It was not until 18 June, four days after the Mile End meeting and the murders in the Tower of London, that the king finally issued writs to the country’s sheriffs, mayors and bailiffs ordering the resistance to begin. Yet even this was not the rallying call to crush the revolt that might have been expected.
Because we understand that various of our subjects have risen in various counties of England, against our peace and to the disturbance of the people, and have formed various gatherings and assemblies in order to commit many injuries against our faithful subjects, and because they affirm and inform our people that they have made the said assemblies and risings by our will and with our authority; we hereby notify you that these risings, assemblies and injuries did not and ought not to derive from our will or authority, but that they displease us immensely as a source of shame to us, of prejudice to the crown and of damage and commotion to our entire kingdom. Wherefore we command and order you to have this publicly proclaimed, in the places where it seems to you this can be best and most quickly done to preserve the peace and resist the said insurgents against our peace; you are to do this to the limit of your ability and with force, if necessary, so that for lack of such proclamations and resistance, damages and ills shall not continue to be perpetrated by the said assemblies and risings … and you must command all and each of our liegemen and subjects to desist completely from such assemblies, risings and injuries and return to their homes to live there in peace, under penalty of losing life and limb and all their goods.1
Apart from the denunciation of the rebels’ claims that their gatherings were made by the king’s will or with his authority, this was no stronger than any other writ against riotous assembly. Reading it in isolation, one could be forgiven for not realising that the country was in the grip of the most serious and widespread popular rebellion in its history. There is no mention of the murders, the abductions, the invasion of religious houses, the demolition of buildings and the burning of records, just a rather pallid reference to ‘many injuries’ having been committed. This might well be because the government did not want to give any ideas to places as yet untouched by revolt – but the purpose of the writ was to put a stop to such activities by removing any justification for them.
The suggestion that force should be used to resist the rebels ‘if necessary’ sits oddly with the general perception created by the chroniclers that the revolt was a maelstrom of uncontrollable mob violence. If indeed this were the case, then it is surprising that the king did not call on his retainers to provide him with military assistance: the prime purpose of paying pensions to knights and esquires was, after all, that they were always in readiness to come to the king’s aid when required. Richard, his father and his grandfather all had substantial numbers of such retainers and this was just the sort of crisis in which the king should have been able to rely on them. It would appear, therefore, that he did not summon them, leaving them in as much a state of uncertainty as to his intentions as the rest of the gentry. Richard could also have called on the assistance of at least two armies already in the field, fully arrayed and ready for deployment. His uncle Edmund of Langley had some three thousand men at Plymouth and Dartmouth waiting to take ship for Portugal, among them trusted captains like Sir William Beauchamp and Sir Matthew Gournay, both veterans of the Hundred Years War.2 The winds from the south-west which prevented these forces sailing to Portugal could have borne the army, or a substantial detachment from it, down the Channel to Kent, Essex or indeed London itself. Again, they were not called upon, and eventually sailed to Portugal at the end of June, so a full-scale military operation against the rebels was clearly not crown policy.
