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a condition precedent of its grant of supplies, shall be em-
bodied in regular statutes, so as to preclude surreptitious
alteration. It is consulted by Edward III. on questions
of peace and war to an extent to which it is not directly
consulted on such questions at present ; though the
king's object was to make it responsible for the cost of
his enterprises, as by a certain coyness in taking advan-
tage of its privilege it showed itself aware. It is gener-
ally active in legislation. It reforms the abuses of the
judiciary, both national and local, into which in those 1353-
days of supposed romance corruption was always creep-
ing, and supplies, perhaps, the surest remedy to the evil
by voting sufficient salaries to the judges. It enacts that
sheriffs whose abuse of their office is a perpetual subject 1357
of complaint shall not be appointed for a longer time than
a year. To purge itself of jobs committed under cover
of legislation it forbids the election of lawyers as knights
of the shire. It excludes sheriffs, perhaps for a similar
reason. It obtains the sanction of the crown to a treason
law, strictly defining the offence, which, while it remained 1352
in effect, was one of the great safeguards of liberty.
Royal judges had been construing doubtful acts or loose
words as treason, which entailed forfeiture of estate to
the king. The commons show themselves distinctly con-

VOL. I вАФ 15 .


scions of their representative character, telling the king
that they must consult their constituents before agreeing
to his demands. There is a tendency to complete amal-
gamation between the two elements of the House of
Commons, the knights and the burghers, knights being
elected for towns. There is also a tendency to alliance
between the lay lords and the commons against the cleri-
cal element which predominated in the Lords' House.

At the same time the House of Commons showed
plainly that it was an organ of the governing and em-
ploying class. Labour having become scarce, and its
price having risen after the decimation of the labourers
by the fearful ravages of the Black Death, parliament
1349 passed an act, the first of a series, to regulate wages and
compel the labourer to work at the old rates. The notion
that the regulation was impartial, and a proof that the
economical and social policy of those days was in a higher
spirit than ours, is manifestly absurd, when the avowed
object of the statute is to prevent the demand for exces-
sive wages, and when the penalties are imposed only on
the labourer for demanding higher wages than the statute
allows, not on the employer for giving lower. A subse-
quent statute indeed imposed a penalty on the employer ;
but it was for giving wages above, not for giving them
below, the legal standard. The statutes of Labourers
were accompanied by sumptuary laws, ostensibly to re-
press luxury, but in reality, it is probable, as much with a
view to preserving the distinction of classes, and prevent-
ing the burgher or yeoman from treading on the gentle-
man's heel.

Taxation has been passing from the rude feudal sys-
tem of tallage, carucage, and scutage, to the simpler and


more modern form of a subsidy or property tax, granted by
parliament and levied on a regular assessment, together
with duties on wool and customs on merchandise. The
change could not fail, besides its fiscal advantages, to
facilitate the political action of the assembly by which
the grants were made, and which was enabled to control
government by a regular bargain for redress as the con-
dition of supply. Taxation, as it were, showed a front
against which reform might move. The nation was en-
abled to measure its burdens and to see what a policy cost.
The awkward practice, however, remained of granting
subsidies in kind, the tenth sheaf, the tenth lamb, and the
tenth fleece, as tithes were taken till recent times.

To Edward or his ministers belongs the credit of com-
pleting the institution partly introduced by Henry III.
and Edward 1., of justices of the peace, of which Coke
says that "the whole Christian world hath not its like."
The justice took the place of the hundred court. When
soldiers, some of them originally convicts, were returning
from raids in France, the justices of the peace were sure
to have work enough.

The last years of the reign were sad. The conquests
were lost. The Black Prince, not satisfied with France
as a field of bootless adventure, had carried his Quixotic 1367
arms into Spain as the ally of the tyrant Pedro the Cruel,
whom his fancy seems to have invested with the character
of a representative of legitimate right. He had won a
barren victory, tasted of a tyrant's ingratitude, lost half
his army by disease, and ruined his own health. The
victor of Poitiers and Navarette came home to England 1376
to die. Philippa, Edward's noble consort, the light of his
court and camp, whose intercession saved him from the


1369 disgrace of hanging the burghers of Calais, was dead ; and
her place at Edward's side was profaned by the harlot
Alice Ferrers. The princes in whose hands the king's
policy had accumulated the great fiefs would, he fondly
hoped, become pillars of the throne. This family compact
was to be exalted and strengthened by the introduction

1337 of the high title of Duke. But the result was a crop of
ambitious rivalries, rather than loyal support ; and the
train was laid for jars, out of which came fierce family
feuds, and at last dynastic war.

