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Reign of Richard II. Part 1 page 2

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The Commons having obtained the necessary accounts and documents, went leisurely and deliberately to work; and though the impatient Government repeatedly urged them to dispatch, they still proceeded with all sedateness and care, showing that the popular body was growing sensible of its real powers. Having discovered that the whole of the supplies had been duly but abortively spent, they granted a fresh impost on wool, wool-fels, and skins. for the pressing services of the state.

Another army was raised, and placed under the command of the Earl of Buckingham. He passed over to Calais, whence in the summer of 1380 he marched, with 2,000 cavalry and 8,000 infantry, through the very heart of France, pursuing the old accustomed ravages, through Picardy, Campagne, the Brie, the Beausse, the Gatinois, the Orleanois, and on to Brittany. The Duke of Burgundy, with a far greater army, hovered in the vicinity of this handful of men; but, remembering the past result of conflict with small armies of the English, he kept aloof.

By the time that Buckingham reached Brittany, Charles Y. died, and Charles VI., a minor, like the King of England, succeeded in the autumn of that year. The Bretons, now thinking that, a mere boy being on the throne of France, they could protect themselves, grew impatient of the burdensome presence of the English. De Montfort, who had received much kindness and refuge in England, was averse to treat with ingratitude his old allies; but the people accused the English of rapacity and haughtiness - and no doubt with cause enough, if we are to judge by the general proceedings of the English in France - and would not cease their demands till the count had transferred his alliance to the regency which governed France during the minority. This accomplished, the people expressed every impatience to be rid of Buckingham and his army, and as soon as the following spring allowed of his embarking, he took his leave, having only escaped the hostility of the natives by the bravery of his troops and the supplies of provisions from home. The English returned home denouncing bitterly the ingratitude of the-Bretons; and this was the unsatisfactory termination of the long and expensive exertions to maintain the independence of Brittany. The only possession which we retained in that province was the port of Brest, which Richard had received from De Montfort in exchange for an equivalent estate in England. Calais and Cherbourg - obtained from the King of Navarre - Bordeaux, and Bayonne were still towns in the hands of the English, affording tempting avenues in every quarter into France, and incitements to future expeditions.

But at this moment events were approaching which demanded all the efforts of the Government to maintain domestic order. In various countries of Europe the advance of society, and, though slow, of trade and manufactures, had begun to produce its certain effect upon the people. They no sooner ate of the tree of knowledge than they perceived that they were naked - naked of liberty, and property, and every solid comfort. They were in a great measure serfs and bondsmen, transmitted with the estates from proprietor to proprietor, like the chattels and the live stock. The haughty aristocracy looked upon them as little better than the beasts; and, addicted to continual wars with each other or with foreign countries, made use of the miserable people only as soldiers for those wars, or as slaves to cultivate their lands. The wretched sufferers were ground by domestic exactions, and pillaged and burnt out continually in some of the countries by invading armies. Nothing could be more terrible than their condition; and when they began to perceive all its horrors, and to endeavour to rise above them, their imperious masters trod them down again with harsh and often terrible ferocity.

But wherever towns grew and trade sprang up, there numbers became, by one means or other, free. In England every man who could contrive to live a year and a day in any town became a free man. The very wars which had desolated Europe had tended to awaken a spirit of independence; the soldiers who served in different countries picked up intelligence by comparing various conditions of men. The constant demands of Government for money inspired those who had to furnish it with a sense of their own importance. The example of the freedom and superior comfort in towns stimulated the inhabitants of the country to grasp at equal benefits.

Flanders, as the earliest manufacturing and trading country, had, as we have seen, speedily become democratic; had expelled its ruler, and had now maintained a long career of independence. At this moment it was waging a most sanguinary and determined war, not only against its own earl, but against the whole forces of Burgundy and France, led by Philip van Artavelde - the son of Jacob, the stout old brewer of Ghent - and by a relentless citizen, Peter Dubois.

