Archive for the ‘John of Gaunt’ Tag

Revolutionary Violence, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1349-1452: Part One   Leave a comment

Part One: Emperors, Flagellants and Lollards

008

Central-Eastern Europe in 1382 showing the Ottoman Advance

By the middle of the fourteenth century, quite apart from the Ottoman threat in the Byzantine Empire, the rest of Europe was in a period of crisis. The Black Death, an outbreak of bubonic plague which devastated Europe from 1346 to 1353, killing at least twenty million out of a population of about eighty million. Further outbreaks later in the century prevented new population growth. This helped to exacerbate social and economic tensions: the socio-economic system of the “High Middle Ages” broke down, helping to cause a wave of both rural and urban disorder. There was a sense of crisis in the Church, too: the transfer of the papacy to Avignon (1305-77) and the Great Schism (1378-1417) in western Christendom between areas owing allegiance to rival popes in Rome and Avignon challenged patterns of authority and obedience, contributing to a sense of fragmentation.

005

Above: The courtyard of the papal palace at Avignon,

built during the ‘Avignon Captivity’ of the popes.

In the course of the fourteenth century all the eschatological hopes which the medieval masses had ever managed to squeeze out of the early Christian apocalyptic prophecies became concentrated in Germany on the future resurrection of Frederick II. Thirty-four years after his death, the Holy Roman Emperor underwent a resurrection very similar to that which had once befallen Baldwin, Count of Flanders and, briefly, Byzantine Emperor. Under the year 1284, a chronicler wrote of a former hermit near Worms who, claiming to be the Emperor, had been escorted into Lübeck amidst great popular enthusiasm. By then, Frederick had taken his place in the line of King Arthur, Charlemagne and Baldwin as a Sleeping Emperor who would one day return as saviour, this time of the German people. The fake Frederick gained some support among the princes who wanted to embarrass Rudolf, the first Habsburg who had been elected German king in 1273. But he was eventually burnt at the stake in the town of Wetzlar.

But the execution served only to increase the reputation of the Emperor as a superhuman and immortal being. It was reported that amongst the ashes at the stake no bones had been found, but only a little bean, which people at once concluded must mean that the Emperor had been rescued from the flames by divine providence, that he was still alive, and that he must one day return. This conviction persisted for generation after generation, so that in the middle of the fourteenth century it was still being claimed that Frederick must return, for such was God’s unalterable decree. It was also claimed that Prester John, the fabulous oriental monarch, had provided the Emperor with an asbestos robe, a magic ring which enabled him to disappear and a magic drink which kept him forever young. The Emperor would often appear to peasants in the guise of a pilgrim, confiding in them that the time would yet come when he would take his rightful place at the head of the Empire. One chronicler recorded how,

In all countries a hard time sets in. A feud flares up between the two heads of Christendom, a fierce struggle begins. Many a mother must mourn her child, men and women alike must suffer. Rapine and arson go hand in hand, everyone is at everyone else’s throat, everyone harms everyone else in his person and his belongings, there is nobody but has cause to lament. But when suffering has reached such a pitch that no-one can allay it, then there appears by God’s will the Emperor Frederick, so noble and so gentle… Full of courage, men and women at once stream together for the journey overseas. The Kingdom of God is promised to them. They come in crowds, each hurrying ahead of the other… peace reigns in all the land, fortresses threaten no longer, there is no need to fear force any more. Nobody opposes the crusade to the withered tree. When the Emperor hangs his shield upon it, the tree puts forth leaf and blossom. The Holy Sepulcre is freed, from now on no sword need be drawn on its behalf. The noble Emperor restores the same law for all men… All heathen realms do homage to the Emperor. He overthrows the power of the Jews, though not by force of arms; their might is broken for ever and they submit without a struggle. Of the domination of the clergy almost nothing remains. The high-born prince dissolves the monasteries altogether, he gives the nuns to be wedded; I tell you, they must grow wine and corn for us!

007

By the middle of the fourteenth century, Germany had become what it was to remain down to the sixteenth century; a mass of warring principalities, a perpetual chaos in the midst of which the Emperor was altogether helpless. At the same time, the towns of southern and central Germany had replaced the towns of the Low Countries as the main centres of mercantile capitalism north of the Alps, and the social conflicts within them had reached a fierce intensity. While the prosperous guilds fought the patricians and one another, amongst the poor there smouldered a deadly hatred of all the rich. One chronicler from Magdeburg warned the well-to-do burghers that…

… one must not let the common people have their way too much, as has been done of late. They should be kept firmly under control; for there is an old hatred between rich and poor. The poor hate everyone with any possessions and are more ready to harm the rich than the rich are to harm the poor.

The point of view of the poor now found in German literature an expression as violent as it had found a century earlier in French. The poet Suchenwirt, for instance, described how hungry men, leaving their pale and emaciated wives and children in their hovels, crowd together in the narrow streets, armed with improvised weapons and full of desperate courage:

The coffers of the rich are full, those of the poor are empty. The poor man’s belly is hollow… Hack down the rich man’s door! We’re going to dine with him. It’s better to be cut down, all of us, than die of hunger, we’d rather risk our lives bravely than perish in this way…

It was to be expected that in such a society the future Frederick would take on ever more clearly the aspect of the great social revolutionary, the Messiah and the poor. In 1348, the prophecies of the Swabian preachers of a century before recurred in a still more emphatic form in the popular expectations noted by the monk John of Winterthur:

As soon as he has risen from the dead and stands once more at the height of his power, he will marry poor women and maidens to rich men, and ‘vice versa’… He will see to it that everything that has been stolen from minors and orphans and widows is returned to them, and that full justice is done to everyone… he will persecute the clergy so fiercely that if they have no other means of hiding their tonsures they will cover them with cow-dung…

In his text, John of Winterthur disassociated himself from these disturbing beliefs. It was, he remarked, sheer madness to suppose that the Emperor-heretic could ever return; it was contrary to the Catholic faith that a man who had been burnt at the stake could ever again wield sovereign power. The ‘dogma’ of the Second Coming of Frederick was indeed regarded as a dangerous heresy. As another chronicler wrote in 1434,

From the Emperor Frederick, the heretic, a new heresy arose which some Christians still hold to in secret; they believe absolutely that the Emperor Frederick is still alive and will remain alive until the end of the world, and that there has been and shall be no proper Emperor but he… The Devil invented this folly, so as to mislead these heretics and certain simple folk…

How seriously the clergy took this heresy and how alert they were to detect it is shown by the curious story of a Greek philosopher who ventured to divulge in Rome the conviction which he had derived from a long study of the Greek Sibylline, which was that the Last Emperor would shortly be converting all people to Christianity. In this, as in other Byzantine prophecies, the coming of the Last Emperor in no way implied a massacre of the Jews, the clergy or the rich, but this was so inconceivable to the ecclesiastical authorities in Rome that they imprisoned the Greek and confiscated his belongings.

This period from the mid-fourteenth to the mid-fifteenth century witnessed a considerable decline in the authority of the papacy. At the same time, there was a rise in various dissident religious movements. One such movement which was particularly bizarre was that of the Flagellants, with their practice of whipping themselves. There were other lesser groups which fell outside the lines of orthodoxy, for example, the Brothers of the Free Spirit. 

The two most troublesome movements for wholesale reform from within the Church were those initiated by John Wyclif in England and Jan Hus in Bohemia. They went as far as to attack the very foundations of the medieval hierarchy, including the papacy. However, they did so still, mostly, by using the language of the Church, Latin. The attacks on the Church came not only in the sophisticated writings of theologians, however, but more and more in the vernacular languages. Much of the literature in these languages, written in the later medieval centuries, reveals the popular discontent with the condition of the church and the papacy. Examples occur in the anti-clerical attacks in the writings of Boccaccio, as well as in the condemnation of church wealth by the English poet Langland. His compatriot Geoffrey Chaucer also shows no love for the materialism of the church in fourteenth-century England. Everywhere more and more men began to question the basic tenets of the church.

001 (2)

The revolutionary flagellant movement of the mid-fourteenth century also spread to most areas of the Low Countries and all over Germany, and ended as a militant and bloodthirsty pursuit of the Millennium. As it turned into a messianic mass movement, its behaviour came to resemble that of its forerunner, the People’s Crusades. The German flagellants, in particular, ended as uncompromising enemies of the Church who not only condemned the clergy but utterly repudiated the clergy’s claim to supernatural authority. They denied that the sacrament of the Eucharist had any meaning, and when the host was elevated they refused to show it reverence. They interrupted church services, setting themselves above not only the clergy but also the Pope. They argued that while clerics could only point to the Bible and to tradition as sources of authority, they themselves had been taught directly by the Holy Spirit which had sent them out across the world. They refused to accept criticism from any cleric, but like the ‘Master of Hungary’, they declared that any priest who contradicted them should be dragged from his pulpit and burnt at the stake. At times, the flagellants would urge the populace on to stone the clergy. A French chronicler wrote that the movement aimed at utterly destroying the Church, expropriating its wealth and killing all the clergy.

As usual, the Jews suffered along with the clergy, and on a far greater scale. Following the massacres of the First Crusade (1096-99), the Jews were banished from England in 1290, from France in 1306, 1322 and finally in 1394. Increasingly, the Jews were given the choice of accepting Christianity, banishment or massacre. In the great massacre of European Jewry which accompanied the Black Death, the greatest before the twentieth century, the flagellants played important roles. The first killings were carried out spontaneously by a populace convinced that the Jews had caused the plague by poisoning the wells. they had come to an end by March 1349, perhaps because by that time people had recognised that among the Jews there were just as many victims of the plague as there were among Christians and that neither were the areas spared where all the Jews had been killed. Four months later the second wave of massacres was launched by the propaganda of the flagellants. Wherever the authorities had so far protected the Jews, these hordes now demanded their massacre. When, in July 1349, flagellants entered Frankfurt, they rushed straight to the Jewish quarter, where the townsfolk joined them in exterminating the whole community. The town authorities were so perturbed by the incident that they drove the penitents from the town and reinforced the gates to prevent their return.

