The Progress of the Nation page 9
How commerce could exist under such absurd restrictions is marvellous. Yet the advantages of trade with this country must, under all these obstacles, have been greater than with most others, for foreign merchants flocked hither in great numbers. They were called "merchant-strangers;" and forming themselves into companies, they soon managed to engross nearly all the foreign trade of the country. The Merchants of the Steel Yard were a most flourishing company of German merchants, who were settled here before the Conquest, but at this period were become much more opulent and powerful. This was owing to their connection with the celebrated confederation of the Hanse Towns, and to the privileges conferred on them by successive monarchs in consequence of that connection.
Then there were the Merchants of the Staple, who were established about this time. Their business was to collect the staple articles, wool, sheep-skins, leather, lead, and tin, and convey them to the staple towns. Englishmen, Irish, or Welsh might do this to the staple towns within the kingdom, but no native could be concerned in exporting them to the staple towns abroad. The great object was to enable the king to collect his customs easily, and that foreign merchants might know where to go for these articles. There were six moderators - two Germans, two Lombards, and two English - appointed to settle all disputes in the presence of the mayor and constable of the staple, for their affairs were not subject to the ordinary magistrates.
The Jews, who had been so fleeced in John's reign for their wealth and usurious habits, were banished from the realm in 1290.
According to Macpherson's "Annals of Commerce," the total exports of England in 1384 were £212,338 5s., and the imports £38,383 16s. 10d., leaving a balance in our favour of £173,945. But Anderson, in his "Annals," makes the balance in our favour more considerable, namely, £255,370.
During this period coals began to be used in England, and were brought by sea to London. The monks of Dunfermline, in Scotland, also obtained leave of a neighbouring baron to dig coals for their own use in his lands at Pittencrief.
Bills of exchange were now much in use, being much encouraged by the Government, under the idea that they prevented money going out of the kingdom, and in 1381 a law was passed recommending, and, in fact, commanding their use in foreign transactions.
One of the most useful and creditable transactions of the reign of Edward III. was the issue of a gold coinage. The coinage of England had till this period consisted of silver, and chiefly in the form of marks and pennies; a mark being two-thirds of a tower pound, the pound not being a real coin, but a pound weight of silver coins. The shilling also was a nominal coin at this time, being the twentieth part of a pound. The penny was the two hundred and fortieth part of a pound, and there were also silver halfpence and farthings; but the people often made these by cutting the pence into halves and quarters - a practice against which various ordinances were issued. At this time a penny was called an esterling, or sterling, whence our word sterling coin.
The gold coins circulated before this period were foreign, and called byzants, or byzantines. Henry I. issued a gold coin of the weight of two silver pennies, which was ordered to pass for twenty silver pennies. The people, however, refused it, as gold being only reckoned nine times the value of silver, the king had thus made it ten times the value, which was one-tenth more than the real value. So completely did this coin disappear, that no specimen, we believe, is now known of it.
Edward I. issued in 1279 a silver coin equal to four silver pennies, and called it a gross, or groat, that is, a great penny. No coins of the reign of Edward II. are known certainly to remain, but there are a few which are surmised to be his.
The new gold coinage of Edward III., issued in 1344, consisted of florins, to pass for six shillings; half florins for three shillings; and quarter for one shilling and sixpence. But he had committed the same fault as Henry I., and overvalued these coins, which prevented the circulation. To remedy this error, he coined in the same year gold nobles, half nobles, and farthing nobles, valued respectively at six shillings and eightpence, three shillings and fourpence, and one shilling and eightpence. The name of noble was given to this coin la honour of his great naval victory in 1340 at Sluys, and he appears upon them completely armed in a ship, with his sword drawn in his right hand. This coinage continued to circulate to the end of this period.
To prevent extortion in exchange of these moneys, and probably to secure a little profit to the crown, Edward took the whole matter into his own hands, appointing official exchangers in every part of the kingdom, making a profit of one and one-fifth per cent, by the transactions. The great loss to the public in these times was occasioned by the extensive clipping of the coins. To such a degree had this taken place in the time of Edward I., that the Jews being accused as the chief offenders, he seized in one day, and hanged with very little trial, 244 of them. At the same time all the goldsmiths in the kingdom were seized and thrown into prison, on suspicion of participation in the crime.
