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ENGLAND IN THE MIDDLE AGES (11th—15th CENTURIES) The Economic and Social Development of the State

The whole economic development of the country from the 11th to the 14th century illustrates the increasing degree of exploitation of the peasant by the feudal lords, as well as by the church. Trade was increasing throughout the country with merchants and middlemen who travelled from manor to manor and market to market. Much trading consisted of wool, which could be profitably sold not only at the local market but more especially to the cloth-manufacturing towns of the European continent, particularly Flanders. England was not originally a cloth-weaving country, and when Flemish weavers were brought into the country in the 14th century to teach the secrets of their trade to English peasants and craftsmen, the resulting cloth manufacture meant a still more rapid increase of the volume of trade and more rapid accumulation of wealth. Till: towns grew rapidly in size, importance and wealth, and became centres of handicraft production of all kinds.

The lords of the manor were no longer content to accept merely the surplus produce of their peasants for their own immediate use, but began to increase their wealth by the sale 'of agricultural products at the country markets. Striving to achieve greater productivity the lords were interested to pay money to the peasant who would sell his labour for hire, rather than rely on forced labour which was unproductive. The peasant who had been unfortunate with his harvest quite often became a hired agricultural labourer. In this way wage labourers were formed, without land of their own. This process of 'commuting' labour services for money was spreading gradually over the country, but it was not complete, when it was interrupted by a disaster in the middle of the 14th century, the plague or Black Death, which spread all throughout Europe including England.

In the 12th century a new dynasty was established in England—the so-called Plantagenet dynasty. Henry II (1154—89), became King of England. He came from France and his family name was Angevin, but he was called Henry Plantagenet, because that was the name of Henry's father, the Count of Anjou. The name Plantagenet was taken from their badge, which was a sprig of planta genista, the Latin name for broom. His domain included large possessions in France.' To his new English possessions he soon added some Scotch territory, established his lordship over Wales and made 'conquests' in Ireland. Henry was the first English king to attempt the conquest of Ireland. The country was seriously divided—with little central government. In 1169 an Irish chieftain asked Henry for aid, and in reply the king sent an adventurer, Richard Strongbow, who proceeded to conquer much of the country. Two years later Henry II himself .crossed the Irish Channel and became recognized as Lord of Ireland. However, he succeeded in establishing his authority only in a small district around Dublin known as 'The Pale' because of fierce Irish opposition. The events marked the beginning of the long struggle of the Irish people for independence against English yoke. To rule such a vast domain effectively, Henry had to have considerable money. To secure this, he restored the Exchequer to its earlier prominence and made it aid him in collecting the customary taxes, as well as some/newly introduced taxes. With this money he employed mercenaries for his army instead of using unwilling vassals. He removed most of the old sheriffs and replaced them by appointees of his own who were better tax collectors. Henry II had four sons, two of which died in his lifetime. When Henry II died he was succeeded by Richard, best known as the Lionhearted, who loved adventure and conflict and typified the chivalry of the time. All but six months of his ten years' reign he spent abroad either on a crusade or on the continent of Europe. On Richard's death John, the fourth son of Henry II, became king (1199-1216).

The main provisions of feudalism may be regarded as a contract between the king, on the one hand, and his vassals, on the other. It was recognized that the king had certain rights and duties. In the same way the vassal had his corresponding rights and duties. If the feudal contract was openly violated by the king, the barons, having exhausted all other means, could rebel against the king. This of course was a very risky thing, especially in England, where the power of the Crown was very great.

John Lackland, as he was known in English history because he practically lost everything that he possessed, thought himself above the existing feudal laws and used the most evil means for forcing money out of his people.

The church was similarly treated, and the towns, that had become comparatively independent, were made to pay all kinds of taxes and fines. The result was the complete isolation of the Crown from those sections that had previously been its supporters. John was unwise enough to make an attack on the church over the filling of the vacant seat of Archbishop of Canterbury at he time when Pope Innocent III was in power, for then the Catholic church was extremely powerful. Pope Innocent III made use of this situation in England and declared John excommunicated and deposed of his powers as king. Moreover, Innocent III persuaded the kings of France and Scotland to make war on him. John's forces were crushed and the English barons refused to fight. John stood alone. Unwillingly he submitted and on June 15, 1215, at a field called Runnymede by the river Thames John signed the programme of demands expressed by the barons in a document known as Magna Charta or the Great Charter.

• This document of sixty-three sections provided that the church and the barons were to retain their old rights and liberties. The ancient liberties of London and of other towns were guaranteed. Merchants were to be permitted to trade without paying heavy tolls. However, most important was the clause decreeing that no freeman was to be detained or punished except 'by the lawful judgement of his peers and the law of the land'. The class character of this clause is most evident for only the freeman, or in fact the privileged classes could make use of this right. One of the specific points of the Great Charter was the setting up of a permanent committee of 25 barons to see that John's promises were kept. It also said that John must govern with the Council's advice and permission. This particular device did not work well but it gave the barons the advantage to start a political struggle against the king if necessary as a class rather than as individuals.

