This "great disfranchising statute," as it has been justly termed, was aimed, in its own words, against voters "of no value, whereof every of them pretended to have a voice equivalent with the more worthy knights and esquires dwelling within the same counties." But in actual working the statute was interpreted in a far more destructive fashion than its words were intended to convey. Up to this time all suitors who found themselves at the Sheriff's Court had voted without question for the Knight of the Shire, but by the new statute the great bulk of the existing voters, every leaseholder and every copyholder, found themselves implicitly deprived of their franchise. A later statute, which seems, however, to have had no practical effect, showed the aristocratic temper, as well as the social changes against which it struggled, in its requirement that every Knight of the Shire should be "a gentleman born".
The death of Henry the Fifth revealed in its bare reality the secret of power. The whole of the royal authority vested without a struggle in a council composed of great lords and Churchmen representing the baronage, at whose head stood Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, a legitimated son of John of Gaunt by his mistress Catharine Swyn-ford. In the presence of Lollardry and socialism, the Church had at this time ceased to be a great political power and sunk into a mere section of the landed aristocracy. Its one aim was to preserve its enormous wealth, which was threatened at once by the hatred of the heretics and by the greed of the nobles. Lollardry still lived, in spite of the steady persecution, as a spirit of religious and moral revolt; and nine years after the young King's accession we find the Duke of Gloucester traversing England with men-at-arms for the purpose of repressing its risings and hindering the circulation of its invectives against the clergy. The violence and anarchy which had always clung like a taint to the baronage had received a new impulse from the war with France. Long before the struggle was over it had done its fatal work on the mood of the English noble.
His aim had become little more than a lust for gold, a longing after plunder, after the pillage of farms, the sack of cities, the ransom of captives. So intense was the greed of gain that only a threat of death could keep the fighting men in their ranks, and the results of victory after victory were lost by the anxiety of the conquerors to deposit their plunder and captives safely at home. The moment the firm hand of great leaders such as Henry the Fifth or Bedford was removed, the war died down into mere massacre and brigandage. "If God had been a captain now-a-days," exclaimed a French general, " He would have turned marauder." The nobles were as lawless and dissolute at home as they were greedy and cruel abroad. The Parliaments, which became mere sittings of their retainers and partizans, were like armed camps to which the great lords came with small armies at their backs. That of 1426 received its name of the " Club Parliament," from the fact that when arms were prohibited the retainers of the barons appeared with clubs on their shoulders. When clubs were forbidden, they hid stones and balls of lead in their clothes. The dissoluteness against which Lollardry had raised its great moral protest reigned now without a check.
A gleam of intellectual light was breaking on the darkness of the time, but only to reveal its hideous combination of mental energy with moral worthlessness. The Duke of Gloucester, whose love of letters was shown in the noble library he collected, was the most selfish and profligate prince of his day. The Earl of Worcester, a patron of Caxton, and one of the earliest scholars of the Revival of Letters, earned his title of "butcher" by the cruelty which raised him to a pre-eminence of infamy among the bloodstained leaders of the Wars of the Roses. All spiritual life seemed to have been trodden out in the ruin of the Lollards. Never had English literature fallen so low. A few tedious moralists alone preserved the name of poetry. History died down into the barest and most worthless fragments and annals. Even the religious enthusiasm of the people seemed to have spent itself, or to have been crushed out by the bishops' courts. The one belief of the time was in sorcery and magic. Eleanor Cobham, the wife of the Duke of Gloucester, was convicted of having practised magic against the King's life with a priest, and condemned to do penance in the streets of London. The mist which wrapped the battle-field of Barnet was attributed to the incantations of Friar Bungay. The one pure figure which rises out of the greed, the lust, the selfishness, and unbelief of the time, the figure of Joan of Arc, was regarded by the doctors and priests who judged her as that of a sorceress.
Jeanne d'Arc was the child of a labourer of Domremy, a little village in the neighbourhood of Vaucouleurs on the borders of Lorraine and Champagne. Just without the cottage where she was born began the great woods of the Vosges, where the children of Domrémy drank in poetry and legend from fairy ring and haunted well, hung their flower garlands on the sacred trees, and sang songs to the "good people "who might not drink of the fountain because of their sins. Jeanne loved the forest; its birds and beasts came lovingly to her at her childish call. But at home men saw nothing in her but "a good girl, simple and pleasant in her ways," spinning and sewing by her mother's side while the other girls went to the fields, tender to the poor and sick, fond of church; and listening to the church-bell with a dreamy passion of delight which never left her. The quiet life was soon broken by the storm of war as it at last came home to Domremy. The death of King Charles, which followed hard on that of Henry the Fifth, brought little change.
The Dauphin at once proclaimed himself Charles the Seventh of France: but Henry the Sixth was owned as Sovereign over the whole of the territory which Charles had actually ruled; and the incursions which the partizans of Charles, now reinforced by Lombard soldiers from the Milanese and by four thousand Scots under the Earl of Douglas, made with fresh vigour across the Loire were easily repulsed by Duke John of Bedford, the late King's brother, who had been named in his will Regent of France. In genius for war as in political capacity John was hardly inferior to Henry himself. Drawing closer by marriage and patient diplomacy his alliances with the Dukes of Burgundy and Britanny, he completed the conquest of Northern France, secured his communications with Normandy by the capture of Meulan, made himself master of the line of the Yonne by a victory near Auxerre, and pushed forward into the country near Macon. It was to arrest his progress that the Constable of Buchan advanced boldly from the Loire to the very borders of Normandy and attacked the English army at Verneuil. But a repulse hardly less disastrous than that of Agincourt left a third of the French knighthood on the field; and the Regent was preparing to cross the Loire when he was hindered by the intrigues of his brother the Duke of Gloucester. The nomination of Gloucester to the Regency in England by the will of the late King had been set aside by the Council, and sick of the powerless Protectorate with which they had invested him, the Duke sought a new opening for his restless ambition in the Netherlands, where he supported the claims of Jacqueline, the Countess in her own right of Holland and Hainault, whom he had married on her divorce from the Duke of Brabant. His enterprise roused the jealousy of the Duke of Burgundy, who regarded himself as heir to the Duke of Brabant, and the efforts of Bedford were paralyzed by the withdrawal of his Burgundian allies as they marched northward to combat his brother.