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CONSTITUTIONAL HISTORY OF ENGLAND.
RICHARD II. A. D. 1377-1399.
Improved condition of society on the accession of Richard II.-Influence of the doctrines of Wickliffe-Rising power of the towns Revolt of the
peasantry-Charters of manumission-Valiant conduct of Richard II.His character-Parliamentary committee of reform-Revocation of the charters of manumission--Control of the commons over expenditure -Bold language of the commons-Commission of reform-Opinion of the judges The king's unpopularity-- Lords - appellant -- Impeachment of ministers--Retirement of Gloucester from power-Treacherous conduct of the king-Period of reaction-First introduction of a standing army-The crown becomes absolute-Banishment of the earls of Hereford and Norfolk -Revolutionary times-Abdication of Richard.
THE reign of Richard II. introduces us to a new period in the history of Europe; it was then that the old customs of feudalism were fast disappearing from the transactions of every-day life, and the natural equality of mankind and the right of all to the enjoyment of equal laws and privileges began first to be mooted: for many ages the great bulk of the people throughout Europe had been in a state of villenage or predial bondage, analogous to the present condition of the serfs in Russia; bound to the soil which they cultivated, and transferable, like cattle, at the will of their masters. Nor was this state of slavery confined to the rural population of the continent in England, since the time of the Conquest, the condition of the inferior ranks had greatly deteriorated; the descendants of the free Saxon ceorls were little removed in social condition from the serfs of the continent; the lands which they cultivated were held by menial service, and their goods and chattels were at the disposal of their lord, who instituted fines and amercements in his own courts: but a new element of society had been gradually springing into existence during the last two centuries; in the cities and towns the burgesses and small freeholders, who enjoyed the privileges of free
men and were only amenable to the laws of the land and their own municipal regulations, had so vastly increased in number and wealth, that they became a distinct power in the state, and their alliance was courted both by kings and nobles. This gave a kind of elevation to every rank of the commonalty, and a spirit of freedom and independence extended from the middling classes to the inferior people; even the villeins and serfs, who had never stretched their views beyond the fields they cultivated, "felt their natural rights, and panted beneath the oppression of their lords after a state of freedom for which they were not perhaps fully qualified.”* The new views of religion which were spreading throughout Europe added an additional stimulus to these notions of political liberty; the glaring abuses of the Romish church had led men to look with indifference on her ceremonies, and there were not wanting those amongst her clergy, who, jealous of the wealth and luxury of the higher dignitaries, preached in public against the established order of things, and asserted the original equality of all mankind. As early as 1357 the discontents of the peasantry had found vent in the revolt of the Jacquerie in France, and in England the same manifestations had only been suppressed by the vigorous reigns of the two Edwards and the milder conduct of the English lords. But on the accession of Richard II. these outward circumstances of prevention no longer existed; the son of the Black Prince was but a boy of eleven years of age, and his uncles, jealous of each other's power, prevented the establishment of a vigorous government: the country, groaning under the burden of the French war, which was no longer enlivened by those brilliant victories and national triumphs which had rendered it popular under the late reign, could ill afford to defray the extravagant expenses of the court; and the commons, having exhausted every other mode of supply, resorted to the expedient of a poll-tax, assessed at three groats a head on all the inhabitants of either sex above the age of fourteen. As the poorer classes were unable to pay so large an amount, it was differently rated in each parish, according to the wealth and substance of the inhabitants, at from one to sixty groats. In the absence of statistical information it was thought that this tax would realize a much greater sum than was actually returned, and the commons were a second time compelled to renew the grant. The people of Essex, irritated by this new system of taxation, which was rendered still more obnoxious by the extortion and insolence of the collectors, rose in rebellion, under the guidance of a priest who assumed the name of Jack Straw; meanwhile the peasants of Kent and Hertfordshire, roused by a wanton act of outrage, fol* De Lolme on the English Constitution, ch. i.
