Post-classical history

Chapter 5
England at War, 1290–1390

To those who lived at the time, and to many historians since, the late Middle Ages, from c.1290, seemed a dangerous, turbulent, and decadent period. England’s civil and foreign wars – especially those in Scotland, France, and the Low Countries – lasted longer, extended further afield, cost more, and involved larger numbers of men than any it had fought since the Viking Age. Within the British Isles, Welshmen were distrusted by the English, despite Edward I’s conquests; uprisings culminating in Owain GlyndImager’s rebellion (from 1400) seemed to justify this distrust and recall prophecies that foretold of the expulsion of the English from Wales. Celtic prejudice against Englishmen flourished with all the bitterness and resentment of which the defeated or oppressed were capable: ‘The tyranny and cruelty of the English’, claimed a Scot in 1442, ‘are notorious throughout the world, as manifestly appears in their usurpations against the French, Scots, Welsh, Irish and neighbouring lands.’ Famine, disease, and (from 1348) plague drastically reduced England’s population by the early fifteenth century, perhaps by as much as a half, and this severely disrupted English society. Towards the end of the fifteenth century, French statesmen were noting with disapproval Englishmen’s habit of deposing and murdering their kings and the children of kings (as happened in 1327, 1399, 1461, 1471, 1483, and 1485) with a regularity unmatched anywhere else in Western Europe. Spiritual uncertainty and the spread of heresy led the choleric Chancellor of Oxford University, Dr Thomas Gascoigne, to conclude that the English Church of his day was decayed, and its bishops and clergy failing in their duty. One popular poet, writing about 1389, thought that this seemingly decadent age was all too appropriately reflected in the extravagant and indecent fashion for padded shoulders, tightly drawn waistbands, close-fitting hose, and long pointed shoes.

There are, of course, dangers in taking contemporaries at their own estimation, particularly if they lived at times of special tension or turmoil. It is now accepted that wars can have a creative side, in this case giving Englishmen a sharper sense of national identity; that famine and disease need not utterly prostrate a society, or economic contraction necessarily mean economic depression; that the growth of heresy and criticism of religious institutions may spur men to greater personal devotion; that, as with the evolution of Parliament, political crises have constructive features; and, finally, that literary and artistic accomplishments are rarely extinguished by civil commotion or social ferment. From the vantage point of the beginning of the twenty-first century, the later Middle Ages now appear as an age of turbulence and complexity, sure enough, but also as an age of vitality, ambition, and, above all, fascination.

The King’s Sovereignty

The king and his court, with the royal family and household at its centre, were the focus and fulcrum of English government and politics. Central to both was the relationship between the king and his influential subjects: the barons or magnates first and foremost, but also country knights and esquires who often aspired to join the baronial ranks, wealthy merchants, and the bishops and talented clerks – all of whom sought patronage, position, and promotion from the Crown. A successful king was one who established a harmonious relationship with all or most of these influential subjects, for only then could political stability, effective government, and domestic peace be assured. This was no simple or easy task. The growing emphasis on the king’s sovereign authority in his kingdom, reinforced by the principle (from 1216) that the Crown should pass to the eldest son of the dead monarch and by the extension of royal administration in the hands of a network of king’s clerks and servants, was bound to be at the expense of the feudal, regional power of the great landowners. Yet that very principle of hereditary monarchy, while it reduced the likelihood of royal kinsmen squabbling over the Crown, made it more likely that unsuitable kings (by their youth, character, or incapacity) would sometimes wear it. Above all, the persistent warfare of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries imposed heavier obligations on England’s kings. From Edward I’s reign onwards, there was no decade when Englishmen were not at war, whether overseas or in the British Isles. Every generation of Englishmen in the later Middle Ages knew the demands, strains, and consequences of war – and more intensely than their forebears.

The Conquest of Wales

After the civil war of Henry III’s reign, a successful effort was made to reconcile England and restore domestic peace whereby the king and his subjects could re-establish a stable relationship that gave due regard to the rights and aspirations of both. The new monarch, Edward I (1272–1307), showed himself to be capable, constructive, and efficient in his government, and also determined to emphasize his position as sovereign. But his unrelenting insistence on asserting his sovereignty in all the territories of the British Isles, even those beyond the borders of his realm, began the era of perpetual war.

