After the turn of the millennium, political conflicts in Great Britain and Ireland center on the Scandinavian presence and links to Normandy. Although regional leaders of the early Middle Ages are ultimately subsumed into more centralized governments, the area still faces the threat of invasion. In 1066, at the Battle of Hastings, the Normans successfully defeat the English, becoming the new rulers of the English mainland. The marriages of several English rulers to the great Norman families create strong, long-term connections between the two cultures, but also result in repeated conflict. In Scotland, the long process of tribal integration culminates in the reign of Alexander III, who conquers the islands of the Hebrides. Wales, the other British stronghold of Celtic art and society, is organized during this period into three kingdoms—Gwynedd, Powys, and Deheubarth, each ruled by their own princely family. Ireland is also fragmented, with a titular High King not in reality acknowledged by all the smaller kings under him, and without the strength to force obedience on them.
With the arrival of the Normans, art and architecture produced in England reflects French influence. The Norman and Plantagenet kings hold French territory during the period, and artists and objects travel between the two countries. Majestic cathedrals are erected from the end of the eleventh century; those at Durham, Canterbury, Ely, Wells, and Lincoln are among the most famous. By the end of the period, English embroideries are so renowned for their refinement that they are known throughout Europe as opus anglicanun.
Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, prince of Powys, gradually brings the rest of Wales under his control. By 1055 he rules it as a unified kingdom, but it will dissolve after his death. Despite sharing a common language, culture, and artistic tradition, the kingdoms of Wales remain fragmented until finally conquered by England.
The Irish king Brian Boru (r. 1002–14) temporarily establishes a more centralized government near Dublin. In 1014, he defeats the Norse raiders at the Battle of Clontarf, ending their controlling influence in Ireland (which began in 795), but dying in the process.
The Danish prince Canute (or Knut) conquers England in stages, expelling the Anglo-Saxon house of Wessex. In 1018, he claims the Danish throne when his brother dies and, through conquest, also gains control of Norway and Scotland. Despite a bloody beginning, Canute becomes a successful Christian monarch, enforcing old English laws and creating new ones. His military power protects the island from attack, and peace ensues. However, his sons are weaker men; after his death in 1035, the Danish empire rapidly disintegrates. Upon the death of Canute’s last son in 1042, Edward (“the Confessor”), son of the Saxon king defeated by Canute, returns from Normandy and claims the throne.
After the death of Edward the Confessor, who remained childless, his treasury and crown are seized by the capable military leader Harold of Wessex. Caught up in revolts in his northern provinces of Mercia and Northumbria, he is unable to organize an effective resistance against the invasion by William of Normandy, who also has a claim to the throne. Harold rules for just six months before his defeat and death at the Battle of Hastings and the Norman takeover of England. It is the signal for an entirely new direction in English art and especially architecture, as the Saxon style, with its dogtooth arches and Scandinavian influence, is replaced with the Romanesque style popular on the Continent. The Normans also introduce castles.
The Bayeux Tapestry is created. An embroidered section of linen measuring nearly seventy meters in length, it depicts the Battle of Hastings in a continuous narrative. The style and the inscription point to manufacture in Kent, although a French origin is also possible.
King William commissions the Domesday Book, which lists all of his new country’s fiefs and manors, along with information about who lives on them, what they produce, and to whom he has granted them. It is unclear whether the book is intended as a census, an aid to tax collectors, or merely as a display of William’s power and wealth.
Durham Cathedral, the most ambitious product of Anglo-Norman architecture, is built. Its complex vault, soaring three-storied nave, vast, airy interior, and massive proportions embody the new spirit in architecture arising on the Continent, and England’s strong artistic and political links with the rest of Europe.
David I (“the Saint”) becomes king of the Scots. Despite strong links with the English royal court, he proves a forceful and effective king, building new castles, introducing royal councils, and evolving the ancestor of the Scottish Parliament. He also patronizes the church, producing huge, beautiful new Continental-type churches and cathedrals like those in Glasgow, Elgin, and Saint Andrews. These, like his castles, reflect the significant Norse influence on Scottish art.
Gwynedd is ruled by Owain Gwynedd, who, despite the civil war raging on his English border, is a stable king. During his reign, there is a renewed interest in Latin scholarship, producing several important surviving works in both poetry and prose that combine Welsh cultural ideas with Continental styles.
The war between Henry I’s daughter Matilda, his only direct heir, and her cousin Stephen, also a candidate for the crown, generates disorder and lawlessness. Henry II, Matilda’s son, accedes to the throne in 1154 as the first Plantagenet king. He restores law and order, creating the first traveling Assizes, or law courts, and appointing judges to tour the country with them dispensing the King’s Law.
The Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland begins. It will continue, on and off, until 1600.
Canterbury Cathedral is rebuilt. After a fire in 1174, William of Sens and William the Englishman collaborate, combining contemporary French and Anglo-Norman architectural styles to create a hybridized English style. This style comes into its own in the cathedrals of Salisbury and Wells.
King John is forced by his barons to sign the Magna Carta, a document stating and ensuring the civil rights of his subjects, and the king’s obligations to them. This becomes the model for many later, similar documents.
Alexander III of Scotland unifies mainland Scotland and the Hebrides. His only descendant, Margaret, is still a child at his death in 1286, and dies herself just four years later. Edward I of England uses this opportunity to install a king of his own choosing, John Balliol, who swears fealty to Edward as his overlord. This treatment of Scotland as an English fiefdom produces resentment, revolts, and border raids that persist throughout the Middle Ages. By 1328, a war conducted by the self-crowned Robert I (the Bruce) will force Edward’s son Edward II to recognize Scotland as independent.
The Hundred Years’ War, a sporadic series of conflicts between France and England, begins.
The Black Death, or bubonic plague, arrives in Great Britain and Ireland after sweeping through the rest of Europe. Extremely contagious, it will kill nearly a third of Europe’s population in just three years. It also inspires powerful and frightening new artistic themes based on the images of death artists see all around them. The Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death, is one such theme. It depicts a line of people holding hands, led by Death in the form of a huge skeleton or dark figure, dancing across a wasted landscape. Different social classes and trades are depicted, to show that no one can escape.
John Wycliffe, an Oxford scholar, translates the Bible into English from Latin, causing a furor in the church as one of its basic tenets is that only a trained priest can interpret the Bible. The idea that individuals should be able to read the Bible and communicate with God without a priest’s help creates a contemporary intellectual movement that is brutally suppressed.
“Great Britain and Ireland, 1000–1400 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=07®ion=euwb (October 2001)