Home Time Period All History Medieval History Ch. 43: The Black Death, Wyclif, Hundred Years’ War, France and England to the End of the Middle Ages

Medieval History Ch. 43: The Black Death, Wyclif, Hundred Years’ War, France and England to the End of the Middle Ages

Medieval History Ch. 43: The Black Death, Wyclif, Hundred Years’ War, France and England to the End of the Middle Ages
Clockwise, from top left: the Battle of La Rochelle, the Battle of Agincourt, the Battle of Patay, and Joan of Arc at the Siege of Orléans

The following is an excerpt (pages 498-516) from Ancient and Medieval History (1944) by Francis S. Betten, S.J. Although some information may be outdated, the Catholic historical perspective it provides remains pertinent. Use the link at the bottom of post to read the previous/following pages. Use the Search box above to find specific topics or browse using the Resources tab above.





In the period between the end of the crusades and the end of the Middle Ages we find these two countries occupied in the so-called “Hundred Years’ War.” This was a series of expeditions separated by two periods of peace and covering the years 1338-1453. In England it was followed immediately by civil war, the “Wars of the Roses” which lasted thirty years.
But during the Hundred Years’ War, in particular during a long period of peace, important things happened in England, which will claim our attention.


628. Opening of the Struggle. — When Edward III came to the throne (1327-1377) most of England’s old possessions in France had been lost; but he was still Duke of Aquitaine, — and, in name, a vassal of the French king for that province. Like Edward I, the third Edward strove strenuously, — but vainly, — to unite Scotland to England by arms. The French king continued to give aid to Scotland. Therefore, in 1338, Edward gladly seized an excuse to declare war on France. Thus began the “Hundred Years’ War,” 1338-1453. This war was, however, also commercial in purpose. England wanted markets for her products. In particular her merchants wanted to sell their wool in the manufacturing towns of the French province of Flanders without being trammeled by French restrictions and tolls.

The following table gives the Capetian kings of this period, with dates of accession. See § 539 for the earlier Capetians.
The following table gives the Capetian kings of this period, with dates of accession. See § 539 for the earlier Capetians.

To strengthen his position, Edward set up a fanciful claim to the French crown;1 and from that time until the nineteenth century, each English king kept also the title “King of France.”

629. The war was waged on French soil. The English gained brilliant victories, overran France repeatedly, and brought home much plunder. “No woman,” says an English chronicler, “but had robes, furs, feather beds, and utensils, from French cities.” England was prosperous, too, in the early period of the war. The people felt none of its direct ravages, — except for occasional raids by Norman pirates on the coast,— and for many years they bore cheerfully the cost of campaigns abroad.

The first three were sons of Philip IV, and none of them left sons. The French nobles then chose Charles IV’s cousin, Philip of Valois, for king. The mother of Edward III was a daughter of Philip the Fair. French law, however, did not recognize inheritance of the crown through females. And if it had, then, through other princesses, there were French nobles with better claims than Edward. Edward did not put forward this claim until after war had begun.

A BOMBARD From a sixteenth-century German wood-cut. One chronicler of the day says that gunpowder was used at Crecy. The English, he reports, had several small “bombards, which, with fire and noise like God’s thunder, threw little iron balls to frighten the horses." Cannon certainly came into use about that time; but the first ones were made by fastening bars of iron together with hoops; and the gunpowder was full of impurities and very weak. Not before a century later did cannon begin to be used to batter down the walls of castles and cities. It was longer still before firearms became the chief weapon of the infantry.
From a sixteenth-century German wood-cut. One chronicler of the day says that gunpowder was used at Crecy. The English, he reports, had several small
“bombards, which, with fire and noise like God’s
thunder, threw little iron balls to frighten the
Cannon certainly came into use about
that time; but the first ones were made by
fastening bars of iron together with hoops;
and the gunpowder was full of impurities and
very weak. Not before a century later did
cannon begin to be used to batter down the
walls of castles and cities. It was longer still
before firearms became the chief weapon of
the infantry.