In Wales, he overwhelmed Gwynedd, the most vigorous and independent of the surviving native lordships, and with Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s death in 1282 the conquest of Wales was successfully completed after 200 years of intermittent warfare. The Crown thereby expanded its territories in North and West Wales to form a principality that covered half the country; in 1361 this was conferred on the king’s eldest son as the first English-born Prince of Wales. It was a notable achievement, if a costly one. Material damage had to be made good; an imaginative plan for future security included a dozen new and half-a-dozen reconstructed fortresses, most of them complemented by new walled boroughs peopled by loyal immigrants; and a permanent administration was devised for the conquered lands. This administration (announced in the statute of Rhuddlan, 1284) began as a military regime but soon established peace and stability by a judicious combination of English innovation and Welsh practice. Firmness, tempered by fairness and conciliation, was the hallmark of relations between the new governors and the Welsh population, and rebellions in 1287, 1294–5, and 1316 were not widespread or dangerous threats. Yet the costs of conquest were prodigious. Soldiers and sailors, architects, craftsmen, and labourers were recruited in every English county and beyond to serve in Wales. At least £75,000 was spent on castle-building between 1277 and 1301 alone (when a skilled mason earned less than 2s. a week), whilst the suppression of the 1294–5 revolt cost about £55,000. Fortunately, royal government in Wales proved eminently successful: by the mid-fourteenth century it was producing a profit for the royal exchequer and the Welsh gentry prospered in co-operation with an alien regime.

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8. A typical Welshman, as seen from Westminster towards the end of the thirteenth century: long hair, plain homespun cloak, one shoe – and his invaluable longbow

No sooner had Llywelyn been eliminated than Edward I turned to the lords of the Welsh march (or borderland) – mostly English magnates – to establish his sovereign rights over them and their subjects too; and he brought the Welsh Church and bishops more directly under his control. The whole enterprise of Edwardian conquest showed an imagination and determination and a grasp of strategy that went far beyond the military campaigns. But the feelings of bitterness among the conquered, who were ruled in Church and State by an alien hierarchy, could not easily be removed. If English domination were to become oppressive, if the economic benefits of stable rule dried up, or if relations between native and immigrant deteriorated, serious problems would be created for the English state, and colonial rule would be threatened.

Overlordship in Scotland

Edward I was equally intent on exerting his superior lordship over Scotland. This was an exceptionally ambitious undertaking because Scotland, unlike Wales, had its own monarch (of the house of Canmore) and Scotsmen’s sense of independence was fierce, especially in the remoter Highlands. But, as with Wales, an opportunity to assert England’s overlordship had arisen in Edward’s reign in 1286 on the death of King Alexander III and of his granddaughter and heiress four years later. Edward accepted the invitation of the Scottish ‘guardians of the realm’ to settle the succession question, and he took advantage of this ‘Great Cause’ (1291–2) to secure recognition of himself as ‘lord superior’ of Scotland. Scottish resistance and Edward’s efforts to make his claim a reality began a barren period of mutual hostility between the two countries that lasted well into the sixteenth century. The Scots sought French aid (1295) and papal support, and they generated a vigorous patriotism in defence of their political independence under the leadership of William Wallace (executed 1305) and Robert Bruce (King Robert I, 1306–29). A score of English invasions in the half-century after 1296 succeeded in establishing an uneasy military and administrative presence in the Lowlands, but it was difficult to sustain in poor and hostile country and had to be financed largely from England. Nor did the English command the northern seas or subdue and control the north and west of Scotland. Thus, the English had none of the advantages – or success – that attended their ventures in Wales, and even in battle (notably at Bannockburn, 1314) their cavalry forces suffered humiliating defeat at the hands of more mobile Scotsmen. The treaty of Northampton (1328), which recognized King Robert and surrendered the English claim to overlordship, was quickly disowned by Edward III when he took personal charge of the government in 1330. Anglo-Scottish relations thereafter were a sad catalogue of invasion, border raids, unstable English occupation of southern shires, Franco-Scottish agreements that hardened into the ‘Auld Alliaunce’ – even the capture of King David II at Neville’s Cross (1346). Scotland proved a persistent and expensive irritation after English claims and ambitions were thwarted by determined and united resistance by the Scots.

