Post-classical history


Ely, Huntingdon and Cambridge

The murder of Thomas atte Ook was an indication of the way the Suffolk rebellion, which had been centred on Bury St Edmunds, was now spreading across the county towards Ipswich. Adam Rogge, the son of a villein who, despite an early career of violence which included raising the hue and cry against his own mother, had risen to become bailiff of the earl of Oxford’s manor of Aldham, led a band of men on 14 June to attack and rob the house of the local escheator William Gerard at Wattisfield; next day he stole goods worth one hundred marks from Roger Usshefield’s house.1 The quasi-official status of these acts committed by a bailiff was matched on 15 June by James, a younger son of Sir Peter de Bedyngfeld, who took a large body of men to the house of William Rous, the chief constable of Hoxne hundred, and allegedly compelled him under threat of instant beheading to give him ten archers from the district. He then rather undermined his supposed menaces by undertaking to pay them six pence a day while they were in his service. Bedyngfeld employed them against Edmund de Lakenheath, a deeply unpopular justice of the peace who acted in an official capacity for the abbeys of both Bury St Edmunds and Ely, serving as constable of the liberty of St Edmund and steward of Ely’s estates in west Suffolk. Lakenheath had already lost property in a suspicious fire at Lakenheath in 1378 which had destroyed many houses, cottages, market stalls and the prior of Ely’s dovecot and grange and caused extensive damage to the priory manor. Now Bedyngfeld would lead his men to Stoke Ash, where he looted Lakenheath’s house and held his bailiff to ransom for ten pounds, then to Gislingham where he again pillaged the house and stole ten cows, a bull, cloth and wool. Bedyngfeld would later return everything he had taken, but Lakenheath was not a man to forgive and forget: Bedyngfeld was pursued through the courts, excluded from the general amnesty and did not obtain his pardon until the Earl Marshal interceded for him in 1389. Even though the properties of the two men were a few miles apart, this was not a dispute between neighbours but part of a concerted attack on all Lakenheath’s many properties within an eighteen-mile radius of Bury St Edmunds, in which his goods were stolen and his court rolls burned. Lakenheath himself was personally pursued with as much vigour as Cavendish. He did make it to the coast and was even able to board a boat to make his escape – only to be captured by the French whose admiral was cruising off the Suffolk coast. So, to add insult to injury, Lakenheath was obliged to pay a five-hundred-mark ransom for his release, bringing his total losses to one thousand pounds.2

The fact that so many of Edmund de Lakenheath’s properties were attacked, even though they were some forty miles apart, suggests an agreed plan of action had been drawn up by John Wrawe, either in Bury St Edmunds or in Sudbury. His hand can certainly be seen in Ipswich, where Richard Talmache of Bentley, one of his lieutenants involved in events in Bury St Edmunds, spread the revolt. Perhaps because he was a locally respected figure, an esquire of good family, Talmache was able to recruit John Battisford, parson of Bucklesham church, just outside Ipswich, and Thomas Sampson, a collector of the second and third poll-taxes for Suffolk who served on the same commission in 1381 as the murdered Thomas atte Ook. Sampson was one of the wealthiest rebels to have his property confiscated for his crimes. In Suffolk alone he had land in at least three parishes, including 137 acres under cultivation, seventy-two horses and cattle, three hundred sheep, one hundred either hoggets or boars,3 an eighth-share in a ship called the Waynpaynof Harwich and goods valued by the escheator at £65 12s. 8d., including silver dishes and plates and three beds with their linen. The parson, by contrast, had goods worth only five pounds.4 Given Sampson’s wealth and close involvement with the third poll-tax his decision to rebel is odd, but he was evidently opposed to the Statute of Labourers as he stood as a pledge on behalf of two of his servants who were fined for taking excess wages in 1380. He and Battisford were both excluded by name from the general amnesty offered in parliament in November 1381 and both were condemned to death. Sampson, however, turned king’s evidence and, probably because he could afford to buy his way out of trouble, received a pardon on 14 January 1383; Battisford’s fate is unknown.5

Battisford and Sampson went together to Ipswich on 15 June and there issued proclamations that everyone from Ipswich and the surrounding villages should on pain of death prepare to go with them whenever called upon to do so. The following day Talmache, Battisford and Sampson led their recruits out of Ipswich into the surrounding villages, where they took goods worth ten pounds from Christiana atte Ook, presumably a relative of Thomas, and one hundred marks from Roger de Wolfreston, the former escheator. At Melton they broke into the property of William Fraunceys and carried off everything they could find, from gold and silver to his rings, kitchen utensils and beasts, amounting in value to one hundred marks. The reason why Fraunceys had attracted their particular attention is not mentioned, but next day Talmache ‘on his own authority’ arrested him in Ipswich, which led to his execution: it is unclear whether Talmache ordered this, whether Battisford was complicit or even, as some juries alleged, whether Fraunceys was then murdered by a pedlar John (or William) Dene.6

The rebels attacked and plundered several houses in Ipswich, including those of John Cobat, an assessor and collector for the second and third poll-taxes, a lawyer John Gerard and the archdeacon of Suffolk, the non-resident Roman cardinal bishop of Sabina, who still collected his ecclesiastical dues despite never setting foot in his archdeaconry. Inspired by these examples, rebels from slightly farther afield rose up in their own localities and broke into the manor houses of John Staverton, Lady Margaret de Sutton and the countess of Norfolk, stole their court rolls, charters and other muniments and ceremonially burned them. Agitators like John Genour and Simon Bullok rode northwards from Ipswich up to Framlingham, calling on each village through which they passed to rebel, so that by 16 June the whole of eastern Suffolk was in turmoil. There were serious riots in Lowestoft on 18 June which, unusually, were supposed to have been provoked and led by a foreigner, Richard Ressh of Holland, and, in a final act of defiance, as late as 28 June, when the earl of Suffolk was already in session trying rebels at Bury St Edmunds, the men of Bawdsey carried off and burned all his court rolls from his nearby manor of Hollesley.7

While some of Wrawe’s ambassadors were spreading the revolt across eastern Suffolk, others were crossing the border from west Suffolk into northern Cambridgeshire. Two of the principal leaders in this region were Robert Tavell of Lavenham and William Cobbe of Gazeley, who had been with Wrawe’s band on 14 June when they looted the property of the prior and John Cavendish in Bury St Edmunds. They may well have been members of the group that went out to seek the fugitive pair the following day and been present at the prior of Bury’s execution on Mildenhall Heath because on 15 June their band was at neighbouring Chippenham where they seized household goods, cloth, wool and cattle from the Hospitallers’ preceptory and infirmary for sick brethren. They then made their way to Ely where rebels led by William Combe had already seized the only bridge and causeway into the town over the Great Ouse. Combe would later be tried and condemned to death for holding the bridge against the men of the king and bishop, but he freely admitted these Suffolk rebels.8

On 18 June, reinforced by recruits from Ely, Tavell and Cobbe’s party struck out farther west intending to raise the town of Huntingdon, some twenty miles away. It is possible that they had been summoned by a sympathiser because John Smyth of Huntingdon was later beheaded there for treason. As the rebel band approached the town they discovered that the only bridge across the Great Ouse was held against them. This time there was no friendly bridge-keeper to greet them but William Wightman, a royal yeoman since 1357 and sealer of chancery writs since 1363, who had sat in all but four parliaments since 1361 as member for the town. Although his chancery role meant that he was rarely resident he had acquired property there, including most recently a tenement in 1379, and was one of Huntingdon’s most important people. Unfortunately for the rebels, he happened to be at home, rather than in London, because it was the legal vacation. Learning of the rebels’ approach, he had blocked off the bridge and, with the aid of the town bailiffs Walter Rudham and John Burtenham, called out the burgesses to defend it. There was a skirmish in which Walsingham tells us two or three of the rebels were killed and the rest put to flight.9

The escheator’s records confirm that Robert Ffyppe was beheaded there and that his grey horse and goods worth 63s. 4d. were confiscated; he would later share the dubious honour of being listed with Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Hauchach as a ‘captain, leader and chief’ of the revolt, in his case in Huntingdonshire, who had been executed without due process but for legal purposes would still be treated as though he had been a tried and convicted felon. If he genuinely was a leader of the revolt his activities have not been recorded but it is possible that Wightman, as an influential chancery official, made sure that Ffyppe’s name was included simply to prevent his family reclaiming his property. Wightman spent several years fighting the escheator and exchequer over the ownership of goods which the people of Huntingdon had seized from the rebels until in 1385 Richard intervened and gave them all to Wightman personally, except for 13s. 8d. belonging to John Smyth, which had been granted to the prior of Huntingdon. The king expressed his gratitude for this first act of concerted resistance in the history of the revolt by confirming to the burgesses all their borough’s royal charters ‘in consideration of the[ir] good and laudable action’ and by granting Wightman himself a pension of six pence a day for life ‘for his service in repelling certain commons of the realm lately in insurrection’.10

Tavell and Cobbe cannot have been too cast down by this setback as they did not return to Suffolk but decided instead to try their luck at Ramsey, ten miles north of Huntingdon, where they found shelter in the town and sent to the great tenth-century abbey for food and drink. The abbot, Edmund of Ellington, was not a man blessed with any firmness of character (he would later be censured for allowing his monks to keep ‘too many’ hunting dogs) and, not daring to do anything else, he sent them large quantities of food, wine and ale, which they were said to have consumed with gusto and then slept until late the next morning. In the meantime, an armed force had gathered to resist them, led either by the men from Huntingdon, or by the energetic bishop Despenser of Norwich, who was hurrying back from Burley, Rutland, to suppress the rising in his own diocese. On the way, Despenser had already crushed a revolt against the abbey of Peterborough by its neighbours and tenants, pursuing even those who had fled to the church for sanctuary and, as Knighton tells us with great glee, smiting them down with swords and lances inside and outside the church walls and near the altar. Ramsey was also en route and only twelve miles from Peterborough, so it is likely that this ‘agent of divine mercy’ would have sprung to the defence of another beleaguered abbey. Tavell’s band was taken by surprise as they slept and twenty-four of them were killed; the rest were either captured or fled, some of them being cut down as they tried to escape and their heads ‘placed on high trees to serve as an example to others’.11

The accounts of the escheator tell us that Tavell himself was beheaded at Ramsey where his bay horse, worth thirty shillings, was acquired by John Grateford of Ramsey; the abbot was in possession of seventeen horses, nineteen saddles and bridles, six swords, two shields, one corselet, one short sword or dagger and further unspecified goods valued at £8 12s. which had belonged to Tavell, Cobbe and the other rebels. The goods of John Brux, who was also beheaded at Ramsey, were partly in the hands of his widow but mostly in those of Sir Hugh la Zouche, head of the commission to suppress the rebellion in Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire.12 It is unclear whether Tavell and Brux were captured and then formally tried and convicted, or summarily executed, though the wording of the escheator’s account suggests the latter. Despenser had no compunction in these matters and Zouche himself was just the sort of royal official whose behaviour had sparked the revolt in the first place. Not only did he dispense summary justice to the rebels, ordering the beheading without trial of John Hauchach at Cambridge, he had no scruples about appropriating their possessions: he would later have to answer before the exchequer for acquiring goods worth at least a hundred pounds from Brux’s estate which did not appear in the escheator’s accounts.13

Three rebels from Cambridge were also executed in Huntingdonshire, though whether at Huntingdon or Ramsey is not known; four men from Ely escaped14 and crept back home, where the revolt had already fizzled out because the rebels had made a clean sweep of all the ‘traitors’ in their vicinity. The uprising there had begun on 15 June when news of Richard’s concessions at Mile End reached the town. John Michel, a chaplain who had left the Isle of Ely to join Wrawe’s band, returned that day to become what his indicting jurors described as ‘a sub-leader’ in his home town. The day of his return, and possibly at his instigation, Richard de Leycester and John Buk went through the streets of Ely bidding the people to rebel and making proclamations to the same effect. Next day, it being Sunday, Leycester urged a crowd of townsmen to go with him into the monastery ‘and there standing in the pulpit of the said monastery he would publicly show to them, the things to be performed on the part of the King and the commonalty against traitors and other unfaithful’. As a result of that proclamation Leycester and Buk led a company the following day, 17 June, to open up the bishop’s prison in Ely, releasing all the prisoners, burned the bishop’s books and then inverted the usual order of things to sit in judgment on Edmund de Walsyngham, a regular colleague of John Cavendish on royal commissions, most recently as a current justice of the peace for both Cambridgeshire and the university of Cambridge. Walsyngham, whose manor of Great Everdon, on the far side of Cambridge, had been plundered and the buildings demolished the previous day by rebels from that town, was sentenced to death. John Buk was accused of dragging him to the place of execution, violently assaulting him and stealing his purse containing 42½m., from which Buk gave twelve pence to John Deye of Willingham ‘for his trouble’ in beheading the justice. Walsyngham’s head was placed on public display on the Ely pillory.15

Leycester and Buk were both condemned to death for their part in the Ely rebellion. Almost to the end Leycester retained his belief that he had his king’s approval for his actions: at his trial he asked to be acquitted on the basis that he had chancery letters of protection for his person and property (perhaps issued at Mile End), but was told that they were not sufficient to save him. He refused to offer another plea when ordered to do so, saying that he believed himself to be pre-judged and condemned already. He was therefore found guilty, drawn to his place of execution and hanged as a traitor. Buk claimed first that he had only gone with many others to witness and hear the reasons for Walsyngham’s execution, then that he had acted under compulsion, but when pressed further for the names of those who had forced him to attend he replied irritably that ‘the devil had made him go’ and, like Leycester, refused to say anything more and suffered the same fate. The escheator’s records reveal that Leycester owned a tenement, a dovecot and two shops in Butchers’ Row, Ely, and Buk four shops in Walpole and two dwelling-houses near the castle mound, so both were men of standing before the revolt. All their property and goods were confiscated to the crown, though twenty-seven shillings’ worth of ‘fish called Pykes’ taken from Buk were given to John White, the sacristan of Ely, who had narrowly avoided the fate of the prior of Bury St Edmunds: the rebels had tried to hunt down and kill him, aided by the constable of Sutton who claimed to have been acting under duress, but White had managed to evade capture and lived to enjoy his persecutor’s pike.16

Just as it had done in Ely, the revolt in and around Cambridge began on 15 June17 and once again we are reminded that the king’s concessions made at Mile End a day earlier led many otherwise law-abiding subjects to commit acts which would be classified as rebellion once those concessions had been cancelled. Geoffrey Cobbe, for instance, was married to the widow of Sir John Norwich and held substantial estates in seven places in Cambridgeshire and possibly others in neighbouring Huntingdonshire.18 Yet on Saturday 15 June he personally led a band of his servants and retainers in breaking into Thomas Haseldene’s adjacent manors at Guilden Morden and Steeple Morden, where he demolished all the buildings, seized all their contents, including his stores of malt, peas and dredge (a mixture of oats and barley), and sold them off to the crowd. What is more, he publicly proclaimed that this was being done with the king’s authority. He did the job so thoroughly that it took two days, even though they were joined on both days by large contingents who had ridden down from Cambridge. Together they managed to inflict on Haseldene damage valued at one thousand pounds. The particular object of their hatred was intimately connected to John of Gaunt, being controller of his household, steward of his manor of Bassingbourn three miles from the Mordens and lessee of another, Babraham, some fifteen miles away. His properties in Essex and Hertfordshire were also ransacked by rebels in those counties and his horses, oxen, cows, pigs, sheep and other draught animals ‘of no small value’ were stolen, as he later complained to the king.19 Two of Cobbe’s servants were involved in another incident on 15 June, breaking into John Walter’s house at Croydon, the village where Cobbe was lord of the manor, assaulting Walter’s wife, stealing the keys to his chamber and making off with goods and chattels worth forty shillings. Cobbe himself must have believed he had fulfilled his remit because he did not take any further part in the revolt after attacking Haseldene’s properties and was one of the first to sue for and receive a pardon: it cost him forty pounds but his forfeited lands were restored to him on 24 October 1381.20

Cobbe’s happy ending contrasts sharply with that of another Cambridgeshire gentleman who joined the revolt. John Hauchach came from an old-established family with extensive landholdings in the south-east corner of the county; though much of his property was only a fifth-share in various manors and parcels of land, and even his title to one of the manors in Shudy Camps, where the family seat lay, was disputed by the parson of Fulbourn, he still enjoyed a comfortable income comparable to most gentry in the shire.21How or why he was recruited as the ‘chief leader’ and the ‘person giving out instructions’, as he was described in various inquisitions throughout the county is not explained – though his widow improbably asserted that he had been ‘compelled’ to do so by other rebels.22 But again we come back to the point that he believed he was acting with the king’s authority. He was certainly in contact with John Staunford, since both men were involved in an attack on 15 June on property belonging to Thomas North at Abington, where Hauchach himself held lands. Staunford’s relevance was that he was a saddler from London who also had a small estate in Barrington, some eighteen miles west of Shudy Camps; whether or not he was genuinely present at the Mile End meeting, he carried around with him in Cambridgeshire ‘a certain deed-box’ which he told everyone contained the king’s commission to destroy traitors.23 And less than fifteen miles north of Shudy Camps was the home of another agitator, John Greystone of Bottisham, who had definitely been in London and Kent during the uprisings there, and had allegedly been in the company of those rebels who killed Sudbury and Hales. Just like Richard de Leycester of Ely, however, Greystone had genuine letters of protection for himself and his property, issued and sealed by the chancery, which, on his return, he not only showed to people in his home town but also travelled about to display in other places as far afield as Wilbraham, Swaffham and Burwell, explaining to everyone that they gave him complete royal power to raise and gather together the people of these places so that they could destroy traitors. Adam Clymme too had travelled about in this locality carrying ‘a sign to gather rebels’, which may have been a standard rather than a document, but he knew that the king had abolished villeinage and villein tenure because everywhere he went he gave out orders to all free and bond tenants, on pain of execution, immediately ‘to cease performance of all dues and services’.24

It is usually assumed that men like Staunford and Greystone were fraudulently using documents already in their possession to raise rebellion, fooling people into believing that they were royal commissions. That might have worked with illiterate commoners who might only recognise the royal seal, but men like Leycester and Hauchach would not have been so easily deceived. Staunford, Greystone and Clymme were only spreading the news of the king’s genuine concessions and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the letters of protection that Leycester and Greystone carried were issued at Mile End: though the pardons Richard had granted there were only for deeds already committed, rather than licences for future action, there was a widespread belief that he had authorised that traitors to the crown should be punished, with or without the king’s caveat that this only be by due process of law. Even if these protections had been issued before Mile End, it is understandable that their recipients would feel able to rely on them as authority for their actions. Both Greystone and Clymme would be tried and executed for their part in spreading the revolt; Staunford, perhaps because of his London business, was able to escape justice in Cambridgeshire, bought his pardon on 4 November 1381 and had his country estate restored to him on 26 November 1381.25

If Hauchach was responsible for organising the action against traitors in his part of the world, he did a very thorough job of it. In addition to the attacks on Thomas Haseldene’s properties, Saturday 15 June also saw the sacking of the Hospitallers’ wealthy manor and preceptory at Shingay, which had two dovecots, a watermill, a windmill and a preceptor who shared a name with the late chief justice John Cavendish. The Hospitallers’ little house at Duxford, which, since being taken over from the Templars in 1313, had always been let out at farm, was also demolished. The current lessee, Richard Maisterman, had been one of the collectors of the third poll-tax for Cambridgeshire so was a target in his own right: he lost not only his house but also goods worth twenty pounds, which were stolen.26 At least three of Maisterman’s fellow poll-tax collectors were also victims of the violence. Edmund Forester, who had also been a collector in 1377 but was now a supervisor, was threatened and had to pay twenty shillings to prevent his house being burned down;27 John Sibil, who was both a supervisor and a commissioner for reassessing and enforcing the tax, had his manors of Horseheath, just over two miles from Shudy Camps, and Upwer on the edges of the Isle of Ely invaded, the houses and buildings despoiled or burned, his livestock stolen, including a valuable breeding herd of twenty-four cattle and a bull, and even the fish from his fishponds which the rebels dismantled.28

Like Sibil, Roger Harleston had also been both a supervisor of the third poll-tax and then appointed a commissioner to reassess and enforce it. A professional lawyer, justice of the peace, former sheriff and MP for Cambridgeshire in 1377, he was one of the most hated figures in the county and a perfect example of the sort of corruption that made lawyers a particular target of the revolt. As long ago as 1368 he had been summoned before the king’s council to answer detailed charges that he had taken bribes, acted against his own clients’ interests to obtain money and land for himself and committed ‘frauds, deceptions and other ambidextries’. As a sample of his dealings (several of which involved rare matrimonial cases), he had been hired to procure a divorce for a woman but secretly cooperated with her husband until he received a further payment from the woman’s father; in another case, acting as legal counsel for the sale of a manor, he had delayed completion until the purchaser paid him forty pounds, then arranged for the purchaser to buy the manor for much less than it was worth. Harleston did not deny any of the charges against him and was fined two hundred and fifty marks, but his career was unaffected and indeed prospered thereafter.29 His house and guesthouse in Cambridge were demolished and looted of goods and chattels, including woollen bedclothes, an expensive blue and black striped coverlet, malt and corn, and his dovecot was burned down with its inhabitants still inside. His manor of Cottenham, on the edge of the Fens, was plundered of its livestock and wool which, together with the timber and lead stripped from the buildings, were all sold off on site to the highest bidder. (John Deye, who had executed Edmund de Lakenheath at Ely, bought six oxen, a horse and a bull.) Similar treatment was meted out to Harleston’s tenements at Milton and Denny, north and east of Cambridge, and his barns containing corn and barley at Haslingfield, south of the town. Fortunately for him, Harleston himself could not be found, though rebels from Ely scoured the countryside hoping to kill him.30

All the usual suspects were attacked: the sheriff Henry English, whose Essex manor of Birdbrook had been one of the earliest targets of rebels in that county, had his Cambridgeshire manor of Woodditton sacked on 15 June; the king’s bailiff William Margrete was obliged to hand over several large sums of money to prevent his house and buildings at Bottisham being pulled down; the escheator’s rolls in the custody of Thomas Somenour were taken and burned.31 Local justices of the peace and royal commissioners, such as William Bateman, who would be appointed to the commission to suppress the revolt, Sir Thomas Torell and of course Edmund de Walsyngham, who was beheaded at Ely, all had their estates ransacked and demolished.32 The prior of Ely had his court rolls burned at West Wratting, as did the bishop of Ely at Balsham and the prioress of Ikelington at Ikelington itself.33 John Hauchach was blamed for leading many of these attacks personally and accused of riding with a standard borne before him by John Peper, his henchman from Hauchach’s manor of Linton. The only crime Hauchach was accused of committing in Cambridge was an attack on the properties of John Blankpayn, a wealthy burgess who had represented the town in parliament four times between 1373 and 1377, as mayor in 1374–5 and 1379–80 and as its assessor and collector of the third poll-tax in 1380–1. This last office might have been the reason why he was targeted, but his close association with Roger Harleston was probably a weightier factor, particularly since his fellow collector Richard Martyn was one of the town’s leading rebels and personally led a force out to attack Harleston’s manor at Cottenham.34

Although many of the townsmen and even some of the burgesses had joined in the sacking of country estates belonging to people like Haseldene and Harleston, the uprising in Cambridge itself was largely an internal affair. And just like St Albans and Bury St Edmunds, it was dictated by tensions between the burgesses and the great institution which dominated the town: in this case it was not a religious house as such but the university. Founded in 1209, the university had been expanding rapidly since the first college, Peterhouse, was established in 1284 because a university education in ‘learned law’ had by then become a prerequisite for practising in English ecclesiastical courts. It was also the starting point for ambitious clerics eager to climb the career ladder in government service: both King’s Hall and Trinity Hall were founded specifically to train up future lawyers as chancery clerks and diplomats. As the university prospered its powerful patrons also granted it many privileges, which made it independent of the borough, leading to constant friction between town and gown and causing serious outbreaks of violence in 1304, 1322 and 1371.35Tensions were already building again before the uprising in 1381. In November 1378 the university petitioned the king in parliament and obtained permission to hold the assizes of bread, wine, ale and other victuals in the town ‘if the mayor and bailiffs be negligent or remiss’; the grant was extended for five years in 1379 and then for a further seven years on 4 December 1380, at which point the king had to order the mayor and bailiffs to enforce the peace because ‘roberdesmen’ and ‘wastours’ were plotting together and causing disorder. In February 1381 the king had to intervene once more, binding over five Cambridge men one hundred pounds each to keep the peace and sixteen prominent burgesses to obey and not obstruct the king’s justices and commissioners by holding their conventicles. Among this last group were the mayor, Edmund Redmeadow, also known as Lister, John Mareschall and John Trippelowe, all of whom would play a leading role in the revolt (though John Blankpayn, one of their victims, was also bound over).36

It was alleged in parliament that the attack on the university was planned at a meeting held by the mayor, bailiffs and burgesses at the town’s ‘tollbooth’ or town hall after their return from the raids on Shingay and Haseldene’s properties on 15 June. They had elected an unwilling ‘Jakes de Grancestre’ as their leader and captain, with threats of death if he refused to act, but making him and his brother Thomas free burgesses of Cambridge as his reward. A John de Grauncestre was commissioner of array for Cambridgeshire in March 1380 and a James de Grauncestre would sit on the commission in August 1381 to identify the rebels who attacked the university: they were probably one and the same man, the oddity of the rebel leader being appointed to investigate his own attack on the university being explained by the fact that his involvement (if true) was not revealed during the assizes in July but only in parliament in December.37 The plan of action was discussed and decided upon at a further meeting, held at ten o’clock that night, after which it was proclaimed that everyone should go to the house of the university bedel William Wigmore to destroy it and kill him. As bedel, Wigmore was the administrator responsible for keeping the rolls and other records, and collecting fines and fees due to the university; his house was duly sacked and his records removed but Wigmore himself was not apprehended and so escaped with his life. It is possible that he was hidden by sympathisers among the townsmen as, earlier the same day, Roger Blaunkgrene had only been saved from beheading by the active intervention of parishioners in the church of St Giles, where he had fled for sanctuary.38

The next focus was the newest college, founded in 1352 as an act of piety after the Black Death by the Guild of Corpus Christi, which met in the tiny Anglo-Saxon church of St Ben’et’s. Because of its connection with the guild it was known as St Ben’et’s College or Corpus Christi, and it had profited from bequests by the members to build up rapidly such a large property portfolio that an estimated sixth of the townsmen owed it rent in some form or another. This had become a source of tension, as had the college’s links with its powerful patron John of Gaunt, who, in January 1381, had just secured Corpus Christi a royal licence to acquire even more lands and rents.39 The rebels stormed the court of the college and the dwellings of its scholars, smashing down doors and windows and carrying off all the ‘charters, writings, books and other muniments’ as well as any valuables and other goods they could find.40 The next day, led by the burgess John Giboun junior, the rebels broke into St Mary’s parish church during mass and seized and broke open the university chest which was stored there and contained money and jewels. Giboun’s father, perhaps hoping to save his son from the consequences of his actions, persuaded him to leave it alone by giving him a ten-shilling ransom for it, but Giboun simply went to the Carmelite friary, where the second university chest was kept, and made off with it and its contents. In a sad little corollary to this story, when Giboun was indicted for his part in the revolt he freely admitted being involved in the destruction of Haseldene’s estates at Morden but denied breaking into the church to seize the chest. In the bald words of the assize roll, ‘But John Giboun senior was called as a witness against him, and he was found guilty and hanged’.41

Just as their fellow burgesses in St Albans and Bury St Edmunds had done, the rebels in Cambridge forced the masters and scholars of the university to hand over all their charters, privileges and letters patent, including those granted by Richard himself. They took them to the market-place, smashed the seals with sticks and knives, heaped them up into a bonfire with all of the university’s archive that they had taken from the bedel and burned the lot. In one of the more picaresque moments of the revolt, an elderly woman called Margery Starre gathered up the ashes and scattered them into the wind, shouting ‘Away with the learning of clerks! Away with it!’ Then, again like their fellow rebels in St Albans and Bury St Edmunds, the Cambridge rebels drew up a comprehensive new charter which forced the chancellor, all the masters and wardens of the colleges and the university scholars to renounce ‘for us and our successors in perpetuity, any privileges whatsoever granted to us by any kings of England from the beginning of the world until the making of these presents’, promised to pay three thousand pounds on Christmas Day to clear the bonds for good behaviour that the townsmen had been obliged to make and undertook to pay the expenses of having the new charter sealed in the king’s chancery. (A clear indication, yet again, that the ‘rebels’ believed that the king would support their actions.) A second charter renounced in perpetuity the right to take legal action, real or personal, against any person in Cambridge on the basis of those bonds or any other obligations. Both were sealed with the university seal and the seals of each college. Curiously, given the care that had been taken to ensure that they were as legally binding as possible, the first charter was dated 1 May and the second 29 April; this is unlikely to have been a mistake, so we can only assume that it was a deliberate back-dating, though the reason remains obscure.42

Having thus gained a complete victory over one ancient adversary, the rebels turned their attention to another. The neighbouring priory of Barnwell, which offered accommodation to university students from the Augustinian order, had enclosed a piece of land called ‘the Grenecroft’ over which the men of Cambridge claimed ancient rights of common pasture; in doing so, the priory also blocked the road along which the townsmen had always driven their cattle. On Monday 17 June, therefore, the mayor Edmund Redmeadowe issued a proclamation to his townsmen and led them out to reclaim the Grenecroft by force: they tore down the walls, fences and gates, cut down trees worth four hundred pounds, demolished the water-gate and carried off the fish, as well as sedge and turf cut from the land. The prior later claimed that they had also compelled him to enter a legal bond for two thousand pounds so that he would not prosecute them.43

There were a few more isolated acts of violence that day, including, ironically, the burning at Duxford of manorial court rolls and other muniments belonging to Sir William Croyser, who defended the rebels at St Albans; at about the same time his manor at Wrestlingworth, just over the border in Bedfordshire, was also raided and livestock and goods seized. Like the good lawyer he was, Croyser would later bring two private actions and secure a royal commission to obtain restitution of his lost property.44 By the time the wrath of God descended on Cambridge in the shape of bishop Despenser, however, the uprising was already over. The rebels had achieved their dreams, punishing corrupt royal officials, regaining ancient liberties and setting out a brave new world order which would enable the king and his faithful commons to face a harmonious future together.

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