Post-classical history


The state of the nation

On Thursday 16 July 1377, eleven days after Edward III’s solemn interment in Westminster Abbey, his ten-year-old grandson returned to the abbey church and knelt on the cushions before the high altar. There he swore a sacred oath to uphold the laws and customs of his ancestors, to protect the Church and clergy, to do justice to all and to uphold the laws which the people would ‘justly and reasonably’ choose. He was then anointed with holy oil, handed the three symbols of his authority – the sword to protect the kingdom, the sceptre to chastise wrongdoing and the ring signifying his pastoral responsibilities – and finally crowned. Perhaps in a concession to his age after the long service, he was carried from the church to receive the acclamation of his people on the shoulders of his tutor, Sir Simon Burley, but, in the press of the crowd, he lost one of the slippers of St Edmund which were part of the coronation regalia.1 On a day of such pageantry and symbolism this was unfortunate but apt: a boy-king would inevitably struggle to fill the shoes of his predecessors.

The kingdom Richard inherited from his grandfather was bounded on three sides by the sea. It stretched across England from the North Sea in the east, across the principality of Wales, which had been annexed to the crown by his great-great-grandfather, Edward I, to the Irish Sea and Atlantic Ocean in the west, and from the Channel coast in the south up to the border with Scotland in the north. Despite English efforts to enforce lordship over Scottish kings, the realm remained fiercely independent and a constant threat to the peace and stability of the border region and also of the wider kingdom. Farther afield, English crown possessions included the Isle of Man in the west and the Channel Islands off the French coast, the latter being all that remained of the English duchy of Normandy lost by King John in 1204. English kings also claimed the lordship of Ireland – a euphemism for an authority over the numerous petty Irish kingdoms which had been asserted since Norman times but was barely enforceable outside a small area around Dublin known as the Pale; the native Irish who lived outside this enclave were regarded as being ungovernable, giving rise to the phrase ‘beyond the Pale’. Few English kings ever ventured to set foot in Ireland, Richard himself being a rare exception.

Far more valuable and important in English eyes were the two crown possessions on the continent. The duchy of Gascony extended some 120 miles along the western seaboard of France from the city of Bordeaux (Richard’s birthplace) in the north to that of Bayonne in the south but beyond that secure area fluctuated enormously in size according to the fortunes of war. And rapidly acquiring even greater significance was Edward III’s conquest just across the English Channel from Dover, the port of Calais and its marches, which spread roughly ten miles in each direction from the town and were guarded by a ring of small fortresses. Both Gascony and Calais were vital to English trading interests. Gascon wine and salt were both highly prized commodities at a time when water was generally unfit to drink and the life of fresh food, particularly meat and fish, could only be prolonged in changeable climates by salting or smoking. The ships that brought these cargoes to England returned with corn, wool, cloth and hides, as well as the salted herrings that were the staple diet of all Christians on the fasting days of Friday and Lent.2 Calais was both an important garrison and bridgehead into France for military campaigns but also, since 1363, the site of the Staple, or monopoly, on all sales of wool and hides exported from England. The merchants of the Staple company controlled the quality and quantity of goods sold abroad, ensured that the king received his customs duties, and regulated transactions between English and foreign merchants. Their members included the richest and most important merchants in England and, although they were not necessarily resident in Calais, they were nationally influential and significant, not least because they exploited the hugely important cloth markets of the Low Countries on their doorstep and regularly lent money to the crown.3

Even at this early period, England was already a seafaring nation. John of Gaunt, in one of Shakespeare’s most memorable speeches, would describe the realm as

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war …

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands.4

The sea did indeed serve as a ‘moat defensive’ but it was also a key factor in England’s economy. In a country ranging over fifty thousand square miles of land nowhere was more than seventy-five miles from the coast and a large network of navigable rivers reduced even that distance significantly. As a consequence both personal travel and bulk transportation of goods were often swifter, easier and cheaper than simply using roads, which had to be maintained to be effective, required both bridges strong enough to withstand heavy traffic and an abundant supply of horses and draught animals to cover any distance, and were frequently made impassable by bad weather or difficult terrain. The rivers teemed with boats of every shape and size: coracles, propelled by a single oar and made from basket work covered with animal hide for the single fisherman or reed-gatherer; larger and sturdier wherries, which were rowed or poled across rivers and marshes to ferry passengers and their horses; shallow clinker-built barges, the workhorses of the river, designed for the bulk transportation of heavy goods such as the iron arrow-heads manufactured in Yorkshire and carried down the Ouse for transportation by sea to the Tower of London. Some of these barges were equipped with a sail and seaworthy: hugging the coastline, they brought a regular supply of coals from Newcastle to feed London’s insatiable demand for domestic and industrial fuel. Larger ocean-going vessels, known as cogs, carracks and balingers, usually single-masted with a deeper keel and sometimes with ‘castles’, or half-decks at the bow and stern, made the longer international journeys to and from the markets of the Baltic and Mediterranean.5

If England was first and foremost a trading nation this was because its temperate climate and fertile soils, particularly in the south and east, allowed it to produce a surplus to sell. Unlike in more arid areas of Europe, there was little subsistence farming in the late fourteenth century. In every village or hamlet there were undoubtedly some people who struggled to make ends meet and to feed their families from what they could grow themselves; the northernmost counties on the borders with Scotland also had a higher proportion of people scratching a bare living from land which was less suitable for arable crops and also regularly subject to slash-and-burn raids by the Scots. Generally speaking, however, the majority of those working the land were able to produce more than they could consume, even if it was only a few vegetables, a clutch of eggs or several pats of butter, all of which found ready markets in neighbouring villages and towns.

What is more, farming on a larger scale had become much more common, with entrepreneurial individuals building up substantial estates dedicated to animal husbandry, which was less labour-intensive than growing crops to eat and produced meat, hides and the all-important wool upon which so much of the nation’s wealth depended. It was no coincidence that the fourteenth century saw a transformation in the diet of the English lower classes from one composed mainly of cheap cereals, beans and pulses, with coarse black bread (made from rye or barley) and the occasional flitch of bacon to one with a high proportion of meat, particularly beef and mutton, and bread made from wheat. Though domestically brewed small beer with its low alcohol content remained a household staple, the demand for professionally brewed strong ale also increased: manorial officials at one Sussex manor in 1354 had to buy in ale to replace the cider normally offered to its reapers because the reeve in charge ‘would not drink anything but ale in the whole of the harvest time’.6

That workers were able to imitate their superiors by demanding – and receiving – better-quality food and drink was in no small measure due to the greatest natural catastrophe to befall the Middle Ages. The first outbreak of the great plague now referred to as the Black Death occurred in England in the summer of 1348. The disease arrived from the continent, by August it had reached London and by the following summer it had spread throughout the country. Precisely what it was or how it was transmitted is still debated, though recent analysis of skeletons found in plague pits seems to confirm that it was caused by an early variant of the Yersinia pestis bacterium, which causes bubonic and pneumonic plague. The symptoms, as described by contemporaries, certainly point that way: the sudden appearance of egg-shaped swellings in the groin, neck and armpits and the equally sudden haemorrhaging and vomiting of blood, which both presaged immediate death. The shocking nature of the disease was compounded by its indiscriminate choice of victim: rich and poor, young and old, town and country dwellers, laymen and churchmen all succumbed; there was no cure, no palliative, and people who had appeared fit and healthy one day were struck down and died a few days later. Whole families, sometimes whole communities, were wiped out. In the city and suburbs of Rochester, Kent, fifty per cent of the priory’s tenants died; it was the same story in the Cambridgeshire manor of Cottenham, the Norfolk manor of Hakeford Hall in Coltishall and, in the north of England, on the estates of Durham priory, where the death rates on some manors reached as high as seventy-eight per cent.

Parish priests who visited the sick and dying were particularly at risk from infection and in 1349 more than eight hundred died in the diocese of Norwich alone. St Mary’s Abbey at Malling, Kent, lost three abbesses in the space of three weeks and was reduced to just four nuns and four novices, while the brothers in the small Augustinian houses of Alnesbourne and Chipley in Suffolk were wiped out completely; even the hugely wealthy and privileged abbey of Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, one of the greatest Benedictine houses in the country, lost forty per cent of its monks. ‘So great a multitude was not swept away, it was believed, even by the flood that happened in the days of Noah’, wrote one monastic chronicler. It was a catastrophe on an apocalyptic scale which was explicable only to a medieval society familiar with the biblical stories of Noah’s flood and of the ten plagues inflicted on the Egyptians (which included boils, blood and death of the first-born) as God’s punishment for sin. The survivors therefore flocked to their churches to do penance and seek forgiveness: the golden shrine of one of England’s most popular saints, Thomas Becket, at Canterbury Cathedral cannot have been the only object of pilgrimage to receive a massive boost to its funds as a direct result of penitential alms-giving in the wake of the first onset of the plague.7

