There were two great sources of general authority in mediaeval England. The Church was one, the other was the Crown. The mediaeval English man and woman had no great regard for either. This robust contempt for authority and the inability of either priest or king to exercise enough power to quell it allowed the English to develop a mentality which was not customarily subordinate.
The English who people the pages of Langland and Chaucer show a mediaeval England where commoners would not as a matter of course willingly touch their forelock or allow their lives to be circumscribed by those with social status. Later, Shakespeare’s lowlifes and the characters in Ben Johnson’s Bartholomew Fair often show a rumbustious lack of deference for their social betters. It is improbable in the extreme that the worlds depicted by these authors would not have reflected the societies in which they lived. Traits were exaggerated for dramatic effect doubtless, but the cultural story they told was fundamentally rooted in the England in which they wrote.
Langland’s Piers Ploughman is especially interesting because the work begins with a catalogue of the people who inhabited the world he knew (Prologue – The plain full of people). Here are the worldly and the devout, the high and the low. The cleric and the noble jostle with minstrels, tramps, beggars, merchants, tradesmen, and the honest ploughman who tills “the soil for the common good”. Langland’s clerics are often corrupt, the nobles capricious, the merchants avaricious, the workmen shoddy and cheating in their work, the beggars dishonest and the minstrels bawdy, but they are balanced by honest men in their various callings. In other words, it is a world not so different in terms of human personality to that we inhabit.
Before the Reformation the English were renowned throughout Europe for their anticlericism – a good example of this attitude was the response to Sudbury’s warning to Wat Tyler’s rebels that England would be put under an interdict by the Pope if he was harmed. This was met by hearty laughter followed by the grisly dispatch of the unfortunate cleric soon afterwards, whose head did not part from his shoulders until a goodly number of blows had been struck.
The contempt in which many of the servants of the Church were held can be seen in both John Wycliffe’s complaints against clerical abuse in the latter half of the 14th century and in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and William Langland’s Piers Plowman, both written in the same century in which the Peasants’ Revolt took place. Both works are full of jibes at fat illiterate priests and cheating pardoners who peddled absolution from sins with their indulgences sold for money.
Wycliffe’s doctrine contained the fundamental ideas which were later realised internationally in the Reformation. He questioned the reality of transubstantiation (the Catholic belief that the bread and wine at Communion turn literally into the body and blood of Christ), he attacked the authority of the pope, he railed against the abuses of simony and indulgences. He advocated a bible in English and either he or his followers, the Lollards, produced a complete translation before the end of the fourteenth century.
Implicit within Wycliffe’s thought was the democratic spirit, because it is a short intellectual step from the belief that each man could be his own mediator with God to the idea that he should have a say in his earthly life. The Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries both promoted this individualist mentality in matters both sacred and profane and weakened the power of the Church as a source of authority in competition with the monarchy.
If the English were derisive of their priests, they were, as the Peasants Revolt showed, even less enamoured of the Crown with its tax collectors and the widespread existence of serfdom. But in truth the hand of the mediaeval state as embodied by the monarch was remarkably light by modern standards, especially so during the century long struggle of the houses of Lancaster and York and partly because mediaeval kingship was of necessity very limited in what it could do administratively because of a lack of funds, the power of the peerage, primitive technology, poor communications, administrative naivety and a radically different view of what government and society should be – apart from looking after his own privileges and estates, kings were expected to defend the land, put down rebellions, provide legal redress through the royal courts, maintain the position of the church and lead in war against other rulers. And that was about it.
But there was also a further check on the monarch. Perhaps the most important practical adjunct of this desire for freedom, has been that the English long hated and mistrusted the idea of a standing army as the creature of tyrants. The English were eventually content to have the strongest navy in the world because it could not be used against them, but a substantial army was not accepted as reasonable until the experiences of the Great War accustomed men to the idea. Soldiers were held in contempt before then. “Gone for a soldier” was little better than “taken for a thief”. The needs of Empire produced more ambivalence into the English view of soldiers as Kipling’s poem “Tommy” shows: “Oh, it’s Tommy this an’ Tommy that, and chuck him out the brute! But it’s ‘Saviour of ‘is country’ when the guns begin to shoot.” But the old resentment, fear and contempt remained until the stark democracy of experience in the trenches during the Great War tempered the English mind to tolerance of the soldier.
Because of a lack of a large standing army, English kings were ever dependent on the will of others, be it their nobles, parliament or the gentry. Even the most practically tyrannical of English kings, Henry VIII, was most careful to use Parliament to sanction his acts.
The consequences of this weakness was that power was localised. Incredible as it may see today, the practical governance of day-to-day life in England until well into the nineteenth century lay largely in the hands of private gentlemen occupying the post of JP, whose powers were much greater than they are today. Indeed, the central state impinged very little on the ordinary Englishman before 1914. George Bowling, the hero of George Orwell’s “Coming up for air” reflecting on how the arms of the state touched an honest citizen before the Great War could think only of the registration of births, deaths and marriages and the General Post Office.
By keeping the king dependent upon the will of others, the English ensured that a despot such as Louis X1V could not arise in England and in so doing underwrote their general liberties. Without that, it is improbable that parliamentary government (as opposed to a parliament) would have arisen. England would almost certainly have been involved in many debilitating wars for the aggrandisement of the king. In those circumstances it is unlikely that England as a modern state would have arisen.
The inability of English monarchs to create an absolute monarchy on the lines of Louis XIX’s France is a reflection of the independent spirit of the English and their natural instinct for liberty.