The second army was in an even better position to intervene since it was awaiting orders as to where it was to be deployed. This was the remnant of Felton’s two thousand men recruited to reinforce Woodstock’s abortive Breton expedition and mustered at Dartmouth since April. As we have already seen, many of them had deserted or officially returned home after Felton’s death, including the rebel leader Sir Roger Bacon, but there was still a substantial force in arms available. It was to these soldiers that the government turned, sending a writ under the privy seal ordering Sir Peter de Veel and Sir Robert Passelowe, former MPs for Gloucestershire and Kent respectively, to make their way to London with their retinue of sixty knights and the same number of archers. When the writ was issued, or when they arrived in London, is not known, but they remained with the king until 26 June, at which point he sent them to restore order and peace in Hampshire and Wiltshire. It is just possible, though unlikely, that this troop might have arrived in time to confront the rebels at Smithfield: riding hard on good horses they should have been able to cover the two hundred miles in twenty-five hours, though they would have needed to take breaks along the way; a messenger carrying the writ would have been able to travel faster, especially if he was able to use relays of horses, but since we do not know when he was despatched we cannot begin to work out when they might have arrived. They later claimed their wages for this service, saying that they had remained in Hampshire and Wiltshire ‘for a long time’, though their contract ended on 20 August.3
Of the other armed companies used to quell the disturbances we know remarkably little. John Gosford, the chronicler of Bury St Edmunds, tells us that the earl of Suffolk arrived in the town on 23 June with five hundred lances to put down the revolt. This must be an error of fact or transcription.4 A ‘lance’ varied in meaning from a single man-at-arms to a unit composed of a man-at-arms, an esquire or other lightly armed horseman and an archer, but the essential component was the heavily armed manat-arms, who was also the soldier in shortest supply. For his major French campaign of 1355–6 the Black Prince himself had only 433 men-at-arms, and that was more than double the size of the largest retinues provided by the wealthiest earls.5 Even with all the resources at his command the king himself could not have found five hundred men-at-arms to send with Suffolk – and indeed could raise only sixty from the residue of Felton’s army. It is much more likely that Suffolk’s retinue was fifty strong, like the one that Sir Walter atte Lee took to St Albans on 29 June. Walsingham tells us that Despenser’s retinue which slaughtered the rebels at Peterborough, Ramsey and North Walsham consisted of just eight lances ‘and a tiny number of archers’. This might seem a ridiculously small number to suppress a revolt, though not inappropriate for providing protection for a bishop travelling through dangerous country, yet when Sir Thomas Trevet (a seasoned campaigner) left London on 17 June to put down the rebellion in Kent he took only twelve menat-arms and twenty-five archers with him. The Essex rebels who had gathered in great numbers near Billericay on 28 June were ‘easily dispersed by only ten lances (to use the common term)’.6
Such small numbers tell us two things: that the rebels were completely outclassed in terms of armour and weaponry so that fielding armies against them was not necessary; also that, by the time the soldiers were deployed, they were doubly unnecessary because the revolt was for the most part at an end. The pattern across the board had been a few days of violence in which the rebels had got rid of, or punished, corrupt officials and burned the records used to oppress them. After that, apart from a few agitators determined to spread the revolt elsewhere, the rebels had usually gone home to enjoy their newly won personal liberty and freedom from customary dues, services and tolls. Even a major leader like John Wrawe, whose activities had taken him far from his locality and spread the revolt throughout East Anglia, was arrested back at home in Sudbury. He was taken to London, where he was tried and condemned to death despite turning king’s evidence. It is possible that the sentence was never carried out: in 1395 the son and heir of Robert Bracy, who had been appointed marshal of the Marshalsea in place of Richard Imworth, was excused the old debt his father owed the crown as a fine for the escape of five men, one of whom was ‘John Raude alias Wrawe of Sudbury’.7
