Royal Administration and Parliament
English kings enjoyed a mastery in their kingdom which French monarchs might have envied, and the Crown embodied the unity of England. Its wearer was not as other men. The coronation ceremony stressed his semi-spiritual quality, which seemed proven by the alleged power of the royal touch to cure the skin disease scrofula. Richard II insisted that those who approached him should bend the knee, and ‘Majesty’ became the common address in the fifteenth century.
The tentacles of royal administration – enabling decisions, grants of taxation, and legal pronouncements to be implemented – stretched to the extremities of the British Isles in every direction but the north and west. The franchises of the bishop of Durham and the earl of Chester stood outside the shire system of England and had a special independence. But there was no question of their being beyond the reach of the king’s government: the bishops of Durham were almost always the king’s choice and, like Anthony Bek (d. 1311) and Thomas Langley (d. 1437), often royal councillors; whilst after 1301 the earl of Chester was also Prince of Wales and the king’s eldest son, and for most of the later Middle Ages the king administered Cheshire because there was no adult earl.
The king’s administration was a co-operative affair. In each county the sheriffs and the newer justices of the peace functioned best with the aid of the nobility and local gentry, whose interests in turn were securely tied to the monarch, the greatest single source of wealth and patronage in the realm. Parliament, with its commons’ representatives from counties and towns between Carlisle and Cornwall, Shrewsbury and Suffolk, came to play an essential part in late medieval government. By Edward I’s reign, war and domestic upheaval had fortified the king’s need to consult his subjects (’the community of the realm’, as contemporaries termed them) and to seek their advice in reaching and implementing decisions affecting the realm at large. It also seemed wise, from time to time, to include local representatives as well as lay and ecclesiastical lords in a central assembly that was Parliament. The wish to tap the wealth of townsmen and smaller landowners as well as the nobility; the need for material aid and expressions of support in war and political crises; and the advisability of having the weight of a representative assembly behind controversial or novel changes in the law or in economic and social arrangements – all these factors combined to give Parliament a frequency (it met on average once a year during 1327–1437), distinctive functions, and established procedures, and to give the commons’ representatives a permanent role in it from 1337 onwards. This institution, unique among the parliaments of medieval Europe, discussed both important matters of business and minor matters raised by individuals. It won a monopoly of taxing Englishmen; it was the highest court in the land; and it made new law and modified existing law through legislation. Even the commons’ representatives won privileges for themselves, not least free speech and freedom from arrest during parliamentary sittings. It remained essentially an instrument of government at the king’s disposal, but it could sometimes criticize his policies and ministers (as in the 1370s and 1380s and the 1440s), though almost never the king himself. When the practical needs that had brought Parliament into existence and encouraged its development disappeared, it met far less often: only once in every three years on average between 1453 (the end of the Hundred Years War) and 1509.
Communications, Propaganda, and Government
The commons’ representatives had to be informed, courted, and persuaded before they returned home to their constituents, considerable numbers of whom desired information about affairs. It was, after all, they who paid taxes, served in war and defence, and who were asked for their co-operation and obedience. The government was, therefore, well advised to weigh carefully the news it transmitted to the realm and the opinions it hoped the king’s subjects would adopt. Well-developed methods of communication and propaganda were used to this end. The preambles of official proclamations could popularize a policy and justify a practice: Edward IV’s proclamation against Margaret, queen of the deposed Henry VI, made much of the memory of Archbishop Scrope of York, who had been executed by Henry’s grandfather and had since taken on the aura of a martyr. This was skilful propaganda to sustain opposition to the Lancastrian dynasty, for proclamations were sent to every shire for public reading and display. Songs and ballads reached wide audiences too, and some that were officially inspired stressed the glories of Agincourt out of all proportion. Sermons were no less effective in moulding opinion and mobilizing support: in 1443 Henry VI requested that good, stirring preachers be sent through every diocese to reinforce from the pulpit royal appeals for money for yet another French campaign. Coronations, royal progresses, and the formal entries of kings and queens into York, Bristol, and Gloucester (as well as London) were occasions for lavish displays of official propaganda, harnessing mythology, Christianity, and patriotism. In 1417, Henry V was portrayed for all to see at his reception by London as a soldier of Christ returning from crusade against the French. If any citizen harboured lingering doubts about the justice of his invasion of France, this was calculated to remove them.
