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|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
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The Riches of England
In 1466 a Bohemian nobleman, Gabriel Tetzel, visited England and described it as ‘a little, sea-girt garden’. The Italian scholar Polydore Vergil, writing at the end of the fifteenth century, was impressed by the country’s
delectable valleys, pleasant, undulating hills, agreeable woods, extensive meadows, lands in cultivation, and the great plenty of water springing everywhere. It is truly a beautiful thing to behold one or two thousand tame swans upon the River Thames. The riches of England are greater than those of any other country in Europe. There is no small innkeeper, however poor and humble he may be, who does not serve his table with silver dishes and drinking cups.
England, wrote Piero da Monte, papel envoy to the court of Henry VI, was ‘a very wealthy region, abounding in gold and silver and many precious things, full of pleasures and delights’.
Much of the land was then covered by forest and woodland. Flocks of sheep were to be seen everywhere, for the prestigious wool trade was the life-blood of the kingdom. Cattle, too, were much in evidence, as were herds of deer. Arable land was often still divided into the open strips typical of feudal farming, but in many places there were abandoned villages, fallen into decay around ruined churches. The Warwickshire antiquarian John Rous speaks of ‘the modern destruction of villages’ being ‘a national danger’. Many villages had disappeared after a large proportion of their inhabitants had died in the great epidemic of plague known as the Black Death of 1348–9. This depopulated some villages, and left others with too few inhabitants to cultivate the land. Those who remained were often able to negotiate cash wages in return for their labour and sometimes to exploit the social mobility that this new development gave them by moving elsewhere. Other villages had been swallowed up by farmers and landowners enclosing land that had formerly been common with hedges and fences, so as to provide grazing for wool-producing sheep.
There were 10,000 townships in England, but nearly all were the size of many modern villages. London was by far the largest city: around 60-75,000 people lived there. York, the second most important city, had 15,000 inhabitants, lesser towns perhaps 6,000 at most. Most towns and cities were bounded by the confines of their walls, and nestled in a rural environment. Trade centred on them and it was controlled by merchant guilds.
There was a network of roads linking towns and villages, but few minor roads. The upkeep of roads was generally the responsibility of local landowners, but they were often less than conscientious. In many parts of England travellers were obliged to hire local guides to see them to their destination, and roads were often rendered impassable by rain and mud. Contemporary records indicate that the climate was colder and wetter than it is now.
By 1485, England had a population of between 750,000 and 3,000,000. Estimates vary because the only available sources are the Poll Tax returns of 1381 and parliamentary records dated 1523–4. What is certain, however, is that England’s population was shrinking during the fifteenth century, and also that many people moved to the great wool-cloth producing areas in Yorkshire, East Anglia and the West Country. About nine-tenths of the population worked on the land; Venetian visitors noted how few people inhabited the countryside, and commented that the population of the realm did ‘not appear to bear any proportion to her fertility and riches’.
The Venetians saw the English as ‘great lovers of themselves. They think that there is no other world than England.’ Englishmen were deeply conservative: ‘If the King should propose to change any old established rule, it would seem to every Englishman as if his life were taken away from him.’ Foreigners, or ‘strangers’, as the insular English called them, were resented, and tended to live in tight communities, mainly in London, which was more cosmopolitan, or in East Anglia, where many Flemish weavers settled.
The Burgundian chronicler Philippe de Commines thought the English a choleric, earthy and volatile people, who nevertheless made good, brave soldiers. In fact he regarded their warlike inclinations as one of the chief causes of the Wars of the Roses. If they could not fight the French, he believed, they fought each other.
Many foreigners were impressed with English standards of living. One Venetian remarked that everyone wore very fine clothes, ate huge meals and drank vast amounts of beer, ale and wine. The roast beef, commented Vergil, ‘is peerless’. The Venetian ambassador was guest of honour at a banquet given by the Lord Mayor of London which lasted ten hours and was attended by a thousand people. What impressed him most, though, was the absolute silence in which the proceedings were conducted. This reflected the current English preoccupation with manners and etiquette. His retinue were moved to comment upon the extreme politeness of the islanders.
