In 1440 the Archbishop of York in the north of England attempted to extract payment from the stallholders at Otley market, about thirty miles from the city of York. The local landowner, Sir William Plumpton, considered himself entitled to this rent and decided to teach the archbishop a lesson. With 700 of his men he made an attack, there was a battle and the archbishop’s men withdrew. But the archbishop had not given up – after all, money was short. There had been some cold winters, crops had failed and the plague had returned to Yorkshire in recent years: times were hard. The final showdown took place on Friday 5th May 1441. Plumpton’s men set up roadblocks and the archbishop’s officers, tenants and servants were trapped in the villages of Helperby and Brafferton, between Plumpton’s land and York. Carnage followed. The archbishop’s men were cut down even as they tried to escape. This time Plumpton’s victory was decisive.
This story sounds strange to me. Why would an archbishop gather an army of mercenaries and servants from his lands to extract protection money from a market town? That doesn’t sound like the behaviour we would expect from a person of this rank. Both men sound more like organised crime bosses than local worthies.
Even stranger is the response of the establishment. This event was the launch of Sir William Plumpton’s career. His feudal overlord, Sir Harry Percy, made him steward of all his lands in Yorkshire. The king sent him a gift of twenty felled and trimmed mature oak trees. Within a few years he served as Sheriff of Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire (each a one-year appointment). He was a Justice of the Peace, administering the law, and Steward of Knaresborough Castle.
Clearly might was right, and Plumpton was seen as a man who could get things done. And clearly religious practices were separate from the people who lived to promote them.
A bit of context. As we have gone backwards through the generations, we have seen that the concept of individual human rights did not become established until 15 generations or 350 years later than the story described here. In this world, everyone had their place. The men who fought for Sir William Plumpton were tied to him. They had little choice in the matter. And Sir William himself belonged to his own bloodline. His father, grandfather, sons and grandsons were all called William or Robert. When he was a child his family arranged his marriage to his first wife, and he grew up in her family’s household. For the landowning class, the marriage contract was negotiated with a dowry from the woman’s family, and lands from the man’s.
More context. The Black Death (as it is known to our generation) or the great pestilence as it was called at the time, had first struck a century previously and would keep returning intermittently for the following century and a half. By 1440 The population of Europe was about a third lower than in 1340.
And after the great pestilence, the climate had turned colder. This was the start of the Little Ice Age. The Thames in London froze over. Colder climate meant crop failure, and that meant starvation for some. Villages in marginal areas in Europe and Asia were abandoned.
As the fabric of society came apart, opportunists like the archbishop and Sir William took their chances. And others did, too. Labourers’ wages increased after the great pestilence. Serfdom, which required that a villein had to pay a penalty to his lord for the privilege of leaving the land, effectively came to an end. And the restrictive dress code of earlier generations became unenforceable. Previously, you could tell a person’s station in life, their role in society by the clothes they wore. Even to who was allowed to wear gloves, and of what material. This rigid control started to relax, and some extraordinary styles of dress appeared. Most dramatic was the hennin, a headdress worn by aristocratic women particularly in northern and western Europe.
Here Isabel of France, married to Edward II, lands in England accompanied by her ladies.
Here is another Isabella, who was married to the Duke of Burgundy, also in France. She was originally from Portugal. Women plucked their foreheads so that no hair showed, and wore a veil down to their eyebrows.
Here is a portrait believed to be of Isabella’s brother Henry (known to our generation as Henry the Navigator), wearing another type of extravagant hat. Men wore wide flat hats like this one.
As a young man Henry had seen the goods arriving in the caravans over the Sahara to Ceuta in North Africa, and he wanted to establish direct trading links rather than having to deal with muslim merchants as intermediaries. In the 1430’s, from his base on the Sagres peninsula in Portugal, Henry encouraged map-making and shipbuilding and sponsored expeditions down the coast of Africa. After 15 failed expeditions in which his captains had returned reporting that Cape Bojador could not be passed, the sixteenth sailed away from the coast to catch the wind, then headed back for land and discovered that they had passed the cape. A barrier had been breached. Now in this generation his captains travelled as far as the Gambia and Senegal, paving the way for the Portuguese trading links and voyages of discovery to the horn of Africa and beyond in the following generations.
Here is some more dramatic headgear from the time.
This window, now in the Museum of the Middle Ages, Cluny, Paris, shows a couple playing chess. She wears the divided hennin and he has an extravagant flat hat.
This headgear stayed in fashion until the end of the century. What caused people to pay such attention to their heads? Such outfits can’t be easy to wear. The conical hennin with a veil flowing behind has stayed in the popular imagination as the archetypal headwear of a fairytale princess.
Another version was the beehive or truncated hennin. This one is from Burgundy. Heads and headcoverings were clearly important!
Meanwhile, in south and eastern Europe, other dramas were playing out. By the end of this generation the papacy managed to re-establish itself after a turbulent period in which at one point in the previous generation there had been three men each calling himself pope. There had been popes in Avignon, Basel and Florence, but by the end of this generation pope Eugene III was the only one, and he was based once more in Rome. However, the papacy was still in no position to help the other centre of the christian church, Constantinople, when it called for help in the face of Ottoman aggression. At the siege of Constantinople in 1453 5000 Byzantine troops faced ten times as many Ottoman invaders.
This map from Wikipedia gives an idea of the hopelessness of the Byzantine situation. Byzantium, in purple, is surrounded by the Ottoman Empire.
It was not simply a war of muslims versus christians. There were many christians fighting with the Ottomans, and a Hungarian-built cannon gave the city walls a battering.
The good news was that after the inevitable victory, Sultan Mehmet displayed a tolerance to the defeated that he did not extend to his own family (he was the first to establish the practice by Ottoman sultans on accession of killing all their male relatives seen as potential rivals). He banned looting and invited those who had fled the city to return home. Apart from converting the cathedral of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, he did not interfere with other religious practices. He moved his capital there, and Constantinople prospered under its new name of Istanbul.
A final item from this generation: an extraordinary wooden sculpture by Donatello, in Florence.
The penitent Magdalen looks so contemporary, so expressive of individual emotion. It is hard to believe that it was made over 500 years ago, at the same time as Sir William Plumpton and the archbishop of York were slugging it out at the other end of Europe.