Again there were some developments in windmill & watermill tech but nothing groundbreaking. Use of horses for transport or power was increasingly replacing use of oxen. Bulk transport however was still cheapest on ships & boats, and land transport was much slower. Prestwich says most people didn’t travel much, which was just as well as the transport network was inadequate – and still mostly reliant on the Roman roads. If you did travel it would probably take you a week to travel around 200 miles.

Prestwich concludes with some more cheering quotes & anecdotes. Although life was in many ways grim for most of the population, people were in general proud of being English and regarded their land as a good land & a good place to live. And there were diversions & distractions from the grimness.

Tangents to follow up on: A throw-away line about towns & the problems with counting them made me realise I’m not sure I’ve learnt what the technical distinctions between villages & towns & boroughs etc are.