Northerners and southerners were seen as two distinct peoples – southerners were perceived as sophisticated, better educated, civilised, treacherous, even cowardly, being said to resemble Homer’s character Paris rather than the martial Hector. Northerners were regarded as brash, proud, fierce, warlike, violent, rapacious and uncouth. Their reputation for plundering was notorious, due no doubt to the primitive conditions in which they lived, for while southerners enjoyed luxuries, northerners subsisted on the breadline. As a result southerners feared northerners as much as northerners resented them.
As today, there were local variations in dialect, but in the fifteenth century these differed so much that even Kentishmen and Londoners had trouble understanding each other. Society was insular and localised and people referred to the county or shire in which they lived as their ‘country’; people in other ‘countries’ were regarded as foreigners.
Most travellers from abroad commented on the alabaster beauty and charm of Englishwomen, and many were amazed by their forwardness. One Bohemian visitor, Nicholas von Poppelau, discovered that they were ‘like devils once their desires were aroused’. He and others were enchanted, however, with the English custom of kissing on the mouth on greeting: ‘To take a kiss in England is the equivalent of shaking hands elsewhere.’
In the fifteenth century Western Europe regarded itself as a united entity bonded by a universal Catholic Church and the philosophy of a divinely ordered universe. Late mediaeval man held a deep-rooted belief that society was also ordered by God for the good of humanity, and this concept of order expressed itself in a pyramidical hierarchy that had God enthroned at the summit, kings immediately beneath Him, then – in descending order – the nobility and princes of the Church, the knights and gentry, the legal and professional classes, merchants and yeomen, and at the bottom the great mass of peasants. Each man was born to his degree, and a happy man was one who did not question his place in life.
God’s law was the natural law of the universe, as revealed in the Scriptures and in the divinely inspired canon and civil law of Church and State. Authority derived from God was sacrosanct. Peace and order could only be achieved when all classes of society were in harmony with each other. Disorder – such as heresy, rebellion, or trying to get above one’s station in life – was regarded as the work of the Devil and therefore as mortal sin. It was held that one of the chief duties of a king was to ensure that each of his liege men lived in the degree to which he was born. Sumptuary laws passed during the period regulating dress and behaviour were intended to preserve order in society; that they were necessary is evidence that already some traditional ideals were being challenged.
By the late fourteenth century the structure of English feudal society was showing signs of crumbling as a result of the social revolution engendered by the Black Death. In the fifteenth century the unity of Christendom was undermined by a decline in respect for the papacy and the Church and by a burgeoning nationalism in the countries of Western Europe. Men were also questioning the old concept of order in society. In 1381, the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt had asked: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’ In the following century a new materialism fostered by trade and private enterprise gave birth to the beginnings of capitalism, just as the old land-based economy was changing in response to economic demands.
Change did not take place overnight. The order imposed upon society by Church and State was still a potent force in the fifteenth century. The English Church was then part of the ‘Christian Republic’ of Catholic Europe, and was subject to papal laws and taxes. However, the princes of the Church enjoyed less power than in former centuries, and were gradually giving place to the magnates as a result of the increasing secularisation of government. The power of the bishops was more of a judicial than a spiritual nature, and many enjoyed a luxurious existence which was increasingly perceived as being at variance with the example set by Jesus Christ.
The fifteenth century was a time of stark contrasts within the English Church. On the one hand there was an escalating interest in sermons, homilies, pious moralising and mysticism, while on the other the heretic Lollards, inspired by the teachings of John Wycliffe, were attacking abuses in the Church and even questioning its authority in spiritual matters. Lollardy appealed to the poorer classes of society, but was so ruthlessly suppressed by successive kings that in most areas its influence became negligible.
Growing anti-clerical sentiment meant that the clergy were not immune to the general lawlessness of the age, and many cases of violence against men in holy orders were brought before the courts.