Uploaded by David Grummitt

21 June paper

A Rebellious People:
Political Rebellion and the English in the Later Middle Ages
When the Flemish writer Philippe de Commynes sat down to compose his
reflections on the English at the end of the fifteenth century he made two,
perhaps contradictory, observations. First, he noted that England was ‘in my
opinion, out of all the countries which I personally known ... the one where public
affairs are best conducted and regulated with least damage to the people.’ He
also wrote, however, of the English propensity to violently depose their kings. In
so doing he repeated a commonplace of European political discourse. In 1484
Charles VIII’s chancellor, Guilliame de Rochefort, accused Richard III of
murdering his nephews, pointing out to the French Estates General that the
English had had no fewer than 26 violent changes of dynasty to date. This
historically inaccurate yet telling observation may be explained by the Venetian
visitor to England in 1500 who wrote the English ‘generally hate their present,
and extol their dead sovereigns.’ In the late Middle Ages then, foreign observers
characterised the English polity by a remarkable predeliction to regicide; one in
which rebellion and the deposition of king by jealous rivals was in fact the norm.
Commynes, however, made another observation, one which underlined
his astute understanding of the fifteenth-century English polity. He wrote that in
the battles of the Wars of the Roses commanders were keen to spare the lives of
the commons, ‘because everyone wants to please them as they are the strongest’.
What Commynes and fifteenth-century leaders, like Edward IV or the earl of
Warwick, recognised was that the commons played a central role in the bloody
political rebellions of the later Middle Ages. The deposition of kings and changes
of dynasty were not merely the doings of a narrow band of bloodthirsty and
ambitious nobles, but a process that spoke to the engagement of the commons in
the political process and, more than that, a recognition that it was the commons,
for much of the fifteenth century at least, that was the dynamic force in political
rebellions. It was the English, in the broadest sense of the word, that were the
rebels and regicides; it was their actions and their approbation that enabled the
political rebellions that characterised the late Middle Ages. In so doing, they
drew upon longer traditions of rebellion in English political culture. These
traditons came to define aspects of both Lancastrian and Yorkist rule in the
fifteenth century. Their reframing and delegitimisation from the last quarter of
the fifteenth century also emerged, I would argue, as the defining feature of the
Tudor polity which would eventually rewrite the idea of the English as a
rebellious people.
The Medieval Roots of Popular Rebellion
The roots of the English as a rebellious people can traced back beyond the
Norman Conquest. David Rollison goes so far as to argue that this identity can be
traced back to prehistoric times and involves the political geography of a people
firmly rooted in their local landscapes. It was carried on, for example, in the
proud tradition of the people of Kent, whose motto – Invicta – relates to their
communal resistance and refusal to surrender to William Conqueror in 1067.
This sense of a distinctly English political culture, one in which the
commons were part and parcel of the polity, is captured in the writing of the
twelfth-century political philosopher and historian, John of Salisbury. In his
Policraticus, written around 1159, John advanced the idea of a political
community that was ‘complex’ and unpredicatably dynamic but one in which all
the ‘limbs’ or ‘members’ worked together. Princes ruled by the law and those
laws were formulated in counsel between all members of the body politic.
Virtuous counsel came from the heart, from ‘a senate from which proceeds the
beginning of good and bad works’. Membership of this senate was not a privilege
of rank, status or landownership but by long experience of public life and
interaction with one’s neighbours. John’s view of the polity was one that would
have resonance in the discourse of English rebellion for the remainder of the
Middle Ages and beyond. He complained of the venality and corruption of
courtiers and of the king’s counsellors: ‘No deed and no word is free of charge, no
one keeps still except for a price; and thus, silence is a thing for sale.’ He
complained of the corruption of tax collectors, all of which, he wrote, ‘only have
time these days for extortion.’
In John’s idea of the Body Politic, the head (the king) was served by its
sensory organs (judges and counsellors), as well as by its internal organs
(‘treasurers and record keepers’) and hands (soldiers and tax collectors). These
parts of the Body Politic, however, were greedy and prone to corruption. The
idea of a fat belly of grasping courtiers and corrupt financial officials is central to
John’s writings. Yet they could be tempered by two other parts of the polity: the
armed hand and the feet. The former was not what later writers would term ‘the
chivalry’ but ‘rural plebians ... raised under the heavens and upon hard work.’ It
should be, to quote David Rollinson, ‘a populist force recruited from the
commonalty, motivated by love of country and respect for a king who respected
them in return.’ The feet were the ‘peasants perpetually bound to the soil’. As
well husbandmen, this included artificers and others that we would understand
to be the commons. ‘Remove from the fittest body the aid of the feet’, John
warned, and it either ‘crawls shamefully, uselessly and offensively on its hands’.
The wealthy and powerful had a duty to uphold the commons – nothing is more
ignominious than a ‘barefoot republic’ – and a king who did not respect the Body
Politic, and the commons in particular, was, of course, a tyrant. John of Salisbury
was very clear that a tyrant was a prince that did not listen to and act upon
counsel or who acted upon counsel that allowed the commonweal to be used for
selfish, factional purposes. Tyrants could legitimately be removed and thus the
Policraticus expounded a view of the polity that legitimised the very rebellions
and regicides that later European observers characterised as English.
This notion had a long pedigree. The idea of the common good – the
communis utilitas – was Ciceronian in origin and not in any way peculiar to John
of Salisbury or the English. Nevertheless, it emerged during the thirteenth and
fourteenth century as the central component of English political discourse and
developed a very particular significance in the context of English political
rebellions. Nowhere is this clearer than in the development of the English
parliament. There isn’t time here to go into the intricacies of the development of
parliamentary institutions or the emergence of the House of Commons in the
thirteenth century, but it is clear that in the medieval parliament the innately
rebellious character of the English was both facilitated and legitimised. This is
very obvious, to me at least, in the document known to us as the Modus Tenendi
Parliamentum. It seems certain that it was compiled in the summer of 1321 at a
moment of political crisis and rebellion when the barons, led by Thomas of
Lancaster, opposed Edward II and the Despensers.
The Modus reflected much of what John of Salisbury had written in the
Policraticus. Its most remarkable clauses – precisely because, as John Maddicott
observed nearly fifty years ago, they represented a breach with procedure under
Edward II – stressed the importance of the commons. In the committee to be
appointed to determine the most difficult cases put before parliament the seven
lords were outnumbered by eighteen commoners. The commons’ assent to
taxation was paramount, and although parliament could be summoned without
the lords (for they represented only themselves), it could not be held without the
presence of the commons’ representative from each shire ‘qui representant
totam communitatem Anglie’. The Modus, of course, was intimately connected to
the political ambitions of Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster. Its Lancastrian
credentials are evident in the manuscript survivals. In seven of the surviving
copies, the Modus is followed by a tract on the Steward of England, a role which
Thomas of Lancaster claimed as his own. It repeated Lancaster’s demand in 1320
that parliament should held in public, not in cameriis, and it stressed another of
Lancaster’s demands, the role of the justices in ensuring that royal government
was subject to the law.
Thomas of Lancaster, of course, met a sticky end, executed for treason
after his rebellion’s defeat at the battle of Boroughbridge in 1322. During the
course of the fourteenth century the ideas for which he campaigned became
deeply embedded in English political culture and Earl Thomas himself emerged
as a figurehead for those who opposed the policies of tyrannical kings and
championed the rights of the commons. In 1328 Lancaster’s sentence of treason
was annulled by the new king, Edward III, and two years later efforts to have him
canonised began. His appeal throughout the fourteenth century to the various
individuals and institutions who offered prayers to him or who visited his shrine
at Pontefract seems to have less to do with his ability to make saintly cures or
defend the church (although it was claimed he did both of these), but with his
reputation as a martyr who had died for the cause of justice. He was also
presented as a champion of the commons, one who rebelled and legitimised
rebellion against tyranny. In the Luttrell Psalter Lancaster is depicted barefoot,
perhaps dressed in sack cloth, and supported by two ordinary archers, the one a
tonsured crossbowmen, the other a yeoman longbowman (Add. 42130, f.56). The
connexion is clear between Lancaster, the commons and the legitimate part that
rebellion played in the late medieval English polity.
