Post-classical history



Of all the counties involved in the great revolt, it was Norfolk which produced the largest number of known rebels: 1214 have been identified from the existing records, compared with only 954 for Essex, 456 for Kent, 299 for Suffolk, 242 for Cambridgeshire and 389 for London and the rest.1Yet of those counties, Norfolk was the last to rise in rebellion, even though its economic conditions were much the same as in Suffolk, with a large proportion of its workforce employed as craftsmen and tradesmen or working for wages as servants and labourers. These were exactly the sort of people, as we have seen, who felt most trapped and exploited by the manorial system and government legislation, particularly the Statute of Labourers and the introduction of poll-taxes. Norfolk’s slowness to respond cannot therefore have been for lack of motive, as the enthusiasm with which its inhabitants eventually responded to the call to arms indicates. What it does point to, however, is that potential rebels were not willing to rise until they learned the king had granted his concessions at Mile End. The early attempt on 14 June by John Wrawe’s lieutenant Geoffrey Parfeye, vicar of All Saints, Sudbury, to raise the town of Thetford, close to the border with Suffolk, met with rebuff.2 The Suffolk rebels were given money, perhaps just to persuade them to leave, but, unlike the townsmen of Huntingdon, the people of Thetford were not prepared to take a stand against the incursion of rebels from another county.

Despite this early failure, it was from the adjoining counties of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire that the uprising eventually spread into Norfolk. The first band to take action was drawn mainly from the Suffolk towns of Mildenhall and Lakenheath and their surrounds, and its principal objective was John of Gaunt. The group was led by three men: William Metefield, whose father was a free tenant leasing almost twenty acres of land in the bishop of Ely’s manor of Brandon, where he was the main seller of bread and ale and served regularly as a manorial official; John Phillip, who was also a substantial leasehold tenant in Brandon and had held the two key manorial posts of bishop’s warrener since 1368 (Brandon rabbits were a highly sought after delicacy) and his bailiff since 1374; and John Gelder of Feltwell, six miles from Brandon and just over the border in Norfolk, who had been living in Bury and had probably been with John Wrawe at Mildenhall.3 Their first act, on 15 June, was to raid across the Little Ouse river from Brandon to attack the house at Weeting of John Strakour, an official of Gaunt who, in a village where everyone else had paid four or six pence in the 1379 poll-tax, had alone been assessed at two shillings. The rebels carried off his goods worth twenty pounds, which they left overnight with Metefield’s father. Like John Giboun’s father, William Metefield senior attempted to forestall any evil consequences for his son by returning the items to Strakour next day, but it was already too late.4

That same day, Sunday 16 June, his son’s band burned the court rolls at Gaunt’s manor of Methwold, eleven miles away, and destroyed goods and chattels belonging to both Strakour and Gaunt before moving on to Langford and West Dereham where they did the same to John de Methwold, Gaunt’s steward for the manor of Castle Acre. He had paid the large sum of 6s. 8d. in the 1379 poll-tax and was described as a gentleman in the 1381 returns: he would later bring private actions against eighty-five of the rebels involved.5Having also attacked Binham Priory, this band made a concerted attack on the properties of Richard Holdych, who had served as sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk in 1367–8, MP for Norfolk in 1369 and regular royal commissioner since then, including investigating tax evasions in 1379.6 The rebels demolished Holdych’s houses at Tottington, where they killed Thomas atte Brigge and Roger Davy, the manor’s lessee, looted and demolished his residence at Didlington, making off with three hundred sheep, then took further property from his estate at Foulden. Perhaps as a result of this experience, though claiming it was ‘on account of age’, Holdych would petition for, and receive on 7 February 1382, an exemption for life from serving as any kind of royal officer ever again.7

His fellow royal commissioner Edmund Gurney, an ‘apprentice-at-law’, active justice of the peace and, more importantly, steward of Gaunt’s estates in Norfolk, had his houses at West Lexham destroyed by the same band.8 Fortunately, he was not there because, in one of the first acts of the Norfolk rebellion on 15 June, a proclamation had been made by John Rychmond of Walton, near King’s Lynn, that if anyone captured either Gurney or his fellow justice of the peace John Holkham he should have twenty shillings as his reward. With a nice touch of irony, Rychmond had taken the money from Gurney’s servant William Dauntre, telling him that his master and Holkham were ‘traitors and common pillagers of the lord king’s people’, a phrase which echoed the terminology of the law courts. Gurney and Holkham took fright and fled to the coast, where they were lucky enough to find a boat prepared to take them on board. News got out that they were making their escape, however, and Thomas Kenman of Holme-next-the-Sea commandeered another vessel and with a crew of volunteers set out in pursuit for what the terrified men alleged, with pardonable exaggeration, was over fifty miles, though they managed to disembark safely at Burnham, just ten miles along the coast. Another proclamation, this time by a Walter Tyler living in Kettlestone, that Holkham was hiding at the house of William de Ellerton, parson of St Andrew’s church, Thursford, was sufficient to send a gang of men scurrying over to seize and kill him, but it turned out to be a false alarm.9

