William Stubbs.

The constitutional history of England in its origin and development, Volume 3 online

. (page 61 of 68)
Online LibraryWilliam StubbsThe constitutional history of England in its origin and development, Volume 3 → online text (page 61 of 68)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

fused to sanction later restrictive measures against them ; his
court, if not himself, was strongly inclined to tolerate the Wyc-
liffites ; many of the wisest measures against the papacy were
passed during the time of his oomplete supremacy ; the barons
and knights of the shire may be represented as a body of self-
seekers and oppressors in these very points, and they certainly
were in the closest alliance with the persecuting party in the
church. Yet they were the national champions, and their vic-
toiy was the guarantee of national progress. If Eichard had
overcome them England might have become the counterpart of
France, and, having passed through the ordeal, or rather the
agony, of the dynastic struggle and the discipline of Tudor rule,
must have sunk like France into that gulf from which only
revolution could deliver her.

In the fifteenth century the towns seem to have shared pretty Tbe politics
evenly the sympathies of tbe dynastic parties ; but they do not play, ander the"
either in or out of parliament, an important part in the struggle, kin^
They were courted by the kings as a counterpoise to the still over-
powering baronage, and by the aspirants to power against its
actual possessors ; they were courted by Henry lY as against the
party of Richard, and by the Yorkists against Henry YI ; and it
was the absence of any popular qualities in Henry, as compared
with the gallant and popular manners of the rival princes^ which,

Digitized by VjOOQIC

592 Constitutional History. [chap.

Belation of far more than any questions of deeper import, placed him at a
York to the disadvantage r^arding tiiem. But the readiness with which the
Tudor succession was welcomed proved that there was no real
affection felt for the house of York, and proves further that the
towns as well as the nation at large were weary of d3mastic
politics. From that time the municipal organisation is
strengthened and hardened, still with that tendency towards
restriction which hetrays a want of political foresight: the
victory of the trading spirit once won, the trading spirit shows
itself as much inclined to engross power and to exclude compe-
tition as any class had done hefore.
Work of 490. It cannot be too carefully borne in mind, especially as we

damee of approach more modern times and have to look at questions more
thoBMiuW^^^ ^^^ ^^ ^ those which divide modem opinion, that political
pSgress progress does not advance in a single line, and political wisdom is
liberty. the heirloom of no one class of society. There is an age of ecclesi-
astical prevision, an age of baronial precaution, an age of municipal
pretension; of country policy, of mercantile policy, of trade policy,
of artisan a^iration : all, one after the other, putting forth thdr
best side in the struggle for power, showing their worst side
in the possession and retention of it. But in spite of selfish
aims and selfish struggles for the maintenance of power, each
contributes to the great march of national wellbeing, and each
contributes an element of its own, each has a strong point of
its own which it establishes before it gives way to the next. The
church policy of the earlier middle ages was one long protest
against the predominance of mere brute strength, whether
exemplified in the violence of William Rufiis, or in the astute
despotism of Heniy I : the baronial policy, which fix>m the reign
of John to the accession of Henry IV shared or succeeded to
the burden of the struggle, was directed to the securing of self-
government for the nation as represented in its parliament :
and the country interest, as embodied in the knights, worked out
in the fifteenth century the results of the victory : the other
influences are only coming into full play as the middle ages
close ; but we can detect in them some signs of the uses that
they are still to serve. The country interest has still to con-

