Post-classical history

CHAPTER NINE

Mile End

At some point on Wednesday 12 June messengers had begun passing between the city and the rebels at Blackheath. Two infamous inquisitions held before the sheriffs of London in November 1382 recount how the mayor William Walworth and his council had appointed three aldermen, John Horn, Adam Karlille and John Fresshe, to go to Tyler’s forces and tell them not to come any closer to the city. The rebels ‘had been on the point of returning to their homes’ but Horn ‘exceeded his instructions’ and persuaded them ‘with sweet words … that the whole of the city of London felt as they did and that they would be received in the city with the friendship that a father offers his son or a lover his loved one’. As a result, the indictments claim, the rebels immediately advanced towards London and sacked the Marshalsea. Horn entertained some of the rebel leaders at his home overnight and then the next day, pretending to have mayoral authority, he took a standard of the royal arms and, contradicting a royal envoy carrying a message to the rebelswhose path he had crossed, urged them to come to London where they would be offered any help they needed. One of Horn’s co-conspirators, Walter Sibil, stood on the bridge and, repulsing offers of help to resist the rebels, left the gates open and unguarded, declaring, ‘These Kentishmen are friends to us and the king’, thus allowing ‘the said traitors and their bands free entry and exit into the city although he ought to have prevented them from entering and could have done so easily’. Another alderman, William Tonge, was similarly accused of opening the Aldgate at night so that the Essex rebels could gain entry to the city.1

This seems a plausible explanation of how the rebels were able to get into London so easily – not least because Sibil and Tonge were the aldermen responsible for Bridge ward and Aldgate ward respectively – but it is untrue: the inquisitions are a classic case of the malicious laying of false evidence to discredit political rivals. They were held during the mayoralty of John of Northampton, a protégé of Gaunt and a radical outsider who wanted to overthrow the old guard and reform the city constitution. All the aldermen named were members of the powerful group of victuallers against whom his efforts were aimed and each one had held many offices in the city; Sibil, Tonge and Karlille had represented London in parliament and Fresshe had been one of the third poll-tax collectors. Northampton was briefly successful since the charges were repeated in parliament by one of his supporters and all five were imprisoned in the Tower, only to be released through the intercession of William Walworth and John Philipot, who stood bail for them. Three months into the next mayoralty they were all declared innocent when no one could be found to testify against them. Although this could be dismissed as further politicking (Northampton himself was arrested shortly afterwards and would eventually be permanently deprived of his freedom of the city), Tonge, Karlille and Fresshe all resumed their political careers at the heart of the civic administration: Tonge and Karlille both became MPs and Fresshe served as mayor. Sibil was never fully restored to his position as alderman, which suggests that, even if he had not committed the treason attributed to him, he was held culpable for his failure to hold London Bridge against the rebels, but he too continued to enjoy royal favour and served as a councillor and ambassador to Prussia. Only Horn disappears from the record after his release, which might indicate that he was guilty of colluding with the rebels, or that he was too heavily implicated by his dealings with them to be accepted back into the city elite. If he had encouraged the attack on the Marshalsea (not that the Kentishmen needed much encouragement), then most Londoners would have supported him; in the wake of the revolt, however, it would not have been politic for the city government openly to condone such action.2

Horn, Karlille and Fresshe were not the only messengers passing between the rebels and those in authority in London. The king too sent his envoys to ask those gathered at Blackheath what they wanted; they responded by sending their prisoner, Sir John Newenton, the constable of Rochester Castle, with a message to Richard that they wished to speak with him, their intention being to tell him face to face ‘how all that they have done or will do is for him and his honour’ and how his uncles and the clergy, especially archbishop Sudbury his chancellor, had not governed the realm well for a long time and that they should be held to account. Newenton therefore had himself rowed across the Thames to the Tower where, because he was known, he was admitted to the king’s presence. According to Froissart, the king’s mother, two half-brothers, the earls of Salisbury, Warwick and Oxford, archbishop Sudbury, the treasurer Sir Robert Hales, the mayor of London William Walworth, several burgesses and four Hainaulters, including Froissart’s friends Robert, count of Namur and Jean, lord of Gommegnies, were all present when Newenton delivered his message. The constable told Richard that the rebels desired him to come to speak with them at Blackheath, that he need not fear for his safety ‘for they hold and will hold you for their king’, and asked for a reply that he could take back to appease them ‘for they have my children in hostage till I return again to them’. After taking his councillors’ advice, Richard told Newenton that he would come the following morning as requested, but would travel by boat and meet the rebels at his Thames-side manor of Rotherhithe, which was less than four miles from Blackheath.3 It was a sensible compromise: close enough to Blackheath to show willing but on the opposite bank from the city, two miles away from the vulnerable London Bridge and affording Richard the chance to escape quickly by boat if things turned nasty.

Next morning, 13 June, the feast of Corpus Christi, Richard heard mass in the Tower, boarded the royal barge with some of his councillors and, accompanied by his men in four other barges, was rowed downriver to Rotherhithe. If his party had been expecting to meet only a deputation of leaders, they must have been horrified to see a huge and noisy throng of rebels gathering on the river bank to greet their king. Whatever Richard’s own views – and he was not lacking in personal courage – his councillors could not allow the fourteen-year-old king to risk being abducted, manhandled or possibly even killed. They therefore refused to land, turned tail and rowed back to the safety of the Tower.4 According to some chroniclers, Tyler’s forces were so enraged by this breach of faith that they decided to take matters into their own hands and storm their way into the city. As they made their way through Southwark their ranks were swelled by substantial numbers of local people, among them such leading lights as John Brenchesley, who had been one of the collectors of the third poll-tax, and at least three others who would serve repeatedly as tax-collectors in future.5 Like so many in the vicinity of London they joined the revolt not as a protest against taxation but as an opportunity to wreak vengeance on the king’s ministers and John of Gaunt in particular.

