Post-classical history


In 1390 John Gower, the famous Kentish landowner and poet, reflected at great and gloomy length on the state of the world he saw around him. He was writing a cheerless book called Vox Clamantis (‘The Voice of One Crying Out’), in which he described how man grew increasingly feckless, corrupt and base, turning from God, obsessed by material gain, and ripe for divine punishment.

Nowhere, thought Gower, was the iniquity of the world and the wrath of the Almighty quite so obvious as in the events of June 1381, when the flocks of rural yokels - many of them from his own county - had descended on London, torching houses, slaughtering their social superiors, and terrifying the life out of anyone who got in their way.

‘Behold,’ he wrote, remembering London that summer, ‘it was Thursday, the Festival of Corpus Christi, when madness hemmed in every side of the city.

Going ahead of the others, one captain urged them all to follow him. Supported by his many men, he crushed the city, put the citizens to the sword, and burned down the houses. He did not sing out alone, but drew many thousands along with him, and involved them in his nefarious doings. His voice gathered the madmen together, and with a cruel eagerness for slaughter he shouted in the ears of the rabble, ‘Burn! Kill!’

The captain was Wat Tyler. He was leading a shabby but well-organised army in an attack on the private palace of the figurehead of government and the man whom the English populus blamed for everything that had gone awry in recent years - John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster.

‘What had been the Savoy burned fiercely in the flames, so that Lancaster did not know which path to take,’ Gower wrote. He then turned to Tyler’s other crimes against London’s ancient buildings. ‘The Baptist’s house, bereft of its master, fell to the sword and was soon ashes because of the flames. Holy buildings burned in wicked fires, and shameless flame was thus mixed with a sacred flame. The astonished priests wept with trembling heart and fear took away their body’s strength.’

Gower was a man given to melancholy. In that, he was a man of his time. He had grown up in a world of sufficient hardship to turn any man to apocalyptic woe. When Gower was seven, England had gone to war with France, sparking a conflict that would put Kent and the rest of the south coast in perpetual danger of looting and raiding. When he was eighteen, the first wave of a vicious plague that wiped out between 40 and 50 per cent of the English population swept across the country, returning in epidemic after epidemic throughout Gower’s middle years. When he was fifty-two, Tyler’s mob had wrought carnage upon towns, cities and manor houses from Canterbury to York. And the very next year an earthquake had shaken the country, in many places quite literally to its foundations.

But of all this misery, it was the revolt of 1381 which made the most profound impression on Gower. He saw it with his own eyes, and thought it symbolic of the madness, faithlessness and viciousness of man, which had angered God so much that he sent down acts of destruction worthy of the Old Testament.

With the exception of Chaucer, who remembered the brutal massacre of 140 Flemish merchants by an assorted mob of Londoners and invaders from the shires in rather breezy terms (‘He Jakke Straw, and his meynee/Ne made never shoutes half so shrille/Whan that they wolden any Flemyng kille’1), Gower’s reaction broadly represented the appalled majority of England’s rich and powerful. The revolt was pregnant with significance - in the eyes of contemporaries it became, variously, a sign from God, the work of Satan, a fit of lunacy, a monkish plot, a heretic crusade, a city siege and, in the words of the French chronicler Jean Froissart, ‘a rustic tragedy’.

Rooting through the archives of Cambridge’s University Library in 1895, the celebrated Victorian historian G. C. Macaulay discovered a hitherto unknown work by John Gower. It was called the Mirour de l’omme, and had been written around 1378. Though no less glum than Vox Clamantis, it had been written before the revolt, rather than after it. In that sense, it added a new dimension to Gower’s pious condemnation of Tyler’s rebellion. In it, the poet actually seemed to have predicted a popular uprising.