Digitized by VjOOQ IC

XXI.] Social Influences on Politics. 593

tinue the battle of self-government; the mercantile spirit to influence of
inform and reform the foreign policy; the trade influence to suits on
remodel and develop national economy; the manufacturing £^d pro-
influence to improve and to specialise in every region of national ^'^"*
organisation. Such has been the result so far ; it is vain and
useless to prophesy. But it would seem that the peculiar ten-
dencies which are encouraged by the habits and trains of thought
which these pursuits severally involve, have worked and are
working their way into real practical influence as the balance of
national power has inclined successively to the several classes
which are employed on these pursuits. The churchman strug-
gled for moral against physical influence, as for the cause of
the spirit against the flesh ; he forgot sometimes that the very
law of the spirit is a law of liberty. The baron struggled for
national freedom against royal encroachment ; the habits of the
warrior and the hunter, the judge and the statesman, were all
united in him ; the medieval baron was a wonderful imper-
sonation of strength and versatility, and combined more great
qualities, for good or for evil, 1>han any of the rival classes ; but
in the idea of corporate freedom the idea of individual and social
freedom was too often left out of sight : the whole policy of the
baronage was insular and narrowed down to one issue. The
mercantile influence tended to widen the national mind; it
grew under the Tudors to great importance and power, but it
did not directly tend to the increase of liberty. The national
programme of liberation had to be taken up under the Stewarts
in a condition scarcely more developed than when it was laid
down under the Lancastrian kings : only the nation had learned
in the meantime more of the world, of diplomacy, of the balance
of nations, and of the bearing of commercial alliances on do-
mestic welfjGO'e. The economical and administrative reforms
for which trade and manufacture train men until the balance of
national power falls to them, are matters which we ourselves
have lived to witness. What organic changes the further ex-
tension of political power to the labourer in town and country
may bring, our children may live to see.

To return however to the special point. One fact remains to

VOL. m. Q q

Digitized by VjOOQIC

594 CoMtitutional ^siory, [chap.

^Msborooghbe considered, which most to a great extent modify all con-

tioowaino clufiions on the subject. The town members in parliament
prewntatkm during the middle ages represented only a very small propor-
tion of the towns, and those selected by the merest chance of
accident or caprice. They were, as we have seen, veiy un-
equally distributed, and were in no way, like the knights of
the shire, a general concentration of local representation. In
so far then as they represented an interest at all, they re-
presented it very inadequately ; and if, as we have supposed,
they represented chiefly the governing bodies among their con-
stituencies, they are still farther removed from being regarded
flenoeitsin-as the true exponents of any element of the national wiU. And
this consideration will account in great measure for their insig-
nificance in action and their obscurity in history.
SodalUfeof 491. Of the social life and habits of the citizen and burgher
man. we have more distinct ideas than of his political action.

Social habits no doubt tended to the formation of politieal
habits then as now. Except for the purposes of trade, the
townsman seldom went iax from his borough ; there he found
all his kinsmen, his company, and his customers ; his ambition
was gratified by election to municipal office; the local courts
could settle most of Ids legal business; in the neighbouring
villages he could invest the money which he cared to invest
in land ; once a year, for a few years, he might bear a share in
the armed contingent of his town to the shire force or militia ;
once in his life he might go up, if he lived in a parliamentary
borough, to parliament. There was not much in his life to
widen his sympathies; there were no newspapers, and few
books ; there was not enough local distress for charity to find
interest in relieving it; there were many local festivities,
and time and means for cultivating comfort at home. Tlie
burgher had pride in his house, and still more periiaps in his
furniture ; for although, in the splendid panorama of medieval
architecture, the great houses of the merchants contribute a
distinct element of magnificence to the general picture, such
houses as Crosby Hall and the Hall of John Hall of Salisbury
must always, in the walled towns, have been exceptions to the

Digitized by VjOOQIC

XXI.] Borough Zi/i. 595

rule, and far beyond the aspirations of the ordinary tradesman ; ^'o^^'g^^S^
but the smallest house could be made comfortable and even burgher,
elegant by the appliances which his trade connexion brought
within the reach of the master. Hence the riches of the
inventories attached to the wills of medieval townsmen, and
many of the most prized relics of medieval handicraft. Some-
what of the pains, for which the private house afforded no scope,
was spent on the churches and public buildings of the town.
The numerous churches of York and Norwich, poorly endowed, Town
but nobly built and furnished, speak very clearly not only of
the devotion, but of the artistic culture, of the burghers of those
towns. The crafts vied with one another in the elaborate
ornamentation of their churches, their chantries, and their halls
of meeting; and of the later religious guilds some seem to
have been founded for the express purpose of combining splendid
religious services and processions with the work of charity.
Such was one of the better results of a confined local sympathy.
But the burgher did not either ia life or in death forget hisOountnr
friends outside the walls. His will generally contained directions
for small pajrments to the country churches where his ancestors
lay buried Strongly as his affections were localised, he was
not a mere townsman. Nine-tenths of the cities of medieval
England would now be regarded as mere country towns, and they
were country towns even then. They drew in all their new
blood from the country; tiiey were the centres for village
trade; the neighbouring villages were the play-ground and
sporting-ground of the townsmen, who had, in many cases,
rights of common pasture, and in some cases rights of hunting,
far outside the walls. The great religious guilds just referred BeUjnoas
to, answered, like race meetings at a later period, the end of
bringing even the higher dass of the country population into
dose acquaintance with the townsmen, in ways more likely
to be developed into social intercourse than the market or the
muster in arms. Before the dose of the middle ages the
rich townsmen had begun to intermarry with the knights and
gentry, and many of the noble families of the present day
trace the foundation of their fortunes to a lord mayor of