630. The Battle of Crecy. — The two great victories of this first period of the war were Crecy and Poitiers.

In 1346 Edward led an army through the north of France, ravaging crops, burning peasant villages, and turning the country into a blackened desert, to within sight of the walls of Paris, — in the usual fashion of warfare in those chivalrous days. Philip VI (less capable than most Capetians but a brave prince) gathered the feudal forces of France in an immense host to crush the invader. Edward III, who retreated toward the coast, was overtaken at Crecy by five times his numbers. He won a complete victory.

Edward III had drawn up his troops, less than sixteen thousand in all, on the slope of a hill, with a ditch in front to check the charge of horsemen. Behind the ditch stood the English bowmen, the main force of the army; and Edward even dismounted his few hundred men-at-arms to fight on foot among them and so strengthen their fines against a charge. This force, which was to meet the French onset, was placed under the command of the king’s oldest son, the young Edward, known better as the Black Prince (so called from the color of his armor), while King Edward III, with a reserve, took stand higher up the hill.

The first charge of the French nobles seemed for a moment about to swallow up the little English army, and the young Edward sent to his father for reenforcement. But the king from his higher ground could see that all was going well. “Is my son dead, or unhorsed, or wounded? Then go back, and bid them not send to me again so long as he lives. Let the boy win his spurs, for, if God so please, I will that the honor of the day be his.”


The honor really belonged to the English yeomen, — the men of the six-foot long bow and heavy, yard-long shafts winged with gray-goose quills. The English free peasants were trained from childhood to draw “a mighty bow” — as English ballads called the national weapon — by “laying the body to it,” when main strength, unskilled, could not have bent it (§ 532). The archer shot nearly a quarter of a mile (four hundred yards), and drove his arrows through ordinary iron armor; or, if the knight were clothed in “armor of proof” from Milan, he took deadly aim, at closer quarters, at openings for eyes and mouth, or at any exposed joint. Confident in their skill the bowmen coolly faced the ponderously charging mass, pouring in their arrows, says a French chronicler, “wherever they saw the thickest press,” and letting few French knights reach the English lines.

A sequel to the battle of Crecy was the siege and capture of Calais, the port that dominates the narrowest point on the Channel. It remained in English hands for two centuries, — an ever open door for an invasion of France.

631. Poitiers — Peace of Bretigny. — Ten years later the Black Prince, now in sole command, repeated the victory of Crecy at Poitiers with the same tactics. The invincibility of the feudal horseman was gone. King John the Good of France and countless French noblemen became prisoners.

The misery caused by the devastations of this war, together with the heavy ransoms for the captured lords, which ultimately had to come from the peasants, caused a terrible rising of the rural population. It is called the Jacquerie, from Jacques Bonhomme, which from this time on was the nickname for the lower classes. Bands amounting to a hundred thousand men roamed through the west and the north of France without plan or leader, inspired only with a blind passion for wholesale destruction. The nobles and the cities retaliated with every manner of cruelty. The movement brought no alleviation whatsoever to the peasants.

By the Peace of Bretigny, 1360, Edward III retained the possessions of Aquitaine as a French vassal, but gave up all claims to everything north of the Loire except Calais.

632. The Second Period of the War. — In 1369 a dispute concerning Aquitaine found both parties eager to renew the war. The French king was Charles V (the Wise), and the victories all belonged to the French side. Place after place fell to them, until, at the end, in 1380, England kept only two towns, — Bordeaux and Calais. No formal peace was concluded. The parties simply discontinued fighting, and there were no war operations between the two countries from 1380 to 1415.


633. The Black Death. — French success during the second period of the war had been due not alone to Charles the Wise, but also to altered conditions in England. In 1347, during the first period, England was visited by a terrible plague, called the Black Death, which for two years had been ravaging the continent. It is believed to have carried off at least one third of the population of Europe. A bright fact shines out from the universal misery, — the splendid devotion of the clergy and religious. On account of their self-sacrificing care of the sick and dying, they suffered most of all. In some countries two thirds of the parishes were left without clergy. In England the Black Death with its destruction of human life had several important consequences.

634. The Black Death hastened the cessation of serfdom.
As the plague had carried off at least half of the farm laborers, the survivors thought that labor had risen in value and refused to do the same amount of work as before the plague, unless they were given additional wages. Parliament directly interposed, forbidding the lords to pay more and the laborers to demand more than formerly. Such prohibitions, though at times cruelly enforced, were very commonly evaded by both the employers and employees. To keep his serfs from running away, the landlord made more and more favorable terms with them. The tendency was to allow the villein to pay money rent instead of giving his services, and then to hire him back for money wages. This movement, however, which would make the villeins free yeomen, was very slow. Half-freed serfs were often forced back into serfdom by legal trickery and downright violence. The farming population continued in a state of unrest, which at any moment might break out into serious disorders.

EFFIGY FROM THE TOMB OF THE BLACK PRINCE On the right side of his armor appears the English royal coat of arms, the leopards; on the left side the French lilies, to signify his and his father’s claim to the crown of France (§ 628)
On the right side of his armor appears the English royal coat of arms, the leopards; on the left side the French lilies, to signify his and his father’s claim to the crown of France (§ 628)

During the last years of his life King Edward III had lost his firm grip on the country. Old age, sickness, and family troubles made him unfit for vigorous government. Things grew still worse, when after his death the crown fell to his grandson, Richard II, a boy of eight years, since the Black Prince had died before his father.

635. The Peasant Rising of 1381. — While England was in this state of confusion and discontent, Parliament passed a heavy poll tax, bearing with unfair weight on the poor. This proved to be the spark which set the realm ablaze. With amazing suddenness, the peasantry rose in arms. From all sides they marched upon London, destroyed the deer parks and fishponds of the gentry, slew the lawyers and court officials whom they chanced to meet, burned the court rolls which testified to the villeins’ services, and after much destruction and plundering in the metropolis, murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury. The lawlessness, however, did not go so far as might have been expected. The boy king with rare courage rode out among the insurgents. Wat Tyler, the most dangerous of their leaders, drew his dagger against the king. He was instantly dispatched by Walworth, the Mayor of London. The king promised the peasants abolition of serfdom. For days a force of thirty clerks was kept busy writing out brief charters containing the king’s promises. When the peasants had scattered to their villages, both houses of Parliament declared that Richard II’s promise was void, because he could not give away the gentry’s property — the services due to them — without their consent. Now that the danger was over, the ringleaders of the rising were punished without mercy.

This outcome of the unfortunate revolt considerably strengthened the opposition to a liberation of the serfs. But services unwillingly rendered cannot be long maintained. As the years passed, the conditions which made for the abolition of serfdom were too strong. After some time the same movement set in again, and by 1450 villeinage had passed away from England forever.

636. The Growth of Parliamentary Power. — The war made it necessary for the kings to ask Parliament for many grants of money. Parliament supplied them liberally. But it took advantage of their needs to have its own powers enlarged. Under Edward III it became a fixed principle that “redress of grievances” must precede a “grant of supply.” In his last years the “Good Parliament” even impeached and removed his ministers.
Richard II, when old enough to take the government in his own hands, made himself heartily unpopular by his arbitrary measures. He tried to rule without Parliament. Once when that body was assembled, he surrounded it with his troops, and thus compelled it to grant him a tax for life. Such acts, and the intrigues of his ambitious cousin Henry of Lancaster at last brought it about that Parliament deposed him and chose Henry of Lancaster king. Richard II was the last of the Plantagenet kings. (He died or was killed the following year.) In Henry IV the House of Lancaster ascended the English throne.

Henry IV frankly recognized his dependence on Parliament, which under him gained still more in influence. The lower house, the Commons, obtained the right to judge of the election of its own members. Money bills, too could no longer be proposed by the king or the House of Lords, but had to be introduced first in the House of Commons (a practice which has been adopted for the legislatures of all English-speaking countries). The members of both houses were granted the privilege of free speech, and of freedom from arrest, unless Parliament itself ordered the arrest.

Under the next king, Henry V, the king was deprived of the power of changing the wording of bills passed by parliament; he was to accept or reject them as they were laid before him.


637. John Wyclif. — It cannot be doubted that the unfortunate rising of the peasants was indirectly caused also by the teachings of religious innovators whose violent declamations threatened Catholic dogma and the public welfare alike. The father of this movement was John Wyclif, at one time a professor of considerable reputation at the University of Oxford.

At this period the popes, who resided at Avignon in France (§ 667) and were cut off from most of the sources of their revenue in Italy, insisted upon the payment of taxes by ecclesiastical dignitaries. Their demands, though justifiable in themselves, were opposed in England as well as in the rest of Europe. Moreover, the pitiable dearth of priests caused by the Black Death inclined the bishops to lower the standard for those to be promoted to the priesthood. All this, together with his unaccountable aversion for the mendicant orders, became for John Wyclif the occasion of opposition to the members of all religious orders and the clergy in general. The Church, he maintained, must have no temporal goods at all. The secular authority must deprive the clergy of all their possessions. At any rate, no man who is in the state of mortal sin can be the owner of anything. Strong as were his teachings upon clerical poverty, however, they failed to impress him with the desirability of giving up the ecclesiastical property which he himself had obtained, — the rich vicarage of Lutterworth. Nor was he consistent enough to apply the mortal sin principle to the possessions of secular lords. He soon denied transubstantiation, a fact which made him a heretic even in the eyes of the less educated, though in his controversies he cloaked his denial in obscure language. To have ready at hand an authority to oppose to that of the Church he declared the Bible the sole source of faith. He falsified the existing translations of the Bible to suit his heresies. He was as untiring as he was violent in his attacks upon the clergy, the bishops, and the pope. The blameless morality and abstemiousness of his private life contributed a great deal to increase his power over the common people. Prominent dissatisfied noblemen, above all the powerful John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (§ 642), took him under their protection. He died in 1383.

 ENGLISH CARRIAGE OF THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY After Jusserand, English Wayfaring Life. In the manuscript from which this picture is taken, the carriage is represented drawn by five horses tandem, driven by two postilions. Such carriages were a princely luxury, equaling in value a herd of from four hundred to sixteen hundred oxen.

After Jusserand, English Wayfaring Life. In the manuscript from which this picture is taken, the carriage is represented drawn by five horses tandem, driven by two postilions. Such carriages were a princely luxury, equaling in value a herd of from four hundred to sixteen hundred oxen.

638. Lollardism. — To spread his errors far and wide Wyclif organized, about 1380, the poor priests, who were to travel up and down the country and preach his new doctrines. Very few of them were real priests. They and their adherents were called Lollards (from a word which means to sing in a low voice). They went further in their doctrines than their master, declaimed against the celibacy of the clergy, made the validity of the sacraments depend upon the worthiness of the minister, rejected ceremonies and pilgrimages (a famous shrine of the Blessed Virgin in Walsingham they nicknamed the Witch of Walsingham), and, of course, they denied the presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. More consistent than Wyclif himself, many of them demanded that laymen, too, if in mortal sin, should be deprived of their offices and property. Their invectives against the rich sound very much like the talk of present-day socialists. Such harangues did not fail to make an impression at a time when the minds of the working classes were agitated by a keener sense of the real and imaginary wrongs they were suffering, and by the desire of an improvement which, they thought, was almost within their reach. How far Wyclif and his Lollards were directly responsible for the events next to be treated cannot now be ascertained.


Lollardism remained a danger for about fifty years. Ecclesiastical and secular authorities combined for its suppression, for which they resorted to the methods of the Inquisition. By the middle of the fifteenth century the heresy had ceased to have any noticeable influence. The formation of the Anglican Church by Henry VIII is entirely independent of Lollardism. The logical successors of Wyclif are to be sought not in England but in Bohemia (§ 672).


639. Third Period of the Hundred Years’ War. — In 1415, after a generation of peace with France, Henry V renewed the Hundred Years’ War. He had no clear excuse; but he was fired by ambition, and he saw an opportunity in the disorder in France under an insane king (Charles VI). He was brilliantly successful. At Agincourt he won a victory which recalled the days of Crecy and Poitiers (§ 630). The mighty Duke of Burgundy went over to his side. A peace treaty made him regent during the lifetime of Charles VI with the right of succession after the mad king’s death. The son of Charles, “the Dauphin,” as the heir of the throne was called, was simply passed over in the agreement. Both kings died within a short time of each other. Charles VII, “the Dauphin,” held a feeble sway over the country south of the Loire. An English regent ruled in the north of France in the name of young Henry VI.