It was the fact that Londoners themselves were not just willing but eager to take up arms that seems to have paralysed the administration: their loyalty could not be relied upon. Walworth and his aldermen must have given orders for the gates to be shut against the rebels and the drawbridge on London bridge to be raised, but several chroniclers allege that the rebels ‘enjoyed free access to and exit from the city’ because the inhabitants chose not to prevent them from doing so. The Anonimalle specifically accused the men of Southwark of actively forcing the bridge-keepers to let the rebels through and even claims that the Savoy Palace was put to the torch by ‘the commons of London … before the commons of the country arrived’. Walsingham asserts that the rebels ‘went in and out’, winning over the locals with their talk of liberty, their insistence that they would not plunder at all but buy everything at a fair price ‘and that if they discovered anyone guilty of theft, they would execute him because they detested robbers’.6 The chroniclers’ allegations are borne out by the documentary evidence. The private prosecutions brought by Gaunt and Butterwick against the rebels who destroyed their London properties were overwhelmingly brought against people from the city and the list of those excluded from the right to claim a pardon named 150 Londoners (and a further twenty-three from its county, Middlesex), compared with only eleven men from Essex and twenty-eight from Kent and Canterbury combined. Just like their country counterparts, the London rebels came from a variety of social backgrounds from vintners, goldsmiths and innkeepers down through the ranks of the dozens of artisans and craftsmen – weavers, tailors, saddlers and cobblers (including a children’s shoemaker) – to the humble servants, water-carriers, porters, boatmen, tinkers and ‘travelling-men’. Intriguingly, they include William Brampton, ‘formerly gate-keeper of Cripplegate’, one of the three gates on the northern side of the city which were near to both Smithfield and the Hospitallers’ priory at Clerkenwell. Here, at least, we have direct evidence of a gate-keeper who threw in his lot with the rebels instead of defending the city against them.7

Whether the Kentishmen and their local recruits crossed the bridge in dribs and drabs, or swarmed across in an irresistible tide of humanity, by the afternoon of Thursday 13 June they had cleared their first major hurdle by crossing the Thames and were now in the heart of the city. What is more, if Gaunt’s and Butterwick’s prosecutions are to be believed, they had also been joined by the rebel groups from Essex who, having gathered outside the walls at Mile End, entered the city by the Aldgate.8 Where or when they made their rendezvous is not known and the chronology of what happened next is so beset with challenges and contradictions that it is almost impossible to draw up a coherent account. The ‘official’ version prepared for insertion in the city corporation’s letter-book notes only that the rebels of both counties ‘by the aid within the city of perfidious commoners of their own condition, who rose in countless numbers there, … suddenly entered the city together’, but instead of rampaging and looting through the streets as might have been expected they passed ‘straight through’ on their way to the Savoy Palace.9

Gaunt himself was not at his palace but far away at the other end of the kingdom, negotiating a truce with the Scots, so he escaped the fate of his fellow royal councillors and that of his residence, ‘unrivalled in splendour and nobility within England’, which was sacked so thoroughly it would never be rebuilt. Much to the amazement of the chroniclers, the rebels did not steal Gaunt’s possessions, but simply destroyed them. ‘They took all the torches they could find, and lighted them, and burnt all the cloths, coverlets and beds, as well as all the very valuable head-boards (of which one, decorated with heraldic shields, was said to be worth a thousand marks). All the napery and other goods they could discover they carried into the hall and set on fire with their torches. They burnt the hall and chambers as well as all the apartments within the gates of the said palace’. Gold and silver plate, jewels and anything that would not burn was hacked to pieces and thrown into the Thames or the sewers. Since they could not find Gaunt himself, the rebels made do with a representation of him: Walsingham tells us that when they found one of Gaunt’s most valuable quilted short tunics they hung it on a lance and then used it as an archery target before finally tearing it apart with their swords and axes.10 ‘And let it be known’, wrote the chronicler Henry Knighton, who knew many of Gaunt’s officials personally, ‘that the keeper of [Gaunt’s] wardrobe asserted and swore that he believed no Christian king nor anyone else had a better wardrobe: he said that it was so full of silver vessels and jewels, not counting others gilded or made of pure gold, that five carts could hardly have held them.’ Everything there was lost. Inventories of the contents of the Savoy Palace made before 1381 and preserved elsewhere reveal that goods and chattels valued at ten thousand pounds were destroyed; the loss to the chapel alone was later calculated at five hundred pounds. The damage to the fabric of the building could not be quantified but it is a measure of how thoroughly it was gutted that lead from the roof worth one hundred shillings would later be salvaged for the repairs to Hertford Castle.11

Despite the rebel leaders’ insistence that nothing should be stolen, on pain of execution, some thefts did occur. A man who tried to steal a fine piece of silver was allegedly thrown into the fires, together with his prize, by his fellow rebels, who said that ‘they were lovers of truth and justice, not robbers and thieves’. Around thirty-two others became drunk on Gaunt’s wine but were then trapped in the cellars when the building above collapsed; in the sort of morality tale beloved of medieval commentators, their cries and lamentations were said to have been heard for the next seven days before they finally expired. The most fascinating incident, however, escaped the chroniclers’ attention. Joanna Ferrour of Rochester was later indicted by a Middlesex jury of having been ‘a chief actor and leader’ in many of the main events in London. Among them was the charge that she had participated in the burning of the Savoy Palace but had also ‘taken a certain chest, in which was a thousand pounds sterling belonging to John, duke of Lancaster, and more besides, and she placed the said chest in a certain small boat on the Thames and carried it away and took it all the way to Southwark, and there she divided up the said gold between herself and others’. Her husband John Ferrour, otherwise known as John Marchall, and another Kentishman, Roger atte Wode, were also indicted for the same offences. In 1383 the Ferrours were acquitted and atte Wode pardoned; the indictments may have been malicious or mistaken, but they are unusually detailed and, as we shall see, there were probably good reasons why the charges were eventually dropped.12

The chroniclers were so mesmerised by the scale of the devastation at the Savoy Palace that they did not look beyond the physical evidence before them. Yet the financial consequences to Gaunt of the loss of his main residence were not limited to what was lost or destroyed there but affected his income for years to come. For the Savoy Palace was the administrative centre of his estates across the country and the rebels had also burned all the records he kept there and killed the clerks who managed his financial affairs. Ten months later Gaunt was excused having to account to the exchequer and pay back the money he had received for the wages of his Breton campaign in 1378 and his two recent expeditions to the Scottish borders ‘because the writings and accounts relating to the same were burnt at his manor of Savoye in the late insurrection, and some of the clerks are dead’. As late as 1388 a general survey of Gaunt’s estates revealed that many of his bailiffs in the south had not accounted to him for their judicial revenues since the revolt because all their previous records were destroyed at the Savoy Palace.13

The Anonimalle chronicler noted that ‘the commons of Kent received the blame for this arson, but some said that the Londoners were really guilty of the deed, because of their hatred for the said duke’. Gaunt’s prosecutions of those who had been involved in the sacking of his palace reveal his awareness that Londoners were primarily responsible. Perhaps wisely, therefore, he decided not to rebuild his palace and provoke them with a further display of his wealth and power. Whenever he returned to London in future he would instead rent properties from the bishop of Ely or the abbot of Westminster.14 The Savoy Palace itself would remain a blackened ruin, a stark reminder of the consequences of bad government to all who passed it, particularly those with affairs of state on their mind as they made their way to attend court or parliament at Westminster.

