Tensions between university students and the locals of Oxford had been building for some time before violence broke out. The townspeople were frustrated with the University’s privileges, while students felt that local businesses exploited them by charging higher prices for rents, goods, and services.
On 10 February 1355 a group of students were drinking in the central Swindlestock Tavern. When they complained to the landlord about the quality of the drinks he had brought them, he responded with ‘stubborn and saucy language’ which prompted the two sides to exchange ‘snappish words’. One of the students, who may have been either Walter Spryngeheuse or Roger de Chesterfield, then threw a tankard of wine at the landlord’s head.
This prompted a pub brawl that expanded into a city-wide riot after one of the townsfolk called for assistance by ringing the bells of St Martin’s church, while the students rang those at St Mary’s, the University Church. Weapons that even included bows and arrows were used by both sides and, the next day, people from the local area joined the carnage with cries of, ‘Havoc! Havoc! Smyt fast, give gode knocks!’
The riot lasted for three days and left more than 90 people dead. The townsfolk were found to be responsible and were ordered to attend Mass for the souls of the dead students every year on the anniversary of the riot. They were also required to swear an oath acknowledging the University’s privileges, and pay a fine of 63 pence – one for each dead student. This continued until 1825 when the Mayor refused, but was only rescinded by Parliament in 1955.
A succession crisis was sparked following the death of Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England.
Edward was crowned King of England in 1042 and earned a reputation as a pious and gentle ruler largely thanks to later religious writers in Westminster who lobbied for his canonisation. The term ‘Confessor’ was consequently applied to recognise him having lived a saintly life but dying without martyrdom.
Edward’s death instead came about after a period of illness that began sometime after the Northumbrian revolt of October 1065 that led to the exile of Tostig, one of the king’s favourites. Assumed by many to have been the effect of a series of strokes, Edward died on 5 January the following year having missed the consecration of his new church, Westminster Abbey, on 28 December.
His death was so problematic because Edward and his wife, Edith, had never had any children. Numerous explanations for this have been put forward, but ultimately the fact that he died without an obvious heir produced a succession crisis that was to bring about the end of Anglo-Saxon rule in England.
At the time there were no clear rules for royal succession and, although the opinion of the previous king was a factor in deciding the next ruler, it relied just as much on support from the Church and the nobility and the contender’s own military might. While Harold Godwinson, the strongest of England’s earls, claimed that Edward had entrusted the kingdom to him while on his deathbed, William of Normandy maintained that Edward had previously promised the throne to him. Along with Harald Hardrada, a Dane with direct links to the kings who had ruled England before Edward, the stage was set for a series of battles that culminated at Hastings in October 1066.
In the medieval period the Netherlands, whose name literally means ‘lower countries’, consisted of large areas of boggy land around the winding estuaries of three of the largest rivers in Europe. Although prone to flooding, the fertile areas close to the sea had attracted many settlers by the 10th century and, by the turn of the millennium, the population began to increase rapidly.
The construction of dikes to hold back the sea consequently became an important part of life in the area. Draining the peat bogs that were left behind provided arable land to feed the growing population, but it also made the ground sink by up to a metre every century.
On 14 December 1287, the day after St. Lucia’s Day, an extreme low pressure system coincided with high tide in the North Sea to cause a huge storm surge that rose far above the usual sea level. The waves battered the dikes built to defend the north and northwestern part of the Netherlands, and poured onto the land below. Numerous villages were destroyed, and records indicate that at least 50,000 people lost their lives.
Meanwhile the floodwaters transformed a shallow freshwater lake into the salty Zuiderzee and created direct sea access to what was then the village of Amsterdam. The flood was therefore directly responsible for the development of one of the world’s leading port cities.
The English coastline was also severely affected by the storm. Although the number of casualties was considerably lower, other effects were just as significant. Combined with another huge flood that had struck southern England in February numerous ports declined after being silted up, while new ones soon appeared.
Known as the Orloj, the astronomical clock was designed and built by the Imperial clockmaker Mikuláš of Kadaň and Charles University professor Jan Šindel. Consisting of three main components, the astronomical dial and the mechanical clock itself were first noted in a document on 9 October 1410. The third component – a calendar dial – was added around 1490 when the façade was decorated with additional gothic sculptures.
One of the most famous features of the clock is the hourly “Walk of the Apostles” in which carved figures of the Apostles appear in procession at two windows above the main clock face. These were not added to the Orloj until a major repair on the clock in 1787-1791, although some of the other moving allegorical statues such as Death had been added beforehand. Further statues were added in later years, including the golden crowing rooster that didn’t appear until 1866.
The clock is a masterpiece of medieval engineering, and also serves as evidence of the European view of the universe at the time since the Earth appears at the centre. Against this background are the four key moving parts of the astronomical dial: the zodiacal ring, the Old Czech time scale, and two clock hands representing the Sun and the Moon and their position on the eliptic. The half-black, half-silver Moon even contains a mechanism to show the lunar phases.
The Orloj suffered serious damage in the Second World War when German forces attempted to suppress the Prague Uprising of May 1945. Restoration successfully returned the clock to working order in 1948, since when it has been renovated another two times.
The Battle of Bannockburn began on the 23rd June 1314, leading to one of the most important Scottish victories of the First War of Scottish Independence that was fought intermittently from 1296 until 1328. Robert the Bruce, who had seized the Scottish throne in 1306, defeated King Edward II of England and secured Scotland’s de facto independence.
The battle was prompted by the Scots besieging the strategically important English-held Stirling Castle. The constable of the castle agreed to surrender unless he received assistance from the English army to break the siege by the 24th June. Faced with this imminent loss of the castle Edward II successfully raised an army of around 2,000 cavalry and 15,000 infantry to march on Scotland. Robert the Bruce’s army was significantly smaller than Edward’s, with estimates suggesting that he commanded around half the number of foot soldiers and only a quarter of the cavalry.