Digitized by VjOOQ IC

59^ Cofutitutional History. [chap.

Intemuu'- London or York, or a mayor of some provincial town. These
theoounti7 intermarriages, it is true, became more common after the fall
of the elder baronage and the great expansion of trade under
the Tudors, but the fashion was set two centuries earlier.
If the adventurous and tragic history of the house of De la
Pole shone as a warning light for rash ambition, it stood by
^^barrier no means alone. It is probable that there was no period in
trade and English history at which the barrier between the knightly and
mercantile class was regarded as insuperable since the days
of Athelstan, when the merchant who had made his three
voyages over the sea and made his fortune, became worthy of
thegn- right: even the higher grades of chivalry were not
beyond his reach, for in 1439 ^® ^^ William Estfeld, a
mercer of London, made Knight of the Bath^. As the mer-
chant found acceptance in the circles of the gentry, civic office
became an object of competition with the knights of the county ;
their names were enrolled among the religious fraternities of
the towns, the trade and craft guilds ; and, as the value of a
seat in pariiameut became better appreciated, it was seen that
the readiest way to it lay through the office of mayor, recorder,
or alderman of some city corporation.

Abaaioeof 492. Beside these influences, which without much affectinir

profession* , , , , °

ai * classes, the local Sympathies of the citizen class joined them on to the

rank above them, must be considered the fact that two of the

most exclusive and ^professional' of modern professions were

not in the middle ages professions at all. Every man was to

some extent a soldier, and every man was to some extent a

lawyer ; for there was no distinctly military profession, and

of lawyers only a very small and somewhat dignified number.

Thus, although the burgher might be a mere mercer, or a mere

saddler, and have very indistinct notions of commerce beyond

his own warehouse or workshop, he was trained in warlike

exercises, and he could keep his own accounts, draw up his

own briefs, and make his own will, with the aid of a scrivener

or a chaplain who could supply an outline of form, with but

little fear of transgressing the rules of the court of law or

1 Ordinances of the Privy Council, vL 39.

Digitized by VjOOQ IC

XXI.] Townsmen and Yeomen. 597

of probate. In this point he was like the baron, liable to be Variety of

'■ employment,

called at very short notice to very different sorts of work.

Finally, the townsman whose borough was not represented in
parliament or did not enjoy such municipal organisation as
placed the whole administration in the hands of the inhabitants,
was a fully qualified member of the county court of his shire,
and shared, there and in the corresponding institutions, every-
thing that gave a political colouring to the life of the country
gentleman or the yeoman.

