Narrative History of England|
Part 5: Medieval Britain (cont'd.) by Peter N. Williams, Ph. D.
Misrule in England under Edward II (1307-27)
Edward II's miserable failure in Scotland was matched by equal ignominy at home. Quite simply, as one chronicler put it: "He did not realize his father's ambition." One problem was the resurgence of baronial opposition. It didn't help much that the king was overly fond of his male companions, especially enjoying a passionate relationship with the French Piers Gaveston, whom he made Earl of Cornwall. The disaster at Bannockburn added to the king's ever-plummeting reputation for incompetence and opposition gathered under the Earl of Lancaster.
Meanwhile, Edward's wife Isabella and their young son had gone to the French court to start their own revolt against the profligate, homosexual king. She took as her lover the powerful Mortimer, and in 1326 their combined forces landed in England to begin active resistance to Edward. The unfortunate king, without any support, was forced to surrender his crown in favor of his young son. His gruesome death in prison need not be recounted here, but it received dramatic attention at the hands of the gifted Marlowe (1564-1593).
England Revives Under Edward III (1327-77)
The murdered king's successor, Edward III began his reign at the age of fourteen. He ruled for fifty years, years marked by the king's restoration of royal prestige, the beginnings of what is known as "The Hundred Years War" with France, the growth of parliamentary privilege in England and the devastating results of the plague known as the Black Death.
The Hundred Years War began when Edward took up arms against his overlord, Philip IV. It began over the duchy of Gascony, the only fragment left to the Angevin kings of England (apart from the Channel Islands) of their French possessions. Gascony was held by the king, however, as a vassal of his powerful overlord, the King of France. It was an extremely valuable asset, for its chief port Bordeaux shipped huge quantities of wine that provided a much needed source of income for the English Crown in customs revenues. It was to avoid confiscation of the duchy by the French king that Edward decided to invade. Edward also re-enforced his claim to the French crown by assuming the title of King of France, a move that would also help to provide sanction for his French supporters (the title was only given up by the British monarchy in 1802).
Briefly, Edward's policy of launching lightning raids deep into France was initially successful, and his tactic of using men-at-arms and longbowmen produced the outstanding victories at Crecy in 1346 and at Poitiers in 1356. At Crecy, Edward's son, the Prince of Wales, known as The Black Prince," for the color of his armor, gained his motto "Ich Dien" (I serve), used as part of the insignia of the present Prince of Wales.
Edward was also successful in capturing Calais in 1347 which was to remain in English hands for over two hundred years. In 1360, the English king made a peace settlement by which he received southwest France in full sovereignty. Charles V of France had other ideas, however, and brought his full military might to repudiate the settlement. By 1375, following a costly war of attrition, Edward had lost most of his gains.
Edward had no control over the outbreak of the Black Death that devastated most of Europe by bringing bubonic plague, carried by the black rat and transmitted to humans by fleas and the pneumonia that inevitably followed. It arrived in England in 1348, quickly spreading inland from its port of entry and within one year had affected all of Britain. Perhaps as many as one half of the country's population died before the scourge suddenly came to an end in 1350. It left behind a greatly depleted population, made laborers scarce and thus drove up wages, creating a situation in which many workers could offer their services to the highest bidder. A floating population of traveling workers came into being.
The third major phenomenon, the growth of Parliament, came about as a result of Edward's constant need for finances to support his continental adventures. The assembly of nobles and administrators who offered advice to the king had begun to insist that they had a right to be summoned. A crisis occurred in 1341-43 over Edward's finances. Parliament took action to curtail many royal perquisites; many statutes were passed to increase the powers of the nobles, but the Commons, also depended upon for revenue, also increased its influence at the expense of the king. The earlier conflict of 1321 between Edward II and his barons had led to the Statute of York one year later that clearly limited the king's powers. It had been the combined assembly of prelates, knights and burgesses, in fact, that had shown their own increasing power by demanding the abdication of Edward in 1326.
The Magna Carta had been primarily a concern of the barons to protect their interests against the king. Since then, however, the so-called gentry, the middle class landholders in the various counties were also taking part in the political debate. From 1299 on, they had been summoned by the king and parliament to authorize taxes to pay for the military. When Edward I also imposed heavy taxes on the clergy and offered special favors to the merchants, both these classes then expected some recognition in return. It was apparent that a new political society had been brewing ever so gradually but ever so strongly in England; its kings had to come to terms with it, as Edward II learned of his peril and ultimate death. The beginning of rule by consensus was firmly established by the time of Edward III's death.
Another important phenomenon taking place in England in the 14th century must not be overlooked. In 1362, Parliament passed an act to make English the official language of pleadings in the law courts, rather than French. Resistance from the lawyers prevented its full implementation, but the English language continued to be used in parliamentary rolls and statutes and ultimately replaced French to become the official language of the country. Because Latin was a spoken language among clerics and men of learning, an enormous number of borrowings came into English at this time from Latin. This, too, was the age of Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, John Barbour, Sir John Mandevill, and John Wycliffe, all of whom wrote in the English language. By the end of the 14th century, the vast variety of Middle English dialects notwithstanding, a standard form of written English had come into being.
