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The History Of England - A Study In Political Evolution
Emergence Of The English People
by Pollard, A. F.


In 1265, simultaneously with the appearance of English townsfolk in parliament, an official document couched in the English tongue appeared like a first peak above the subsiding flood of foreign language. When, three generations back, Abbot Samson had preached English sermons, they were noted as exceptions; but now the vernacular language of the subject race was forcing its way into higher circles, and even into literary use. The upper classes were learning English, and those whose normal tongue was English were thrusting themselves into, or at any rate upon the notice of, the higher strata of society.

The two normal ranks of feudal society had in England naturally been French lords and English tillers of the soil; but commerce had never accommodated itself to this agricultural system, and the growth of trade, of towns, of other forms of wealth than land, tended concurrently to break down French and feudal domination. A large number of towns had been granted, or rather sold, charters by Richard I and John, not because those monarchs were interested in municipal development, but because they wanted money, and in their rights of jurisdiction over towns on the royal domain they possessed a ready marketable commodity. The body which had the means to pay the king's price was generally the local merchant guild; and while these transactions developed local government, they did not necessarily promote popular self-government, because the merchant guild was a wealthy oligarchical body, and it might exercise the jurisdiction it had bought from the king in quite as narrow and harsh a spirit as he had done. The consequent quarrels between town oligarchies and town democracies do not, however, justify the common assumption that there had once been an era of municipal democracy which gradually gave way to oligarchy and corruption. Nevertheless, these local bodies were English, and legally their members had been villeins; and their experience in local government prepared them for admittance to that share in national government which the development of taxation made almost necessary.

Henry II's scheme of active and comprehensive administration, indeed, led by a natural sequence to the parliament of Edward I and further. The more a government tries to do, the more taxation it must impose; and the broadening of the basis of taxation led gradually to the broadening of the basis of representation, for taxation is the mother of representation. So long as real property only--that is to say, the ownership of land--was taxed, the great council contained only the great landowners. But Henry II had found it necessary to tax personalty as well, both clerical and lay, and so by slow steps his successors in the thirteenth century were driven to admit payers of taxes on personalty to the great council. This representative system must not be regarded as a concession to a popular demand for national self- government. When in 1791 a beneficent British parliament granted a popular assembly to the French Canadians, they looked askance and muttered, "C'est une machine anglaise pour nous taxer"; and Edward I's people would have been justified in entertaining the suspicion that it was their money he wanted, not their advice, and still less their control. He wished taxes to be voted in the royal palace at Westminster, just as Henry I had insisted upon bishops being elected in the royal chapel. In the royal presence burgesses and knights of the shire would be more liberal with their constituents' money than those constituents would be with their own when there were neighbours to encourage resistance to a merely distant terror.

The representation people had enjoyed in the shire and hundred moots had been a boon, not because it enabled a few privileged persons to attend, but because by their attendance the mass were enabled to stay away. If the lord or his steward would go in person, his attendance exempted all his tenants; if he would not, the reeve and four "best" men from each township had to go. The "best," moreover, were not chosen by election; the duty and burden was attached to the "best" holdings in the township, and in the thirteenth century the sheriff was hard put to it to secure an adequate representation. This "suit of court" was, in fact, an obligatory service, and membership of parliament was long regarded in a similar light. Parliament did not clamour to be created; it was forced by an enlightened monarchy on a less enlightened people. A parliamentary "summons" had the imperative, minatory sound which now only attaches to its police court use; and centuries later members were occasionally "bound over" to attend at Westminster, and prosecuted if they failed. On one occasion the two knights for Oxfordshire fled the country on hearing of their election, and were proclaimed outlaws. Members of parliament were, in fact, the scapegoats for the people, who were all "intended" or understood to be present in parliament, but enjoyed the privilege of absence through representation. The greater barons never secured this privilege; they had to come in person when summoned, just as they had to serve in person when the king went to the wars. Gradually, of course, this attitude towards representation changed as parliament grasped control of the public purse, and with it the power of taxing its foes and sparing its friends. In other than financial matters it began to pay to be a member; and then it suited magnates not only to come in person but to represent the people in the Lower House, the social quality of which developed with the growth of its power. Only in very recent times has the House of Commons again included such representatives as these whose names are taken from the official returns for the parliaments of Edward I: John the Baker, William the Tailor, Thomas the Summoner, Andrew the Piper, Walter the Spicer, Roger the Draper, Richard the Dyer, Henry the Butcher, Durant the Cordwainer, John the Taverner, William the Red of Bideford, Citizen Richard (Ricardus Civis), and William the priest's son.