As a result of the pandemic the population of England, which had probably peaked at around five million in the first half of the fourteenth century, suddenly plummeted by between a third and a half. What is more, further outbreaks in 1361–2, 1369 and 1374–5, though not as severe in their mortality, prevented any recovery in population levels, which remained stagnant at between two and three million from the mid-fourteenth century until the end of the fifteenth.8 The second plague, in particular, which was colloquially known as the ‘mortality of the children’, wiped out large numbers of the next generation, and had a knock-on effect on the replacement birth rate in the future. High infant mortality, possibly combined with lower fertility rates, combined to ensure that in London and most major provincial towns, where the records exist, seventy-five per cent of families failed to produce a male heir for even three successive generations.

Statistics tell us that life expectancy may have been reduced to around thirty-five years but the figures are warped by the fact that infant mortality rates were so high. Even before the advent of the plague at least thirty per cent of babies and children died before their seventh birthday and the wealthiest and most privileged could not escape unscathed: Edward I, for example, lost seven of his sixteen children before the age of seven. In fact, however, even after the advent of the plague, anyone who survived their first five years stood a good chance of living much longer. Though few could hope to attain the three-score years and ten which the Bible taught was the natural span of human life, men who reached the age of twenty could expect to live into their fifties whether they were wealthy London merchants or agricultural labourers in the Midlands or south-east of England. Despite the dangers of childbirth, life expectancy among women appears to have been similar. Aristocratic women, however, had a disconcerting tendency in this period to live much longer than their male counterparts, not least because so many of the latter became casualties of war: over twenty per cent of the nobility born between 1351 and 1375 met violent ends.9

Horrific and tragic though the high levels of mortality were for victims of the plague and their families, the financial circumstances of many of those who survived improved dramatically. As we shall see, shortage of manpower created opportunities for the ambitious and able to demand higher wages both in cash and in kind, to negotiate improved terms of employment (including better food), to exploit gaps in the market and to acquire more land. Greater availability of land and fewer mouths to feed also removed the pressure to grow crops in marginal land and encouraged its conversion from arable to pasture. Living conditions also improved. If there was ever any truth in the popular image of several generations of medieval peasant families living cheek by jowl with their animals in the cramped and squalid conditions of dark, windowless, smoke-filled and filthy hovels, it was no longer pertinent by Richard’s reign. Longhouses, where livestock occupied a byre built under the same roof as the family home, were already a rarity in most regions by 1350, though for pragmatic reasons they survived in the harsher climates of northern England. Even the smallest landholdings usually consisted of a single-storey house of up to three bays (a hall and two chambers) with a separate barn, and many, if not most, had at least one or two additional buildings for food processing and agricultural use clustered round a yard where the animals were kept. The main edifices were generally professionally constructed from timber and stone or, where the latter was not available, cob, which was made from a mixture of compressed clay, straw, sand and water; they were either thatched with straw or reeds or roofed with tiles or slates. Buildings like these were valuable assets and landlords were quick to punish tenants who allowed them to become dilapidated and to enforce their repair or even rebuilding. Although more than one family might share a holding, they lived in separate quarters and the evidence of the 1377 poll-tax returns suggests that by then most households were composed of small conjugal units consisting of just over two people above the age of fourteen (younger children did not appear in the returns). Single dependent relatives, or elderly people who had given up their landholding or urban tenement to others in return for bed and board for the remainder of their lives, usually occupied specifically designated private rooms or even a cottage on site, rather than sharing in the communal domestic arrangements.10

The face of England was changing in other ways. Rural industries were flourishing in an increasingly cash-based economy. Open-cast tin-mining in Cornwall, famous since at least Roman times, was now said to consume more than three hundred acres annually; similarly, ancient open-cast mining for lead in Derbyshire and for coal in the shallow seams along the banks of the river Tyne in north-eastern England had thrived under the impetus of urban building and the demands of war. The ten per cent of the country that was still covered by woodland was carefully managed by coppicing to provide charcoal, a vital fuel for many industries, mature timber for the construction of buildings and ships and cover for game, which the aristocracy alone was privileged to hunt. A significant new rural industry was also emerging in the years after 1360. It was now more profitable to sell finished cloth rather than raw wool, particularly for the domestic market, so weavers, dyers and finishers multiplied in villages and towns with access to the necessary supplies of wool and flowing water – the latter just as necessary as the raw material, since plentiful supplies were needed to wash both wool and cloth and to drive the mechanical fulling machines.11

