Why does it always rain on me? Medieval Weather Woes

A typical thirteenth century scene
A typical thirteenth century scene

Anybody who lives in England will know that we’re now officially in winter weather; as I type this rain is running down the pavement like a miniature Thames, the colds are rumbling ominously and I’m back to layering my clothes. On the one hand this is great, as a  Brit there is nothing I like more than complaining to everyone I make eye contact with about weather, on the other hand I know it now means at least six months of cold, rain and-god forbid-SNOW. But I’d like, before it gets too rotten to remind everyone that historically at least, it could be worse.

Yes hold on to your hats people, I’ve actually found a way to make bad weather a medieval related topic…well I think it’s clever and it’s my blog and I’ll post if I want to! During the medieval period there was no concept of meteorology, weather patterns, the enviroment or even BBC weather! If you were trekking to unknown land noody was prepared for what was coming, of course there were a couple of nifty pagan ways to ‘spot’ weather change but these were mainly seasonal changes and didn’t have the power to predict day to day changes. Therefore, if you’re trekking to Wales in the autumn it’s probably a good idea to prepare for bad weather right? Wrong! Wales and it’s less than glorious weather was a rather large stumbling block in the thirty something years Henry II spent on the English throne. Throughout 1100s Wales was a thorn in English Kings’ sides, under Stephen the Welsh Princes ran riot on the English border claiming several counties as their own.

UGH. I get cold just looking at this.
UGH. I get cold just looking at this.

During the Norman conquest-so the mid tenth century-Wales, then a series of cities was united under Prince Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. Gruffydd rules Wales from 1055 up until his death and, under his rulet he country was relatively unified. After his death Wales then split back up into its traditional kingdoms each ruled by different princes. The Norman Kings weren’t too troubled by their smaller neighbours and even managed to reclaim some of the English territory around their borders. Under King Stephen it all went-to put it bluntly-wrong, the Welsh capitalised on the weak king’s struggles against his own people and took back some of the English counties they believed to be his. Stephen, who had bigger fish to fry, ignored this as he was more focussed on keeping Matilda and her pesky son Henry off the throne for good. We all know how this story ends and in 1157, when Henry was at the head of wildly successful foreign campaigns, he turned his attention back to Wales.

Henry would march to Wales three time in 1157, 1163 and in 1165. On the first instance Henry was relatively successful, despite almost dying in the ambush of Ewloe Forest the king managed to seal the homage of the two rebellious princes Rhys ap Gruffydd and Owain Gwynedd. Henry would not venture back for awhile as he was soon preoccupied with several military operations in France including an ill-fated march to the city of Toulouse. However, in 1163 Henry returned to Wales as the Princes had once again been making moves to rebel against their fuedal lord. I think Henry took such an interest in Wales in the 1160s to distract himself from the ongoing Becket saga which was steadily ruining his reputation and belittling his power as a King. Again 1163 a new, humiliating peace contract was signed and the Welsh were once again under the English thumb. However, the thrid and final march into Wales was nothing short of a disaster for Henry and this is when we get to just why weather was such a problem for medieval kings. The 1165 march was one of the largest armies Henry would ever raise, it was a statement to the Welsh about the English intent to seal their authority over the country. On any other year perhaps this may have worked but Henry picked the wettest summer in living memory and was essentially washed out of the muddy country. In 1157 the army had had to deal with Welsh guerilla tactics and unfamiliar terrain, thick forests and marshland were not the easiest of battlefields and success was hard earned. In 1165 the mud, rain and the impossibility of getting supplies to his army are directly linked to the failure of 1165. Historians all agree that Henry and his men were not prepared for just how hard the country would be to scale, while the Welsh capitialised on this bad luck. The defeat at Berwyn was the final straw for the tired king and Henry would never venture into Wales again.

An average Welsh summer
An average Welsh summer

This is not the only time heavy rain has played a part in halting, hindering and ultimately ending Henry’s military campaigns. In the winter of 1153 Henry battled fierce storms to sail to England in order to prise the throne from Stephen. The weather had been so vile that the ship had postponed its departure three times before finally, under Henry’s furious orders, sailing to England. Upon his arrival Henry was greeted by heavy, relentless rain. The English had been rained an throughout summer, autumn and now winter it appears that even the weather hated King Stephen. The countryside was depressed and Henry’s band of French mercenaries found it hard to march in the muddy fields of Malmesbury. Luckily for Henry, Stephen’s army had spent a year fighting various rebels and months fighting sieges at various castles. On Henry and Stephen’s first meeting the king’s army were so cold, so tired that they could barely hold onto their lances and, on the pleas of his men Stephen was forced to retreat, it wasn’t until the next year that the two men reached a truce.

Weather 1-0 medieval kings

Medieval witches aren't great fans of rain either
Medieval witches aren’t great fans of rain either

While rain is one of my least favoured weathers, beaten only by snow (I’m a grinch) it isn’t just the cold weather that made Henry’s life difficult. Towards the end of his life in France 1189 the continent basked in a hot summer; the sun shone and temperatures were boiling. To most people this sounds ideal right? Maybe but if you’re a guy in your mid 50s, fighting off wave after wave of rebellions from your own family AND suffering from a multitude of unidentified illnesses uncomfortably hot weather isn’t great. By the summer of 1189 Henry was dying (sadface) he was constantly fleeing his son Richard’s army and had, quite frankly, had enough. Henry set about travelling around Anjou, and to the castle of Chinon too ill to ride a horse he was carried on a litter. He died at Chinon-after an uphill, uncomfotable journey around the French countryside-alone, in pain and depressed, his last words; “Shame, shame on a vanquished King’ sum up his general mood. Henry had planned to be buried in the region of Limousin, but his wife Eleanor decided that it was too hot and that his body would not be preserved long if he was laid to rest where he wanted. Even in death the weather was still fighting tooth and nail to hinder Henry’s plans.

In conclusion, next time you’re complaining about it being too rainy thank god you’re not a medieval king. Also, if you’re English and you complain about it being to too hot, I hate you.

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