Post-classical history



The lords and commons are agreed that to meet the necessities above mentioned three groats should be given from each lay person of the realm, within franchise or without, both male and female and of whatsoever estate or condition, who have reached the age of fifteen.

Parliament Rolls

Northampton, November 1380

Rain punished the thick walls of Northampton and turned the cold stone slick. The thin streets of the busy little town should have been full, but on a grey Thursday morning in early November 1380, it was wet, chilly and quiet.

Inside a small chamber adjoining the Priory of St Andrew, tucked away in the north-west corner of the town, the archbishop of Canterbury gave a signal, and above the clattering of the downpour outside, a long and familiar reading began. The text was Magna Carta, literally ‘the great charter’ of England’s liberties. As it filled the steaming room, the damp handful of lords, bishops and gentlemen gathered together were reminded of the rights, duties and responsibilities they held and exercised as England’s elite court and general council.

It was the first day of Parliament. Or rather, it was the second first day. Parliament had been due to begin on Monday, but bad weather had enforced a three-day delay. Still the numbers were thin. These occasions were by tradition sparsely attended, but even by recent standards, this was a poor turnout. In the heart of the country, Northampton should have been an easy destination for everyone whose presence was required at Parliament. But that autumn had seen dark black skies and unrelenting, torrential storms, which had turned the roads into thick and dangerous furrows. Travel, always burdensome over long distances, became treacherous as rivers burst their banks and flooded England’s well-trodden commercial thoroughfares.

Churchmen, laymen, nobles and their servants were all braving the elements to attend the realm’s fifth parliament in just four years. The Crown’s needs were so immediate and severe that even the thirteen-year-old king, Richard II, had struggled through the downpour to arrive a few miles away at the manor of Moulton. He was to lodge there for several months, surrounded by his household, his tutors and his boyhood companions, holding his court in unfamiliar surroundings while his countrymen attempted, on his behalf, to solve an impending national crisis.

The threat that faced the Crown and realm was clear and urgent. Peace with France - shaky throughout most of the century - had long since collapsed and the French, seeing a power vacuum at the head of English government, knew they had the upper hand. England’s enemies scorned the notion that that the young king’s government might be capable of reaching a fair and balanced settlement to the Hundred Years War. French and Spanish fleets terrorised the Channel, the Scots were raiding the northern borders, Ireland was turbulent, English garrisons on the Continent were impoverished and the nation had been on a defensive footing as it anticipated invasion from both land and sea for the last three and a half years. The south coast and the whole of southern England was in a state of heightened peril, and even Oxford - a couple of hundred miles inland - was planning for the worst, and nervously considering making improvements to its crumbling fortifications.

It was a measure of the severity of the crisis that Parliament had been called at all. January’s tax, granted in a similarly thunderous Westminster, had been hard, and the commons protested fiercely against what they saw as aristocratic financial incompetence. The deal they had brokered then was that the king could take his money, but had then to hold off for at least eighteen months before coming cap in hand again.1 But the tax that had been granted there proved quite inadequate to the government’s demands, and just months after Westminster had emptied of parliamentary attendees, an embarrassing repeat summons had been sent across the country to this new gathering in Northampton. Now the mood was one of marked reluctance to allow the cycle of waste and squander to continue.

With the best and most imposing noble lords from the January parliament all absent on campaign, Northampton was achingly short of good worshipful noblemen with the necessary grandeur to overawe and bully the commons into giving up their gold. Chief among them, the government missed John of Gaunt, the king’s bullish, prickly uncle, the most powerful nobleman in all of England, and a man recognised as a major force in European politics by most of the western half of the Continent. Gaunt, out of necessity, was absent in the northern reaches of the realm, negotiating a peace treaty with Scotland. He was not expected in the Midlands until the end of the month.

But Parliament could not wait for him. So here sat the realm, on Thursday morning, in the refectory hall of St Andrew’s Priory, patiently waiting for the formalities to finish and for Archbishop Simon Sudbury of Canterbury, Chancellor of England and the government’s most senior official, to offer them his opening remarks.

