The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

14th century in Britain

Category: 14th century

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.

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