LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
With the spread of literacy, cultural life in Britain naturally developed also in the cities, plays were performed at important religious festivals. They were called “mystery plays” because of the mysterious nature of events in the Bible, and they were a popular form of culture. In the larger cities some guilds made themselves responsible for particular plays, which became traditional yearly events.
The language itself was changing. French had been used less and less by the Norman rulers during the thirteenth century. In the fourteenth century Edward III had actually forbidden the speaking of French in his army. It was a way of making the whole army aware of its Englishness.
After the Norman Conquest English (the old Anglo-Saxon language) continued to be spoken by ordinary people but was no longer written. By the end of the fourteenth and fifteenth
Centuries, was very different from Anglo-Saxon. This was partly because it had not been written for three hundred years, and partly because it had borrowed so much from the Norman French.
Two writers, above all others, helped in the rebirth of English literature. One was William Langland, a mid-fourteenth century priest, whose poem ‘Piers Plowman’ gives a powerful description of the times in witch he lived. The other, Geoffrey Chaucer, has become much more famous. He lived at about the same time as Langland. His most famous work was ‘The Canterbury Tales’ , written at the end of the fourteenth century.
The Canterbury Tales describe a group of pilgrims traveling from London to the tomb of Thomas Becket at Canterbury, a common religious act in England in the Middle Ages. During the journey each character tells a story. Collections of stories were popular at this time because almost all literature, unlike today, was written to be read out about. The stories themselves are not Chaucer’s own. He used old stories, but rewrote them in an interesting and amusing way. The first chapter, in which he describes his characters, is the result of Chaucer’s own deep understanding of human nature. It remains astonishingly fresh even after six hundred years. It is a unique description of a nation: young and old, knight and peasant, priest and merchant, good and bad, townsman and countryman.
By the end of the Middle Ages, English as well as Latin was beeing used in legal writing, and also in elementary schools. Education developed enormously during the fifteenth century, and many schools were founded by powerfulmen. One of these was William Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester and Lord of England, who founded Winchester School, in 1382, and New College, Oxford. Like Henry VI’s later foundation at Eton and Cambridge they have rremained famous for their high quality. Many other schools were also opened at this time, because there was a growing need for educated people who could administer the government, the Church, the law and trade. Clerks started grammar schools where students could learn the skills of reading and writing. These schools offered their pupils a future in the Church or the civil service, or at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The universities themselves continued to grow as colleges and halls where thre students could both live and be taught were built. The college system remains the basis of organization in these two universities.
The Middle Ages ended with a major technical development: William Caxton’s firsrt English printing press, set up in 1476. Caxton had learnt the skill of printing in Germany. At first he printed popular books, such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. This prose work described the adventures of the legendary King Arthur, including Arthur’s last battle, his death, and the deathof other Knights of the Round Table. Almost certanly Malory had in mind the destruction of the English nobility in the Wars of the Roses, which were taking place as he wrote.
Caxton’s printing was as dramatic fot his age as radio, television and the technological revolution are for our own. Books suddenly became cheaper and more plentiful, as the quicker printing process replaced slow and expensive copywriting by hand. Printing began to standardise spelling and grammar, thought this process was a long one. More important, just as radio brought information and ideas to the illiterate people of the twentieth century, Caxton’s press provided books for the newlyeducated people of the fifteenth century, and encouraged literacy. Caxton avoided printing any dangerous literature. But the children and grandchildren of these literate people were to use printing as a powerful weapon to change the world in which they lived.
Church and state
John’s reign also marked the end of the long struggle between Chrch and state in England. This had begun in 1066 when the pope claimed that William had promised to accept him as his feudal lord. William refused to accept this claim. He had created Norman bishops and given them land on condition that they paid homage to him. As a result it was not clear wheather the bisops should obey the Church or the king. Those kings and popes who wished to avoid conflict left the matter alone. But some kings and popes wanted to increase their authority. In such circumstances truble could not be avoided.
The struggle was for both power and money. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Church wanted the kings of Europe to accept its authority over both spiritual and earthly affairs, and argued that even kings were answerable to Gos. Kings, on the other hand, chose as bishops men who would be loyal to them.
The first serious quarrel was between William Rufus and Anselm, The man he had made Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm, with several other bishops, fearing the king, had escaped from England. After William’s death Anselm refused to do homage to William’s successor, Henry, meanwhile, had created several new bishops but they had no spiritual authority without the blessing of the archbishop. This left the king in a dificult position. It took seven years to settle the disagreement.
Finally the king agreed that only the Church could create bishops. But in return the Church agreed that bishops would pay homage to the king for the lands owned by their bisoprics. In practice the wishes of the king in the appointment of bishops remained important. But after Anselm’s death Henry managed to delay the appointment of a new arcbishop for five years while he benefited from the wealth of Canterbury. The struggle between Church and state continued.
The crisis came when Henry II’s friend Thomas Beket was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Henry hoped that Thomas would help him bring the Church more under his control. At first Becket refused, and then he gave in. Later he changed his mind again and ran away to France, And it seemed as if Henry had won. But in 1170 Becket returned to England determined to resist the king. Henry was very angy, and four knights who heard him speak out went to Canterbury to murder Becket. They killed him in the holiest place in the cathedral, on the altar steps.
All Christian Europe was shocked, and Thomas Becket became a saint of the Church. Forhundreds of years afterwards people not only from England but also from Europe travelled to Canterbury to pray at Becket’s grave. Henry was forced to ask the pope’s forgiveness. He also allowed himself to be whipped by monks. The pope used the event to take back some of the Church’s privileges. But Henry II could have lost much more than he did. Luckily for Henry, the nobles were also involved in the argument, and Henry had the nobles on his side. Usually the church preferred to support the king against the nobles, but expected to be rewarded for its support. King John’s mistake forty years later was to upset both Church and nobles at the same time.
The beginnings of Parliament
King John had signed Magna Carta unwillingly, and it quickly became clear that he was not going to keep to the agreement. The nobles rebelled and soon pushed Jhon out of the southeast. But civil war was avoided because John died suddenly in 1216.
Henry was finally able to rule himself at the age of twenty-five. It was understandable that he wanted to be completely independent of the people who controlled his life for so long. He spends his time with foreign friends, and became involved in expensive wars supporting the pope in Sicily and also in France.
Henry’s heavy spending and his foreign advisers upset the nobles. Once again they acted as a class under the leadership of Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester. In 1258 they took over the government and elected a council of nobles. De Montfort called it a parliament, or parlament, a French word meaning a “discussion meeting”. This “parliament” took control of the treasury and forced Henry to get rid of his foreign advisers. The towns, wich wished to be free of Henry’s heavy taxes, supported the nobles.
But some of nobles did no support the revolutionery new council, and remained loyal to Hrnry. With their help Henry was finally able to defeat and kill Simon de Montfort in 1265. Once again he had full royal authority, although he was careful to accept the balance, which de Montfort had created between king and nobles. When Henry died in 1272 his son Edward I took the thorne without question.
Edward I brought tigether the real parliament.
Simon de Montfort’ s council had been called a parliament, but it included only nobles. It had been able to make statutes, or written laws, and it had been able to make political decisions. However, the lords were less able to provide the king with money, except what thei had agreed to pay him for the lands they held under feudal arrangement. It the days of Henry I (1100 - 1135), 85 per cent of the king’s income had come from the land. By 1272 income from the land was less than 40 per cent of the royal income. The king could only raise the rest by taxation. Since the rules of feudalism did not include taxation, taxes could only be raised with the agreement of those wealthy enough to be taxed.
Several kings had arrangements for taxation before, but Edward I was the first to create a “representative institution” which could provide the money he needed. This institution became the House of Commons. Unlike the House of Lords it contained a mixture of “gentry” (knights and other wealthy freeman from the shires) and merchants from the towns. These were the two broad classes of people who produced and controlled England’s wealth.
In 1275 Edward I commanded each shire and each town to send two representatives to his parliament. These “commoners” would have stayted away if they could, to avoid giving Edward money. But few dared risk Edward’s anger. They became unwilling representatives of their local community. This, rather than Magna Carta, was the beginning of the idea that there should be “no taxation without representation”, later claimed by the American colonists of the eighteenth century.
In other parts of Europe, similar “parliament” kept all the gentry separate from the commoners. England was special because the House of Commons contained a mixture of genrty belonging to the feudal ruling class and merchants and freeman who did not. The co-operation of these groups, through the House of Commons, became important to Britain’s later political and social development. During the 150 years following Edward’s death agreement of the Commons became necessary for the making of all statutes, and all special taxation additional to regular taxes.
Dealing with the Celts
Edward I was less interested in winning back parts of France than in bringing the rest of Britain under his control.
William I had allowed his lords win land by conquest in Wales. These Normans slowly extended their control up the Welsh river valleys and by the beginning of the twelfth century much of Wales was held by them. They built castles as they went forward, and mixted with and married the Welsh during the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries. A new class grew up, a mixture of the Norman and Welsh rulers, who spoke Norman French and Welsh, but not English. They all became vassals of the English king.
The only Welsh who were at all free from English rule lived around Snowdon, the wild mountainous area of north Wales. They were led by Llewelyn of Gruffydd, prince of Gwynedd, who tried to become independent of the English. Edward was determined to defeat him and bring Wales completely under his control. In 1282 Llewelyn was captured and killed. Edward then began a programme of castle building, which was extremely expensive and took many years to complete.