The appearance of emancipated villeins side by side with earls and prelates in the great council of the realm is the most significant fact of thirteenth-century English history. The people of England were beginning to have a history which was not merely that of an alien government; and their emergence is traceable not only in language, literature, and local and national politics, but also in the art of war. Edward I discovered in his Welsh wars that the long-bow was more efficient than the weapons of the knight; and his grandson won English victories at Crecy and Poitiers with a weapon which was within the reach of the simple yeoman. The discovery of gunpowder and development of artillery soon proved as fatal to the feudal castle as the long-bow had to the mailed knight; and when the feudal classes had lost their predominance in the art of war, and with it their monopoly of the power of protection, both the reasons for their existence and their capacity to maintain it were undermined. They took to trade, or, at least, to money-making out of land, like ordinary citizens, and thus entered into a competition in which they had not the same assurance of success.

Edward I's greatness consists mainly in his practical appreciation of these tendencies. He was less original, but more fortunate in his opportunity, than Henry II. The time had come to set limits to the encroachments of feudalism and of the church, and Edward was able to impose them because, unlike Henry II, he had the elements of a nation at his back. He was not able to sweep back these inroads, but he placed high-water marks along the frontiers of the state, and saw that they were not transgressed. He inquired into the titles by which the great lords held those portions of sovereign authority which they called their liberties; but he could take no further action when Earl Warenne produced a rusty sword as his effective title-deeds. He prohibited further subinfeudation by enacting that when an estate was sold, the purchaser should become the vassal of the vendor's lord and not of the vendor himself; and the social pyramid was thus rendered more stable, because its base was broadened instead of its height being increased. He expelled the Jews as aliens, in spite of their usefulness to the crown; he encouraged commerce by making profits from land liable to seizure for debt; and he defined the jurisdiction of the church, though he had to leave it authority over all matters relating to marriage, wills, perjury, tithes, offences against the clergy, and ecclesiastical buildings. He succeeded, however, in defiance of its opposition, in making church property liable to temporal taxation, and in passing a Mortmain Act which prohibited the giving of land to monasteries or other corporations without the royal licence.

By thus increasing the national control over the church in England, he made the church itself more national. It is sometimes implied that the church was equally national throughout the Middle Ages; but it is difficult to speak of a national church before there was a nation, or to see that there was anything really English in a church ruled by Lanfranc or Anselm, when there was not an Englishman on the bishops' bench, when the vast majority of Englishmen were legally incapable as villeins of even taking orders in the church, and when the vernacular language had been ousted from its services. But with the English nation grew an English church; Grosseteste denounced the dominance of aliens in the church, while Simon de Montfort denounced it in the state. It was, however, by secular authority that the English church was differentiated from the church abroad. It was the barons and not the bishops who had resisted the assimilation of English to Roman canon law, and it was Edward I, and not Archbishops Peckham and Winchilsey, who defied Pope Boniface VIII. Archbishops, indeed, still placed their allegiance to the pope above that to their king.

The same sense of national and insular solidarity which led Edward to defy the papacy also inspired his efforts to conquer Wales and Scotland. Indeed, it was the refusal of the church to pay taxes in the crisis of the Scottish war that provoked the quarrel with Boniface. But, while Edward was successful in Wales, he encountered in Scotland a growing national spirit not altogether unlike that upon which Edward himself relied in England. Nor was English patriotism sufficiently developed to counteract the sectional feelings which took advantage of the king's embarrassments. The king's necessity was his subjects' opportunity, and the Confirmation of Charters extorted from him in 1297 stands, it is said, to the Great Charter of 1215 in the relation of substance to shadow, of achievement to promise. Edward, however, gave away much less than has often been imagined; he certainly did not abandon his right to tallage the towns, and the lustre of his motto, "Keep troth," is tarnished by his application to the pope for absolution from his promises. Still, he was a great king who served England well by his efforts to eliminate feudalism from the sphere of government, and by his insistence on the doctrine that what touches all should be approved by all. If to some catholic medievalists his reign seems a climax in the ascent of the English people, a climax to be followed by a prolonged recessional, it is because the national forces which he fostered were soon to make irreparable breaches in the superficial unity of Christendom.