Ireland

After Bannockburn, Robert I tried to forestall further English operations in Scotland by exploiting the situation in Ireland. During 1315–18 his brother, Edward Bruce, secured the support of Anglo-Irish magnates and Gaelic chiefs, and in 1316 he was declared High King of Ireland. Soon afterwards, Robert himself visited Ireland and this may have been designed to stimulate a ‘pan-Celtic’ movement against Edward II of England (1307–27). This Scottish intervention was a severe shock to the English government and revealed the weakness of its regime in Dublin. No English king visited Ireland between 1210 and 1394 – not even Edward I, conqueror of the Welsh and ‘hammer of the Scots’. Instead, Edward I ruthlessly stripped the country of its resources of men, money, and supplies, especially for his wars and castle-building in Wales and Scotland. Harsh exploitation and absentee rule led in time to administrative abuse and the decay of order, of which the Anglo-Irish magnates and Gaelic chiefs took full advantage. The king’s officials presided over an increasingly feeble and neglected administration, whilst a Gaelic political and cultural revival had taken root in the thirteenth century. This contributed to the success of Edward Bruce, during whose ascendancy Ireland, said a contemporary, ‘became one trembling wave of commotion’. The English lordship never recovered and henceforward was unable to impose its authority throughout the island. Instead of being a financial resource, Ireland became a financial liability, with a revenue after 1318 that was a third of what it had been under Edward I and therefore quite inadequate to sustain English rule. Periodic expeditions led by minor figures could do little to revive the king’s authority and the area under direct rule consequently contracted to the ‘pale’ around Dublin. It was a confession of failure when the government resorted to racial and cultural separation, even persecution, by a series of enactments culminating in the statute of Kilkenny (1366). The ‘lord of Ireland’ had a perfunctory lordship in the later Middle Ages that was costly, lawless, hostile to English rule, and open to exploitation by the Scots, the French, and even by Welsh rebels.

Anglo-French Relations and the Hundred Years War

The recognition of overlordship which English monarchs demanded of the Welsh, Scots, and Irish was denied to the French king in Gascony, where these same English kings, as dukes of Aquitaine, had been feudal vassals of the Crown of France since 1204. Gascony lay at the heart of Anglo-French relations both before and during the so-called Hundred Years War (1337–1453): it replaced Normandy and Anjou as the main bone of contention. At Edward I’s accession, this prosperous, wine-producing province was England’s only remaining French territory, and the political link with England was reinforced by a flourishing export trade in non-sweet wine which was complemented by the transport of English cloth and corn by sea to Bordeaux and Bayonne: in 1306–7 the duchy’s revenue was about £17,000 and well worth fighting for. Friction with the French king over Gascony’s frontier and the rights of Gascons was gradually subsumed in the larger issues of nationhood and sovereignty posed by an assertive, self-conscious French state bent on tightening its control over its provinces and vassals (including the English duke of Aquitaine). For their part, Edward I and his successors were reluctant to see French royal rights emphasized or given any practical meaning in Gascony. The result was a series of incidents, peace conferences, and ‘brushfire’ wars in which French armies penetrated Gascony and the duchy was periodically confiscated, and English expeditions – even a visit by Edward I himself (1286–9).

Relations between England and France might have continued to fester in this fashion had it not been for two other factors. The English government resented the Franco-Scottish alliance (from 1295) and was angered by the refuge offered by the French (1334) to the Scottish King David II after Edward III had invaded Scotland. Even more contentious were the consequences of the approaching extinction of the senior male line of the French royal house of Capet. The deaths, in rapid succession, of four French kings between 1314 and 1328, requiring the swearing of homage for Gascony on each occasion, were irritating enough, but the demise of the last Capet in 1328 raised the question of the succession to the French throne itself. At that point, the new English king, Edward III (1327–77), was in no position to stake his own claim through his French mother, Isabella, but in 1337, when the Gascon situation had deteriorated further, he did so. His action may have been primarily tactical, to embarrass the new Valois monarch, Philip VI, though for an English king to become king of France would have the undeniable merit of resolving at a stroke the difficult Gascon issue: the political stability and economic prosperity of Gascony would be assured. Thus, when a French fleet was sighted off the Norman coast en route (so the English believed) for Scotland in 1337, war began – and would last for more than a century.