In his eyes, the 1370s had been taut with expectation of a catastrophic failure of the social order - one in which the angry mob would break its shackles and turn on the powerful men of England with terrible force. England’s neighbour, France, had already seen such a revolt, in the Jacquerie of 1358, when the common people in the Oise valley, north of Paris, had risen up against their lords, in protest against punitive taxation and the inept conduct of the war with England. In the Mirour, Gower wrote:

There are three things of such a sort,
that they produce merciless destruction
when they get the upper hand.
One is a flood of water,
another is a raging fire
and the third is the lesser people,
the common multitude;
for they will not be stopped
by either reason or discipline.

Gower, Chaucer and their contemporaries referred to the ‘lesser people’ in a number of different ways. The monastic chroniclers, writing in Latin, usually called them rustica and villani, from which English translations over the years have given us ‘yokel’, ‘rustic’, ‘serf’, ‘villein’, ‘churl’, ‘bondsman’ and, of course, ‘peasant’. There are two common connotations: these people were uneducated rural folk, and (especially in the case of serf, villein, churl and bondsman) they were to some extent ‘tied’ to the land via ancient, hereditary, personal obligations to their landlords.

Though the rising is commonly called the Peasants’ Revolt, it is that translation which causes most problems. The word ‘peasant’ has become so commonplace over the years that it is now all but cliché. It is all too easy in thinking about the peasants to fall back on the vision of dirty, ill-educated farmhands in sackcloth, leading short, identical lives of brutal frugality.

The truth is more complicated. By the late fourteenth century the English economy had grown very diverse, and particularly in the south-east there was a flourishing market economy. The ordinary people of England were not simply self-sustaining tenant farmers - they had jobs, trades and specialities. The laws concerning England’s labourers referred to carters and ploughmen, shepherds and swineherds, domestic servants, carpenters, masons, roofers, thatchers, shoemakers, goldsmiths, horse-smiths, spurriers, tanners, plasterers and ‘those who provide carriage by land or water’. England was not yet a nation of shopkeepers but it was a diverse and sophisticated nation nonetheless, with an economy that joined communities to one another and the country to the markets of continental Europe.

The everyday folk in England’s rural communities lived in villages - straggling clutches of two-roomed thatched houses populated by small families of three or four people. They were not quite the dense, nucleated villages we know today, but they were organised settlements all the same and they had social structures and mores to govern life. Village houses were usually set along a main road, in the middle of which stood a church, perhaps a village green, where animals were grazed, and the village manor. Around the village would be three or four large fields - sprawling acres of unfenced land divided into strips. Each family rented a strip from the local lord, who would also have a large portion of the land set aside for himself.

Between the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 and the end of the fourteenth century, large numbers of the common people of England paid their rent for the small plots of land that fed them in the form of compulsory, hereditary labour service for a lord. Systems of tenure and the jurisdictions of lords varied across the country and did not always fit neatly and discretely with the organisation of the village, but lordship existed everywhere. As a rough rule, the lord would demand a certain number of days’ free or compulsory paid labour from his tenants every year. Froissart described the peasants’ typical duties: they were ‘bound by law and custom to plough the field of their masters, harvest the corn, gather it into barns, and thresh and winnow the grain; they must also mow and carry home the hay, cut and collect wood, and perform all manner of tasks of this kind’. In reality, there was more to it than this, but the principle of labouring for one’s lord endured. There was little freedom to swap lords and in many areas serfdom (the total ownership of a servant by his or her master) still ran strong. A runaway serf, if caught, would have his back whipped, or his ears cropped, or his face branded.

By the fourteenth century, however, a great number of serfs had been set free, and their labour dues had been combined with or replaced by cash rents. Villages might contain a mixture of serfs and freemen, and there were degrees of hierarchy within the village, well below the level of the lord. Many whose ancestors had been serfs had managed to wriggle out of the bonds of tenure, acquired free legal status and started to speculate in land, employing other men and women from their villages, protecting their property in law and adopting the mindset of the upwardly mobile.

