the Middle Ages

The Most Influential Leaders of

William the Conqueror

Biographical Info

Referred to as William I, William the Conqueror, and William the Bastard, the Norman king of England lived from 1027 to 1087. He was born in France, and, coincidentally, he also died in France. He had two half brothers.

William considered himself to be both an Englishman and a Northman, because his family cam from Normandy and he ruled over England for many years.

Although he came from a highly unpleasant background, as he was the illegitimate child of a poor woman, he was known to many as being cunning, shrewd, incredibly intelligent, and a magnificent leader.

Memorable Moments

William succeeded his father as a duke in 1035. He was also asked by the King of France for help with the king’s 1051 campaign. William married well for political reasons, but ended up being happy; he and his wife had four sons and five or six daughters!

He made a hereditary claim to the Anglo-Saxon throne and felt that he would be the rightful ruler, so he wanted all other competitors for the throne out of the picture (especially Harold). At the Battle of Hastings, he caught Harold’s army at its weakest: the day after another battle. It was then that William defeated and killed Harold, receiving the crown of England on Christmas day.

In addition, the man defeated a combined army sent against him by King Henry I of France and Count Geoffrey Martel of Anjou. In 1066, he conquered the county of Maine. In the same year when Edward the Confessor died, he invaded England.

He organized the English government with care and purpose, establishing frequent parleying (conferences between nobles) and creating a detailed census of England called the Domesday Book.

Interestingly enough, he was known as William the Bastard because he was an illegitimate child. William was actually in good relations with the Catholic church. An interesting fact about William is that so few English people liked him, he decided to rule the kingdom from his home in Normandy. It took him 20 years to crush his opposition.

“William was an extremely ambitious and tactful leader. He was a great example of the ultimate ruler: he came, he saw, and he conquered. William knew what he wanted and he knew how to get it, and for that I’d have to commend him." --V. Faust


William conquered many different areas, like England and Normandy. He controlled much of the western world for a time, and he was the one to decide upon a feudalistic government.

His most significant accomplishment was when he gained control over England. He stole the throne away from Harold, who was supposed to have had ruled over the island kingdom by that time. This gave him an incredible amount of power, therefore becoming his most monumental gain.

Horrible Histories - William the Conqueror

King John

Biographical Info

King John was born in 1167 to Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. He died in 1216 of dysentery, an illness he caught in the war. He was one of the most controversial monarchs of medieval England, along with William the Conqueror.

He had two main nicknames: John Lackland, and, later, John Softsword. The name “Lackland” was given to him by his people when his father died and left him no territory. All of the land belonging to Henry II was given to his older brother, much to John’s embarrassment. He was nicknamed “Softsword” because of his many defeats in France.

He was always overshadowed by his brother Richard as a child, and found himself resenting him more and more. Like his father, John found himself going into violent rages in which he would actually foam at the mouth!

In 1191, Richard left John in charge of England so he could embark on the Third Crusade. This was a disaster, like in 1185 when Henry II left him in charge of Ireland, and he was sent home after 6 months of terrible leadership.

When Richard was imprisoned in 1192, John struggled to seize the English crown immediately but failed. When Richard returned in 1194, his brother actually forgave him. In 1199, when Richard was killed in France, John became the king of England.

John’s ruling got off on a bad start, when, in 1202, his nephew was murdered and he was blamed for it. In addition to that, in 1204 his army was defeated again in Brittany and was forced to retreat. To pay for this costly defeat, he was forced to raise taxes on the people of England, strengthening their dislike for him even more.

As if that weren’t bad enough, King John had a massive falling-out with the pope over who they thought should’ve been the archbishop of Canterbury. The pope enforced new policies that forced everyone to stop getting married and getting christened until he said they could.

He also said that only those christened would be allowed into heaven, and that kids born of marriage during that time would be sent straight down to hell. Of course, everyone blamed King John for this.

The pope and the king of England eventually quit feuding in 1213, but their relationship was never the same again. In 1214, the pope proclaimed that anybody trying to overthrow King John would be legally entitle to do so.

After this, John lost another battle to the French, and England lost all her possessions in France. The barons were fed up with their king’s weak ruling and rebelled against him, so in 1215, John was forced to sign the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta gave people rights that he couldn’t go back on, and when he tried to do just that, the irritated barons declared war on him.

In 1216, during the war, John found himself very ill with dysentery after eating too many peaches. In a short time after his treasures were lost engulfed in the water of the Walsh, Lincolnshire, King John died a miserably unhappy death.

Memorable Moments

King John lost virtually all his battles, and was forced to retreat on many occasions. Perhaps his most significant warring was that at Brittany, when he was defeated and retreated. This was were he first got the nickname John Softsword, and when his military standing among the nobles plummeted. The defeat also caused him to increase taxes to pay for the war’s expenses, which only added to England’s strong distaste for the man.

A major event that he was a part of was the signing of the Magna Carta, in which he gave his people many rights. The document also stated that he could not go back on his promise to his people, which secured the basic rights of Englishmen forever.

He lost all his treasure when he was warring with the barons in 1215 and took a shortcut across a stretch of water in Walsh, Lincolnshire. The tide rose more quickly than he and his men had expected, and his belongings were soon engulfed. Incidentally, the king was married twice and had five children.

“John was a tyrant. He was a wicked ruler who did not behave like a king. He was greedy and took as much money as he could from his people. Hell is too good for a horrible person like him.” --Matthew Paris, C13th chronicler

“The picture of a monster, put forward by ... Matthew Paris must be rejected forever. John had the administrative ability of a great ruler but, from the moment he began to rule, rivals and traitors tried to cheat him out of his inheritance. As he wrestled with one problem, more enemies sprang upon his back.”

