The Danse Macabre


With the increases in population during the thirteenth century more land needed to be farmed to feed all of the new mouths and farming was more important that ever to maintaining England’s large population. Early in the fourteenth-century famine ravaged the country, and up to 15% of the country died either from starvation, or disease caused by lack of food. Cattle died, crops failed, the weather cooled. The spring of 1315 saw flooding rains and much cooler temperatures. Grain seeds could not ripen. Straw and hay could not be cured, so livestock could not be fed. Food costs rose quickly. There was a shortage in salt, which was used to preserve what little meat there was, due to the wet weather. The peasant class faced starvation. This triggered some people’s “self-preservation instinct”. Crime became rampant and spawned reports of infanticide and cannibalism. In a nation as religious in England it must have seemed that God himself was not happy with the direction of things. Labor shortages made agriculture even harder and the government did what governments do best: got in the way. Taxes went up, wages and prices were frozen, and the Scots were pillaging in the north. Problems were on all sides, problems that influenced the governmental changes during the century. This cutback on farming and trade exports resulted in England taking control of the wool markets from German and Italian trade monopolies, creating whole new industries.

In 1337, the Hundred Years War began after Edward III laid claim to the English throne. The first round of fighting, the so-called Edwardian War, was a major English success which enlarged English possessions in France and utterly humiliated the French, but the war would continue throughout the century and beyond, a stress that came and went, the tides of war flowing back and forth through France. The eventual English loss was becoming obvious before the century ended, and with it went the Angevin territories.

Then came the plague. Overestimating the effect that the Black Death had on English society hardly seems possible, it was a force that tore at the very structure of England, like a savage riptide trying to drown a strong man. In 1349, at least one quarter of the English population became its victim. In fourteenth-century terms that was over one million people. Surely it must have seemed that Armageddon had come to Earth as people dropped dead literally overnight, writhing in pain and bloated with swollen lymph nodes. With people dropping dead everywhere, or going to sleep at night and never waking up, it was impossible for people not to be touched in some way. Nor did the plague end quickly. It came back in the 1360’s, 1370’s and for centuries afterwards. By the end of the century some 40% of the English population was gone, mostly from the Black Death, although famine and war also took their toll. As awful as this death toll may have been it was also the engine for social change, and social change became a driving force behind governmental change. The one great commodity that a peasant had after the 1349 outbreak was his life and the labor he could perform. Land could not be worked because there were not enough workers for all of the land, driving prices up on wages and down on land. The manorial system of farming, the very basis of English agriculture, was changed by the lack of farm labor.  A new class of farmer began to emerge, the yeoman, and the Villeins began acquiring larger holdings.  Although it would be another century before serfdom came to an end, the Black Death and the labor shortage it created accelerated the movement. The very nature of English economics had changed. The labor shortage was so severe, and the value of land for which there were no workers plunged so far, that incomes flowed downward at a previously unknown rate. The government responded with a variety of measures trying to tie peasants to the land and control prices and wages with arbitrary and artificial means. It took a while, the Peasant’s Revolt against royal efforts to fix prices and wages wasn’t until 1381, but the net long-term effect of the plague was to give rise to a much wealthier lower class. In the long run England prospered at the Black Death removed surplus population and drove up the value of a man’s talent.

            One can also see the effects in the famous literary works of the day,  notably those of Geoffrey Chaucer. Students of literature may recall characters discussing The Black Death in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. But one can see the beginnings of religious dissolution, too.  Possibly the hardest part for devout Englishmen to accept was that so many of the dead were buried without receiving last rites or confession. The clergy were especially hard hit, with estimates that up to half of them died within one year. The effect on the religious community was devastating, and probably helped inspire the beginnings of religious questioning. John Wycliffe became the most eloquent spokesman for anti-clericalism, and was a rallying point for the Protestant Revolution yet to come. He questioned the very essence of the Catholic Church, the ceremonies and the sacraments, most especially the eucharist, and the need for the priesthood. The Church was also the source of much corruption, and it began to reflect poorly on the pope. And while criticism about ecclesiastical corruption spread, some people, including preachers, began to include anyone with wealth in their preaching against what they termed social injustice. Poets, such as William Langland, and preachers such as John Ball, believed that money invariably corrupted a man. They viewed most of the wealthy as men who refused to assist the poor, and a corrupt member of the clergy was viewed as a hypocrite of the worst sort.

Changes to English government were equally long-lasting and major. First and foremost must be the rise of Commons. At the beginning of the century, Parliament was ill-defined in membership and function, but by the close of the century it had split into what would become the Lords and Commons, and the Commons had acquired a crucial role in taxation and legislation. Clearly, the point at which the shire knights and the townsfolk combined their political power in Parliament was a turning point in English history. The mystical idea of King in Parliament began to pass from an ideal to a requirement. By 1399, the approval of the Commons was required for all extraordinary taxes, direct or indirect, and even tolls and customs from merchants. The parliamentary tradition had become etched into the English political system, and the Commons took its place as a normal element in the government of England. From that day forward all freemen of England had a rallying point to expect influence with their government, and the king could ignore them only at his peril. Acquiring power over taxes for the common people was one of the foundations for modern democracy.

Among the many reasons for the governmental changes was Royal incompetence. Beginning with Edward II, England suffered under kings who were not equipped to properly lead their kingdom, but as history abhors a vacuum, so does English history fill in the blank spaces left by royal incompetence. As the textbook states, Edward II was essentially “a weakling and a fool…not only in military capacity, but also in imagination, energy and common sense.” Edward was inordinately influenced by his favorites, especially the foreigner Piers Gaveston, so much so that an opposition group of barons and prelates called the Ordainers came about. Even at his coronation his barons were so skeptical of his abilities that his oath reads more like a legal deposition as Edward was forced to agree to a laundry list of promises. He did not feel bound by them, of course, and broke them at his will.