Once more in France insurrection had broken out, headed by the burghers and people of the towns, excited against the tax-gatherers, and had spread from Rouen to Paris, where it was raging. And now the same convulsion, originating in the same causes, had reached England and simultaneously in Flanders, France, and this country, the people were in arms against their Government and nobles.

It has been supposed that the preaching of Wycliffe had no little effect in rousing this storm in England, and there can be no doubt of it. The people, once made acquainted with the doctrines of human right, justice, and liberty abounding in the Bible, and pervading it as its very essence, could only regard the knowledge as a direct call from God to rise, rend the bondage of their cruel slavery, and assume the rank of men. This light, this wonderful knowledge, coming too suddenly upon them, made them, as it were, intoxicated, and overthrew all restraint and tranquillity of mind. They felt their wrongs the more acutely by perceiving their rights, and how basely they had been deprived of them by men professing this religion of truth, justice, and humanity. Such was the case on the preaching of Luther in Germany afterwards, and it was the case here now. Occasionally a nobleman had suddenly emancipated the whole of the villeins on his domain in return for a fixed rent to be paid by them; but this process was slow and uncertain, and extremely exciting to those who witnessed this emancipation, remaining 'themselves in bondage. Thus all classes of the people were in a restless state. The freemen just above these serfs, and especially those on the coast, who had been plundered and burnt out by the enemy, were full of bitterness from their sufferings, and disposed to regard the tax-gatherer as little short of a demon. Few, except the working order of the clergy, who lived and laboured amongst them, treated them like human beings.

Imagine, then, this state of things, and a priest like John Ball of Kent coming amongst them on Sundays as they issued out of church in the villages, and saying to them, as Froissart thus reports him: "Ah, ye good people, matters go not well to pass in England, nor shall do, till everything be common, and that there be no villeins nor gentlemen, but that we be all united together, and that the lords be no greater masters than we. What have we deserved, or why should we be kept thus in bondage? "We all come from one father and mother, Adam and Eve. Whereby can they show that they are greater lords than we be? saving by that they cause us to win and labour for that they dispend. They are clothed in velvet and camlet, furred with ermine, and we are vestured with poor cloth. They have their wines, spices, and good bread, and we have the drawing out of the chaff, and drink water. They dwell in fair houses, and we have the pain and travel, rain and wind in the fields; and by that which cometh of our labours they keep and maintain their estates. We be called their bondmen, and without we do willingly their service we be beaten; and we have no sovereign to whom we can complain, nor that will hear us, nor do us right. Let us go to the king - he is young - and show him what bondage we be in, and show him how we will have it otherwise, or else we will provide us of some remedy; and if we go together, all manner of people who be now in any bondage will follow us, to the intent to be made free; and when the king seeth us we shall have some remedy, either by fairness or otherwise."

This honest John Ball, having got this great gospel of freedom into his head, could not be prevailed on to be quiet. The archbishop shut him up for some months in prison, but on coming out he went about saying the very same things. "And these people," says Froissart, "of whom there be more in England than in any other realm, loved John Ball, and said that he said truth." "They woulde murmur one with another in the fieldes, and in the wayes as they went togyder, affermyng how Johan Ball sayd trouthe." In the beginning of the world, they said, there were no bondmen, wherefore they maintained none ought to be bound, without he did treason to his lord as Lucifer did to God. But they said they could have no such battle, because ''they were nother angelles noi spirittes," but men formed in the similitudes of their lords; adding, Why, then, should we be kept under so like beasts? And they declared they would no longer suffer it; they would be all one, and if they laboured for their lords, they would have wages for it.

This was all only too true; but a truth coming too suddenly, and more than they could bear, or were disciplined to win, or, if won all at once, to maintain. And these poor people did not know that even now there was growing up that power amongst the people, in the shape of Parliament, which should gradually and securely fight their battles, and establish all their desires. Even now the Commons had reached the presence of the king and the nobles, and stood there boldly declaring their rights, and putting an ever-growing restraint on regal and aristocratic license.

In the Parliament which met in January, 1380, the Commons complained loudly of the extravagance of the expenditure. They demanded that the king's council should be dismissed; that the king should govern only by the aid of the usual crown officers - the chancellor, treasurer, privy seal, chamberlain, and steward of the household; and that these ministers should be chosen by Parliament. These unexampled demands were all granted: a committee of finance was appointed, to consist of Lords and Commons; and such a concession as had never yet been made was granted, and three representatives of cities - two aldermen of London and one of York - were put upon it. In the autumn, being informed that the subsidies which they voted were inadequate to defray the debts of the State, they pronounced the demand "outrageous and insupportable." This was bold language; the result was, of the many schemes to meet the difficulty, the fatal capitation tax, which threw the country into a general convulsion. This was a tax of three groats per head on every male and female above fifteen years of age. In towns it was to be regulated by the rank and ability of the inhabitants, in order to render it easier to the poor, so that no person should pay less than one groat, nor more than sixty, for himself and wife.

This poll-tax was the drop to the full cup. The people were already writhing under the continued exactions for the French wars, and this tax drove them to desperation. What added gall to its bitterness was that it was farmed out to some of the courtiers, who again farmed it out to foreign merchants, whose collectors proceeded with a degree of harshness and insolence which irritated the people beyond endurance. It was soon discovered that the amounts which came into the treasury would by no means reach the sum calculated upon. Commissions were then issued to inquire into the conduct of the collectors, and to enforce payment in cases where favour had been shown, or where due payment had not been made.

The people soon grew obstinate, and declared boldly they would not pay. Hereupon the commissioners treated them very severely, and they again, on their part, resenting this severity, began secretly to combine for resistance, and proceeded to chase away, wound, or even kill the officers of the law.

One of these commissioners, Thomas de Bampton, sat at Brentwood in Essex, and summoned the people of Fobbings before him. They declared that they would not pay a penny more than they had done. Bampton then menaced them, and ordered his sergeant-at-arms to arrest them. But they drove him and his men away. Whereupon Sir Robert Bealknap, the chief justice of the Common Pleas, was sent into Essex to try the recusants; but they denounced him as a traitor to the king and country, made him glad to get away, and cut off the heads of the jurors and clerks of the commission, which they stuck upon poles, and carried through all the neighbouring towns and villages, calling on the people to rise. In a few days the commons of Essex were in a general insurrection, and had found a leader in a vagabond priest, who called himself Jack Straw.

They attacked the house of Sir Robert Hales, the Lord Treasurer of England, who was also Prior of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. Ample provision had just been made for a chapter-general of the order, and there was in the house abundance of meats, wines, clothes, and other things for the knights brethren. The people ate up the provisions, drank the wine, and destroyed the house.

They then sent letters and messengers into all the neighbouring counties, and not only the peasantry of Kent, but of Norfolk and Suffolk, were soon up in arms. But the incident which caused the whole immediately to break into flame was this: - One of the collectors of the tax at Dartford, in Kent, went to the house of one Wat Tyler, or Walter the Tyler, who, Froissart says, was "indeed a Tyler of houses, an ungracious patron." He demanded the tax for a daughter of Wat, whom the mother contended was under fifteen, the age fixed by the law. The insolent tax-gatherer declared he would prove that, and was proceeding to the grossest outrage, when Wat came running in at the outcries of the wife and daughter, and knocked out the scoundrel's brains with his hammer. The neighbours applauded Wat's spirit, and vowed to stand by him; "for," says the chronicler, "the rude officers had in many places made the like trial."

The news of this exciting occurrence, and the insurrection of the men of Kent, spread rapidly over the whole country, from the Thames to the Humber; through Hertford, Surrey, Sussex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridge, and Lincoln. In every place they chose some leader, whose assumed names still remain in their letters and proclamations, as Jakke Milner, Jak Carter, Jak Treweman, and Jon Balle. They were invited by the letters from Kent to march to London, where " the Commons should be of one mind, and should do so much to the king that there should not be one bondman in all England." They are reported soon to have mustered 60,000 from the counties round London, making free with houses and provisions as they marched along.

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