The rate of interest was high at this period, seldom less than ten, more often twenty per cent., and, as we have seen in the case of the Corsini, sixty per cent. The Church of Rome prohibited the lending of money on usury; and yet, when the Bishop of London excommunicated the Corsini, who were the papal agents, the Pope protected them, or they must have suffered the fate of the Jews.
The method of coining at this time was simply by beating out thin plates of silver into a roundish form, and stamping them by a blow with a hammer. They are, of course, of rude workmanship.
The coins minted in Scotland in the reign of Edward III. were so much less in value that he prohibited their circulation, but ordered it to be brought to the mint as bullion. The old coins, however, he permitted to circulate. The first gold coins of Scotland are of the mintage of Robert II., 1371 to 1390. In Ireland there were several coinages of money, but in 1339 appeared a foreign inferior money called turnkeys, or black money, which was allowed to circulate from the scarcity of better.
The British sailors, during the period under review, greatly augmented the character for skill and bravery which they had acquired in King John's time. The great victory of Edward III. at Sluys, and their subsequent ones, placed them at the head of the maritime world. The Monk of Malmsbury before that, in 1315, had written thus of them: - "English ships visit every coast, and English sailors excel all others, both in the arts of navigating and of fighting." Whether this character at this time was quite true as regarded the skill in navigation of the Genoese, is doubtful; but in fighting, they had shown their superior valour by beating the Genoese in the French service at sea, as well as their comrades had on land. The royal navy in these reigns does not appear to have been at any time numerous. The number of the ships of war of Edward II. that we are made acquainted with was only five. Of the size of these we have no information; but as early as 1270 we read of a ship of Venice which was 125 feet long, carrying 110 men. Edward III., in 1360, ordered the vessels intended to transport his troops to France to carry forty mariners, forty men-at-arms, and sixty archers. Edward's admiral and the mariners of the Cinque Ports captured no less than eighty vessels off the French coast, of which one had been purchased some years before for 5,000 francs. This was a large fleet itself. But in size the Genoese vessels must have greatly exceeded the largest of these, as we read of some of them, ship and cargo, being valued at £60,000 and £70,000 each.
The large fleets of England, however, with which Edward transported his armies and fought his sea-fights, were chiefly merchant vessels, collected by the most unceremonious authority as wanted. The press-warrants of that day show us that those who executed them were empowered to seize all vessels, great and small, that were in port or that came into port; to cause them to be unloaded, if necessary; and to conduct them at once to the place of rendezvous. In this manner were speedily mustered the 738 vessels which were drawn up at the siege of Calais, and the 1,100 vessels with which he invaded France in 1359.
London and Yarmouth were the two great seaports of that day, and there appears every reason to believe that Edward on this latter occasion had at least half of the whole mercantile navy of England in his service. The number of English ships was found at this time to diminish rather than to increase, -nor can this be any matter of wonder. These violent seizures of trading vessels, interruptions of commercial enterprises, and necessary losses of property, were enough to have destroyed the whole commerce of any less vigorous country. Added to this, the encouragement of the merchant strangers, who carried on a great part of their trade in foreign bottoms, no doubt, was an additional cause of this decrease.
An event, however, took place in 1302 of unparalleled advantage to navigation - the invention of the mariner's compass by Flavio di Gioca of Amalfi. This opened up new oceans and new worlds to Europe; and already in the reign of Edward III. Nicholas de Leuna, a Carmelite friar, is said to have made five voyages of discovery towards the north pole, and presented to that monarch a description of the countries he had seen. In 1344, one Macham, an Englishman, is said to have discovered Madeira, and in 1395 some French and Spanish adventurers discovered the Canaries.
Scotland during this time must have displayed considerable maritime enterprise, for we have had to relate the bold cruise of the Scottish captain John Mercer, who made great destruction amongst the English merchant vessels, till Alderman Phillpot of London encountered and took him prisoner. So bold were the Scots in 1335 and 1337, that they seized our vessels at the very mouth of the Thames; attacked and plundered Guernsey and Jersey; sailed along the southern coast of England; took a number of vessels lying at the Isle of Wight; and cruised along the eastern shore, doing great damage, till the equinoctial gales drove them home.
MANNERS AND CUSTOMS, DRESS AND DIVERSIONS.