John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Edward's fourth
son, by marriage with his kinswoman, Blanche, had suc-
ceeded to the earldoms and the vast possessions of the
house of Lancaster ; to these by a second marriage he
added an imaginary claim to the kingdom of Castile and
Leon, his attempts to assert which cost the country dear.
When the king was sinking into dotage, and when the
Black Prince was dying and leaving only one child as

1376 his heir, Lancaster seized the government; not, it was
suspected, without still more ambitious designs. He
affected religious or at least anti-clerical popularity, and
though himself a loose liver as well as a political intriguer
formed an alliance with Wycliffe and the religious re-
formers, while he courted the harlot, Alice Ferrers.
His attacks were specially directed against William
of Wykeham, Bisliop of Winchester, a characteristic
figure of the age, bishop, minister of state, and architect
royal, the founder of New College and Winchester
School, the builder of Windsor Castle, and the most
respectable of the prelate statesmen of his day. The
Black Frince dragged himself from his sick bed to lend his
authority to reform and to secure the right of his child.


The Good Parliament, as the Speaker of which Peter 1376
De La Mare won renown, drove the Lancastrians from
power, banished Alice Perrers from the court, and in
arraigning the chief instruments of corruption, Lord Lati-
mer the chamberlain and Lyons the financial agent, won
for parliament the momentous power of impeachment.
Lyons did not want the effrontery to send a large bribe
to the Black Prince, which the Black Prince returned.
The Good Parliament also insisted on other reforms,
notably on one which lay at the root of all, the free
election of knights of the shire, untrammelled by the
dictation of the sheriff, through which Lancaster had no
doubt been packing the House of Commons. A demand
for the enforcement of the statute of Labourers at the
same time betrayed the class character of the assembly.
After the death of the Black Prince, Lancaster contrived
to pack a new House of Commons, and the work of the
Good Parliament was undone. The death of the king, in 1377
whose name the misgovernment was carried on, broke up
the conspiracy of corruption, put Alice Perrers once more
to flight, and opened a new scene.



Born 136G; Succeeded 1377; Deposed 1399

TXrE are drawing towards the end of the middle age.
In England this is the dawn of the Renaissance, while
in Italy the sun is high. Chaucer's joyful note is heard
like that of the lark heralding the day. In the statutes
of William of Wykeham for his college we find a care
for the teaching of grammar, which has been generally
held to indicate dawning regard for classical education.
Gothic art has reached the last of its successive phases
of beauty.

The religious part of the medieval organization has
given way ; the faith which sustained it has been growing
weak, and ceasing to elevate character or inspire noble
action. The church shows in increasing measure the evil
effects of political establishment and wealth. The clergy
have become worldlings, imitators of lay luxury, attire,
and sports. Of the bishops, about the best are Courtenay
and Wykeham, and these are not spiritual fathers, but
worthy statesmen. If the episcopate had ever been the
serf's door to high place, it was so no longer, for the bish-
oprics were filled by rank and family interest. Chaucer's
" Poor Parson " is, like Rousseau's " Vicaire Savoyard,"



evidently an ideal and a rebuke to the reality. The friars,
once the best, are now worst of all. Their ascetic men-
dicancy has sunk to mendicancy without the asceticism.
They have become peddlers of false relics, vendors of
indulgences and spells, casuistical corrupters of morality,
and low agents of intrigue and conspiracy. Society in
England has been demoralized by the French wars, every-
where it has been shaken by the Black Death.