The circulation of letters to inform, persuade, and justify was as near as the pre-printing age came to publication; such letters soon found their way into popular chronicles. In this way, Henry V reported to his subjects the progress of his French campaigns. Even fashionable writers of the day became official propagandists. In the fifteenth century, authors rarely produced their works unsolicitedly. Thomas Hoccleve was a humble government bureaucrat who was paid by Henry V to produce laudatory verses about Agincourt and the English siege of Rouen (1419). John Lydgate was patronized by Henry VI and his court over a long period, implanting in the popular mind all the jingoism that could be wrung out of the successful defence of Calais against Burgundian attack in 1436.
The king, his court, and his ministers – the principal exploiters of these channels of communication – resided most often at Westminster, London, or Windsor. The shrine of English monarchy was Westminster Abbey, and Parliament usually met at Westminster (all 31 Parliaments did so between 1339 and 1371, and none met elsewhere after 1459). The departments of government gradually settled into permanent offices at Westminster or, to a lesser extent, London, which was the largest and wealthiest city in the land. In the later Middle Ages, it became the undisputed capital of the kingdom in every sphere except the ecclesiastical (where Canterbury remained the seat of the primate of All England). Along with Westminster and the growing riverside suburb in between, London became the administrative, commercial, cultural, and social focus for the kingdom. Government increased in extent, sophistication, and tempo in the later Middle Ages, particularly in wartime: regular taxes had to be collected and managed, frequent meetings of Parliament were held, the customs service was developed, the practicalities of war and defence had to be organized, and law and order throughout the kingdom were supervised there. Concentrated, co-ordinated, and sedentary government was the result. York lost its claims as a rival centre when the persistent war with Scotland in the first third of the fourteenth century was overtaken by the much greater preoccupation with France. Moreover, the absence of Edward III and Henry V on campaign abroad emphasized the trend towards a fixed, centralized governmental headquarters that could operate without the participation of the king himself. The crisis of 1339–41 brought home to Edward III that he could no longer take the machine of government with him, as Edward I and his predecessors had done. By 1340 the exchequer had returned to Westminster, which it never left again. The bureaucracy of the king’s chancery, exchequer, and law courts expanded in the capital and, as a group of ambitious small landowners, in the neighbouring counties. Magnates, bishops, and abbots acquired inns or houses in or near the city, and the surnames of London’s inhabitants and the language they spoke suggest that many humbler folk were migrating to the capital from every part of the kingdom – and from Wales and Ireland too.
Towards an Anglicized Church
The English character of the Church in England was its second most significant and enduring quality in the later Middle Ages. Its first was the Catholic faith and doctrine which it shared with other Latin churches. But it was widely accepted that this universal Church, headed by the pope in Rome as spiritual father, was a family of individual churches, each with its own character and autonomy. The Englishness of the Church in England became more pronounced in the later Middle Ages as the ecclesiastical dimension of English nationhood. This owed something to the English language and the separate experience of the English people, and a good deal to English law and custom, the framework within which Englishmen (including the clergy) lived and which the king swore to uphold in his coronation oath. Moreover, the Church of England, including its buildings, had been established, encouraged, and patronized by English kings, noblemen, gentry, and townsmen, giving them a personal and family interest in individual churches and their priests. The bishops were great landowners – the bishop of Winchester had an annual income of £3,900 in the mid-fifteenth century – who sat in Parliament and were among the king’s councillors. They, and lesser dignitaries too, were usually promoted because they were trusted by, and useful to, the Crown and could be rewarded in the Church without cost to the exchequer. There were, then, good practical reasons why Englishmen should control the English Church and mould its character and personnel. This seemed the more urgent during the French wars. In 1307 and regularly thereafter, the pope’s role in the organization and administration of the English Church, even in the appointment of bishops, was bitterly opposed. After all, most popes in the fourteenth century were French-born, and during 1308–78 they lived at Avignon, where they were in danger of becoming lap-dogs of the French (or so it was widely believed). By contrast, only one pope had been an Englishman (in the mid-twelfth century) and none had ever visited England – and nor would one do so until 1982.