But for all, the bond of lordship remained strong. Whether land was rented, owned or occupied in return for forced labour, lordship was a two-way relationship and the great landowners of England wielded considerable political and legal power over the lesser. The lord, sitting as judge in his manor court, ultimately protected the property of his tenants, which affected everyone in the area. Should a village man find himself in a dispute; should his son be crippled or his daughter kidnapped; should his home be burned or his land stolen; should he wake up to find his sheep’s throats slit, or their wool shorn and ghosted away in the night, it was usually to his lord he turned for restitution, protection or judgement.

There were, of course, disadvantages. Some lords had a nasty habit of screwing every last advantage out of their position and could insist on claiming various irritating slices of often meagre peasant incomes, such as a sweetener when a daughter married, or a fee on inheriting a father’s property. Villagers were expected to turn out as the rent-a-mob when the lord required muscle in disputes with his neighbours. (They were largely untrained in the martial arts - although skill with a longbow was a hallmark of the English army in the fourteenth century, only the knightly classes had the spare time and money to become truly dangerous. When called to battle, the lower orders mainly provided crossbow fodder.) And they might be called upon to defend the realm itself. For some this meant battle on the Continent; for others, especially villagers on the south coast, the fourteenth century was one of intermittent defence against burning and looting by French raiding parties.

Yet despite the occasional irritations, and the intrusions of life’s grimmer realities, the various strata of English society had lived in relatively peaceful coexistence since at least the days of the Conquest. Medieval life was acutely hierarchical, with a sense of place in the world inseparable from ideas of Christian duty and the belief in a divinely ordained order of the universe. Charity and paternalism on the lords’ side was largely reciprocated by deference and respect for authority on their tenants’. Villages could not be policed in the sense that we would understand it now, and a sensitive lord understood that he had to work his estate management and local government through the existing village hierarchies. More senior men in the village were needed to perform administrative tasks for the lord, and to broker potentially unpopular lordly demands with the lesser men of their communities.

The two-way relationship was reinforced by the ample scope that existed for rising up through the ranks. The path out of drudgery and toil was well trodden. William Wykeham, bishop of Winchester from 1367 to 1371, was probably the son of a peasant. Clement Paston, a plough-pushing fourteenth-century churl, founded the letter-writing Pastons of Norfolk, one of the fifteenth century’s best-known gentry dynasties. If the relationship was managed correctly, there did not need to be perpetual strife between lords and tenants, and for the most part, there was not.

In 1381, though, there was a violent and total rejection of lordship. Hostility to the ancient social structures produced the ‘merciless destruction’ prophesied by Gower. The common multitude rose, and yielded, just as predicted, to neither reason nor discipline. Why?

The answer is complex, and the only way to unravel the rage of the rebels in 1381 is to delve deep into a society that had been creaking into an unfamiliar shape during the previous thirty years. There was no single event to blame for the revolt but several burned fiercely underneath. The most important was the arrival of the most ruthless killer England had seen then, or has seen since: the Black Death.

The Black Death arrived from continental Europe, probably via the Channel Islands, in the summer of 1348. Bristol, Southampton and Melcombe Regis (now Weymouth) suffered first, and from the ports the plague spread at a rate of between one and five miles a day, wiping out almost half of the English population. Sufferers succumbed to one of three equally nasty variations: the bubonic plague, in which buboes or tumours as big as eggs or even apples would appear on the neck, armpits and groin, bringing death within a week; a second variation, spread by the breath, attacked the respiratory system, and usually killed its victims within forty-eight hours. A septicaemic version also appeared, attacking the blood system, which led to internal haemorrhaging, causing dark blotches grimly referred to as ‘God’s tokens’ all over the body.

As people across Europe began to sicken and die, the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio called the Italian epidemic a sign of God’s wrath. The Scots, meanwhile, rashly adjudged it a sign of God’s specific wrath at the English and ‘were accustomed to swear “be the foul deth of Engelond”’.2

But the plague made no distinction between Scots and English, and it had little respect for social hierarchy. Nobles and gentry across Europe tried their best to avoid the plague by shutting themselves away in their houses, but the plague was too virulent. Remedies prescribed included posies of flowers held by the nose, drinking and debauchery in taverns, isolation at home, bleeding and prayer. None worked, and though the richest in society could afford to sample the more extravagant medicines (King Edward III, suffering from dysentery, was once prescribed an electuary of ambergris, musk, pearls, gold and silver, which cost £134, or around three knights’ yearly incomes combined) they did not escape untouched. Archbishops died in the same agonies as their subordinates and dioceseans: in July 1349 the Pope consecrated the new archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Bradwardine, in Rome. He died of the plague within two days of his return to England. The common people of England died in such great quantities that their bodies were often simply piled into trenches by the willing few who could be found to dispose of them. An accompanying plague among oxen and sheep left the countryside littered with carcasses ‘rotted so much that neither bird nor beast would touch them’.3

The grim mortality caused great alarm across Europe, but in England the economic effects of the plague worried the government just as much. In 1349 Edward III rushed out a royal command - the Ordinance of Labourers. ‘Because a great part of the people, and especially of workmen and servants, late[ly] died of the pestilence,’ read the proclamation, ‘many seeing the necessity of masters, and great scarcity of servants, will not serve unless they may receive excessive wages.’ In other words plague survivors could suddenly become rich. Having scrabbled for work in an employers’ market before the Black Death, the English lower orders could suddenly name their price. This was very worrying. The official response - ratified in the 1351 parliament as the Statute of Labourers - was to set up a rigorous system of wage and price fixing, setting out maximum daily rates of pay for almost every profession imaginable. Farmers, saddlers, tailors, fishmongers, butchers, brewers, bakers and every other labourer and artisan in England were prevented from charging more than pre-plague prices for their goods or work; and they were committing a crime if they did not ‘serve him which shall so require’ - meaning they had to work wherever and whenever they were instructed. Punishments were tough - three days’ imprisonment in the stocks for first offenders, fines (300 per cent of the offending mark-up for shopkeepers who hiked their prices) and imprisonment for the obstinate.

From the day it was published, the Statute of Labourers was greeted with a mixture of hostility, contempt and point-blank refusal. Even in an age devoid of economic theory, the sheer injustice of tampering with natural supply and demand was obvious. So was its futility. As demand for workers raced well ahead of supply, the law quickly became unworkable. But that did not stop landowners trying to enforce it. Wage demands rose and rents crashed in the absence of tenants to fill the land, and the greater landlords found the basis of their fortunes crumbling. Prosecutions under the new labour laws rocketed. By the 1370s, 70 per cent of legal business in the king’s courts involved the labour legislation, and this - along with lords’ newly enthusiastic use of their own private manor courts to force workers to perform as much labour service as possible - quickly sowed a culture of discontent and resistance to the law among the lower orders.4 Far from protecting them, the royal law was being used to harass them, to question their right to earn their worth, and to prevent them from acquiring and protecting their property.

From the position of the aristocracy, however, the labour laws made good sense. The sudden affluence of the rough-and-tumble village folk was threatening the divine and visible order of society just as much as the state of their private wealth. Rather than a fair rise in the value of labour, they saw what the Statute of Labourers called ‘the malice of servants who were idle and unwilling to serve after the pestilence without taking outrageous wages’.5 They began to see ambitious and wealthy villagers adopting habits above their station, dressing smartly and affecting the appearance of their betters. Gower, writing in characteristic animal allegory, described how ‘the asses now took it upon themselves to enjoy jewelled saddles and always have their manes combed’. So in 1363 Parliament approved a reissue of the twenty-five-year-old sumptuary laws to attempt to preserve a visible distinction between the classes. The laws restricted the wearing of furs, or the increasingly popular pointed shoes, to nobles (who were allowed toe extensions of up to 24 inches), gentlemen (12 inches) and merchants (6.5 inches). They also forbade the lower orders to eat anything but the most basic foodstuffs.