Many of the points here enumerated belong, it may be said, Difference
to the rich merchant or great burgher, rather than to the in towns
ordinary tradesman and craftsman. This is true, but it must be difference
remembered always that there was no such gulf between the
rich merchant and the ordinary craftsman in the town, as existed
between the country knight and the yeoman, or between the
yeoman and the labourer. In the city it was merely the distinc-
tion of wealth ; and the poorest apprentice might look forward
to becoming a master of hb craft, a member of the livery of his
company, to a place in the council, an aldermanship, a mayoralty,
the right of becoming an esquire for his life and leaving an
honourable coat of arms for his children. The yeoman] had no Different
such straight road before him ; he might improve his chances, fhe^cinmtry
as they came ; might lay field to field, might send his sons to ^^®°™*^
war or to the universities ; but for him also the shortest way
to make one of them a gentleman was to send him to trade ;
and there even the villein might find liberty and a new life
that was not hopeless. But the yeoman, with fewer chances,
had as a rule less ambition, possibly also more of that
loyal feeling towards his nearest superior, which formed so
marked a feature of medieval country life. The townsman
knew no superior to whose place he might not aspire; the
yeoman was attached by ties of hereditary attachment to a
great neighbour, whose superiority never occurred to him as
a thing to be coveted or grudged. The factions of the town
were class factions and political or dynastic factions, the
factions of the country were the factions of the lords and
gentry. Once perhaps in a century there was a rising in the

Digitized by VjOOQIC

598 Constitutional History. [chap.

Town country ; in every great town there was, ev^ few years, some-

thing of a struggle, something of a crisis, if not between ci^ital
and labour in the modem sense, at least between trade and
tsrafb, or craft and craft, or magistracy and commons, between
excess of control and excess of licence.

Artiaanaand 493. In town and country alike there existed another class
of men, who, although possessing most of the other benefits
of freedom, lay altogether outside political life. In the towns
there were the artificers, and in the country the labourers, who
lived ^m hand to mouth, and were to all intents and purposes

The poorer * the poor who never cease out of the land.' There were the
craftsmen who could or would never aspire to become masters,
or to take up their freedom as citizens ; and the cottagers who
had no chance of acquiring a rood of ground to till and leave
to their children : two classes alike keenly sensitive to all changes
in the seasons and in the prices of the necessaries of life ; very
indifferently dad and housed, in good times well fed, but in
bad times not fed at alL In some respects these classes differed
from that which in the present day furnishes the bulk of the

Noto7er. mass of pauperism. The evils which are commonly, however
erroneously it may be, regarded as resulting from redundant
population, had not in the middle ages the shape which they have
taken in modem times. Except in the walled towns, and then
only in exceptional times, there could have been no necessary
overcrowding of houses. The very roughness and undeanliness
of the country labourer's life was to some extent a safeguard ;
if he lived, as foreigners reported, like a hog, he did not fare or

except in lodge worse than the beasts that he tended. In the towns, the

towns. restraints on building, which were absolutely necessary to keep
the limited area of the streets open for traffic, prevented any
very great variation in the number of inhabited houses; for,
although in some great towns, like Oxford, there were consider-
able vacant spaces which were apt to become a sort of gypeey
camping-ground for the waifs and strays of a mixed population,
most of them were closely packed; the rich men would not
dispense with their courts and gardens, and the very poor had to
lodge outside the walls. In the country townships again, there

Digitized by VjOOQIC

XXI.] The Poor, 599

was no sach liberty as has in more modem times been somewhat ViUaffes not

over peoiddd.
imprudently used, of building or not building cottage dwellings

without due consideration of place or proportion to the demand

for useful labour, Every manor had its constitution and its

recognised classes and number of holdings on the demesne and

the freehold, the village and the waste ; the common arable and

the common pasture were a village property that warned off all

interlopers and all superfluous competition. So strict were the Pcmtnation

• , . • •I 1 1 oftheooun-

bamers, that it seems impossible to suppose that any great try varied
increase of population ever presented itself as a fact to the^^^ ^
medieval economist ; or, if he thought of it at all, he must have
regarded the recurrence of wars and pestilences as a provi-
dential arrangement for the re-adjustment of the conditions of
his problem. As a fact, whatever the cause may have been,
the population of England during the middle ages did not vaiy
in anything like the proportion in which it has increased since
the beginning of the last century; and there is no reason to
think that any vast difference existed between the supply and
demand of homes for the poor. Still there were many poor ; Olaaaes of
if only the old, the diseased, the widows, and the orphans are to
be counted in the number. There were too, in England, as
everywhere else, besides the absolutely helpless, whole classes of
labourers and artisans, whose earnings never furnished more
than the mere requisites of life; and, besides these, idle and
worthless b^gars, who preferred the freedom of vagrancy to the
restrictions of ill remunerated labour. All these classes were to
be found in town and country alike.