The Pope has been sinking from the position of a su-
preme and impartial head of Latin Christendom, which he
once asserted, into that of a vassal of France. He has been
deserting the chair of St. Peter and in his unhallowed 1305
retreat at Avignon amassing wealth by sale, more flagrant
than ever, of ecclesiastical justice with its complicated
chicaneries, and by increased abuse of his assumed privi-
lege of appointing to bishoprics and benefices. The great
schism in the papacy comes to complete its degradation. 1378
The papacy once professed to reform the kingdoms of the
earth. The kingdoms of the earth are now called to
reform the papacy. In England national spirit has risen
against the pope and all that belongs to him. His demand
for the arrears of the tribute due to him as sovereign of
England in virtue of the surrender of the kingdom by
John has been met with proud and unanimous refusal.
There has been a movement against the employment of
ecclesiastics in offices of state. There are ominous symp-
toms of a desire to lay hands on the useless wealth of the
church. It seems that England is beginning to detach
herself from the papal confederation.

Wycliffe appears upon the scene, a preacher not only
of spiritual reform, but of ecclesiastical revolution, per-
haps in his own despite of social revolution also. He was


a professor of theology and religious philosophy at Oxford,
famous in his time, and thought worthy to be ranked with
the great schoolmen. He forms round him a company of
young and ardent disciples, whom he calls his Poor Priests,
1378 and whom he sends forth to combat the malignant influence
of the degraded friars and restore the life of religion.
The boldness of Wycliffe and his disciples as doctrinal
innovators is astonishing. They are in advance not only
of their own, but of later times, almost of the present.
They assailed the idolatry of the Mass and the sacraments
generally, the validity of holy orders without personal
grace, the celibacy of the clergy, vows of chastity, auricu-
lar confession, the use of exorcisms and benedictions, pur-
gatory, indulgences, prayers for particular dead persons,
pilgrimages, and image- worship. " This new and pesti-
lent sect," says a reactionary bishop in founding a college
for the defence of orthodoxy, " attacks all the sacraments
and all the possessions of the church." It attacked the
possessions of the church in attacking the sacraments, on
the belief in which the power and wealth of the church
depended. The wealth and secularism of the clergy
were the objects of Wycliffe's direct hostility. He was a
reformer rather than an apostle ; his hand held the fan
which purged the threshing floor rather than the torch
which kindles religious love. He who wishes to change
mankind must bring to bear a new motive power. Wyc-
liffe's system lacked a positive doctrine like Luther's
Justification by Faith, Calvin's Predestination, Wesley's
Love of the Saviour. It lacked, also, the wings of print-
ing to waft its message abroad. The movement, there-
fore, came and departed like the shock of an ecclesiastical
earthquake. The translation of the Bible was its chief



fruit, and most momentous as giving an appeal from
priestly authority to the Word of God. But it had a
social as well as a religious side, and in this way took
immediate and terrible effect.

The boy Richard came to a throne still strong and 1877
gilded with the lingering rays of the sun of Crecy, but to
a bad and dangerous state of things. The government
was discredited by defeat ; the French had been attacking
the southern ports ; the finances were embarrassed. The
social world was out of joint. The author of "Piers 1362
Ploughman " is, no doubt, an honest though querulous
and unmelodious censor. He describes a period of greed,
oppression, knavery, and bad relations between classes.
Scarcely had the new reign begun when there came on a
social storm, in which it seemed for a moment that society
would be wrecked. The strikes and industrial disturb-
ances of England at the present day, though they alarm
us, are mild and little dangerous compared with the Revolt
of the Serfs. For a parallel to this, to the Jacquerie of
France, or the Peasants' War in Germany, we must look
to the French Commune, or imagine Anarchism for an
hour triumphant and giving effect to its dreams of havoc.
It seems that the system of villainage, that is, of hold-
ings under a lord, paid for by forced labour, had been
going out. Forced labour was found to be little worth,
and the villain wandered from the manor to the town, or
perhaps to the camp. The system of hired labour had
been coming in. When by the scarcity of labourers after
the Black Death wages were raised, a parliament of em-
ployers h^d tried by statutes of Labourers to keep wages
down to old rates. This failed, as it was sure to fail.
The land-owners, in what way does not clearly appear, used


