The High Middle Ages (1066 to 1347)

In 1066 AD, William, the Duke of Normandy, defeated King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings, becoming King William I, marking the end of the Dark Ages, and ushering in the High Middle Ages in England. As Norman rule began in England, so too did the Medieval Warm Period. This was a time of prosperity aided by a global increase in temperature of 0.5°C above average accompanied by warmer winters and reliably wet summers[1], which allowed England’s population to increase from 1.5 to 4.5 million by the year 1300.[2]

Sea Coal on Modern North Sea Beach

Sea Coal on Modern North Sea Beach

During the High Middle Ages, in the 12th century AD, coal finally began to be used as fuel, though still on a fairly small scale. The coal was used by blacksmiths, proving useful in a wrought-iron forge, because it did not produce ashes to fly about when blown by a bellows.[3]  This new source of fuel was not yet known by its modern name “coal”. At the time, “coal” is what the English called charcoal. Instead, it was deemed “sea-coal,” a label whose origin is disputed.  Some say the term arose from the coal broken from outcrops and left on shore by the North Sea, while others claim that the term comes from the fact that nearly all coal transport was conducted by sea.[4]

Most of this coal was coming from along the shores of the River Tyne, in the area around Newcastle, where outcrops of the niche fuel source lay easily accessible and above the water line. The coal could be easily transported along England’s waterways after being brought the short distance to the river. Most famously, the coal was floated along the eastern coast of the island and brought into London. By the year 1226, London had a street called “Seacoal Lane”, named for the nearby wharf where coal was typically unloaded (a remnant of which still exists, see map below).[5]

The profiteers of the medieval coal trade were mostly the members of the Roman Catholic Church, which owned about one-fifth of the land in England during the High Middle Ages and most of the coalfields surrounding Newcastle. The serfs of the ecclesiastic estates worked in the coalmines when not tending the fields, serving as virtual slaves in the English feudal system. At the time, the origin of the coal was unknown. Some thought it to be a living organism, which could grow like a plant if spread with manure.[6]

Though the coal industry had grown to produce a few thousand tons annually by the year 1300, it was still in its infancy. Only blacksmiths, lime burners, brewers, and few other trades made use of coal. Despite this, the citizens of London still took notice to the fuel’s foul smell. Commissions against coal in the early 1300’s eventually led its ban in the year 1306 during the rule of King Edward I.14

Despite the ban, which was seemingly ignored, the use of coal in England continued to expand until the end of the High Middle Ages, marked by the onset of the Black Death in 1347. By 1362, the plague had killed about half of England’s population[7] allowing for reforestation throughout the island, decreasing the demand for coal as a source of energy.


[1] Mann, Michael E. “Medieval Climatic Optimum.” Reprint in Encyclopedia of Global Environmental Change. By Ted Munn. Vol. 1. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2002. 514-16.

[2] Cantor, Leonard (1982). “Introduction: The English Medieval Landscape”. In Cantor, Leonard.  The English Medieval Landscape. London: Croon Helm.

[3] Cowen, Richard. “Chapter Ten: Coal.” Chapter Eleven: Coal. UC Davis, n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2012. <http://mygeologypage.ucdavis.edu/cowen/~GEL115/115CH11coal.html&gt;.

[4] Freese, Barbara. “The Best Stone in Britain.” Coal: A Human History. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Pub, 2003.

[5] Cowen, Richard. “Chapter Ten: Coal.” Chapter Eleven: Coal. UC Davis, n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2012. <http://mygeologypage.ucdavis.edu/cowen/~GEL115/115CH11coal.html&gt;.

[6] Freese, Barbara. “The Best Stone in Britain.” Coal: A Human History. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Pub, 2003.

[7] Ormrod, Mark, and Phillip Lindley. The Black Death in England. Stamford: Watkins, 1996.

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