The Lancastrian Revolution
On 30 September 1399 in the Great Hall in Westminster before the
assembled lords and commons Henry Bolingbroke, earl of Derby and heir of John
of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, laid claim to the throne of England ‘which realm was
at the point of ruin for lack of governance and destruction of the good laws.’ The
Lancastrian usurpation (or revolution as I prefer to call it) was a momentous
event in the history of medieval England and in the history of the English as a
rebellious people. Bolingbroke’s accession to the throne, I would argue, was
distinctly different to those that had followed previous rebellions against
tyrannical kings, such as had happened in 1216 or 1327. 1399 was a change of
dynasty, but it also represented a fundamental shift in English political culture.
The Lancastrian revolution depended upon, and was thus forced to legitimise, a
rebellious discourse that fully recognised the role of the commons in politics and
gave them an agency that would shape politics through a series of rebellions for
the remainder of the fifteenth century.
This situation was made possible by a number of related developments.
The first, as we have seen, was the representation of the House of Lancaster as
defenders of the English constitution and of the commons against tyranny. In
May 1402 Henry IV reminded his subjects ‘that it always had been and will be
the king’s intention that the common profit and laws and customs of the realmn
shall be observed and kept.’ The second, and more important, was the growing
importance of the commons, and the idea of the commons, in England during the
fourteenth century. As Mark Ormrod, Chris Dyer, John Watts and many others
scholars have shown, the fourteenth century witnessed a remarkable explosion
in the depth and breadth of the public sphere and an increase in the number of
individuals who participated in, and expected to participate in, the public life of
the realm. At least three important factors were at work here. First, the growth
of government, fuelled in part by the ambitions of the Plantagenet kings and in
which the various estates of the realm were willing partners. In return for
granting taxation and funding the ambitions of the three Edwards in Wales,
Scotland, Gascony and France, there developed a system of parliamentary
taxation in return for the sometimes nebulous, but more often specifically
understood, concept of ‘good government’. This, as Gerald Harriss showed us,
was worked out through a series of crises that were resolved not by rebellion,
but by debate and eventual consensus in parliament. The increase in the crown’s
ability to wage war had two consequences: first, it involved more and more
individuals in the business of war, both as soldiers in the king’s armies and as
suppliers and financiers of the royal war machine; second, a burgeoning system
of royal taxation involved most of the king’s subjects as tax payers, with a vested
interest in the proper spending of their money in the king’s name. The new
systems of lay taxation developed from the 1290s and codified in the 1330s
established the expectation that all contributed to the common good in
accordance with their means. Service to the king – in body and in goods – was a
reciprocal arrangement and, in return, the king offered access to the law and
undertook to defend the rights not just of his tenants-in-chief but of the
communitas as a whole.
