Landholding in England/Chapter 7

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THE consequences of the usurpation of Bolingbroke were on the whole bad. The effect was to destroy the real "Old Nobility" of England, a class which with all its faults produced in every generation men capable of directing the councils of kings; and it did this only to make way for Henry VIII.'s new nobility, noble in nothing but the name — mostly adventurers, with no great traditions of the past to inspire or restrain them. No one can fail to be struck by the contrast between the independent spirit of the old Norman and Plantagenet barons and earls, and the sordid subserviency of the new men, who sold themselves without shame for mere wealth. And when liberty revived, and the struggle with arbitrary government was renewed, it was the commons and not the barons of England that led the van.

Although the Black Death had so much reduced tillage and increased grazing, it is impossible to doubt that the first half of the sixteenth century was one of prosperity and happiness for the people. Sir John Fortescue's famous comparison of the condition of the French commonalty with that of the English was written when he was in banishment with Margaret of Anjou and her son, the unfortunate Prince Edward. It does not turn on any land question. As its name implies—"The Praise of the Laws of England"—it is a comparison between a country where there are laws which can be called "Laws of the Land," and one where laws are only laws of the Prince—a country where, as was said by the Civil Law (professing to follow the Institutes of Justinian)—"What pleases the Prince has the effect of Law." Henry VI.'s last Chancellor is instructing Edward in the principles of constitutional liberty, and he shows him, how the French peasantry were worn down and impoverished by a system of intolerable and arbitrary exactions—soldiers quartered upon them, taking all they chose and paying for nothing, a fourth part of all the produce of their vines taken for the King, cities and boroughs assessed for great sums to support his wars, every village heavily taxed, and never any intermission or abatement of these burdens, but once or twice in every year no village is so small but may expect to be plundered. Fortescue appeals to the Prince to remember how he himself in his travels could sometimes hardly be accommodated even in the great towns, because the King's troops were so oppressive, living on the people, and paying for nothing. "In England no one takes up his abode in another man's house, without leave of the owner," and the King himself must pay at a reasonable rate for what he takes. Then he compares the French peasant with the English. The Frenchman hardly ever tastes anything but water—the Englishman drinks none, except "upon a religious score, by way of penance." He is fed in abundance with all sorts of flesh and fish, is clothed in good woollen, his bedding and other "furniture" is of wool, and that in great store. Everyone according to his rank hath all things which make life easy; he can provide himself with salt; he can enjoy the fruits of his farm. There is scarce a small village in England in which you will not find a knight, an esquire, or some substantial householder, and many yeomen of estates sufficient to make a "substantial" jury (they must have 100s. a year). Where do you find this? In other parts of the world, except in large cities and walled towns, there are very few except the nobility whose possessions are of any considerable value. In France the soldiers, if they cannot get fuel in one village, "march away full speed to the next." They make the people feed and clothe the women they bring with them—even to the smallest trifle of a lace or point. So the peasants never taste anything but water except on festivals, and wear sackcloth, and go barelegged and barefooted. A very little of the fat of bacon is all their meat, or the offals of beasts killed for the better sort—for whom quails, partridges and hares are reserved upon pain of the galleys. As for their poultry, the soldiers eat it—the peasants hardly get the eggs. And if a man is observed to thrive, he is presently assessed higher than his neighbours, and so is soon reduced to their level again. The nobles and gentry are not so heavily burdened, but if one of them is impeached for a State crime—though by his enemy—he is very often examined privately, perhaps in the King's own apartment, and sometimes only by the King's pursuivants; and if the King judges him guilty, he may quite likely be put in a sack and dropped by night into the river. Whereas in England the King cannot lay taxes or make new laws without consent of the whole kingdom in Parliament assembled. Nor can any man be condemned save by process of law. For the laws of England know nothing of "the will of the Prince."

Fortescue describes England as so fertile, that it produces almost spontaneously, without man's labour. Even uncultivated spots are so luxuriant, that they often bring in more than those that are tilled and manured—though these too bring in plentiful crops of corn. The feeding lands are enclosed with hedgerows and ditches, and planted with trees to fence the herds from bleak winds and sultry heats, and are generally so well watered that they do not need the attendance of the hind day or night. There are no wolves, bears, nor lions ; the sheep he out o' nights without their shepherds.

Throughout the comparison is between the "Common Law" and the "Civil Law." The Common Law is the unwritten Law of the Land, older than any statutes, and based on the simple principles of justice. The Civil Law is the law of Statute Books, framed or modified to suit the convenience of the Prince, who makes abstract justice secondary to the strengthening of his own authority.

But already the forces were at work which were for a long time to deprive this country of the right to say that in England the Common Law, and not the will of the Prince, was supreme. As long as the kings of England had to ask their people for money, knowing that if the people refused it would be very difficult to enforce their demands, we find a great spirit of independence in the English nation, and all classes had well-defined rights and privileges. Even the villeins did not suffer from starvation. It has been noticed that there were few famines in England in these times, scarcities were of short duration, and we have no record of any terrible distress, or of people dying wholesale of starvation, as has happened in other countries.

In the last quarter of the fourteenth and the first quarter of the fifteenth century, villenage, though not actually abolished, was losing its harsher features; the statutes show that it was impossible to prevent villeins leaving their lords and going elsewhere—usually into some "walled town." Nor could any statutes restore the old rate of wages. In 1425, a man was paid 3½d. for thrashing a quarter of wheat, and 12d. for twelve days' ploughing and harrowing, with wheat at 8s. a quarter, and 1s. 4d. the price of a quarter of an ox for salting down. From 1440 to 1460, wheat was never above 8s. the quarter. The average price was 6s. 8d., and of oats, 2s. In 1441, forty geese sold for 10s.—3d. for a goose. Ale was 1d. a gallon—it was, no doubt, very small. And wages had risen. In the sixth year of Henry VIII. a mower got 4d. a day, "with diet," and 6d. without. A reaper had 3d. or 5d. The lowest wage was 2½d. a day, for men or women working on the land. In 1533, the price of beef and pork was fixed by law at ½d. a lb. veal, and mutton ¾d. Artisans, of course, got much higher wages. The working day was not more than eight hours. With such prices and such wages, Fortescue's picture is quite credible.

But after 1519, the Spanish conquests in South America began to flood Europe with gold and silver, and as soon as money was more plentiful " there appeared more numerous armies, greater magnificence in princes' courts, the dowries of princesses much enlarged, and the price of provisions enhanced" ("Parl. Hist."). And in this greater magnificence and expenditure one of the very foremost was the King of England. The Field of the Cloth of Gold almost emptied Henry VIII. 's treasury of the vast sums (extorted from the nobility) left by Henry VII.; and when kings spend at this rate, their subjects always have to pay.