It is this struggle, to use the technical terms of the time, of the " greater folk " against the " lesser folk," or of the " commune," the general mass of the inhabitants, against the "prudhommes," or " wiser " few, which brought about, as it passed from the regulation of trade to the general government of the town, the great civic revolution of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. On the Continent, and especially along the Rhine, the struggle was as fierce as the supremacy of the older burghers had been complete. In Köln the craftsmen had been reduced to all but serfage, and the merchant of Brussels might box at his will the ears of "the man without heart or honour who lives by his toil." Such social tyranny of class over class brought a century of bloodshed to the cities of Germany; but in England the tyranny of class over class had been restrained by the general tenor of the law, and the revolution took for the most part a milder form. The longest and bitterest strife of all was naturally at London. Nowhere had the territorial constitution struck root so deeply, and nowhere had the landed oligarchy risen to such a height of wealth and influence. The i city was divided into wards, each of which was governed by an alder man drawn from the ruling class.
In some, indeed, the office seems to have become hereditary. The " magnates," or " barons," of the merchant-gild advised alone on all matters of civic government or trade regulation, and distributed or assessed at their will the revenues or burthens of the town. Such a position afforded an opening for corruption and oppression of the most galling kind; and it seems to have been the general impression of the unfair assessment levied on the poor, and the undue burthens which were thrown on the unenfranchised classes, which provoked the first serious discontent. William of the Long Beard, himself one of the governing body, placed himself at the head of a conspiracy which numbered, in the terrified fancy of the burghers, fifty thousand of the craftsmen. His eloquence, his bold defiance of the aldermen in the town-mote, gained him at any rate a wide popularity, and the crowds who surrounded him hailed him as " the saviour of the poor." One of his addresses is luckily preserved to us by a hearer of the time. In mediaeval fashion he began with a text from the Vulgate," Ye shall draw water with joy from the fountain of the Saviour." " I," he began, " am the saviour of the poor.
Ye poor men who have felt the weight of rich men's hands, draw from my fountain waters of wholesome instruction and that with joy, for the time of your visitation is at hand. For I will divide the waters from the waters. It is the people who are the waters, and I will divide the lowly and faithful folk from the proud and faithless folk; I will part the chosen from the reprobate as light from darkness." But it was in vain that by appeals to the King he strove to win royal favour for the popular cause. The support of the moneyed classes was essential to Richard in the costly wars with Philip of France) and the Justiciar, Archbishop Hubert, after a moment of hesitation, issued orders for his arrest. William felled with an axe the first soldier who advanced to seize him, and taking refuge with a few followers in the tower of St. Mary-le- Bow, summoned his adherents to rise. Hubert, however, who had already flooded the city with troops, with bold contempt of the right of sanctuary, set fire to the tower and forced William to surrender.
A burgher's son, whose father he had slain, stabbed him as he came forth, and with his death the quarrel slumbered for more than fifty years.
No further movement, In fact, took place till the outbreak of the Barons' war, but the city had all through the interval been seething with discontent; the unenfranchised craftsmen, under pretext of preserving the peace, had united in secret frith-gilds of their own, and mobs rose from time to time to sack the houses of foreigners and the wealthier burghers. But it was not till the civil war began that the open contest recommenced. The craftsmen forced their way into the town-mote, and setting aside the aldermen and magnates, chose Thomas Fitz-Thomas for their mayor. Although dissension still raged during the reign of the second Edward, we may regard this election as marking the final victory of the craft-gilds. Under his successor all contest seems to have ceased: charters had been granted to every trade, their ordinances formally recognized and enrolled in the mayor's court, and distinctive liveries assumed to which they owed the name of "Livery Companies" which they still retain. The wealthier citizens, who found their old power broken, regained influence by enrolling themselves as members of the trade-gilds, and Edward the Third himself humoured the current of civic feeling by becoming a member of the gild of Armourers. This event marks the time when the government of our towns had become more really popular than it ever again became till the Municipal Reform Act of our own days.
It had passed from the hands of an oligarchy into those of the middle classes, and there was nothing as yet to foretell the reactionary revolution by which the trade-gilds themselves became an obligarchy as narrow as that which they had deposed.