CHAPTER III. EMERGENCE OF THE ENGLISH PEOPLE

1272-1485

In 1265, simultaneously with the appearance of English townsfolk in parliament, an official document couched in the English tongue appeared like a first peak above the subsiding flood of foreign language. When, three generations back, Abbot Samson had preached English sermons, they were noted as exceptions; but now the vernacular language of the subject race was forcing its way into higher circles, and even into literary use. The upper classes were learning English, and those whose normal tongue was English were thrusting themselves into, or at any rate upon the notice of, the higher strata of society.

The two normal ranks of feudal society had in England naturally been French lords and English tillers of the soil; but commerce had never accommodated itself to this agricultural system, and the growth of trade, of towns, of other forms of wealth than land, tended concurrently to break down French and feudal domination. A large number of towns had been granted, or rather sold, charters by Richard I and John, not because those monarchs were interested in municipal development, but because they wanted money, and in their rights of jurisdiction over towns on the royal domain they possessed a ready marketable commodity. The body which had the means to pay the king's price was generally the local merchant guild; and while these transactions developed local government, they did not necessarily promote popular self-government, because the merchant guild was a wealthy oligarchical body, and it might exercise the jurisdiction it had bought from the king in quite as narrow and harsh a spirit as he had done. The consequent quarrels between town oligarchies and town democracies do not, however, justify the common assumption that there had once been an era of municipal democracy which gradually gave way to oligarchy and corruption. Nevertheless, these local bodies were English, and legally their members had been villeins; and their experience in local government prepared them for admittance to that share in national government which the development of taxation made almost necessary.

Henry II's scheme of active and comprehensive administration, indeed, led by a natural sequence to the parliament of Edward I and further. The more a government tries to do, the more taxation it must impose; and the broadening of the basis of taxation led gradually to the broadening of the basis of representation, for taxation is the mother of representation. So long as real property only - that is to say, the ownership of land - was taxed, the great council contained only the great landowners. But Henry II had found it necessary to tax personalty as well, both clerical and lay, and so by slow steps his successors in the thirteenth century were driven to admit payers of taxes on personalty to the great council. This representative system must not be regarded as a concession to a popular demand for national self-government. When in 1791 a beneficent British parliament granted a popular assembly to the French Canadians, they looked askance and muttered, "C'est une machine anglaise pour nous taxer"; and Edward I's people would have been justified in entertaining the suspicion that it was their money he wanted, not their advice, and still less their control. He wished taxes to be voted in the royal palace at Westminster, just as Henry I had insisted upon bishops being elected in the royal chapel. In the royal presence burgesses and knights of the shire would be more liberal with their constituents' money than those constituents would be with their own when there were neighbours to encourage resistance to a merely distant terror.