The miserable reign of his worthless successor, Edward II, illustrated the importance of the personal factor in the monarchy, and also showed how incapable the barons were of supplying the place of the feeblest king. Both parties failed because they took no account of the commons of England or of national interests. The leading baron, Thomas of Lancaster, was executed; Edward II was murdered; and his assassin, Mortimer, was put to death by Edward III, who grasped some of the significance of his grandfather's success and his father's failure. He felt the national impulse, but he twisted it to serve a selfish and dynastic end. It must not, however, be supposed that the Hundred Years' War originated in Edward's claim to the French throne; that claim was invented to provide a colourable pretext for French feudatories to fight their sovereign in a war which was due to other causes. There was Scotland, for instance, which France wished to save from Edward's clutches; there were the English possessions in Gascony and Guienne, from which the French king hoped to oust his rival; there were bickerings about the lordship of the Narrow Seas which England claimed under Edward II; and there was the wool-market in the Netherlands which England wanted to control. The French nation, in fact, was feeling its feet as well as the English; and a collision was only natural, especially in Guienne and Gascony. Henry II had been as natural a sovereign in France as in England, because he was quite as much a Frenchman as an Englishman. But since then the kings of England had grown English, and their dominion over soil which was growing French became more and more unnatural. The claim to the throne, however, gave the struggle a bitter and fruitless character; and the national means, which Edward employed to maintain the war, only delayed its inevitably futile end. It was supported by wealth derived from national commerce with Flanders and Gascony; national armies were raised by enlistment to replace the feudal levy; the national long-bow and not the feudal war- horse won the battles of Crecy and Poitiers; and command of the sea secured by a national navy enabled Edward to win the victory of Sluys and complete the reduction of Calais. War, moreover, required extra supplies in unprecedented amounts, and they took the form of national taxes, voted by the House of Commons, which supplemented and then supplanted the feudal aids as the mainstay of royal finance.

Control of these supplies brought the House of Commons into constitutional prominence. It was no mere Third Estate after the continental model, for knights of the shire sat side by side with burgesses and citizens; and knights of the shire were the lesser barons, who, receiving no special writ of summons, cast in their lot with the Lower and not with the Upper House. Parliament had separated into two Houses in the reign of Edward II--for Edward I's Model Parliament had been a Single Chamber, though doubtless it voted by classes--but the House of Commons represented the communities of the realm, and not its lower orders; or rather, it concentrated all these communities--shires, cities, and boroughs--and welded them into a single community of the realm. It thus created a nucleus for national feeling, which gradually cured the localism of early England and the sectionalism of feudal society; and it developed an esprit de corps which counteracted the influence of the court. The advantages which the crown may have hoped to secure by bringing representatives up to Westminster, and thus detaching them from their basis of local resistance, were frustrated by the solidarity and consistency which grew up among members of parliament; and this growing national consciousness supplanted local consciousness as the safeguard of constitutional liberty.

Most of the principles and expedients of representative government were adumbrated during this first flush of English nationalism, which has been called "the age of the Commons." The petitions, by which alone parliament had been able to express its grievances, were turned into bills which the crown had to answer, not evasively, but by a thinly veiled "yes" or "no." The granting of taxes was made conditional upon the redress of grievances; the crown finally lost its right to tallage; and its powers of independent taxation were restricted to the levying of the "ancient customs" upon dry goods and wines. If it required more than these and than the proceeds from the royal domains, royal jurisdiction, and diminishing feudal aids, it had to apply to parliament. The expense of the Hundred Years' War rendered such applications frequent; and they were used by the Commons to increase their constitutional power. Attempts were made with varying success to assert that the ministers of the crown, both local and national, were responsible to parliament, and that money-grants could only originate in the House of Commons, which might appropriate taxes to specific objects and audit accounts so as to see that the appropriation was carried out.

The growth of national feeling led also to limitations of papal power. Early in Edward III's reign a claim was made that the king, in virtue of his anointing at coronation, could exercise spiritual jurisdiction, and the statutes of Praemunire and Provisors prohibited the exercise in England of the pope's powers of judicature and appointment to benefices without the royal licence, though royal connivance and popular acquiescence enabled the papacy to enjoy these privileges for nearly two centuries longer. National feeling was particularly inflamed against the papacy because the "Babylonish captivity" of the pope at Avignon made him appear an instrument in the hands of England's enemy, the king of France; and that captivity was followed by the "Great Schism," during which the quarrels of two, and then three, popes, simultaneously claiming to be the only head of the church on earth, undermined respect for their office. These circumstances combined with the wealth and corruption of the church to provoke the Lollard movement, which was the ecclesiastical aspect of the democratic tendencies of the age.