For the workers, suddenly feeling the full weight of royal law, the legislation was a gross affront. It attacked not just the wages in their pocket but their dreams of betterment. Society had loosened its strictures on social advancement during previous generations - now all that was under threat, and the spectre of a new serfdom loomed over villages across the English countryside. It was not, perhaps, the old manorial system, but the laws seemed gradually to be reinstating the misery of bondage by any other name.

All this tension, then, was growing worryingly obvious as the 1370s advanced. It did not need a visionary like Gower to see it. Soon the commons in Parliament (which mainly represented and contained members of the gentry) began to complain of greater and greater hostility from the lower orders, who ‘have made confederation and alliance together to resist the lords and their officials by force… and they threaten to kill their lords’ servants if they make distraint upon them for their customs and services’.6 All across the country there was resistance. There was a real sense that the English lower orders were gaining a sense of their own independent power. As a threat to society and the godly composition of the realm, this was very worrying. In the medieval world-view, consistent relations between the estates of society was a founding principle of Christian order.

And yet powerful economic forces prevailed. Egged on by unscrupulous itinerant lawyers, villagers all over the country were known to be making attempts to secure free status in the royal courts. Whole villages began to claim special status under the terms of the Domesday Book, arguing that this ancient document proved their freedom from all number of lordly claims on their labour and wealth. The autumn of 1376 had given birth to the ‘Great Rumour’, a movement that had taken place across the fertile heartland of the south. Villagers started employing lawyers and instructing them to apply for “exemplifications” of Domesday.7 (These were certified copies of the section of the Book that reported on the state of the village at the time of the Norman Conquest; copies that were presented neatly with an impression of the Great Seal of Chancery on the front.)

Between 1376 and 1377, nearly 100 villages asked for copies of Domesday. Getting hold of an exemplification was not the most opaque legal process of all, but it demanded legal savvy, ready cash and good contacts with the legal system in London. That ordinary villagers were suddenly rich, smart and bold enough to engage with law and politics made landowners very uneasy indeed. And when legal machinations were combined in some cases with outright threats to kill and maim their enemies, England’s governing class began to worry that it would not be long before the threats became reality.

Added to this thick soup of social discord was the constant threat of war. From 1336, early in Edward III’s reign, England had been engaged in a bitter, bloody struggle with France. Historians have called it the Hundred Years War, although in truth it was fought intermittently for a mere six decades. In the beginning, with Edward III a young man, a competent general and a forceful political negotiator, the war went well. England claimed glorious victories at sea and on land, owing mainly to the English mastery of the longbow - which could send an arrow through French armour, and could kill a horse with little difficulty from long range. War focused the realm and charmed the nobility, and Edward III, with a keen eye for internal diplomacy, made the overriding object of his reign one thing, and one thing alone: to capture the French throne.

To any English king in any century, conquering France was a grand ambition. Not only was the French kingdom territorially larger than the English, it was also much more difficult to maintain an army separated by the Channel. It had to be supplied at least in part from home soil and any successfully annexed territory had to be defended by expensive garrisons. The costs could be onerous.

But if the costs were high, the prize was deeply alluring. To place England at the heart of European intrigue brought glory to the English Crown. It gave the native English aristocracy, who led the wars and embraced the culture of chivalry, a profound sense of martial purpose, while the rank-and-file recruits were always happy to visit France, where the chance of decent plunder was higher than when raiding the freezing border towns in southern Scotland.

In partnership with his son Prince Edward (known to historians as the Black Prince), the young Edward III claimed resounding victories across France. At the battle of Crécy in 1346, the king thrust the sixteen-year-old prince into the centre of a stunning victory over superior French forces; he emerged victorious, the French utterly defeated and many of their own nobility dead on the battlefield.