001

A month later massacres took place simultaneously at Mainz and Cologne. During a flagellant ceremony at Mainz, the crowd of spectators suddenly ran amok and fell upon the Jews, with the result that the largest Jewish community in Germany was annihilated. At Cologne, a flagellant band which had for some time been encamped outside the city entered its gates and collected a great crowd of ‘those who had nothing to lose.’ They ignored the town councillors and the rich burghers and attacked the Jews, killing many of them. In Brussels too it was the combination of the rumours of well-poisoning and the role of the flagellants which launched the massacre of the whole community of six hundred Jews, despite the efforts of the Duke of Brabant to stop the slaughter. Through large areas of the Low Countries the flagellants, aided by the poor, burnt and drowned all the Jews they could find because they thought to please God in that way.

The sources are few and it is impossible to say how many massacres were led or instigated by the flagellants during the second half of 1349, but they must have been numerous. The Jews themselves came to regard the flagellants as their worst enemies. The Pope gave as one of his chief complaints against them that…

… most of them or their followers, beneath an appearance of piety, set their hands to cruel and impious works, shedding the blood of the Jews, whom Christian piety accepts and sustains…

By the time the flagellants had finished their ‘works’, which the panic of 1348 had begun, there were very few Jews left in Germany or the Low Countries. The 1348-49 massacres completed the deterioration in the position of European Jewry which had begun in 1096. Throughout the remainder of the Middle Ages the Jewish communities in Germany remained small, poor and, of course, condemned to the segregation of the ghetto. In Spain, the massacres of 1391 led many Marranos to accept Christianity, though often only nominally. The Inquisition investigated with its horrors the genuineness of their faith.

006

Above: An illustration of the Eve of Passover service at a Jewish synagogue in

fourteenth-century Spain.

It was in the turbulent years around 1380 that the new social myth of a ‘Golden Age’ came into being in Europe. People ceased to think of a society without distinctions of status as being irrecoverably lost in the dim and distant mists of past time and began to think of it instead as preordained for the future, even the near or immediate future. Perhaps it first took place in the towns of Flanders and northern France, which had been swept up throughout the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century in waves of insurrectionary violence. Yet when we examine the chronicles dealing with the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the preaching attributed to John Ball, the myth is found, unmistakably, bubbling away just below the surface. In a celebrated passage, Froissart gives us what is supposed to be a typical sermon of the leader:

And if we are all descended from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve, how can the lords say or prove that they are more lords than we are, save that they make us dig and till the ground so that they can squander what we produce? They are clad in velvet and satin, set off with squirrel fur, while we are dressed in poor cloth. They have wines and spices and fine bread, and we have only rye and spoilt flour and straw, and only water to drink. They have beautiful residences and manors, while we have the trouble and the work, always in the fields under rain and snow. But it is from us and our labour that everything comes with which they maintain their pomp.

For this unequal state of affairs, the preacher prescribes a drastic remedy:

Good folk, things cannot go well in England nor ever shall until all things are in common and there is neither villein nor noble, but all of us are of one condition

003

The villeins’ determination to be free men was the main cause of the the revolt. Since the twelfth century they had been able to gain their freedom by paying money to the lord instead of giving personal service. In some counties, like Suffolk, perhaps as many as half the peasants were free men by the mid-fourteenth century. The landlords, sitting in Parliament had agreed to the Statute of Labourers in 1351, reducing wages which had increased since the Black Death had wiped out a third of the population between 1348 and 1349, which in turn had led to a great shortage of labour. As both landlords and labourers broke the new law, however, it was difficult to force wages down, so the landlords began to refuse to make more villeins in order to ‘tie’ more of the peasants to their land. The landlords also began to let more of their land to their tenants, increasing the money rents for it. In some places they also found it more profitable to change arable land into sheep pasture, requiring fewer labourers and producing greater profits from the sale of wool. Many peasants were forced to give up their land and became labourers.

Peasant risings also broke out in France, but resulted in few changes to the feudal system, since most of them were local in character, based on abuses of the system by landlords. The Revolt in England was regional in character, but national in focus with the aim of radical reform of the system. In fact, by the middle of the fifteenth century in England, villeinage was fast disappearing in England as landlords were ready to exchange service for a payment and set the villeins free. Nevertheless, the immediate cause or catalyst of the 1381 Revolt was the imposition of an unfair tax, the poll tax, which resulted from the mismanagement of the wars with France. The Revolt was put down with great severity, and the peasants failed to get any of their demands. When the rebels had dispersed, Ball was taken prisoner at Coventry, given a trial in which, unlike most, he was permitted to speak. He was hanged, drawn and quartered at St Alban’s in the presence of King Richard II on 15 July 1381. His head was displayed stuck on a pike on London Bridge, and the quarters of his body were displayed in four different towns. The English chronicler Thomas Walsingham, the monk of St Alban’s, also gave a report of the sermon which Ball is said to have preached to the rebel host at Blackheath on a text which has remained famous to this day and was already, then, a well-known proverb:

When Adam delved and Eve span,

Who was then the gentleman?

From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

John Ball encouraging Wat Tyler rebels from ca 1470 MS of Froissart Chronicles in BL.jpg

Above: Medieval drawing of John Ball preaching to the rebels at Blackheath.

According to Walsingham, Ball’s argument was that in the beginning all human beings had been created free and equal. It was evil men who, by unjust oppression, had first introduced serfdom, against the will of God. The common people could cast off the yoke they had borne so long and thereby win the freedom they had always yearned for. Therefore they should be of good heart and conduct themselves like the wise husbandman in the Scriptures who gathered the wheat into the barn, but uprooted and burnt the tares which had almost choked the good grain; for harvest-time had come. The tares were the great lords, the judges and the lawyers, all of whom must be exterminated, and so must everyone else who might be dangerous to the community in the future. Once they had been dealt with, all remaining men would enjoy equal freedom, rank and power.

Above: From William Morris’ Dream of John Ball (1888).

In more academic guise, this doctrine of the primal egalitarian State of Nature had been mooted by John Wyclif (1329-84), the Morning Star of the Reformation in his Latin treatise De civili dominio, which he composed in Oxford in 1374. He argued that it for the unrighteous to hold lordship was mere usurpation, contrary to the first principles of law and incompatible with the divine purpose; whereas the righteous man, who renounced lordship for the sake of obedience to Christ, obtained in return complete lordship over the whole universe, such as had not been enjoyed since our first parents and the Fall. Wyclif went on to produce his own variation on the theory of man’s original egalitarian state of grace:

Firstly, that all good things of God ought to be in common. The proof of this is as follows: Every man ought to be in a state of grace; if he in a state of grace he is lord of the world and all that it contains; therefore every man ought to be lord of the whole world. But, because of the multitudes of men, this will not happen unless they all hold all things in common: therefore all things ought to be in common. 

003

Of course, Wyclif never intended this theory to be applied in practice to secular society, himself adding that in practical life the righteous must acquiesce in inequalities and injustices and leave the unrighteous in possession of their wealth and power. If in his attacks on the wealth and worldliness of the clergy Wyclif was in deadly earnest, these comments of his on the communal ownership of all things were little more than an exercise in formal logic. Nevertheless, when abstracted from their scholastic context and stripped of their qualifying clauses those same comments appear to be socially radical. Wyclif was in a position to speak truth to power as John of Gaunt had invited him to serve at the court of Richard II. Wyclif offended the church by backing the right of the state to seize the property of corrupt clergymen. His views were condemned by the pope in 1377, but Wyclif’s influential friends protected him.Wyclif pushed his anti-clerical views further, and began to attack some of the central doctrines of the medieval church, including ‘transubstantiation’. He also claimed that since the church consisted of God’s chosen people, they did not need a priest to mediate for them.

However, it would be surprising if, among his ‘congregations’ at Oxford, there had been none who snatched at such radical social ideas and scattered them abroad, simplified into propaganda slogans. He attracted support by his energetic teaching and preaching. Wyclif was gradually deserted by his friends in high places and the church authorities forced him and his friends out of Oxford. In 1382, he went to live in Lutterworth in Leicestershire, where he died in 1384. Some of his followers had gone there with him and continued his mission after his death. It has been suggested that John Ball had been one of his poor itinerant priests, or ‘Lollards’, whom he had sent out to share the gospels in his newly translated text from Latin into English. By 1395 they had developed into an organised group, with their own ministers enjoying widespread popular support.

004

The Lollards stood for many of the ideas set out by Wyclif. In particular, they believed that the main task of a priest was to preach and that the Bible should be available to everyone in his own language. From the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Lollards were suppressed, particularly when their protest became linked with social and political unrest. But Lollardy continued to thrive in some parts of England, thus preparing the way for the spread of Lutheranism to England in the next century.