But when the English were besieging Orleans, the last stronghold of the Dauphin in the north, the tide began to turn. Joan of Arc, afterward called the “Maid of Orleans,” saved the city, conducted the Dauphin to Reims, the ancient coronation city of the French kings, and had him crowned with the usual ceremonies. This act established him in the eyes of the nation as the lawful king, and revived the patriotism of the French. To offset the moral effect of this coronation, the English brought young Henry VI to Paris and had him crowned there by an English cardinal. But it was to no avail. Their hold on northern France was waning. By 1453 they had lost every inch of French soil except Calais.

640. Joan of Arc, a simple country girl of seventeen years, presented herself in the camp of Charles VII and declared that she had been ordered by “ heavenly voices ” to relieve Orleans and conduct the king to Reims to be crowned. For six weeks she was subjected to a severe examination by learned divines and magistrates. Finally Charles VII admitted her to his presence. To try her once more he mingled in disguise among his courtiers, but she identified him at once and revealed to him a secret known only to himself. She was given charge of a small army. In full view of the besiegers she led a convoy of supplies into Orleans and then headed a number of sorties, so vigorous that within eight days the English withdrew. Through a country swarming with English and Burgundian forces and studded with hostile castles and fortresses she led Charles VII to Reims where he was crowned according to the traditional rite. Now that her mission was fulfilled, she insisted that she must return to her humble home and occupation. But she was prevailed upon to remain. The following year she fell into the hands of the Burgundians, who sold her to the English for 10,000 francs.

ST. JOAN OF ARC A statue in the Place Saint-Augustin, Paris.
A statue in the Place Saint-Augustin, Paris.

Angered and mortified at their defeat by a young peasant woman, the English determined to represent her to the world as an ally of the devil. With flagrant injustice an ecclesiastical court tried her for witchcraft. King Charles VII, to whom she had given a kingdom, made not even the slightest attempt to save her. She was condemned as a sorceress and heretic and burned at the stake in the city of Rouen. She died with the heroism of a martyr, protesting her innocence and invoking the name of Jesus until she expired. Many of the English spectators exclaimed: “We are lost; we have murdered a saint.” Twenty years later, after the French had retaken Rouen, the process was reexamined by order of the Pope, and in the same city the decree of her rehabilitation was published with great solemnity and rejoicing. In 1909 she was beatified by Pope Pius X, and Benedict XV in 1919 concluded the process of her canonization.

Saint Joan of Arc was one of the most remarkable personages of history. This peasant girl of little more than high-school age was an accomplished army leader and sat in the war councils of France. When only nineteen she testified to the supernatural character of her mission by a martyr’s death and became the glory and pride of her nation and of the entire Christian world. Her canonization called forth expressions of enthusiasm, not only among the patriots of Catholic France, but even among the descendants, Catholic and non-Catholic, of the English against whom she fought and who brought her to death.

641. France after the Hundred Years’ War. — After suffering vast destruction of life and property, after terrible devastations caused by the foe and by civil war (there were more troubles in France during this time than the frightful Jacquerie (§ 631), France came out victorious, with her boundaries reaching everywhere to the coast of the Atlantic, with a new patriotism binding her people together, and with her kings more absolute than ever. Charles VII, in spite of his detestable desertion of St. Joan of Arc, proved to be a great king. He restored order with a firm hand. Bands of “free lances” (mercenary soldiers) had been living on the country after being dismissed by the warring parties. They had earned the name of “flayers,” from their method of torture to discover valuables. These hordes were now driven away. France is blessed with a fertile soil and other natural resources, and if well governed, can easily return from the effects of dire calamities to prosperity and affluence.

The king kept part of the soldiers under arms after the war. A train of artillery enabled him to batter the castles of rebellious noblemen about their ears. He also continued to raise taxes by his own authority, which he had done during the war of necessity. So the Estates General (§ 545) lost all chance to become a real power and to form a check upon the unlimited power of the monarch. Under Louis XI (1461-1483) the feudal nobles made a last desperate but futile attempt to recover their influence. Feudalism ceased to be a political danger. And since the Estates General, if summoned at all, were of no consequence, the King of France was more nearly absolute than any other ruler in Europe.