--William Stubbs, written in 1873.


The Magna Carta means “Great Charter” in Latin and it truly was. It was a compromise between the barons of Medieval England and King John, and was signed in June 1215 in Runnymede (near Windsor Castle). It’s basically a series of written promises by the king that he would govern England according to the system of feudal law.

The signing of the document by King John secured the rights of the people of England and influenced England’s future legal system. It ensured that the king could never abuse his power over them, and that the barons would be there to make sure it never happened.

This was definitely the most important decision King John ever made, as it affected the government of generations and generations of English people who lived after him.

Horrible Histories - King John Online

Joan of Arc

Biographical Info

Joan of Arc, also known as Jeanne d’arc, Jehanne Darc, the Maid of Orléans, and la Pucelle d’Orléans, was born in January 1412, and she was the daughter of a wealthy tenant farmer. She lived in France during the 100 years war, and many of the fighting for the French throne happened in her hometown of Domrémy, France.

She got her deep religious beliefs from her mother, and spent most of her time in church praying. She was 13 when she first heard the saints speaking to her and saw religious visions. One day, she heard St. Catcherine and St. Margaret tell her that God had chosen her to help Charles VII get the English out of France. When she told her parents what she had been told, her father didn’t let her go to him.

In 1428, her close friends (who believed in her gift just as much as she did) obtained a horse and boy’s clothes for her. They accompanied her to go see the military commander at Vaucouleurs, Robert de Baudricourt. On her first try, he didn’t take her seriously and sent her home. She tried again the next year in 1429 and gained his confidence.

Robert provided her with an escort of 6 men at arms to take her to see the king, who was at Chinon. They left on February 13, with Joan dressed as a man. For eleven days they traveled across enemy held land, and when she got to her destination she went directly to Charles VII.

He took her seriously because of how desperate he was getting to win over the throne, and he questioned her for many months. He believed her along with his religious advisors, so he gave her white armor, command of troops, and a religious banner decorated with the Virgin Mary, two angels, and the words “Jesus Maria.”

In April 1429, Joan used her own plans to take Orléans. In ten days, Joan routed the English and broke the siege, saving the defenders led by Jean d’Orleans and Count de Dunois who had been previously considering surrendering! In May of 1429, her army entered Reims and Charles VII was crowned king of France at the cathedral.

After the coronation, Joan convinced the king to let her and her army to take Paris. After gaining control of what was to be the future capital of France, Joan and her army took Saint-Pierre-le-Moûtier and almost got Charité-Sur-Loire, but was prevented from doing so by a lack of ammunition. Soon after in December, her and her family were given fancy titles by Charles VII.

In 1430, she returned to Campiègne, which she’d previously taken. It was now under siege by the Burgundian troops, and in May, Joan was captured, imprisoned, and later sold for 10,000 Francs to the English. Sadly, Charles VII did not even attempt to rescue her.

She was tried by the English for witchcraft, heresy, and general law breaking, then condemned to death by a tribunal of French clergy and the bishop Beauvais. Even under the threat of torture, Joan still maintained her claims of innocence; when she faced the possibility of being burned at stake, she confessed her “guilt” and received life in prison.

he English were upset that she had not been given a worse consequence than life in prison and turned her over to the civil authorities to be burned. On May 30, 1431, she was burned at stake before a massive crowd in Rouen (north Normandy). Her ashes were thrown into the Seine River because heretics could not be buried.

In 1455, Joan’s family petitioned for a reconsideration of charges. Charles VII must have felt some sort of remorse, because he decided to help them out with their appeal to the pope, who dropped the charges against Joan of Arc in 1456.

Joan was an honorable woman who is now the patron saint of France. She is much admired by everyone impacted by her efforts to save France from the English, and has always been highly revered by many as one of the greatest leaders (or even people!) that ever lived.

Memorable Moments

Joan of Arc’s most significant battle occurred in April 1429, when she rescued the defenders of France in Orléans. She used her own plans to take the city, and was successful in a mere ten days! She routed the English and broke the siege they had over the city, saving the men of both Jean d’Orléans and Count de Dunois, who had been previously planning to surrender.

Other conflicts Joan of Arc were involved in include taking control of France, gaining Saint-Pierre-le-Moûtier, and almost taking the city of Charité-Sur-Loire. She lost this battle because her army was not prepared well with the supplies needed to defeat their enemies (a lack of ammunition was evident).

A fun fact about Joan of Arc would be that she was burned at the stake because she dressed in pants! Of course, that’s not the only reason they burned her alive in front of a large crowd of English people, but it’s funny to think that in their time wearing pants as a female was committing a crime.

In her young age, she had a horrible temper and would often blow up on the troops she commanded! Additionally, Joan was beatified by Pope Pius X in 1909 and made a saint in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV. She is now the patron saint of France.

"One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying." --Joan of Arc

"I am not afraid... I was born to do this." --Joan of Arc


Joan of Arc inspires everyone to fight for their rights and to believe in themselves. She believed in herself, and she was arguable the most successful military leader in the Middle Ages. She also encouraged to stay strong in your faith, and not to let anyone convince you to believe differently.

She led the French army to be victorious in countless battles during the Hundred Years War, and deserves to be recognized by all affected by her achievements in commanding a large army of male troops.

The most significant accomplishment she made in her lifetime would have to be taking back Orléans for France, or helping Charles VII gain the throne. She did consider that her mission in life, ever since she was instructed to do so by the saints at a young age.

She did many things for the advancement of women's rights in the fifteenth century, and we should be grateful for her many accomplishments in her short-lived but excitingly righteous life.

Horrible Histories - Joan of Arc sketch