Изображения страниц

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,
Who was then the gentleman?"


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 Marshalsea, 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

[ocr errors]

of the peasantry had been caused by the ill administration of the government and the heavy burdens to which they had been sub"Your faithful commons,' jected. say they, "after full deliberation, have come to the conclusion that unless the administration of the kingdom were speedily reformed, the kingdom itself would be utterly lost and ruined for ever, and therein their lord the king, with all the peers and commons, which God forbid. For true it is there are such defects in the said administration, as well about the king's person and his household as in his courts of justice; and by grievous oppressions in the country through maintainers of suits, who are, as it were, kings in the country, that right and law are come to nothing, and the poor commons are from time to time so pillaged and ruined, partly by the king's purveyors of the household, and others who pay nothing for what they take, partly by the subsidies and tallages raised upon them, and besides by the oppressive behaviour of the servants of the king and other lords, and especially of the aforesaid maintainers of suits, that they are reduced to greater poverty and discomfort than ever they were before; and moreover, though great sums have been continually granted by and levied upon them for the defence of the kingdom, yet they are not better defended against their enemies, but every year are plundered and wasted by sea and land without any relief, which calamities the said poor commons, who lately used to live in honour and prosperity, can no longer endure. And to speak the real truth, these injuries lately done to the poorer commons, more than they ever suffered before, caused them to rise and to commit the mischief done in the late riot; and there is still cause to fear greater evils if sufficient remedy be not timely provided against the outrages and oppressions aforesaid. Wherefore may it please our lord the king and the noble peers of the realm now assembled in this parliament, to provide such remedy and amendment as to the said administration, that the state and dignity of the king in the first place, and of the lords, may be preserved, as the commons have always desired, and the commons may be put in peace; removing, as soon as they can be detected, evil ministers and counsellors, and putting in their stead the best and most sufficient, and taking away all the bad practices which have led to the last rising, or else none can imagine that this kingdom can longer subsist without greater misfortunes than it ever endured; and for God's sake let it not be forgotten, that there be put about the king and of his council the best lords and knights that can be found in the kingdom."

This bold though respectful language of the commons shows the influence which the people had acquired, and furnishes no bad illustration of the nature of the complaints which are met

with on the rolls of parliament for nearly two centuries. Alarmed by these protestations, Richard endeavoured to retrench his expenditure; but the commons soon found that there were no means of securing the reformation of abuses so long as the subsidies were paid into the hands of irresponsible ministers, and it was useless for them to vote money for the wars while it was absorbed on the luxuries of the court; they therefore resolved to make no more grants unless the king would consent to have the money paid into the hands of treasurers chosen by themselves, or command his ministers to deliver their accounts in parliament,— to which Richard was obliged to yield, and even promised to make some alterations which had been desired in his household; but it was no easy task to resist the personal influence of the king, whom the constitution had invested with the fullest prerogatives, and Richard accordingly by dint of intimidation and bribery succeeded in so far overcoming the popular voice, that the parliament sanctioned the appointment of the royal favourite De Vere to the marquisate of Dublin, with an almost princely authority in Ireland. But on Michael de la Pole, who had been created earl of Suffolk, being made lord chancellor, the spirit of opposition again revived, and the commons were enabled to try the strength of their vindictive arm, by carrying an impeachment against the unpopular minister. Notwithstanding the pusillanimity of Richard's character, they would scarcely have ventured on so bold a measure had they not been secure of the support of a large party in the upper house, where the dukes of Lancaster and Gloucester, the king's uncles, led the popular movement. For the thirteenth time parliament assembled with the full determination of reforming public abuses, and commenced the impeachment of the king's ministers. While Richard was quietly lying at his palace of Eltham, a messenger arrived from both houses of parliament requiring the dismissal of the earl of Suffolk from the royal councils, as the commons had matter to allege against him which could not be urged while he possessed the office of chancellor. The king, with his usual petulance, replied, "that at their request he would not remove the meanest scullion from his kitchen;" but the parliament persisted in their petition and refused to transact any public business till the king should appear personally in parliament and dismiss his favourites. This undaunted procedure produced a change in the tone of the royal message, and the king offered to receive a deputation to explain the grievances complained of; but the commons, fearing or affecting to fear treachery, refused these overtures, and commissioned the earls of Gloucester and Arundel, with the bishop of Ely, to declare to the king, "that there was

an ancient statute* according to which, if the king absented himself from parliament without just cause during forty days, which he had now exceeded, every man might return without permission to his own country; and moreover, that the statute of deposition of Edward II. afforded a precedent that if the king by bad counsel, or his own folly and obstinacy, estranged himself from his people, and would not govern according to the laws of the land and the advice of the peers, but madly and wantonly followed his own single will, it was lawful for parliament with the common assent of the people to expel him from his throne, and elevate to it some near kinsman of the royal blood." The commons thus obtained of the king the appointment of a parliamentary commission with full powers to investigate and reform all abuses both in the state and royal household, and to see the laws and statutes duly executed. Whatever opinion we may form of the constitutionality of this measure, which derogated from the prerogative of the crown, certain it is that the exigencies of the times demanded some extraordinary remedy. No prince had ever drawn so largely on the resources of his people, or so wantonly neglected the welfare of the nation. The money which had been voted for the war with France was squandered in pageants and sumptuous festivals, while the coasts of England were plundered and wasted by the very foe she had vanquished, and her trade destroyed. "No voice of his people," says an eminent historian, "until it spoke in thunder, could stop an intoxicated boy in the wasteful career of dissipation ;" and although it may be only on occasions like the present that such extraordinary measures are justifiable, yet few will deny to parliament, even at the present day, an absolute power over the management of affairs,—the right of influencing the choice, as well as the power of punishing the maladministration of ministers. After having failed in his endeavours to induce the sheriffs of the counties to influence the next elections in his favour, the king resorted to the expedient of obtaining the opinion of the judges against the legality of the commission appointed in the late parliament, and made a public declaration that nothing therein resolved should be taken as derogating from the just prerogatives of the crown. For some time these proceedings passed unnoticed, as the judges had been sworn to secrecy, but as soon as it became publicly known that it was the legal decision of the judges that the commons had no power to impeach the king's ministers, or stop the progress of public business, without special sanction,-that those who had moved for

* Knyghton, Decem Script. col. 2680. Hallam, Mid. Ages, ii. p. 199. + Hallam, Middle Ages, ii. p. 201.

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »