The fifteenth-century spanned parts of the Late Middle Ages, early Renaissance period, and the early modern period, with major events including the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the end of the Hundred Years’ War. By the end of the century, the Americas had been rediscovered by Christopher Columbus and the printing revolution had begun with the mass production of books. It was one of the most revolutionary centuries in history, particularly for the changing political structure of Europe.
1. The Battle of Grunwald (1410)
The Battle of Grunwald is considered to be one of the largest battles in medieval Europe, fought during the Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic War. The Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania fought against the Teutonic Order, a Catholic religious military order. Following a joint invasion into Prussia, the armies met in the plains near Grunwald and a fierce battle broke out. Many leaders of the Teutonic forces were killed or captured and they were never able to recover the power and knights lost. The battle remains one of the most important events in Polish and Lithuanian history.
2. The Glyndŵr Rising (1400-1415)
The Glyndŵr Rising was the last war of Welsh independence against the Kingdom of England, led by Owain Glyndŵr. Following the removal of Richard II of England, the Welsh people were unsure of their future and Anglo-Welsh discord rose. Glyndŵr was proclaimed Prince of Wales by his followers, a revolutionary statement that was followed by attacks on English-held settlements. For fifteen years war was waged between Henry IV’s forces against Glyndŵr, until the death of the English King – his son, Henry V, issued Royal Pardons to leaders of the revolt, and English rule was imposed over Wales once more. Many families were ruined; the Tudors of Penmynydd were among them, with one surviving Glyndŵr supporter of the family moving to England to start a new life.
3. The Trial of Joan of Arc (1431)
Nineteen-year-old Joan of Arc was a French heroine of the Hundred Years’ War, later canonized as a Catholic saint. Her support of Charles III and victories against the English led to a group of English-allied French nobles capturing her. She was handed to the English and put on trial by a church court who found her guilty of heresy – her claim to hear voices and her action of dressing in men’s clothing was considered proof of heresy. She agreed to an abjuration, though four days later returned to wearing soldiers’ clothes and claimed the voices had returned. This gave the court justification to execute her on the basis of relapse. She was burned at the stake two days later.
4. Gutenberg invents the printing press (1440)
Goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press around 1440, along with a type case with 290 letterboxes, a hand mold, and oil-based ink. The combination enabled the beginning of the Printing Revolution, as printing presses could produce upwards of 3600 pages each workday in comparison to just 40 by hand-printing. This enabled the circulation of new information and ideas globally, mass-producing books and creating the first newspapers. By the end of the century, hundreds of cities were involved in the revolution. One of the earliest books printed by the printing press is known as the Gutenberg Bible, a 1286-page version that sold under 200 copies across Europe and greatly influenced future versions of the Bible.
5. The Fall of Constantinople (1453)
The Fall of Constantinople perhaps signals the end of the Medieval period, resulting in the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottoman Empire. The 53-day siege of the Byzantine capital was led by Sultan Mehmed II (Mehmed the Conqueror). The Ottomans took around seven times as many attackers as Constantinople had defenders and removed nearby Byzantine strongholds. Constantinople’s famous defenses, such as the Theodosian Walls, held back attacks until the final 36-hour assault where Ottoman forces overwhelmed the city. It is thought that the migration of Byzantine scholars contributed to the development of the Renaissance, particularly in humanism and science.
6. The War of the Roses (1455-1487)
In the fifteenth century, a series of civil wars broke out over the throne of England, fought between the House of York and House of Lancaster of the royal House of Plantagenet. A red rose represented the House of Lancaster while a white rose represented the House of York. While Edward IV, of the House of York, claimed the throne in 1450, battles broke out across the decades with neither side managing total victory. The throne was reclaimed by Henry VI for barely a year before Edward IV retook it until his death. His son, Edward V, was just twelve when he was named king, though the throne was stolen by his uncle and Lord Protector, Richard III. This resulted in many supporters abandoning the House of York for their rivals, culminating in the Battle of Bosworth. Henry Tudor (descendant of the Tudors who took part in the Glyndŵr Rising) ascended to the throne following his victory and the death of Richard III, beginning the Tudor dynasty and reuniting the two families by marrying Elizabeth of York.
7. Columbus lands in the Caribbean (1492-1493)
Christopher Columbus took three ships to find a shorter route to the Indies in 1492 but instead found the Americas. On spotting flocks of birds, they made for land and arrived in the Bahamas; Columbus named the island ‘San Salvador’, though it was named Guanahaní by the native people. Thinking he’d arrived in the Indies, he termed the indigenous people indios (Spanish for “Indians”), which led to part of the Caribbean being termed the West Indies. Columbus spent some time exploring land in the area and observing indigenous people, noting that the Arawak people had access to gold and their primitive weapons would make them susceptible to conquest. Before leaving for home, Columbus founded a settlement and came into conflict with the Ciguayos people of the modern Dominican Republic. Columbus returned thrice to the Americas to conquer the land.