The final factor, and one which would sustain traditions of rebellion
throughout the late Middle Ages, was the development of a discourse of rebellion
that was appropriated by and gave legitimacy to the commons. Once again we
can identify two important and related components. The first was the
development of a vernacular that was commonly understood and which, through
written texts, allowed ideas to be easily disseminated. This, as Anne Middleton
observed, was a verncaular formulated and established through a discourse
about the commons in their own language; ‘the comun worldes speche’ as Gower
had it and articulated through the words of Chaucher’s pilgrims, Piers Plowman
and Langland’s Will. The second was, from the late thirteenth century, the
development of, what Wendy Scase has called, ‘a literature of clamour.’ This
grew out of a legal form – the bill of complaint – where petitioners presented
themselves, like unfree peasants, as powerless to access justice (usually by the
malfeasance of those in public office). These ‘peasant plaints’ grow in the
fourteenth century to encompass not just individual complaints, but wider social
outrage which relied on commonly understood notions of damage done to the
communitas as a whole. Crucially, however, this development was not one-sided;
it did not come spontaneously from the commons emboldened by their
emancipation as tax-payers and plaintiffs in the king’s courts and made possible
by their embrace of a commonly understood vernacular. Rather than
appropriating ‘peasant plaint’, the literature of clamour provided the commons a
political language of collective protest that the aristocracy and Church had used,
for example, in 1215 and 1258 in their challenges to royal authority. From the
second half of the fourteenth century the literature of clamour expanded
precisely because the crown encouraged it as a means of checking the behaviour
of its officials and identifying grievances which could be legislated upon in
parliament. We can see this in the aftermath of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, but
also in libel campaign against John of Gaunt, the petitions presented in the Good
Parliament of 1376 and the various petitions and bills that originated in the
disputes between London citizens in the 1380s.
The literature of clamour, the expression of collective grievances to which
the crown was expected to respond to, not individually but as a general
undertaking to respect the will of the communitas, was central to the Lancastrian
polity. Jenni Nuttal, Paul Strohm, Matthew Giancarlo and others have identified a
Lancastrian literature which challenged the Lancastrian regime and
demonstrated how ‘it has broken its promises, fallen short of expectations or
changed its priorities.’ In other words, the poetry of Thomas Hoccleve and the
anonymous authors of Mom and the Soothsegger and Crowned King held the king
to account, testing Henry IV and Henry V against the standards to which they had
pledged themselves on their accession. Yet, as Henry IV reminded the commons
in parliament, ‘kings are not wont to render account.’ There was, then, a tension
and potential for legitimate rebellion that lay at the heart of the Lancastrian
polity. What I want to do in the remainder of this lecture is to argue that the
discourse of common good and rebellion, which was not distinctly Lancastrian in
its origins but, which through the special circumstances of the Lancastrian Dual
Monarchy from 1422, became distinctly Lancastrian in practice, made it possible
for the fifteenth century to be one defined by rebellions, successful and
otherwise. In turn, the eventual response to this peculiar political culture, in
which rebellion and rebels were legitimised, even celebrated, was a defining
feature of refashioning of English political life that occurred under the early
Rebellion and the Wars of the Roses
If there is one thing that historians of the fifteenth century have come to
understand in the last three decades or so, it is (as Boris Johnson will hopefully
discover to his cost) that words matter. As David Rollinson has reminded us,
some ‘words were linguistic fireworks, exploding in the crowded streets, setting
up a multitude of associations’ that determined the shape of political events. One
word in particular has been identified as crucial to the development of political
discourse during the rebellions and civil wars of the fifteenth century:
commonweal. The term ‘commonweal’ was not, as David Starkey claimed in
1986, ‘a new language of politics’ stimulated by the ‘intensity of the struggle’
between Lancaster and York which ‘stimulated open and vigorous debate on the
nature of monarchy [and] fundamental reform of the governmental machine.’
Rather, intense struggle was a manifestation of the peculiar nature of the
Lancastrian polity which, through its embrace of the ideas that lay behind the
notion of ‘commonweal’, encouraged and facilitated rebellion.