494. The care of the really helpless poor was regarded both Beliinoas
as a legal and as a religious duty from the very first ages ofviJ^fST^
English Christianity. S. Ghregory, in his instructions to Angus- '^^^^
tine, had reminded him of the duty of a bishop to set apart
for the poor a fourth part of the income of his church ; and
some vestiges of the usage, which does not seem ever to have
been generally adopted, are found in the ecclesiastical legisla-
tion of the fourteenth century: in 1342 archbishop Stratford
ordered that in all cases of appropriation a portion of the tithe
should be set apart for the relief of the poor. The n^lect of

Digitized by VjOOQIC

6oo Constitutional History. [chap.

Leffisiatioii the poor was alleged as one of the crying sins of the alien clergy^.

of the poor. The legislation of the wit^nagemotes of Ethelred bore iiie same
mark ; a third portion of the tithe that belonged to the chordi
was to go to Qod's poor and to the needy <mes in thraldom ;
it was enjoined on all God's servants that they shoold comfort
and feed the poor. Even in the reign of Henry I the king
was declared to be the kinsman and advocate of the poor. On
such a point it is needless to multiply proof; almsdeeds were
always regarded as a religious duty, whether as an act of merit

A duty of or as an act of gratitude. The dispensation of alms was as
* ^ "^^ a rule left to the clergy, just as the duty of inculcating alms-
giving was chiefly left to them. The beneficed clergy in their
parishes, the almoners of the monasteries, and the hosts of men-
dicant friars, to some extent fulfilled the task, and certainly
kept the duty of almsgiving prominently before men's eyes.

FuiflUed by The finiilds too, in each of their aspects, whether tbey were
the fnulcu. , ...

organised for police, for religious, social, or trade purposes, made

the performance of this duty a part of their regular work. In
the frith guild of London the remains of the feasts were dealt to
the needy for the love of God ; the maintenance of the poorer
members of the craft was, as in the friendly societies of our own
time, one main object in the institution of the craft guilds;
and even those later religious guilds^ in which the chief object
seems at first sight, as in much of the charitable machinery of
the present day, to have been the acting of mysteries and the
exhibition of pageants, were organised for the relief of distress
Confiscation as well as for conjoint and mutual prayer. It was with this
property, idea that men gave large estates in land to the guilds, which,
down to the Eeformation, formed an organised administration
of relief. The confiscation of the guild property together with
that of the hospitals was one of the great wrongs which were
perpetrated under Edward YI ; and, whatever may have been
the results of the stoppage of monastic charity, was one unques-
tionable cause of the growth of town pauperism. The extant
regulations and accounts of the guilds show how this duty was

' JohoBon, Canons, ii 364 ; Eot. Pari. iv. a^a

Digitized by VjOOQ IC

XXI.] Beggars. 60 1

carried into effect; no doubt there was much self-indulgence
and display, but there was also effective relief ; the charities of
the great London companies are a survival of a system which
was once in full working in every market town.

Side by side with the organisations for the relief 'of real Le^djtion
poverty must be set the measures for the restraint of idleness begging.
and begging. These formed a part of the legislation on labour
which was attempted from the middle of the reign of Edward III,
and which has been r^arded by political economists as one
of the great blemishes of medieval administration. The same
principle of combination, which had its better side in the charity
of the guilds, had, if not its worst, at least its most dangerous
side, in the associations of the artisans for the purpose of
enforcing a higher rate of wages. The great plague of 1348
caused such a terrible diminution of the population that the Statutes or
land was in danger of falling out of cultivation; labour was
extremely scarce, and excessive wages were immediately de-
manded by those who could work; excessive wages at once
produced improvidence and idleness. As early as 13499 in the
first ordinance on labour, it was found necessary not only to
fix the amount of wages, and to press all able-bodied men into
the work of husbandry, but to forbid the giving of alms to
sturdy or valiant beggars *. The quick succession of enactments
on this point shows the urgency of the evil and the inadequacy

Online LibraryWilliam StubbsThe constitutional history of England in its origin and development, Volume 3 → online text (page 61 of 68)