The Medieval period was marked by the existence of kingdoms and empires in Europe. The most notable medieval kingdoms of the period included those of England, France and Italy while the empires of the period included Byzantine Empire, Holy Roman Empire and the short-lived but significant Carolingian Empire. Following are some of the most significant medieval rulers who ruled over these European territories.
King Alfred, also known as Alfred the Great, who ruled over most of England in the late 9th century. Alfred was the first English ruler to assume the title “King of the Anglo-Saxons” and his reign effectively coincided with a consolidation of the Anglo-Saxon identity in England. He ascended to the throne of Wessex in 871 and had to deal with the imminent Viking threat.
Although King Alfred suffered a few initial setbacks, he was ultimately able to push back the Viking incursion and decisively secure most of Anglo-Saxon England. Being a patron of education and arts, Alfred helped the Anglo-Saxons forge a definite identity for the first time.
King Alfred promoted religious education and the use of English language and also spearheaded many legal and social reforms in the Anglo-Saxon society of the time. It was also during his era that Anglo-Saxons significantly evolved their military structure and came to view naval supremacy as key to England’s defence.
Richard the Lionheart
Richard the Lionheart was one of the most notable monarchs of England in the medieval period. He ruled over England from 1189 to 1199 and during his brief reign of ten years, he undertook such significant measures and adventures as to earn him a lasting fame in the annals of history.
Before his ascension to English throne, Richard was actively involved in military conflicts against France and later against his father, King Henry II. Assuming military leadership at the age of 16, he came to earn fame as a formidable warrior and leader.
After he became King, he most notably took command of one of the armies of the Third Crusade. On the Crusade, he occupied Cyprus, took control of Sicily and was able to defeat Saladin in a few battles although he couldn’t wrest back the control of Jerusalem. Richard was seen as an embodiment of the medieval knightly ideals of chivalry, valour and nobility.
Henry VIII was the most famous of the monarchs of the Tudor dynasty. He was the second King of the Tudor dynasty, ascending to the English throne in 1509 and remaining in it until his death in 1547. During his reign, England underwent decisive changes which were to permanently alter the future of the country.
Most notably, a schism between Henry VIII and Papacy led to the beginning of English Reformation and a permanent tilt towards Protestantism. Henry was an extravagant patron of arts and had as many as 60 musicians on his court staff while also owning hundreds of musical instruments himself.
He composed many pieces of music, few of which are extant today. Henry led battles against France and the Holy Roman Empire through most of his reign, succeeding in many of his military conflicts.
Charlemagne was one of the most powerful kings throughout the medieval period. He arose to power first as the King of the Franks in 768. Soon after ascending to power, Charlemagne sought to expand his kingdom and was successful in gaining control of Italy and being crowned as the King of Italy as well in 774.
He then turned to the East of his kingdom and subdued the pagan Saxon tribes after nearly 18 years of warfare, converting them to Christianity and gaining control over their territories. In the West, Charlemagne expanded his Empire all the way to the Iberian Peninsula, launching offensives against the advancing Moors.
He was the first person to forge a sizable Empire in Western Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire and the first to consequently assume the title of “Holy Roman Emperor”. As a staunch patron of the Church and fervent exponent of Christianity throughout Western Europe, he is hailed as one of the key figures who gave Europe its Christian identity.
Charlemagne’s vast Empire disintegrated towards the end of the 9th century. It was only at the hands of Otto I that a similar Empire was revived in Central Europe. Otto I originally ascended to power as King of the Germans in the Saxony region in 936.
He united the German tribes into a single identity and subdued the notable dukes and barons of his kingdom by expanding his own powers significantly. He then went on to conquer the Kingdom of Italy in the south and decisively defeated the Magyars in 955, effectively blocking their conquest of Western Europe.
Like Charlemagne before him, Otto I was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor in 962 in Rome. Although he played the role of the protector of the Church at many instances, he also effectively used the Church to further his political goals successfully. The Empire forged by Otto I would continue to exist, in one form or the other, until the 19th century.
Hugh Capet was the King of the Franks from 987 to 996. He was born in France at a time when the Carolingian might had declined and members of the Robertian dynasty were being elected as Kings by the nobility. Capet was a member of the Robertian family himself but he couldn’t initially win an election to kingship. He rather had Louis V, one of the remaining Carolingian descendants, elected to the throne.
Once Louis V was in power, Capet successfully manipulated him and was able to amass so much power that he was second in power to the King alone. In 987, Louis V died in an accident and Capet was elected King of the Franks while his son, Robert was established as his heir. He remained the King of the Franks until his death in 996 and his dynasty directly ruled over France until the 14th century.
Philip II Augustus
Philip II Augustus ascended to the French throne in 1180 and remained in power until his death in 1223. Before him, the monarchs of France had used the title “King of the Franks” but Philip II became the first to use instead “King of France”.
Philip II’s reign was decisive in the history of France in that he was able to establish France on firmer grounds and amassed significant power and prestige for the French crown. His notable military feats include the defeat of English in the Anglo-French War at the beginning of the 13th century whereby he broke up the Angevin Empire.