He stood before them, an ageing, thoughtful and reserved Suffolk-born theologian, with all the burden of the troubled kingdom on his shoulders, and explained that the earl of Buckingham, the king’s twenty-five-year-old uncle was, despite his military inexperience, now the leading general of the troops in France. He was there at that moment, together with a large number of ‘other great lords, knights, squires, archers and other good men of the kingdom’.2

The king had assigned to Buckingham all the resources granted to him at the last parliament, and much of his own money, explained Sudbury. Furthermore, because of debts Richard had incurred for the expedition to Scotland and the defence of royal subjects in the disputed territories of Gascony, not to mention the money due to the earl of March for the defence of Ireland, the council had pledged away most of Richard’s royal jewels in security for vast and unserviceable cash loans, including many from wealthy merchants in the City of London. The ancient Plantagenet heirlooms and symbols of royal splendour were in danger of being lost.

There was worse, too. Sudbury went on to explain that owing to a rising in Flanders, the wool tax that creamed a reliable profit from merchants trading on the London cloth market was gone. The armies had been promised the advance of another six months’ pay, and reinforcements of men and horses; the coasts of the southeast required massive and immediate investment to protect them against the relentless raids by Franco-Spanish fleets; the wages of soldiers in Calais, Brest and Cherbourg were more than nine months in arrears, to the point where the men were talking of desertion.

In short, warned Sudbury, this was going to be expensive. Though parliamentary protocol demanded that he asked the commons to ‘advise’ the king and to show him ‘how and by what means you think these expenses may be best met with the least discomfort to yourselves’,3 it was clear that this was not a polite request for money, nor even a terse demand - it was a desperate plea for a lot of money, fast, and the devil care at what price.

Listening to Sudbury’s speech was Sir John Gildesburgh, knight, war veteran and politician, and a man who had been at the heart of the Hundred Years War for as long as he could remember. War had shaped his life and earned him his fortune. He had fought alongside Prince Edward at Crécy in 1346, when he was fifteen and the prince only a year older. Gildesburgh’s whole youth and young manhood were typical of a generation of landowning military gentlemen, whose lives had been absorbed by the brutal and bloody campaigns that dominated the years before Bretigny. Like many others, young Gildesburgh had won through his loyal service the grant of a manor, a lucrative marriage in Essex, and friendship with the county aristocracy.

In Parliament at Northampton now, twenty years after Bretigny, Sir John was learning to live by a different kind of sword. Here, Sir John did political battle in his role as parliamentary speaker - which he had performed at the last parliament - interpreting and voicing all of the commons’ demands and opinions to the lords and to the king.

After Sudbury had made his opening remarks, Gildesburgh led the commons aside for a frank discussion. Like many of his fellows, he was torn in two directions. Gildesburgh was a knight of the shire, but he was also an ally of Buckingham. For many years he had shared personal interests with the other landowners in the commons, on whom the burden of regular taxation fell most frequently. But he also realised the gravity of the crisis, and the urgent need for a huge grant of taxation to keep the war afloat. To refuse the Crown’s request for funds outright would almost certainly lead, before long, to a full-scale invasion by the French, which would bring devastating consequences to every man in Parliament - possibly heralding upheaval for landowners on a scale unseen since the Norman Conquest, when, within a generation, William the Conqueror’s invaders had virtually eradicated the old Saxon landholding nobility, seizing their land for themselves.

Yet the commons felt unable to sustain a burden of taxation that weighed uncharitably heavy on their shoulders. True enough, at the previous parliament some of the burden of tax had been alleviated from the landowners in favour of milking the close relationship between the Crown and the powerful merchants of London. The city’s super-rich merchants had bolstered a moderately heavy general property tax with vast loans set against the Crown jewels. In exchange, these merchant tycoons and leading London politicians such as William Walworth and John Philipot had secured for themselves posts on the panel that administered the money that poured into the treasury. Unfortunately, during the months that intervened, John of Gaunt had ridden roughshod over that agreement. So this time around Gildesburgh knew as he addressed the damp and travel-weary parliamentary commons that Gaunt, with his remarkable capacity to offend and upset potential allies, had dashed any hope of repeating the last parliament’s deal.

In the eyes of the parliamentary commons, there remained one class that was virgin territory, relatively untouched by tax: the labourers.