On Monday 17 June Metefield’s band arrived at Rougham, twenty-three miles north of their original setting-out point, where they would meet up with other rebel groups which had worked their way up the county. Among them were recruits drawn from Mildenhall, Suffolk, and Littleport, Cambridgeshire, who had entered Norfolk to burn the manorial court rolls of the abbey of Bury St Edmunds at Southery and of Gaunt at Hilgay. Another unpopular justice of the peace, Nicholas de Massyngham, who was also one of the Norfolk reassessors and enforcers of the third poll-tax, had his house at Hilgay ransacked at about the same time. Massyngham could not say that he had not been warned: John Coventry, a bowyer from King’s Lynn, had already sent him a letter threatening that if he did not send ten pounds to King’s Lynn, Coventry would bring a troop of two hundred men to kill him and burn down his houses. Massyngham had staved off that threat by sending the money, but could not avert the attack by the other band of rebels.10Another group which converged on Rougham was locally raised and led by John Bettes, alias John Creyk, of Wymondham, one of the most active rebels in western Norfolk; though he would eventually obtain a pardon in 1383 by pleading that he had been falsely accused by his enemies, he was indicted by so many juries across the county that his exclusion (twice, under both names) from the general amnesty in 1381 seems justified.11 Yet another group came from the Diss area and was led by Thomas Gyssing, son of Sir Thomas Gyssing, the MP for Norfolk in 1379 and 1380.12

The rebels who gathered at Rougham on 17 June were therefore drawn from a wide range of places throughout west Norfolk, as well as from just over the border in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. They included people from all ranks in society: gentry such as Gyssing; members of the village elite like John Clerk of Whissonsett, who was bailiff to the earls of both Arundel and Richmond and Andrew, bailiff of the bishop of Ely at Bridgham; and members of Rougham manor’s tenantry, who had virtually all paid the lowest rate of tax in 1379. Forty of these rebels, including five women, were later brought before the manorial court on charges of violent breaking, entering and assault.13 The object of their united hatred was John Rede, a professional tax-gatherer who had served on almost all of the tax commissions for Norfolk since 1377, most recently as a collector of the third poll-tax; not only that, but he was a professional money-lender, with debts owed to him throughout west Norfolk. Rede’s personal residence was at Rougham and it was thoroughly looted and demolished: goods worth one hundred shillings were taken, including grain, horses (four of which were acquired by Thomas Gyssing), his pigs and even his mill-stone. It is a measure of the man that, despite what had happened to him during the revolt, less than six weeks later, on 25 July 1381, he had no qualms about accepting the post of escheator of Norfolk and Suffolk. Perhaps he saw it as an opportunity to exact his revenge.14

Monday 17 June may have been the climax of the revolt in west Norfolk, but in the east of the county it was just beginning. Agitators had been riding throughout the county for several days preparing the way for a major gathering at Mousehold Heath on the north-eastern outskirts of Norwich. John Bokelerman, for instance, who had stolen a horse at Holkham belonging to the abbot of West Dereham, travelled a distance of around fifty miles on his road from Rougham to Winterton-on-Sea. Henry Sherman and Simon Cook carried messages to Wighton and Walsingham in the north. John Gentilome and Richard Felmond, both from Buxton, were the ‘principal instigators’ in north-east Norfolk: they began their work on 14 June, the day of the Mile End meeting, were still riding from village to village calling on everyone to rise up three days later and may even have been doing so as late as 21 June.15 In their indictments it was claimed that they were working for a dyer from Felmingham, a village fourteen miles north of Norwich, named Geoffrey Lister or Litster, though in the poll-tax return for 1379 he appears as ‘Galfridus Lestere’: all three were variant spellings of his occupation. It is recorded that he paid six pence in that poll-tax, one of thirty-eight to do so, compared with thirty-two who paid four pence and three who paid twelve; when his goods were confiscated after the revolt the escheator assessed them at 33s. 9d.16 Though by no means poor, Lister was therefore not even in the top rank of his own village society, let alone a man of standing like Thomas Sampson in Suffolk or John Hauchach in Cambridgeshire. Yet, like Wat Tyler and John Wrawe, he apparently emerged from obscurity to become a major leader of the revolt.

Like Lister, most of those designated in the indictments as ‘captains of the malefactors’ who gathered at Mousehold Heath came from the area around North Walsham, including his messengers Gentilome and Felmond. John Trunch came from an old established family at Trunch on Gaunt’s manor of Gimingham and had property there worth twenty pounds forfeited because of his role in the revolt.17 Thomas Skeet and William Kybyte were both from Worstead: Skeet paid four pence in the 1379 poll-tax; Kybyte was a ‘clericus’ or clerk (in minor orders or a layman, one assumes, since in 1381 he paid 2s. 6d. poll-tax for himself and his wife) who possessed goods in Worstead worth sixty shillings.18 But there were other leaders at the gathering who had come from much farther away, including Gyssing, who must have ridden hard (perhaps on one of his newly acquired horses) to get there after his attack the same day on Rede’s property at Rougham thirty miles away. The most surprising new recruit was one of the highest ranking rebels of the entire revolt. Sir Roger Bacon of Baconsthorpe, just over twenty miles north of Norwich, was newly returned from south-west England, where he had spent many long weeks hanging around waiting to be deployed to Brittany as one of the ten knights out of twenty-four captains recruited by Sir Thomas Felton to lead his companies to the aid of Thomas of Woodstock. Bacon had recruited a retinue of four men-at-arms and five archers to accompany him and was personally responsible for paying their wages throughout the period of their ‘service’, whether or not he received due reimbursement from the crown.19 Whether the mishandling of the war was his main motive for joining the revolt, or, as his later actions suggest, he had personal grievances to redress, Bacon was the only member of the Norfolk gentry who admitted voluntarily doing so.