lowed the example of the men of Essex, and chose as their leader Wat the Tyler. The insurgent forces marched towards London and effected a junction at Blackheath, where they were harangued by John Ball, a mendicant priest, whom they had liberated from the archbishop's prison at Maidstone: he, taking as his text the couplet
"When Adam delved and Eve span,
expatiated on the natural equality of mankind and the sanction of the Gospel to the abolition of distinctions of class: his audience, groaning beneath their wrongs, vowed the destruction of the bishops, earls, barons, knights, judges, and lawyers; and, like the modern advocates of the same views, thought to accomplish the ends of liberty, not by raising their own condition but by reducing the higher classes to a level with themselves. Everywhere the rebellion spread, and in the east and south more especially, the mansions of the nobility were burned, the court rolls destroyed, and the justices and lawyers murdered. On the third day the insurgents removed from Blackheath to London, and having broken open the prisons of Newgate, the King's Bench, and Mar-· shalsea, they destroyed the splendid palace of the Savoy belonging to the obnoxious duke of Lancaster, and burned the libraries of the Temple and Lambeth Palace: as they entered the city they demanded of all they met, to whose party they belonged, and if the reply was not "with king Richard and the commons,' their heads were instantly struck off the men of Essex next proceeded to the Tower, where they demanded the execution of the chancellor and treasurer, but the king persuaded them to retire, and promised to meet them at Mile End, where he would hear their complaints and redress their grievances; the disorderly multitude accordingly retired without the walls of the city, and on the next day, when Richard met them, they presented to him their Petition, the chief articles of which were, the abolition of serfdom, the freedom of markets, the exchange of villenage for a fixed rent of four-pence the acre for land, and a free pardon for all that had occurred during the insurrection. The king consented to these demands, and caused a number of charters to be written and signed, which were distributed throughout the different counties and sent to the sheriffs to be read in the churches and cathedrals. Satisfied that they had obtained their wishes, the peasants of Essex disbanded and returned to their own homes, bearing the royal standard and shouting "Health and long life to good king Richard;" but meantime the insurgents of Kent, under the direction of Wat the Tyler, becoming impatient for the king's return,
had broken open the gates of the Tower, where they put to death the archbishop of Canterbury, the lord treasurer, and other obnoxious persons who had taken shelter within its walls: this gave the king unfeigned displeasure, and shortly after, as he was riding through Smithfield, accompanied only by sixty knights, Tyler met him, at the head of the insurgent forces, and, as the ancient chronicler relates, behaved contemptuously towards the king; Walworth, the lord mayor, resisting the affront, struck Tyler to the ground, and one of the knights despatched him with his sword: seeing their captain fall, the men of Kent were about to avenge his death, when Richard, with one of those opportune displays of mental power which prove him not to have been wholly destitute of the nobler virtues, galloped forward, and accosting the insurgents exclaimed, "Follow me, my lieges; Tyler was a traitor, but I will be your guide." This address was cheerfully responded to, and the whole multitude followed the sovereign to Islington, where sir Robert Knowles came up with a body of 1000 horse, and would have fallen upon the people, had not the king commanded him to desist, and permitted the peasants to return to their own homes in peace. The presence of mind displayed by the king on this occasion gained the confidence of the nobility, and augured well for his reign; but though gifted with great powers, Richard was by no means adequate to the discharge of the royal functions; he was profligate, led away by passion, apt to give vent to intemperate language, and governed by the meanest of favourites: amongst other causes of discontent were the profuse expenditure of public money, and the failure of the French war. The commons often represented these grievances, and on one occasion prevailed on the king to appoint a commission, composed of three bishops, two lords, two knights, and two commoners, for their redress, and to cause the judges and chief officers to be nominated in parliament: but these precautions were of little avail, for the real difficulty was want of revenue: the produce of the crown lands, which in former times had been adequate to the ordinary expenditure of the country, had greatly fallen off through the lavish grants of former princes, while the expenses of conducting the government had considerably increased; so that the king was left dependent in a great measure upon the resources of his people, and they therefore complained of the additional taxes they were called upon to pay. As soon as the insurrection was over, the king assembled a parliament to consult on the expediency of revoking the charters of general manumission which under the pressure of circumstances he had been compelled to sign; all were unanimous on this matter, but the commons boldly expressed their opinion that the late insurrection