There were some isolated acts of resistance sparked by the appointment of the commissioners to suppress the rebellion, the most significant being what is usually described as the battle or skirmish near Billericay on 28 June. The indictments do indeed record that John Geffrey, the bailiff of East Hanningfield and a major leader of the revolt in the locality, had summoned all the men of the neighbouring villages to meet in arms at Great Baddow church to resist the forces of Thomas of Woodstock. The only source for the ‘battle’ is Walsingham and even he describes nothing of the sort. He says that the rebels took cover in Rettingdon Wood, near Billericay, and barricaded themselves in with ditches, carts and stakes, but scattered and fled when attacked by just ten lances of the advance party; when the main troops arrived they surrounded the wood, hunted down and killed five hundred rebels and captured eight hundred of their horses, numbers which are clearly hugely exaggerated. Those that fled tried to raise Colchester, but were rejected and, while trying their luck at Sudbury, were ambushed and slaughtered. A series of writs issued on 3 July confirms that the government feared that rebels from Essex and Kent were trying to revive the rebellion but, if so, they signally failed. Geffrey himself was captured, tried and hanged at Chelmsford: when his goods were confiscated it was noted that he owned nothing ‘of his own’ because he was a serf by blood.8
Most of the commissioners appointed to suppress the uprising met with no resistance because the revolt was already over: they were simply there to round up and punish those who had committed what were now defined as acts of rebellion. On 20 June Woodstock (whose own lands in East Anglia had been attacked) and Robert Tresilian, who would be appointed as chief justice to replace the murdered Cavendish on 22 June, were given over-arching authority with powers extending throughout England. The first county commissions were set up for Kent and Hampshire the same day. On 23 June a writ was issued to newly appointed commissioners for the northern counties, Norfolk and Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, and in Bridgwater, Somerset, ordering them to issue a further proclamation concerning the murders of Sudbury, Hales and Cavendish and forbidding unlawful assemblies; the commissioners were empowered to resist and punish the rebels and those for Cambridgeshire, led by Hugh la Zouche, were also given authority to seize ‘notorious offenders’ without delay. Lincoln, the south-western counties, Bath, Bristol and Oxford followed the next day and writs for the rest of the country were gradually rolled out between 3 and 10 July.9
The problem for the government at this stage was not so much suppressing acts of violence in places where the rebellion had already taken hold but preventing the revolt spreading further. How far and wide it had already spread is indicated by the appointment of the special commissioners. Bridgwater, for example, sits oddly with Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, but it was included because, despite its distance from the heart of the revolt, the townspeople had risen up on 19 June under the leadership of Thomas Engilby and attacked the Augustinian Hospital of St John, which lay in their borough. The hospital was dedicated to caring for the sick and providing hospitality for pilgrims but it had acquired property in the town and both lands and churches throughout the area; it was, therefore, like the abbeys of Bury St Edmunds and St Albans, the most powerful institution in the locality. Trouble had been brewing for several years over disputed jurisdictional rights and over the hospital’s claim to the church of Bridgwater. On 14 April 1380 the master William Cammell had obtained a special protection for the brethren and hospital because of an unsettled ‘controversy’ between the previous master, who had resigned, and the people of Bridgwater. In February and July of the same year he had also brought charges against the townsmen, alleging that they had broken down the door of the hospital church and held him and his brethren prisoner; the townsmen had responded in February 1381 by obtaining a royal confirmation of their free borough status and their rights to a free market and yearly fair.10
When the revolt broke out in London, several men from Bridgwater, including its vicar Nicholas Frompton, were in the city pursuing their legal case against the hospital. Richard’s concessions at Mile End sent them hurrying back home where, according to an extraordinary appeal in parliament in November 1381, they persuaded a local justice of the peace, Sir William Cogan, to negotiate a settlement with the hospital. When that failed, Frompton and Engilby, bearing banners of the royal arms, broke into the hospital buildings and compelled Cammell to hand over the bonds he held from the townsmen, release all his rights and profits in the church, apart from the corn and hay tithes, to Frompton and pay a two-hundred-mark fine. Richard de Clyvedon, the esquire who appealed Cogan, also accused him of leading this band and offered to prove his charge with his body in accordance with the law of arms: ‘For he said that the said Sir William was a rich man, and he poor; and therefore he would not be able to prevail by inquest against the said Sir William, even though his cause was as true as there is God in heaven above’. Parliament had no appetite for a duel to the death so the case was referred to the courts, where it sank without trace. Whether Cogan was involved is impossible to assess but it seems unlikely, if only because he was both a surveyor and controller of the third poll-tax for Somerset and a commissioner to reassess and enforce its collection.11
Engilby, however, admitted his role at the hospital and then, over the next two days, demolishing one house and raiding another belonging to John Sydenham, the steward of two unpopular local landlords, whose manorial court rolls, together with other documents relating to Engilby’s own inheritance he tore into pieces, removed the seals and burned. He also burned down the houses of a clerk, Thomas Duffeld, and Walter Baron. The latter he ‘treasonably caused … to be beheaded’, together with Hugh de Lavenham, a government informer whom he abducted from prison at Ilchester, placing both their heads on lances over the bridge at Bridgwater. Engilby and twelve other Somerset men (among them a soothsayer) were excluded from the general amnesty but Engilby eventually obtained a pardon in March 1383, thirteen months after Frompton, for whom William Courtenay, now archbishop of Canterbury, had interceded.12 What makes the Bridgwater uprising particularly interesting is that letters of manumission and pardon, almost word for word the same as those issued at Mile End, were drawn up for the men of Somerset. Dated from Westminster on 2 July, the very day that Richard revoked his other letters (when he was actually in Chelmsford), the letters are a draft prepared for his approval. It is possible that either Frompton or his representatives obtained them at Mile End, but no royal clerk would have post-dated a written pardon to cover crimes not yet committed. A more probable scenario is that they were drafted by Frompton’s attorney in London, who copied their wording from others he had seen; he could not have known that Richard would withdraw those already granted on the same day and that they would therefore become redundant before they had even been approved.13
Bridgwater was the furthest outpost of south-west England where incidents connected with the general uprising are recorded.14 Winchester had a three-day rebellion of its own after the arrival of Thomas Faukoner of Winchester, alias Thomas Palmer of Surrey, from Guildford on 17 June with news of the rebellion in Surrey and the Mile End concessions. This was the excuse William Wygge and his supporters needed to rise again; they rang the town bell and blew the communal horn to summon the townsmen to their aid then the following day broke into the king’s Staple, stole all the rolls and records stored there and publicly burned them in the high street. Walter Hogyn, who may have been the Staple clerk, was killed. This appears, once again, to have been caused by a long-running jurisdictional clash. The town’s merchant guild, of which Wygge was a senior member, resented the Staple’s independent administration of commercial contracts and debts involving their members, and in 1377 the mayor and community had been prosecuted for pulling down tenements in Winchester which the king had designated for an expansion of Staple business. With banners flying the Winchester rebels also went out to Romsey, some eleven miles away, presumably to raise the tenantry and burn the charters and rolls of the Benedictine nunnery there; eight men from Romsey were later indicted for revolt and one of them hanged. Faukoner and Wygge were among the six Winchester rebels excluded from the general amnesty; both were eventually pardoned, though Faukoner, who had fled, did not receive his until 1398.15
The Midlands remained relatively quiet, though there was a farcical situation in Leicester, where rumours that the rebels from London were marching on the town to attack Gaunt’s castle there led the mayor to order all able-bodied townsmen to take up arms and assemble on the hill outside the town. For two days around twelve hundred men, ‘some good and others less so’, waited for the onslaught that never came. In the end, all that happened was that the keeper of the duke’s wardrobe arrived from London, loaded as many of Gaunt’s belongings as he could into carts and waggons and took them to the abbey for safe-keeping. The abbot, however, afraid that the rebels would sack his abbey instead of Gaunt’s castle, refused to accept them, so they were dumped in the churchyard of St Mary de Castro ‘to await divine providence’. In Northampton William Napton, who was probably a butcher, led an uprising against the mayor and was still considered an agitator in July 1382.16 The university at Oxford, unlike Cambridge, appears to have escaped unscathed, though the arrests were ordered on 28 June of seven rebels from Abingdon, just seven miles away, and the earl of Warwick hurried back to Warwickshire at the beginning of July on unconfirmed rumours of an uprising there.17
Farther north, Derbyshire was affected by the antics of the five sons of Goditha de Stathum who had a long-standing dispute with Gaunt over their mother’s ownership of property in the manor of Morley. Unable to win their case by legitimate means against such a powerful opponent, the Stathums had been drawn into an escalating quarrel which had resulted in murder, theft of livestock, wanton destruction of property, poaching, outlawry and the appointment of royal commissions that Gaunt packed with his own supporters. On 18 June, therefore, as news of the revolt arrived in Derbyshire, the Stathums attacked Breadsall Priory, an impoverished house of Augustinian canons which held one of the four manors of Morley: Gaunt, the Stathum family and the abbot of Chester held the others. The prior and his two canons took refuge in a strong chamber, and when the rebels grew bored with laying siege to it they broke into the church, where they were accused of burning a pyx containing the sacred Host, images, books, vestments and other precious items before burning down the prior’s kitchen and another chamber. They then took themselves off to Horston Castle, a few miles away, which was held by Gaunt’s chamberlain and leading retainer Sir Robert Swillington. Rather than destroy it, they seized the castle and flaunted their victory by flying a standard of St George from the ramparts. There is no suggestion that records were burned, and though two men were killed they were linked to the property dispute rather than an assault on corrupt royal officials. The Stathums’ actions were typical of those that marked their feud with Gaunt and could just as easily have taken place at any time during the previous few years: it is only the timing and the adoption of the standard of St George which links them specifically with the great revolt, though the knowledge that Gaunt was a major target of the rebels may have encouraged them to strike again.18
The furthest north that the revolt spread was Yorkshire. As we have seen,19 York was already in turmoil as Simon Quixley’s supporters fought, sometimes literally, for a say in the city government. Newly installed as mayor in February 1381, Quixley had tried to exploit grievances among the townsmen to bolster his authority. News of the revolt, and possibly even the Mile End concessions, reached York swiftly, probably through its mercantile connections with the crown and London, and on 17 June more than a hundred people attacked three major religious institutions in the city: St Leonard’s Hospital, St George’s Chapel and the Dominican friary. The hospital, said to be the largest in the north of England, stood in the shadow of the Minster; eight brothers and eight sisters provided daily alms for thirty poor people at the hospital gate, prisoners and lepers in the city and up to 206 sick staying in their infirmary. A visitation in 1376–7 had noted that the master had spent over £1116 on repairs to the roof but a further thousand pounds needed to be spent on repairs to the dormitory, hospital church and tower.20 The hospital, like the Dominican friary and royal chantry near York Castle, enjoyed extensive privileges within the city, such as exemption from secular taxation, which were a source of tension with the city government.
The attacks seem to have had Quixley’s approval, and possibly his authorisation, because he held a meeting of ‘all the commonalty’ the same day in the guildhall to issue an ordinance designed to protect York should the king intervene. Gisburn and his supporters were accused of a further incident at the city’s Bootham Bar on 1 July, in which they rode armed through the streets, assaulted and threatened their opponents with iron bars and other weapons, swore oaths of loyalty to one another and handed out liveries. John Gisburn’s followers retaliated by accusing Quixley of seizing and imprisoning their people at the time of the ‘diabolical insurrection in the counties of Kent and Essex’, threatening to execute them ‘just like the chancellor and treasurer of our said lord the king’ until they handed over large sums of money and bonds to the guildhall treasury. Both sides were quite deliberately trying to tarnish the other with the much more serious charge of rebellion, rather than simply the petty crimes resulting from their bitter feud.
Richard ordered Gaunt and the archbishop of York to sort out the affair, but in the meantime, in November 1381, he issued royal confirmation of the friary’s charters that granted it various plots of land within the city, with power to enclose them, which suggests that the wall within its precincts demolished by the townsmen was a disputed enclosure: the confirmation of the charters was duly recorded in the York civic records, together with the fact that earthen walls against the city walls and two of the great gates which had been demolished and carried off were to be restored. On 3 March 1382 Quixley, as mayor, was forced to offer security of five thousand pounds pledged on his own goods and lands, that before midsummer he would compel 120 named townsmen to repair the closes, walls and doors of the hospital and chapel, and the wall within the friary which they had broken down, and take bonds of one hundred pounds from each of them that they would keep the peace in future. It was not until November 1382 that Richard cancelled these bonds and issued a pardon to the city, though its people still had to pay a collective fine of one thousand marks.21