England’s war aims were neither constant nor consistently pursued. Especially in the fourteenth century, its war diplomacy was primarily dictated by a series of immediate problems, notably, of how to maintain independent rule in Gascony and how to deter Scottish attacks across the northern border in support of the French. Even after Edward III claimed the French Crown in 1337, he was prepared to ransom John II, the French king captured at the battle of Poitiers (1356), and to abandon his claim in the treaty of Brétigny (1360) in return for practical concessions. Nevertheless, dynastic ties, commercial and strategic considerations, even differing attitudes to the Papacy, which was installed at Avignon from 1308 to 1378, combined to extend the Anglo-French conflict to the Low Countries, to Castile and Portugal, as well as to Scotland, Ireland, and even Wales. To begin with, the wars (for this was a disjointed series of conflicts rather than one war) were fought by sieges in northern France in 1338–40; then there was more intensive campaigning by pincer movements through the French provinces of Brittany, Gascony, and Normandy in 1341–7 (resulting in the English victory at Crécy and the capture of Calais). This was followed by bold marches or chevauchées by Edward III’s eldest son, Edward the Black Prince, from Gascony in 1355–6 (culminating in the great victory at Poitiers) and by the king himself in 1359 to Rheims, the traditional coronation seat of French kings. The renewal of war in Castile (1367) inaugurated a period of more modest and fitful campaigning in Portugal, Flanders, and France itself, with both sides gradually exhausting themselves.

The advantage in the war lay initially with England, the more united and better organized of the two kingdoms. Its prosperity, based especially on wool production, and its experience of warfare in Wales and Scotland, were invaluable foundations for larger-scale operations on mainland Europe. The existence of highly independent French provinces dictated English strategy. Edward III’s campaigns in the Low Countries in 1338–40 relied on the support of the cloth-manufacturing towns of Flanders which, though subject to the French king, had vital commercial links with England. In the 1340s a succession dispute in Brittany enabled English forces to intervene there and even to garrison certain castles; while Gascony, though far to the south, afforded direct access to central France.

The wars within the British Isles gave the English government a unique opportunity to develop novel methods of raising substantial forces. Supplementing and gradually replacing the traditional feudal array, the newer paid, contracted armies, recruited by indentured captains, were smaller, better disciplined, and more dependable and flexible than the loosely organized and ponderous French forces. English men-at-arms and archers, proficient in the use of the longbow and employing defensive tactics in battle, had a decisive advantage which brought resounding victories against all the odds in the early decades of the war (most notably at Crécy and Poitiers). The war at sea was a more minor affair, with naval tactics showing little novelty or imagination. It was usually beyond the capability of fourteenth-century commanders to stage a naval engagement and the battle of Sluys (which the English won in 1340) was incidental to Edward III’s expedition to Flanders. The English never kept a fleet permanently in being, but the Valois, learning the expertise of their Castilian allies, later constructed dockyards at Rouen which in time gave them an edge at sea (witness their victory off La Rochelle in 1372).

English investment in the French war was immense and unprecedented. Expeditions were organized with impressive regularity and were occasionally very large (over 10,000 men in 1346–7, for instance). The financial outlay was prodigious and tolerated so long as the war was successful; but as the margin of England’s military advantage narrowed after 1369, so the government resorted to newer and more desperate expedients, including poll taxes. Shipping for defence and expeditions could not be supplied solely by the traditional obligation of the southern Cinque Ports, and hundreds of merchant vessels (735 for the siege of Calais in 1347, for example) were impressed and withdrawn from normal commercial operations. Coastal defence against French and Castilian raiders, who grew bolder after 1369, was organized by the maritime shires of the south and east, supported by others inland – but even this could not prevent the sacking of Winchelsea (1360), Rye (1377), and other ports. The costs of war were indeed high. It is true that conquered French estates were enjoyed by many a fortunate soldier, and ransoms were profitable during the victorious years (King John II’s ransom alone was fixed at £500,000). But the lives and occupations of thousands of Englishmen, Welshmen, and Irishmen were disrupted by war service; supplies of food, materials, and equipment were diverted to operations that were entirely destructive; and the wool and wine trades were severely hampered. What is remarkable is that England was able to engage in these enterprises overseas for decades without serious political or social strains at home, and at the same time to defend the Scottish border, keep the Welsh calm, and avoid Irish uprisings. This achievement owed much to the inspiration, example, and leadership of Edward III and the Black Prince, both of whom embodied the chivalric virtues vaunted by the nobility and admired by society at large. To Jean Froissart, the Hainaulter who knew them both and kept a record of the most inspiring chivalric deeds of his age, the king was ‘gallant and noble [whose] like had not been seen since the days of King Arthur’. His son appeared as ‘this most gallant man and chivalrous prince’ who, at his death in 1376, a year before Edward III himself died, ‘was deeply mourned for his noble qualities’. King Edward presided over a regime in England that was less harsh than Edward I’s and far more capable than Edward II’s.

Financing War, Political Reform, and Civil Strife

These wars were a catalyst of social change, constitutional development, and political conflict in England which would otherwise have occurred more slowly. Moreover, along with the rest of Europe, England in the fourteenth century experienced population and economic fluctuations that increased tension and uncertainty. The result was a series of crises which underlined how delicately balanced was the relationship between the king and his subjects (especially his magnates, who regarded themselves as representing the entire ‘community of the realm’) and how crucial to a personal monarchy was the king himself. Able and determined – even far-sighted – Edward I and his advisers may have been, but the king’s obstinate and autocratic nature seriously strained relations with his influential subjects. Between 1290 and 1297, the propertied classes, the merchants, and especially the clergy were subjected to extraordinarily heavy and novel demands for taxes (four times as frequently as in the first half of Edward’s reign) for the king’s enterprises in France and the British Isles. There was resistance and a property tax of 1297 produced only a fraction (£35,000) of what had been anticipated. Further, armies had been summoned by the king for prolonged service outside the realm. Edward’s attempts to silence resistance shocked the clergy and embittered the merchants. The leading magnates, including Welsh marcher lords who resented Edward’s invasion of their cherished franchises, reacted by resuming their time-honoured role as self-appointed spokesmen of the realm, and they presented grievances to the king in 1297 and again in 1300. They deployed Magna Carta as their banner against taxation without the payers’ consent, and against oppressive and unprecedented exactions. Yet, when Edward died in the arms of his attendants at Burgh-by-Sands on 7 July 1307, just as he was about to cross the Solway Firth on his sixth expedition to Scotland, the problems of wartime remained. He bequeathed to his son and successor, Edward II (1307–27), an expensive war in the north that was nowhere near a victorious conclusion, and political unrest in England compounded by a dwindling of trust between monarch and subject. These two preoccupations – political stability and war – dominated public affairs during the following 200 years and had a profound effect on the kingdom’s social and political cohesion and on its economic prosperity. The new king would need exceptional tact if a further crisis of authority were to be avoided.

