Crazy Facts About Medieval Times that Will Make Present Day Look Easy
Crazy Facts About Medieval Times that Will Make Present Day Look Easy

Crazy Facts About Medieval Times that Will Make Present Day Look Easy

Khalid Elhassan - May 15, 2021

Crazy Facts About Medieval Times that Will Make Present Day Look Easy
William Marshal. Manorial Counsel

12. Medieval England’s Greatest Knight

William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke (1147 – 1219), was born to a minor noble the court of King Stephen. He eclipsed his father and rose to become one of the most prominent knights of medieval England. During a long and illustrious career, William Marshal served four English monarchs – Henry II, Richard I, John I, and Henry III – as a soldier, statesman, advisor, marshal, and regent. Due to his tireless efforts, he saved the turbulent Plantagenet Dynasty from destruction, allowing its continuation for centuries to come.

Crazy Facts About Medieval Times that Will Make Present Day Look Easy
Contemporary illustration from The Anarchy, depicting King Stephen, 4th from right, listening to a pre-battle oration. British Library

King Stephen faced a rival claimant, the Empress Matilda, in a convoluted civil war known as The Anarchy. William’s father switched his allegiance to Matilda, but was besieged by the king and forced to surrender. To ensure his father’s future good behavior, William was handed over as a hostage – a common medieval method for ensuring loyalty. It did not work on William’s father, who reneged despite the fact that his son was being held hostage. When the king threatened to kill the child, William’s father responded that he still had the “hammer and anvil” with which to forge more and better sons. Fortunately, Stephen could not bring himself to execute a child, so William was kept as a prisoner until The Anarchy ended.

Crazy Facts About Medieval Times that Will Make Present Day Look Easy
William Marshal. BBC

11. The Knight Who Saved Richard the Lionheart’s Crown

When King Stephen died, he was succeeded by his rival Matilda’s son, Henry II, during whose reign William Marshal came of age. After demonstrating his prowess, William made guardian to Prince Henry, the king’s eldest son. The prince died young, however, so William returned to the king’s side and fought with him in France until Henry II died in 1189. After the new monarch, Richard I the Lionheart, ascended the throne, William married a wealthy heiress and became Earl of Pembroke, with vast estates. When King Richard went Crusading in 1190, he appointed William to the Council of Regents. It was a good decision, as Richard realized when he was captured on the way back from the Crusades

When Richard’s younger brother John tried to usurp the throne, William joined other barons in fighting him. He eventually reconciled with John, and helped him ascend the throne peacefully after Richard’s death in 1199. By 1213, William was King John’s closest advisor, and remained loyal to him during the baronial rebellion that forced the king into signing the Magna Carta in 1215. John died during a civil with his barons, who had invited Louis of France to be their king. Designated regent of John’s minor son, Henry III, William Marshal defeated the barons and Louis of France, and in his last significant act, compelled them to sign a peace in 1217 that restored calm to the realm.

Crazy Facts About Medieval Times that Will Make Present Day Look Easy
Jack Cade and the Royal Treasurer, James Fiennes, Lord Saye and Sele. Pintrest

10. The Obscure Rebel Who Shook Medieval England

Jack Cade was an Irishman of unknown occupation and little known background, who lived in Kent, England, in 1450. That year, he organized a rebellion among peasants and small proprietors. He and they were upset with oppressively high taxes and a recent steep rise in prices, coupled with widespread corruption and abuse of power by the royal advisors and officials of the weak and hapless king Henry VI. The rebellion gathered steam, and soon became a major popular revolt and peasant uprising that shook medieval England, captured London, and terrorized its government and aristocracy.

Cade had lived in Sussex until 1449, when he fled to France to escape a murder charge. He returned to England under an assumed name in 1450, and settled in Kent. That June, he emerged as the leader of a rebellion against the royal government, and calling himself John Mortimer, identified with the king’s rivals, the York branch of the royal family. Cade issued a manifesto that demanded the removal of several royal ministers, and the recall of Richard, Duke of York, from Ireland, where he resided in virtual exile.

Crazy Facts About Medieval Times that Will Make Present Day Look Easy
The impromptu trial of the Royal Treasurer, James Fiennes, Lord Saye and Sele, by Jack Cade and his followers. Wikimedia

9. A Rebellion That Set the Stage For the Wars of the Roses

A royal army was sent to the suppress Jack Cade and his followers, but it was defeated in Kent. Emboldened by their victory, the insurrectionists’ rapidly increasing host marched on London. They captured the city on July 3rd, 1450, along with the hated royal treasurer, James Fiennes, Lord Saye and Sele, who was blamed for many policies that had rubbed the rebels the wrong way. They subjected their aristocratic captive to an impromptu trial, found him guilty, and executed him.

Crazy Facts About Medieval Times that Will Make Present Day Look Easy
The Battle of London Bridge. Once Upon a Time

Despite Cade’s attempt to maintain discipline, many rebels took to looting once they entered London. Such lawlessness led Londoners to turn on the rebels, who were expelled from the city on July 6th, after a battle at London Bridge. To end the revolt, the government persuaded most rebels to disperse by issuing royal pardons. Cade fled, but was tracked down a week later, wounded in a skirmish with royal forces, and captured. He was taken to London, but died of his wounds en route, his death marked the end of the rebellion. The revolt failed, but it contributed to a breakdown of royal authority and prestige that set the stage for the Wars of the Roses, which erupted soon thereafter.

Crazy Facts About Medieval Times that Will Make Present Day Look Easy
Edmund Ironside, as depicted on a South African medallion. Owlcation

8. This Formidable King Differed Greatly From His Weak Father

Medieval England’s King Edmund II, commonly known as Edmund Ironside (circa 993 – 1016), had a brief reign from April 23rd to November 30th, 1016, but a memorable life. A formidable man, Edmund was a case of the apple falling far from the tree, as his father, the weak and vacillating King Ethelred the Unready, was one of England’s worst monarchs. Edmund was a vast improvement over his father, and proved himself made of sterner stuff than his predecessor. He earned the surname “Ironside” for his staunch resistance to a massive invasion led by the Danish King Canute.

Starting in 991, Edmund’s father Ethelred the Unready unwisely sought to buy off the Danes then occupying northern England. He figured that paying them tribute known as Danegeld, or “Danish Gold”, would get them to stop their incessant raids into his kingdom. Unsurprisingly, that simply emboldened the Danes. They upped their demands for more and more gold, and fearing little from Ethelred, kept on raiding his domain. Finally, after bankrupting his kingdom and beggaring its people with the high taxes necessary to pay the Danegeld, Ethelred ordered a massacre of Danish settlers in 1002. Things were already bad, but that made them worse.

Crazy Facts About Medieval Times that Will Make Present Day Look Easy
Meeting of Edmund Ironside and Canute. Alamy

7. A Mighty King’s Undignified End

Ethelred the Unready’s massacre of the Danes in his kingdom triggered an invasion by Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard. He conquered England in 1013 and forced Ethelred to flee to Normandy. However, Sweyn died the following year, at which point Ethelred returned. With his son Edmund playing a leading role, Ethelred chased Sweyn’s son, Canute, out of England in 1014. Canute returned the following year at the head of a large Danish army, which pillaged much of England, but Crown Prince Edmund mounted a fierce resistance that stymied the Danes.

When Ethelred died in 1016, Edmund, by now known as “Ironside”, succeeded him on the English throne. His reign ended on November 30, 1016, a mere seven months after he was crowned. That night, Edmund went to the privy to answer a call of nature, and met one of the unkindest fates ever dealt a medieval monarch. Unbeknownst to Edmund, an assassin was waiting in the cesspit for the royal posterior to show up. When he sat down to do his business, the assassin stabbed upwards with a sharp dagger, and left the weapon embedded in the king’s bowels as he made his escape. Unfortunately for Edmund, even if his sides had been made of iron, his bottom was not.