In 1284 Edward united west Wales with England, bringing the English county system to the newly conquered lands. But he did interfere with the areas the Normans had conquered earlier on the English – Welsh border, because this would have led to trouble with his nobles.
The English considered that Wales had become part of England for all practical purpose. If the Welsh wanted a prince, they could have one. At a public ceremony at Caernarfon Edward I made his own baby son (later Edward II) Prince of Wales, from that time the eldest son of the ruling king or quuen has usually been made Prince of Wales
Ireland had been conquered by Norman lords in 1169. They had little difficulty in deafiting the Irish kings and tribes. Henry II, afraid that his lords might become too independent, went to Ireland himself. He forced the Irishchiefs and Norman lords to accept his lordship. He died so with the authority of the pope, who hoped to bring the Irish Celtic Church under his own control.
Henry II made Dublin, the old Viking town, and the capital of his new colony. Much of western Ireland remained in the hands of Irish chiefs, while Norman lords governed most of the east. Edward I took as much money and as many as he could for his wars against the Welsh and Scots. As a resulr Ireland was drained of its wealth. By 1318 it was able to provide the English king with only one-third of the amount it had been able to give in 1272. The Norman nobles and Irish chiefs quietly avoided English authority as much as possible. As a result, the English Crown only controlled Dublin and a small area around it, known as “the Pale”.
The Irish chiefs continued to live as they always had done, moving from place to place, and eating out of doors, a habit they only gave up in the sixteenth century. The Anglo-Irish lords, on the other hand, built strong stone castles, as they had done in Wales. But they also became almost completely independent from the English Crown, and some became “more Irish than the Irish”.
In Scotland things were very different. Althought Scottish kings had sometimes accepted the English king as their “overlord”, they were much stronger eleventh century there was only one king of Scotland. Only a few areas of the western coast were still completely independent and these all came under the king’s control during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In Ireland and Wales Norman knights were strong enough to fight local chiefs on their own. But only the English king with a large army could hope to defeat the Scots. Most English kings did not even try, but Edward I was different.
The Scottish kings were closely connected with England. Since Saxon times, marriages had frequentlytaken place between the Scottish and English royal families. At the same time, in order to establish strong government, the Scottish kings offered land to Norman knights from England in return for their loyalty. Scotland followed England in creating a feudal state. On the whole Celtic society accepted this, probably because the Normans married into local Celtic noble families. The feudal system, however, did not develop in the Highlands, where the tribal “clan” system continued. Some Scottish kings held land in England, just as English kings held land in France. And in exactly the same way they did homage, promising loyalty to the English king for that land.
In 1290 a crisis took place over the succesion to the Scottish throne. There were thirteen possible heirs. Among these the most likely to succeed were John De Balliol and Robert Bruce, both Norman – Scottish knights. In order to avoid civil war the Scottish nobles invited Edward I to settle the matter.
Edward had already shown interest in joining Scotland to his kingdom. In 1286 he had arranged for his own son to marry Margaret, the heir to the Scottish thorne, but she had died in a shipwreck.
Now he had another chance. He told both men that they must do homaje to him, and so accept his overlordship, before he would help settle the question. He then invaded Scotland and put one of them, John de Balliol, on the Scottish throne.
De Balliol’s four years as king were not happy. First, Edward made him provide money and troops for the English army and the scottish nobles rebelled. Then Edward invaded Scotland again, and captured all the main Scottish castles. During the invasion Edward stole the sacred Stone of Destiny from Scone Abbey on which, so the legend said, all Scottish coronation would be meaningless, and that his own possession of the Stone would persuade the Scots to accept him as king. Howevwr, neither he nor his successors became kings of Scots, and the Scottish kings managed perfecttly well without it.
Edward’s treatment of the Scots created a popular resistance movement. At first it was led by William Wallace, a Norman–Scottish knight. But after one victory against an English army, Wallace’s “people’s army” was itself destroyed by Edward in 1297. The Scots had formed rings of spearmen, which stood firm against the English cavalry attacks, but Edward’s Welsh longbowmen broke the Scottish formations, and the cavalry then charged down on them.
It seemed as if Edward had won after all. He captured Wallace and executed him, putting his head on a pole on London Bridge. Edward tried to make Scotland a part of England, as he had done with Wales. Some Scottish nobles accepted him, but the people refused to be ruled by the English king. Scottish netionalism was born on the day Wallace died.
