Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The fourteenth century

Helen Castor, She-Wolves: The Women who Ruled England before Elizabeth (Faber and Faber)
Gerald Harris, Shaping the Nation: England 1360-1461 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005)
Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: the Kings who made England (William Collins, 2013)
Michael Prestwich, Plantagenet England 1225-1360 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)
Miri Rubin, The Hollow Crown. A History of Britain in the late Middle Ages (London: Penguin, 2006)
Tidemann, Lauren, ‘For the Glory of England: The Changing Nature of Kingship on Fourteenth-Century England’, Sententiae: The Harvard Undergraduate Journal of Medieval Studies (2011)[This can be viewed here.]

The fourteenth century saw the deposition of two monarchs, the Black Death that killed a third of the population, a war with France, and a popular revolt. Parliament became more assertive and activist. It met more frequently than in the thirteenth or the fifteenth centuries and the length of the sessions increased.

Edward II (1307-27)

"Edward II - British Library Royal 20 A ii f10 (detail)"
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Edward’s reign was one of the most troubled in English history. It was a time of natural disaster, with a series of bad harvests leading to the Great Famine of 1315-22, in which between 10 and 15 per cent of the population died, and northern England was plagued by invasions from Scotland. But many of Edward’s troubles were of his own making.

Piers Gaveston: Almost from the start of his reign, Edward aroused criticism because of the way in which he governed the country through his favourites. The barons fiercely resented his intense friendship with the Gascon, Piers Gaveston.  They also demanded a greater involvement in important decision-making, especially financial and military administration. In 1311 they presented the king with a list of demands, the Ordinances.  They were reflecting a tradition of baronial activism that was now almost a century old, but increasingly, parliament was the site for this type of debate. In 1312 the dissident earls captured Gaveston, subjected him to a mock trial and executed him at Blacklow Hill, a few miles from Warwick Castle. This was a judicial murder, showing that violence had become a political tool, and it set an enormously dangerous precedent.

Hugh Despenser: By 1318 the king had a new favourite, Hugh Despenser the younger, who had fought with him at Bannockburn. He and his father worked to promote royal power and patronage and to undermine the constitutional gains made by the magnates. The opposition focused round the wealthy northern peer, Thomas earl of Lancaster. In the summer of 1321 two parliaments were assembled on the earl’s home territory at Pontefract and Sherburn at which the magnates swore to oppose the rule of the Despensers. The king marched into Yorkshire and defeated the magnates at Boroughbridge. Lancaster surrendered, and was tried and executed.

Overthrow and deposition: The final opposition to Edward II came not from the barons but from his wife, Isabella of France. In 1326 Isabella, who had been in France, arrived in England at the head of an invasion force, with her lover, Roger Mortimer, and her fourteen-year-old son, Edward. The invaders described themselves as ‘the community of the realm’ – by implication this was a higher authority than the king himself. They were welcomed into London, and Edward retreated into Wales. In November he and Hugh

The execution of Hugh Dispenser
from Froissart's Chronicle
Licensed under Public domain
via Wikimedia Commons
Despenser were captured at Llantrisant in Glamorgan. Edward was imprisoned at Monmouth, and Despenser was executed at Hereford. Isabella and Mortimer then proclaimed that Edward had abandoned his realm and that the young Prince Edward had ‘with the assent of the whole community of the realm’ (that phrase again) been appointed keeper of the kingdom.

The deposition of Edward II – an anointed king - was new in English history, without a workable precedent. On 13 January 1327, parliament decided that Edward should be replaced by his eldest son. Two bishops and the archbishop of Canterbury preached sermons, after which it was agreed that a 24-man embassy of bishops, abbots, earls, barons, knights of the shire, Londoners, and men from the Cinque Ports – the whole political nation - should go to Kenilworth to deal with Edward, with Adam Orleton, bishop of Hereford and Worcester, acting as spokesman. Edward was faced with a choice of abdication or deposition. He seems to have agreed to the former. After this the steward of the royal household formally broke his staff of office, thus nullifying the coronation anointing. On 25 January the embassy reported back to parliament and the new king’s reign formally began. Edward III was speedily anointed and crowned in Westminster Abbey on 1 February. His coronation oath contained a novel promise: that he would 
'hold and preserve the laws and righteous customs which the community of the realm shall have chosen'.

Parliament had taken a revolutionary step. It had deposed a king, and even more remarkably, it continued to sit until March. On the continent, there had been precedents for deposition since the eleventh century when Pope Gregory VII had declared the emperor Henry IV deposed, but in this case there was no time to consult the pope. Parliament acted on its own. The core of its complaint was that Edward had been a worthless king, who had failed to preserve the lands he had inherited and who had listened to evil counsellors. However, the crown itself was not weakened by this move. Edward II was replaced by his son and there was no attempt to reduce royal authority.