Crazy Facts About Medieval Times that Will Make Present Day Look Easy
Count Louis I of Flanders, as he depicted himself on his seal. Wikimedia

6. The Peasant Uprising That Shook the Medieval Power Structure

The Flanders Peasant Revolt of 1323 – 1328 was a massive uprising of peasants and burghers in Flanders, in today’s Belgium. It was one of the most violent insurrections of the medieval era. The revolt was sparked by a recent imposition of new and heavy taxes by Flanders’ new ruler, Count Louis I. The count’s subjects were also unhappy by his unpopular pro-French policies. They were viewed as detrimental to the financial interests of most in Flanders, whose economy revolved around trade with France’s rival, England.

At its core, the revolt was a class protest by peasants who had hitherto enjoyed self-government, a privileged form of land tenancy, and legal protections against aristocratic abuses. Count Louis’ new policies risked weakening or doing away with all of the preceding, so it is unsurprising that he became hugely unpopular. The peasants found willing allies in the cities’ burghers. The urban dwellers’ struggle to keep and expand their hard-won liberties was also threatened by Flanders’ count, and his ally, the king of France.

Crazy Facts About Medieval Times that Will Make Present Day Look Easy
The Battle of Cassel, by Jean Froissart. Flickr

5. An Unpopular Ruler Who Kept Driving His Subjects Into Rebellions

Scattered rural riots erupted in Flanders in late 1323 after a poor harvest, and peasants refused to pay taxes to Count Louis I. Soon, the rioters coalesced into larger bands, led by prosperous farmers, local gentry, and the mayor of Bruges. The count, lacking military force, negotiated a peace with the rebels in 1324, and recognized the legitimacy of their complaints. It proved a short-lived peace: the rebels returned to the warpath after a knight murdered a commoner, and Count Louis arrested six burghers from Bruges. The hated count was captured and brought to Bruges, where several of his leading adherents were executed in 1325.

After negotiations, combined with pressure from the king of France, Count Louis was released in 1326, and a peace treaty was ratified soon thereafter. When insurrection broke anew in 1328, following the French king’s death, the count of Flanders called upon the new king, Phillip VI, for military aid. A French military expedition was organized, which defeated the rebels at the Battle of Cassel later that year. Taking hostages for the Flemish burghers’ good behavior, Philip VI returned to France, where he executed the mayor of Bruges. Back in Flanders, Count Louis set about punishing the defeated rebels and stamping down the last embers of resistance.

Crazy Facts About Medieval Times that Will Make Present Day Look Easy
The Palace of Heavenly Purity in the Forbidden City, Beijing, seat of the imperial court. Encyclopedia Britannica

4. The Teenage Emperor Who Got the Ball Rolling on Ruining His Dynasty

Medieval China got a raw deal in 1505, when a teenaged monarch, The Zhengde Emperor (1491 – 1521), ascended the Chinese Ming Dynasty throne when he was just fourteen-years-old. His reign, which lasted until 1521, set the stage for many calamities that ended up afflicting China. Unsurprisingly, making a teenager emperor had some downsides. The Zhengde Emperor was uninterested in governing his empire, and disregarded state affairs. Instead, he did what most teenagers would if given absolute power and unlimited wealth.

He abandoned himself to an extravagant and profligate lifestyle, marked by lavish spending, bizarre behavior, and poor choices that set the stage for the Ming Dynasty’s downfall. As soon as he ascended the throne, the teen emperor entrusted the conduct of government to palace eunuchs and devoted himself to pleasure seeking. With governance left entirely in their hands, the imperial household’s became China’s most powerful class. Without checks or oversight, corruption became endemic and public offices were openly bought and sold. Simultaneously, taxation soared to pay for the emperor’s pleasures and to feather the nests of courtiers and officials.

Crazy Facts About Medieval Times that Will Make Present Day Look Easy
The Zhengde Emperor. Wikimedia

3. An Emperor Who Took Make Believe to Extremes

As his realm went to ruin, the teenaged Zhengde Emperor took to learning foreign languages and travelling incognito – although most of the time it was obvious just who he was. He was into make-believe in a big way, and created an alter ego for himself, a generalissimo Zhu Zhu, upon whom he lavished praise and rewards. He also built a city block within the imperial palace so he could pretend to be a shopkeeper. Less innocent and more harmful was his habit of taking his companions on thrill raids.