He then went on to defeat a joint coalition of Germans, English and Flemish in 1214 at the historic Battle of Bouvines. His victory at the battle forced the English king to seek conciliation with his rebel barons, ultimately resulting in the signing of the Magna Carta. During his reign, France emerged as the most formidable power in Europe while internally, the kingdom underwent rapid urbanisation and many towns prospered, giving rise to a new bourgeoisie class.
Philip IV of France was one of the most powerful French monarchs during the medieval period. He became the King of France in 1285 at a time when the power of the nobility was diminishing in the face of a new bourgeoisie class, rich merchant class and skilled civil servants directly reporting to the king.
By leaning on these changes, Philip IV further constrained the power of the feudals and nobles in his kingdom, at the same time becoming more powerful as the king. He also ruled over the Kingdom of Navarre in Iberia and his extended family came to rule in Naples and Hungary at the time.
With centralised authority in his hand, Philip sought to push French control both eastward and westward, annexing many counties and fiefs in the process and extending French territories. A rather notorious event of Philip IV’s reign was the extermination of the Knights Templar on direct orders from the King who was under their debt. His reign is also considered the decisive mark in history whereby the ultimate temporal authority of the Catholic Church began to diminish in the face of monarchy.
Charles V was a French monarch who ruled from 1364 to 1380. He earned the epithet of “The Wise” on account of his skillful rule at a turbulent time. Before he ascended the throne, his father King John II was captured by the English forces at the Battle of Poitiers. Charles V then signed a compromising treaty with the English, ceding key territories and agreeing to pay a heavy ransom.
Once he ascended to the throne in 1364, Charles V led a round of reforms and measures with the help of his advisers. These were a huge success and helped him replenish the kingdom’s coffers, brought together a regular and paid army for the first time and wrest back most of the territories ceded to the English earlier.
Charles also pursued a construction program and had a number of monumental buildings built in his kingdom. He was known to own a sizable library at Louvre in which he stored French manuscripts which he would share with his counsellors.
Frederick Barbarossa was the Holy Roman Emperor from 1155 to 1190, being one of the most powerful and well-known European rulers of the medieval period. During his long reign, he waged war against a wide range of foes, including the Papacy, and despite many setbacks, scores vital successes.
He was initially elected the King of Germany in 1152. He then proceeded to gain control over Italy and was crowned the King of Italy in 1155, also being crowned as the Emperor the same year. Italy would prove a contested point for Frederick who led three subsequent campaigns in a bid to subdue Italy, ending in disagreements with the Papacy and the Normans in southern Italy.
His disagreements with Papacy led him to appoint an antipope whose papacy was short-lived. After many decades of extended warfare, Barbarossa successfully consolidated the imperial authority of the German throne. His significance in medieval history is also due to his charismatic personality. Being well-versed in a number of languages, very well-read, highly well-mannered and living to a very long life, Barbarossa was considered an extraordinary monarch of his period.
Justinian I was one of the most powerful emperors of the Byzantine Empire. Reining over the Empire in the 6th century, Justinian’s ascension coincided with what has been considered the golden period of the Empire. It was during his reign that Byzantine Empire attempted, with great success, to annex the territories lost by the Western Roman Empire.
Consequently, Italy and portions along North African coasts as well as territories in Iberia came back under Byzantine control. During his reign, Roman supremacy was once against established in the Mediterranean. While a patron of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Justinian placed the Church authority decisively under his own.
He also actively patronised arts and culture, launching an architectural Renaissance in the Empire which flowered in masterpieces such as the Hagia Sophia. Justinian remained in power from 527 until 565. Most of his reign was marked by rapid military expansion of the Empire and a flurry of cultural activities which proved vital in sustaining the Byzantine Empire in the coming centuries and contributed to the birth of its unique identity.
Robert the Bruce
Robert the Bruce was the King of the Scots from 1306 until 1329. Before he ascended to the Scottish throne, the English and the Scots were pitted in an ongoing armed conflict which was later termed the “Wars of Scottish Independence”. Until 1306, the English had been successful in subduing many attempts by Scots to gain independence from the English throne.
In 1307, the tide began to turn as the Scots launched another war against England under Robert as their king. Robert defeated the English in open battle in 1307 and then launched large-scale guerrilla warfare, devastating the English and their allies in Scotland.
By 1314, Robert had gained control of most of Scotland through decisive military victories. He then went on to ravage northern England, taking the battle to English territory. Robert reigned as the King of the Scots until his death in 1329. His military prowess, political acumen and his tenacity in defending Scottish independence earned him a semi-legendary status in Scottish medieval history.
William the Conqueror
William the Conqueror was the first Norman king of England following the Norman invasion of England in 1066. His conquest of England decisively replaced the Anglo-Saxon royalty and nobility of the country with a French-Norman nobility. The change also significantly altered the cultural outlook of England.
William was originally the Duke of Normandy but following a succession dispute against Edward the Confessor’s death, he laid claim to the English throne. This was followed by the 1066 invasion in which he successfully defeated the Anglo-Saxons, cemented his control over England by extensively building castles and subdued many attempted rebellions by the Anglo-Saxon nobility in different parts of England.