Although England remained primarily an agrarian society, some twenty per cent of the population now lived in towns where specialist trades, crafts and markets could flourish more easily than in the countryside. As we shall see, these ranged from the suppliers of daily essentials such as the tailors, smiths, butchers and grocers to be found in every small town to the more exotic and unusual parchment-makers, embroiderers and goldsmiths plying their skills in the shadows of, and for the benefit of, great cathedrals and monasteries. The influence of the Church permeated society and daily life. It was the Church calendar, rather than simply the weather, which dictated and marked the passing of the seasons. The very hours of the day were marked out for both labourers in the field and townsmen going about their business by the bells which called monks and canons to their prayers.

Church buildings literally dominated town and country in both their scale and magnificence. Nothing, not even a royal castle or palace, could compare with the exquisite tracery and soaring pinnacles of a remote Cistercian abbey in Yorkshire or an urban cathedral like Salisbury or Gloucester. For the weary traveller these were landmarks which would be seen hours before they could be reached by road: signposts not only to God’s kingdom but also to the baser pleasures of rest and refreshment. Parish churches too were enjoying a building renaissance in the wake of the plague as grateful survivors sought to extend and beautify their local places of worship by adding porches and steeples and to memorialise themselves and their families by paying for tomb effigies, stained-glass windows and chantry chapels where a priest or priests sang masses continually for the souls of the dead. Even those who could not afford such ostentatious alms-giving were legally obliged to give their tithe to the Church, a tenth of their annual income, which was claimed from every adult in the kingdom, whether it was in cash from wages or rents or in kind in the form of grain, wool or livestock. The Church claimed other ‘gifts’ or payments too, on feast days, for churching ceremonies to purify women after childbirth and, most notoriously, as a mortuary fine on the death of a parishioner.

All these funds were necessary to support a church hierarchy which ranged from bishops and abbots, some of whom lived like princes and were just as involved in the country’s administration as their secular peers, to simple anchorites like the mystic Julian of Norwich who had voluntarily immured herself in a cell adjoining the church of St Julian in 1373 and remained there till her death in 1414, surviving on donations of food and drink from local well-wishers and the pilgrims who sought her out. In towns like Norwich it must have been virtually impossible to stir abroad without encountering a cleric of some sort: monks conducting their abbey’s estate business, friars sermonising to the crowds from the preaching crosses erected in most churchyards, canons hurrying to take their places in the cathedral, parish priests paying duty calls to the bishop, perhaps even a Knight Hospitaller riding to visit his order’s local preceptory; not to mention the host of unordained clergymen, such as the lawyers, clerks and even pardoners who sold papal indulgences granting remission of sins and, like Chaucer’s charlatan, false relics of varying degrees of ingenuity (the pigs’ bones alleged to be those of saints, the pillowcase said to be the Virgin Mary’s veil, even a piece of sail from the boat from which Christ called St Peter) to the unwary and credulous. Something like one in thirty men in England in 1377 was either a member of a religious order or a fully ordained clergyman. An unquantifiable number, probably far in excess of that, were members of the minor orders who were tonsured, wore ecclesiastical vestments and enjoyed benefit of clergy, which meant that they could not be executed for certain crimes by secular courts so long as they could read or recite the ‘neck-verse’, the first verse of the Fifty-First Psalm (literacy being regarded as proof of a clerical vocation); as they were not fully ordained they were therefore free to marry and live and work in secular society. It was these men who were the backbone of English government and administration: the clerks working in the royal chancery, in the sheriffs’ and bailiffs’ courts and in the localities, where they wrote wills and charters and kept accounts for the lord of the manor.12

The higher echelons of the Church were also deeply embedded in the government of the realm. Those who had served the king well could expect promotion not only within his various departments of state but also within the ecclesiastical hierarchy: parishes, prebendaries, canonries, archdeaconries, even bishoprics, were often the reward of loyal service to the crown, with many of the offices being held at the same time by a single individual who could not, therefore, perform his sacred duties in person. Bishops always served as members of the king’s council and regularly held the highest offices in the land: in 1381 the chancellor was none other than Simon Sudbury, archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Church in England and Wales, while the treasurer was Sir Robert Hales, prior of the Knights Hospitaller and head of this international military order of monks in England, Wales and Scotland. The Church owned vast swaths of land, putting bishops and abbots on a par with the secular aristocracy: even the poorest see, Rochester, was worth four hundred pounds a year, while the wealthiest, Winchester, brought its incumbents an annual income of over ten times that amount. The same people who advised the king and played a large part in determining the course of national and even international politics were therefore among the greatest landlords in the country, whose exercise of secular lordship affected the daily lives of a large proportion of the population.13