The last ten years of the glorious reign of Edward lll, highly praised by his contemporaries as a period without parallel in the history of England for its "beneficent, merciful and august rule," was marred by constitutional crises. That the king himself was in his dotage hardly helped matters. Edward the heir to the throne was painfully ill and dying. The gradual disintegration of royal authority brought about by diplomatic and military failures produced the serious confrontation of the so-called Good Parliament of 1376.
There were many grievances to be dealt with by the Good Parliament and a committee was set up of leading prelates and nobles to deal with them. A speaker was appointed to act as the Commons' chairman and representative, and the first use of the judicial procedure known as impeachment took place. The principal grievance was that Edward's councillors and servants "were not loyal or profitable to him or the kingdom." The resulting dismissal of some of the king's advisors and financiers meant that it was the commons, not the barons, who had now taken the initiative in ousting royal favorites.
The Good Parliament had also seen one of the most serious attacks on the Crown during the whole later Middle Ages. Though King Edward, through his powerful Councillor John of Gaunt, sought some measure of revenge by nullifying almost everything the parliament had sought to put in place, in summing up his long reign, we can praise his remarkable ability to accommodate the interests of so many of his subjects. No wonder a cult of Edward lll as a wise and benevolent king quickly grew in England. It was a cult that made it very difficult for his successors.
A King is Deposed: Richard II (1377-99)
One sorrowful day in August, 1399, King Richard stood on the ramparts of Flint Castle, in its lonely position on the Dee estuary in Northeast Wales, watching the soldiers of Henry, Duke of Lancaster, advance from the direction of Chester. Flint townspeople still relate that the king's ever-present companion, his greyhound Math, betrayed his master that day by running to greet the triumphant Henry. Richard had already been betrayed by the Earls of Northumberland and Arundel who had persuaded him to leave the safety of Conwy Castle to journey to Flint. Math's ghost is now said to howl nightly in the ruins of the ancient castle.
Poor Richard! He certainly had delusions of grandeur, but many of his attempts to establish a realm of royal absolutism were to come to fruition only in the reign of his successor. His own reign saw the unleashing of forces completely beyond his control. Great economic and political developments were changing the face of Europe forever. The king's own lack of judgement only precipitated his eventual abdication, enforced after a rule of 22 years of great social unrest and baronial discontent. His reign also coincided with the period of the French Wars, that ate away at his treasury and caused constitutional crises at home.
Richard had become king at the age of ten. England, still held shackled by great war debts, was governed by a powerful council of nobles, supervised by the Richard's uncle, John of Gaunt Duke of Lancaster by virtue of his first marriage, to Blanche of Lancaster. The Duke's second marriage was to Constanza of Castile, a union that forced a great deal of his attention to acquiring the throne of that Spanish kingdom.
Four years after Richard acceded to the throne, he was faced with the mass popular uprising known as the Peasants' Revolt. To raise funds for the French war, a poll tax was adopted by the government the unfair distribution of which caused massive resistance (much like the one initiated by the government of Margaret Thatcher many hundreds of years later). An outbreak of rioting followed attempts to collect the tax from the poorer classes.
The rebels marched on and occupied London. Richard and his advisors hastily promised charters of emancipation and redress of grievances to the rebel leaders, promises, it turned out, that they had no intention of keeping. The young king pacified the angry mob when their leader Wat Tylor was killed; he then showed he meant business by having their leaders executed. Perhaps scared for the safety of his Crown, he then squandered the support of his lords in Parliament by going too far. His despotic measures, in an attempt to reassert royal prerogative, alienated the barons, who sided with Duke Henry of Lancaster.
Richard's major problem was that he had high ideas of his own dignity and of the power of the divine right of kings. This not only brought him into conflict with his barons, leading to his ultimate deposition, but also with the powerful English Church, whose leaders could always appeal to Rome against any royal encroachment on their privileges. Richard devoted all his energies to the establishing of a despotism that was out of place in the England of his time. Neither the time nor the place was right for the establishment of an absolute monarchy.
The nobles had grown too powerful and Richard's insistence that he was the sole source of English law, not bound by custom, did not sit too highly with those who thought otherwise. The kings' tampering with the will of Parliament, nullifying measures passed by both Lords and Commons, coupled with his attempts to create a written constitution that would serve the rights of the crown for ever, and his assertion that it was high treason to try to repeal his statutes, his appeals to the Pope to obtain confirmation of his measures all combined to force the barons to acquiesce in his deposition. The last straw was Richard's attempt to make Parliament the instrument of destruction of its own liberties (a political move carried out with much greater success by Henry VIII many generations later).