Aside from alienating most of his barons by his relationship with the French knight, Piers Gaveston, an arrogant and obnoxious man whom Edward elevated to Earl of Cornwall, Edward also ignored many of the duties of being king. Notably, his disinterest in fighting the Scots, who had made a sport of raiding northern England, provoked opposition from his nobles. In disgust, they forced him to agree to the Ordinances of 1311, an even more radical version of the Provisions of Oxford, setting into law the calling of parliaments and putting a whole new series of limits on royal power. The parliaments were given the power of veto or approval over royal administrators, even those in the king’s household, such as keeper of the privy seal. Worse, from the king’s perspective, he could declare war only with parliamentary approval. If parliament was not in session, it would hinge on a committee set up to represent parliament.

When Edward finally took up the fight against the Scots in 1313, his realm was on the brink of civil war. His crushing defeat at Bannockburn in 1314 left the kingdom’s northern border unsecured and open to frequent raids. So thoroughly was Edward beaten that in 1323 a truce lead to a peace treaty in 1328, and Scottish independence. This defeat stuck in the craw of the English.

At the helm of government was a new royal favorite, Hugh Despenser the Younger, who like Gaveston before him enriched himself at everybody’s else’s expense. He was soon the de facto ruler of England. Edward’s capricious but incompetent hand lead to simmering rebellion among his nobles, which finally broke out into open warfare. In March of 1322 the royal forces won a major battle at Boroughbridge and the leader of the rebellion, Edward’s nemesis Earl Thomas of Lancaster, was captured, publicly humiliated and then beheaded, the first noble killed for treason since 1075. Then followed a reign of terror. Nobles were captured and killed by the handful, their lands taken, their families tormented, ejected or imprisoned. The rule of law was no longer in force.

The treasury was soon awash in cash as terrified nobles paid whatever they were told to pay and there were no foreign wars to eat up the revenues. But for all of Edward and the Younger Despenser’s ruthlessness, they grew careless and a new coalition came to oppose them, this time centered around Edward’s wife, Isabella and her son, Edward, heir to the throne. Backed by France they brought vengeance to the realm in 1326. Outraged nobles flocked to their banners and in late 1326 they captured the king and his favorite, the Younger Despenser, who was mutilated and then executed. Edward II lasted a little longer, as deposing kings was a more drastic action, never having been done before. In early 1327, Parliament deposed him, he was forced to abdicate and them imprisoned, and he was probably murdered. So by fact, English government had found a way to get rid of an unworthy king, whether it had been put in statute law or not.

Since the new king, Edward III, was only 14 at the time, his mother, Isabella, and her lover, the baron Mortimer, ruled in his stead. But like Edward II, their rule was also incompetent and highly unpopular, as they enriched themselves at the expense of Edward II’s supporters, signed a wildly unpopular peace treaty with Scotland in 1328, and were generally hated. Then, of all people, they were overthrown in 1330 by the young king himself, a 17 year old Edward III. Mortimer was killed, his mother, Isabella, shunted aside and for quite some long while, incompetent rule left England alone. Only in the senile years of Edward III in the late 1360’s and 1370’s would the English once again find themselves facing domestic political chaos.

In the meantime there was chaos enough elsewhere. Economics were being buffeted by wars, plagues, bad weather, too much labor then too little labor. The standard of living for many people did rise, however, as the money supply was distributed through far fewer hands. Urban workers  demanded better pay which the nobility then took back in taxation, at least partly. And while these labor shortages brought about by the huge attrition of the population gave workers more opportunities, the wealthy, dominant groups in town and countryside tried to keep their control and power by squashing wages in any way they could.  The first rumblings of discontent came in 1378 when civil unrest broke out in the form of the wool workers revolt, then came the more famous Peasant’s Revolt.

The Peasant Revolt of 1381 was a result of bungling by Richard II’s regents, since he was only 10 when ascending the throne in 1377. His actions during that revolt showed great promise; unfortunately, it was possibly his highest point. This civil disorder was virtually unheard of in English history. It was not successful but it made the upper classes aware of the dis-satisfaction of the lower class with feudalism and their place in society. A specific event that lead to the revolt was the poll tax used to finance the war against France. Worse, taxation was unevenly applied with some paying much more than others. But the revolt was not isolated strictly to peasants who felt the upper classes were conspiring against them, some nobles also joined. Richard’s regents were another reason for the uprising, as a lot of his intimates were considered corrupt, taking advantage of the King’s youth.  Also in the revolt were some nobles who were desperate to keep their manors. Ultimately the revolt was suppressed, but was a warning that peasants considered themselves a part of the community of the realm and were no longer willing to accept their lot passively. And the poll tax was repealed.

After the revolt was suppressed Richard became progressively worse and seemed to do almost anything he could to antagonize his barons, to the point where they threatened him with deposition. So for a while he did what a smart king does: he lied. He pretended to be chastened, made nice with his enemies and waited for the right moment to strike, to once and for all throw off the fetters of Parliament and make himself absolute ruler, as he thought that a king should be. The chance came in 1396 when he concluded peace with France and married the daughter of the French king. With no more war expenses and a massive dowry, Richard no longer needed Parliament and went on a rampage against his enemies. To his fatal regret, he had mis-calculated. The seeds of shared government had gone too far and the community of the realm would be heard. Richard was deposed, forced to abdicate and saw Henry IV take the throne.