For the fifteenth century and the early years of the sixteenth in Germany, the myth of the future Frederick no longer has to be pieced together from occasional reports from hostile chroniclers. At this point, it emerges into full daylight, in the form of detailed manifestos. The earliest of these works, the Latin tract known as Gamaleon, probably produced either in 1409, tells of a future German Emperor who is to overthrow the French monarchy and the Papacy. When he has accomplished his mission France will be remembered no more, the Hungarians and Slavs will have been subjugated and reduced to complete dependence, Jewry will have been crushed forever; while the Germans will be exalted above all peoples. The Church of Rome will have been expropriated and all its clergy killed. In place of the Pope a German patriarch will preside from Mainz over a new church, but a church subordinate to the Emperor, the eagle from the eagle’s race, a new Frederick whose wings will stretch from sea to sea and to the very limits of the earth. Those will be the Last Days, followed by the Second Coming and the Judgement.

In about 1439 a far more influential work was produced, the so-called Reformation of Sigismund. Its origin lay in a Latin manifesto prepared by a priest called Frederick of Lantnaw for submission to the General Council of Basle, which had been struggling to achieve reform in the Church since 1431. It was far more than a translation of this manifesto into German, however. The tract deals with the reform of the Empire as fully as it does that of the Church. Its author was clearly familiar with the conditions of life in the towns of southern Germany and sets out his stall as the spokesman above all of the urban poor, not the skilled artisans in the guilds but the unorganised workers, the poorest and least privileged stratum of the urban population. The Reformation of Sigismund demands the suppression of the monopolistic guilds and the great trading companies. It advocates an egalitarian order in which wages, prices and taxes will be fixed to serve the interests of the poor. Wherever serfdom still survives it must be abolished and towns must allow former serfs to immigrate.

006

Portrait of Sigismund of Luxemburg, by Pisanello

The book is inspired almost throughout by an empirical rather than a millenarian approach. It ends, however, with a curious messianic prophecy which the author puts into the mouth of Emperor Sigismund. He had only recently died after being himself for some years a subject of messianic expectations. Sigismund had been the longest-reigning medieval monarch of Hungary (1387-1437) was named Holy Roman Emperor in 1433, an event which marked the establishment of the great central-European empire which existed, under Habsburg rule, until 1918. His son-in-law, Albert Habsburg, was the first of that name to sit on the Hungarian throne (1437-39). Even before he became Emperor, Sigismund played a major role in European political affairs since, in addition to his extensive Hungarian crown lands, which included Croatia, he also ruled over Germany (from 1411) and Bohemia (1419).

004

In 1396 Sigismund led the combined armies of Christendom, comprising a legion of knights from all over Europe, against the advancing Turks, who had taken advantage of the temporary helplessness of Hungary to extend their dominion to the banks of the Danube. This crusade, preached by Pope Boniface IX, was very popular in Hungary. The nobles flocked in the thousands to the royal standard and were reinforced by volunteers from nearly every part of Europe, the most important contingent being that of the French led by John the Fearless, son of Philip II, Duke of Burgundy. Sigismund set out with 90,000 men and a flotilla of 70 galleys. After capturing Vidin, he camped with his Hungarian armies before the fortress of Nicopolis. Sultan Bayezid I raised the siege of Constantinople and, at the head of 140,000 men, completely defeated the Christian forces in the Battle of Nicopolis fought between the 25 and 28 September 1396.

The disaster in Nicopolis angered several Hungarian lords, leading to instability in the kingdom. Deprived of his authority in Hungary, Sigismund then turned his attention to securing the succession in Germany and Bohemia, where his childless half-brother Wenceslaus IV recognised him as Vicar-General of the whole Empire. However, he was unable to support Wenceslaus when he was deposed in 1400, and Rupert of Germany, Elector Palatine, was elected German king in his stead. After the death of King Rupert in 1410, Sigismund – ignoring the claims of his half-brother Wenceslaus – was elected as successor by three of the electors on 10 September 1410, but he was opposed by his cousin Jobst of Moravia, who had been elected by four electors in a different election on 1 October. Jobst’s death 18 January 1411 removed this conflict and Sigismund was again elected as King of Germany on 21 July 1411. His coronation was deferred until 8 November 1414, when it took place at Aachen.

001

Right: The growth of Luxemburg power to 1387

As the King of Germany, he now took advantage of the difficulties of Antipope John XXIII to obtain a promise that a council should be called in Constance in 1414 to settle the Western Schism. He took a leading part in the deliberations of this assembly, and during the sittings made a journey to France, England and Burgundy in a vain attempt to secure the abdication of the three rival popes. The council finally ended in 1418, solving the Schism.

The Council created another problem for Sigismund, however, by having the Czech religious reformer, Jan Hus, burned at the stake for heresy in July 1415. This turned out to be of great consequence for Sigismund’s future career as it was an act which touched off the fifteen-year-long Hussite War.  It is thought that Sigismund’s sister, Anne of Bohemia (1366-94), who married Richard II of England, was instrumental in bringing the ideas of John Wycliffe to Bohemia, thus influencing Hus and his followers. The students of Prague had been going in great numbers to Oxford since the marriage between the two Angevin dynasties in 1382. Although Wyclif was forced to leave Oxford that same year and died in Lutterworth two years later, his teachings were still flourishing in the hands of his followers, the Lollards. Anne died of the plague in  1394, but the interest shown by Sigismund in English events persisted throughout his life.

(to be continued… )

 

‘He must conquer Wales, if he will have it…’: Glyn Dwr & the Mortimers in the Civil Wars in Wales & the Marches, 1398-1413.   Leave a comment

Part One: The Men and the Myths, 1398-1403

The Welsh Dynasties:

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, much of Wales was ruled by a succession of resolute Princes of Gwynedd, from the area around Snowdonia which the Anglo-Norman marcher lords had failed to penetrate. The princes strove to bring the whole of Wales under their banner, but they could only achieve this if the messy parochialism of separate territories could be sorted out by instilling in their rulers and sub-rulers the order of hierarchical allegiance demanded by the Anglo-Norman kings of the Welsh princes themselves. The Gwynedd dynasty was willing to pay this price so that, within Wales, they could exert the same feudal pyramid by referring to themselves as Princes of Wales. Through a clever combination of diplomacy and war they came close to achieving this, though not without upsetting other Welsh rulers and causing internecine strife. Wales might have emerged as a semi-feudal kingdom in a feudal Europe had it not been for the growing unease about an English kingdom which was undergoing the same process, combined with the deep mistrust felt by other Welsh princes and lords for the ‘modernising’ tendencies of the Gwynedd dynasty. When Llywelyn the Last was killed in 1282 at Cilmeri, near Builth Wells, far from his northern base, military initiatives designed to unify Wales disappeared for more than a century.

003

One major source of alarm in the century following Edward I’s establishment of an ‘iron ring’ of fortresses around Snowdonia was those Welshmen who took service with the enemies of the English kings. Outstanding among these was Owain ap Thomas ap Rhodri, a descendent of the Gwynedd dynasty, who from 1369 led a Welsh free company of mercenaries in the service of France. Owain Lawgoch,  of the Bloody Hand, based his claim on direct dynastic inheritance of the Llywelyns and announced the imminence of his arrival with a French fleet. He sailed from Harfleur on two occasions, and throughout the 1370s there were ripples of support for his name throughout north Wales. The English authorities took these threats seriously and sent one John Lambe to murder him in Mortagne-sur-Mer in 1378, paying him twenty pounds to do the deed. There were repeated security clampdowns in Wales itself, with a coastal watch, the manning of walls and the renewed exclusion of all Welshmen from any office of significance from 1385-6. In the Welsh poetry of the period there is a note of discord and dissatisfaction at the treatment of the Welsh gentry in their own country. Gruffydd Llwyd, for example, wrote a poem bemoaning the lack of honour accorded to Welshmen of merit of the old tradition. Few Welshmen were knighted and even his own patron, Owain Glyn Dwr, who to him seemed so worthy of such reward, had been slighted.

026 (2)

Where the idea of ‘the Return of Arthur’ could find an anchorage in political reality was the March, the borderland, among the Norman baronage which had long Welsh heritage. The Mortimer family could lay claim to such connections, since one of their number had married Gwladus, daughter of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, in the previous century, and in the second half of the fourteenth century Roger Mortimer, fourth Earl of March, had probably as good a dynastic claim as any to the Principality of Gwynedd. He became the focus of extravagant hopes among the Welsh gentry.The poet Iolo Goch, one of his tenants, wrote an ode of loyalty in which he addressed Mortimer as the inheritor of the Arthurian mantle. Here was the Hero Returned who would rescue the Welsh from their degradation. What made this all the more poignant was that Mortimer also had a good claim to the inheritance of Richard II. With the accession of Richard II, some of the Welsh officials, at least in north Wales, returned to favour. Prominent among his supporters were the five sons of Tudur ap Gronw who, from their base in Anglesey commanded an influential set of familial connections in north Wales. Gwilym and Rhys Tudor in particular were favoured by Richard, who was as popular in north Wales as he was in Cheshire. It was at this time that the renaissance of the Welsh language was beginning to meet with judicial resistance. The language was resurgent in the Vale of Glamorgan and the Welsh became town-dwellers, in Oswestry, Brecon, and Monmouth, among others. A chorus of complaint against them burst out not only from these towns, but from merchants on the English side of the March.  Nearly every Parliament between 1378 and 1400 demanded action against the impertinent Welsh peasants, and there was even an anti-Welsh riot at the University of Oxford in which the cry went up to ‘kill the Welsh dogs!’