During those excursions, the emperor and his cronies often burst into the homes of wealthy citizens, violently seized and kidnapped their daughters, and held them for ransom. Officials who criticized the emperor’s erratic and irresponsible behavior were arrested, tortured, and executed by the hundreds. The Zhengde Emperor eventually drowned in 1521 when his pleasure barge capsized, an accident that finally brought his reign to a merciful end. Although he exited the scene, the damage he left behind proved permanent. During the years of his reign, without oversight from the throne, palace eunuchs achieved such power within the government’s structure that subsequent emperors were unable to dislodge them.

Crazy Facts About Medieval Times that Will Make Present Day Look Easy
The Citadel of Aleppo was severely damaged by the 1138 earthquake. Pintrest

2. The City That Suffered One of the Medieval Era’s Worst Calamities

The city of Aleppo in northwestern Syria is located right on a precarious geologic fault line that separates the tectonic Arabian Plate from the African Plate. That accident of geology is, to put it mildly, unfortunate for the city and its people. The friction between the two plates makes Aleppo and the region surrounding it particularly susceptible to devastating seismic events. One of the worst occurred during the Crusades on October 11, 1138, when one of history’s deadliest earthquakes shook northern Syria.

Aleppo was a bustling and vibrant city during the medieval era. In the mid-twelfth century, however, the region was ravaged by war as the recently formed Crusader states, such as the nearby Principality of Antioch, vied with the neighboring Muslim states. Aleppo, then part of the Zengid Sultanate, was at the forefront of the anti-Crusader resistance, protected by strong walls and a powerful citadel. Then came the 1138 earthquake, which killed hundreds of thousands in Aleppo, its environs, and the surrounding region.

Crazy Facts About Medieval Times that Will Make Present Day Look Easy
Aleppo’s medieval citadel. Wikimedia

1. Nearly a Quarter Million People Perished in This Earthquake

On October 10, 1138, a small earthquake shook Aleppo. Warned by the foreshocks, most of the population fled the city for the countryside. Many died there when the main earthquake struck the following day, but far more would have perished if they had they remained in the city. There, the powerful citadel suffered extensive damage from the tremors that caused its walls to fall down, while in the city below, most of Aleppo’s houses collapsed. The devastation extended beyond Aleppo and was widespread throughout northwestern Syria.

The town of Harem, conquered by Crusaders who fortified it with a strong citadel, was particularly hard-hit by tremors that shook apart and demolished its castle, and caused the local church to fall upon itself. The nearby Muslim fort of Atharib also had its citadel destroyed by the earthquake, which caused it to collapse upon and kill 600 of its garrison. The border town of Zaradna, sacked and pillaged multiple times as it changed hands between the combatants, was wholly obliterated. All in all, an estimated 230,000 perished in Aleppo’s 1138 earthquake, making it one the medieval era’s worst natural disasters


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Ancient Origins – Tomoe Gozen: A Fearsome Japanese Female Samurai of the 12th Century

Chambers, James – The Devil’s Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe (2001)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Tariq ibn Ziyad

Encyclopedia Britannica – William Marshal

Encyclopedia Britannica – Zhengde, Emperor of Ming China

Hildinger, Erik – Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia, 500 BC to AD 1700 (2001)

History Collection – Fascinating Middle Age Facts

Horror History Net – Edmund Ironside, Murdered on His Toilet

How Stuff Works – Meowing and Biting Nuns: 10 Strangest Mass Hysterias

New York Times, October 23rd, 1994 – Historical Study of Homicide and Cities Surprises the Experts

Pinker, Steven – The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011)

Ranker – All the Afflictions You Might Have if You Lived in a Medieval City

Tebrake, William H. – A Plague of Insurrection: Popular Politics and Peasant Revolt in Flanders, 1323-1328 (1993)

Wikipedia – Jack Cade’s Rebellion

Wikipedia – Sweating Sickness

Wikipedia – Yue Fei