The rebel gathering at Mousehold Heath, like that on Blackheath, was preparatory to entering the town. Norwich was the fifth largest town in the country with a tax-paying population of 3952 in 1377, which was probably at least double that in real terms. Surrounded by walls with more than fifteen towers, and with the huge square bulk of the Norman keep of the castle looming over the centre, it must have been a formidable sight. Fortunately for the rebels, the warlike bishop Despenser, whose episcopal palace stood next to the cathedral, was still making his way back from Rutland. Nevertheless, the bailiffs had made extra provision for defence, ordering all but three gates to be closed, reinforcing the guards at those that remained open and adding two extra constables to every ward. They had also sent messengers to William Ufford, earl of Suffolk, begging him to come to their rescue, but he had already fled: according to Walsingham, the rebels had had the same idea of putting him in charge of their forces but, on learning of their approach, he had leapt up from table, leaving his meal half-eaten, disguised himself as a groom of Sir Roger de Boys (one of his feoffees of Mettingham Castle) and made his way ‘circuitously and through lonely areas to St Albans’. Though this smacks of romantic fiction it is possibly true, since Walsingham, as a monk at St Albans, would have been among the first to know if the earl had arrived there in such a fashion.20

At some point there was a confrontation between the rebels and Sir Robert Salle. Froissart, who turned this into one of his great chivalric set pieces, said that Salle was in charge of Norwich’s defences and had gone out alone to parley with Geoffrey Lister to stop him burning the town: when Lister asked him to remember his humble birth as the son of a mason and join them, Salle responded angrily and tried to remount his horse to ride away but his foot slipped from the stirrup, the horse took fright and he was left on foot to face a crowd baying for his blood. Despite ‘a marvellous display of swordsmanship’, in which he killed or wounded anyone who came too close, he was eventually overwhelmed by numbers (sixty thousand, according to Froissart) and brutally murdered. As with so many of Froissart’s heroic tales of noble knights, it is virtually impossible to disentangle what is the truth from the fiction. Salle may have had a hand in organising the city defences, though the burgess records suggest that it was done on their initiative and by the bailiffs. Norwich Castle was a prison and Salle had no role there. It is unlikely that he would have gone out of the city gates alone as no knight travelled without his retinue, least of all in such a situation, but the indictments confirm that he was indeed killed outside the leper hospital of St Mary Magdalene, about a mile north-east of the city on the edge of Mousehold Heath; Adam Pulter, otherwise known as Adam Martyn, was himself beheaded for having been one of those who ‘feloniously killed and beheaded’ Salle there.21

Salle was not the son of a mason; his family were well-to-do burgesses of Norwich. Nor was he a model chivalric hero, even though he had been knighted by Edward III. In 1360 he was pardoned all felonies, trespasses and any consequent outlawry for which he was indicted or appealed because of his good service fighting in France; two years later he was accused of assaulting and maiming the parson of Stanhope at Horsfield and on 28 January 1381 he had finally received a pardon for killing Robert Luce of Oxnead in 1369.22 Despite all this, he had been created a king’s esquire in November 1363 on a pension of ten marks a year for life. In 1373 he was entrusted with the custody of the English castle of Merck in the Calais marches, only to blot his copybook once again by going home to England without licence, allowing the garrison to mutiny and change sides so that the constable of Calais was forced to bring an army to recover it. Salle was pardoned this offence too, in May 1378, but everything he had left in the castle remained confiscate, except for a complete suit of armour and weapons for war, which were probably among his most valuable assets. It is tempting to think that this uncommon exception was made because the armour itself was unusual: Froissart says that Salle was physically one of the biggest and strongest men in England, but that was probably just poetic licence.23

Whether Salle was murdered as he tried to negotiate with the rebels, or more probably as he tried to evade capture by them, it was a salutary lesson to the burgesses that they could not look to the natural defenders of the realm for military help in their plight. An emergency council meeting in Norwich therefore decided that two of the bailiffs, together with eleven leading citizens, should offer the rebels large sums of money to persuade them to spare the town from pillage and fire. (News of what had happened to the Savoy Palace and the Hospitallers’ preceptory at Clerkenwell, as well as the murders at the Tower, must have been common knowledge by this time.) The burgesses’ offer was duly accepted and on Monday 17 June the rebels were able to make their way into Norwich unimpeded, either because the burgesses opened the gates themselves, or because so many of the townsmen had joined the revolt that effective resistance was impossible. Sir Roger Bacon may still have had some of his troops recruited for Brittany with him as his indictment states that he marched into the city at the head of the rebels ‘with pennons flying and in warlike array’. They did indeed spare Norwich the general pillage and arson which the burgesses had feared but, as in every other town rebels had entered, they immediately set about administering their own kind of justice against the ‘traitors’ to the crown. Their first victim was Reginald de Eccles, a servant of the earl of Suffolk and an assiduous justice of the peace who was regularly appointed to the same commissions as John Cavendish, including those investigating Salle’s assault on the parson in 1362 and enforcing payment of dues to the crown which the men of Lakenheath had forcibly resisted in 1371. Eccles had been captured in his lodgings at Heigham, on the outskirts of Norwich, by a group which included one of Salle’s murderers: Adam Pulter, who came from Heigham. All his rolls, records and documents pertaining to his office were burned, his furred gown and other goods were stolen and Eccles himself was dragged to the pillory in Norwich, stabbed in the abdomen and then beheaded. At least one indictment accused Bacon of delivering the fatal blow and cutting off his head, though other less well-known figures were also blamed.24

The ‘day of bloodshed and plunder’25 in Norwich was nothing of the sort. Salle and Eccles appear to have been the only ones who lost their lives. Salle’s house in the city was plundered of goods worth two hundred pounds, which suggests there was something more to his death than simply refusing to cooperate with the rebels; this is supported by the fact that his murderers would later claim that they had acted on the king’s orders, suggesting that they identified him as one of the traitors to the crown who was to be punished.26 The house of William de Swynflet, archdeacon of Norwich, the diocesan administrator and second-in-command to bishop Despenser, was also ransacked. Henry Lomynour’s residence was looted of goods he alleged were worth a thousand marks. Lomynour was a wealthy merchant and one of the most important burgesses of Norwich, having served two terms as bailiff and being currently both a justice of the peace and a member of the Norfolk reassessment and enforcement commission for the third poll-tax. Despite being an obvious target, he had been one of the eleven burgesses chosen to talk with the rebels and bribe them not to burn the town. He was neither physically threatened nor personally harmed in any way – though that did not stop him bringing actions against six hundred people from a hundred places in and around Norwich whom he accused of attacking his house.27 Walter Bixton, who had served four times as both MP and bailiff for Norwich, was a surveyor and controller of the collection of the third poll-tax in the city: his house was sacked and he was forced by one of his debtors to hand over 6s. 8d. in cash and remit seven pounds from the debt he was owed. Another tax-collector, John Fychet, was pursued to Mousehold and threatened with death until he promised that he would never levy another tax again.28

Terrifying and traumatic though the events of 17 June must have been to those unwillingly caught up in them, they paled into insignificance compared with the violence in other towns. What was genuinely unusual about the revolt in Norwich was that at least four prominent members of the local gentry were said by Walsingham to have been taken hostage and forced to act as servants to Geoffrey Lister, ‘who called himself “King of the Commons”’. Salle’s fate had taught them the need to dissimulate, so ‘they praised all that the rebels praised and cursed everything the rebels disliked’, and waited upon him with bended knee. The captives were all knights, though as Walsingham confused the names at least two cannot be identified with any certainty. They appear to have been the sire de Scales, who could have been any one of several members of that extensive family,29 and probably Sir Thomas de Morlee, whose manor of Great Bromley, Essex, had been invaded by its own bond tenants, who had insulted the lessee Lady Anne de Leyre ‘in her hall and threatened her’ then carried away all the court rolls and burned them. The third knight was Sir John de Brewes, a former sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, who had fought in the French wars since the siege of Calais in 1346–7 and whose court rolls at his Norfolk manor of Heydon would be burned by rebels on 21 June; he was a member of the third poll-tax reassessment and enforcement commission.30 The fourth and most important of these captives, according to Walsingham, was Sir Stephen de Hales, whom Lister was said to have forced to cut up and taste his meat before he ate it – a menial job normally reserved for an esquire in a noble household. Hales was in his fifties, a man with a long professional career as a soldier in France, who had been retained by the Black Prince in 1372 for the huge sum of a hundred marks a year for life. This grant had been confirmed by Richard, who had also relied on him, as he relied on his father’s other retainers, for administration in the shires. Hales had thus become MP for Norfolk in 1377 and 1380, sheriff in 1378–9, a justice of the peace in 1380 and both a controller and surveyor of the third poll-tax and then a reassessor and enforcer.31

Why, then, were Brewes and Hales in particular spared the fate of Reginald de Eccles? If Walsingham’s story is true – it is not corroborated by any other source – then the only reason can have been publicly to humiliate them. Sir John Newenton was not, so far as we know, treated in such a way by his Kentish captors. To have one of the greatest men in the county compelled to serve a humble dyer was an inversion of the hierarchy of medieval society. It has rightly been compared to folklore customs which similarly reversed the social order, such as the election of Lords of Misrule during the Christmas festivities and, more particularly, the ‘somergamen’, the revels held around midsummer, in which mock kings were crowned amid much feasting and drinking. John atte Forth, for example, was heavily fined in 1363 because he entered the precincts of his local lord of the manor at Polstead, Suffolk, ‘and together with others played in the lord’s hall a game called a somergamen’. Since Hales’s humiliation and Lister’s elevation occurred between Whitsuntide and Midsummer’s Day, they would naturally fall into the pattern of the customary year, just as the rebels’ carefully staged public burnings of court rolls and institutional records echoed the midsummer ritual of lighting great parish bonfires.32Yet there was also another element to Hales and his fellow prisoners being forced to wait on Lister. It was a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance that enemies captured in battle should wait upon the victors: the Black Prince, for instance, garnered much praise for refusing to do this after the battle of Poitiers, allowing the king of France and his other prisoners to sit while he chivalrously waited upon them.33

The possibility that the four knights willingly collaborated with the rebels and then claimed coercion, as so many others would do when faced with the consequences of their actions, should not be dismissed out of hand. One piece of evidence which might support their claim comes from the Norfolk commission appointed to suppress the revolt and deal with the rebels. When William Tayllour appeared before them he was identified by John Brewes as one of those who had threatened to behead him on 18 June in Norwich, in the presence of Stephen Hales and Sir Thomas Gyssing. Since both Brewes and Hales were members of the commission, and Hales, Gyssing and others confirmed the truth of Brewes’s accusation, Tayllour was immediately convicted and executed on their word alone.34 Beyond the lack of due process involved, the oddity of this is that Sir Thomas Gyssing should have been in Norwich that day and observed Brewes being threatened. Unless it is a confusion with his son, who admitted being there with the rebels at this time, either Gyssing senior was also a hostage or he too had joined the insurgents.