Bannockburn was unusual for a medieval battle in that it lasted for two days, with the first day being notable for Bruce single-handedly killing the young English knight Sir Henry de Bohun with an axe blow to the head after he tried to charge him with a lance. The ensuing melee resulted in the English being driven back, which had a devastating effect on their morale. The next day, after a sleepless night on marshy land next to the river known as the Bannock Burn, the English were hemmed in by the advancing Scots in front and the water. Realising they had lost, Edward II was escorted away by his bodyguards.
On the 18th May 1291, the Crusader-controlled city of Acre was seized by the Muslim forces of the Mamluk Sultan Al-Ashraf Khalil. The Siege of Acre, sometimes known as the Fall of Acre, marked the last attempt to exert Crusader influence in the Holy Land.
Acre had been under Christian control since it was besieged in 1191 during the Third Crusade, and had quickly become the capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. With the rise of the Mamluk Sultanate in nearby Egypt in 1250, Crusader holdings became targets for conquest.
The spark for the attack on Acre was the suspected killing of a Muslim for an affair with the wife of a Christian. This coincided with the arrival of over 1,600 poorly disciplined Italian reinforcements for the city, who allegedly pillaged nearby towns for supplies and killed a number of Muslims in the process.
These killings were cited by the Mamluks as reason to cancel a ten-year truce they had signed with the Crusaders. Having amassed an army of many thousands, Sultan Khalil therefore began the siege on 5th April and within less than a month his forces had reached the city walls and begun to mine out the base of the walls and defensive towers. These began to collapse on the 8th May, and a few days later the full infantry attack on the city began. By nightfall on 18th May the Christians had been defeated, their leaders having either fled by boat or been killed in the fighting.
Matilda, the daughter of King Henry I of England, was declared the ‘Lady of England and Normandy’ 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.
On the 18th March 1314 Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, was executed on the orders of King Philip IV. Although he had first been arrested in 1307, and the Order was formally abolished by Pope Clement V three years later, Molay’s execution secured his place as one of the most famous members of the Knights Templar.
The Knights Templar had been the final defenders of Acre in 1291, and although little is known of Jacques de Molay’s early life he was almost certainly amongst their number. He was elected Grand Master the following year, but struggled to build support among Europe’s leaders for a new Crusade to reconquer the Holy Land.
By early 1307 Molay had landed in France, where he had been invited to attend a meeting with the Pope. However, this coincided with a series of accusations of sacrilege leveled against the Templars regarding their initiation ceremony. On the 13th October, the day after he served as a pallbearer at the funeral of Catherine of Courtenay, the sister-in-law of King Philip, Molay and numerous other Templar knights were arrested on the orders of the King.
Having been tortured into confessing to various sacrilegious acts, the knights began a protracted period of confession and retraction that lasted for a number of years. Finally, on the 18th March 1314 Molay and three other senior Templars were sentenced to indefinite imprisonment. However Molay and fellow Templar Geoffroi de Charney then professed their innocence, causing King Philip to declare them relapsed heretics and condemn them to death. They were burnt at the stake later that day.
July 12th 927 is the closest we have to a foundation date for England, when all the kings of Britain met at Eamont Bridge, near Penrith in Cumbria, to swear an oath of peace under the overlordship of Æthelstan. Having previously been king of the Anglo-Saxons, Æthelstan’s key success in 927 was conquering Viking York which placed the kingdom of Northumbria under his control and secured the submission of the northern kings.
Æthelstan was the son of Edward the Elder, and grandson of Alfred the Great, and his ancestors had already carved large chunks from Viking lands as far north as the River Humber. As such they customarily referred to themselves as ‘king of the Saxons’ or ‘king of the Anglo-Saxons’. However, securing the submission of the other British kings meant that Æthelstan could go further. Coins minted soon after the 927 oath referred to him as rex totius Britanniae or ‘king of all Britain’.
Despite the oath, Æthelstan’s rule over the north of England was still fragile and in 937 he faced the combined forces of Scots, Vikings and Strathclyde Britons under the command of Olaf Guthfrithson, Constantine II, and Owen I respectively. An account of the ensuing Battle of Brunanburh was recorded in a contemporary poem of the same name and was preserved in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A further 52 other sources mention the battle, although realistically we know little about what happened other than Æthelstan and his army were victorious. This victory secured Anglo-Saxon control, and effectively laid out the map of the British Isles as we know them today.
On the 24th June 1374, people in Aachen in Germany suddenly and mysteriously began dancing in the streets and didn’t stop for many weeks. Known variously as St John’s Dance, St. Vitus’ Dance, or the ‘dancing plague’, the occurrence in Aachen was neither the first nor the last – but is one of the best documented.
Many hundreds of people were affected by the dance mania, which involved erratic movements and often involuntary shouts and screams. Of those afflicted many would continue to dance until they dropped to the floor of exhaustion, foaming at the mouth and twitching their limbs until they had recovered sufficiently to resume the dance again. Others died of cardiac arrest or from injuries sustained during the dance.
It’s understandable that people at the time were concerned about the mania and that various theories were suggested about its cause. Religion, and punishment from saints John or Vitus, were closely associated with both the cause and the cure. It’s been suggested that the virtual disappearance of outbreaks by the 17th Century coincided with the spread of Protestantism and its rejection of the veneration of saints.
More recent theories point towards the fact that the first dancers were people on pilgrimage, not citizens of the town in which the dancing happened. The suggestion is therefore that the dancers were members of cults performing highly-planned rituals that would have seen them executed for heresy if not for the excuse that it was a mass outbreak of dancing plague. Others commentators simply suggest that the dancing was a form of mass hysteria.