‘Edward, the late king’ was killed at Berkeley castle on 21 September 1327. He was buried with full honours at Gloucester Cathedral on 20 December, and his magnificent tomb in Gloucester Cathedral illustrates the continuing prestige of the crown and a desire to expiate the murder of an anointed king. 

Isabella and Mortimer then repeated the mistakes of Edward II in governing in their own interests and mismanaging the finances of the kingdom. In November 1330, the eighteen-year-old Edward III overthrew them. Mortimer was executed, Isabella forced into private life at Castle Rising in Norfolk, and Edward’s personal rule began.

The deposition of Edward II was an unprecedented event, but one that could now be repeated. In 1341 John of Stratford, Archbishop of Canterbury, warned Edward III: 
‘And, sire, let it displease you not, you may remember it in your own time; for by the evil council which our lord your father…made seize against the law of his land…and what happened to him for that cause, you, sire, do know.'

Edward III (1327-77)

Edward in Garter robes by William Bruges (1375–1450)
 Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Edward is seen as one of the most remarkable rulers of medieval England. His foundation of the Order of the Garter was the embodiment of the chivalric ideal. Under him Windsor Castle became a splendid dynastic centre, the home of chivalry. The decoration of St George’s Chapel in the Tuscan style shows that he was a European king, the head of a magnificent dynasty.

But Edward asserted his English identity in the Statute of Pleading (1362) which made English rather than French the language of the royal law courts. 

His rule faced many challenges: there was war with Scotland, a newly enhanced war in France, and a country struck by plague, depopulation and economic uncertainty. But in spite of the problems of his reign he remained popular until his last years, because he did what a king was meant to do: win military victories.

In 1340 Edward began the Hundred Years’ War when he claimed the French throne through his mother Isabella, the daughter of Philip IV, against the Valois king, Philip VI. In January 1340 he quartered the lilies of France on his shield, and began to style himself King of France, a title the English (later British) monarchs retained until 1802. In 1346 the English defeated the French at Crécy and captured Calais. After the Black Prince’s victory at Poitiers, King Jean II was taken prisoner.

The development of Parliament

The financial demands of Edward’s wars enhanced the importance of parliament. By the time of his accession, it was a vigorous forum for fiscal and military deliberations. It was an expanding and evolving version of a royal council, summoned only when the king chose, but events in the thirteenth century had also made it a form for the hearing of grievances. 

In 1322 a document called the Modus tenendi Parliamentum was composed, probably by a clerk of parliament. The document sees parliament as having a number of functions: it was a venue for the trials of peers and for treason trials; it was the proper forum for settling disputes between the king’s subjects; and it was a court of appeal. Accounts were to be kept in rolls 25 cm wide, and then if files, all kept by five clerks who were paid two shillings a day. The king presided over parliament and round him were his officials, his magnates and his prelates.  This document was copied frequently into legal collections and helped to systematise the workings of parliament.

Parliament normally met at Westminster. At its opening the Lords met in the Painted Chamber of the Palace of Westminster, the Commons in Westminster Hall, from where they were called to the entrance of the Painted Chamber to hear the ‘charge’ or cause of summons declared by the chancellor. The Lords and Commons then retired to their separate meeting places. By 1460 the division of parliament into two houses had become recognized.

The primary function of the Commons was to grant taxes. Edward III’s wars led to more frequent parliaments and provided the opportunity for the Commons to become more assertive and develop new bargaining skills when they tied the granting of taxes to other requests. Parliaments provided for the interchange of views between the Crown and subjects. By the 1340s there was habitual ‘intercommuning’ – joint discussion and consultation between Lords and Commons. From 1340 the clergy had their own assembly, Convocation, though bishops continued to sit with the peers.

Parliamentarians were also acquiring more important rules within their local communities. From 1361 king and council appointed justices of the peace, who were taken from the local gentry.  Increasingly, sheriffs, though still appointed by the king, were local men. 

As parliaments were summoned more frequently and came to play a greater role in government professional politicians developed: representatives who were re-elected for more than one parliament. These men were expected to speak on behalf of their local communities, whether counties or boroughs. At the centre of government, royal officials found that parliamentary business took up an increasing amount of time, as summonses had to be sent out at least forty days in advance and parliamentary business had to be recorded. The judges were also active in the parliamentary process, insisting in 1355 that no change could be made to statute without the consent of parliament.

The 'Good Parliament', 1376

Edward’s last years saw a marked decline from his early greatness. The country was heavily taxed to pay for the war with France, and there was considerable resentment at what was seen as court corruption. 

