Castles ~ The age they sprang from faded long ago, the imposing castles and soaring cathedrals that grace the landscape keep England's medieval heritage vividly alive. They stand as monuments of the tumultuous Middle Ages, a millennium that saw a united England emerge from a caldron of diverse peoples set to boiling when the last Roman rulers left in about A. D. 400. England then lay open to invaders - first the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who established kingdoms. Later from the north thundered fleets of fierce Danish and Norwegian Vikings, who pillaged England from the ninth to the eleventh centuries - a time when the Northmen dominated the seas from Russia to North America. Their ferocious hit-and-run attacks escalated into the Danish wars of 865-896, during which Alfred the Great successfully defended his kingdom of Wessex - the only English domain then eluding the Scandinavians. But a century later another sustained assault by the Vikings ended with conquest, and England was finally united under the Danish King Canute. The Viking influence survives today in many of England's place-names, and in occasional words still spoken in the north.
The last major invasion came in 1066 from neighboring France. The Normans brought a new, French-speacking nobility; they set about building larger fortresses to stave off rebellion and outside attack. To those castles even the initially restive native English eventually looked for protection.
For solace in a world marked by hardship, the closeness of death, and the fear of hell, people looked to religion. Churches became centers of social life as well as places of worship. Prayer and learning thrived, first in the monasteries, later in the universities. At oxford and Cambridge, both established by the early 13th century, were sown the seed of law, theology, science, art, and philosophy that today influence man's view of himself and his world.
The Social Ladders ~
“Men who pray, men who fight, and men who work.” The ingredients for a well-run kingdom according to King Alfred, who reigned from 871 to 899, reflect a view of the world as a divinely inspired hierarchy. His age believed that God designed two parallel social ladders. At the top of one the pope stood over the clergy. On the secular side stood the king, the nobility, and peasantry. Though each had his prescribed niche, the system permitted mobility.
“Men Who Fight” ~
From the idea of courtly love, embodied in the nobility, spring notions of the age of chivalry: the dashing knight, pur in purpose, brave in war, ardent in romance, steadfast in allegiance. Foremost, however, were the nobleman's roles of administrator and soldier. From his manor he managed landholdings that nourished the domain. For the king he would lead his own men into battle to protect the realm. In return the noble shared in the kingdom's land and wealth and savored the court's pomp and pleasures.
“Men Who Work” ~
England was a land of villages, and the village was center of the peasant's world. To the village he returned after tending the field. Close by lived the lord, who under the feudal system claimed the peasant's service and a share of his production. In the village church the peasant prayed for an easier existence in the hearafte. But an enterprising peasant could prosper on the earth by working land left with no one to tend it, especially after the plagues that decimated England's populace.
“Men Who Pray” ~
God's shepherds were separate from, yet commingled with, the laity. Parish priest, friar, monk, abbot, and bishop all follwed the pope. But though they were pastors to their flocks, clergymen were often social leaders too. And the higher echelons enjoyed privilege: immunity from any but the church's laws, the comforts of estate ownership, the right to sit in Parliament, and the standing to frequent the courts, where they rubbed shoulders with their secular counterparts.