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Years 1399-1485

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It might be very reasonably supposed that during a century spent almost entirely in war, and during the second half of it in the most rancorous intestine wars, there could not be really much national progress. There is no doubt but that the population was greatly decreased. It was calculated that at the beginning of the century the population of England and Wales amounted to about 2,700,000. At the end of it, it is supposed that there were not 2,500,000.

In these depopulating wars, there can be no doubt that, besides the actual destruction of so many men, there must have been great sufferings inflicted, and an immense interruption of all those peaceful transactions by which nations become wealthy and powerful. Agriculture must have been grievously impeded by army after army sweeping over the fields, and treading down the crops by deterring the farmer from sowing his lands, and by drawing away all kinds of handicrafts from their trades; indeed, towards the end of this century, we hear that the traces of the plough had been almost obliterated; in both Scotland and England the traveller beheld dismal scenes of ruined villages, decaying towns, and uncultivated fields; and, from want of labourers, the proprietors of large estates enclosed them in vast pasturages, where the cattle might wander without need of much looking after.

Yet, spite of all these circumstances, and of the continual drains of the people's substance to maintain these great armies, such is the indomitable energy of the British race, that, even during this most distracted age, there appears no inconsiderable progress to have been made in various ways. It is certain that the common people came out of the depressing condition of serfdom to a great extent - a very important step or passage from the condition of slaves to that of free men. This was especially promoted by the constant demands of the contending parties for soldiers. They were obliged to hurry the hind from the plough, and the artisan from his trade, to fight for one side or the other. Whoever once took up arms, never consented to return to the condition of a villein. Had their ancient lords been disposed to compel them to renew their slavery, they were now too prodigiously decimated themselves to possess the power. Thousands of estates had lost their owners, many fell to the crown, and others passed over to their enemies. While one-half of the aristocracy had fallen, the power of the other half over their villeins must have been destroyed. That race of arrogant and turbulent barons and princes of the blood, which for a century or two back had overshadowed the throne, had shaken it by their ambition and their jealousies, was now entirely cut down. More than sixty princes of the blood were sleeping in the dust, and the country had to look to an individual of so remote a claim as Henry VII. to occupy the throne.

This, while during the succeeding dynasties of the Tudors it augmented extremely the power of the crown, also contributed, and that immediately, to the liberty of the people. The decrease in the numbers of the labouring classes, as a matter of course, raised their value. Accordingly we find that while the contending monarchs or princes found increasing difficulties in bringing large armies into the field - while, instead of their 50,000 and their 100,000 men, they could scarcely muster 10,000 for a field - in the last year of Henry V., 1421, an Act was passed to repeal one issued in 1340, prohibiting a sheriff or escheator remaining more than one year in his office, and permitting them to hold office for four consecutive years, on the ground that pestilences and foreign wars had reduced the number of gentlemen in every county of England, till there were not sufficient qualified to fill those offices. Such was the diminution of the gentry, but that of the common people must have been still greater; and this fact is revealed, by the wonderful rise of wages and the manifestations of prosperity in the bulk of the population, spite of the repeated hurricanes of war which had swept the land.

If we compare the various Acts for regulating the wages of both labourers and citizens which were passed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, we shall become aware of a very striking rise in the value of labour. Betwixt 1388 and 1444, the annual salary of a bailiff had risen from 13s. 4d. to 23s. 4d.; the wages of a master hind, carter, and shepherd, from 10s. to 20s.; of a farm servant, from 7s. to 15s.; and of a female labourer, from 6s. to 10s. The value of labour had, in fact, doubled in half a century. The causes of this remarkable change are obvious. The number of hinds was diminished which had been accustomed to cultivate the ground. Lands had gone out of tillage, and must be re-ploughed. But meantime, the people, amid the strife of their lords, had become free, or the majority of them, and their services were to be purchased at a proportionate rate.