A new leader took up the struggle. This was Robert Bruce, who had competed with John de Balliol for the throne. He was able to raise an army and defeat the English army in Scotland. Edward I gathered another great army and marched against Robert Bruce, but he died on the way north in 1307. On Edward’s grave were written the words “Edward, the Hammer of the Scots”. He had intended to hammer them into the ground and destroy them, but in fact he had hammered them into a nation.
After the death of his son, Edward II, turned back to England. Bruce had time to defeat his Scottish enemies, and make himself accepted as king of the Scots. He then began to win back the castles still held by the English. When Edward II invaded Scotland in 1314 in an effort to help the last English held castles, Bruce destroyed his army at Bannockburn, near Stirling. Six years later, in 1320, the Scots clergy meeting at Arbroath wrote to the pope in Rome to tell him that they would never accept English authority: “For as long as even one hundred of us remain alive, we will never consent to subject ourselves to the dominion of the English”.
The cenrury of plagues
The year 1348 brouht an event of far greater importance than the creation of a new order of chivalry. This was the terrible plague, known as the Black Death; which reached almost every part of Britain during 1348-1349. Probably more than one-third of the entire population of Britain died, and less than one person in ten who caught the plague managed to survive it. Whole villages disappeared, and some towns were almost completely deserted until plague itself died out. The Black Death was neighter the first natural disaster of the fourtheen century, nor the last. Plagues had killed sheeps and other animals earlier in the cenrury. An agricultural crisis resulted from the growth in population and the need to produce more food. Land was no longer allowed to rest one year in three, wich meant that it was over-used, resulting in years of famine when the harvest failed. This proces had already begun to slow down populatin growth by 1300.
After the Black Death there were other plagues during the rest of the century, which killed mostly the young and healthy. In 1300 the populatin of Britain had problably been over four million. By the end of the century it was probably hardly half that figure, and it only began to grow again in the second half of the fifteenth century. Even so, it took until the seventeenth century before the population reached four million again.
The dramatic fall in populatin, however, was not entirely a bad thing. At the end of the thirteenth century the sharp rise in prices had led an increasing number of landlords to stop payng workers for their labour, and to go back to serf labour in order to avoid losses. In return villagers were given land to farm, but this tenated land was often the poorest land of the manorial estate. After the Black Death there were so few people to work on the land that the remaining workers could ask for more money for their labours. We know they did this because the king and Parliament tried again and again to control wage increases. We also know from these repeated effortf that they cannot have been succesful. The poor found that they could demand more money and did so. This finally led to the end of serfdom.
Because of the shortage and expense of labour, landlords returned to the twelfth-century practice of letting out their land to energetic freeman farmers who bit by bit added to their own land. In the twelfth century, however, the practice of letting out farms had been a way of increasing the landlords’s profits. Now it became a way of avoiding losses. Many “firma” agreements were for a whole life span, and some for several life span. By the mid-fifteenth century few landlords had home farms at all. These smaller farmers who rented the manorial lands slowly became a new class, known as the “yeomen”. They became an important of the agricultural economy, and have alwais remained so.
Overall, agricultural land production shrank, but those who survived the disasters of the fourteenth century enjoyed a greater share of the agricultural economy. Even for peasants life became more comfortable. For the first time they had enough money to build more solid houses, in stone where it was available, in place of huts made of wood, mud and thatch.
There had been other econimic changes during the fourtheen century. The most important of these was the replacement of wool by finished cloth as England’s main export. This change was the natural result of the very high prices at which English wool was sold in Flanders by the end of the thirteenth century. Merchants decided they could increase their profits further by buying wool in England at half the price for which it was sold in Flanders, and produce finished cloth for export. This proces suddenly grew very rapidly after the Flemish cloth industry itself collapsed during the years 1320 1360. Hindreats of skilled Flemings came to England in search of work. They were encouraged to do so by Edward III because there was a clear benefit to England in exporting a finished product rather than a raw material. The surname “Fleming” has been a common one in England ever since, particulary in East Anglia, where many Flemings settled.
At the beginig of the century England had exported 30,000 sacks of raw wool but only 8,000 lenghts of Cloth Each year, by the middle of the century it exproted 8,000 sacks of wool but 50.000 lenghts of cloth, and by the end of the century this increased to well over 100,000. The wool export towns declined. They were replaced by towns and villages with fast-flowing rivers useful for towns and villages for the new proces of cleaning and treating wool. Much of the colthmaking process, like spinning, was done in the workers’ own homes. Indeed, so many young women spun wool that “spinster” became and has remained the word for an unmarried woman.
The West Country, wallws, and Yorkshire in the north all died well from the change in clothmaking. But London remained much larger and richer. By the late fourteenth century trade with the outside world, especially the Baltic, Mediterranean and North Sea ports, supported its 50.000 inhabitans. Its nearest trade rival was Bristol.