Magna Charta meant great changes in the feudal system. Even more important, however, was the Charter's influence on those classes in future centuries — the bourgeoisie and the gentry — who stood against the king's powers and demanded a limitation of his rights.

The moment the barons dispersed, John denounced the Charter and gathered an army. A war followed which was interrupted by the death of John. His son Henry was only nine. Government was carried out in his name by a group of 'barons. They became stronger than ever before. Within this period the principles of Magna Charta came to be accepted as the basis of the law at least in theory.

During the minority of Henry III the baronial group governed the country in the name of the king. When Henry came of age the struggle resumed, for he was much influenced by his French wife's foreign friends to whom he gave lands that the barons thought should have been kept for themselves. Moreover, Henry III was under the great influence of the church. The result was that while Henry was constantly making demands for money the administration of the state grew less efficient.

When Henry III allowed himself to be persuaded by the Pope in 1257 to accept the kingdom of Sicily for his son Edward and asked the Council to provide the money necessary to conquer the island there was a very large opposition in the country. The barons refused the money. However, they were not united and the king made use of this. A civil war started in the country. In 1258 the barons and churchmen held an assembly and drew up the Provisidns of Oxford. That document provided that the Justiciar, Chancellor, and Treasurer be appointed with their consent, and that abuses of the king's officials in local districts be ended. A Council of Fifteen was to govern England and control the ministers. Other committees were to look after finances and the church. The barons soon disagreed among themselves, however, and the king took advantage of their disputes. Then it was that a new leader of the barons appeared in the person of Simon de Montfort. In the civil war (1264—5), Simon's forces defeated those of the king at the battle of Lewes (1264) and captured the king and his son Edward.

It was under these circumstances that Simon summoned the first English parliament in January 1265. Besides the barons there were knights (2 knights from each shire) and burgesses from the towns (representatives of the well-to-do dwellers of the towns). Simon had summoned these representatives in order to gain their support and consolidate his power. However, he failed in the latter. Prince Edwardjfescaped, defeated Simon and killed him.

Although the king was now back in power, the parliamentary experiment had made its mark. Simon's creation did not die with him. Prince Edward continued it when he became king. Two knights from each county were summoned, and two burgesses from each town. Under future kings, the custom grew. It continued calling to council not only the barons, but persons to represent the 'commons' — that is, the local communities. At first it was only a way of telling these leading citizens of towns what new taxes to expect. They listened; but they did not talk. However, eventually the practice changed and parliament assumed its role as a fiscal body responsible for taxation.

The composition of parliament, where there were knights and burgesses, was of important significance too. The knights or lesser landowners lived on their estates and made the largest possible income from them. They were greatly interested in the development of the wool-trade. Thus they had many common interests with the merchants and wealthy craftsmen of the towns. Later on the gentry emerged from these landowners, as well as the bourgeoisie from the top of the town dwellers. These two classes were to play the most important role in the gradual consolidation of power of the English parliament, which assumed its supreme legislative role in the seventeenth century during the English bourgeois revolution.

In the course of the 14th century parliament took its modern shape consisting of two Houses — the House of Lords and the House of Commons. In this division the knights of the shire took their places in the House of Commons with the burgesses, whereas the lords and the top clergy sat in the House of Lords.

The new king, Edward I (1272 — 1307) concentrated his efforts to conquer Wale's and subdue Scotland, unlike his predecessors who had been busy with their possessions in France. Shortly after his accession to the throne, Edward faced a rebellion in Wales led by Prince Llewelyn. After a struggle of several years he defeated the Welsh leader and extended into that region the system of English law and shires. After having suppressed a further rebellion, he placed the country under the direct control of the English ruler (1284), and introduced further changes in local government. Thus by the end of the 13th century Wales became fully subdued by England.

Attempts were made to conquer Scotland. Rival claimants to the Scotch throne submitted their claims to him. Among them were two nobles, Robert the Rruce and John Baliol. Edward I supported Baliol. However, soon that ruler rebelled against his overlord Edward I. The latter deposed Baliol of power and assumed control of Scotland himself. The Scots, however, formed an alliance with France and invaded northern England. Edward in turn invaded Scotland, and thereafter he repeated his invasions several times. Finally he left Scotland taking with him the legendary Stone of Scone, on which the Scottish kings had always been crowned and fashioned it into part of a sumptuous chair — Coronation Chair which ever since has been used at coronations of English kings. However, departing from Scotland in 1286 Edward I left an army behind and an officer to represent him. Nevertheless, the Scotch would not yield to the English yoke. Robert the Bruce headed the national uprising, killed Edward's chief officer in Scotland and drove the English out of the country. In 1306 he was crowned king. Edward responded by sending an army north. Bruce was defeated but escaped to an island between Scotland and Ireland. Though in a desperate position Bruce managed to muster an army and retake most of what the English seized. Edward I died and the new English king, Edward II, was reluctant to make a new attempt^

However, seven years later, Edward II decided to attack Robert the Bruce in Scotland. He managed to cross the border and reach the Bannock burn or stream just south of Stirling Castle, which was not taken by the Scots and remained in English hands. Here in the battle of Bannockburn, as it was named, in 1314 the English suffered a most serious defeat. As a result of this defeat Scotland maintained its independence for the next three centuries.