Monarchs who with difficulty can maintain their standing, must court the people. Thus it was during the contentions of this century. Each party was continually obliged to solicit the populace to take arms in its behalf, and the self-estimation of the people rose in proportion. When there was scarcely a prince left to govern, the people, though they had decreased in numbers, had risen in position. It has been well remarked that in Wat Tyler's insurrection there was a vehement outcry against villenage; but that seventy years afterwards, in the insurrection of Jack Cade, nothing was said on this subject - a certain sign that it had disappeared, or was fast disappearing, and had ceased to occupy a prominent place in the popular mind.

But still more was the improved condition of the people indicated by the laws passed to restrain undue luxury in clothing. In 1444 the cost of the whole annual clothing of an agricultural servant was only 3s. 4d. But in 1463 an Act was passed to check the general extravagance in clothing, on the ground that "the commons, as well men as women, have worn, and daily do wear, excessive and inordinate array and apparel, to the great displeasure of God, and impoverishing of this realm of England, and to the enriching of other strange realms and countries, to the final destruction of the husbandry of this said realm." In this Act, the clothing of the rural labourer was permitted to be of woollen cloth, of 2s. per yard, which must have been three times the cost of the raiment allowed not twenty years before.

In the statute of 1463, many of the regulations of earlier acts of the legislature were repealed regarding the clothing of all classes, for nothing was left untouched by the paternal hand of Government in those good old times, any more than they are by the paternal Governments of the Continent at the present day. It was forbidden to all who were not of noble rank to wear woollen cloth of foreign manufacture, or the fur of sables, martens, or minevers. They were to content themselves with fur of black or white lamb. They or their wives were not to wear silk of foreign fabric, or any kerchiefs of higher price than 3s. 4d.; nor any girdle garnished with gold and silver. Fustian of Naples, and scarlet cloth in grain, were prohibited to them.

In like manner the dress and its quality of every other rank were regulated. None but the royal family, nor under the rank of a duke, were to wear any cloth of gold, of tissue, or silk of purple; none but a lord plain cloth, of gold; none but a knight any velvet, damask, or silk in their gowns and doublets; none beneath an esquire or gentleman, gowns of camlet. The dress of the citizens was regulated, by Act of Parliament, in the same manner. The lord mayor and his lady were permitted to wear the same degree of clothing as knights and their ladies; and the aldermen and recorder of London, and the mayors of other cities, ranked with the esquires and gentlemen.

All this marks the fact that the lower classes were gaining in substance and importance, and were pressing on the higher in their apparel and mode of living; and it required stringent repression on the part of the higher grades to maintain exclusive licence in these respects. The same regulations extended to diet as well as clothing. It was ordered that servants and grooms, whether of lords or gentlemen, should not have meat or fish more than once a day, but should content themselves at other meals with milk, bread, butter, cheese, &c.

If we are to believe Sir John Fortescue, the great lawyer and Chancellor of England, who lived so many years in France at the court of Margaret of Anjou, and who, therefore, had ample opportunity of comparing the style of living in the two countries, the food and clothing of the ordinary class of English were much better than amongst the same class of French. "The French," he says, "weryn no wollyn; but if it be a pore cote, under their uttermost garment, made of grete canvas, and call it a frok. Their hosyn be of like canvas, and passin not to their knee; wherefor they be gartered, and their thyghs bare, their wifs and children goine bare fote. But the English wear fine wollen cloth in all their apparell. They have also abundance of bed-coverings in their houses, and of all other wollen stuffe."

He says the English people "drink no water, except when they abstain from other drinks, by way of penance, and from a principle of devotion. They eat plentifully of all kinds, fish and flesh, with which their country abounds; but the commons in France be so impoverished and destroyed, that they may unith lyve. They drynke water; they eate apples with bread right brown, made of rye; they eate no flesche, but if it be seldom, a litill larde, or of the intrails or heds of bests sclayne for the nobles and merchaunts of the land."