With this reaction, by the end of the fourteenth century, the administration of Wales was returned solidly under the control of the English crown. Wales had been experiencing growing tensions during the last quarter of the fourteenth century. At a time of falling agricultural revenues, the great landlords had become increasingly rapacious, exacting heavy fines and subsidies from their tenants. Despite the popularity of Mortimer and Richard II with the Welsh, the English king, at least, did not reciprocate in his appointments. Between 1372 and 1400, of the sixteen bishops appointed in Wales, only one was Welsh.The Welsh clergy had become increasingly outraged at the exploitation of ecclesiastical revenues by English bishops who had been appointed to the Welsh sees. Racial tensions were also growing among the burgesses of ‘English’ boroughs and their Welsh neighbours, as can be seen in the granting of charters such as that received by the Mortimer borough of St Clears in 1393, guaranteeing that cases involving burgesses should only be heard by English burgesses and true Englishmen (to the west of St Clears, along the southern coast to Pembroke, Englishmen had settled in large numbers since the Norman Conquest of Wales). There was also a significant power vacuum at the head of Welsh society. In 1398, somewhat inexplicably, Richard II exiled the dukes of Norfolk and Hereford, who had engaged in a bitter personal dispute. The banishing of Hereford, better known as Henry Bolingbroke, was an action which ultimately sealed the king’s doom. The crackdown on the over-mighty magnates, coupled with the death of Roger Mortimer (VI), meant that most of the marcher lords had been removed. Richard II’s favourites who had been appointed to the vacant lands were incapable of exercising similar authority to that of the old marcher lords, a factor which was made worse by the division of Mortimer lands by the Crown following Bolingbroke’s coup of 1399.

019

The Mortimers had ruled the borderlands, the Marcher Lordships, virtually unopposed, and that was enough for the English to stomach. But Bolingbroke’s usurpation of Richard II, by which he became King Henry IV opened an era of instability in the succession in England, interwoven with the repeatedly renewed French wars, which thrust real power into the hands of the aristocracy, not least those in the March, where there were disturbances as factions moved against each other. When Henry IV made his son Prince of Wales, a French knight commented, but I think he must conquer Wales if he will have it… 

Resentment soon led to outright rebellion. As heavy communal levies were imposed, Lord Grey of Ruthin reported serious misgovernance and riot beginning in the north-eastern March, and demanded action throughout Wales, particularly against Welsh officials who were kinsmen of the troublemakers. By the spring and summer of 1400, the administration at Caernarfon was nervous. It claimed evidence of letters passing between the Welsh and the Scots which called for rebellion: men in Merioneth were stealing arms and horses; ‘reckless men’ of many areas were meeting to plot sedition. In Anglesey, certainly, the Tudors were planning a protest in their island to tap the widespread dismay of their cohort of cousins.

Who was Owain Glyn Dwr?

On his father’s side, Glyn Dwr was a member of the dynasty of northern Powys and, on his mother’s side, a descendent of the princes of Deheubarth in the south-west. The family had fought for Llewelyn ap Gruffydd in the last war of independence and regained its lands in north-east Wales through a calculated alliance with the Marcher lords of Chirk, Bromfield and Yale. In 1328 it abandoned Welsh law and secured its estate with the English feudal hierarchy. They were therefore rooted in the official Welsh aristocracy. Glyn Dwr’s grandmother was a member of the lesser aristocrat family of Lestrange.

Glyn Dwr himself held the lordships of Glyn Dyfrdwy and Cynllaith Owain near the Dee directly of the king by Welsh barony. He had an income of two hundred pounds a year and a fine, moated mansion at Sycharth with tiled and chimneyed roofs, a deerpark, heronry, fishpond and mill. He was a complete Marcher gentleman and had put in his term (possibly seven years) at the Inns of Court. He must have been knowledgeable in law and married the daughter of Sir David Hanmer, a distinguished lawyer from a cymricised Flintshire family, who had served under Edward III and Richard II. In 1386 Glyn Dwr appeared at the same court of chivalry, together with a throng of baronial youth. He had served in the French wars in the retinues of Henry of Lancaster and the Earl of Arundel. In the Scottish campaign of 1385, according to the poet, he had worn his scarlet flamingo feather and driven the enemy before him like goats, with a broken lance.

In the troubles of 1399-1400, however, Glyn Dwr ran up against a powerful neighbour in Reginald de Grey, lord of Ruthin, an intimate of the new king, Henry IV. They quarreled over common land which de Grey had stolen. Glyn Dwr lost his dispute, and could not get justice from either king or parliament; Welshmen were seen as suspect, due to their support of Richard II – What care we for these barefoot rascals? A proud man, over forty and grey-haired in service, Glyn Dwr was subjected to malicious insults and the conflict turned violent. His response was a traditional one for a Marcher lord – he would avenge his honour with his sword. But he was more than a Marcher.

He was one of the living representatives of the old royal houses of Wales, Powys, an heir to Cadwaladr the Blessed, in a Wales strewn with the rubble of such dynasties. The bards had already reminded him of this heritage, which, in any case, he was himself steeped in. His correspondence suggests that an effort was made to contact the disaffected elsewhere, and when he raised his standard outside Ruthin on 16 September 1400, his followers at once proclaimed him Prince of Wales at his manor of Glyn Dyfrdwy. This was the signal for spontaneous outbreaks in north Wales, which within a matter of weeks had devastated town like Oswestry and engulfed the whole region of north-east Wales. The response to this call was extraordinary and may have startled even Glyn Dwr himself. Supported by the Hanmers and other Norman-Welsh Marchers, together with the Dean of St Asaph, he attacked Ruthin with several hundred men and went on to ravage every town in north-east Wales: Denbigh, Rhuddlan, Flint, Hawarden, Holt, and Welshpool. Rhys and Gwilym Tudor raised a rebellion in Anglesey. Hundreds of people rushed to join and churches followed towns into flame. The lesser clergy in north Wales joined promptly, as did the Cistercians throughout Wales. In Conwy, Strata Florida, Whitland, Llantarnam they rallied to the cause. In the latter of these, the Abbot, John ap Hywel, joined Glyn Dwr’s army as its chaplain and went on to fall in battle. The Franciscans also joined the cause; the friars at Llanfaes were ejected by Henry IV’s forces and their house was ravaged. There was an immediate response from Oxford, too, where Welsh scholars at once dropped their books and picked up arms, flocking home. They entered into ‘treasonous correspondence’ and met to plot the destruction of the kingdom and the English language. There were rumours that Welsh labourers in England were downing tools and heading for home. The English Parliament at once rushed to place anti-Welsh legislation on the books. As Edward I had done more than a century before, they singled out the bards of Wales in particular.

The English ‘marchers’ were utterly unable to cope with the rebellion. The sheer scale and ferocity of the Welsh attacks overwhelmed both the Principality and the March. Henry IV marched a big army in a great arc right across north Wales, burning and looting without mercy. He left the pacification to Henry Hotspur who offered general pardons , except to the ringleaders, in order to soften the heavy communal fines which were to follow. Whole populations scrambled to make peace. Over the winter of 1400-01, Glyn Dwr took to the hills with just seven men. In the Spring, however, the Tudors snatched control of Conwy Castle by a clever trick. The capture of the castle on Good Friday 1401, while the garrison was at prayers, was an act of great bravado which captured the imaginations of many disaffected Welshmen. It was a major propaganda coup, humiliating the English and inspiring the Welsh. Owain’s little band moved quickly into the centre and the south of Wales and once more hundreds ran to join the rebel army at Mynydd Hyddgen in the Pumlumon range, where they won a decisive victory. Carmarthenshire also erupted into revolt and so many rushed to arms that the government panicked that there might be an invasion of England. Another royal army was sent to trudge in futility through south Wales, the Welsh guerilla forces melting into the countryside before it, attacking its baggage trains as it retreated. Meanwhile, a powerful onslaught on Caernarfon drove the King’s Council to consider peace terms.

The key men were coming over to Glyn Dwr’s side, the gentry. There also seems to have been a network of supporters even in the towns. Glyn Dwr’s letters went to men such as Henry Dwnn of Kidwelly, who had served under John of Gaunt in France in 1371-2 and Richard II in Ireland in 1393-4. Dwnn had already had his estates confiscated once, in 1389. His retinue of two hundred men were said to terrorise the district. Many more local magnates like him joined Glyn Dwr’s cause. It was during 1401 that Owain became fully aware of his growing power to attract such support from local populations across Wales. He also addressed letters to the Irish, in Latin, and to the Scots, in French, reminding them of the prophecy that Wales would not be freed without their assistance and urged them to send support. In his letters to south Wales he declared himself as the divinely-appointed liberator who would deliver the Welsh from their oppressors. By the end of 1401 the revolt had spread across western and central Wales, though the English government still controlled large areas in the marches, and the southern lordships were as yet untouched.

Legendary Battles and Sieges:

In June 1401, Glyn Dwr had defeated an English Army at the Battle of Hyddgen near Brecon, and the next June (1402), he personally led a force into mid Wales. To combat this, Sir Edmund Mortimer, uncle of the ten-year old earl, also Edmund, assembled an army of Herefordshire men at Ludlow, later joined by a contingent from Maelienydd. The Mortimer forces met Glyn Dwr in open battle on 22 June 1402 at Bryn Glas near Pilleth, Hay-on-Wye. Many English knights were eager to engage the Welsh forces in open battle for the first time. Although Owain’s men had waged successful guerilla campaigns, they had only once faced the English in open conflict, at Hyddgen. The odds were stacked against them and the English were expecting to slaughter the upstarts. There were about 2,500 English troops and less than a thousand Welshmen. The Welsh wore light armour but were armed with a variety of deadly hand-to-hand combat weapons adapted from farmyard tools. The English knights had polished armour-plate, battle-axes and swords. The Welsh archers, however, had the strategic advantage of the high ground at the top of a steep hill, while the English position down in the valley was hampered by marshland, through which they had had to march in order to take it up. When they saw the Welsh archers taking up their position on the brow of the hill, the English knights decided to charge up it to do battle. They were supposed to be given cover by the long bowmen whom they had recruited from Maelienydd. At a crucial moment in the battle, this contingent lowered their bows, turned around, and fired upon the English infantry below them. Under attack from all sides and immobile in their heavy armour, they provided easy prey for the Welsh peasant foot soldiers, especially once they were down off their horses.  By the end of the battle, the English had suffered a heavy defeat, losing more than a thousand men compared with Owain’s losses of just two hundred. It was a total and terrifying slaughter after which the land was said to be a sea of mud and blood. Perhaps the most important result, however, was that Sir Edmund Mortimer was captured and taken to Snowdonia by Glyn Dwr.