After burning the Savoy Palace the rebels made their way out beyond Smithfield to Clerkenwell. It was here that the Knights Hospitaller had their provincial headquarters, the priory of St John of Jerusalem, which was ultimately responsible for the administration of the order and its properties throughout England, Wales and Scotland. More like a village than a religious house, the priory extended over a ten-acre site at Clerkenwell, while also owning much larger tracts of land farther north in the parish. Even at this period it probably had an outer gated ward enclosing the formal walled quarters. At its heart lay the great church built in 1144–60, with the characteristic round nave favoured by military orders, sixty-five feet in diameter, of which three bays of the vaulted crypt are the only modern survival. Despite its prestige and the grandeur of its buildings, only a handful of Hospitaller knights lived on site, which helps to explain why it was so easily overrun by the London rebels on the evening of 13 June.15 Since the preceptory at Cressing Temple was the first place targeted by the Essex insurgents it was not to be supposed that the headquarters of the order, where its prior Robert Hales was based, would escape the rebels’ wrath. Hales had only been treasurer of England since February 1381 but he was indelibly marked by his association with the military failures of the reign, having been admiral of the fleet west of the Thames in 1376–7 and part of Woodstock’s doomed expedition of 1377, and by his assiduous attendance at royal council meetings which had decided government policy in the ensuing years. Although he had not been treasurer when the third poll-tax was granted, he bore much of the personal responsibility for the subsequent heavy-handed enforcement of its collection.16

Just like the Savoy Palace, the priory was well and truly sacked: the fire was said to have burned continuously for the next seven days and virtually everything was destroyed apart from the stone church.17 Hales’ successor as prior would bring private prosecutions against men like John Halingbury of Wandsworth, whom he accused of having broken into his close and his houses, ‘burnt his charters, writings, court rolls and other muniments, took and carried away his goods and chattels worth £40, and did him other enormities against the king’s peace’. Robert Gardiner of Holborn was also indicted, not only for stealing a chalice valued at one hundred shillings but also for killing seven nameless Flemings in Clerkenwell; despite these crimes he was pardoned on 2 February 1382.18 Several of the priory’s own employees were among those indicted, including Hales’ servant John Gamelyn, his falconer John Webbe and a former servant, possibly his steward, Richard Mory of Clerkenwell. The last, a relatively prosperous man, was one of three men subject to a special petition from ‘certain lords’ in the parliament of October 1382 that they should be excluded from the king’s grace because they were ‘the chief instigators, abettors and procurers of the great and terrible rising and insurrection lately treacherously committed within the kingdom … and especially the leaders of the firing and destruction of the house and manors of the order of St John of Jerusalem in England’.19

While relatively little is known about Mory, and nothing about Richard Dell, the third subject of the petition was one of the few rebels whose actions and motives are well documented. Thomas Farndon was a goldsmith who had represented the county of Middlesex in the parliament of 1377. He was a member of one of the city’s leading families which had practised that craft for several generations and become wealthy property owners and aldermen of the city. Farndon himself held properties within the city walls at Wood Street and in the extra-mural suburb of Farringdon Without; he also had a small country estate about twelve miles north of London in Enfield, acquired in January 1378, consisting of eight messuages, 160 acres of land, fifty acres of meadow, sixty-five acres of pasture and sixteen acres of woodland, with a further eight acres of meadow a mile away at Cheshunt. For at least twelve years, however, Farndon had been involved in a bitter legal dispute with his extended family over the ownership of seven shops and a garden in the London suburbs and two dwellings and ten shops in the city. Both claimed the properties were theirs by right of inheritance but his main opponent, Richard Weston, had stalled the proceedings by declaring that Farndon’s father was illegitimate. The case had also dragged on because it was caught up in legal arguments over errors in the process and disputes over jurisdictional rights between the crown and the city corporation. Farndon had lost the most recent round but on 6 February 1381 initiated further proceedings.20

It was Farndon’s deep sense of grievance amounting to monomania on this subject that involved him in the uprising and almost cost him his life. The following day, Friday 14 June, he was among the crowds at Tower Hill and there confronted the king, demanding that he should recognise his title to the property ‘which Richard Weston had seized from him’ so that he could legally take it back again: ‘and he said that, if the lord king did not wish to recognise his legal title to that same tenement, then he would take possession of it on his own authority’ using the power of the rebel mob. These rash words were sufficient to get him into serious trouble, but what turned the whole incident into a capital offence was that his enemies, possibly prompted by Weston, later alleged that he had demanded justice from the king against Robert Hales, calling him a ‘false traitor’ who had ‘falsely and fraudulently’ deprived him of his tenements and using the same threat that, if the king failed to restore his tenements to him, then ‘know that I am strong enough to do justice on my own account and to secure my possession and entry into those tenements’. What is more, to increase the seriousness of Farndon’s offence, it was alleged that the incident had taken place at Mile End, which of itself identified him as a rebel, and that, to speak to the king, he had ‘criminally, treasonably and irreverently’ grabbed the reins of the king’s horse, an action which could be construed as lèse-majesty. Weston was thus painted out of the picture and replaced by Hales, creating a plausible reason for Farndon’s alleged involvement in the sacking of the Temple, the priory at Clerkenwell and the Hospitallers’ manor at Highbury, and justifying the allegation that ‘he was the principal cause of the death of [prior] Robert Hales’. Just for good measure, Farndon was accused of being head of a band of rebels which had attacked Cressing Temple and, even more improbably, spending the night of 13 June with a group of Kentish rebels compiling a list of citizens to be executed and their properties destroyed.21