There is much in these statements characteristic of the two nations to the present day. It is quite certain that France at that period was reduced to a dreadful condition by our repeated invasions. At home, spite of the drain for those wars, and of the succeeding wars on our own soil, there seems to have been a wonderful amount of wealth and prosperity amongst the people. Yet at the same time there was much misery and a growing amount of mendicity. AEneas Silvius, afterwards Pope Pius II., assures us that none of the inhabitants of a populous village in Northumberland, in which he lodged in 1437, had ever seen wine or wheaten bread, and were greatly astonished when they saw them on his table.

It is from the century preceding the one now under review that the era of pauperism commences. In fact, the moment that villenage began to give way, pauperism and mendicity appeared. So long as the inhabitants of the large estates, whether of the church or the laity, were so much property, they must be maintained just as the cattle were; but so soon as they became free men, and received not food, clothing, and lodging, but wages for their work, they became liable to the destitution which, times of scarcity, sickness, or old age naturally brought. If they could make no provision against these seasons, they were necessitated to beg or receive alms. So early, therefore, as 1349, the number of beggars, thieves, and vagabonds had so increased under the plea of destitution and want of employment, that legislative enactment became necessary, and Government resorted to that which continued to be attempted without effect till the reigns of Edward VI. and Elizabeth, namely, to coerce these tribes into orderly and laborious habits. But this new liberty of roaming over the country, and of abstaining from labour, was too sweet to be readily resigned, and flocks of idle fellows roved about in idleness, insolence, and robbery.

In the year mentioned the statute issued stated, "That because many valiant beggars, as long as they may live of begging, do refuse to labour, giving themselves to idleness and vice, and sometimes to theft and other abominations, none, upon pain of imprisonment, shall, under the colour of pity and alms, give anything to such which may labour, or presume to favour them in their sloth, so that thereby they may be compelled to labour for their necessary living." But this was an evil only in its infancy, and destined to become one of the great difficulties of the land for a century yet. Staff-strikers, sturdy rogues, and vagabonds, became a terror and a nuisance, and Act after Act, ordering whipping, branding, imprisoning, and other punishments, were passed to put them down in vain. Besides these, there gradually accumulated large shoals of really infirm and destitute poor, whose employers were no longer forced to support them. These were thrown chiefly on the towns and on the church, which, with its wealthy endowments, was bound to devote one-fourth to the payments of the state, one-fourth to the repair and maintenance of the ecclesiastical buildings, one-fourth to their own support, and the remaining fourth to the relief of the poor. We shall see, that when the church became deprived of the estates of its monasteries, the poor were then thrown in such hosts on the public as to compel the introduction of the poor law. Meantime, pressed by this new social evil, the Government, in the fifteenth century, actually had recourse to tickets-of-leave. These tickets were not indeed given to convicted criminals, but to persons for whom there was no employment in their own hundred, rape, wapentake, city, or borough. They had then a letter-patent given them, authorising them to travel in quest of labour; and without such letter, or ticket-of-leave, they were liable to be seized and clapped in the stocks, and after due punishment sent away, liable to the same treatment in every place they came to. But we shall obtain further insight into the social condition of the nation at this period, under the different sections of our review of it, and not the least under that of


We have described in our last chapter on the Progress of the Nation, the steps by which the Parliament of England finally resolved itself into the three great branches of King, Lords, and Commons. During this century, amid all the troubles and strifes of the nation, these powers were further defined and consolidated. The House of Commons no longer presented their requests in the form of petitions praying for the removal of any grievances which affected them, but they drew up such laws and enactments as they desired, in the form of bills, which were presented to the king in the House of Lords, and which, after receiving the approbation of the Lords and the assent of the monarch, became law. They were entered on the statute-roll, and then transmitted to the sheriffs to be promulgated in their county courts. The archbishops and bishops took their places amongst the Lords, as well as twenty-five abbots and two priors, so that the spiritual peers generally doubled the number of the temporal ones, and gave enormous power to the church, which it did not fail to exert, and which was awfully exhibited against the Lollards.

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