On 28 April parliament met at Westminster to be faced with demands for more taxation. The Commons met in the chapter house, where they took oaths of mutual support and secrecy.    Under its Speaker, Peter de la Mare, it set out to reform central government in the name of the common good. They forced the king to agree to their demands for the removal of his ‘evil counsellors’ and his mistress, Alice Perrers, and in bringing them to trial they stumbled upon the process of impeachment. With the dissolution of this parliament, many of its reforms were reversed. Yet the Good Parliament was not forgotten. It revealed the constant tension between the sometimes conflicting principles of obedience to authority and the pursuit of the common good.

Richard II (1377-99)

In June 1376, Edward III’s son, the Black Prince, died. In the following June the king died, and was succeeded by his ten-year-old grandson, Richard II. During Richard’s minority, Parliament showed itself assertive, though it was willing to grant taxation, most notoriously the poll tax of 1377 (one groat – 4d. – per head for all men and women over fourteen, and in 1381 1s. for each person over fifteen). The resulting Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 
was in part a revolt on behalf of the ‘true commons’, those excluded from the privileges of the landowning classes. Their quarrel was not with the king but his advisors, such as the archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury, and the king’s uncle, John of Gaunt, whose Savoy Palace was burned. This was why the young Richard was able to seize the initiative when he met the rebels at Smithfield on 15 June. 

The Peasants’ Revolt left an uneasy legacy of insecurity. The 1380s was a time of high taxation and fears of invasion from both the French and the Scots.

In the 1380s Parliament again flexed its muscles. In 1386 the 'Wonderful Parliament' impeached and punished Michael de la Pole, the king’s chancellor since 1383. In 1388 the 'Merciless Parliament' launched trials against Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford and John Beauchamp, Steward of the King’s Household. De Vere fled to France but Beauchamp was executed.  When Richard obtained his majority in 1389 at the age of twenty-two, there was a superficial reconciliation, but the memory of the conflict remained.

In 1389 England and France signed a peace treaty that lasted until 1415. This enabled the return of prosperity and allowed some ambitious buildings to be constructed. One of the most striking visual mementos of Richard’s reign is the hammer-beam roof of Westminster Hall

Images of a king: The Wilton Diptych, painted in the mid to late 1390s shows how Richard wished his kingship to be regarded: as the heir to the martyred King Edmund and Edward the Confessor, championed by the Virgin and attendant angels, all wearing his badge of the white hart.

"Wilton diptych" by Unknown (English or French) -
Derivative of Image:The Wilton Diptych (left).jpg and Image:
The Wilton Diptych (Right).jpg.
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons 

The Westminster portrait, a large painted image of Richard sitting in regal splendour and modelled on depictions of Christ in majesty, was placed in the choir of Westminster Abbey in these years.
The Westminster Portrait

Usurpation: However, Richard's magnificent imagery failed to live up to contemporary ideas of kingship. He pursued peace with France rather than military glory. His power-base was narrow. It centred on Cheshire and Flintshire, where he built up a fantasy realm peopled by his loyal supporters. He chose to ignore the fact that large parts of the rest of the country were dominated by the great magnates and their followers. 

Richard’s huge political mistake was to alienate many of these magnates, in particular, his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby. He banished him April 1398 and when his father, Richard's uncle, John of Gaunt, died in February 1399, he denied him his rightful inheritance as Duke of Lancaster.

In July 1399, while Richard was campaigning in Ireland, Henry of Derby landed in Ravenspur, claiming that he had simply come to establish his right to his inheritance. By early August he was marching, largely unopposed, through Cheshire and into Wales. On 19 August Richard surrendered to Henry at Flint Castle, promising to abdicate if his life were spared. Both men then rode to London, where Richard was imprisoned on 1 September. 

Parliament was summoned, and it created a case against the king of mismanagement and failure to fulfil his sacred kingly oath. On 30 September Parliament approved Richard’s abdication, and Henry was crowned as King Henry IV on 14 October. Shortly before the end of the year Richard was taken to Pontefract Castle, where he died, probably through starvation.

The Fourteenth Century: Conclusion

For the second time in the fourteenth century an anointed king had been deposed by a coup, to which Parliament had given its approval. Henry IV’s claim was acknowledged by acclamation and sanctified by the ritual of coronation, in which the Holy Oil of the Virgin was now used, but this could not disguise its dubious legitimacy. He made it known to his first parliament that he wished ‘not to be governed by his own will or purpose or private opinion but by common advice, counsel and assent’. However, Henry had broken a taboo, and the memory of Richard II could not be easily banished. 

The Lancastrian dynasty had come to power through a magnate rebellion. Could it be overthrown in the same way?

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