The successes piled up. Later in 1346 the Scottish king David II had been captured near Durham and the next year, back in France, the English had conquered Calais, providing them with a French port that would remain English for two centuries. But the high point came at Poitiers in 1356, when an army led by Prince Edward was stalking through south-west France and came upon the French army led by King Jean. Battle was given and the prince, using similar archer-led tactics to those deployed at Crécy, routed the French army, slew a great many of the French nobles and seized the French king.

The result of this victory was the Treaty of Bretigny, signed and ratified in 1360/61, in which Edward III laid claim to great swathes of French territory. This included Gascony, several counties in northern France and the area around Calais. King Jean was ransomed at massive cost, and the prestige of the English Crown was raised to truly incredible heights. Bretigny was the high point of Edwardian kingship. In many ways, it was the high point of the English fourteenth century, a time when France was the enemy, England the mighty victor and kingship at home was proud and strong.

But momentum was required, and after Bretigny, English fortunes began to wane. In 1364 the captive King Jean, still under ransom, died in London, and his successor, Charles V, proved an astute political rival to Edward, frustrating his ambitions in Flanders and Brittany, resisting his efforts to cement English influence in France and allying with the Castilians to oppose Prince Edward’s rule in Gascony. As Edward’s reign wore on, the glorious victories began to dry up, and the considerable expense of paying for an army in the field became an increasing burden on a country that simply could not cope with the demands of a protracted war footing. The Black Prince contracted dysentery on campaign in Castile and suffered a lingering, painful death. At the same time, Edward himself grew increasingly feeble and senile, until by the 1370s his rule and his royal servants were under constant attack from the taxpaying classes, who were heartily sick of pumping cash into the yawning maw of a war bogged down in its own ambition. The dream, so nearly achieved and painstakingly won, was beginning to slip by.

In the parliament of 1376, with Edward close to death and the Black Prince fresh in his grave, the political community went on the attack. The focus was in the parliamentary commons, which comprised the upper middling ranks of English society - knights, town burgesses, large landholders and influential county men. They liked to complain of having been squeezed tightest by the war. Taxation hit them proportionally harder than the upper ranks of the nobility, while the costs of managing their estates had rocketed after the Black Death. They complained bitterly that they were ‘seriously distressed in several ways by several misfortunes such as the wars in France, Spain, Ireland, Guienne, Brittany and elsewhere’,8 and began to demand political reform.

The result was the Good Parliament, as shocking an expression of general political discontent as had been seen for more than thirty years. The king’s household was purged and his mistress, Alice Perrers, was severely castigated. The process of impeachment was used for the first time, aimed against royal servants who were widely blamed for the mismanagement of the war chest and the corruptions of the court. Richard Lyons, who was chief among the super-wealthy London merchants who partially bankrolled the war by loans to the Crown, and won royal favour in return, was impeached and imprisoned, as were several other key figures of the commons’ ire. This was a stark repudiation of royal government, which even the eulogies that attended the deaths of the Black Prince and Edward III, in 1376 and 1377 respectively, could not disguise.

Neither did the future seem very promising. When the king died, the throne passed to the Black Prince’s son, Richard of Bordeaux, a nine-year-old boy who had grown up knowing nothing of the glory of his grandfather’s and father’s achievements, but only their final years of weakness and decay. Around Richard was left the rump of the royal family, led by his uncles Thomas of Woodstock, the young earl of Buckingham, Edmund Langley, the earl of Cambridge, and John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster.