Following the disaster at Bryn Glas, the Percies and other relations of the Mortimers began to raise money for the ransom of Sir Edmund, but the king, already suspecting collusion between Mortimer and Glyn Dwr, forbade the payment of the ransom, and instead ordered the confiscation of Sir Edmund’s plate and jewels. Partly as a result of this, Edmund decided to make common cause with his captor, marrying Owain’s daughter, Catherine, at the end of November, then ordering his people to rally to Glyn Dwr. This may have been a ploy to obtain a quicker release, or might have been motivated by the deeper dynastic values and issues already referred to. The marriage echoed that of Ralph (II) Mortimer to Gwladus Ddu, the daughter of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth in 1228, and was popular with the Mortimer ‘clan’, which had always been attracted by Cymric lore in relation to the early British kings. The family genealogy and chronicle is preceded by a ‘Brut’, a chronicle of the ancient kings of Britain, drawn up some time after 1376 when John of Gaunt was attempting to secure the royal succession for his heirs. This was used as a means of harnessing legendary ancestry to the rival Mortimer claims. It is also significant that two of the three ‘Round Tables’, tournaments and entertainments with an Arthurian theme, were hosted by the Mortimers. The first, a great four-day event, took place at Kenilworth in 1279 and celebrated the knighting of the three sons of Roger (III) Mortimer.

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the death in 1398 of Roger (VI) Mortimer, who enjoyed a considerable degree of support in Shropshire and north Wales, meant that his six-year-old son Edmund was not only heir to the whole Mortimer empire in England and Wales, but was also regarded as heir to the throne. Bolingbroke’s coup of 1399 had dramatically changed this situation. Henry IV’s first Parliament recognised Bolingbroke’s son Henry as heir apparent, and the young Edmund, as a royal ward, was kept under close scrutiny, though treated with respect. Although the Mortimer estates were initially split up, in February 1400 they were taken into the hands of the steward and treasurer of the Great Council in order that their revenues could be used to defray the expenses of the royal household. Edmund and his brother Roger were allowed three hundred marks per year for their maintenance. So, when Sir Edmund, his uncle, decided to switch sides in the war of independence, the young earl’s position became an uncomfortable one, at least in political terms.

By December 1402 Sir Edmund had returned to Maelienydd proclaiming  that he had joined Owain to restore Richard II, if alive, or otherwise to place his ‘honoured nephew’, Edmund earl of March, on the throne. In the event of the success of this scheme, Owain’s claims to Wales would be respected. The men of Maelienydd were again called up to join the campaign, and they were soon joined by the earl of Northumberland and his son, Henry (‘Harry’) Hotspur, who had recently had their own rather complex quarrel with the king. Despite the death of Hotspur and a number of leading rebel nobles at the bloody engagement at Shrewsbury on 21 July 1403, Glyn Dwr continued to make headway in south Wales. His forces stormed the towns and liberated Abergavenny, Usk, Caerleon, Newport and Cardiff. In 1402-3 the whole of Wales was at war, and the English were attacked wherever they went. But to gain complete control of the country he had to overcome the biggest and toughest obstacles, the castles. Each castle was garrisoned to deal with local rebellions, equipped and supplied to withstand lengthy sieges. Owain’s men used a variety of ingenious methods to gain control of the castles. At Conwy, the Tudors had used a trick. At Dynefor they ‘sounded out’ the garrison by shouting out all the gruesome things they would inflict on the English if they did not surrender. At Caerphilly they formed a human pyramid to jump over the walls and open the gates. By the middle of 1403 Glyn Dwr had captured most of the castles and was in control of the country. Gwyn Williams (1985) distilled the essence of the war in Wales in the following graphic terms:

The twelve-year war of independence was, for the English, largely a matter of relieving their isolated castles. Expedition after expedition was beaten bootless back. Henry IV, beset by Welsh, Scots, French and rebellious barons, sent in army after army, some of them huge, all of them futile; he never really got to grips with it and the revolt largely wore itself out, in a small country blasted, burned and exhausted beyond the limit of endurance. For the Welsh, it was a Marcher rebellion and a peasants’ revolt which grew into a national guerilla war , its leader apparently flitting so swiftly and mysteriously from one storm centre to the next that in English eyes he grew to be an ogre credited with occult powers, a name to frighten children with. This probably reflects the operation of widely scattered guerilla bands operating in his name.

The sheer tenacity of the war of independence was startling. Few revolts in contemporary Europe lasted more than a few months and no previous Welsh uprising had lasted as long. This one raged for more than a full decade and didn’t really end for fifteen. While guerilla bands lurked and fought throughout the length and breadth of the country, Owain was able to put armies of ten thousand men into the field. Adam of Usk credited him with an irregular force of thirty thousand at the peak of the war. They maintained themselves partly by sheer pillage, while Owain used a combination of fire, sword and blackmail, with whole districts as well as rich men being held to ransom. For their part, the royal armies exacted a terrible vengeance in wholesale arson, looting and confiscations, even as retreating rebels scorched their own earth. Many a town and village was trapped in the grim grip of terror and counter-terror. In February 1404 the people in the hill country above Brecon agreed to submit to the king if he could defeat the rebels in their area; if not, they would remain loyal to Owain. In effect, as well as cause, this was a state of civil war. Most of the English in Wales were viewed as enemies, especially in the towns. Thomas Dyer of Carmarthen lost a thousand pounds in the rebellion. Many Welsh families had split allegiances. Robert, Abbot of Bardsey, declared for Glyn Dwr; his brother, Evan, was killed defending Caernarfon Castle for the king. Even in Owain’s own family, his cousin Hywel tried to murder him.

Yet the English campaigns of 1400 to 1403 were unable to exploit these divisions and did little to dent Owain’s military and diplomatic successes. For this was more than mere rebellion. It had serious international dimensions. During 1402-3 the revolt became enmeshed in baronial conspiracies in England which were to rally the powerful northern Percies against Henry and to cost Archbishop Scrope of York his life. The Civil War had spread to the North of England.

(to be continued…)

The Legacy of Tudor and Jacobean England: Part Two: Poets, Ports and Puritans.   Leave a comment

001
002

Above: pages from Spot the Style: A Mini Guide to architecture in Britain, by David Pearce. London: P Murray.

Below: Seckford Street in Woodbridge, Suffolk, named after the Tudor lawyer, parliamentarian and benefactor. In 1587 he decided to donate a large measure of his wealth to endowing ‘certain almshouses’ in the town. He died the same year, and his tomb can be seen in St.Mary’s Parish Church.

              DSC09854

Elizabethan and Jacobean England: The Languages of Anglicanism and Puritanism; East Anglia and New England

017As Anglicanism became established, parish churches continued to hear the celebration of the eucharist (holy communion) in the form set out in Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and readings from the translations of the Bible later consolidated in the Authorised Version of 1612. The repetition of prayers and readings, noble in expression, brought linguistic unity to England. The adoption by the Scottish Kirk of English translations of the Bible may have thwarted the separate development of Lallans (lowland Scots) and a different cultural tradition, which made the transition to the unity of the kingdoms much easier. Those devising the new services had a long tradition of devotional literature to draw on. Tyndale and Cranmer had a language ready for expression and translation of the complex Judaeo-Christian tradition  in new forms. This was due to the creation of English as a language of intellect and the higher emotions by authors of vernacular works by poets and writers who drew their themes and inspirations from shrines, pilgrimages, visions and the telling of legends of saints and Arthurian heroes.

Some of those writers were women, such as the turbulent visionary Margery Kempe, who wrote the first autobiography in English, and the gentle, reclusive Julian of Norwich. The poets and writers included, most notably, Geoffrey Chaucer, who set his greatest poem in the framework of a pilgrimage to Canterbury. William Langland’s Piers Ploughman arose from a vision on the Malvern Hills. Thomas Malory gave new life to the common British tradition in his Morte D’Arthur. The holy place that most fully commemorates the English literary tradition is Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, where the names of those buried among kings and knights make it a resting place of genius unrivalled in Europe. The only name missing is that of England’s national bard, William Shakespeare, but it is perhaps appropriate that he lies by the altar of his parish church, Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he was also baptised and grew up listening to the language of Cranmer’s English Bible and Prayer Book.

 

003Looking back on the achievements of Elizabeth’s reign, historians have referred to it as an age, one in which England survived national and international crises to be recognised as a centre of artistic splendour. During her reign and that of James I, a total period of seventy years, or one full lifespan, the English language achieved a richness and vitality of expression that even contemporaries marvelled at. However, contemporaries at the beginning of this period had recognised that their native tongue was barely ready, after centuries of Latin and French dominance, for serious literary and scholarly purposes. England, not even yet united with the Tudor homeland of Wales, was a small nation, just beginning to flex its international muscles. Its statesmen tended to indulge in hyperbole, like the poet, courtier and soldier, Sir Philip Sidney, who claimed that English hath it equally with any other tongue in the world. It was the confluence of three historical developments, at least two of which were common to much of Europe, and occurred earlier in many countries, the Renaissance and the Reformation, which really propelled England forward during these years. The third, most dynamic factor, was its emergence as the leading maritime power.