Even given the parlous state of royal finances, when the government revealed to the parliamentary commons just how much it needed to keep the war effort alive, the amount was astounding. The knights and burgesses had filed back from their dormitory to the dining room expecting a stiff demand, but they could not have anticipated the insane ransom that Sudbury demanded. The sum that was deemed fit to keep the country afloat was a staggering £160,000. It was eight times the sum that had been raised by the last major tax, in 1379.

It was, said the commons, completely ‘outrageous’, and utterly impossible. Now it was the turn of the lords and the Crown to deliberate. And, like the commons, the lords looked to the lower orders, a class that they saw every day on their estates becoming richer and more aware of the monetary value of their labour. Unsurprisingly, the same solution crept into their minds. This time, agreed the lords, the country might be able to spread the burden of paying for the war effort. If the parliamentary commons didn’t want to pay for the whole effort themselves, then they could grant another poll tax.

Though there had been two poll taxes in the previous four years, neither had been imposed in the form that the November parliament conceived it. In 1378 every person in England aged over fourteen had been charged a groat (4d) – about a day’s wages for a skilled craftsman, or two days’ pay for a farmhand. This was not especially onerous. The net amount paid by most families was scarcely provocative and certainly not crippling. Communities were assessed en masse and generally left to divide the tax burden between themselves - which generally meant according to their means.

The second poll tax had taken this principle of the bill varying according to income and written it into law. There was a long, graduated list of rates for every estate of man, from dukes to farmhands.

Now, though, the lords asked for a flat, universal tax to be levied of four or five groats (16d–20d) per person. They must have realised that even with the relatively new affluence of some parts of the English lower orders, this was a grotesque hike. The earlier poll taxes had been innovative, net-widening and moderately set. This was heavy, crude and blatantly devised to shift the burden of war funding away from the landed classes. However communities tried to spread the burden of payment, a poll tax at this level would cripple the weak and poor. It stood the ideal of Christian charity on its head, and even when the lords suggested that the tax be made fairer with a commitment to compel the strong to help the weak, it was, at this level, simply not fair.

The commons dug in their heels. At five groats per head, the lords’ suggestion was downright scandalous; £160,000 was just too much, they said, presumably thinking of the stormy reaction they themselves would receive back home if appointed as tax collectors. Asking even the relatively wealthy ordinary folk of the south-east to pay a week’s wages for every adult member of their family invited resistance; if they were going to go out into the countryside and start emptying the pockets of the peasants, then they had to know some limits.

Negotiations reached an impasse. The commons went back to their chambers, and argued for days about the best way to proceed. There was no doubt of the urgency of the situation, and it was troublesome to consider the ire that would rain down in private on men like Gildesburgh and all those like him who had private links with the lords should they fail to deliver a satisfactory grant. On the other hand, what the lords and Crown asked was preposterous - an intolerable burden to place on the country at large.

Eventually they reached a compromise.

The commons agreed to grant £100,000, one third of which was to be paid by the clergy. The clergy wouldn’t like it, reasoned Parliament, but they could afford it, and they were less likely to be difficult about finding the money than the lay folk in the countryside. Moreover, the commons must have known that this particular solution would find favour with the Crown - Gaunt and Buckingham were both known to harbour some sympathy for the radical theologian John Wyclif, who had been railing against the wealth and corruption of the English Church for years. They would not shirk from siphoning a little episcopal wealth in the name of national defence. The bishops and abbots in Parliament huffed and puffed and protested that Parliament was a wholly inappropriate institution to be extorting money from them, but their complaints were ignored.

Meanwhile, the labourers, on whom the principal burden would still fall, had no voice at all. They would bear the bulk of the cost of defending the realm, and contributing a greater share than ever before to the war effort.

By early December, the form of the tax had been thrashed out in full and formal terms. Two-thirds was to be collected from the common people immediately, with a further third to be collected by the summer. Mirror arrangements would be carried out to take an equivalent levy from the clerics.

If all went according to plan, and the tax-collecting commissions did their jobs, then by June 1381 the country would be safe, secure and peaceable once again. The next parliament - likely to be in a year’s time - would be able to assemble back in London, and with any luck would not be plagued by the rain. A new and lucrative source of income would have been established, tapping into the wealth of the English lower orders.

Everything was looking up.

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