The kings of France also acquired, gradually and in the course of several centuries, various fiefs which were parts of the Kingdom of Burgundy. The connection with the Empire, to which this kingdom belonged, had become merely nominal, and the emperors were not powerful enough to resist the encroachments of the French. (See § 649 ff.) This extended the boundaries of France to the Alps.


642. Rival Claims to the Throne. — In 1422 Henry VI became king, while less than a year old. His long minority gave time for factions to grow among the nobles. When he was old enough to assume the government, he proved too weak and gentle to restore order. The misrule of the great lords caused wide discontent, especially among the rising towns, whose industries called for settled government. Encouraged by this discontent, the Duke of York came forward to claim the crown.

Table showing the succession of English sovereigns after Edward III to Richard III
Table showing the succession of English sovereigns after Edward III to Richard III

The table on the previous page shows the succession of English sovereigns after Edward III, and will at the same time make clear the claims which each family had to the throne. This table begins where the table in § 536 left off.

The table shows that without doubt Edward the Black Prince and his son had the first claim to the throne. Then followed in order Lionel, John, Edmund. Henry IV, who dislodged Richard II, had to forge a false pedigree to establish a better right than that of Richard II. In the course of time the claim of Lionel went to the Duke of York, by the marriage of Richard with Lionel’s great-granddaughter. This claim was a better one than that of the Lancaster kings. But it must not be forgotten that the crown of England was chiefly won by election, and that, after all, the Lancastrian king, Henry VI, was in possession of the royal throne. Thus ensued a civil war which lasted thirty years.

643. The Wars of the Roses, so called because the Lancastrians had as their coat-of-arms a red rose, and the Yorkists a white rose, was one of the bloodiest in English history. A victory, especially on the side of the Yorkists, was followed by a regular carnage, not only on the battlefield, but also in the prisons and on the scaffold. The cities generally were for the Yorkists, and the feudal aristocracy for Lancaster. Poor gentle Henry VI was deposed, kept in the Tower for years, and after another abortive attempt to regain the crown, done away with in a mysterious manner. Edward IV ascended the throne, a selfish and rather careless despot. His young son Edward V was never crowned. His uncle Richard, it is believed, murdered him to succeed him as Richard III. After three years of misrule this atrocious tyrant fell in battle against Henry Tudor, a distant relative of the Lancastrians, who married the sister of young Edward V. With Henry VII began the royal line of the Tudors, which was to furnish the English rulers until 1603.

644. RESULTS OF THE WARS OF THE ROSES. — The losses in the long civil war had fallen mainly on the feudal classes. The old nobility was almost swept away in battle or by the headsman’s ax. The new kings created new nobles (but kept them dependent on the crown), and set to work skillfully to crush the scant remains of feudal independence. For instance, a law of Henry VII wisely forbade nobles to maintain armed bands of retainers, whose presence always had been a source of disorder and a threat to peace.

A few of the surviving old nobles at first disregarded this law. On a visit to one of these, — the great Earl of Oxford, — the king found an array of such armed retainers drawn up to salute him. Oxford had been one of Henry’s earliest supporters for the throne; but now Henry frowned darkly: “I thank you for your good hospitality, Sir Earl; but I cannot have my laws broken in my sight.” And Oxford was called before the king’s court and ruined by a fine of £15,000, — some half million dollars in the values of to-day.

The first evident result of this crushing of feudalism was a general loss of liberty. Without great nobles for leaders, the towns and the country gentry were not yet strong enough to challenge the royal power. So Parliament lost authority. During the wars, it had not been possible to hold true parliaments; and when war was over, the kings had been so enriched by confiscations of the property of opposing nobles that they did not need new taxes in ordinary times, and so could get along without calling parliaments.

Another new device helped the monarch to maintain this superiority. During these wars the king had had to depend on free-will gifts (benevolences) from men of wealth in his party. After the war, Edward IV continued to ask benevolences from leading men as he met them in traveling through the kingdom. Richard III had tried to secure popular favor by promising to surrender this evil custom; but he soon practiced it in a more extortionate form than ever. Henry VII reduced it to a system of regular supply. He asked, no longer merely in person, but by letter. His minister, Morton, sent out demands to rich men over all England. To some he said that their luxurious manner of living showed that they were easily able to supply their king; to others, that their economy of life proved that they must have saved wherewith to aid their sovereign’s necessities. Thus every man of consequence in the realm found himself impaled, it was said, on one prong or the other of “Morton’s Fork.” (Perhaps the most important point of this story is that it reminds us of the recent introduction of forks (two-pronged instruments) at the table. They had come into use in Italy a little earlier.)