The manners and customs which prevailed during this period bore a great resemblance to those we have described in the preceding age. Yet, by the extensive expeditions of the English on the Continent, and to the East in the crusades, various changes were introduced, and, if we are to believe the writers of the times, a great corruption of morals had taken place. Thomas Wykes, speaking of the civil wars in the reign of Henry III., says: - " In these five years past there have been so many battles, both by land and sea, so much slaughter and destruction of the people of England, so many devastations, plunderings, robberies, thefts, sacrileges, perjuries, treacheries, and treasons, that the nation hath lost all sense of distinction between right and wrong, virtue and vice."
No nation had shown such valour as the English, but none had shown so little mercy abroad, or the wise policy which puts on a show of it. We have seen how much the First and Third Edward gained by their arms, both in Scotland and France, and how they lost it all again by the reckless cruelties which they inflicted on those countries, and their total neglect of every attempt to conciliate their good-will. Froissart, who does all justice to the bravery and virtues of the English, blames them for their insolent and disgusting behaviour to people of other nations. "When I was at Bordeaux, a little before the Black Prince set out on his expedition into Spain, I observed that the English were so proud and haughty, that they could not behave to the people of other nations with any appearance of civility. Even the gentlemen of Gascony and Aquitaine, who had lost their estates in fighting for them, could not obtain the smallest place of profit from them, being constantly told that they were unfit for and unworthy of preferment. By this treatment they lost the love and incurred the hatred of these gentlemen, which they discovered as soon as opportunity offered. In a word, the King of France gained those gentlemen, and their countries, by his liberality and condescension, and the English lost them by their haughtiness."
The style of living of this period, however, at home amongst the princes and aristocracy, was most magnificent - rudely so, it is true, but lavish and lordly. The enormous establishments of Edward II. and Richard II. we have described, the household of the latter consisting-of 10,000 persons. Alexander III. of Scotland, being present at the coronation of Edward I., rode to Westminster, attended by 100 knights, mounted on fine horses, which they let loose, with all their furniture, as soon as they alighted, to be seized by the populace as their property. In this he was imitated by the Earls of Lancaster, Cornwall, Gloucester, Pembroke, and Warenne, who each paid Edward the same expensive, unprofitable compliment.
The style of living amongst the great barons is shown by the household accounts of the Earl of Lancaster in 1313. That year the earl expended £7,309, containing as much silver as £21,927, or equivalent to £109,635 of our money; nay, so excessively cheap were wines and some other things, that it would now-a-days require a far greater sum than that to maintain an equal hospitality. The quantity of wine consumed in the earl's establishment in that year was 471 pipes. Other earls and barons consumed in free living all the revenues of their immense estates. Towards the conclusion of this period this profuse hospitality was on the decline, and, instead of dining in their great hall with their dependents, the nobles began to dine in private parlours with a few familiar friends. But this innovation was extremely unpopular, and subjected those who adopted it to much reproach.
It appears that painted ceilings and walls in the great houses prevailed even before the reign of Henry III. Scripture and romantic subjects prevailed in these decorations. The "Painted Chamber" at Westminster was embellished in this manner. In the romance of "Arthur of Little Britain" these painted walls and ceilings are described as "done with gold, azure, and other fresh colours," which is precisely the style of the old Byzantine school. In the reign of Henry III. they had painted glass windows, not only in churches, but in private houses, and with lattices which opened and shut. In different old illuminated MSS. we have specimens of the chairs, beds, reading-desks, and other furniture. The chair of Edward the Confessor, or so called, in Westminster Abbey, still used as the coronation chair, is probably the oldest chair in the country. In Strutt and other works may 'be found various things of this kind copied from the old writers. The wills of our sovereigns and nobles give accounts of other articles bequeathed; and the romances of the time abound in lavish descriptions of the splendour of the palaces and halls of knights and barons. The Countess of Pembroke in 1367 gives her daughter a bed with furniture of her father's arms. Lord Ferrers leaves his son his green bed with his arms thereon, and to his daughter his white bed, and all the furniture, and the arms of Ferrers and Ufford thereon. Beds of black satin, of red camora, of blue, red, and white silk, and black velvet, we mentioned. That of the mother of Richard III. was of red velvet, embroidered with ostrich feathers of silver, and heads of leopards of gold, with boughs and leaves coming out of their mouths.
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