England was also emerging as a national monarchy. Bastard feudalism flourished until Edward IV and Henry VII reasserted royal power in the later fifteenth century, much as Louis XI did in France. But however close the parallels between the two countries, there was also an all- important difference. Whereas the French Estates General was becoming the servant of the monarchy, the English Parliament was slowly acquiring powers that would one day make it the master of the Crown.
After the death of Edward I in 1307, the political tide turned abruptly against the monarchy. His son, Edward II (r. 1307-1327) was a bored, weak, and inept ruler, dominated by his favorites and by his French queen, Isabella. In 1314 he lost the battle of Bannockburn to the Scots. He also faced baronial opposition. In the Ordinances of 1311 the barons set up as the real rulers of England twenty-one lords ordainers, who had to consent to royal appointments, to declarations of war, and to the king’s leaving the realm. Parliament repealed the Ordinances in 1322, and noble malcontents gathered around Queen Isabella, who led a revolt against her husband. Imprisoned, then murdered, Edward II was succeeded on the throne by his fifteen-year-old son, Edward III.
The reign of Edward III (r. 1327-1377) was marked by stunning English victories in the early campaigns of the Hundred Years’ War and by the great economic crisis following the Black Death. English agricultural laborers demanded better working conditions or left home for the towns. In 1351 Parliament passed the Statute of Laborers, forbidding workers to give up their jobs and attempting to fix wages and prices as they had been before the plague.
The law was not a success, and the labor shortage hastened the end of serfdom and paved the way for the disorders that took place under Edward’s successor. The cause of the peasants was defended effectively in a vernacular verse satire of Edward’s reign, The Vision Concerning Piers Plowman, which denounced the corruption of officials and of the clergy.
Attempts to enforce the Statute of Laborers were made by the justices of the peace. The justices were all royal appointees, selected in each shire from the landed gentry. Since they received no pay, they accepted office from a sense of duty or for prestige. As the old shire and hundred courts disappeared, the justices of the peace became the chief local magistrates and the virtual rulers of rural England.
The reign of Edward III also witnessed the growth of English national feeling, fostered by the long war with France. The papacy was a particular target of nationalist suspicion because the popes now resided at Avignon and were thought to be under the thumb of the French. In 1351 Parliament passed the Statute of Provisors restricting the provision (that is, the appointment) of aliens to church offices in England.
Two years later Parliament checked the appeal of legal cases to the papal curia by the Statute of Praemunire (a Latin term that refers to the prosecution of a legal case). In 1362 Parliament declared English the official language of the courts, although the Norman French of the old ruling classes persisted in some legal documents.
Nationalism, dislike of the papacy, and widespread social and economic discontent were all involved in England’s first real heresy, preached during Edward’s reign by the Oxford scholar John Wycliffe (c. 1320-1384). Advocating a church without property in the spirit of the early Christians, Wycliffe called for direct access by the individual to God without priest as intermediary. He and his followers were also responsible for an English translation of the Bible, despite the church’s insistence that the Scriptures be read only in the Latin of the Vulgate. Though his views, called Lollardy, were condemned as heretical, Wycliffe was not sentenced until well after his death, when his body was dug up and burned.
The most significant constitutional development of Edward III’s long reign was the evolution of Parliament. Division of Parliament into two houses was beginning to appear in the fourteenth century. Edward I’s Model Parliament of 1295 had included representatives of the lower and higher clergy, barons, knights of the shire, and burgesses. While the lower clergy had dropped out, the other groups continued to attend. The higher clergy—the lords spiritual—came to Parliament as vassals of the king. In time, the lords spiritual joined with the lords temporal—the earls and barons—to form the House of Lords; the knights of the shire and the burgesses merged to form the House of Commons.
This gradual merger of knights and burgesses was an event of major significance that laid the social foundation for the future greatness of the House of Commons. It brought together two elements, the one representing the gentry, the lower level of the second estate, and the other representing the third estate, which had always remained separate in the assemblies of the Continental states.
In the fourteenth century the knights of the shire had little sense of social unity with the burgesses. But some of the smaller boroughs were represented by knights from the countryside nearby. By the end of the fourteenth century the Commons began to choose one of their members to report to the king on their deliberations, and this position developed into the important office of Speaker of the House.
In the meantime, the political foundations of the future greatness of the House of Commons were also being laid. In the fourteenth century the chief business of Parliament was judicial. From time to time the knights and burgesses employed the judicial device of presenting petitions to the king; whatever was approved in the petitions was then embodied in statutes. The growth of parliamentary power was further stimulated by Edward III’s frequent requests to Parliament for new grants of money to cover the heavy expenses of the Hundred Years’ War. Slowly Parliament took control of the purse strings, while Edward let the royal powers be whittled away imperceptibly.