English liberty and the weakness of state power

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.

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