 

The Renaissance had different effects in each European country. In England it had coincided with a communications revolution following Caxton’s setting up of his printing press at Westminster. This revolution has only recently been surpassed by the present age of computer and internet technology. The printing press transformed society. Before 1500 there were only about thirty-five thousand printed books in Europe as a whole, mostly in Latin. Between 1500 and 1640, some twenty thousand items were printed in English alone, ranging from pamphlets and broadsheets to folios and Bibles. The result was to accelerate the education of the middling sort and even some of the lower orders of society, so that by 1600, it has been estimated, as much as half the population had some kind of minimal literacy, and a much higher proportion in the cities and towns. In a growing free market in the printed word, the demand for books in English outstripped the demand for the old classical media of the universities, and booksellers and printers were keen to meet this new market. Lexicographers were keen to introduce new words, like maturity, from Latin, as part of the necessary augmentation of our language.

001English could not escape the influence of the classical languages in the age of the Renaissance, as the revival of learning produced a new group of scholar-writers from Thomas More to Francis Bacon who devoted themselves to the cultivation of style in Latin. Although they wrote their scholarly works in Latin, when they wrote their letters in English, they embellished their prose with Latinate words. They ransacked the classical past for words like agile, capsule, absurdity, contradictory, exaggerate, indifference (Latin) and monopoly, paradox, catastrophe, lexicon, thermometer (Greek). The scientific revolution of the time also prompted new borrowings, such as atmosphere, pneumonia, skeleton. An encyclopedia would now be required to explain the idea of gravity. Vesalius’ transformation of anatomy meant that English would need descriptions like excrement and strenuous. In physics, the work of scientists like William Gilbert were introducing words such as external and chronology. There were also further borrowings from French, like bigot and detail. Besides some specific architectural words from Italian, and some bellicose Spanish words, there were also important nautical words from the Low Countries like smuggler and reef. Sailors also brought Low Dutch into English at this time, words which are sometimes falsely attributed to the Anglo-Saxons, like fokkinge, kunte and bugger.  These words are not what we would normally associate with the Renaissance, but they form part of the same desire to make English a communicative, everyday language with a broad vocabulary. Altogether, the Renaissance added as many as twelve thousand words to the English lexicon.

002

These innovations and inventions were typical of the kind of adventurousness we associate with the Elizabethans, especially in their brave explorations of the New World. Francis Drake traveled well beyond the bounds of Christendom, circumnavigating the globe, plundering Spanish ships in the Caribbean and exploring the Americas. It was the guidance and inspiration of Drake’s fellow Devonian, Sir Walter Ralegh (pronounced Rawley), which led to the first English-speaking communities in North America. A lesser-known adventurer was Thomas Cavendish of Trimley St Martin in Suffolk. He was one of the many sea dogs who served Queen Bess and his own pocket by harassing Spanish shipping and settlements in the Americas. In 1586 he decided to emulate Drake’s great exploit of sailing around the globe. Setting out with three ships, he completed the incredible journey in a little over two years. In 1591 he set out to repeat the venture in order to open up commercial relations with the Orient, but was worn down by storms and disease, dying off the coast of Brazil, where he was buried at sea.

 

The story of what was to become the first North American settlement starts in the late 1570s when Sir Humphrey Gilbert, under charter from Elizabeth, claimed Newfoundland for England. (One of his fellow explorers was a Hungarian, about whom I have written elsewhere.) Heading South, Gilbert was then drowned in a storm with the famous last words, We are as neer to heaven by sea as by land. Sir Walter Ralegh then took up the cause of founding a new colony, temporarily establishing the Cittie of Ralegh in Virginea, on today’s coast of North Carolina. The story of The Lost Colony, as it became known, exemplifies the adventurous mariners of the Elizabethan era, but also shows how hazardous and difficult the settlement of the New World was. Ralegh, now out of favour with the Crown, continued to express his undying faith in an English empire overseas. With hindsight, the colonisation of the new huge land-mass of North America by English-speaking settlers seems inevitable and Ralegh’s boast to Sir Robert Cecil in 1602, that he would yet live to see it an English Nation might not seem so idle, had he been allowed to live on. However, at the time neither Ralegh nor the prospective settlers could envisage what they were taking on, let alone confront the harsh realities of the new frontier on the other side of the ocean. In the meantime, raiding and trading was continuing to prove far more lucrative. 

In contrast to the internationalism of scholarship and commerce,  Tudor politics – the Reformation and its creation of a distinctly English Church, emphasised the age-old desire of the English, and to a lesser extent the Welsh and the Scots, to establish their independence from French and other continental influences. The breach with Rome, followed by the almost continual wars with France and Spain, the superpowers of the age, culminating in the defeat of the Armada, with the small island nation beating off the huge invasion fleet of a transatlantic Empire, was matched by the declaration to Parliament of an independent-minded Queen:

 I thank God I am endowed with such qualities that if I were turned out of the realm in my petticoat, I were able to live in any place in Christendom. 

002In reality, the threat of 1588 failed to strike much of a patriotic fire in the coastal towns of Suffolk. The decayed coastal defenses had to be rapidly repaired and when the eastern ports were required to provide a quota of ships for the royal fleet they all pleaded poverty. The Spanish wars had already caused them severe loss of trade, they argued, and they could only afford a fraction of the ships needed. When the time came for the county levies to assemble before their Queen at Tilbury, the men of Suffolk had to be cajoled once more, for they were reluctant to leave their farms at harvest time and even more reluctant to leave their county. In the event, they were not really needed, as Drake’s fireships scattered the heavy Spanish galleons, laden down with heavy cannon and balls which disintegrated on impact, and God’s wind did the rest.

The long war with Spain disrupted the cloth trade with the Spanish Netherlands, an important cause of its decline, or rather of transition, with old draperies giving way to new ones. The old system had been badly hit not just by wars and market changes, but by the introduction of new techniques and the growth of monopolies. The planting of European colonies in Africa and the Americas provided new and often captive markets for the goods of the Old World, but the requirements of these new consumers were not the same as those of England’s old trading partners. The inhabitants of tropical and sub-tropical lands did not want to drape themselves in heavy Suffolk broadcloth. The county’s clothiers could probably have risen to this challenge as they had to previous market changes, but powerful mercantile groups saw regional specialisation as the solution to the problems.

Fulling could be carried out more efficiently and cheaply in counties like Yorkshire with its abundant supply of fast-flowing tributaries running off the Pennine moors into its great, navigable rivers, flowing into the North Sea. Within a few years, Suffolk’s small-scale yet integral fulling industry dwindled and many craftsmen had to take to the Great North Road to find work.

DSC09762Growing control over the East Anglian industry was being exercised by London merchants, most of whom belonged to trading companies which had official or unofficial monopolies in large trading areas overseas. These merchants could therefore combine to outbid the local clothiers for yarn and to pay more for unfinished cloth than the exporters of Ipswich and Colchester. Suffolk clothiers who tried to break these monopolies were frequently prosecuted through a growing volume of legislation. The erosion of free trade by sharp mercantile practices led to prohibitions and restraints of trade which, in 1588, left the merchants of Ipswich unable to transport Suffolk cloths even to the continent, and especially to Spain. By the second decade of the seventeenth century, this stranglehold on trade had left the cloth industry in Suffolk extremely exposed to the sharp practices of some unscrupulous London merchants. In 1619, one Gerrard Reade refused settle payment with eighty Suffolk clothiers for the cloths he had already sold for twenty thousand pounds. The Suffolk magistrates complained that the work of at least five thousand weavers was at stake. The clothiers did not have the funds to pay them, having not been paid themselves for the cloth, and were they to be thrown on the parish for relief, there would not be enough funds to relieve them.

DSC09679The Elizabethan Poor Law, which reached its final form in 1601, made the parishes responsible for all their inhabitants unable to care for themselves. Throughout the country the number of those in need of relief rose and the poor rate with it. The magistrates heard frequent pleas for leniency from overseers and churchwardens who simply could not collect the necessary money. Three years later the same justices reported to the Privy Council that bankruptcies were continuing among the Suffolk clothiers, unable to sell the 4,453 broadcloths they had left on their hands, distributed across twenty different towns, worth more than thirty-nine thousand pounds. Poor houses and alms houses were built in many places, including inside the castle walls in Framlingham (pictured left)

DSC09737

The clothiers reacted to these pressures by banding together themselves into local organisations capable of resisting them. A company of cloth-workers was formed at Ipswich in 1590, with the avowed intention that the said mysteries and sciences may be better ordered, the town better maintained, and the country near about it more preferred… A similar trade organisation was formed at Bury in 1607. However, they failed in protecting local trade from the tycoons in London. What they did achieve was to help the clothiers to restrict the wages and impose strict conditions upon the craftsmen who worked for them and who were already experiencing severe hardship. They also tried to restrict to check the import of new, lightweight cloths from the Low Countries, but the Flemish weavers were producing a fabric which, while warm, was easier to work and lighter to wear, and whose popularity was therefore irresistible. Many Suffolk craftsmen, especially the persecuted puritans among them, decided to practice both their trade and their religion in the Netherlands, before some later emigrated with the Pilgrim Fathers to New England. At the same time, some cloth-makers had been copying the skills of earlier Flemish immigrants, turning their attention to spinning yarn and weaving new draperies. These new cloths included fustian, bay, say and stuff. The Suffolk centre for these was Sudbury, but the kembing (spinning) of yarn was more widespread. At first the spinners were independent and made their own arrangements for selling the yarn in London or Norwich, but before long merecantile capitalists took over the organisation of the industry.