In this way a genuine incident was doctored in the retelling to turn a private quarrel into a political one that could have resulted in Farndon’s execution. It is possible that Farndon compounded his foolishness by using the general mayhem to seize back his properties, though the charges against him were extremely weak. He was apparently arrested ‘in the vicinity of’ the house of John Knot in ‘Stanynglane’ when it was being demolished by the rebels and he was also accused of threatening to demolish the house in St Giles-Without-Cripplegate of Gilbert Prynce, a wealthy portrait painter, but even the jurors who indicted him for this said that he did not actually carry out his threat. Farndon received a pardon on 25 February 1382 at the request of the queen and of the aldermen of London who attested to his innocence, but he was unable to shake off the accusations against him. These resurfaced in the parliament of October 1382 and led to his being excluded from pardon and grace with Richard Mory and Richard Dell.22 This is the key to Farndon’s difficulties for the parliamentary action occurred during the mayoralty of John of Northampton – who had also secured the inquisitions which accused the five aldermen of complicity in the rebels’ entry into London – and those same inquisitions are the source of the fabricated charges against Farndon. Clearly he had become caught up in the political skulduggery between Northampton and his opponents as they fought for control of the city’s administration and his demonstrable innocence further undermines the case against the five aldermen. It also removes from the ranks of confirmed rebels the only member of the city elite whose involvement has hitherto been unquestioned.

The chroniclers imply that it was the same group of rebels who went from one scene of devastation to the next on that first day of the uprising in London, and it is indeed possible to plot a plausible route based on that trail between the city, the Savoy Palace and Clerkenwell. The Fleet prison, for instance, which lay just outside Ludgate, was just off Fleet Street, the main route from the city to the Savoy Palace. Farther along the same street lay the Temple, then, as now, the hub for London lawyers. The rebels thoroughly demolished the houses there, stripping the tiles off their roofs so that they were exposed to the elements, and forced their way into Temple church, where they ‘seized all the books, rolls and remembrances kept in the cupboards of the apprentices of the law within the Temple, carried them into the high road and burnt them there’.23 It is difficult now to disentangle whether the same bands were responsible for these acts of violence on their way to or from the Savoy Palace, or whether once the violence had begun it simply spread from place to place as others joined in; even contemporary chroniclers seem to have struggled to construct a coherent narrative. It seems illogical, for instance, that the Essex rebels based at Mile End should have made a detour through London and out to the Savoy Palace before returning to attack the priory at Clerkenwell, which was just three and a half miles from their starting point; and unless those involved had stayed in London overnight, time would surely have been against them if they had participated in all the attacks along the way before nightfall. Given the levels of coordination between them in the past it is not inconceivable that the Kentishmen led the assault on the Savoy Palace and the men from Essex led that on the priory. We do not know: but it is indisputable that Londoners themselves played a major role in these events.

Jack Straw also emerges in person, if briefly, from the shadows at this point. Before daybreak on Friday 14 June, the abbot of St Albans had sent a delegation to the king because he had learned that his tenants from St Albans and Barnet were intending to join the rebels in London. Their road took them through Highbury, where the abbot’s men saw the rebel hordes destroying the recently refurbished Hospitallers’ manor: ‘a multitude of twenty thousand rustics and common people who had set fire to its buildings, already burning inextinguishably, and were striving to pull down with their tools all that the fire could not destroy. They saw men summoned and forced before one of the leaders of the rebels, called “John Strawe”, who made them promise that they would adhere to King Richard and the commons’.24 Other than the ‘Rakestrawman’ proclamation at Thanet, this is the only credible reference25 that places Straw in an act of rebellion, though of course the abbey delegates or Walsingham might simply have assumed that this was the leader’s identity. The vignette nevertheless confirms the repeated assertion that the rebels compelled all they met to swear allegiance to the king and his ‘true commons’. The Anonimalle, for instance, describes as their ‘wache word’ the question ‘With whom haldes yow?’ to which the reply was ‘Wyth kynge Richarde and wyth the trew communes’; ‘and those who did not know how to reply or would not do so were beheaded and put to death’.26

The London uprising was no different from those in any other town in that once it had been started by the rebel bands from Essex and Kent, local people took it over and made it their own. The Marshalsea, King’s Bench and Fleet prisons, all of which housed prisoners from outside London, had already been broken open by the Kentishmen and their supporters; on 14 June it was Londoners who freed the prisoners at Westminster (newly erected by the abbot of Westminster as part of his gatehouse to the abbey) and Newgate. Both prisons served the local population but Newgate was said to be packed with people held indefinitely because they were either too poor to find sureties for their good behaviour or were suspicious strangers who had been arrested in the panic caused by the French attacks because they were ‘running hither and thither about the place like spies’; those released from Newgate were said to have offered their iron chains in the church of the Friars Minor in token of their gratitude.27 The release of so many indicted and convicted criminals into the toxic atmosphere must have contributed to the violence. John Kirkton, also called Echard, an escapee from Newgate was accused of burning the Savoy Palace, the Hospitallers’ manor at Highbury and Stephen Maynard’s houses near Highgate. Although acquitted by a jury, perhaps because it was impossible for him to have been at the Savoy Palace since he was not freed until the following day, he remained in prison because he had been excluded from the general amnesty and, having no possessions, could not afford to buy a pardon. Released on bail because of ill health in October 1382 he failed to appear before parliament a few days later, resulting in orders being issued for his arrest and those of his sureties.28

Another escapee, John Benet of Barford St John, Oxfordshire, had been convicted of larceny but was staving off execution by claiming to be a cleric when he was freed by the rebels from the King’s Bench prison at Southwark; he participated in the burning of the Savoy Palace and the jail-breaking of the Marshalsea and Newgate but was recaptured and, as a convicted felon, was almost certain of execution. He therefore turned approver, accusing Thomas Wootton of Kent of leading the attack on the Marshalsea and forcing him to hand over six silver spoons which Richard Imworth’s wife had allegedly given Benet for safe-keeping. Since the accusation could not be proved before a jury, Wootton was forced to defend himself in trial by combat which he lost, and was therefore executed. In Benet’s desperation to escape a similar fate he invented an even more elaborate story, that on 14 June (the day of the Newgate jail-break) he and two other Oxfordshire men had been at Portsmouth where they had received one hundred pounds in gold from an esquire of Jean de Vienne, admiral of France, with a further hundred pounds promised for collection at Rye if they persuaded as many English forces as possible to withdraw from the south coast to facilitate a French invasion. This was an invention too far. The jury declared him guilty of being ‘a chief rebel’ and he was duly hanged.29

