Classic History Books


The History of England by A. E. Pollard

of breeding-in amalgamated many small houses into a few great ones. Thomas of Lancaster held five
earldoms; he was the rival of Edward II, and might well be called a peer of the crown. Edward III,

perceiving the menace of these great houses to the crown, tried to capture them in its interests by means

of marriages between his sons and great heiresses. The Black Prince married the daughter of the Earl of

Kent; Lionel became Earl of Ulster in the right of his wife; John of Gaunt married the heiress of

Lancaster and became Duke of Lancaster; Thomas of Woodstock married the heiress of the Bohuns,

Earls of Essex and of Hereford; the descendants of Edmund, Duke of York, absorbed the great rival

house of Mortimer; and other great houses were brought within the royal family circle. New titles were

imported from abroad to emphasize the new dignity of the greater barons. Hitherto there had been barons

only, and a few earls whose dignity was an office; now by Edward III and Richard II there were added

dukes, marquises, and viscounts, and England might boast of a peerage nearly, if not quite, as dangerous

to the crown as that of France. For Edward's policy failed: instead of securing the great houses in the

interests of the crown, it degraded the crown to the arena of peerage rivalries, and ultimately made it the

prize of noble factions.

Richard II was not the man to deal with these over-mighty subjects. He may perhaps be described as a
"New" monarch born before his time. He had some of the notions which the Tudors subsequently

developed with success; but he had none of their power and self-control, and he was faced from his

accession by a band of insubordinate uncles. Moreover, it needed the Wars of the Roses finally to

convince the country of the meaning of the independence of the peerage. Richard fell a victim to his own

impatience and their turbulence. Henry IV came to the throne as the king of the peers, and hardly

maintained his uneasy crown against their rival ambitions. The Commons, by constitutional reform,

reduced almost to insignificance a sovereignty which the Lords could not overthrow by rebellion; and by

insisting that the king should "live of his own," without taxing the country, deprived him of the means of

orderly government. Their ideal constitution approached so nearly to anarchy that it is impossible not to

suspect collusion between them and the Lords. The church alone could Henry placate by passing his

statute for burning heretics.

Henry V took refuge from this domestic imbroglio in a spirited foreign policy, and put forward a claim
more hollow than Edward III's to the throne of France. There were temptations in the hopeless condition

of French affairs which no one but a statesman could have resisted; Henry, a brilliant soldier and a

bigoted churchman, was anything but a statesman; and the value of his churchmanship may be gauged

from the fact that he assumed the insolence of a crusader against a nation more catholic than his own. He

won a deplorably splendid victory at Agincourt, married the French king's daughter, and was crowned

king of France. Then he died in 1422, leaving a son nine months old, with nothing but success in the

impossible task of subduing France to save the Lancastrian dynasty from the nemesis of vaulting

ambition abroad and problems shelved at home.

Step by step the curse of war came home to roost. Henry V's abler but less brilliant brother, Bedford,
stemmed till his death the rising tide of English faction and French patriotism. Then the expulsion of the

English from France began, and a long tale of failure discredited the government. The nation had spirit

enough to resent defeat, but not the means to avoid it; and strife between the peace party and the war

party in the government resolved itself into a faction fight between Lancastrians and Yorkists. The

consequent impotence of the government provoked a bastard feudal anarchy, maintained by hirelings

instead of liegemen. Local factions fought with no respect for the law, which was administered, if at all,

in the interests of one or other of the great factions at court; and these two great factions fostered and

organized local parties till the strife between them grew into the Wars of the Roses.

 

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