645. Thus England entered the sixteenth century under the Tudor kings with a “new monarchy.” Henry VII and his son Henry VIII were more nearly absolute than any preceding English kings. Still they were shrewd enough to cloak their power under the old constitutional forms, and so did not challenge popular opposition. They called Parliament rarely, — and only to use it as a tool. But these occasional meetings, and the way in which the kings seemed to rule through Parliament, saved the forms of constitutional government. This was a mighty service. At a later time, life was again breathed into those forms. Then it became plain that, in crushing the feudal forces, the new monarchy had paved the way for a parliamentary government more complete and valuable than men had dreamed of in earlier times.


646. English Ascendency. — In 1171 Henry II went to Ireland and took possession of it as “Lord of Ireland” (§ 523). His dominion consisted principally of the “English Pale,” a district varying in extent, with Dublin as its center and capital. The English colonists lived under English law, which did not protect the Irish in any way. Though many of the English noblemen lived on good terms with the natives, the latter on the whole were treated with brutal indignity. John Lackland (§ 527), who was sent over by his father Henry II when a young man, offended even the earlier English colonists by his utter neglect. He came a second time as king, and accomplished some good for the English settlers by regulating the courts of justice. The natives, the mere Irish, or Irish enemies, were no better off for his coming. Nor did a similar visit of Richard II (§ 636) produce any different results.

On one occasion the Irish sent a “remonstrance” to Pope John XXII in which they describe their sufferings. Any Englishman, they say, may prosecute an Irishman for an injury, but no Irishman can prosecute an Englishman. If an Englishman kills an Irishman, there is no penalty for the murderer. Moreover, “Irishmen are excluded from monastic institutions governed by Englishmen.”

647. Edward Bruce. — When Robert Bruce, a scion of the Celtic family of the Bruces, rose successfully in Scotland against the English (§ 530), a large Irish party invited his brother Edward to come to Ireland and assume the royal dignity. There was no lack of bravery in Edward Bruce’s Scotch and Irish warriors. But in spite of all successes, dissensions among the chiefs brought about the complete failure of the projects. For three years this war wrought great confusion, devastation, and misery among the native population. But it also shook the English government of Ireland to its very foundations.

“Both the Irish and the English lords became more independent and consequently more tyrannical. So general, so needless, and well-nigh so insane had been the destruction of property, that vast numbers of people lost everything and sank into helpless poverty.”

648. Irish Gains. — One of the greatest mistakes, if not the greatest, made by the English was the contempt in which they held the descendants of their own first settlers. All offices of the Pale were given to English by birth. Those Englishmen who were born in Ireland were looked down upon as degenerate English. These English by blood mixed more and more with the natives, intermarried with them, and adopted not only their language but even their dress and customs. The “Statute of Kilkenny” threatened this practice with the severest penalties, but to no purpose. The fusion of the races went on in spite of the law. “As generations rolled by, the descendants of English immigrants became quite incorporated with the natives and indistinguishable from them in everything except their family names. This was especially the case with the great and powerful family the Fitzgeralds.” Many of these Anglo-Irish are said to have become more Irish than the Irish themselves.

The Black Rent. — During the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses the hold of England upon Ireland grew weaker year by year. The colonists felt themselves so much at the mercy of the natives that they concluded agreements with certain Irish clans to pay a fixed yearly sum for protection against further molestations. This was the Black Rent. It became very common and formed a regular source of revenue for many Irish chiefs.

The greatest Irish hero of this period was Art MacMurrough Kavanagh, a descendant of the archtraitor Dermot MacMurrough (§ 523). When eighteen years old he was chosen provincial king of Leinster, and immediately began his career as defender of the province. By a better knowledge of the country, and by bravery and superior generalship, he kept even the mighty host of Richard II at bay. For nearly half a century he preserved his independence just beside the Pale, in spite of every effort to bring him to submission. He died in 1417, — the most renowned Irish chief since Brian Born (§ 451, 2).