There must have been many more Kirktons and Benets on the streets of London after 13 June, even if their stories were less colourful. It was no surprise then that among the first individuals to be attacked was a quest-monger, the medieval equivalent of an ambulance-chaser, who laid information against alleged wrongdoers to encourage petty lawsuits. Roger Leget had been a professional lawyer since at least 1360, witnessing charters for, among others, Sir Robert Knolles, and building up a nice little property portfolio in Holborn, including two dwelling houses and fifteen shops in the parish of St Andrew’s. He was wealthy enough to employ his own private chaplain, which was probably a necessity given his trade and his character: a peculiarly nasty manifestation of the latter was his building a new dyke on Fikettsfield next to the Staple Inn to keep out the clerks, apprentices and others who daily came ‘to play their common games there’. When that failed to work, he had ‘privily put and hidden’ caltraps – spiked devices used on military operations to bring down horses – along the top of and all around the dyke. His punishment had been a ‘long abode’ in the Fleet prison but he bought himself out by paying a fine of twenty marks. He would not be able to buy himself out of the situation he faced in 1381. Knowing he was a target, he had fled to the sanctuary of St Martin-le-Grand while his houses in Holborn were attacked and burned, but he was dragged away from the high altar, taken to Cheapside and there beheaded.30 Like Richard Imworth, warden of the Marshalsea, who would meet a similar fate the following day,31 he had made many enemies among the criminal fraternity of London and those whom he had unjustly imprisoned.

Friday 14 June also saw a concerted attack on the properties of another corrupt lawyer with close connections to the King’s Bench. The houses at Knightsbridge, Ebury and Tothill of John Butterwick, under-sheriff of Middlesex, were all attacked and burned; among the seven hundred alleged rebels whom he would later privately prosecute in twenty separate actions was William Pecche, the clerk who was also accused of dragging Imworth from sanctuary at Westminster and murdering him. Butterwick’s scattergun approach to his prosecutions – he shared information with Gaunt’s lawyers in a bid to secure conviction for any crime, rather than specifically identifying those who had committed the offences against him – suggest that he had a casual attitude towards establishing the truth which was hardly compatible with his office.32 Stephen Maynard, whose properties in West Smithfield and near Highgate were burned down the same day, had been accused in 1378 during an inquisition held by the mayor John Philipot of being a ‘common maintainer of plaints’, in other words, a quest-monger like Leget.33

All these victims of the revolt, and many more besides, were people in whom the Kentish and Essex rebels can have had no interest, even if they knew of their existence, which reinforces the theme that this was now an uprising by Londoners against Londoners. The only person of any broader significance who might have been recognised and attacked by rebels from outside the city was Richard Lyons, whose manor of Overhall at Liston had already been sacked by the combined forces of men from Essex and Suffolk. The fact that he was dragged from his house, however, before being taken to Cheapside to be beheaded again implies local knowledge.34

All that distinguished the London revolt from those in other towns was the scale of the violence and the eminence of those victims who, even as the uprising gathered pace across the city, were sheltering in the Tower. From this vantage point they could not fail to see the fires burning on every horizon or hear the shouts of the mob as they raised a cry against their next victim and surged through the streets to burn, demolish and kill. To add to their terror, many knew that their own lives were in danger: the king had already received a petition from the Kentish rebels demanding the heads of Gaunt and fifteen other royal councillors, including the chancellor Sudbury, the treasurer Hales, the keeper of the privy seal John Fordham, the chief justice Robert Bealknapp, the chief baron of the exchequer John Plesyngton, Sir Ralph Ferrers (Gaunt’s retainer who had violated the sanctuary at Westminster Abbey to kill John Hawley and a sacristan in August 1378 and had been accused but cleared of treason in the parliament of 1380) and two of the most notorious reassessors and enforcers of the third poll-tax, John Legge and John Bampton. All but Gaunt, who was still in the Scottish marches, were said to have been in the Tower, but this seems unlikely given that most of them escaped unharmed. Fordham may already have had a narrow escape in that the place where he was staying, the bishop of Chester’s inn on the Strand close to the Savoy Palace, was raided by rebels who drank the contents of its cellars but left the building itself unscathed.35

Also present in the Tower were said to have been William Walworth with several of his aldermen; four earls, Salisbury, Warwick, Oxford and Kent (Richard’s thirty-one-year-old half-brother), all of whom had considerable military experience as veterans of the campaigns against the French; the young king’s other half-brother John Holland, who had also fought the French; his mother the princess of Wales, who, if Froissart is to be believed, had already been treated disrespectfully by rebels she had encountered on the road to London as she returned from a pilgrimage to Canterbury; and a handful of Hainaulter lords with long-standing connections to the English court. To this list provided by Froissart the Anonimalle adds Sir Robert Knolles, one of the most famous and successful professional soldiers of the day, with decades of experience in Brittany; Sir Thomas Percy, another veteran of many a French campaign and a Knight of the Garter; and finally Thomas of Woodstock, Richard’s uncle, whose disastrous Breton expedition in 1380–1 had been one of the underlying causes of the revolt. Woodstock’s presence seems highly unlikely, given how provocative it would have been to the rebels, but his exact whereabouts at this crucial time are unclear. There was another person there, not mentioned by any of the chroniclers, whose capture or death would have been high on any rebel agenda: Richard’s fourteen-year-old cousin Henry Bolingbroke, the only legitimate son and heir of John of Gaunt.36

With or without Woodstock, this list demonstrates that Richard had plenty of experienced people around him to advise him on what steps he should now take. Just to focus their minds, a growing crowd of rebels had been gathering to the east of the Tower since the evening of 13 June. This area, known as St Katherine’s, was just outside the city wall and home to the hospital of St Katherine by the Tower, a twelfth-century charitable foundation beloved by the king’s grandmother Queen Philippa. Run by a master and three priests who said daily masses for the souls of past kings and queens of England, it housed twenty-four poor people including six poor scholars, cared for by a number of sisters. Though the hospital statutes decreed that one thousand poor men were each to receive ½d. on the anniversary of Henry III’s death (16 November), this had been abandoned by 1377 owing to the expense of rebuilding the great church which dominated the site. Perhaps the brethren and sisters saw fit to distribute food or offer overnight shelter to the rebels, for all the hospital’s buildings were left untouched by those gathering in its shadow.37

The king and his councillors appear to have tried various stratagems to persuade the rebels to leave. Richard had it proclaimed to them that they would all receive pardons for any crimes they had committed if they returned home peaceably, only to be met with the response that they would not go until they had captured the traitors in the Tower, received a full account from the chancellor of all the taxes that had been raised over the past five years and been given charters freeing them ‘from all manner of serfdom’. Richard prevaricated, repeating his offer in a further proclamation written out in the rebels’ presence and sealed with his personal signet, which ‘willed and commanded’ them to put their grievances in writing to him and promised that he would provide ‘such remedy as shall be profitable both to him and to them, and to the kingdom’. This too was rebuffed with contempt. When these attempts at conciliation failed, some of his councillors suggested that they should make a concerted attack at midnight, bringing armed men down four different streets to converge on the sleeping rebels at St Katherine’s and take them by surprise. ‘They would all be drunk and could be killed like flies, since not one in twenty of them was armed … but none of this was done, for fear of the rest of the common people in London’.38

Either at some point in the evening of Thursday 13 June or more likely during the following morning, when the rebels launched a renewed assault on the prisons, lawyers and Hospitallers’ manor of Highbury, the royal party reached the decision that they would have to negotiate. It would have been safer to have stayed within the Tower precincts and invited rebel delegates in to speak with them, but such was the distrust on either side that this did not happen. Instead, they took the extraordinary decision to send the king himself out to meet the rebels face to face. This was what the rebels had been demanding since their arrival at Blackheath – but it was a highly risky concession which would place the boy-king at the mercy of a volatile and possibly angry crowd. The rebels might not all have been armed but it would only have taken a single rogue archer with a longbow to have brought him down with an arrow through the eye, neck or heart. And if Richard’s councillors had been so afraid of his being captured, wounded or killed that they would not allow him to disembark at Rotherhithe the day before, then why were they now prepared to allow him to ride more than two miles through the streets and suburbs of London to a place where the rebels from Essex had been encamped for some thirty-six hours? Even with a heavily armed escort to protect him, an ambush would have been possible at any point, but more especially at Mile End where the rebels were already in possession of the field. The risks were amply illustrated by the fact that William Treweman, a brewer, was able to seize the bridle of Nicholas Brembre’s horse as he was riding with the king down Aldgate and, having thus stopped him in his tracks, was able to berate the alderman for the injuries done to him by Brembre when the latter was mayor. (Later in the day Treweman would bring a band of rebels to Brembre’s house to intimidate him into handing over five marks, a sum of such insignificance to two very wealthy men that it can only have been a disputed debt.)39

To counterbalance the obvious dangers in leaving the Tower, the king’s councillors could take some comfort from the fact that the rebels had always vowed their express loyalty to Richard himself. What finally convinced them that a meeting was now imperative was the escalating violence within the city. The rebels’ response to the failure of the king to meet them at Rotherhithe had been to invade the capital, and sack the Savoy Palace and the priory at Clerkenwell. What might they do if he refused to go to them again? Something had to be done if the situation was to be retrieved and order restored. A proclamation was duly made to the people assembled at St Katherine’s that if they wanted to speak to the king then they should go to Mile End and he would meet them there without fail. Mile End, ‘a fine open space … situated in the middle of a pleasant meadow, where the people go for recreation in summer’, was easily accessible for both parties inside and outside the Tower but it was far enough away to remove the immediate peril posed by the rebels gathered around St Katherine’s – if they could be induced to leave. It has been persuasively argued that Sudbury and Hales ‘were condemned to almost certain death when Richard rode out to Mile End’; his removal from their company effectively granted the waiting rebels permission to seize his hated councillors and carry out their long-expressed determination to execute them; and, with the young king to all intents and purposes a hostage among the rebels at Mile End, those guarding the Tower had no other course but to surrender because ‘Richard’s life might well be forfeited by any show of opposition on their part’.40 While all this is undoubtedly true, and some historians have taken the argument even further, contending that Richard deliberately abandoned his ministers to their fate, it all assumes that the king and his councillors knew what was about to happen which, of course, they could not. Any of those in the Tower whose names were on the rebels’ list, and particularly Sudbury and Hales, knew what their fate was likely to be if they fell into the rebels’ hands, but the Tower was virtually impregnable so while they remained there they must have felt themselves to be as safe as it was possible to be in the circumstances. There is no greater evidence of this than the fact that, among those left behind in the Tower as the royal party rode out to Mile End, was Richard’s cousin Henry Bolingbroke.

According to Froissart, Richard’s two half-brothers and Jean, lord of Gommegnies, a soldier of fortune who had been in Gaunt’s service since 1369, left the king’s company before it arrived at their destination because they ‘dare not show themselves to the populace at Mile End’. (The fact that no one else made use of this means of escape from the Tower also suggests that those left behind considered it a safer option.)41 Richard rode into the open fields at Mile End preceded by Aubrey de Vere carrying his sword of state and accompanied by his most experienced military advisers, the earls of Salisbury, Warwick and Oxford, Sir Thomas Percy and Sir Robert Knolles, together with the mayor William Walworth and ‘many knights and esquires’; his mother came too, riding in a carriage. Bizarre though it seems that she should have been there, the princess of Wales was widely respected, especially by Londoners, as a conciliator: Gaunt had notably fled to her in the crisis of 1377 and she had sued for peace between him and the rioting citizens of London.42