One of the most striking illustrations of popular development was the demand for vernacular versions of the Scriptures, which Wycliffe met by his translation of the Bible. At the same time Langland made literature for the common people out of their common lot, a fact that can hardly be understood unless we remember that villeins, although they might be fined by their lords for so doing, were sending their sons in increasing numbers to schools, which were eventually thrown open to them by the Statute of Labourers in 1406. The fact that Chaucer wrote in English shows how the popular tongue was becoming the language of the court and educated classes. Town chronicles and the records of guilds and companies began to be written in English; legal proceedings are taken in the same tongue, though the law-reports continued to be written in French; and after a struggle between French and Latin, even the laws are drawn up in English. That the church persisted, naturally enough, in its usage of catholic Latin, tended to increase its alienation from popular sympathies. Wycliffe represented this national feeling when he appealed to national authority to reform a corrupt Catholic church, and when he finally denied that power of miraculous transubstantiation, upon which ultimately was based the claim of the priesthood to special privileges and estimation. But his association with the extreme forms of social agitation, which accompanied the Lollard movement, is less clear.

Before the end of Edward III's reign the French war had produced a crop of disgrace, disorder, and discontent. Heavy taxation had not availed to retain the provinces ceded to England at the Treaty of Bretigny in 1360, and hordes of disbanded soldiery exploited the social disorganization produced by the Black Death; a third of the population was swept away, and many villeins deserted their land to take up the more attractive labour provided in towns by growing crafts and manufactures. The lords tried by drastic measures to exact the services from villeins which there were not enough villeins to perform; and the imposition of a poll-tax was the signal for a comprehensive revolt of town artisans and agricultural labourers in 1381. Its failure did not long impede their emancipation, and the process of commuting services for rent seems to have gone on more rapidly in the first half of the fifteenth than in the fourteenth century. But the passionate preaching of social equality which inflamed the minds of the insurgents produced no further results; in their existing condition of political education, the peasant and artisan had perforce to be content with watching the struggles of higher classes for power.

Richard II, who had succeeded his grandfather in 1377, reaped the whirlwind of Edward's sowing, not so much in the consequences of the war as in the fruits of his peerage policy. The fourteenth century which nationalized the Commons, isolated the Lords; and the baronage shrank into the peerage. The word "peer" is not of English origin, nor has it any real English meaning. Its etymological meaning of "equal" does not carry us very far; for a peer may be equal to anything. But the peers, consisting as they do of archbishops, dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts, bishops, and barons, of peers who are lords of parliament and of peers who are neither lords of parliament nor electors to the House of Commons, are not even equal to one another; and certainly they would deny that other people were equal to them. The use of the word in its modern sense was borrowed from France in the fourteenth century; but in France it had a meaning which it could not have in England. A peer in France claimed equality with the crown; that is to say, he was the ruler of one of the great fiefs which had been equal to the county of Paris when the count of Paris had been elected by his equals king of France. If the king of Wessex had been elected king of England by the other kings of the Heptarchy, and if those other kings had left successors, those successors might have claimed to be peers in a real sense. But they had no such pretensions; they were simply greater barons, who had been the tenants-at-will of their king.

The barons, however, of William I or Henry II had been a large class of comparatively small men, while the peers of Richard II were a small class of big men. The mass of lesser barons had been separated from the greater barons, and had been merged in the landed gentry who were represented by the knights of the shire in the House of Commons. The greater barons were summoned by special and individual writs to the House of Lords; but there was nothing to fetter the crown in its issue of these writs. The fact that a great baron was summoned once, did not mean that he need be summoned again, and the summons of the father did not involve the summons of his eldest son and successor. But gradually the greater barons made this summons hereditary and robbed the crown of all discretion in the matter, though it was not till the reign of Charles I that the House of Lords decided in its own favour the question whether the crown had the power to refuse a writ of summons to a peer who had once received one.

