Knights, with a long retinue of their squires,
In gaudy liveries march and quaint attires;
One laced the helm, another held the lance,
A third the shining buckler did advance.
The courser paw'd the ground with restless feet,
And snorting foam'd and champ'd the golden bit.
The smiths and armourers on palfreys ride,
Files in their hands, and hammers at their side;
And nails for loosen'd spears, and thongs for shields provide.
The yeomen guard the streets in seemly bands;
And clowns come crowding on, with cudgels in their hands.
Palamon and Arcite
The condition of the English nation was at this time sufficiently miserable. King Richard
was absent a prisoner, and in the power of the perfidious and cruel Duke of Austria.
Even the very place of his captivity was uncertain, and his fate but very imperfectly
known to the generality of his subjects, who were, in the meantime, a prey to every
species of subaltern oppression.
Prince John, in league with Philip of France, Coeur-de-Lion's mortal enemy, was using
every species of influence with the Duke of Austria, to prolong the captivity of his
brother Richard, to whom he stood indebted for so many favours. In the meantime, he
was strengthening his own faction in the kingdom, of which he proposed to dispute the
succession, in case of the King's death, with the legitimate heir, Arthur Duke of Brittany,
son of Geoffrey Plantagenet, the elder brother of John. This usurpation, it is well known,
he afterwards effected. His own character being light, profligate, and perfidious, John
easily attached to his person and faction, not only all who had reason to dread the
resentment of Richard for criminal proceedings during his absence, but also the
numerous class of "lawless resolutes," whom the crusades had turned back on their
country, accomplished in the vices of the East, impoverished in substance, and
hardened in character, and who placed their hopes of harvest in civil commotion. To
these causes of public distress and apprehension, must be added, the multitude of
outlaws, who, driven to despair by the oppression of the feudal nobility, and the severe
exercise of the forest laws, banded together in large gangs, and, keeping possession of
the forests and the wastes, set at defiance the justice and magistracy of the country.
The nobles themselves, each fortified within his own castle, and playing the petty
sovereign over his own dominions, were the leaders of bands scarce less lawless and
oppressive than those of the avowed depredators. To maintain these retainers, and to
support the extravagance and magnificence which their pride induced them to affect,
the nobility borrowed sums of money from the Jews at the most usurious interest, which
gnawed into their estates like consuming cankers, scarce to be cured unless when
circumstances gave them an opportunity of getting free, by exercising upon their
creditors some act of unprincipled violence.