The so-called Mile End conference was a seminal moment in the revolt and an extraordinary one in the course of English history because, having listened to their demands, the king granted the rebels all their requests. In so doing he made concessions which would have radically altered the very fabric of English society. Yet we know next to nothing about what happened: not the time of the meeting, how long it lasted, what form it took or even who acted as spokesman or spokesmen on behalf of the rebels. Froissart, Knighton and the monk of Westminster refer in vague terms only to Richard granting freedom from bondage ‘for the sake of peace’; Walsingham does not mention the meeting at all but says the king offered the rebels ‘peace’ if they stopped burning and killing and went home. The London letter-book’s ‘official’ version has a unique take designed to divert blame away from its own citizens for the murders at the Tower, stating that ‘all the men from Kent and Essex … together with some of the perfidious persons of the city’ gathered at Mile End where ‘our lord the king granted that they might take those who were traitors against him and slay them, wheresoever they might be found’.43 Though the crowd was probably predominantly made up of people from Essex, since Mile End was their appointed meeting-place, the presence of Kentishmen is confirmed by the indictment of Thomas Noke from the Sittingbourne area who ‘feloniously killed’ James French ‘at Milende in the county of Middlesex’.44 The most detailed account of what happened occurs in the Anonimalle:

And when the king arrived and the commons saw him, they knelt down to him, saying ‘Welcome our Lord King Richard, if it pleases you, and we will not have any other king but you.’ And Wat Teghler, their master and leader, prayed on behalf of the commons that the king would suffer them to take and deal with all the traitors against him and the law. The king granted that they should freely seize all who were traitors and could be proved to be such by process of law … And they required that henceforward no man should be a serf nor make homage or any type of service to any lord, but should give four pence for an acre of land. They asked also that no one should serve any man except at his own will and by means of regular covenant.45

This is the only evidence we have that Wat Tyler was even present at Mile End. Froissart tells us that the king promised he would have letters drawn up at once, sealed with his Great Seal, setting out all that he had granted them. Two or three representatives from each place should remain behind to receive these letters but the rest of the rebels were to return to their homes immediately. As a symbol of his good faith, he offered them banners of the royal arms, one for each county, and told them that they would be pardoned for everything they had done ‘provided that you follow my banners and go back to your own places in the way I told you’. Thirty clerks were then put to the task of writing out the letters.46

Richard was patently sincere in what he said and for the most part the rebels believed him. Accepting his word and his banners – of which more later – the crowds began to disperse, leaving only those waiting for their letters. Two of those letters have survived; one is a draft prepared for the men of Somerset, dated from Westminster on 2 July;47 the second, which varies only very slightly in wording from the first, was copied into his chronicle by Walsingham from the letter ‘extracted by force from the lord king’ by the men of Walsingham’s own county of Hertfordshire:

Richard, by the grace of God, king of England and France, and lord of Ireland, to all his bailiffs and faithful men to whom these present letters come, greetings. Know that by our special grace we have manumitted all our liegemen, subjects and others of the county of Hertford; and we have freed and quitted each of them from bondage by these present letters. We also pardon our said liege men and subjects for all felonies, acts of treason, transgressions and extortions performed by them or any one of them in whatsoever way. We also withdraw sentences of outlawry declared against them or any of them because of these offences. And we hereby grant our complete peace to them and each of them. In testimony of which we order these letters of ours to be made patent. Witnessed by myself at London on 15 June in the fourth year of my reign.48

The official form and language used here tends to obscure what a revolutionary document this is: no less than the complete abolition of villeinage, not just on the king’s own estates but in every lordship throughout the land. As the lords and prelates were quick to point out in the first parliament that met after the revolt, Richard had no authority to free their serfs ‘without the assent of those who had the chief interest in the matter’. In a remarkably emotional outburst, they added that ‘they had never agreed to it, either voluntarily or otherwise, nor would they ever do so, even if it were their dying day’. Though they made their protest respectfully, they made it as robustly as it was possible to do when contradicting their king, adding, for good measure, that on this subject they spoke with one voice with the knights, burgesses and citizens of the House of Commons.49 Richard would be left in no doubt that his abolition of serfdom was not only illegal, it was also actively opposed by all his most important subjects.

Yet this was not all the young king had conceded. Just eighteen days after he made the original grant, and probably under the watchful eye of the new hard-line chief justice, Robert Tresilian, Richard repealed the letters of manumission he had offered at Mile End. In doing so, he recited two extraordinary further concessions he had made which are not mentioned in either of the two extant examples. The first was that he had abolished not just personal villeinage but all villein tenure as well: ‘not an acre of land’ should be held anywhere in bondage or by customary service but only by paying a rent of four pence per acre, with the corollary that if less had been paid in the past, then that lower rate should stand for the future.50 As we have already seen,51 the enforcement of customary dues and services had long been a burning issue, affecting many more people than personal bondage, so the consequences of this act were much more far-reaching than a simple abolition of villeinage by blood. Arbitrary impositions and punitive fines would be a thing of the past and those with the will and capacity to work hard and build up a profitable landholding or business enterprise would be able to do so without hindrance from their landlords. Less than two weeks after the oath at Bocking, the rebels had achieved what their fathers and grandfathers could only have imagined in their wildest dreams.

The second concession revealed in the revocation of the letters Richard had granted to the rebels was, if anything, even more startling. It is not mentioned in any of the chronicles, not even the Anonimalle, and it does not feature in any of the lists of rebel demands reported before, or indeed after, the meeting at Mile End. Yet its consequences would have been even more profound than the abolition of villeinage and villein tenure. Richard agreed that all his subjects were to be free to buy and sell within every city, borough, market-town or other place in the realm of England.52 This would have swept away at a single stroke all the closely guarded monopolies and privileges upon which the economies of every urban community depended. Great religious houses like Bury St Edmunds or St Albans would no longer be able to force their townsmen to use the abbey’s mills or impose other restrictive practices. Neither they, nor secular lords of towns, nor even self-governing urban communities would be able to exact tolls and fines on outsiders. This was something for which all those excluded from elite circles of citizenship had fought for generations: not just country people coming into towns to sell their produce and their wares but every urban dweller, every artisan and craftsman, shopkeeper and street seller, would be free to buy and sell whatever and wherever they chose without having to pay someone else for the privilege. It was a radical concept of free trade which did not exist anywhere in Europe – and indeed still does not exist even today. Had the concession been allowed to stand, it would have transformed both the market economy and the structure of society itself, but once again Richard had acted ‘without the assent of those who had the chief interest in the matter’. The same lords and prelates, knights of the shire and burgesses who had so vehemently objected in parliament to the abolition of villeinage would have been equally united and adamant in their opposition to a measure which would have removed their highly profitable trading privileges. Nevertheless, the fact that the rebels asked for, and were able to gain, Richard’s support for this measure is a further clear indication that the uprising was not just one of the countryside: townsmen were not only involved but had a powerful voice in determining what was at issue.

In this context it is worth noting the two items on the rebel agenda which were not included in Richard’s concessions. Despite the Anonimalle’s assertion that ‘they asked also that no one should serve any man except at his own will and by means of regular covenant’, Richard did not revoke the Statute of Labourers. It is possible that he gave an assurance that he would do this in the next parliament, but there is no evidence that he did so, and if he had it is likely that parliament would have rejected it. The second major issue which was not addressed was the poll-tax. The oath that the Kentish rebels were said to have extracted from pilgrims and other travellers in the vicinity of Canterbury included the clause that they would accept no tax in future except the old subsidy of a tenth and a fifteenth ‘which their fathers and ancestors had known and accepted’.53 Whether or not the king promised that there would be no more poll-taxes, this was the only stated rebel aim that was achieved, ironically only through default: fear of a popular uprising to match that of 1381 was enough to prevent any other English government even attempting to levy another poll-tax for almost exactly six hundred years.

Richard’s complete capitulation to the rebels’ demands has led many historians to believe that it was merely a cynical ploy on the part of the king and his advisers. In their anxiety to get the country rebels away from London they were willing to say and do anything that was required, safe in the knowledge that they could later claim that they had acted under duress and therefore all their concessions were legally invalid. This is exactly what did happen. When the new treasurer Sir Hugh Segrave addressed parliament at the beginning of November 1381, the first to be held after the revolt, he gave a very carefully worded account of what had happened:

It is not unknown to you indeed that our lord the king, during the said troubles, was constrained to make and grant letters of franchise and manumission under his great seal to the villeins of his kingdom and others, knowing full well that he should not do so in good faith and according to the law of the land, but that he did for the best, to stop and put an end to their clamour and malice, for he did not then enjoy his rightful power as king. But as soon as God, by his grace, had restored him to his authority and former state as king, and when the trouble had partly ceased, our same lord the king, by the advice of his council then about him, had the said grants revoked and repealed, for they had been made and granted under compulsion, contrary to reason, law, and good faith, to the disinheritance of the prelates and lords of his aforesaid realm.54

Aside from its emphatic reiteration that the concessions were the result of duress, the tenor of this speech is that of a parent making excuses for a wayward child. The young king knew he should not have granted the letters of franchise and manumission but he was motivated by the best of intentions and did not understand the consequences. The implication is clear that Richard had acted entirely alone. It was only afterwards that wiser and older heads had been able to intervene and extricate him from the embarrassing position into which his own naivety had led him. It is the royal councillors, not the king himself, who assert that the concessions were granted ‘under compulsion, contrary to reason, law, and good faith’. What follows next is critically important to an understanding of what really happened at Mile End because, through his treasurer, Richard made an appeal to parliament over the heads of those wise councillors:

And now the king wishes to know the will of you, my lords, prelates, lords and commons here present, and whether it seems to you that he acted well in that repeal and pleased you, or not. For he says that if you wish to enfranchise and make free the said villeins by your common agreement, as he has been informed some of you wish to do, he will assent to your request.55

This only just falls short of saying that Richard had been forced by his councillors to revoke his letters against his will. It is also an explicit declaration that he was ready and willing to abolish villeinage, even if this time he felt obliged to seek ‘the assent of those who had the chief interest in the matter’. All medieval kings were supposed to act on the advice of their councillors as a matter of good governance; as a boy of only fourteen Richard was in a peculiarly difficult position in trying to assert his personal authority and override the views of his council. This very unusual and highly personal appeal to parliament (not the sort of thing normally found in the opening addresses) was clearly an attempt to do just that. And in his mind it was not a question of whether the granting of the letters of manumission was right or wrong that was at issue: it was their revocation.

Richard therefore appears genuinely to have sympathised with the grievances of the rebels he met at Mile End and granted his letters to them in good faith. By using the Great Seal to authenticate them he utilised the most important symbol of royal authority: the more personal privy seal did not carry the same weight, literally or metaphorically. Unusually, Richard had immediate access to the Great Seal, which had been handed over to him two days earlier when Sudbury had resigned; no new chancellor had been appointed, enabling Richard to issue the letters personally without going through the usual formalities of the chancery department – or having to seek the approval of his chancellor. Revoking letters patent issued under the Great Seal was a serious matter and the young king was undoubtedly well aware that, in doing so, he committed a major breach of faith. He had compromised the moral authority of both himself and his government.56

Richard’s willingness to accept the rebels’ demands at Mile End had the unintended consequence of making the situation worse. Admittedly, it achieved the immediate objective in that it persuaded the men of Essex and Hertfordshire, in particular, that they had achieved what they had set out to do and could now go home, thus emptying the capital of many of the rebel bands. On the other hand, it legitimised further action because the rebels now knew that they had the king’s sympathy and, more importantly, his authority for what they had done. The Essex band from Manningtree, for instance, speedily returned home declaring that they had royal authority to execute traitors and went to find their persecutor Thomas Hardyng: they were joined by some 275 local people gathered from every social group, from prosperous burgesses and lower gentry down to the humblest craftsmen and villagers, with their wives and families, who, when Hardyng was not to be found, burned down his houses at Manningtree and Mistley instead.57 Richard Horsman clearly believed he was acting on the king’s commission when he put himself at the head of a rebel band in Hertfordshire on 17 June, issued proclamations in the king’s name and had a standard of the cross of St George made and paraded before him as he attacked the archbishop of Canterbury’s manor of Tring and burned the records there. The rising at Winchester, which also began on 17 June, was triggered by Thomas Faukoner, who had ridden over from Guildford, where news of the king’s letters had already arrived. He then went on to raise Farnham by means of ‘congregation, debate and proclamation’, all of which implies discussion of the king’s concessions and a decision to act on them.58 The major uprisings in St Albans and Cambridge, as well as the taking of Norwich town and castle, similarly all post-date the meeting at Mile End. The fact that so many of the rebels involved in these incidents carried the royal standard, or the standard of St George, suggests that they believed they were acting with the king’s approval and under his commission: some of them may even have been bearing the actual banners that he had given them at Mile End.

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