Classic History Books


The History of England by A. E. Pollard

its lower orders; or rather, it concentrated all these communities - shires, cities, and boroughs - and
welded them into a single community of the realm. It thus created a nucleus for national feeling, which

gradually cured the localism of early England and the sectionalism of feudal society; and it developed an

esprit de corps which counteracted the influence of the court. The advantages which the crown

may have hoped to secure by bringing representatives up to Westminster, and thus detaching them from

their basis of local resistance, were frustrated by the solidarity and consistency which grew up among

members of parliament; and this growing national consciousness supplanted local consciousness as the

safeguard of constitutional liberty.

Most of the principles and expedients of representative government were adumbrated during this first
flush of English nationalism, which has been called "the age of the Commons." The petitions, by which

alone parliament had been able to express its grievances, were turned into bills which the crown had to

answer, not evasively, but by a thinly veiled "yes" or "no." The granting of taxes was made conditional

upon the redress of grievances; the crown finally lost its right to tallage; and its powers of independent

taxation were restricted to the levying of the "ancient customs" upon dry goods and wines. If it required

more than these and than the proceeds from the royal domains, royal jurisdiction, and diminishing feudal

aids, it had to apply to parliament. The expense of the Hundred Years' War rendered such applications

frequent; and they were used by the Commons to increase their constitutional power. Attempts were

made with varying success to assert that the ministers of the crown, both local and national, were

responsible to parliament, and that money-grants could only originate in the House of Commons, which

might appropriate taxes to specific objects and audit accounts so as to see that the appropriation was

carried out.

The growth of national feeling led also to limitations of papal power. Early in Edward III's reign a claim
was made that the king, in virtue of his anointing at coronation, could exercise spiritual jurisdiction, and

the statutes of Praemunire and Provisors prohibited the exercise in England of the pope's

powers of judicature and appointment to benefices without the royal licence, though royal connivance

and popular acquiescence enabled the papacy to enjoy these privileges for nearly two centuries longer.

National feeling was particularly inflamed against the papacy because the "Babylonish captivity" of the

pope at Avignon made him appear an instrument in the hands of England's enemy, the king of France;

and that captivity was followed by the "Great Schism," during which the quarrels of two, and then three,

popes, simultaneously claiming to be the only head of the church on earth, undermined respect for their

office. These circumstances combined with the wealth and corruption of the church to provoke the

Lollard movement, which was the ecclesiastical aspect of the democratic tendencies of the age.

One of the most striking illustrations of popular development was the demand for vernacular versions of
the Scriptures, which Wycliffe met by his translation of the Bible. At the same time Langland made

literature for the common people out of their common lot, a fact that can hardly be understood unless we

remember that villeins, although they might be fined by their lords for so doing, were sending their sons

in increasing numbers to schools, which were eventually thrown open to them by the Statute of

Labourers in 1406. The fact that Chaucer wrote in English shows how the popular tongue was becoming

the language of the court and educated classes. Town chronicles and the records of guilds and companies

began to be written in English; legal proceedings are taken in the same tongue, though the law-reports

continued to be written in French; and after a struggle between French and Latin, even the laws are

drawn up in English. That the church persisted, naturally enough, in its usage of catholic Latin, tended to

increase its alienation from popular sympathies. Wycliffe represented this national feeling when he

appealed to national authority to reform a corrupt Catholic church, and when he finally denied that power

 

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