Map 5. The pre-Reformation dioceses of England and Wales (thirteenth century)
The trend towards an Anglicized Church can be illustrated in several ways. Church law, based on the codes of the early Fathers and replenished by papal legislation, was received and generally applied in the Church courts of England, and the pope’s ultimate jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters was acknowledged. But in practice, Church law was limited by royal authority, particularly when clerks accused of crimes tried to claim ‘benefit of clergy’. From Edward I’s day, the pope’s ability to tax the English clergy was severely curtailed and most papal taxes found their way into the king’s coffers instead of fuelling the enemy’s war effort (as many believed). More serious still were the limitations on the pope’s power to appoint bishops and other important members of the English Church from the mid-fourteenth century onwards, and during the Great Schism (1378–1417, when there were two, sometimes three, popes simultaneously claiming Christendom’s allegiance), the pope whom England supported was in no position to resist. The anti-papal statutes of Provisors (1351, reissued 1390) and Praemunire (1353, extended 1393) were used by English kings to impose a compromise on the pope whereby the initiative in appointments rested with the king. As a result, very few foreigners were appointed in the English Church by the fifteenth century unless, as with Henry VII’s nomination of three Italian bishops, they had the government’s specific approval.
Few clergymen in England protested at this state of affairs. The bishops did not do so because of the men they were and the way in which they were appointed. The Church did not do so corporately because it feared papal taxation. The clergy did not do so because English kings were the protectors of the faith against heretics and a buttress against anticlerical attack. In 1433, even an abbot of St Albans could declare that ‘the king knows no superior to himself within the realm’.
Devotional Writings and Lollardy
Predominantly English in character were two expressions of religious fervour outside the institutional church of late medieval England: the devotional fashion was strictly orthodox in theology, whereas the Lollard movement inspired by John Wycliffe was heretical. The fourteenth century saw a burgeoning interest in mystical and devotional writings, most of them in English from the latter part of the century and appealing to a growing literate public. Such people took for granted the teachings and practices of the Church but preferred a personal, intuitive devotion focused on the sufferings and death of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Lives of Saints, collected in the Golden Legend. The writers were frequently solitary figures commending the contemplative life to their readers. By far the most popular devotional works were by Richard Rolle, a Yorkshire hermit, and, later, by the recluse, Dame Juliane of Norwich. The Book of Margery Kempe, the spiritual autobiography of the wife of a Lynn burgess, exemplified the virtues which lay men and women sought, and the revelations, visions, and ecstasies by which they came to possess them. Laymen such as Henry, duke of Lancaster (who in 1354 wrote a devotional work of his own in French), and devout women such as Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, turned to this intense spiritual life as a reaction to the arid theological discussions of scholars, though they did not stray into the unorthodoxy of Lollardy whose spiritual roots were not dissimilar.
Lollardy (probably a name derived from lollaer, a mumbler – of prayers) was the only significant heretical movement to sweep through medieval England, and Wycliffe was the only university intellectual in the history of medieval heresy to inspire a popular heretical movement against the Church. It was a largely indigenous English scheme of thought that laid great store by books and reading. Though Wycliffe is unlikely to have written in English, he inspired a series of English polemical works and also the first complete translation of the Bible by 1396. To begin with, he appealed to the anticlerical temper of his times and gained reputation and support among noblemen, courtiers, and scholars for his criticism of the Church’s wealth and the unworthiness of too many of its clergy. But his increasingly radical theological ideas, placing overwhelming confidence in Holy Scripture, led to his condemnation and withdrawal from Oxford. The sympathy which he had received from influential men ebbed away when confronted with the strict orthodoxy of Henry IV (who added burning in 1401 to the armoury of the persecutors of heresy) and almost disappeared when Lollardy became tinged with rebellion in Sir John Oldcastle’s rising. Deprived of its intellectual spring and its powerful protectors, Lollardy became a disjointed, unorganized but obstinate movement of craftsmen, artisans, and poor priests in the Welsh borderland and industrial towns of the Midlands. Their beliefs became more and more disparate and eccentric, but their basic hostility to ecclesiastical authority, their devotion to the Scriptures, and their belief in an English Bible prefigured the Reformation and were to be central convictions in later English Protestantism.
The Spread of Literacy and the English Language
The spread of literacy and the increased use of the English language were twin developments of the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They were symptomatic of Englishmen’s growing awareness of public affairs, and reflect feelings of patriotism and nationhood.