The younger Gyssing appears to have remained in Norwich when Bacon, Lister, Thomas Skeet, William Kybyte, John Trunch and a large group of rebels set out for the coast on 18 June. Lister’s messengers, Felmond and Gentilome, went on ahead to raise the village of Billockby, while the main group made its way to Great Yarmouth. The town had been granted borough status by King John and was a hugely important centre for the herring trade: catches were landed there for distribution throughout the east of England and also for export abroad. Yarmouth had always had a prickly relationship with its neighbours on the east coast and with the Cinque Ports, but these had worsened considerably in recent years. This was due to the fact that in 1372, as other approaches to the town silted up, Edward III had granted the burgesses a further charter annexing the seaboard harbour of Kirkley Road, six miles away in Suffolk, with the right to levy tolls and customs on all trade passing through and, more importantly, prohibiting any vessels, English or foreign, from loading or unloading herrings or any other merchandise for sale within twenty-one miles of Yarmouth. In effect, the charter gave the town a complete monopoly on all sea-borne trade and forced the fishermen and traders of Lowestoft and other ports along the coast out of business, unless they chose to pay the tolls and use the quays at Kirkley Road. If the wind was against them, however, and they could not land there, they were not allowed to enter Yarmouth, so had to dump their catches at sea. In 1376 the Good Parliament repealed the charter as being ‘contrary to the common profit of the realm’ and impeached and imprisoned William Elys, the farmer of customs at Yarmouth, for extortion and corruption. Two years later, parliament reversed the decision and Richard granted a new charter, confirming the monopoly: when the under-sheriff tried to proclaim it at Lowestoft he was stoned and run out of town by the furious inhabitants.35

As recently as April 1381 the king had appointed yet another commission to inquire into the complaint of the commons of Norfolk and Suffolk that the burgesses of Great Yarmouth were using their charter to prevent them buying or selling victuals at Kirkley Road at any time of year. When Bacon and his cohorts rode into Great Yarmouth on 18 June they came expressly to right this wrong. They confronted the burgesses, compelled them to hand over their precious charter and proceeded to cut it in two, sending one half to John Wrawe, Edmund Hemmyng and many others in Lowestoft and the wider county of Suffolk to show them that this had been done with their help, consent and advice. The following day Hemmyng was to be found at Kirkley Road, collecting in the tolls and customs on behalf of the rebels according to the proclamation of Roger Bacon.36 While in Yarmouth the rebels broke open the town prison and freed John Cook of Coventry but beheaded three Flemings they found there; Bacon also freed two thieves in the custody of the local constables for stealing a cow because, the indictment alleged, Bacon ‘was obedient to all the laws and orders of Geoffrey Lister’. He then broke into the houses of Hugh Fastolf and William Elys and carried off their goods, chattels, two hundred pounds in cash from Fastolf and four hundred from Elys, as well as the king’s customs rolls.37 Fastolf was targeted because, like Elys, he had been impeached for corruption in the Good Parliament. He was a local merchant who had forged a spectacularly successful career as a burgess and merchant in Great Yarmouth, as a sea captain in the king’s wars against France (it was his ship, the Waynpayn of Harwich, in which the Suffolk rebel Thomas Sampson had an eighth-share) and finally, as a fish-monger, breaking into the merchant oligarchy in London. He had cultivated royal favour with his loans and his seafaring abilities and had already served Yarmouth as bailiff five times, MP four times, lieutenant to successive admirals of the Fleet since 1362, collector of customs, justice of the peace and, most recently, as a Norfolk reassessor and enforcer of the third poll-tax. He had still found time to amass a huge fortune and build up great estates in both Norfolk and London, making many enemies along the way. The ‘poor men’ of Yarmouth had added their voices to the complaints in the Good Parliament about the oppressions and extortions committed by Fastolf and Elys, so Bacon’s band found many willing helpers in their destruction of the two burgesses’ properties, both in Yarmouth itself and in Caistor, four miles up the coast, where Fastolf and his brother John were building up family estates. It was one of John Fastolf’s own servants, Robert Strongehobbe, who led the demolition and looting at Caistor, removing even the lead from the chapel roof and the drain-pipes.38

Roger Bacon’s actions to this point had appeared to be altruistic in so far as they fulfilled the general aims of the revolt and were in line with the concessions granted by Richard at Mile End: even the destruction of Yarmouth’s charter was in accordance with the king’s abolition of tolls and customs throughout the land. While in the town, however, Bacon determined to settle a personal score by abducting William Clere, the son-inlaw and co-heir through his wife of William Wychingham, a professional lawyer and justice in the Court of Common Pleas. By fair means or foul, Wychingham had used his legal abilities to acquire a large portfolio of properties in eastern Norfolk, including the manor of Antingham which Bacon had allegedly sold him ‘by charter and king’s licence’. Wychingham had died just before the revolt (his will was proved on 25 March 1381) and Bacon, who obviously felt that he had not parted with the manor willingly, much less permanently, decided to seize the opportunity to recover it. He imprisoned Clere until he signed a legal document giving up his claims to Antingham on behalf of himself and his wife, duly witnessed by three guarantors, upon which Bacon triumphantly took immediate possession again. Three days later, however, he sold it back to Clere, again by written charter, though presumably on different terms.39

Over the course of the next few days rebels who had been at Mousehold Heath and their local recruits conducted a mass invasion of the religious houses of north-east Norfolk, seizing and burning their manorial court rolls: Carrow Priory, West Dereham Abbey, St Benet-at-Holme Abbey and Binham Priory all lost their records, as did manors belonging to Bury St Edmunds Abbey and Norwich Cathedral Priory. Bishop Henry Despenser, John de Brewes, John of Gaunt and many other secular lords also suffered. In almost every case it was not a single attack on the main religious house or secular lordship but separate attacks on individual manors. St Benet-at-Holme lost the records in nine of its manors, including three where one of those accused of taking part in the burning was Clemence Paston, ancestor of the famous letter-writing family. Gaunt’s archives on nine different manors were similarly destroyed. It has been calculated that documents were destroyed at fifty-six places in Norfolk and that there were other incidents connected to the revolt at ninety-five further places. And, of course, these figures do not include the events that went unreported or for which the records have been lost.40

