Page images
PDF
EPUB

Each ship sought out one to fight with, and held it fast with grappling-irons ; then “ the archers and cross-bow-men shot with all their might at each other, and the men-at-arms engaged band to hand.” The issue, after half a day's hard fighting, was decisive : the enemy's fleet was not only scattered, but well-nigh destroyed ; and English Commerce was safe for a century afterwards in the Channel and the North Sea. We are not told how the ladies liked the sight. The king, who was an accomplished knight for courtesy as for gallantry, appointed three hundred archers and five hundred men-at-arms, a large portion of his scanty force, for a body-guard; and happily we do not hear of any of the daughters of England among the killed and wounded.

COMMERCE and FREEDOM have made England a Queen among the nations. Our Commerce, we see, was growing in this century. What of the freedom of those who lived under Edward III.? Villeinage, remember, was not extinct. The peasantry were bound to the soil, and liable to severe penalties if they attempted to change masters. Their scanty earnings were not at their own disposal, but must be carried to the market of the lordship to which they belonged. Purveyors robbed the poor in the King's name, and gave them tallies in pledge, which were never redeemed with money. The taxes, too, were fearfully oppressive,-not only the hated poll-tax, with the insolence and brutality of collectors, but others levied on the moveable goods of those who had much or little. A fifteenth, for instance, granted to the King, meant that proportion of the property of all kinds found in the meanest house in the land; and we actually read of a poor woman at Colchester, one Alice Maynard by name, whose possessions were a brass pot, value tenpence, and a towel, value fivepence; and out of her little store she had to contribute one penny sterling to the necessities of the state. How villeinage died out, without being proscribed and put down by law, is a very curious, and, Mr. Hallam confesses, “a very obscure, inquiry." I think, therefore, we had better not take it in hand to-night. We should like to know, certainly; for even the Habeas Corpus Act, which secures us against wrongful imprisonment by king or subject, and the Revolution Settlement, which brought the conflicting powers of the state into working order, and single incidents, however famous, which mark the great epochs of our constitutional history, must be deemed second in importance to the mighty change which passed upon society when the peasant rose up from the dust, both arms unshackled, and became free as the noble and the squire, to use his limbs, and spend his money, as he pleased.

Knowing what villeinage was in those days, we are not at all inclined to accept Froissart's account of Wat Tyler's insurrection. He lived with knights, and breathed the atmosphere of the tournament and the tented field, and had small sympathy with the woes and wrongs of ploughmen, and tillers of the soil. Thus runs the opening sentence of his narrative :-“There happened then in England great commotions among the lower ranks of the people, by which England was near ruined without resource. Never was a country in such jeopardy as this was at that period, and all through the too great comfort of the commonalty. It is marvellous from what a trifle this pestilence raged in England. In order that it may serve as an example to mankind, I will speak of all that was done, from the information I had at the time on the subject.” And then he tells us of the gathering and bursting of the storm,-of the army that marched up from Kent and Essex, and poured through the streets of London,-of bloody vengeance taken on hated courtiers,-of charters given in haste and fear, of the King who did bravely, and the people who trusted loyally, when the Lord Mayor had struck down the rebel chief. One fact we must supply, of which the Chronicler of the feats of chivalry says nothing, that the King presently broke his plighted faith. In three weeks the charters were revoked; the peasants of England had their chains riveted once again ; and men, thus cheated of their new-found treasure, were gravely exhorted by a royal proclamation to "render to their masters all their accustomed dues and services, without contradiction, difficulty, or murmuring." Parliament, in those days, was no champion of the people; the great landholders had no sympathy with a movement which would turn their serfs into peasants. The King consulted the Peers and Commons on the subject at their next meeting, and their answer was very peremptory. The villeins, they said, were their bondsmen, and they would never consent to their enfranchisement,-no, “not to save themselves from perishing all in one day."

Still, without the aid of legislative enactments, the liberating process went on. New customs adapted themselves to new wants. The man grew, and the fetters fell off from his swelling limbs. When masters were oppressive, runaways became bolder, and were not easily traced. They found shelter and friends and employers within the walls of towns, and, by an old law of William the Conqueror, residence there for a year and a day barred the lord's claim. As a rule, too, in all doubtful cases, the judges favoured the weaker side. Wat Tyler's men hunted for lawyers when they were masters of London, and Simon of Sudbury was beheaded for the double offence of being Archbishop and Chancellor; but they mistook friends for enemies,-the decisions of the courts, in that age of transition, inclining to the side of liberty, and greatly assisting the progress of emancipation.

One of the many things which we wish to know about our ancestors is, how they talked. What sort of English was current in those days ? Of the written language we have some specimens marking an era of transition; in fact, the age we speak of may well be deemed the birth-time of that noble tongue into which poets and orators and philosophers and divines have since poured such treasures of thought and fancy, and which is destined soon to be spoken by a hundred millions of men on both sides the Atlantic. Before this time, the English people had not the uniting bond of common speech. Latin was employed by scholars and churchmen ; Norman French mainly by the court and nobility; the old Anglo-Saxon lingered in the homes of those who were neither learned nor well-born, and made a separating-line between them and the ruling classes. By degrees the three were fused into a fourth ; each borrowed of its neighbour, and lent something in return; and by the middle of this century the new tongue was received into good society, and began to be countenanced by gentlemen and authors.

During Edward III.'s reign, for the first time, the language of our Norman conquerors was expelled from legal documents; and the Courts became familiar with phrases which have been multiplied since by ten thousand suitors, and echoed and re-echoed, amid the strife of tongues, beneath the old roof of Westminster Hall. Sir John Maundeville, the earliest English Prose Writer whose works have come down to us, was born in the year 1300, lived abroad for thirty years, visited Tartary, and a great many other strange places, and wrote a book, when he came back, containing a great many strange things. He heard, for instance, of one country where the people had no heads, but an eye in each shoulder,—and another, where the women had precious stones in their eyes, which had a killing power in them, zif thei beholden ony man with wratthe,—and another, where snails were found with shells so large that men might lodge in them,--and another, peopled with a race of giants, fifty feet, or as some say, fifty cubits," high, who sometimes plucked navigators out of their ships, and brought them to land, two in each hand, eating the poor unhappy men as they walked along, alle rawe and alle qwyk. The book is adorned with very rude cuts, added, no doubt, by some of the very earliest printers (a most extraordinary contrast to our illustrated editions of popular works); and one of them is of a man seated on the ground as no living man ever sat, or could sit, with a foot as big as his body, held higher than his head; and the story goes, the knight tells us, that in Ethiopia there were men with only one foot, and yet they could run marvellously fast, and, when they were tired, they could put up their monster foot, and, parasol-like, make it a shelter from the sun. (In that contree ben folk that han but o foot ; and thei gon so fast that it is marvaylle ; and the foot is so large that it schadewethe alle the body azen the Sonne whan thei wole lie and reste hem.) The strange thing is, that all this seems to have been written in perfect honesty and good faith. He never saw any of these marvels ; they were always farther off,—in a country to the North, or an isle of the Ocean ; but one cannot read the story without a full conviction that what he tells he believes; and then, besides being a curiosity for early English, the book is specially interesting as giving us a glimpse of the fourteenth century in one par. ticular aspect,-namely, its ignorant credulity, and large appetite for lying wonders.

« PreviousContinue »