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Years 1399-1485 page 8

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The pictures of battles and sieges at this period give us an odd medley of bows and arrows, crossbows, spears, cannon, and hand-guns. The old weapons were not left off because the new ones were too imperfect, and too difficult of locomotion to supersede them. The cannons, though often of immense bore and weight, throwing balls of from one to five hundred weight, were, for the most part, without carriages, and therefore difficult and tardy in their operations. The Scotch were the first to anticipate the modern gun-carriage, by what they called their "carts of war," which carried two guns each, while many of the guns of the English required fifty horses to drag them. They had, however, smaller guns; as culverines, serpentines, basilisks, fowlers, scorpions, &c. The culverines were a species of hand-gun in general, fired from a rest, or from the shoulder. The Swiss had 10,000 culverines at the famous battle of Morat. These hand-guns are said to have been first brought into England by Edward IV., on his return from Flanders in 1471. Ships were also supplied with small guns.


The commerce of England continued to flourish and extend itself through this century, in spite of the obstacles and ruinous effects of almost perpetual war. Our kings, however warlike they might be, were yet very sensible of the advantages of commerce, and during this century made numerous treaties in its favour. Henry, the historian, says: - "It would be tedious to enumerate all the commercial treaties that were made by the kings of England, with almost all the princes and states of Europe, in this period. These treaties were very necessary to restrain the piratical spirit that reigned in the mariners of all nations in those times; but they were very ill observed, and few seamen of any country could resist the temptation of seizing on weaker vessels, when they fell in their way, though belonging to a friendly power. This occasioned continual complaints of the breach of treaties. No fewer than four commercial treaties, for example, were concluded between France and the Hanse Towns in the space of three years, from 1472 to 1474, and all to little purpose; and we have copies of eighteen such agreements between England and Flanders in this period, which is a sufficient evidence that none of them were well observed."

At the same time, it is curious, that, even when two countries were at war, such was the spirit of trade, that the merchants went on trading whenever they could, just as if there was no war at all. This was the case especially between England and Flanders. Our monarchs were already ambitious of reigning supreme masters of the seas, and this doctrine was as jealously urged upon them by the nation. In a rhyming pamphlet, written about 1433, and to be found in Hakluyt, vol. i., p. 167, the writer says, "that if the English keep the seas, especially the main seas, they will compell all the world to be at peace with them, and to court their friendship."

Henry IV., though harassed by the difficulties of a usurped crown, strenuously set himself to promote commerce, and to put an end to the continual depredations committed upon each other by the English and the merchants of the Hanse Towns, as well as those of Prussia and Livonia, subject to the grand master of the Teutonic order of knights.

Henry V. was as victorious at sea as at land; and by his fleet, under his brother, the great Duke of Bedford, in 1416, and again in 1417, the Earl of Huntingdon being his admiral, swept the seas of the united fleets of France and Genoa, and made himself complete master of the ocean during his time. This ascendancy was lost under the disastrous reign of Henry VI., but was regained by Edward IV., a monarch who, notwithstanding his voluptuous character, was fully alive to the vast benefits accruing to a nation from foreign trade, and thought it no dishonour to be, if not a merchant-prince, a prince-merchant. He had ships of his own, and when they were not otherwise employed in peace, he did not suffer them to remain useless in harbour, but freighted them with goods on his own account, and grew rich by traffic.

Notwithstanding all this, the nation was not yet much more enlightened as to the real principles of trade than it was in the previous century. The same absurd restrictions were in force against foreign merchants. Such foreign merchants were required to lay out all the money received for goods imported in English merchandise. No gold or silver coin, plate or bullion, was, on any account, to be carried out of the kingdom. Banks were now established in most countries, and bills of exchange had been in use since the thirteenth century - so that these remedied, to a great extent, this evil; but it is clear that where the exports of a country exceeded its imports, the balance must be remitted in cash; and the commercial men were clever enough to evade all the laws of this kind. No fact was so notorious as that the coinage of England abounded in all the countries to which she traded.