During his father’s and elder brother’s decline, Gaunt had leadership of government, and this thankless task had earned him few friends. He was an abrasive man and a second-rate military leader. From 1377 Gaunt did his best to hold the war effort together, but in France nothing short of a destructive stalemate seemed possible. At this point morale in the south-east was lower than at any time in the past century. Desertions from the underpaid army were rife; the towns on the south coast were full of men who had abandoned the hapless war effort. Furthermore, England’s enemies were becoming increasingly bold in their attacks on the English coast, and raiding parties of French and Spanish pirates cruised up and down the Channel, disembarking to terrorise, burn and pillage the English. Londoners were so worried that plans were under way to erect a giant chain gateway across the Thames to prevent raiding parties from burning the city. The threat of invasion, which had not been a realistic possibility since the dark days at the end of King John’s reign in 1216, suddenly loomed.

Heartily sick of paying regular and heavy taxation to a government they considered totally incompetent, the commons hatched a plan. Instead of bearing the brunt of the cost of defending the realm themselves, at the last parliament of Edward III’s reign, held in Westminster in January and February 1377, they proposed a poll tax. Four pence was to be taken from every man and woman over the age of fourteen. This was a huge shock: taxation had never before been universal, and four pence was the equivalent of three days’ labour to simple farmhands at the rates set in the Statute of Labourers. But to the commons it seemed perfectly logical. They had watched the lower orders enriching themselves with outrageous wage demands since the late 1340s - here was an excellent way of checking that worrying trend while defending the realm at the same time. The tax was passed.

Within four months of Parliament granting the poll tax, Edward III was dead. But there was no sign that the reign of his nine-year-old grandson was going to be anything less than turbulent. When Richard II was crowned in July 1377, the realm was already badly shaken. The first poll tax - met with widespread popular disgruntlement - was quickly swallowed up by the war effort. The government remained virtually bankrupt, reliant on massive loans from the City of London and pawning royal treasure to stay afloat. Peace negotiations with the French had collapsed in June, and by August the south coast was under attack. English military tactics were unsophisticated, based around the chevauchée – a rather glamorous term for what was essentially a travelling riot of looting, burning, rape and murder. Meanwhile, Frenchmen ‘looted and set fire to several places’ and took 1000 marks in ransom for the Isle of Wight. ‘Then they returned to the sea and sailed along the English coastline continuously until Michaelmas [29 September]. They burned many places and killed, especially in the southern areas, all the people they could find … They carried off animals and other goods as well as several prisoners.’9

The first two parliaments of Richard’s reign were noisy with complaint. Government ministers made frenzied attempts to wheedle money from the commons in any way they could. They were largely unsuccessful. With every fiscal failure, the threat of invasion grew more acute. By the spring of 1379 it had reached the point of crisis. Inspired perhaps by desperation, a radical new form of poll tax was agreed. Instead of a flat fee, a carefully graduated scale of payments according to class was developed. Earls were to pay £4, ‘each baron and banneret or knight who is able to spend as much as a baron’ was to pay 40s, judges and the richest lawyers were to pay 100s (£5). Laymen, once again, were to pay four pence, but there were fifty categories and a further eighteen subcategories of assessment. It was in essence a much fairer tax than the crude flat levy of 1377. But it was not enough.

Eight months after the second poll tax had been granted, Parliament was recalled. The government had expected to raise a bare minimum of £50,000. But £50,000 was the very least that could sustain the army, with its substantial mercenary element, on the rampage for a whole year. Yet following widespread evasion of the second poll tax, the proceeds amounted to less than £22,000. Abandoning the project, the parliament of January 1380 agreed a heavy tax on movable goods. That, too, was completely inadequate and the funds were immediately swallowed up by the duke of Buckingham’s chevauchée through northern France.

Reality began to bite: the country was broke; the king, at thirteen years old, was too young to fix it; Gaunt, governing as regent-elect, was considered by the general population and especially by the money-men of London to be an arrogant, bungling swine; there was acute tension in the countryside and rumours of plans for widespread violence; the south coast was burning; the French garrisons were mutinous; the armies were deserting; the Scots were fomenting plans to invade; and things were only going to get worse. Either a radical solution was required or, at the very least, a huge amount of cash was needed to save the Crown from calamity.

So, in November 1380, yet another parliament was called.

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