DSC09865In Tudor times, fishing, shipbuilding and coastal trade continued to be thriving activities along the coasts and estuaries. Two hundred or more ships out of ports of Lowestoft, Southwold, Walberswick, Dunwich, Aldeborough and Orford plied the North Sea herring grounds and Icelandic cod fields throughout most of the sixteenth century. In 1572 these ports, together with Ipswich and Woodbridge owned 146 coastal trade vessels, carrying cloth, oil, flax, hemp and wine across the Narrow Seas and plied along the coast with timber, fuller’s earth, hides and Newcastle coal. The growth of maritime enterprise in these times brought prosperity to the shipyards of Ipswich and Woodbridge. Ipswich was the principal supplier of large merchant ships to London, and thousands of Suffolk oaks went into a succession of fine vessels.

Woodbridge was always a close rival to its neighbouring port but Ipswich added to its prosperity by producing the cordage and sail canvas. By the turn of the century business was booming and a succession of fine ships were laid down, including the 320-ton Matthew in 1598.

However, coastal erosion posed a continual threat to the east coast ports, in particular, Dunwich. In 1573, The Queen’s majesty’s town was by the rages and surges of the sea, daily washed and devoured. The haven was so badly silted that no ships or boats could get either in or out, to the utter decay of the said town. Year after year more houses, churches and sometimes whole streets simply vanished. The inhabitants lacked the technical skill and resources necessary to construct sea defenses and, despite desperate pleas for help, there was none forthcoming from the government. Southwold was also fast silting up by 1620 and fishermen could no longer rely on access to the harbour at Walberswick. These ports were also plagued by piracy, which had become particularly virulent in the North Sea from the late sixteenth century. Operating out of Dunkirk, Ostend, Sluys and Nieuport, the privateers caused havoc to coastal and international shipping. In 1596 a small fleet of Dunkirkers blockaded Harwich and in 1602 east coast merchants were forced to adopt a convoy system. In 1619 a national subscription was raised to relieve the people of Dunwich, Southwold and Walberswick whose misfortunes were, in part, blamed on pirates. In 1626 a Dunkirk privateer sailed into Sole Bay at Southwold with guns blazing. While the townsfolk fled from the harbour the pirates cut out a merchant ship and made off with her. Between 1625 and 1627 no less than thirteen Aldeburgh ships of a total value of 6,800 pounds were lost to pirates.

DSC09763Despite these problems, many Suffolkers were as proud of their mother-tongue, in all its vernacular plainness, as they were of defying the pope and denying the might of Spain access to their island’s shores.  Some writers such as Ben Johnson and even Shakespeare himself wanted to defend the language against the incursions of Latinate terms, calling them inkhorn terms and showing a preference for plainnesse. When Berowne finally declares his love for Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost, he announces that he will shun taffeta phrases, silken terms precise, and instead express his wooing mind … in russet yeas and honest kersey noes.

The combination of these twin traditions, homespun and continental, led to the emergence of a language, to quote Logan Pearsall Smith of unsurpassed richness and beauty, which, however, defies all the rules. Almost any word could be used in any pat of speech, adverbs could be used for verbs, nouns for adjectives, and nouns and adjectives could take the place of verbs and adverbs. In Elizabethan English, you could happy your friend, malice or foot your enemy, or fall an axe on his neck. Shakespeare himself wrote of how he could out-Herod Herod, ask that ye uncle me no uncle and describe how she might tongue me.

When Shakespeare moved to London, he would have encountered the speech of the court, which was sufficently different from the standard speech of a market town like Stratford for a sharp-eared contemporary to note what he called a true kynde of pronunciation (what, today, we would call received pronunciation). We find some clues as to how this might have sounded in Shakespeare’s own plays, where he puns with minimal pairs like raising and reason, which would then have sounded much more like its French original, raison. Similarly, in All’s Well that Ends Well, a lot of the humour is conveyed in language rather than action, based on exchanges of puns as with the words grace and grass, much more similar among the courtiers then than they are now. Shakespeare would also rhyme tea with tay, and sea with say. Elizabethan English would have sounded much more like the English of Banburyshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire to twentieth-century ears than that of East Anglia, London and the South-East.

008However, it was the English of London and East Anglia which was first to take hold in Massachussets, the language of the rigorous Puritan mind. The text owed much to earlier translations, especially that of Tyndale, but also to the scholarship of John Bois in ensuring the faithfulness of the overall text to the original Hebrew and Greek. He was born in 1560 and grew up East Anglia, reading the Hebrew Bible at the age of six, and becoming a classics scholar at St John’s College at fourteen. He passed through the examinations at record speed, and soon became a Fellow of the College. When this expired he was given a rectorship at Boxworth, an isolated hamlet a few miles north of Cambridge, on condition that he married the deceased rector’s daughter. This he did, moving into the Fens, but still rising at four o’clock to ride into Cambridge to teach, reading a book on horseback. Bois continued  to live quietly in Boxworth, a man with a brilliant scholarly reputation. At the Hampton Court Conference in 1604, called by James I to discuss matters of religion, Dr John Reynolds of Oxford proposed a definitive translation of the Bible to ameliorate the developing friction between Anglicans and Puritans. The rex pacificus gladly assented to the idea of one uniforme translation, though he doubted whether he would see a Bible well translated in English.

By June 1604 it was settled that there would be six groups of translators, two in Westminster, two in Oxford and two in Cambridge, each made up of eight scholars. John Bois was recruited for one of the Cambridge committees, and he was put in charge of translating the Apocrypha from the Greek, but his level of scholarship soon made him indispensable to other committees. The six committees were instructed to base their Version upon the previous English versions, translating afresh, but also comparing their work with that of the previous translators, from Tyndale to Parker. At the end of six years, the six committees delivered their texts to Westminster for a final review by two scholars from each centre. John Bois went from Cambridge, together with his old tutor, Dr Anthony Downes. For the next nine months in 1610, the six scholars worked together on the final draft of the AV, refining and revising the texts. Their brief was to re-work the text not just in order to make it read well, but also sound better when read out loud. In their Preface to the finished text, the translators commented interestingly on this process, addressing their remarks to The Reader.

During these nine months, Bois kept a diary containing notes on the revisions which still survive, and through which we can see how the six translators honed the text to near perfection. In the First Epistle of Peter, chapter two, verse three, the key word is pleasant. Bois had several choices from previos versions; pleasaunt  (Tyndale), gracious (Great Bible), bountifull (Geneva), gracious (Bishop’s), sweete (Rheims), …if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious… (KJV), …how gracious the Lord is… (Bois’ revision). Not only does he make the right choice with the word gracious (pleasant would sound like nice in today’s English, and have roughly the same far too general and everyday meaning), but by inserting the adjective before the proper noun, Lord, he also makes the sentence sing (compare it with the great hymn, How great Thou art.) If we also compare the King James’ Version with Henry VIII’s Great Bible in the translation from the Hebrew, we can also detect the work of a brilliant linguistic and literary scholar. In chapter twelve of Ecclesiastes, the preacher says:

Or ever the silver lace be taken away, or the gold band be broke, or the pot broke at the well and the wheel upon the cistern, then shall the dust be turned again unto earth from whence it came, and the spirit shall return to God which gave it. All is but vanity saith the preacher, all is but plain vanity. (Great Bible).

Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern: Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. (KJV).

005The King James Version at once reads more clearly and sounds more poetic. It is an irony of the process by which the final text was created that only the king himself is credited with its creation. The version he only had to authorise came from the hard work of a scholarly committee, rather than a single writer. Compared with Tyndale and Cranmer, Bois is now almost forgotten. He returned to the Fens, where in 1628 the Bishop of Ely offered him a canonry at the cathedral, in which position he remained for the rest of his life, being buried in the cathedral in 1643.

The King James Bible was published in the same year as Shakespeare produced his last play, The Tempest, in 1611. Both the play and the Bible are masterpieces, but there is one crucial difference between them. While the playwright used more words than ever, inventing new ones as he wrote, the King James Version employed a mere eight thousand words, God’s English for Everyman. The people for whom the new, simplified yet poetic text became a weapon saw themselves as God’s Englishmen and Englishwomen. They became known to others as Puritans. Their heartland was East Anglia, birthplace of John Bunyan and Oliver Cromwell. Besides these very English revolutionaries, about two-thirds of the early settlers of Massachusetts Bay came from the eastern counties, from Lincolnshire in the north to Essex in the south, from Suffolk and Norfolk in the east to Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire in the west.

007Throughout the seventeenth century, the villages and towns of these counties supplied the New World with a ready and steady stream of immigrants, country people with country skills who were already well adapted for the hard life of the pioneer. The speech-features of East Anglia that were transplanted to the place the Pilgrim Fathers named New England are still to be heard in the rural parts of Norfolk and Suffolk. People there still say noo instead of new and don’t sound the r in words like bar, storm and yard, very different from the burr of western English counties from rural Oxfordshire and Worcestershire down to Dorset and Devon.

009Many, perhaps most, were Puritan dissenters, or separatists, who would not conform with the liturgy and practices of the Church of England, and their story became the story of American English. Their motives were a tangle of idealistic, colonising, self-interested and religious ambitions. The Pilgrim Fathers went to escape, in the words of Andrew Marvell, the Prelate’s Rage. They were also escaping from a monarch of Great Britain who hated both Scottish Presbyterians and English Independents among his subjects, vowing to harry them out of the land. Their impulse to migrate was both profoundly conservative and revolutionary in religious terms. They hoped to find an austere wilderness where they could establish an authentically English Christian community. They were not abandoning their East Anglian identity, but rather purifying and transplanting it. They did not see themselves as creating a new country, America, but recreating the old country, free from what they felt were the papist poisons prevalent in the national church. When the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth on 16 September 1620, the largest group on board came from East Anglia, but they represented thirty different communities from all over England. These can still be seen in the place-names of New England… Boston, Bedford, Braintree, Cambridge, Lincoln and Yarmouth. By the middle of the seventeenth century, there were some already a quarter of a million colonists on the North-Eastern seaboard of North America, mainly from London and the eastern counties.      