It is easier to be persuaded of all this than to prove it in detail. There are no contemporary estimates of how rapidly and how far literacy spread; nor is it possible for us to quantify it with the data provided by largely innumerate contemporaries. A rough index of its growth becomes available if the statutes of 1351 and 1499 defining the legal privilege of ‘benefit of clergy’ (then the literate class) are compared. In 1351 it was stated that all laymen who could read should be accorded ‘benefit of clergy’. One hundred and fifty years later, the situation had so changed that a distinction was drawn between mere lay scholars and clerks in holy orders, and only to the latter was ‘benefit of clergy’ now to be extended. Maybe the literate class had expanded to the point where ‘clerical’ was a meaningless adjective to apply to it, though the statute of 1499 attributed the need for change to abuse rather than to the expansion itself.
An equally generalized indication is provided by comparing the two popular risings of the later Middle Ages – the Peasants’ Revolt (1381) and John Cade’s rebellion (1450). In 1381 the complaints of the peasantry from Kent and Essex were (as far as we know) presented to Richard II orally, and all communications with the king during the revolt appear to have been by word of mouth; at the Tower of London, Richard had to ask that the rebels’ grievances, hitherto roared at him by the insurgents outside, be put in writing for him to consider. Compare this with 1450, when the demands of Cade’s followers, also drawn from Kent and the south-east, were submitted at the outset in written form of which several versions were produced and circulated. They are long documents, with a coherent and comprehensive argument, expressed in English, sometimes of a colloquial kind. The business of publishing manuscripts was extending its range at this very time. John Shirley (d. 1456) is known to have run his business from four rented shops near St Paul’s Cathedral and to have produced, for sale or loan, ‘little ballads, complaints and roundels’. Twenty years later, customs accounts document the importation of large quantities of manuscript books through London – over 1,300 in 1480–1 alone.
One may cautiously introduce some figures to indicate that late medieval literacy was not confined to the noble, clerical, or governmental classes. As was probably the case with Cade’s rebels, some artisans and craftsmen could now read and write. Eleven out of 28 witnesses in a legal suit of 1373 described themselves as literatus (or capable of understanding Latin and therefore, one presumes, English too); and a mid-fifteenth century will provided a similar proportion of ‘literates’ among witnesses who included merchants, husbandmen, tailors, and mariners. There were doubtless others whom, literate or not, one would never dream of employing as witnesses, but we are undeniably moving towards Sir Thomas More’s enthusiastic estimate at the beginning of the sixteenth century that more than 50 per cent of Englishmen were literate.
If we cannot accept such figures with complete confidence, we can at least observe literate men – rarely women – at work in a variety of occupations. They filled some of the highest political offices in the land hitherto reserved for clerics: from 1381, laymen frequently became Treasurer of England, an office for which a command of reading and writing – if not of figures – was an essential qualification. Literate laymen were employed as clerks in government service, a niche which the poet Thomas Hoccleve occupied for over 35 years. It is also clear that by 1380 tradesmen were keeping written bills; soon afterwards country yeomen were writing – certainly reading – private letters, and even peasants who served as reeve on their manor were functioning in an administrative environment whose business was increasingly transacted on paper and parchment. By Edward III’s time, the rules and regulations of some craft guilds were insisting on a recognized standard of literacy for their apprentices.
The reading habits of at least well-to-do laymen reflect the same thing. Reading chronicles was very popular, and not only in London; the surviving manuscripts alone run into hundreds and show signs of being produced in increasing numbers as the fifteenth century wore on, most of them in English. Merchants and others took to owning ‘commonplace books’, those personal, diminutive libraries of poems, prophecies, chronicles, and even recipes, through which they browsed at leisure. They possessed books and carefully disposed of them – particularly the religious and devotional ones – in their wills.
This literate world was increasingly an English world. The facility to speak and understand French (and therefore to read and write it) was in marked decline before the end of the fourteenth century; even for official and formal business in government and private organizations, English was becoming at least as common. Discussions in Parliament were taking place in English by the middle decades of the century, and the first written record of this dates from 1362. Although only a rough and ready guide, it is worth noting that the earliest known property deed drawn up in English is dated 1376, the earliest will 1387. The proceedings of the convocation of Canterbury were conducted in English quite often by the 1370s, and Henry IV spoke to Parliament in English in 1399 and had his words carefully recorded. The reasons for this quiet revolution are complex, but among them may be numbered the patriotism generated by the long French war; the popularity of Lollardy, which set great store by English books and sermons; the lead given by the Crown and the nobility; and, of course, the greater participation of the English-speaking subject in the affairs of the realm, not least in Parliament. The triumph of the written language was assured.
Before that happened, one major problem had to be faced: that of regional dialects. Only then could the full potential of English as a written and spoken tongue be realized. It must be admitted that in this first century or so of popular, literate English, quaint Cornish, wilfully foreign Welsh, and such unintelligibilities as the Yorkshire dialect could not be fully absorbed into a common idiom; but much headway was made. The spreading tentacles of government helped, developing and extending the use of a written language for official communication throughout the realm during the first half of the fifteenth century. A further factor was the emergence in the fourteenth century of London as the settled capital of the kingdom, with York as a subsidiary administrative centre and Bristol as the second commercial metropolis, each evolving a dialect that inevitably became comprehensible to the others and gradually fused in a standardized English. This dialect was predominantly midland English, which triumphed at the expense of a city-bound tongue; and for this reason it was the more easily adopted in rural shires. That the victor was a midland dialect was in large part due to the substantial migration of midlanders and easterners to London in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Lollardy was partly responsible too, for it was especially vigorous in the Midlands and West Country, and most of its written works were in varying forms of the midland tongue. By capturing London, this midland dialect in speech and writing captured the kingdom.
Geoffrey Chaucer had serious misgivings as to whether his writings would be understood across England – and he wrote for a limited, charmed circle.
And for there is so great diversity
In English and in writing of our tongue
So pray I God that none miswrite thee,
Nor thee mismetre for default of tongue.
And read whereso thou be, or else sung
That thou be understood, God I beseech.
In a legal case of 1426, it was stated that words were pronounced differently in different parts of England ‘and one is just as good as the other’. Half a century later, William Caxton could be more optimistic that his printed editions of several hundreds would, with care, be quite comprehensible from one shire to another. He realized that ‘common English that is spoken in one shire varieth from another’; but by using ‘English not over rude, nor curious, but in such terms as shall be understood by God’s grace’, he anticipated little difficulty. The greater ease of understanding, in both speech and writing, that had developed meanwhile was crucial to the effectiveness of communication, the common expression of opinion, and the forging of a sense of nationhood.
English had become ‘the language, not of a conquered, but of a conquering people’. The self-confidence of its writers reached the heights of genius in Chaucer, and it attracted patronage from the wealthiest and most influential in the realm – from kings, noblemen, gentlemen, and townsmen. English prose in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was far outshone in quality and popularity by English verse in all its forms: lyric and romance, comedy and tragedy, allegory and drama. Much of this poetry fell squarely in the northern European tradition, and the literary revival of the north-west and the Midlands in the fourteenth century was mainly of alliterative, unrhymed verse. But it was sponsored by local gentry and magnates such as the Bohuns (earls of Hereford) and the Mortimers (earls of March), and could produce works of considerable imaginative power in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Piers Plowman. In the same region, ritual Christian drama in the English Miracle Play Cycles was developed during the fourteenth century and achieved great popularity in northern towns such as York, Beverley, Wakefield, and Chester, where the plays were organized and performed by the town guilds.
At the same time, in the south and east, a newer mode of verse was appearing which owed more to current fashions of style and content in French and early Renaissance Italian writing. Through the pen of Chaucer, and to a lesser extent his friend John Gower, it created masterpieces of English literature. These were unequalled in their richness of thought and vocabulary, their imagination and depth of human understanding, and in their sheer artistry. Troilus and Criseyde, written about 1380–5, and especially the immensely ambitious and complex panorama of The Canterbury Tales (written 1386–1400 but never completed), decisively extended English literary accomplishment. They displayed a wisdom, worldliness, and inventiveness, and a mastery of contemporary English idiom in all its variety, which earn Chaucer his place as the greatest English medieval writer.
Gower, a Kentishman, was patronized by Richard II and, later, by Henry Bolingbroke. Chaucer, who came of London merchant stock, grew up in aristocratic and royal circles, and he was one of the most lionized and richly rewarded poets of any age. This reflects both the extraordinary quality of his writing, and also the recognition which influential contemporaries were prepared to give to the English language which he enriched. If Chaucer’s disciples, Hoccleve and Lydgate, seem second-rate in comparison with their master, at least the royal, court, and city patronage which these authors received assured a bright future for what was essentially the English literary school of the capital.
The same sources of wealth and taste were placed at the disposal of England’s architects and builders. Developing their ideas from the predominant Gothic style of much of Europe, of which the pointed arch is the symbol and most characteristic feature, they created architectural styles which have a good claim to be regarded as distinctively English. Since the nineteenth century, these have been termed Decorated (more accurately free-flowing and curvilinear) and Perpendicular (or rather vertical and rectilinear), and they are best identified in the window and arch design of England’s cathedrals, larger parish churches, and colleges. In so far as any new architectural development can be explained with precision, it is thought that renewed diplomatic and crusader contacts with the Muslim and Mongol worlds of Egypt and Persia towards the end of the thirteenth century transmitted knowledge of Eastern building styles and techniques to the far West. The delicate tracery and luxuriant naturalistic motifs which are a feature of the new Decorated style appear on the three surviving Eleanor Crosses that Edward I erected in the 1290s to mark the stages in the journey of his wife’s body from Lincoln to its burial at Westminster. Eastern influences have also been observed in the hexagonal north porch and doorway of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, dating from early in the fourteenth century. After only half a century (1285–1335) of these extravagant complexities, which were unparalleled in Gothic Europe and have been hailed as ‘the most brilliant display of sheer inventiveness in the whole history of English medieval architecture’, a reaction set in. This reaction produced the most English style of all, the Perpendicular. In an age when England was at war, this was rarely imitated on the European mainland. Its simpler, cleaner lines and larger, lighter spaces may have appeared first in the royal chapel of St Stephen, Westminster (destroyed 1834), or in the city cathedral of St Paul (burned 1666). Either way, it quickly spread to the West Country, through courtly influence focused on Edward II’s shrine at Gloucester. It can still be admired on the grand scale in the choir of Gloucester Cathedral, dating from the mid-1330s, as well as in the later naves of Canterbury (from 1379) and Winchester (from 1394). Decoration was now concentrated English-style in roof vaulting, culminating in the fan vaults of Hereford’s chapter house (now destroyed) and the cloisters at Gloucester, which were built after 1351.
Yet Perpendicular building is found most frequently and at its best in the greater parish churches of England such as Cirencester, Coventry, and Hull. Not even plague and warfare, which may have inhibited large-scale projects for a while in the fifteenth century, could deter clothiers and landowners in East Anglia and the West Country from lavishing their wealth on these monuments to English taste and skill. Perpendicular architecture experienced an exuberant resurgence in the latter part of the fifteenth century in some of the most famous of English buildings, most of them sponsored by the Crown – Eton College, St George’s Chapel, Windsor (from 1474), King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and Henry VII’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey. It was incontestably ‘the Indian Summer of English medieval architecture’.
Incomparably English were the Perpendicular towers of late medieval parish churches, ranging from the sturdy St Giles Church, Wrexham, to the soaring shaft of St Botolph’s, Boston, and the elegance of Taunton, St Stephen’s, Bristol, and St John’s, Cardiff. So, too, were the carved timber roofs of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, beginning with the timber vault planned for the chapter house at York after 1291, and the replacement of the tower of Ely Cathedral, which collapsed in 1322, by a timber vault and lantern tower. This roof work culminated in the great hammer-beam oak roof of Westminster Hall (1394–1400), commissioned by Richard II and judged to be ‘the greatest single work of art of the whole of the European middle ages’. Masons, carpenters, and architects were patronized by kings, courtiers, noblemen, and others from the thirteenth century onwards, and not simply for religious building; they also worked on royal and private castles and manor houses. Although forming a profession largely based in London and connected with the office of king’s works, these craftsmen were assigned duties throughout England and Wales. They placed their expertise and experience at the disposal of noblemen and bishops and thereby created a national style to suit national tastes.
Englishmen’s sense of nationhood and their awareness of their own Englishness are not easily gauged. But they sometimes compared themselves – and were compared by others – to peoples of different race, language, country, or cultural and political tradition. In the later Middle Ages, Englishmen confronted, frequently violently, other peoples both in the British Isles and in mainland Europe. These confrontations were a forcing-house of nationhood and self-conscious Englishness. Such experiences gave rise to a number of emotions, which made English people aware of their nature, unity, and common traditions and history.
