From scenes such as we have been describing, from the wrong and bloodshed of foreign conquest, we pass to the peaceful life and progress of England itselt Through the reign of the three Edwards two revolutions, which have been almost ignored by our historians, were silently changing the whole character of English society. The first of these, the rise of a new class of tenant-farmers, we shall have to notice hereafter in its connection with the great agrarian revolt which bears the name of Wat Tyler. The second, the rise of the craftsmen within our towns, and the struggle by which they won power and privilege from the older burghers, is the most remarkable event in the period of our national history at which we have arrived.
The English borough was originally a mere township or group of townships whose inhabitants happened, either for purposes of trade or protection, to cluster together more thickly than elsewhere. It is this characteristic of our boroughs which separates them at once from the cities of Italy and Provence, which had preserved the municipal institutions of their Roman past, from the German towns founded by Henry the Fowler with the special purpose of sheltering industry from the feudal oppression around them, or from the communes of northern France which sprang into existence in revolt against feudal outrage within their walls. But in England the tradition of Rome had utterly passed away, while feudal oppression was held fairly in check by the Crown. The English town, therefore, was in its beginning simply a piece of the general country, organized and governed precisely in the same manner as the townships around it. The burh or borough was probably a more defensible place than the common village; it may have had a ditch or mound about it instead of the quickset-hedge or "tun" from which the township took its name. But its constitution was simply that of the people at large.
[Authorities. - For the general history of London see its "Liber Albus" and "Liber Custumarum," in the series of the Master of the Rolls; for its communal revolution, the ' "Liber de Antiquis Legibus," edited by Mr. Stapleton for the Camden Society; for the rising of William Longbeard, the story in William of Newburgh. In his " Essay on English Municipal History" (1867), Mr. Thompson has given a useful account of the relations of Leicester with its Earls. A great store of documents will be found in the Charter Rolls published by the Record Commission, in Brady's work on English Boroughs, and (though rather for Parliamentary purposes) in Stephen's and Merewether's " History of Boroughs and Corporations." But the only full and scientific examination of our early municipal history, at least on one of its sides, is to be found in the Essay prefixed by Dr. Brentano to the " Ordinances of English Gilds," published by the Early English Text Society].
The obligations of the dwellers within its bounds were those of the townships round, to keep fence and trench in good repair, to send a con-tingent to the fyrd, and a reeve and four men to the hundred court and shire court; and the inner rule of the borough lay as in the townships about in the hands of its own freemen,gathered in "borough-moot "or "portmannimote." But the social change brought about by the Danish wars, the legal requirement that each man should have a lord, affected the towns, as it affected the rest of the country. Some passed into the hands of great thegns near to them; the bulk became known as in the demesne of the king. A new officer, the lord's or king's reeve, was a sign of this revolution. It was the reeve who now summoned the borough-moot and administered justice in it; it was he who collected the lord's dues or annual rent of the town, and who exacted the services it owed to its lord. To modern eyes these services would imply almost complete subjection. When Leicester, for instance, passed from the hands of the Conqueror into those of its Earls, its townsmen were bound to reap their lord's corn-crops, to grind at his mill, to redeem their strayed cattle from his pound.
The great forest around was the Earl's, and it was only out of his grace that the little borough could drive its swine into the woods or pasture its cattle in the glades. The justice and government of the town lay wholly in its master's hands; he appointed its bailiffs, received the fines and forfeitures of his tenants, and the fees and tolls of their markets and fairs. But when once these dues were paid and these services rendered the English townsman was practically free. His rights were as rigidly defined by custom as those of his lord. Property and person alike were secured against arbitrary seizure. He could demand a fair trial on any charge, and even if justice was administered by his master's reeve it was administered in the presence and with the assent of his fellow-townsmen. The bell which swung out from the town tower gathered the burgesses to a common meeting, where they could exercise rights of free speech and free deliberation on their own affairs. Their merchant-gild over its ale-feast regulated trade, distributed the sums due from the town among the different burgesses, looked to the due repairs of gate and wall, and acted, in fact, pretty "much the same part as a town-council of to-day. Not only, too, were these rights secured by custom from the first, but they were constantly widening as time went on.
Whenever we get a glimpse of the inner history of an English town, we find the same peaceful revolution in progress, services disappearing through disuse or omission, while privileges and immunities are being purchased in hard cash. The lord of the town, whether he were king, baron, or abbot, was commonly thriftless or poor, and the capture of a noble, or the campaign of a sovereign, or the building of some new minster by a prior, brought about an appeal to the thrifty burghers, who were ready to fill again their master's treasury at the price of the strip of parchment which gave them freedom of trade, of justice, and of government. Sometimes a chance story lights up for us this work of emancipation. At Leicester one of the chief aims of its burgesses was to regain their old English trial by compurgation, the rough predecessor of trial by jury, which had been abolished by the Earls in favour of the foreign trial by battle. "It chanced," says a charter of the place, " that two kinsmen, Nicholas the son of Aeon, and Geoffrey the son of Nicholas, waged a duel about a certain piece of land, concerning which a dispute had arisen between them; and they fought from the first to the ninth hour, each conquering by turns.