Today, it is claimed that over 360 million people speak English as their mother-tongue, many of these with a recent history in North America. However, their heritage as English-speaking peoples goes back for a millenium and a half. The role of churches and holy places in the creation of the language and literature, and therefore in its creation as a worldwide language, whether first, second, or as a foreign tongue, means that they form part of a much greater heritage. From the religious strife that followed the breach with Rome there remain many holy places, but they are sectarian in nature, such as the sites of the burning of the Protestant martyrs at Smithfield, Oxford, Canterbury and Hadleigh, or the hanging, drawing and quartering of the Catholic martyrs at Tyburn and the site of the beheading of Sir Thomas More in the Tower of London. There was, however, a wider spirit at work to reconcile these differences. The spirit in which the King James Version of the Bible was consolidated from earlier translations, mostly based on Tyndale, in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey, in a conscious effort to appeal to as wide a cross-section of beliefs as possible. The spirit of toleration in forgiveness and reconciliation which informs the last plays of Shakespeare, before he went back to rest in his parish church in Stratford. Perhaps Prospero’s speech from The Tempest (c 1611), often thought to be Shakespeare’s own valedictory speech, can be seen as the supreme antidote to the speech of the dying John of Gaunt in one of his earlier plays, Richard II (c 1595):

 

005This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,…
 

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,

Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,

 Like to a tenement or pelting farm: (2.1.3) 

 Prospero, in The Tempest:

 And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep. (IV.i. 148158)

 

By the time The Tempest was written, England had been given a renewed identity by the first Elizabethan age, and, though the Essex Rebellion, late in 1601 and the Midland Rebellion of the Catholic gentry of 1605 threatened to disrupt this new vision, it became a vision of Great Britain. Under the dual monarchy of the Stuart kings, this was to become more than simply a geographical entity, Grande Bretagne as opposed to little Brittany, but a vision of an island and an independent people chosen by God for great deeds and heroic achievements. The expression of this is found not only in Shakespeare, but also in Spenser’s mythical history of Britain in The Fairie Queen and in the great antiquarian work, Camden’s Britannia. History, or rather national mythology, was to become a potent political force in the seventeenth century, with the myth of the Norman Yoke and the legends of Robin Hood finding their usage among counter-cultural nonconformists.

Legacy of the Tudors: The Island Myth in Word and Image

A later visionary portrayal of the unity of Britain appears in Blake’s prophetic poems, in which he sees the dawning of a new form of consciousness when sleeping Albion, the spiritual essence of Britain, will awake with the light of the Divine imagination and be joined to his female emanation, Jerusalem, a holy shrine re-built in England’s green and pleasant land. In one of the versions of the Glastonbury legends preserved among Cornish and Somerset miners, on which Blake based his poem, Jerusalem, now England’s alternative national anthem, Joseph of Arimathea had visited Avalon, Ynys yr Afal (Apple Island in the Cymric), bringing with him the young Jesus of Nazareth who, as a trained carpenter, built a shrine made of wattle and daub, dedicating it to his mother.  Even the coronation oath of both Elizabeth I and II refers back to the mythology of a Christianity dating back to the time of Joseph’s second visit, sent by the Apostle Philip in 63 A.D. with a band of missionaries, to establish the Christian faith in Britain. As the last Welsh-speaking monarch, Elizabeth, like the first,  her grandfather, was not averse to using popular British legends as propaganda, to point out to a Papacy about to excommunicate her that she owed her title as Defender of the Faith not to the Bishop of Rome, nor even to St Augustine, but to the ancient British saints and rulers who went into battle with pagans, like Arthur, carrying crosses and pictures of the Virgin Mary, as well as their dragon emblems. After Blake, the legends were again reinterpreted in the Gothic and Celtic revivals of the Victorian period, inspiring both Anglo-Catholics and Pre-Raphaelites, especially Edward Burne-Jones, who created so much of the stained glass for churches built in this period.

 004Any traces which may have remained of this most ancient shrine to Mary were destroyed by a great fire in 1181. All that survives to claim credence for the legend is The Glastonbury Thorn, marking the place called Wearyall, a hill on which Joseph thrust his hawthorn staff into the ground and it immediately burst into blossom, though it was winter. It still blooms around Christmas-time. The branch is on one of the several trees descending from the one, thought to be the original, which was cut down at the Dissolution. Originally surrounded by marsh and water, the four-hundred-foot Tor (which means rocky outcrop in the Cymric), with its fifteenth-century tower of the ruined St Michael’s Church, the site of the abbey and the town to its west, all formed an island until the Somerset levels were drained in Stuart times. The association of this island with Arthur’s resting place received a great boost when, a decade after the great fire, a monk apparently discovered the coffin of Arthur and Guenevere.

 The resulting flood of pilgrims must have helped to fund the abbey’s rebuilding, by the thirteenth century, but this early tourist industry was also what led to its ultimate destruction. Nevertheless, few of the ruins of the Dissolution bring about such a pang in the visitor as those of Glastonbury, whether because of the destruction of a great architectural work of an abbey rebuilt in the Transitional and Early English styles, or because of the psychological damage done to both England and to the British Isles as a whole by the sudden and violent denial of a contemplative tradition in the expulsion of the monks.

Excavations have shown traces of the original British monastic settlement, first recorded as existing in 658, and there are strong traditions that St Patrick, St Brigid and St David all visited the monastery. Re-founded by King Ine of Wessex in the eighth century, ravaged by Danes in the ninth, the abbey began its great period in 940 under Abbot Dunstan, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury. We know, from the chroniclers, that some of the Kings of Wessex were buried there, including Edmund Ironside, in 1016, but there no Anglo-Saxon remains have yet been discovered.

003Ascending to the summit of the Tor, the modern-day pilgrim stands on the place where in 1539 Richard Whiting, the last abbot of Glastonbury, was executed as a traitor on Henry VIII’s command. After the death of the previous abbot in February 1525, the community elected his successor per formam compromissi, which elevates the selection to a higher ranking personage, in this case Cardinal Wolsey, who obtained King Henry’s permission to act and chose Richard Whiting. The first ten years of Whiting’s rule were prosperous and peaceful. He was a sober and caring spiritual leader and a good manager of the abbey’s day-to-day life. Contemporary accounts show that Whiting was held in very high esteem.The abbey over which Whiting presided was one of the richest and most influential in England. Glastonbury Abbey was reviewed as having significant amounts of silver and gold as well as its attached lands. About one hundred monks lived in the enclosed monastery, where the sons of the nobility and gentry were educated before going on to university.

Whiting had signed his assent to the Act of Supremacy when it was first presented to him and his monks in 1534. Henry sent Richard Layton to examine Whiting and the other inhabitants of the abbey. He found all in good order, but suspended the abbot’s jurisdiction over the town. Small injunctions were given to him about the management of the abbey property.  Whiting was told a number of times over the years which followed that the abbey was safe from dissolution.

However, by January 1539, Glastonbury was the only monastery left in Somerset. Abbot Whiting refused to surrender the abbey, which did not fall under the Act for the suppression of the lesser houses. On 19 September of that year the royal commissioners, Layton, Richard Pollard and Thomas Moyle, arrived there without warning on the orders of Thomas Cromwell, presumably to find faults and thus facilitate the abbey’s closure. Whiting, by now feeble and advanced in years, was sent to the Tower of London so that Cromwell might examine him himself. The precise charge on which he was arrested, and subsequently executed, remains uncertain, though his case is usually referred to as one of treason. Cromwell’s manuscript Remembrances contains the following  entries:

Item, Certayn persons to be sent to the Tower for the further examenacyon of the Abbot, of Glaston… Item. The Abbot, of Glaston to (be) tryed at Glaston and also executyd there with his complycys… Item. Councillors to give evidence against the Abbot of Glaston, Rich. Pollard, Lewis Forstew (Forstell), Thos. Moyle.

 Marillac, the French Ambassador, wrote on 25 October that;

“The Abbot of Glastonbury. . . has lately, been put in the Tower, because, in taking the Abbey treasures, valued at 200,000 crowns, they found a written book of arguments in behalf of queen Katherine.” 

As a member of the House of Lords, Whiting should have been condemned of treason by an Act of Attainder, and beheaded, but his execution was an accomplished fact before Parliament met. Whiting was sent back to Glastonbury with Pollard and reached Wells on 14 November. There some sort of trial apparently took place, and he was convicted of robbing Glastonbury Church. The next day, Saturday, 15 November, he was taken to Glastonbury with two of his monks, John Thorn and Roger James, where all three were fastened upon hurdles and dragged by horses to the top of the Tor, overlooking the town. Here they were hung, drawn and quartered, with Whiting’s head being fastened over the west gate of the now deserted abbey and his limbs exposed at Wells, Bath, Ilchester and Bridgwater. His gruesome death at so peaceful a place was symbolic of how 1539-40, the year of the Pilgrimage of Grace, the dissolution of the great monasteries and the official publication of the Bible in English, marked the key point of transition to the development of a distinctively English form of Christianity, based on the word, rather than on the image.

 

Printed Sources:

See Part One 

 

%d bloggers like this: