CHAPTER XI - Chaucer, Wycliffe, and the Reign of Richard II.
England in the 14th century is still highly dependent on the peasantry and their labour.
Most peasants are still villeins, but they are becoming more free. Instead of labouring for their lord alone, many are now paying rent for a section of their lord’s land, working for themselves too.
By settling in a borough for 1 year and 1 day, a villeins’ son would become free. The freed son may become a merchant or mayor, even even acquire an education by joining a monastery.
However, these good times come to an abrupt end in 1348, with the outbreak of the Black Death. The plague would go on to kill 70% of the English population, reducing its number from seven million to just two.
Immediately, there is now an extreme labour shortage.
Of course, the remaining labourers expected doubled wages, but Parliament quickly passes the ‘Statue of Labourers”, requiring wages to be the same as they had been prior to the plague outbreak.
This leads to resentment - so much so that the law is largely ignored and employers themselves offer higher wages to those labourers, leading to an increased production of food and higher prices.
In 1381, the poorly handled situation (plus the collecting of massive taxes) culminates in the Peasant Revolt. 1500 peasants would lose their lives.
Edward III. is succeeded by his son, Richard II. in 1377. Richard is 10 years of age and decisions are made by his council.
His early reign is bad - the quarrel with France continues, taxes are ever increasing, and the Statue of Labourers is hugely unpopular. While the Peasant Revolt ultimately fails, it tarnishes Richard’s reputation and leads to an end of vielleinage.
While social structures are changing, religion too is becoming more free.
This is largely due to John Wycliffe, a catholic priest, who interestingly, is critical of the catholic church, the pope and the English bishops. As far as Wycliffe is concerned, they are all too wordly and abuse their power due to the influence of too much capital.
Another landscape artist is Chaucer. They has been a long period without much literary progress, until Chaucer composes the earliest, for us understandable poetry with the Canterbury Tales.
[If you are interested, check out the entirety of the Canterbury Tales, in summary, right here]
In 1388, aged 23, Richard II. decides to rule on his own behalf. He is rather successful initially. He manages to make peace with the French and calm the struggles with the Irish.
Unfortunately, he also spends large amount of florins on his household and literature. While this furthers the arts, it soon leads to megalomania.
By 1397, he is busy partitioning Parliament to grant him the import tax for wool, for his personal use. Most of England’s prosperity is derived from wool, so this is a significant amount.
He also banishes his cousin, Henry of Lancaster and the Duke of Norfolk without trial.
When Richard leaves for Ireland in 1399, Henry of Lancaster comes back from his exile to take back his estates, and with much help, topples the king.
Richard II. is kept in confinement. He dies on 14. February 1400 of starvation.