On 21 June Geoffrey Lister was at Thorpe Market, some six miles north of his home in Felmingham. There he was alleged to have held a court in which both oral and written complaints were brought before him for judgment so that action (or vengeance as the indictment claimed) could be taken against alleged wrongdoers. Other indictments tell us that Lister received a request for men to assist in burning the court rolls of Binham Priory, which was carried out later that same day, and that John Barkere, Robert atte Moor and others also asked for help in hunting down certain ‘traitors’ whose names they had written down in a schedule and presented to Lister. The traitors included the parson of Thursford, who had been suspected of sheltering Edmund Gurney. This was by no means the first time that Lister had received requests of this kind: on 17 June Simon Cook and Henry Sherman had come to Mousehold Heath to ask him to bring his forces to Walsingham, where they lived. Lister was also said to have held a court while in residence at Norwich Castle. Simon Silk had allegedly arrested Thomas Soppe of Burnham and sent him more than thirty miles to Norwich for trial before Lister on charges of stealing a horse worth twenty shillings from the abbot of Dereham’s house at Holkham; Lister apparently decided he had no case to answer, presumably because the abbot’s goods were considered fair game. These may genuinely have been instances of Lister acting in a judicial capacity, as his enthronement as ‘king of the commons’ would have entitled him to do, but it is equally possible that the accusations were simply made to suggest he had usurped royal power, a treasonable offence. Apart from the isolated case of the horse thief, where some sort of trial or at least judgment was involved, the ‘courts’ Lister held seem to have been little more than planning meetings to decide the next target to attack.41

Less than a week after the gathering at Mousehold Heath the revolt in eastern Norfolk had run its course. The same was true of the uprising in the west of the county, in and around King’s Lynn. John Spayne, a cobbler and shoemaker in ‘le gres market’ of that town, had led a crowd of his fellow townsmen to raise revolt in Snettisham, some twelve miles away, urging a pogrom against the Flemings and ejecting Nicholas Mawpas from his free tenement at Barwick and installing in his stead John Coventry (the bowyer who had threatened Nicholas Massyngham). On 22 June Spayne’s band had surprised Sir Edmund de Reynham, one of the controllers and surveyors of the third poll-tax, in the woods near Castle Rising; having no cash to hand he was obliged to ransom himself with fourteen quarters of oats, which, surprisingly, the rebels meekly accepted. Spayne would later be excluded from the general amnesty but, claiming that he had been falsely accused of murder and pillage through the enmity of people in his part of the county, he wouldbe pardoned in 1383 after bishop Despenser testified to his innocence.42

News that Despenser was on his way back to Norfolk at the head of an armed force had already begun to circulate. It was probably for this reason that the rebels decided that they would send a group of delegates to the king in London, or wherever he was to be found, to secure confirmation that they had the royal sanction for their actions and to procure a pardon which would protect them from Despenser’s wrath. The money they had obtained from the citizens of Norwich to prevent them burning down the town was to be used for this purpose, and handed over to their chosen representatives. These were three of Lister’s trusted lieutenants, John Trunch, Thomas Skeet and the clerk William Kybyte, and two of their noble prisoners, John de Brewes and Thomas de Morlee, who, like Sir John Newenton, were expected to act as intermediaries and procure an audience with the king. Either because they were willing collaborators, or because Hales and Scales remained as hostages in rebel hands, Brewes and Morlee set off with the little group on the road to London. When they reached the village of Icklingham, Suffolk, on the London side of Thetford, they unexpectedly encountered Despenser and his troop, who were travelling the same road back from Cambridge after executing John Hauchach and other leaders of the revolt there and imprisoning the rest. No doubt surprised to see Brewes and Morlee in such company, Despenser interrogated the pair and eventually extracted from them an admission of their plight. Walsingham tells us that they had initially resisted, fearing that the bishop would be unable to help them if they betrayed their companions. Despenser had no such qualms, promptly beheading the two rebels who were with the knights and hunting down the third, who had left them to get food for their meal, to administer the same summary justice. Pausing only to order that the three heads should be put on public display in Newmarket as a warning to others, the belligerent bishop continued his journey to Norwich ‘dressed as a knight, wearing an iron helm and a solid hauberk impregnable to arrows as he wielded a real two-edged sword’.43

Despenser enjoyed – in every sense of the word – a reputation as a military man. He came from a family with a long and distinguished record of military service to the crown, though his father had also acquired notoriety as one of the favourites of Edward II. As a teenager his family connections had procured him a canonry, a rectory, a degree from Oxford and a place at the papal curia where he fought in Urban V’s military campaign against Milan. His reward was to be promoted to the bishopric of Norwich in 1370, which required a papal dispensation because, being still in his twenty-seventh year, he was under the canonical age. In June 1377 he had provoked a riot in King’s Lynn, which was then known as Bishop’s Lynn, by trying to assert his episcopal lordship over the town: this was a longstanding dispute, but Despenser had not hesitated to wade in personally and was wounded in the fighting. It was no surprise, then, that news that ‘the war-like priest’ was on his way put heart into the local gentry who, having laid low during the uprising, now allegedly flocked to join him. Nor that it alarmed the rebels who, in the early hours of 23 June, attempted to storm the abbey of St Benet-at-Holme in the belief that Despenser was staying there. The abbey, an Anglo-Saxon foundation, was virtually a fortress because of its inaccessible position on the Norfolk Broads: it could only be reached along a narrow causeway across the surrounding marshland, so it is significant that the assault was led by someone who knew the route well, the abbot’s own carter William Kymberley. He was joined, however, by several veterans, including John Bettes alias Creyk, who had led one of the first rebel bands in the Wymondham area, John atte Chaumbre of Potter Heigham, who was accused of murdering Reginald de Eccles, and Adam Pulter (alias Martyn), who had been involved in the murder of Robert Salle. The abbot and his monks were at matins, the first service of the day held between midnight and three in the morning, but they abandoned their prayers, armed themselves, manned the walls and were able to hold off the rebels so that they did not gain entrance.44

Despenser probably arrived in Norwich on 24 June to be greeted with enthusiasm, feigned or otherwise, by the inhabitants: the burgesses held an immediate meeting and diplomatically voted to make the bishop a present of their money which he had recovered from the executed rebels Trunch, Kybyte and Skeet. When or how the two remaining knightly prisoners in rebel hands were released is not mentioned in any source. While Despenser made enquiries to find out where the rebels were gathered, the rebels themselves were sending out messengers in an attempt to rally support. In the north of the county Robert Fletcher, for example, brought a band of archers from Hunstanton to Heacham on 24 June and urged the locals there to join his company against the bishop, an action for which he was later beheaded. John Gylding of Heydon rode through several villages to the north-west of Norwich raising rebel levies and proclaiming that it would be a good thing and of great profit to the commons to seize or arrest the bishop and put an end to his malice. There were also gatherings against Despenser in villages in the north-east of the county and it was here that the rebels finally came face to face with their nemesis.45

Walsingham, again, is our only contemporary source for what happened next, and his account owes more to his model Tacitus than to what must have been the reality. According to Walsingham, the rebels had built a primitive military stockade at North Walsham, digging out a ditch, topping it with a makeshift wall of tables, shutters and gates held together by stakes and placing their carts and carriages behind them. This was indeed standard military practice for armies caught in the field during the Hundred Years War, and though Sir Roger Bacon was not with them the rebels may well have had other soldiers with this type of military experience among their ranks. On the other hand, if a last stand was to be made, then there were many more suitable places in the locality, including castles, fortified manor houses and churches, all built of stone and eminently more defensible. Walsingham tells us that the warrior-bishop, ‘like a wild boar gnashing its teeth’, threw himself upon the rebel force and in the close hand-to-hand fighting that followed was always to be found in the place of greatest danger. In the end, the rebels, weighed down by their guilty consciences, lost any remaining resolution to fight and took to their heels, scrambling over the rampart of upturned carts to escape, only to be cut down by their implacable foe ‘until he achieved total victory’. A number of the rebels were killed but some, including Geoffrey Lister, were captured, tried and then executed. Despenser displayed his ‘mercy and piety’ by hearing Lister’s confession himself, absolved him and then accompanied him to the gallows, during which journey he ‘held up the rebel’s head to prevent it knocking on the ground while he was being dragged to the place of his hanging’.46

As a fellow clergyman whose own abbey had suffered at the hands of the rebels, Walsingham naturally had good reasons to admire Despenser’s role in suppressing the revolt (though he did not like the man) and to portray him as an avenging angel leading his men into battle to destroy the forces of evil. But it stretches credulity to believe that there was anything like a ‘battle’ at North Walsham. The two sides were too unequal. Despenser and his men-at-arms were all clad head to foot in steel-plate armour and wielding lances, swords, poleaxes and other knightly arms; the rebels at best would have had longbows, short swords and makeshift halberds, and their only protection would have been an iron kettle hat and boiled leather arm and chest armour; the wealthier ones might also have had an iron breastplate. If Walsingham is right, and there was no time for either side to deploy their longbows before the close fighting began, then the rebels would not have stood a chance, even if they outnumbered Despenser’s forces several times over. An alternative version of the ‘battle’ is given by John Capgrave, the prior of the Augustinian friary at King’s Lynn, who had the advantage of being a Norfolk man, but the disadvantage of writing many decades after these events, since he was not born until 1393. Capgrave followed Walsingham in most of his account of the rising but says that Despenser went to North Walsham on learning that Lister had called out all the able-bodied men of the area to take a stand there. The bishop found the roads blocked with barricades, but ‘by good management’ he and those with him were able to persuade everyone to surrender and withdraw peacefully. Lister, however, jumped over a wall and hid in a cornfield, only to be betrayed by his former colleagues and taken prisoner. Walsingham’s version certainly seems more in keeping with Despenser’s character, though he was wrong in his description of Lister’s death: the escheator’s accounts confirm Capgrave’s assertion that he was beheaded, not hanged, so Despenser’s alleged ‘mercy and piety’ at the scene of execution are probably as fictitious as Walsingham’s account of Jack Straw’s confession at the gallows.47

It has been argued that legal records corroborate Walsingham’s account of a skirmish at North Walsham. In January 1382 the escheator John Rede, whose property at Rougham had been looted and destroyed in the uprising, held an inquisition at Worstead and recorded that six local men had all been killed the previous June by ‘gentiles’, or noblemen. ‘The wording in the record – “interfectus est” – makes it quite clear that these people were killed in battle’, we are told. While it is true that this wording was a deliberate attempt to distinguish between those executed after trial and those executed without due legal process, it does not necessarily mean that the six were ‘killed in battle’, only that they were killed. And since two of those on the escheator’s list were William Kybyte and Thomas Skeet, both of whom were summarily executed by Despenser after he intercepted them at Icklingham, it is not necessarily the case that Richard Hobbesson and Geoffrey Coleman of North Walsham, Thomas Radbote of Sco Ruston and Robert Smyth of Ridlington were killed in battle either. The same argument holds true for the cases cited from the local manorial court rolls. One of them is John Trunch, whom we know was killed with Kybyte and Skeet at Icklingham; another, John Buk, ‘made insurrections against the peace of the king … insulted Henry Spenser, Bishop of Norwich’ and was killed (‘occissus fuit’) at North Walsham ‘by the same Henry’. One could well imagine that a proffered insult would have been enough to provoke Despenser into killing his abuser and maybe even launching an assault on others with him, but Buk and Nicholas de Orforde of Hoveton St John are the only ones cited whose deaths are explicitly stated to have taken place at North Walsham.48 And two deaths in the same place do not necessarily add up to corroboration of a battle taking place. On the balance of probabilities it is likely that at least some rebels were cornered and put up a fight, just as they would do a couple of days later near Billericay, Essex, but the available evidence does not prove that the Norfolk rebels fought a battle or skirmish against Despenser in a last stand at North Walsham.

Lister’s capture was swiftly followed by a rounding-up of the other rebel leaders. Bacon and Gyssing were both arrested, tried and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Gyssing was released on 20 November 1381 ‘by advice of the council and with the king’s assent’. Bacon was only released after he was pardoned at the intercession of the queen, Anne of Bohemia, whom Richard had married in January 1382. He was among those privately prosecuted by Hugh Fastolf for the destruction of the latter’s property in Great Yarmouth and, when he appeared to face the charges (the only one to do so), he was found guilty and ordered to pay one hundred marks in compensation: it was a pyrrhic victory as Bacon never paid Fastolf a penny.49 Eighteen Norfolk men were eventually excluded from the general amnesty, among them Lister’s messengers Richard Felmond and John Gentilome; the murderers of Robert Salle and Reginald de Eccles, Henry Royse, Thomas Aslak, John atte Chaumbre, John of Norwich (a cook) and Adam Pulter (who had already been executed under his alias Adam Martyn); and the local leaders John Spayne and John Bettes alias Creyk, who would both obtain pardons.50

Bishop Despenser’s prompt and decisive actions undoubtedly stopped the momentum of the revolt in Peterborough, Cambridge and Norfolk. They won him many admirers, not least in the House of Commons, which would enthusiastically support his plan to launch a crusade against Count Louis de Mâle of Flanders in 1383. This sordid exercise qualified as a crusade because the count, like his overlord the king of France, supported the schismatic pope Clement VII (though his subjects did not), thus allowing Despenser to sell the idea as a way of continuing the war against France without raising the spectre of having to raise more taxes from the laity. In the wake of the great revolt, that was a very attractive proposition, and Despenser’s particular brand of muscular Christianity, which he had so singularly demonstrated during the uprising, promised greater success than the military alternatives proposed by Gaunt and his brothers, which simply re-trod the well-worn paths that had led to a decade of failure and humiliation. Plus, of course, there was the added attraction of having a legitimate, papally endorsed reason to slaughter the Flemings, with the bonus that personal salvation could be won while doing so. Despenser led the crusade in person, since no professional soldier of any standing would take that responsibility, and enjoyed spectacular initial success, defeating a combined Flemish and French army at Dunkirk and accepting the surrender of a number of Flemish towns, but the enterprise petered out in an abortive siege of Ypres, where the ‘crusaders’ were besieging supporters of their own pope, Urban V. It was a disaster to match all those that had preceded it. Having squandered all the kudos he had won during the revolt, Despenser was impeached and deprived of his temporalities, though not his liberty or his see, until he regained favour two years later by fighting against the Scots.51

Despenser’s crusade would probably never have got off the ground had he not acquired his reputation as a decisive and effective leader in suppressing the great revolt. Yet it is worth asking why he alone, out of all the nobility and gentry whom medieval society had designated as its defenders of the peace, should have risen to the challenge. Contemporaries were quick to blame the inaction of these lords, knights and esquires on cowardice. Historians have been kinder, demonstrating how the rebels’ removal of the chancellor and treasurer at the highest levels of government and the shrievalty and justices of the peace in the shires caused paralysis which prevented all the normal administrative responses taking place. What has not been taken into account properly is that, without that administrative structure, no one had any authority to act. This might not have mattered so much if the uprising had been just a simple case of attacks on royal officials, unpopular individuals or oppressive institutions: these could have been dealt with at a local level if those who had the means to do so had not either themselves been under attack or were uncertain as to the legitimacy of the rebels’ actions. What happened at Mile End on 14 June complicated everything. When the young king agreed that traitors to the realm should be punished, issued written letters under his seal abolishing all personal and tenurial villeinage and granted all his subjects freedom from paying tolls, he effectively gave royal authority to the rebels to act as they did. It would have been a brave or foolhardy man who tried to intervene or prevent such action – just such a man as Despenser, who was confident enough in his own social status as both aristocrat and bishop, and arrogant enough in his personal character, to assume that he could dispense summary justice as he thought fit, with or without royal authority. For anyone else to have acted as he did would have been to run the risk of usurping royal authority, just as the rebels would later be accused of doing. And the problem was that when it really mattered, when the revolt was in full swing, no one really knew if the king had granted his concessions willingly and would stand by them – in which case opposing the acts of his agents would in itself have meant countermanding the king’s will. Ironically, that would have been an act of rebellion. So it is not surprising that so many of the shire gentry chose either to join the rebels, believing that they had the king’s support, or, more prudently, to lie low and wait to see how events would turn out.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!