their manorial rights to put the screw on the villains.
1381 Xhe villains rose in revolt. This is deemed the probable
cause of the outbreak, so far as the outbreak was economi-
cal. The demand of the insurgents accordingly was for
the abolition of villainage and for tlie allotment of land at
a fixed price, so that they in some measure anticipated the
agrarianism of the present day. In Kent, where their
revolt broke out, villainage did not exist. But their
demand was necessarily for something tangible ; they
could not have framed a petition for a new heaven and
a new earth. It was a time of general discontent and
unrest among the labouring classes. The agitation was
likely to be increased by the presence of a number of
disbanded soldiers, against whom the harsh vagrancy law
which accompanied the statute of Labourers may have
been partly directed, and who would bring back high
hearts from fields of victory. Perhaps they brought also
tidings of the revolt of the commons in Flanders and
of the French Jacquerie. A wave of social disturbance
seems to have been sweeping over Europe. The sound-
ness of the manorial system depends upon the presence of
the lord and his performance of his duties to his depend-
ents ; and the English landlord had been drawn away to
the camp of Edward and to his gay court, as the French
nobility were afterwards drawn away to Versailles, proba-
bly with a similar result to their local connections and
influence. The bishops were politicians and courtiers,
neglecting their dioceses, sometimes hardly going near
them ; and the sequel showed that neither the parochial
clergy nor the monks had retained their hold upon the
people. The monks had in fact by their impropriations
of tithes greatly impaired the parochial system, while


between the abbeys and the people, especially in the
towns, petty litigation about rights and franchises was
always going on.

There was, perhaps, a deeper cause than these, and one
which comes more home to us at the present day. Wyc-
liffe had preached a spiritual communism of a rather mys-
tical kind. This became material communism in the
preachings of his coarser and more violent disciples, such
as the clerical demagogue, John Ball, whose text was

When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?

A sense of the unjust inequalities of the human lot, and a
desire to redress them by force, had then taken posses-
sion of the minds of the masses. Gospel communism pre-
sented an ideal. The people seem to have dreamed of
nothing, less than the extermination of the governing class
and the destruction of all existing titles to property, so
that the world might be again as in the days of Adam
and Eve. Plan of political reform or reconstruction they
had none. While they massacred and plundered the
gentry and the hierarchy, whom they regarded as their
oppressors, they professed a childlike loyalty to the king.
They even, with the usual inconsistency and infirmity of
mobs, wished to have gentlemen for their leaders and
forced one or two to take that part. The political watch-
words of the insurgents were not uniform. Some shouted
for Lancaster, others thirsted for his blood. There was
a miscellaneous alliance of all the elements, general and
local, of peasant discontent.

A poll tax, the desperate resort of a government in 1330
financial despair, brought the evils of the administration


home to the feelings of all. An insult offered by one
of the assessors to the daughter of Wat Tyler, a workman

1381 of Kent, is supposed to have been the spark which fired
the mine. The rapidity with which the conflagration
spread through the south, east, and north showed that
the hearts of the peasantry were in a highly inflammable
state, since concert Avas hardly possible where there was
so little of mutual intelligence and communication was so
slow. An appalling reign of havoc, murder, and incen-
diarism ensued. Lawyers as the guardians, and legal
documents as the muniments, of the established order of
things, were the special objects of rebel fury. No lawyer
was spared. The very possession of law papers and even
of pen and ink was death. A large body of insurgents
under Wat Tyler made themselves masters of London,
the gates of which were opened to them by a sympathizing
populace, and there revelled in atrocities which antici-
pated the Faubourg St. Antoine. Sudbury, the chancel-
lor, was butchered with double gusto, being at once the
head of the law and an archbishop. Authority was para-
lyzed. The garrison of the Tower, six hundred men-at-
arras and as many archers, tamely allowed the rioters to
enter the fortress and insult the king's mother in her own
chamber. If we can believe the common account, the
capital of the country was saved by the courage, presence
of mind, and decision of a king of fourteen, who, at the
critical moment, rode forward and cast the spell of royalty
over the wavering minds of a savage and masterless