The notion of commonweal had a long tradition in both English and
European political discourse. As John Watts and others have shown, its origins
lay in Roman Law ideas of political communities and in the language of Aristotle,
Cicero and other neo-classical writers. By the end of the twelfth century Richard
I could act with commune consilium regni and in 1215 the Magna Carta –
communis carta regni - was guaranteed, as Geoffrey de Mandeville tells us, by 25
barons cum communis tocius terre. By the time of the baronial revolt of the mid
thirteenth century the reformers styled themselves ‘le commun de Engletere’,
while the knights of the shire came to the parliament of 1265 ex parte
communitatem comitatuum. By the 1340s it appears commonly understood that
the knights and burgesses in parliament – ‘les communes’ – represented that
part of the community of the realm, the commons, not represented by the lords
spiritual and temporal. Crucially, there was a sense in which the commons in
parliament, alongside the lords, spoke for the community of the realm. In 1264
Simon de Montfort declared that the provisions for government, made in a
parliament at which four knights from each county were present, had been
authorised by ‘the king, prelates, barons ac etiam’ by the communitas then
present. This, then, laid claim for parliament, and the commons in parliament in
particular, to speak for and on behalf of the community of the realm as a whole.
This is clear in the development of royal taxation, which by the beginning of the
fourteenth century could only be granted with the approval of the commons in
parliament and once so granted it was unlawful for subjects to refuse to pay.
This begun to change in the last decades of the fourteenth century.
Stephen Justice has argued that the use of term ‘commons’ by the rebels of 1381
was limited to their sense of representation of their own local communities, but I
think it’s clear that their sense of the word ‘commons’ encompassed a wider,
national poltiical community. In 1381 the rebels claimed to speak for the realm,
enabled by a new vernacular language of politics and emboldened by the
changes in political society that had developed in the wake of Black Death. By the
end of the fourteenth commons had come to denote the lower sort – not
nceccessarily the poorest, but those husbandmen, artificers, merchants and
burgesses who paid taxes, fought in the king’s armies and sought justice in his
courts. As active citizens they sought a say in the affairs of the realm. In 1348 the
commons in parliament had responded to Sir William Thorp’s explanation of the
reasons for summoning the assembly and plea for counsel by arguing that they
‘are so ignorant and simple that we do not know how, nor are we able, to
counsel’ on whether to sue for peace with France. The king, they argued, should
take the ‘advice of the great and wise men of your council’ before deciding the
course of policy. The parliaments of the 1370s and 80s were more assertive,
reflecting, but also reacting to, a more general assertion of the rights of the
‘commynalte’ (as a preacher writing around 1400 described the third estate). We
know from the poetry of John Gower and contemporary chroniclers, like Thomas
Walsingham, that there was a general unease around the growing political
confidence of the commonalty. Yet it was precisely this political confidence that
was embraced by the Lancastrian kings to give legitimacy to their regime.
As Simon Walker demonstrated, the Lancastrian approach to popular
criticism of the regime was ambivalent to say the least. Occasionally, as in 1401
when a Canterbury scrivener lost his hand for writing and circulating seditious
bills, political comment by ordinary people was met with represssion, but more
frequently accusations of treason or criticism of the regime ended in pardon or
acquital. In 1405 Richard Scrope, archbishop of York, led a rebellion against
Henry IV’s corrupt counsellors. His petition of grievances, written in English and
nailed to the gates of the city of York, read like a Lancastrian manifesto: a freely
elected parliament and a demand for justice against those who put their own self
interest before the common good of the realm. Although Scrope himself was
executed for treason, his tomb became a shrine for recognisably Lancastrian
political principles and even received the patronage of the Lancastrian royal
family itself. In 1408 the king’s son, John, was instructed to see that proper
wooden barriers were in place at the tomb in York Minster to control the flow of
pilgrims, while from 1413 Henry V sanctioned offering to the rebel archbishop,
even including Lancastrian livery collars of ‘SS’.
In some ways the successes of Henry V in France hid the extent to which
the political culture of the Lancastrian kings was distinct from what had gone
before. That ended, albeit slowly, with the accession of the nine-month old Henry
VI in 1422 and Lancastrian Dual Monarchy. During Henry’s long minority there
seems surprisingly little evidence of the commons’ disillusioment, or even their
active engagement, with the business of politics. There was a concerted
propaganda effort to sell the Dual Monarchy to Henry VI’s English and French
subjects, while Lancastrian poets, like John Lydgate, continued to pressure the
members of the minority council to follow the principles of conciliar
government. The king’s majority, however, from 1437 ended this. The
commonalty once more made its voice heard and, crucially, the king and council
reacted to popular pressure. This is clear from the extraordinary document
released by the council following the decision to release the duke of Orleans from
captivity in 1439. The preamble states ‘for as moche as it is comen to the kinges
knoulech that their is growen and spradde in his people a noyse and grutching
that it liked him of hymself for many causes’ to explain the decision to release
Orleans (against the dying wishes of Henry V). It may be that the document
sought to reveal and put an end to divisions in the council and undermine the
position of the king’s uncle, Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, but the crucial thing
here is that it was framed as a response to a collective demand for an explanation
made by the king’s subjects.
The way in which the Lancastrian regime was dependent on the
approbation of the commons, and thus could be legitimately made to change
course by them through rebellion, was revealed in 1450. With king surrounded
by corrupt counsel, rebellion was the only available way for the commons to
have their voice heard. In the wake of defeat in Normandy and amidst
accusations that the king’s counsellors were traitors who had put their own
ambitions before the common good, the commons of Kent and Essex took up
arms, using communal institutions of local government and military
organisation, and marched on London. I have written about Cade’s rebellion at
length elsewhere, but I want to make two points today. First, the rebellion of
1450 was made possible by a commonly understood discourse that cast the
rebels as not only defenders of the commonweal, but as empowered to act on
behalf of the community of the realm, embodying that community itself. In one of
their petitions to the king, the rebels described themselves as the ‘trew comyns
of our soueraigne lord the king.’ Thomas Gascoigne, himself no friend of the
rebels, characterised them as ‘public petitioners for public justice to be done, and
demonstrators of their own grievances and those of the realm.’ This discourse of
accountability - that the Lancastrian regime could be held to account by its
subjects - had been developed over the previous fifty years through literature –
both the elite poetry of Hoccleve and Lydgate and the anonymous poems that
named the corrupt courtiers and counsellors of Henry VI – and through the
language of government. The account of the decision-making process that led to
Orleans’ release in 1439 is one example, but there are others and every
indictment that asked a jury to consider treasonable words implicitly legitimised
and, at times through pardon or acquital, vindicated a discourse of resistance
and rebellion. This led to a remarkable and sophisticated understanding by the
rebels of their rights and responsibilities. In 1450 those indicted for the murder
of William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk, the king’s leading counsellor and the man,
unjustly perhaps, held responsible for most of the failings of Henry VI’s
government gave a clear understanding of their role as representatives of the
commons and of the role that the commons played in the English polity: ‘they did
not know the said king’, they replied when Suffolk showed to them Henry VI’s
letters of protection, ‘but they knew well the crown of England, saying that the
aforesaid crown was the community of the realm and that the community of the
realm was the crown of the realm’.
The second point, and for me this is the most telling contrast with the
baronial-led rebellions of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, is that in 1450
and in the decade or so that followed, the commons were the dynamic force in
English politics. In 1450 they led and the baronial opposition to Henry VI’s
government followed. Throughout the 1450s and into the 1460s the crown and
nobility sought to appease the commons, were often led by the commons, and
ultimately appealed to the commons for legitimacy. It was rebels’ demand in
1450 that the duke of York return to England to counsel the king that precipated
York’s return from Ireland. His epistolary exchange with Henry VI that summer
only latterly staked his claim to be the commons’ champion and the man to
reform the problems bestting the Lancastrian regime and when he did so he
spoke in the language of Cade. As one of the Pastons’ correspondent wrote: the
duke ‘desyred meche thynge, qwych is meche after the Comouns desyre.’
Throughout the period 1450-1461 York and his allies reacted to events led by
the Commons: their appropriated the rebels’ manifestos, even reissuing one
verbatim in 1460, they courted popular opinion and staked their claim to be
more ‘Lancastrian’ than the Lancastrian regime itself. In 1461 when York’s son,
Edward, was crowned king, Yorkist sources stressed the role of the commons in
the popular acclamation of the new king. Even if, as Armstrong demonstrated,
Eward’s claim to the throne was through just inheritance, his supporters
recognised the importance of the commons in granting legitimacy to the new
By 1459, however, there are signs that primacy of the commons – and the
idea of the commons – was being questioned. In October, in the wake of the
Yorkist lords’ defeat at Ludford Bridge, Henry VI summoned a parliament to
meet at Coventry. It was assembled to attaint the Yorkist lords and their
supporters of treason, but there was also the fear that the king would offer a
pardon to the rebellious lords. An anonymous tract, written in latin and English
and circulated before the parliament met, the Somnium Vigilantis, characterised
York and his allies as rebels and traitors. One of their principal failings was the
way in which had courted the support of the commons. The author of the
Somnium Vigilantis offered a quite different view of the commons than that
which had prevailed for the last fifty years or so. The ‘favoure of the peple’ was
worth nothing, ‘for by cause hit is so varyable and for the mooste parte it
groweth of oppynable conceytis, and not of trowith.’ Anyone, he continued, ‘who
so hathe rede in the old storyes, he may be suffyciently informed of ye grete
varyablenes of the peple and of thyncertitude of thaire oppynions.’ In dismissing
the opinions of the ‘foolish commons’ and delegitimising a rebellion explicitly
riased for the commonweal, the author of the Somnium Vigilantis was signalling
the beginnings of an important shift in attitudes towards the commons and
towards rebellion.
The End of Rebellions?
The shift in attitude towards rebellion and the commons’ role in politics
was slow and often bloody. As John Watts has argued, it was bound up with the
spread of Renaissance neo-classical ideas in England and a rediscovery, and
reivention, of the ideas of Cicero in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth
centuries. In this period, as Dan Wakelin has so astutely put it, it was ‘as if
Englishmen wrote in togas.’ Armed with a new understanding of the Ciceronian
republicanism and a new political vocabulary of res publica, the common
lawyers, churchmen and administrators of the later fifteenth century reimagined
the English polity as one where laws and councils, formulated by and guarded
over by men of virtue, replaced aristocratic lordship and the demotic power of
the commons. This is clear in the writings of Sir John Fortescue and Bishop
Russell, but it would take ambitious and assertive monarchy of Henry VIII to take
this to its logical conclusion and deny the commons their role in politics and
delegitimise rebellion.
Perhaps the clearest exponent of a new Tudor attitude was the courtier,
Sir Thomas Elyot, who in 1528 published The Boke Named the Governor. It begun
with a chapter entitled ‘The significacion of a Publike Weale, and why it is called
in latin Respublica.’ Elyot explained to his readers the need to explain ‘the propre
and trewe signification of the wordes publike and commune, whiche be borowed
of the latin tonge for the insufficiencie of our owne langage.’ This last phrase, ‘the
insufficiencie of our owne langage’, is important denying the legitimacy of a
vernacular that had dominated political discourse throughout the fourteenth and
fifteenth centuries and reasserting the primacy of an elite and exclusive
language. Elyot continued to describe how the commons had mistakenly been
given a political prominence: ‘Plebs in englisshe’, he wrote, ‘is called the
communaltie, which signifieth only the multitude, wherin be contayned the base
and vulgare inhabitantes not auanced to any honour or dignite.’ The passage is
worth quoting at length:
And in the countrey, at a cessions or other assembly, if no
gentyl men be there at, the sayenge is that there was none but
the communalte, whiche proueth in myn oppinion that Plebs
in latin is in englisshe communaltie: and Plebeii be
communers. And consequently there may appere lyke
diuersitie to be in englisshe betwene a publike weale and a
commune weale, as shulde be in latin betwene Res publica
and Res plebeia. And after that signification, if there shuld be a
commune weale, either the communers only must be welthy,
and the gentil and noble men nedy and miserable, orels
excluding gentilite, al men must be of one degre and sort, and
a new name prouided. For as moche as Plebs in latin, and
comminers in englisshe, be wordes only made for the
discrepance of degrees, wherof procedeth ordre: whiche in
thinges as wel naturall as supernaturall hath euer had suche a
preeminence, that therby the incomprehensible maiestie of
god, as it were by a bright leme of a torche or candel, is
declared to the blynde inhabitantes of this worlde. More ouer
take away ordre from all thynges what shulde than remayne?
The message is clear: the misuse of the word commons, the conflation in Middle
English to mean both public and plebian, had handed the ordinary people a
political legitimacy which threatended to overturn the God-given order of things.
Elyot went on to list Biblical and classical precedents where ‘a multitude hath
had equal authorite without any soueraygne’ and the disasters that had ensued.
Elyot’s arguments were echoed by other writers in response to attempts
by the commons of early Tudor England to assert their political role using the
forms and language of commonweal and rebellion employed in the fifteenth
century. Interestingly the unambiguous statement in this regard comes from
Henry VIII himself. On 1 October 1536 the townsmen of Louth in Lincolnshire, in
response to rumours about new forms of taxation and the closure of the
monasteries, seized the royal commissioners and demanded, through a petition,
the removal of Thomas Cromwell and other unpopular agents of the Henrician
Reformation and a reversal of the statutes of the Reformation Parliament. The
rebellion ended with a threat of violence and the execution of the ringleaders,
but it also elicited a printed response from the king. Henry stated that the
statutes which had caused the commons’ rebellion had been passed by the king,
lords and commons in parliament, not simply at the whim of the king and his
councillors. The king’s choice of councillors was entirely his own: ‘how
presumptuous then are ye the rude comons of one shire ... to fynde faulte with
your prince for electing of his counsaylours and prelatis.’ Moreover, the response
asserted a new political philosophy which excluded the commons - and the idea
of the commons – from a legitimate role in politics:
We marvaile what madnes is in your braine, or upon what
ground ye wolde take auctoritie upon you to cause us to
breake those lawes & statutes, whiche by all the nobles,
knyghtes and gentylmen of this realme (whome the same
chieflye toucheth) ... seynge in noo maner of thynges it
toucheth you the basse commons of our realme.
In the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace, a larger and much more dangerous
rebellion of the commons that engulfed the north of England within days of the
suppression of the Lincolnshire Rising, Richard Morison, wrote two tracts
echoing the king’s words, replete with neo-classical justifications for denying the
commons their voice. ‘It far passeth cobblers’ craft’, he wrote (channeling Plato),
‘to discuss what lords, what bishops, what counsellors, what acts, what statutes
and laws are most meet for a commonwealth.’
Rebellions of the commons did not end with the Pligrimage of Grace. That
came, infamously and violently, at Dussindale outside Norwich on 27 August
1549 when thousands of the commons, protesting against enclosure and the
harsh economic conditions of the late 1540s were massacared in open battle by a
royal army comprised chiefly of German mercenaries. The contrast between the
experience of the rebels who marched under Robert Kett in 1549 and those who
marched with Watt Tyler in 1381 or Jack Cade in 1450 could not be more stark.
The years between 1381 and 1549 then were a period in English history when
the English truly were a rebellious people. It coincided with an equally
distinctive period of political culture in which the long-established notions of the
duties and responsibilities of the king and his reciprocal relationship with his
subjects were refashioned and mediated through the vernacular to an inclusive
community of the realm. This, in turn, was appropriated by and used to
legitimise Lancastrian kingship, a dynasty that had itself come to the throne
through rebellion. From 1549 the character of English rebellions reverted to an
older form of violent baronial opposition to royal policy. In 1569, 1601 and, of
course, in 1642 it was nobility, secure in the knowledge of their God-given right
to represent the commonwealth, who challenged the tyranny of kings.