Besides the prohibition of carrying out any English coin or even bullion, foreign merchants were to sell all the goods they brought within three months, but they were not to sell any of them to other merchant strangers, and when they arrived in any English town they were assigned to particular hosts, and were to lodge nowhere else. Yet, under all these obstacles, our commerce grew, and our merchants extended their voyages to ports and Countries which they had not hitherto frequented. In J413 they fitted out ships in the port of London for Morocco, having a cargo of wool and other merchandise valued at 24,000, or 240,000 of our money. This raised the ire of the Genoese, who seized these precious ships; but Henry IV. soon made ample reprisals by granting to his subjects letters of marque to seize the ships and goods of the Genoese wherever they could be found; and so well did the English kings follow this up, that we find them in Richard III.'s reign not only successfully competing with their great rivals, the Genoese, but having obtained a footing in Italy itself, and established a consul at Pisa. Consuls, or, as they were then called, governors, of the English traders abroad, were also established during this period in Germany, Prussia, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Holland, and Flanders.

Wool, woollens, tin, hides, and corn, were still our chief exports. Slaves, says the historian, were no longer an article of commerce; but the conveyance of pilgrims to foreign shrines was a source of great emolument to merchants. A curious pamphlet of the middle of this century, called "The Prologue of English Policy," gives us a complete view of our imports: - The commodities of Spain were figs, raisins, wines, oils, soap, dates, liquorice, wax, iron, wool, wadmote, goatfell, redfell, saffron, and quicksilver - a valuable importation. That of Portugal was very much the same. Brittany sent wine, salt, crest-cloth, or linen, and canvas. Germany, Scandinavia, and Flanders, iron, steel, copper, osmond, bowstaves, boards, wax, corn, pitch, tar, flax, hemp, felting, thread, fustian, buckram, canvas, and wool-cards. Genoa, gold, cloth of gold, silk, cotton, oil, black pepper, rock-alum, and wood. Venice, Florence, and other Italian states, all kinds of spices and grocery wares, sweet wines, sugar, dates, with what the author considered great trumpery:

"Apes and japes, and marmusets tayled,

And niflis and triflis that little have avayled."

Towards the end of the century, 1483, we have an Act passed, at the instigation of the manufacturers of London and other towns, to prohibit the following long list of articles - a proof that they were busy making all these things for themselves: - Girdles, harness wrought for girdles, points, leather-laces, purses, pouches, pins, gloves, knives, hangers, tailors' shears, scissors, and irons, cupboards, tongs, fire-forks, gridirons, stock-locks, keys, hinges, garnets, spurs, painted glasses, painted papers, painted forcers, painted images, painted cloths, beaten gold and beaten silver wrought in papers for painters, saddles, saddle-trees, horse-harness, boots, bits, stirrups, buckler-chains, latten-nails with iron shanks, turners, hanging candlesticks, holy water stops (stoops), chafing-dishes, hanging leavers, curtain-rings, wool-cards, roan-cards, buckles for shoes, shears, broaches for spits, bells, hawk's-bells, tin and leaden spoons, wire of latten and iron, iron candlesticks, grates, and horns for Ian-thorns, with other things made by the petitioners, prohibited on pain of forfeiture. This list is, as it were, evidence of the numerous civilised requirements of the age, and of the rapid growth of our manufactures.

The age abounded with great merchants. The Medici of Florence; Jacques le Coeur, the greatest merchant that France ever produced, who had more wealth and trade than all the other merchants of that country together, and who supplied Charles VII. with money by which he recovered his country from the English. In our own country John Norbury, John Hende, and Richard Whittington, were the leading merchants of London, the last of whom was so far from a poor boy making his fortune by a cat that he was the son of Sir William Whittington, knight. In Bristol also flourished at this time William Cannynge, who was five times mayor of that city, and who had, for some cause not explained, 2,470 tons of shipping taken from him at once by Edward IV., including one ship of 400 tons, one of 500, and one of 900. Cannynge, in the last generation, was immortalised by Chatterton in his wonderful poems of Rowley.

Of the ships and shipping of the age we need not say more than that, with all the characteristics of the past age, there was an attempt to build larger vessels in rivalry of the Genoese. John Taverner, of Hull, had a royal licence granted him in 1449, conferring on him great privileges and exemptions as a merchant, for building one as large as a Venetian carrack, one of their first-class ships, or even larger. And Bishop Kennedy, of St. Andrews, was as much celebrated for building a, ship of unusual size, called the Bishops Berge, as for building and endowing a college.

