Classic History Books


The History of England by A. E. Pollard

Bideford, Citizen Richard (Ricardus Civis), and William the priest's son.

The appearance of emancipated villeins side by side with earls and prelates in the great council of the
realm is the most significant fact of thirteenth-century English history. The people of England were

beginning to have a history which was not merely that of an alien government; and their emergence is

traceable not only in language, literature, and local and national politics, but also in the art of war.

Edward I discovered in his Welsh wars that the long-bow was more efficient than the weapons of the

knight; and his grandson won English victories at Crecy and Poitiers with a weapon which was within

the reach of the simple yeoman. The discovery of gunpowder and development of artillery soon proved

as fatal to the feudal castle as the long-bow had to the mailed knight; and when the feudal classes had lost

their predominance in the art of war, and with it their monopoly of the power of protection, both the

reasons for their existence and their capacity to maintain it were undermined. They took to trade, or, at

least, to money-making out of land, like ordinary citizens, and thus entered into a competition in which

they had not the same assurance of success.

Edward I's greatness consists mainly in his practical appreciation of these tendencies. He was less
original, but more fortunate in his opportunity, than Henry II. The time had come to set limits to the

encroachments of feudalism and of the church, and Edward was able to impose them because, unlike

Henry II, he had the elements of a nation at his back. He was not able to sweep back these inroads, but he

placed high-water marks along the frontiers of the state, and saw that they were not transgressed. He

inquired into the titles by which the great lords held those portions of sovereign authority which they

called their liberties; but he could take no further action when Earl Warenne produced a rusty sword as

his effective title-deeds. He prohibited further subinfeudation by enacting that when an estate was sold,

the purchaser should become the vassal of the vendor's lord and not of the vendor himself; and the social

pyramid was thus rendered more stable, because its base was broadened instead of its height being

increased. He expelled the Jews as aliens, in spite of their usefulness to the crown; he encouraged

commerce by making profits from land liable to seizure for debt; and he defined the jurisdiction of the

church, though he had to leave it authority over all matters relating to marriage, wills, perjury, tithes,

offences against the clergy, and ecclesiastical buildings. He succeeded, however, in defiance of its

opposition, in making church property liable to temporal taxation, and in passing a Mortmain Act which

prohibited the giving of land to monasteries or other corporations without the royal licence.

By thus increasing the national control over the church in England, he made the church itself more
national. It is sometimes implied that the church was equally national throughout the Middle Ages; but it

is difficult to speak of a national church before there was a nation, or to see that there was anything really

English in a church ruled by Lanfranc or Anselm, when there was not an Englishman on the bishops'

bench, when the vast majority of Englishmen were legally incapable as villeins of even taking orders in

the church, and when the vernacular language had been ousted from its services. But with the English

nation grew an English church; Grosseteste denounced the dominance of aliens in the church, while

Simon de Montfort denounced it in the state. It was, however, by secular authority that the English

church was differentiated from the church abroad. It was the barons and not the bishops who had resisted

the assimilation of English to Roman canon law, and it was Edward I, and not Archbishops Peckham and

Winchilsey, who defied Pope Boniface VIII. Archbishops, indeed, still placed their allegiance to the pope

above that to their king.

The same sense of national and insular solidarity which led Edward to defy the papacy also inspired his
efforts to conquer Wales and Scotland. Indeed, it was the refusal of the church to pay taxes in the crisis

 

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