The century of war, plague and disorder
The fourteenth century was disastrous for Britain as well as most of Europe, because of the effect of wars and plagues. Probably one-third of Europe's population died of plague.
Britain and France suffered, too, from the damages of war. France and England were exhausted economically by the cost of maintaining armies.
Finally, the habit of war created a new class of armed men in the countryside, in place of the old feudal system of forty days' service. These gangs, in reality local private armies, damaged the local economy but increased the nobles' ability to challenge the authority of the Crown. Already in 1327 one king had been murdered by powerful nobles, and another one was murdered in 1399. These murders weakened respect for the Crown, and encouraged repeated struggles for it amongst the king's most powerful relations. In the following century a king, or a king's eldest son, was killed in 1461, 1471, 1483 and 1485.
War with Scotland and France
England's wish to control Scotland had suffered a major setback in 1314. Many of the English had been killed, and Edward II himself had been lucky to escape. After other unsuccessful attempts England gave up its claim to overlordship of Scotland in 1328.
The repeated attempts of English kings to control Scotland had led the Scots to look for allies. After Edward I's attempt to take over Scotland in 1295, the Scots turned to the obvious ally, the king of France.
France benefited more than Scotland from it, but both countries agreed that whenever England attacked one of them, the other would make trouble behind England's back.
To make his position stronger, the king of France began to interfere with England's trade.
England went to war because it could not afford the destruction of its trade with Flanders.
Edward III declared war on France in 1337. The war Edward began, later called the Hundred Years War, did not finally end until 1453, with the English Crown losing all its possessions in France except for Calais, a northern French port.
At first the English were far more successful than the French on the battlefield. The English army was experienced through its wars in Wales and in Scotland. It had learnt the value of being lightly armed, and quick in movement. The English captured a huge quantity of treasure, every woman in England had a French bracelet on her arm. The French king bought his freedom for £500,000, an enormous amount of money in those days.
By the treaty of Bretigny, in 1360, Edward III was happy to give up his claim to the French throne because he had re-established control over areas previously held by the English Crown. The French recognised Edward’s III ownership of all Aquitaine, including Gascony; parts of Normandy and Brittany, and the newly captured port of Calais. But because the French king had only unwillingly accepted this situation the war did not end, and fighting soon began again.
True to the "Alliance" the king of Scots had attacked England in 1346, but he was defeated and taken prisoner. Edward III allowed the French to ransom the Scots king David and, satisfied with his successes in France, Edward gave up trying to control the Scots Crown. For a while there was peace, but the struggle between the French and English kings over French territories was to continue into the fifteenth century.
The age of chivalry
Edward III and his eldest son, the Black Prince, were greatly admired in England for their courage on the battlefield and for their courtly manners. They became symbols of the "code of chivalry", the way in which a perfect knight should behave. According to the code of chivalry, the perfect knight fought for his good name if insulted, served God and the king, and defended any lady in need. These ideas were expressed in the legend of the Round Table, around which King Arthur and his knights sat as equals in holy brotherhood.
Knights, according to the ideals of chivalry, would fight to defend a lady's honour. In peacetime knights fought one against another in tournaments. Here a knight prepares to fight, and is handed his helmet and shield by his wife and daughter. Other knights could recognise by the design on his shield and on his horse's coat that the rider was Sir Geoffrey Luttrell.
The century of plagues
The year 1348 brought an event of far greater importance than the creation of a new order of chivalry. This was the terrible plague, known as the Black Death, which reached almost every part of Britain during 1348 -9. Whole villages disappeared, and some towns were almost completely deserted until the plague itself died out.
After the Black Death there were other plagues during the rest of the century which killed mostly the young and healthy.
There were so few people to work on the land that the remaining workers could ask for more money for their labour. The poor found that they could demand more money and did so. This finally led to the end of serfdom.
Because of the shortage and expense of labour, landlords returned to the twelfth-century practice of letting out their land to energetic freeman. The practice of letting out farms had been a way of increasing the landlord's profits. Many "firma" agreements were for a whole life span, and some for several life spans. By the mid-fifteenth century few landlords had home farms at all. Smaller farmers who rented the manorial lands slowly became a new class, known as the "yeomen". They became an important part of the agricultural economy, and have always remained so.
There had been other economic changes during the fourteenth century. The most important of these was the replacement of wool by finished cloth as England's main export. Hundreds of skilled Flemings came to England in search of work. They were encouraged to do so by Edward III because there was a clear benefit to England in exporting a finished product rather than a raw material.
The poor in revolt
It is surprising that the English never rebelled against Edward III. He was an expensive king at a time when many people were miserably poor and sick with plagues. At the time of the Black Death he was busy with expensive wars against France and Scotland.
Edward's grandson, Richard, was less fortunate. He became king on his grandfather's death in 1377 because his father, the Black Prince, had died a few months earlier. He became king when he was only eleven, and so others governed for him. In the year he became king, these advisers introduced a tax payment for every person over the age of fifteen. Two years later, this tax was enforced again. The people paid.
But in 1381 this tax was enforced for a third time and also increased to three times the previous amount.
The new tax had led to revolt, but there were also other reasons for discontent. The landlords had been trying for some time to force the peasants back into serfdom, because serf labour was cheaper than paid labour.
The idea that God had created all people equal called for an end to feudalism and respect for honest labour. But the Peasants' Revolt, as it was called, only lasted for four weeks. During that period the peasants took control of much of London. In fact the revolt was not only by peasants from the countryside: a number of poorer townspeople also revolted, suggesting that the discontent went beyond the question of feudal service. When the leader Wat Tyier was killed, Richard II skillfully quietened the
angry crowd. He promised to meet all the people's demands, including an end to serfdom, and the people peacefully went home.
As soon as they had gone, Richard’s position changed. Although he did not try to enforce the tax, he refused to keep his promise to give the peasants their other demands. King’s officers hunted down leading rebels and hanged them.
Heresy and orthodoxy
The Peasants' Revolt was the first sign of growing discontent with the state. During the next century discontent with the Church also grew.
The greed of the Church was one obvious reason for its unpopularity. The Church was a feudal power, and often treated its peasants and townspeople with as much cruelty as the nobles did. Edward's wars in France were beginning to make the English conscious of their "Englishness" and the pope was a foreigner.
Another threat to the Church during the fourteenth century was the spread of religious writings, which were popular with an increasingly literate population. These books were for use in private prayer and dealt with the death of Jesus Christ, the lives of the Saints and the Virgin Mary. The increase in private prayer was a direct threat to the authority of the Church over the religious life of the population. This was because these writings allowed people to pray and think independently of Church control. Private religious experience and the increase of knowledge encouraged people to challenge the Church's authority, and the way it used this to advance its political influence.