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Citizenship 1066-1625


During the Middle Ages the king was seen as God's deputy - at the apex of a world in which all people had a defined and static place. The Norman conquest allowed William and his successors to claim this unrivalled position. From the king flowed land and justice, administered in descending order by people appointed to deputise for him. In practice, however, the complex relationship between the Crown and the three 'estates' - commons (peasants), clergy and aristocracy - meant that all monarchs needed the agreement of their subjects to rule effectively. The nature of this agreement took many forms, and changed substantially between Norman and Stuart times.

Seal of King John
Seal of King John The most important development was the gradual inclusion of the opinions and rights of the lowest of the three estates (the commons) in the shaping of royal policies, laws, and ideas about how the country should be ruled. This change was resisted, with the Crown, clergy and aristocracy (nobles, knights and other landowners) often combining to control the freedoms of the lower orders. Nevertheless, English history up to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642 witnessed a gradual rise in the effective influence of the majority of the population.
Freedoms and rights for the wider population were usually obtained only at the expense of the elite. This of course led to conflict, and many of the laws passed can be interpreted as instruments for preserving the rights of the few over the wishes of the many. Life for the vast majority of the population was determined by their connection to the land and to the church - since their earthly and spiritual wellbeing was regulated by the church and by the overlordship of the aristocrats who owned the land on which they lived and worked.
Social restrictions on hunting, 1390 - opens new window
Social restrictions on hunting, 1390
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Seal of King John

Religion, heresy and the state

For much of the medieval period, challenges to the church's authority in England were rare. From time to time the conduct of individual priests and the extent of the pope's influence provided causes for concern, but it was not until the 1370s that a heretical religious movement first appeared in England. To help fund war with France, an Oxford don named John Wycliffe had been recruited by the Crown to persuade people to pay more of their taxes to the king, rather than to the pope. But, instead, Wycliffe began to promote his own ideas. His followers, known as Lollards, believed that the church was not essential to an understanding of God, and that translating the Bible into English would end church control of people's lives.

After Henry IV's accession in 1399, Lollard heresies were suppressed. Then under Henry V (1413-22) the machinery of Parliament was used to enforce religious practices approved by the state, with dissenters prosecuted as criminals - a situation that continued into the 19th century. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the 15th century support for Lollardy was widespread among the aristocracy. Figures such as Sir John Oldcastle hatched conspiracies and were prosecuted for their beliefs; and the survival of cells of reformers meant that an underground culture of religious nonconformity was still thriving at the time of the Reformation.
Prosecution of Lollards, 1414 - opens new window
Prosecution of Lollards, 1414
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Seal of King John During the first quarter of the 16th century the church and state saw a shift in their previously stable relationship, as common lawyersGlossary - opens new window increasingly attacked the jurisdiction of church law and church courts. Moreover, with the spread of printing and the popularity of religious tracts among early printed works, it became difficult for the church to keep strict control over how private religious ideas and practices differed from established public conventions. As humanist ideas reached English universities, around 1500, prosecutions of heretics mounted. By the 1520s, when Martin Luther's reformist ideas began to circulate in England, there were already debates about religious practice between traditionalist and reforming churchmen. As the ReformationGlossary - opens new window gathered momentum, conflict between Catholics and Protestants became the dominant political and military force across Europe.

Land, plague and economy

At the start of the medieval period, most of the rural population of England was tied to the land and to lords through manorsGlossary - opens new window held from the king and major nobles. Tenants held and worked the lord's land in exchange for their labour and payments of produce. In return, they received the lord's protection. They had very few rights beyond those granted by their lord, and the ruling elites (the aristocracy and clergy) were, not surprisingly, determined to hold on to their own privileges. Such tied tenants or 'bondmenGlossary - opens new window' (who might be either serfsGlossary - opens new window or villeinsGlossary - opens new window ) were treated as commodities and, since they had a financial value, formed part of the lord's estate.

Tenements for bondmen, 1391 - opens new window
Tenements for bondmen, 1391
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Second Statute of Labourers, 1351 - opens new window
Second Statute of Labourers, 1351
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This social structure provided officials and servants for the lord's household, his courts and his personal lands. The lord's tenants and servants were also his private army in times of conflict. Many of the English archers that earned a fearsome reputation during the Hundred Years' War - at battles such as Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415) - were recruited from the estates of the knights who were the captains of the English armies. The wars with France fostered a greater sense of national identity among the country's rulers (especially during periods of military success such as the reign of Henry V), but the hardship, disease and fear of death experienced during medieval campaigns did little to improve the status of the ordinary soldiers who did most of the fighting.
The Black Death destroyed perhaps a third of England's population between 1348 and 1350, and subsequent epidemics of plague (such as the one in 1361) took a further toll. Nevertheless, the system of tied labour continued into the 15th century - and even in the early 16th century disputes regarding 'tied' status were being brought before the royal courts. Aristocrats, clergy and some leading members of the commons introduced laws designed to peg labour prices at pre-plague levels and restrict the movement of workers. But the massive, rapid drop in population brought about by the plague had given the surviving peasants of England real economic power for the first time. Personal economic freedom, whereby hard toil on the land or at a trade benefited individuals and their families, rather than a superior landlord, was an important step towards securing personal rights.
An Act concerning artificers and labourers, 1514 - opens new window
Act concerning
artificers and labourers, 1514
Document (307k) | Transcript

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