Richard appeased the peasants and persuaded them to

1381 disperse by granting them charters of manumission, a
measure irregular, of course, since the king could not by


himself alter the law of property, but warranted by the
crisis. These the parliament cancelled by a unanimous 1381
vote, showing once more that it represented the dominant
class. As suddenly as the vast waterspout had formed, it
broke. Authority and law resumed their sway, gathered
up the relics of their muniments, and plentifully avenged
with the gibbet and the axe their overthrow and disgrace.
Despenser, the warlike Bishop of Norwich, was conspicu-
ously active in repression, maintaining his double charac-
ter by shriving a prisoner before he turned him off.
Grindecobbe, a serf of St. Albans, shines amid the wreck
of his cause, a peasant hero, willing to give his life for the
liberties of his class. The peasants did not succeed in
levelling the inequalities of the human lot. How far they
succeeded in getting rid of villainage is a moot point
among economical historians. That they did not at once
gain its total abolition there are subsequent facts to show.
Legislative war continued to be waged by a parliament of
employers against the emancipation of labour. Statute
after statute was passed fixing the rate of wages, punish-
ing all who took more than that rate, and striving to bind
the rural labourer to the soil by means of rigorous va-
grancy laws and prohibition of apprenticeship to trades.
But natural forces prevailed. Escape was open to the
serf from the manor to the town, a year's residence in
which barred his lord's claim to him, to the camp, to the
sea. The superiority of paid to forced labour would make
itself felt, as it has in the Southern States of America,
where cotton has gained by the abolition of slavery.
Gradually emancipation was brought about. At last
nothing remained of villainage save the legal curiosities
of copyhold.


The reign of Richard II. is a mystery, sometimes an
impenetrable mystery, of intrigue, cabal, and treachery,
showing that the age of fealty is passed and that religion
is losing power. The general key is the growth of that
oligarchy of magnates, the chief of them belonging to
the royal family, with vast possessions and high titles,
such as duke, marquess, and earl, which overshadows the
old baronage, and competing for possession of the govern-
ment crowds the scene with faction and intrigue. The
same force which Richard displays in confronting Wat
Tyler's insurgent host he displays by fits in after life,
but it alternates with weakness. Kingship in his teens
had spoilt him. His impulses were wild. In the middle
of his wife's funeral in Westminster Abbey he strikes a
noble ; he challenges four lords to fight ; he assaults a
judge ; kicks a nobleman's cap across the room. His
delicate features, hesitating speech, and easily flushing
face, are the outward signs of a temper passionate and
irresolute. Heir of a splendid throne, he is, as Shake-
speare paints him, full of the divinity of kings and inclined
to assume the god. Probably he was too fond of pleasure
and pageantry. He was young, and England was feeling
the voluptuous influence of the Renaissance. He had bad
companions in his two half-brothers the Hollands. His
household was probably too expensive. That he had ten
thousand guests at his table and three hundred cooks
must have been a calumnious fable. When the king's
household comprised the only bodyguard which he had, it
might well without abuse be large. Richard's govern-
ment paid for Crecy and Poitiers ; it inherited a disas-
trous war, with its ruinous expenditure, and the danger
of invasion. It seems that his inclination to peace with


France, wise though it was, and a redeeming feature in
his history, injured his popularity with a nation inflamed
by conquest and ignorant of the cost.

Round the king was a court party of men whom the
opposition perhaps with truth called favourites, though
not all of them were unworthy, either not nobles or nobles
of secondary rank, such as De Vere and Simon Burley in
the early part of the reign, the Earl of Wiltshire, Bagot,
Bussy, and Green at the end. These men strove to keep
power in the hands of the king, upon whose favour they
throve. On the other hand, there was the high nobility,
the group of magnates with the princes of the blood at
their head, with their grand titles, with their immense
revenues, with hosts of retainers in their livery, full
of feudal pride, and rendered restlessly ambitious by
the game of conquest played on the French board.
The contests of these oligarchical groups for ascend-
ancy, their hereditary feuds, cabals, and mutual assas-
sinations, henceforth fill the political foreground, though
in the background is still the parliament. It was the
aim of these men to keep the king in tutelage as long
as possible. This they effected through a parliament

Online LibraryGoldwin SmithThe United kingdom; a political history → online text (page 17 of 84)