So long as England was ruled by Norman dukes or Angevin counts, and Anglo-Norman barons held estates on both sides of the Channel and others did so in both England and Scotland, it was impossible for the ruling elite to think of itself as exclusively English. But this became possible once Normandy and Anjou were overrun by the French and formally surrendered to them in 1259, for the cross-Channel nobility had then to decide where its prime allegiance lay. It became more likely, too, with the growing self-consciousness of the Scottish kingdom, particularly when Edward I’s wars made land-holding across the border a thing of the past. Thereafter, the separateness of England was identified with its encircling seas. In the mid-1430s a pamphleteer advised:
Keep then the seas about in special;
Which of England is the round wall,
As though England were likened to a city
And the wall environ were the sea …
English kings from Edward I were more truly English in upbringing and outlook than any since King Harold. Indeed, Henry VI in his 39-year reign never visited Scotland or Ireland; he only once set foot in Wales – a day at Monmouth – and never again went to France after his coronation visit at the age of nine.
As to foreigners, the dominance of Flemings and then Italians in England’s overseas trade in the thirteenth century fostered resentment of their commercial success. In Henry VII’s reign Englishmen were said to ‘have an antipathy to foreigners, and imagine that they never come into their island but to make themselves master of it and to usurp their goods…’. After all, natives of a country at war with England might, like the alien priories attached to French monasteries, send money to an enemy, or, like the servants of Henry IV’s queen, the duchess of Brittany, act as spies for France. Not for nothing did the king’s clerks scratch ‘Do not show to aliens!’ on state papers at the outset of the Hundred Years War.
England’s wars, waged successfully by humble bowmen as well as knights and noblemen, created among all ranks a self-confidence that warmed English hearts. A well-informed observer said in 1373 that ‘the English are so filled with their own greatness and have won so many big victories that they have come to believe they cannot lose. In battle, they are the most confident nation in the world.’ Pride in their victories seemed unbounded, and individual kings embodied the achievements. Under Edward III, ‘the realm of England has been nobly amended, honoured and enriched to a degree never seen in the time of any other king’, whilst Henry V’s reputation among his subjects reached even greater heights. Englishmen’s belief in their superiority – a short step from pride and self-confidence – remained unshaken even in the mid-fifteenth century, by which time England’s fortunes seemed far less golden. The wild Gaels were treated as ‘mere Irish’ and the Flemings in 1436 with undisguised scorn:
Remember now, ye Flemings, upon your own shame;
When ye laid siege to Calais, ye were right still to blame;
For more of reputation, be Englishmen than ye,
And come of more gentle blood, of old antiquity.
An Italian visitor around 1500, when England’s overseas ‘empire’ was all but lost, could still report that ‘the English are great lovers of themselves and of everything belonging to them. They think that there are no other men than themselves, and no other world but England; and when they see a handsome foreigner they say that “he looks like an Englishman", and that “it is a great pity that he should not be an Englishman".’ Feelings of superiority easily turned to disdain or even hate. After decades of war with the French, Francophobia was common and matched only by the Anglophobia of the French, who came to regard the English as ‘a race of people accursed’. At no time was this distaste for things French stronger than during the reign of Henry V. He may have claimed the French crown, but in England he discouraged the use of the French language in government and literate society. The London brewers took their cue from their admired king, and when they wrote their ordinances in English they noted that ‘our mother tongue, to wit, the English tongue, hath in modern days begun to be honourably enlarged and adorned … and our most excellent lord, King Henry V, hath procured the common idiom … to be commended by the exercise of writing.’
Tales of a British past and practical feelings of insecurity had combined with the vigour and ambition of English kings down to Edward I – perhaps Edward III – to take the English into Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Their success in absorbing these territories was limited; and try as they might to Anglicize the Welsh and Irish in culture, language, and habit, the English with their dependent dominions were denied political nationhood in the later Middle Ages. The English delegation to the Church’s Council at Constance (1414–17) declared:
whether a nation be understood as a people marked off from others by blood relationship and habit of unity, or by peculiarities of language (the most sure and positive sign and essence of a nation in divine and human law) … is a real nation …
But they spoilt their political case by adding that Scotland, Wales, and Ireland were part of the English nation.