This identification of Church and state fuelled anti-clericalism in a society which was still deeply religious. The wealth of the Church, contrasting so sharply with the simple life of Christ himself, had been a source of contention almost since its foundation. Every reforming movement, including the Cistercians, the friars and, most recently, the Carthusians, attempted to strip the Church back to its fundamental concept of apostolic poverty. The pride, greed, sloth, ignorance and sexual misconduct of the clergy were frequently attacked by churchmen themselves, though the convention was that this was done in Latin and reserved for an audience of clergy, monks and scholars. Sermons for the laity were preached in the vernacular but were supposed to abstain from criticism of the Church and concentrate instead on admonishing the vices of laymen, encouraging reformation of character and giving instruction on the prayers, creed and Ten Commandments that were the building blocks of the liturgy. Yet because parish priests were only required to preach four times a year, and many of them had neither the talent nor the inclination to do so, an army of itinerant preachers had grown up to feed the huge popular appetite for sermons. Though some preachers complained that their congregations fell asleep, ‘for in these days men like a short sermon, or no sermon at all, when in church, and long drinking in the ale-house’, the demand since the mid-century had literally changed the face of churches, leading to the introduction of pulpits and huge naves where the congregation could gather to hear a sermon.14

Many churches, including most famously St Paul’s in London, also had preaching crosses in their churchyards, enabling travelling preachers to address vast crowds of people without entering the building itself. This facility was particularly used by the friars, whose obvious personal commitment to evangelical poverty and highly emotional rhetoric played deeply into contemporary notions of individual responsibility for sin and hopes of salvation. They were unsparing in their criticism of the Church and its hierarchy, feeding the anti-clericalism of the age, which was so at odds with its genuine piety. Just like the renegade and rebel John Balle, they were accused of denigrating the clergy and discouraging the payment of ecclesiastical dues. Balle’s instruction to withhold tithes from priests who were richer or less moral than their parishioners finds echoes in the preaching of his contemporary, the Franciscan friar Thomas Richmond, who told vast crowds gathered to hear him on the outskirts of York that ‘A priest fallen into mortal sin is not a priest. Again I say that he is not a priest; and thirdly I say that before God he is no priest’; he even argued that secular judges should cleanse the Church of immorality by jailing offenders. Another contemporary Franciscan, John Gorry, was the subject of a royal writ ordering his house in Dorchester, Dorset, to silence and punish him for encouraging the tenants of the abbot of Milton to rebel against the abbey and to violate the Statute of Labourers. And it was two Augustinian friars who, in 1371, submitted a set of learned articles to parliament arguing that the Church’s property should be impounded by the king and used for the service and defence of the realm.15

Such attacks on the Church by its own members blurred the distinction between what was acceptable criticism within the bounds of reformist zeal and what was actually heresy and therefore contrary to orthodox teaching. The last quarter of the fourteenth century was one in which the Church’s wealth and its moral standing were being questioned at every level of society. Even the papacy itself was under attack. Its authority had already been compromised and challenged by its relocation from Rome to Avignon in 1305. Subsequent popes were, of necessity, Francophile, and therefore unable to act as the independent arbiter and mediator of Europe at the very time when such intervention was most required to halt the Hundred Years War. The papacy reached its lowest point in 1378 when rival popes were elected, Urban VI in Rome and Clement VII in Avignon, beginning the Great Schism which would divide the loyalties of Christendom until 1417. As the two popes struggled indecorously for supremacy and the Church throughout Europe fractured along national lines, it was no wonder that there was growing disillusionment with God’s representatives on earth.

There were plenty of people in England, even around the young king, including his mother and his uncle Gaunt, who were prepared to protect and sanction those who argued that the Church had lost its way and should therefore be stripped of its worldly wealth. Whether they did this for purely pragmatic reasons, so that they could force the Church to contribute to the cost of the war against France, or because they were genuinely persuaded of the need for a root and branch reformation of a corrupt institution, court patronage of dissident preachers was bound to endorse and encourage the spread of their message. Gaunt’s most famous protégé was John Wyclif, an Oxford doctor of philosophy and former master of Balliol, whose ideas were even more radical than John Balle’s. His treatises denied the pope and the Church the right to exercise not only temporal lordship, but also spiritual authority, rejected the central role of the priest in man’s relationship with God by elevating preaching above the sacraments as the means by which salvation could be found, and considered the words of the Bible itself, not anyone else’s interpretation of it, to be the true foundation of all authority and law in Church and state.16

Such ideas were doubly dangerous in the changing world of the late fourteenth century because literacy was no longer the sole preserve of the clergy. The aristocracy had long educated its children by means of private tutors, often the household chaplain, who taught their sons and occasionally their daughters to read and write in Latin, the language of diplomacy, administrative and legal record, and French, the written and spoken language of the court, polite society and chivalric literature. Monasteries and convents too had always educated their novices in preparation for entering the religious life and sometimes opened their doors to local children, whom it was hoped would also join them: one of the reasons why the abbot of St Albans was so vindictive in his treatment of William Grindecobbe, who had forced him to concede freedoms to the abbey’s tenants and townsmen during the great revolt, was the fact that he had been educated and brought up in the abbey’s school.17

Many religious houses sponsored or ran grammar schools for the laity where university graduates taught Latin to fee-paying students from dawn to dusk. Some were boarding schools and some admitted able pupils free of charge, depending on whether the school had a foundation which could cover the cost of a schoolmaster; William Wykeham, bishop of Winchester, who owed his own spectacular rise from relatively humble beginnings to his education, founded Winchester College in 1382 to support seventy free scholars who were destined for his other foundation, New College, Oxford, and a career in the Church. Smaller and less exalted institutions existed throughout the country, usually in towns. Where there was no dedicated room or building available, classes were held in the local church: in 1373 the bishop of Norwich prohibited this practice in the schools of King’s Lynn on the grounds that the cries of beaten children interrupted services and distracted worshippers.18

But side by side with these ecclesiastical schools which aimed to produce a new generation of clergy were independent schools and teachers, which had flourished in towns for at least two hundred years: Boston, Bristol, Coventry and Nottingham, for example, boasted such schools by the end of the fourteenth century. Many of these owed their foundation to the generosity of individuals, particularly wealthy merchants, but also to the enterprise of individual teachers, who were not always university graduates but who were educated enough to earn a living by teaching. And though the impression we get from both modern historians and contemporary books of advice on how to bring up girls (which were inevitably written by men) is that the female sex was destined solely for a domestic role and to make their husbands happy, the extent of their education has been consistently underestimated. As early as the beginning of the fourteenth century it was acknowledged that ‘mother tea-cheth child on book’ and since the most common books available in the days before printing were primers, or first books, containing the prayers of the liturgy and of the hours, these implied at least a basic knowledge of Latin. Significantly too one of the most popular subjects for depiction in manuscripts, wall paintings and stained-glass windows at this time was St Anne teaching her daughter the Virgin Mary to read. By 1335 we even have our first documented example of a professional female schoolteacher, Margaret Skolmaystres, who ran an establishment in Oxford.19

Education, as Wykeham’s career demonstrated, was the key to social mobility. Though clerics liked to consider that they had the monopoly on learning, they, and consequently later generations, greatly underestimated the levels of literacy among the laity at this period. The ability to understand, read and write both letters and numbers was a daily necessity for a significant part of the population, from the bailiff producing his records in the manorial court to the merchant putting his signature to a contract or casting his accounts. What is more, the supremacy of Latin was being challenged by a burgeoning confidence in the native language as an effective means of communication outside and beyond the simple verbal exchanges of ordinary people in the normal course of their everyday lives. It is no coincidence that Richard’s reign would see an extraordinary flowering of English literature, from Chaucer to Langland, Gower and the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. English was not just the new language of choice among poets. The ability to read and write in the vernacular had percolated down through society. In the year of the revolt, William Smith, an artisan from Leicester who had taught himself to read and write, embarked on a project which eventually led to his being forced to hand over ‘weighty books which he had written in the mother tongue, from the Gospels and from the epistles and bishops and doctors of the Church, and which (he confessed) he had worked studiously at writing for eight years’.20

Smith was exceptional but not unique. One of the most striking and unusual features of the great revolt would be its emphasis on the written word. The rebels set out to destroy the records which restricted their freedoms but also to replace them with new documents enshrining in perpetuity their newly won liberties; they communicated by letter and written proclamation; and, perhaps most significant of all, at least six letters, purportedly written by John Balle, were in circulation at the time of the revolt and preserved by contemporary chroniclers as examples of the sort of revolutionary rhetoric which had inflamed the people to rebel. If Balle’s letters were a call to arms they are pretty opaque: they include no practical information such as the date, place or time to begin the revolution and are, in fact, simply a patchwork of enigmatic quotations from well-known phrases, proverbs and verses which also occur in fourteenth-century mendicant preaching manuals, sermons and sermon notes. Their author could just as easily have been a perfectly orthodox member of the Church inveighing against the sins of the age, rather than an incendiary preacher intent on raising rebellion. It was their timing that made them so dangerous – at least in contemporary eyes – combined with the fact that Balle had chosen to write, as he preached, in English. Whatever his message was, he wanted it to reach the widest audience possible.21 And, as we have seen, there was a growing audience for such material. What is more, that audience was increasingly well informed and interconnected. The idea that medieval men and women rarely stirred off their native manors, let alone outside their villages or shires, is wide of the mark. Aristocrats were continually on the move, visiting their various homes, attending the royal court and parliament, employed on diplomatic or military business in various parts of the realm and even overseas. They did not travel alone, but literally took their households (and often their household contents) with them: not just their immediate family and personal servants but their esquires, chaplains, surgeons and physicians; further down the social scale their kitchen staff, including cooks, clerks of the table linen and scullery boys; their minstrels and entertainers, grooms and stableboys, even their falconers and masters of the hounds.

It was not just those in the service of medieval noblemen who could expect to travel. Merchants were also continually on the move, purchasing wool or corn in the English countryside, travelling overseas to bargain for wine, spices or the essential dyes and chemicals needed for the burgeoning English cloth industry, taking up residence in Calais to supervise the Staple. Churchmen too were frequently to be found on the road, going to London to present their petitions to the king, to Rome to seek preferment from the pope or employment in the papal curia, acting as diplomats or envoys on behalf of Church and state. Friars were peripatetic by the very nature of their order, wandering from town to town preaching and begging as they went. Minstrels, messengers and pedlars were similarly itinerant and, like friars, could travel great distances, both on horseback and on foot. Even those living on rural manors travelled regularly, if only within a relatively small radius of their homes, to visit markets to buy and sell, but their children would often find employment in nearby towns as servants or apprentices, returning for the harvest. The humblest carter on a great monastic estate could find himself driving two-wheeled carts or the more cumbersome four-wheeled wagons pulled by a team of draught animals to the coast to collect barrels of fish or wine, or to one of the great towns to pick up spices and incense.

Freemen were required to travel regularly to the hundred courts and shire courts to act as jurors, transact business and pursue or defend legal action; male villeins over the age of twelve were also obliged to make one or two annual trips to the hundred courts to prove that they were enrolled in a tithing, the basic administrative unit for enforcing justice. And every able-bodied Englishman, whatever his social status or place of residence, was required by law to be prepared to fight in defence of the realm, which, in practice, meant regular attendance at certain designated places within each county to be arrayed and demonstrate that he had the appropriate weapons in good working order. From these commissions of array were chosen the local levies, who would turn out to resist invasions by the Scots and French, including those of 1377. Edward III’s law of 1363 requiring every able-bodied man between the ages of sixteen and sixty to practise at the archery butts every Sunday and feast day fulfilled its intended purpose of ensuring that the kingdom had a ready supply of trained and well-equipped soldiers standing by; the unintended consequence was that half the population was legally armed with at least longbow, sword and dagger, and knew how to use them. This undoubtedly contributed to general levels of violence in society but in periods of civil unrest, particularly the great revolt, it had the potential to create serious problems for the government.

There was one other facet of medieval society which contributed to its mobility and that was its piety. This was not expressed solely by attendance at the nearest church but by visiting shrines and holy places in England and overseas. The travails, dangers and expense of the journey were regarded as expiation for sin; indeed some pilgrimages were imposed by ecclesiastical and secular authorities as punishment for moral failings and even criminal acts. Other pilgrims voluntarily took up the scallop shells and staff that symbolised their status in order to find a cure for failing health, as an act of thanksgiving for recovery from sickness or, like Chaucer’s knight, for a safe return from campaign, or even, as two veterans of Agincourt would do, in fulfilment of vows they had made on the battlefield. From Beverley in Yorkshire to Walsingham in Norfolk, the country was liberally provided with shrines for the pious to visit, buy their leaden pilgrim’s badge to add to their collection and make their sacrificial offering. Many of the great abbeys, such as Bury St Edmunds and St Albans, had grown up around such shrines and owed their own prosperity to the miracles attributed to their patrons. The most popular English shrine of all was that of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury, where some two hundred thousand pilgrims were said to make their way annually, from both home and abroad, making donations valued at almost a thousand pounds a year.22