Tact was not Edward II’s outstanding quality. Starved of affection during childhood, ignored by his father in adolescence, and confronted by unsolved problems at his accession, Edward II sought advice, friendship, even affection, from ambitious favourites such as Peter Gavaston and Hugh Despenser who were unworthy of the king’s trust and whose influence was resented by many magnates. These facts, together with the determination of the magnates (led by Thomas, earl of Lancaster) to extract from Edward concessions and reforms which Edward I had been unwilling to confirm, turned the formidable difficulties of ruling a kingdom that was facing setbacks in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and France into a struggle for political reform and personal advancement. An extended and more specific coronation oath (1308) bound the new king more firmly to observe English law and custom, and ordinances drawn up by the magnates in 1311 sought to limit the king’s freedom of action; these ordinances were announced in Parliament in order to gain wide support and approval. Edward II had all the stubbornness of his father (though without his ability) and Gavaston’s murder (1312) converted this quality into an unshakeable resolve not to be dominated by his friend’s murderers. Meanwhile, the burdens of war and defence on the king’s subjects were scarcely less heavy than they had been during Edward I’s conquests, and this at a time of severe social distress and poverty caused by a succession of disastrous harvests and livestock diseases during 1315–22. Civil war (1321–2) and the king’s deposition (1326–7) were the fateful outcome of the failure of king and governed to co-operate to mutual benefit. Edward denounced the ordinances in 1322, again in a Parliament (at York), and after the defeat of his opponents at Boroughbridge in 1322, he executed Lancaster. By 1326, Edward’s deposition in favour of his namesake son and heir seemed the only alternative to a mean, oppressive, and unsuccessful regime that engendered civil strife. This awesome step, engineered with Queen Isabella’s connivance, the acquiescence of Prince Edward, and with substantial magnate and other support, demonstrated in a Parliament, was unprecedented: since the Norman Conquest, no English king had been deposed from his throne. In 1327, therefore, every effort was made to conceal the unconcealable and justify the unjustifiable. Browbeaten, tearful, and half-fainting, the wretched king was forced to assent to his own abdication, and a meeting of Parliament was used to spread the responsibility as widely as possible. Although the accession of Edward’s son ensured that the hereditary principle remained intact, the inviolability of anointed kingship had been breached.

Edward III’s Rule

Although only 14 in 1327, Edward III was soon a parent by 1330 and proved far more capable than his father and more sensitive than he to the attitudes and aspirations of his magnates – indeed, he shared them, particularly in warfare and in accepting the chivalric obligations of an aristocratic society. At the same time, the new king’s grandiose and popular plans in France raised issues similar to those posed by Edward I’s enterprises in the British Isles and Gascony. Should these plans ultimately prove unsuccessful, the implications for England might well be similar to those that had surfaced in Edward II’s reign. The outbreak of prolonged war in 1337 meant increased taxation at a level even higher than that of Edward I’s last years, and Edward III showed the same ruthlessness towards merchants, bankers, and landowners as Edward I had done. Moreover, the absences of the king on campaign, in the thick of the fighting which he and his magnates relished, posed serious questions for a sophisticated administration normally under the personal direction of the king. Edward’s ordinances (issued at Walton-on-Thames, 1338) for the government of England from abroad caused friction between the king and his advisers in northern France on the one hand, and those councillors remaining in England on the other. Some even feared that, if the war were successful, England might take second place in King Edward’s mind to his realm of France. Thus, in 1339–43 another crisis arose in which magnates, merchants, and the Commons in Parliament (now the forum in which royal demands for taxation were made) protested to the king. Edward was induced to act more circumspectly and considerately towards his magnates, clergy, and subjects generally. The eventual reconciliation, and the re-establishment of the trust in the king that had proved so elusive since the 1290s, was possible because Edward III was a sensible and pragmatic monarch, with a self-confidence that did not extend to arrogance. He appointed ministers acceptable to his magnates, he pandered to the self-importance of Parliament, and he developed a remarkable rapport with his subjects which sustained his rule in England and his ambitions in France for a quarter of a century. Further crisis was avoided, despite England’s involvement in its most major war yet.

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9. King Edward II, eldest surviving son of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile; married Isabella of France in 1308; deposed in 1327 and murdered. The fine alabaster tomb (c.1331) at Gloucester became a place of pilgrimage

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10. A knight preparing for the lists, which were a preparation for war and a chivalric sport. Sir Geoffrey de Luttrell is being armed by his wife and daughter. (From the famous Luttrell Psalter, c.1340.)