It did not help Richard, who introduced the handkerchief to England, that his nobles had regarded with loathing his patronage of the arts, his extravagant tastes, his choice of favorites and his effeminate ways. In 1386, the king had given the title of Marquis of Dublin to Robert de Vere, a greedy, arrogant man. A group of nobles known as the Lords Appellant, including the Dukes of Lancaster and Norfolk demanded trial for Richard's friends, including de Vere. When de Vere raised an army, he was defeated, and the "Merciless Parliament of 1388 tried an executed many of Richard's followers. Richard was outraged, but in 1389, coming of age, began his majority by dispensing with a council altogether.
Richard regarded his coronation as giving him the right to keep royalty from being dishonored by any concessions to anyone, from the Pope himself, through the leading barons, down to the poorest of is subjects. His will directed that he be given a royal funeral. It seems that his ideas, originally formed into a system of defence against the papacy (growing increasingly powerful in the affairs of Europe) were formulated into a doctrine of absolute monarchy. He was repudiated by his nation.
When he found a pretence to banish both Bolingbroke and Mowbray (Dukes of Lancaster and Norfolk), Richard believed he had a free hand to begin his aim of ruling by absolute fiat. He raised a private army, imposed additional taxes, lavished gifts upon his favorites and spent huge sums of money on extravagant court feasts. He also incurred the enmity of the citizens of London, without whose support no king of England could now successfully govern.
The great revolution of 1399 was an assertion of the rights of Englishmen to constitutional government, thus it bears an uncanny resemblance to the great revolt of the American Colonies some centuries later. The principal grievances were the same. The articles of deposition setting forth the charges against the king were just as uncompromising as his own absolute doctrine. Richard had greatly overreached his powers by appropriating the lands of the Duchy of Lancaster after the death of John of Gaunt in 1399. This was the ultimate blunder that led directly to its downfall. If the great house of Lancaster could lose its property to the king, then no man's land was safe in England. The future Henry IV was thus acting as the champion of property rights when he met Richard at Flint Castle.
By elevating Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, son of John of Gaunt and grandson of Edward lll to the throne, the nobles passed over Richard's nearest heir. They thus asserted the right of Parliament to elect the fittest person from within the royal family. For a short time at least, constitutionalism triumphed in England. Unfortunately for the future of the kingdom, the passing over of the elder branch of the royal house in favor of the House of Lancaster meant the eventual reasserting of the claims of the House of York and the consequent Wars of the Roses with their attendant anarchy.
England Triumphant: Henry IV (1399-1413)
Henry of Bolingbroke was renowned as a fighting man. He had travelled extensively in Europe and the Mediterranean before overthrowing the unpopular Richard (who died a mysterious death, probably due to starvation while in prison). One problem with Henry's usurpation of the throne was the setting of a dangerous precedent: a rightful king, properly anointed and recognized by the Church, had been deposed (a theme that provided Shakespeare with so much material in his "Richard II"). It was thus up to Henry to consolidate the powers of the monarchy, and it was to his advantage to utilize Parliament to bolster his position and counter the ever-present threats to his throne and challenges to his position as chief lawgiver. Through this alliance, as troubled as it was by constant wrangling over the king's expenses, he was able to overcome most of the troubles that were a legacy from Richard.
Of the serious threats he had to deal with, Henry was most troubled by the revolt of the Welsh under Owain Glyndwr. Social unrest and racial tension underlay much of the resentment of the Welsh people, ever mindful that they were the true Britons, descendants of Brutus and rightful heirs to the kingdom. Uncertainty as to the future of Wales and the repressive measures of successive English kings following Edward IÍs conquest of their nation found expression in the general uprising under Owain, at first successful in reclaiming much Welsh territory and capturing English strongholds on and within the borders.
A tripartite alliance among Owain, the Earl of Northumberland and Henry Mortimer looked as if it would succeed in dismembering England, ridding its people of its usurper monarch. Military aid was promised from the king of France. Glyndwr (Owen Glendower) had himself crowned Prince of Wales and called a parliament at Machynlleth. Then it all unraveled for the conspirators. Henry Percy of Northumberland (Hotspur) was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury, Louis of Orleans was assassinated and the promise of French aid was not fulfilled. Owain's other ally, the King of Scotland was taken prisoner by the armies of England, commanded by the ever resourceful, ever able military strength of young Prince Henry, later Henry V.
Owain's fight for Welsh independence was betrayed by fellow Welshman David Gam, fighting for the English, and his cause was lost. Wales had to wait almost 600 years for its next people's assembly. King Henry then quickly dealt with other rebellions, including one led by Archbishop of York, Richard Scrope, who was executed for his audacity. Thus Henry succeeded in keeping his shaky throne intact. He died after a long illness in 1413, leaving the throne to the charismatic warrior, King Henry V.
Part 5: Medieval Britain, continued
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