Gateway to the Classics: The World's Story: England by Eva March Tappan
The World's Story: England by  Eva March Tappan

In the Days of Edward III


THERE are three reasons why the reign of Edward III is worth remembering. The first is that before its close he had adopted the ideas of the dead Simon de Montfort, and had admitted to his Parliament representatives of the townsmen and of the lesser landowners.

The second is that he conquered Wales. The Welsh were descendants of the early Britons whom the Saxons had driven to the west; and, although they had often been obliged to pay tribute, they had never really submitted to the rule of an English king, and they had a prophecy that some day their own King Arthur would come back and help them to drive away the invaders. Edward won several victories, and finally obliged the Welsh to acknowledge him as their ruler. Of course they did this most unwillingly, but matters seemed a little better when Edward told them that he would give them a prince who had been born in their land and who had never spoken a word of English. Behold, when their prince was presented to them, he was Edward's baby son, who had been born in Wales a few months before and was too young to speak a word of any language. He was called Prince of Wales, and that is why the eldest son of the English sovereign usually receives that title, though he has no more power over Wales than over any other part of the kingdom.

The third reason for remembering the reign of Edward is his attempt to conquer Scotland. This was far more difficult than to subdue Wales. In Scotland there were the descendants of a people called Scots, who had long before come from the north of Ireland and had given their name to the country. There were descendants of Picts and of Danes; of Englishmen whom William the Conqueror had driven from their homes; also some descendants of Normans. All these people were united in wishing Scotland to be free, but they took an unwise step which put them into Edward's power.

The Scotch king had died, leaving no children, and thirteen distant relatives claimed the throne. Edward was called a wise ruler, and the Scotch asked him to choose among the thirteen. He replied that the Scotch must first acknowledge him as overlord. They agreed, and he decided in favor of Balliol, though a man named Robert Bruce had a claim that many thought equally good.

Soon Edward began to behave so much as if he himself were King of Scotland that even Balliol revolted. Then Edward came with his army, put Balliol from the throne, and subdued the Scotch. When he went home, he carried with him to London a stone upon which the kings of Scotland always sat when they were crowned. It is called the Stone of Scone, and the people believed that it was the very one that Jacob had for a pillow when he dreamed of the ladder and the angels; and that it had been carried from Bethel to Egypt, Spain, Ireland, and finally to Scotland. Edward put it into a chair in Westminster Abbey, and it is on this stone that the King of England sits at his coronation. The only comfort that the Scotch had in its loss was an old prophecy that wherever the stone was, there the Scotch should rule.

Scotland was not conquered. She only waited for a leader, and soon a brave, strong man appeared named William Wallace. He knew that he could not meet the great numbers of English that would come against him, so he planned to starve them out, and when the English were coming, the people would burn what they could not carry, and then run away. After a while, however, the great English army overpowered the few Scotchmen. Wallace was captured and put to death.

The heir of Robert Bruce was his grandson, a young man by the same name. Edward had kept him at the English court, but one snowy morning he was missing. There were footprints of horses in the snow, but they pointed toward London, and no one guessed that the wise young man had had the shoes put on reversed. He escaped to Scotland and was crowned. At first he had to hide in the mountains, but he always had faithful friends, and he never was'discouraged. After a while he began to be successful, and there came a time when no one knew whether he or Edward would conquer. The English king was old and feeble, but he was as resolute as ever, and he set out to subdue Scotland once for all. Before he was out of England, he fell ill and died. His last wishes were that his bones should be wrapped in an ox-hide, and that his son—the one who had been the baby Prince of Wales—should carry them at the head of the English army till Scotland should be subdued. This was not done, however, for Edward was buried with his forefathers in Westminster Abbey.

About the middle of Edward's reign he banished the Jews from the kingdom. Thus far the English kings had allowed them to stay, and had treated them less cruelly than had the kings on the Continent. This comparative kindness was not for the benefit of the Jews, however, but simply because they seemed to know how to amass money better than other people, and the kings found it convenient to be able to help themselves from the Jewish hoard. When the Jews made loans, it was always doubtful whether they would ever see their money again, and so to make up for this risk, they charged enormous interest. The English now claimed that this high rate of interest was an injury to the country. Then, too, many people never looked at a Jew without thinking of the crucifixion of Christ, and fancying that even the Jews of twelve hundred years later were to blame for it. At any rate, they were driven out of England, sixteen thousand of them, and it is possible that no other deed of Edward's reign brought him so much praise as their cruel expulsion.

In the two centuries since the battle of Senlac, the English people had made much progress in freedom of thought. They had also made progress in their manner of expressing their thoughts. The French had found it quite worth while to know English, and the English had found it convenient to know French. More and more, however, people were looking upon a knowledge of French as an accomplishment and upon English as the real language of the country. This English had been greatly changed since the days when the minstrels sang of Beowulf, and one of the changes was the result of borrowing words from the French. Words that were nearly alike in both languages were pronounced just as it happened; and as for the spelling, they were spelled in whatever way came to mind first. In order that those who knew but one language might understand, the custom arose of using two words, one from the French and one from the English, meaning the same thing; and that is one reason why our English of to-day has so many synonyms, or pairs of words with nearly the same signification; such as "cordial, hearty"; "desire, wish"; "act, deed"; "humble, lowly"; "confess, acknowledge." No matter how many words English may take from the French or from any other language, it always makes them wear an English dress; for instance, "telephone" is from the Greek, but we say "telephone-s" and "telephon-ing," and the s and the ing are not Greek, but English.

The books that were written were chiefly about England and her history; some of this history is true, and some of it goes back to the half-fabulous days of King Arthur. The unwritten literature, however, is far more attractive. In the days of the weak King Stephen, the cruel barons robbed the people so unmercifully that many abandoned their homes and went to live in the forests. Then it was that men began to make ballads about bold Robin Hood, the merry outlaw who took from the rich and gave to the poor, who played all sorts of pranks on sheriffs and wealthy bishops, but who was always ready to help any one in trouble.

It was a long time before the ballads were written, but they were sung throughout the land. As in the days of Richard a minstrel might go where he would and always find a hearty greeting, so any man who could sing a ballad was ever a welcome guest. People would gather in groups at any time to listen to him. The ballads were on well-known old stories, or on any recent event that struck the fancy of the singer. He would never try to remember how another man had sung the song, but would sing what chanced to come to his own mind, and make up lines whenever he forgot. The song changed with every singer.

The accounts of early England that were written in this century are interesting, but even though the monks that wrote them would have been greatly shocked at the thought that their pages of dignified Latin were not so valuable as the street songs, it is, after all, the ballads that are the real English literature of the century, the real voice of the masses of the English people.

by Eva March Tappan

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