In 1348 — 9 a disastrous bubonic plague swept over England, carrying death and destruction in its wake. The Black Death in England interrupted a process that had been transforming the villages for nearly a hundred years. It was already noted above that from quite early in the 13th century under the influence of economic changes throughout the country and the development of trade, began a process of commutation or the replacement of labour services by rents. Many of the serfs had come to an arrangement with their lords to pay money instead of services. The plan was convenient for both sides. This process of commuting services for money was spreading gradually over the country by the time of the Black Death. The effects of the plague were momentous. The great decrease in population increased wages, gave more freedom to the serfs, prostrated farming, and caused the land to decline in value. It disrupted industry and trade and depopulated whole villages. From 1347 to 1350 at least one-third of the whole population perished. In 1350 Parliament, composed almost entirely of landowners attempted to check the rise of wages by the Statute of Labourers ordering the labourers to take the old rate of wages under pain of imprisonment, slavery, death. But even these penalties could not make men obey the laws. The rise in prices went on and men could not live on the old wages.

Then the landlords tried to solve the problem in another way. They decided to revive the old practice of rendering duties to the landlord and commutation was refused to the serf. The poll taxes of 1379 and 1380 ('poll' being Middle English for 'head'), which were extremely heavy for the poor, furthered the growing discontent in the country which inevitably led to open revolt.

Alongside this development in the countryside and towns there was overwhelming discontent of the people with the church. The members of the church hierarchy were among the greatest feudal magnates and the cruellest exploiters of the peasants. Apart from exploitation, the life they led was shameful for its luxury and immorality. The first fundamental attack on the position of the church came from John Wyclif (1324—84), a teacher at Oxford University. Wyclif attacked the pope and the bishops, pointing at their fine palaces, their liking for ceremony, their immorality. His followers attacked many Catholic dogmas.

Wyclif spread his message by writing some of his books in English instead of Latin, the language of the church. His followers were called Lollards, because of the low and quiet way in which they said their prayers. Some of the Lollards went into the countryside to preach Wyclif's message to the common people. Wyclif told others to translate the Bible into English so that it could be understood by people who knew no Latin. He exposed the church in its interpretation of the Bible. Many people became Lollards, and therefore heretics. They were persecuted by the church and the feudals. The Lollards increased in numbers and joined the other discontented people in the countryside. Many of the Lollard priests, such as John Ball himself, became leaders of the peasants' revolt. Lollardry became a doctrine of social protest more and more bound with the struggle of the people not only against the church, but also against the authority and tyranny of the feudal lords in general. The programmes of the rebel peasants which also included the demands to confiscate the church lands were undoubtedly worked out under the influence of Lollardry. Wyclif's doctrines were not forgotten after his death. They were carried to continental Europe. Hence Wyclif is regarded as a forerunner of the Reformation.

In 1381 peasant outbreaks occurred first in Essex and Kent, and soon the rioters, led by Wat Tyler, an artisan from Kent and a former soldier, were marching on London and burning the houses of landlords, officials, tax-gatherers, as they went. The peasants with Wat Tyler as leader reached London. The people of London who were also discontent opened London bridge and the rebels took complete possession of the whole city. The king, Richard II, took refuge in the Tower of London. The rebels killed the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Treasurer who had proposed the hateful poll-tax. Under the pressure of the rebels the king met them, promising to abolish feudal dues and to make everyone free man. There were also demands to establish freedom of trade for all towns, free pardon for all the participants of the revolt. The more radical rebels demanded an enlargement of the peasants' land plots, abolition of anti-labour laws and privileges for the titled nobility.

During the second meeting with the king Wat Tyler was treacherously killed and the rebels dispersed in confusion hoping that Richard II would respect his promises. However, this was not the case. Having deceived the rebels, the king and landlords began their revenge and crushed the revolt with great severity.

But though the rising had failed, there was no complete return to the old conditions. The lords had been scared. The attempt to keep wages at the old level was abandoned. There was no imposition of labour services. Moreover, the serf system inevitably collapsed and the serf was gradually becoming a free peasant or a wage labourer. Hence the peasant uprising of Wat Tyler played a most important role in breaking down the feudal relations of production. It was the first great English rebellion of peasant labour against the feudal landlords.

Date: 2015-02-03; view: 2844

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