The importance of pilgrimage as a means of obtaining and spreading information should not be forgotten. Chaucer’s pilgrims to Canterbury, who were an authentic representation of the genuine article, were a disparate lot drawn from Church and laity, country and town, and from every rank of society below that of the nobility, thrown together in close proximity in a way which would not have occurred in any other aspect of life. First and foremost were the two real characters, the author himself and ‘oure Hoste’ Harry Bailly, organiser of the storytelling, who was a genuine innkeeper of Southwark and not only appears in the 1381 poll-tax returns paying twelve pence each for himself and his wife Christiana but also acted as the controller, or chief accounting officer, for the collection of the tax in the borough. The fictional characters included a prioress with her accompanying retinue of a nun and three priests, a monk, friar, Oxford clerk, physician, poor country parson and pardoner standing for the Church; a knight, squire, franklin (wealthy farmer), yeoman, reeve (manorial official), miller and ploughman exemplifying rural life. The more complex nature of urban society was reflected in its representatives: a merchant, a shipman from Dartmouth, Devon, who knew every harbour from Gotland in Sweden to Finisterre in Spain, the much-married Wife of Bath, a haberdasher, carpenter, weaver, dyer, tapestry-maker and cook, together with a small but important legal sub-group consisting of a sergeant-at-law or barrister at the peak of his profession, a summoner who identified wrong-doers and brought indictments against them in the courts, and a manciple of the Temple, who acted as quartermaster for the Inns of Court.23

Chaucer was not being fanciful in the range of his fictional pilgrims – even the Wife of Bath, who had already been on pilgrimage to Rome, Santiago de Compostela, Boulogne, Cologne and three times to Jerusalem, had a real-life contemporary counterpart in Margery Kempe, the wife of a burgess of King’s Lynn, whose outbursts of noisy weeping as she contemplated the passion of Christ irritated preachers and her fellow pilgrims the length and breadth of England and as far afield as the Holy Land, Assisi, Rome and Santiago. Pilgrims would play a small but significant role in the great revolt, not least because they travelled the same route between London and Canterbury as so many of the rebels. Well aware of these travellers’ potential value in spreading the revolt, the rebels deliberately blocked every pilgrimage route to Canterbury and compelled them all to swear allegiance to ‘the king and his true commons’, to enlist their neighbours in the cause and to join the rebels when summoned to do so. In this way the pilgrims carried first-hand news of what was happening back to their home towns, just as they had always done. Several months after the great revolt, it was pilgrims to Canterbury from northern England who sparked a fresh uprising in Kent by bringing rumours that John of Gaunt had freed the villeins on all his estates.24

The England that the boy-king inherited from his grandfather was in the process of significant change. Post-plague, its population had begun to find its feet again. There was a sense of opportunity, of dynamism in the air. The old, more rigid structures of society, particularly those at the lowest levels, had been challenged and subverted. Earlier medieval churchmen had preached that humankind was divided into three simple groups (three being the mystical number representing the Trinity): those who fought, those who prayed and those who worked; the body politic was similarly divided into three, with those who governed in Church and state as its head, their officials as the body and those who were governed as the feet. That remarkable preacher and fearless critic of abuse of power Thomas Brinton, bishop of Rochester since 1373, could now offer a more nuanced view:

the head are kings, princes, and prelates; the eyes are wise judges and true counsellors; the ears are clerics; the tongue, good learned men; the right hand, soldiers ready to mount a defence; the left hand, merchants and faithful artisans; the heart, citizens and burghers placed as if in the centre; the feet are farmers and labourers as if firmly supporting the entire body.25

Among those merchants, artisans, burgesses and farmers who had at last had their role in society not only recognised but put at the heart of the state, as well as providing the base upon which it stood, there was a new feeling, perhaps of individualism, certainly of confidence, fostered by the growth of personal wealth, literacy and numeracy. Increasing physical and social mobility in a more market-driven economy added impetus to the exchange of ideas – and grievances. A new middle class had been created which was aspirational, questioning and articulate but had little or no voice in the way the realm was run. And the forces of reaction were mustering and closing in as both government and landowners sought to exploit the new-found wealth being created by their subordinates and yet, at the same time, to turn back the clock and reassert their authority over them. A clash was inevitable.

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