With this narrowing of the baronage, the barons lost the position they had held in the thirteenth century as leaders of constitutional reform, and this part was played in the fourteenth century by the knights of the shire. The greater barons devoted themselves rather to family than to national politics; and a system of breeding-in amalgamated many small houses into a few great ones. Thomas of Lancaster held five earldoms; he was the rival of Edward II, and might well be called a peer of the crown. Edward III, perceiving the menace of these great houses to the crown, tried to capture them in its interests by means of marriages between his sons and great heiresses. The Black Prince married the daughter of the Earl of Kent; Lionel became Earl of Ulster in the right of his wife; John of Gaunt married the heiress of Lancaster and became Duke of Lancaster; Thomas of Woodstock married the heiress of the Bohuns, Earls of Essex and of Hereford; the descendants of Edmund, Duke of York, absorbed the great rival house of Mortimer; and other great houses were brought within the royal family circle. New titles were imported from abroad to emphasize the new dignity of the greater barons. Hitherto there had been barons only, and a few earls whose dignity was an office; now by Edward III and Richard II there were added dukes, marquises, and viscounts, and England might boast of a peerage nearly, if not quite, as dangerous to the crown as that of France. For Edward's policy failed: instead of securing the great houses in the interests of the crown, it degraded the crown to the arena of peerage rivalries, and ultimately made it the prize of noble factions.

Richard II was not the man to deal with these over-mighty subjects. He may perhaps be described as a "New" monarch born before his time. He had some of the notions which the Tudors subsequently developed with success; but he had none of their power and self-control, and he was faced from his accession by a band of insubordinate uncles. Moreover, it needed the Wars of the Roses finally to convince the country of the meaning of the independence of the peerage. Richard fell a victim to his own impatience and their turbulence. Henry IV came to the throne as the king of the peers, and hardly maintained his uneasy crown against their rival ambitions. The Commons, by constitutional reform, reduced almost to insignificance a sovereignty which the Lords could not overthrow by rebellion; and by insisting that the king should "live of his own," without taxing the country, deprived him of the means of orderly government. Their ideal constitution approached so nearly to anarchy that it is impossible not to suspect collusion between them and the Lords. The church alone could Henry placate by passing his statute for burning heretics.

Henry V took refuge from this domestic imbroglio in a spirited foreign policy, and put forward a claim more hollow than Edward III's to the throne of France. There were temptations in the hopeless condition of French affairs which no one but a statesman could have resisted; Henry, a brilliant soldier and a bigoted churchman, was anything but a statesman; and the value of his churchmanship may be gauged from the fact that he assumed the insolence of a crusader against a nation more catholic than his own. He won a deplorably splendid victory at Agincourt, married the French king's daughter, and was crowned king of France. Then he died in 1422, leaving a son nine months old, with nothing but success in the impossible task of subduing France to save the Lancastrian dynasty from the nemesis of vaulting ambition abroad and problems shelved at home.

Step by step the curse of war came home to roost. Henry V's abler but less brilliant brother, Bedford, stemmed till his death the rising tide of English faction and French patriotism. Then the expulsion of the English from France began, and a long tale of failure discredited the government. The nation had spirit enough to resent defeat, but not the means to avoid it; and strife between the peace party and the war party in the government resolved itself into a faction fight between Lancastrians and Yorkists. The consequent impotence of the government provoked a bastard feudal anarchy, maintained by hirelings instead of liegemen. Local factions fought with no respect for the law, which was administered, if at all, in the interests of one or other of the great factions at court; and these two great factions fostered and organized local parties till the strife between them grew into the Wars of the Roses.

Those wars are perhaps the most puzzling episode in English history. The action of an organized government is comparatively easy to follow, but it is impossible to analyze the politics of anarchy. The Yorkist claim to the throne was not the cause of the war; it was, like Edward III's claim to the throne of France, merely a matter of tactics, and was only played as a trump card. No political, constitutional, or religious principle was at stake; and the more peaceable, organized parts of the community took little share in the struggle. No great battle was fought south of the Thames, and no town stood a siege. It looks as though the great military and feudal specialists, whose power lay principally on the Borders, were engaged in a final internecine struggle for the control of England, in somewhat the same way as the Ostmark or East Border of the Empire became Austria, and the Nordmark or North Border became Prussia, and in turn dominated Germany. Certainly the defeat of these forces was a victory for southern and eastern England, and for the commercial and maritime interests on which its growing wealth and prosperity hung; and the most important point in the wars was not the triumph of Edward IV over the Lancastrians in 1461, but his triumph over Warwick, the kingmaker, ten years later. The New Monarchy has been plausibly dated from 1471; but Edward IV had not the political genius to work out in detailed administration the results of the victory which he owed to his military skill, and Richard III, who possessed the ability, made himself impossible as a king by the crimes he had to commit in order to reach the throne. The reconstruction of English government on a broader and firmer national basis was therefore left to Henry VII and the House of Tudor.


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