There was an enormous contrast with the situation in the 1370s and 1380s. For the generation of Englishmen alive then, the frustrations of the resumed war in France (from 1369) and of debilitating skirmishes in Ireland and on the Scottish border were unsettling; and renewed taxation, after a decade when England had enjoyed the profits of war and a respite from taxes, was resented. Raids on south-coast ports were frequent, uncertain naval control of the Channel imperilled trade and upset the merchants, and expensivechevauchées in France were occasionally spectacular but rarely profitable. Yet the abrupt reversal of English policy in 1375, involving a humiliating truce with France and payments to the mistrusted pope, only served to affront and exasperate Englishmen. Moreover, after the death (1369) of Queen Philippa, a paragon among queens, Edward III lapsed gently into a senility that sapped his strength and impaired his judgement. The Black Prince, too, began to suffer from the effects of his wartime exertions; in fact, he predeceased his father in June 1376. Yet the financial, manpower, and other burdens on England’s population were not eased. Questions were raised, especially by the Commons in Parliament, about the honesty as well as the competence of the king’s advisers and officials. Strengthened by a rising tide of anticlericalism in an age when the reputation of the Papacy and the Church was severely tarnished, the outcry had swept Edward III’s clerical ministers from power in 1371 and others were accused of corruption, even treason. Another political crisis had arisen. In the ‘Good Parliament’ of 1376, the longest and most dramatic assembly yet held, the allegedly corrupt and incapable ministers – even the old king’s influential mistress, Alice Perrers – were accused by the Commons and tried before the Lords in a novel and highly effective procedure (impeachment) which henceforward enabled persons in high places to be held publicly to account for their public actions.

The Accession of Richard II

The crisis entered a new phase when King Edward himself died in June 1377. He was succeeded by the Black Prince’s only surviving son and heir, Richard II (1377–99), who was ten years of age. England was faced with the prospect of only the second royal minority since 1066 and the first since 1216. On the latter occasion there had followed a period of political turbulence centring on the young Henry III; a similar situation developed after 1377 and played its part in precipitating the Peasants’ Revolt (1381) in eastern and south-eastern England (see Chapter 6). A series of poll taxes was imposed during 1377–80 to finance the war. These taxes were at a rate higher than was usual and the tax of 1379 was popularly known as ‘the evil subsidy’. They sparked off violence in East Anglia against the tax-collectors and the justices who tried to force compliance on the population. But what turned these irritations into widespread rebellion was the prolonged dislocation of unsuccessful war, the impact of recurrent plagues, and the anticlerical temper of the times. Hopes of remedy placed by the rebels in the young King Richard proved to be vain, though he showed considerable courage in facing the rebels in London during the summer of 1381.

Richard was still only 14, and the aristocratic rivalries in the ruling circle continued, not least among the king’s uncles. This and the lack of further military success in France damaged the reputation of the council that governed England in Richard’s name and even affected the king’s own standing in the eyes of his subjects. Richard, too, was proving a self-willed monarch whose sense of insecurity led him to depend on unworthy favourites reminiscent of Edward II’s confidants. As he grew older, he naturally wanted to expand his entourage and his household beyond what had been appropriate for a child. Among his friends and associates were some who were new to the ranks of the aristocracy, and all were generously patronized by the king at the expense of those (including his uncle Gloucester) who did not attract Richard’s favour. In 1386 Parliament and a number of magnates attacked Richard’s closest associates and even threatened the king himself. With all the stubbornness of the Plantagenets, Richard refused to yield. This led to further indictments or appeals of his advisers by five leading ‘appellant’ lords (the duke of Gloucester, and the earls of Warwick, Arundel, Nottingham, and Derby, the king’s cousin), and a skirmish took place at Radcot Bridge in December 1387 when the king’s closest friend, the earl of Oxford, was routed. At the momentous ‘Merciless Parliament’ (1388), the king was forced to submit to aristocratic correction which, if it had been sustained, would have significantly altered the character of the English monarchy. Once again, the pressures of war, the tensions of personal rule, and the ambitions of England’s magnates had produced a most serious political and constitutional crisis. The institution of hereditary monarchy emerged largely unscathed after a century and more of such crises, but criticism of the king’s advisers had reached a new level of effectiveness and broader sections of opinion had exerted a significant influence on events. These were the political and personal dimensions of more deep-seated changes that were transforming England’s social and economic life in the later Middle Ages.

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