In Scotland the state of the shipping interest was much the same as in England. James I. displayed the same enlightened views of trade as of government in general. He made various laws to ascertain the rate of duty on all exports and imports, to secure the effects of any traders dying abroad, and permitted his subjects to trade in foreign ships when they had no vessels of their own. In both countries great care was taken to protect and promote their fisheries.


The coin of these times in England was chiefly of gold and silver. The gold coin consisted of nobles, half-nobles, and quarter-nobles, originally equivalent to guineas (the exact value of a noble in Henry IV.'s reign was 21s. 1½d.), half-guineas, and quarter-guineas, or dollars of 5s. 3d. The silver coins were groats, half-groats, and pennies. But it must be remembered that all these coins were of ten times the intrinsic value of our present money; so that the labourer who in the fifteenth century received 1½d. per day, received as much as fifteen pence of the present money.

But the great historical fact regarding the money of this age was its continual adulteration, and consequent depreciation. Our monarchs, involved in great wars, while their crown lands had melted away into the hands of their barons, and these barons had ceased to yield their proper feudal services, were reduced to the greatest extremities for money, and fell, one after another, into the hopeless practice of endeavouring to make more money out of the little they had. They vainly expected that if the name and dimensions of a coin remained the same, the public would permit it to be treated as of the same value. But they soon found that if a gold coin was so alloyed that it only contained ten shillings' worth of real gold in it instead of twenty, it would only fetch ten shillings' worth of goods; in other words, all articles to be purchased rose to double the old price.

The original English pound contained a real Tower pound of silver, weighing 5,400 grains troy. Of this pound of silver were coined 240 pennies, then the largest coins in use. That was the money of England from the Conquest to Edward III.'s time. He coined 270 pennies out of a pound, weighing twenty instead of twenty-two and a-half grains each; and he coined groats weighing, instead of ninety grains, only seventy grains. Henry Y. again reduced the value of the coin, and to such a degree that out of the pound, instead of 21s. 1½d. he made 30s. His money was, therefore, of one-third less value than that of Edward III., and was found to purchase one-third less commodities. Notwithstanding this, Edward IV. again reduced the value of the currency by coining 37s. 6d. out of the pound. Besides the nobles, half and quarter nobles of his predecessors, Edward coined angels and half-angels, or angelets, the angel being 6s. 8d. of the silver money of that time.

The kings of Scotland pursued the same useless course of depreciating their currency, by which, instead of benefiting themselves, they extremely diminished the real revenues of the crown. Both they and the chief barons, as they were the chief promoters of the diminution of the weight and value of the coin, so they were by far the greatest sufferers by the measure. They received the same number of pounds from their subjects and vassals in all the fixed annual payments due to them, but the pounds did not contain the same quantity of silver, and would not purchase the same quantity of goods with those in the original stipulation. The king and nobility discovered their error, and time after time issued orders and Acts of Parliament to compel the people to estimate their spurious coins at the same value as the unadulterated ones, but in vain. Nature and the eternal proportions of things are above all kings and all human laws. James III. of Scotland coined copper money, and one of the reasons assigned in the Act ordaining this coinage, is that it is "for almons' deid to be done to pure folk," that is, people thought the smallest coin in use was too much to give in alms - they must have something of less value for that purpose. He also coined a still inferior money called black money, the small tinge of silver mixed with the copper giving it that colour. The price of all articles at that time of day, and sums paid for salaries, show that everything then was far cheaper than at present, in proportion to the nominal value of money. A cow was 7s., but ten times that value, or 3 10s., would not buy half a cow now. A goose was 3d., equal to 2s. 6d. of our money, but 2s. 6d. would not buy a goose now-a-days. Neither could a clergyman and his family live very well on 46 a year, though 4 13s. 4d. was then thought a fair income for one. A yeoman of our time would not be very jolly on 50 a-year, though Sir John Fortescue in his day said "that 5 a-year was a fair living for a yeoman."

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