Much of the antipathy between the two factions had arisen because the old guard, represented by Gisburn, was so closely identified with the crown and abuse of royal power. The same would be true of two other Yorkshire towns, Beverley and Scarborough, where uprisings are recorded in the summer of 1381. Beverley was an important centre for both the woollen industry and for pilgrimage: its Minster housed the shrine of St John of Beverley, the seventh-century bishop of Hexham who had ordained the Venerable Bede. With a tax-paying population of 2663 in 1377, Beverley was the second largest town in the north of England but it was riven by urban conflict and had within its walls three separate and frequently rival jurisdictions exercised by the crown, the archbishop of York and the provost and chapter of the Minster. The archbishop was already at loggerheads with the canons of the Minster and launched a bitter and prolonged attack on their privileges in June 1381. This further escalated tensions within the civic government where, at the end of May, a ‘formidable if temporary coalition’ of the ‘ordinary’ people, or lesser craftsmen, had succeeded in ousting the self-perpetuating twelve keepers, who were all members of rich merchant families: the two wealthiest and most powerful, Thomas Beverley and Adam Coppendale, had both served as poll-tax collectors in 1377, antagonising local people by obstructing streets with their new buildings and, in the case of the former, by acting as steward of the Minster chapter. The rebels not only expelled the keepers from office but then reformed the constitution to ensure their own place in future civic government by instituting a single alderman, two chamberlains, a recorder and a council of twenty-four. The new regime promptly arraigned the most hated members of the old for their abuses of power and forcibly extracted such huge bonds from them that many fled in terror of their lives. The violent aftermath of reprisals and counter-reprisals continued for over a year; it was not until June 1382 that the archbishop and sheriff were able to restore some sort of order by taking pledges for good behaviour from four hundred of the townsmen of both parties. Beverley finally obtained its letters of royal pardon in October 1382, though it had to pay 1100m. for the privilege, a fine even higher than that imposed on York.22
Scarborough, with a tax-paying population of 1393 in 1377, was a borough on the east coast overlooked by a royal castle. There had been conflicts between the two jurisdictions for over a century, resulting in 1312 in the town being confiscated into the king’s hands for fifteen years, though its liberties were restored by Edward III and confirmed by Richard on his accession. Resentment against the crown had grown in recent years because of its increasingly heavy naval demands which were at odds with the town’s vulnerability to Scottish and French raiders. In 1378 the son of a Scot held prisoner in the castle managed, with French and Spanish help, to capture all the ships in the harbour; the situation was only saved by the London merchant John Philipot, who raised and equipped a fleet at his own expense, recovered the English ships and booty and captured fifteen of the Spanish ships. The following year Scarborough appealed to parliament for royal protection from the French ships which constantly threatened the town, causing it to lose a thousand pounds in captures and ransoms over two years.23
The revolt in Scarborough began on 23 June with a gathering of some five hundred townsmen who, having heard of the uprising elsewhere, bound themselves by oath to redress each other’s wrongs and adopted a livery of white hoods tipped with red. That night they deposed one of the bailiffs, Robert Acclom, who fled to sanctuary in the house of the Friars Minor, only to have the rebels attempt to break down the doors to get him. Acclom belonged to the most powerful family in the borough and was notoriously corrupt: he had already been accused of a number of violent crimes and manipulating the local food markets, and his son John was no better, sharing his father’s misdeeds and being outlawed for murder in 1384. Various leading burgesses were besieged in their homes and imprisoned until they swore to be faithful to the commons and paid fines for their release: among them were John Acclom and William Scott, who were both assessors of the third poll-tax, and Robert Pad and John Stokwyth, the controllers and assessors of the tax. Stokwyth was dragged from his house by ‘a great crowd of men called rowtes’ and led from street to street ‘with a great shout called hountays’ to prison; kept there for several days and threatened with beheading he offered money but was only saved by his son-in-law Henry de Ruston (another poll-tax collector) who had it proclaimed throughout Scarborough that he would personally make amends for any complaint against Stokwyth, ‘even if he had to sell his lands, tenements, goods and chattels’ to do so. The rebels were led by William Marche, himself a wealthy Scarborough merchant, against whom the Accloms duly took their revenge three years later by robbing his ships and home and stealing his flock of two hundred sheep, a crime which went unpunished. Scarborough itself was compelled to pay a fine of four hundred marks but it was not pardoned until 1391.24
There can be little doubt that other towns throughout the kingdom were also caught up in the revolt, though documentary evidence as to the course of events is currently lacking: royal writs ordering rebels to be resisted, arrested and punished were issued on 23 and 24 June not just to York, Beverley, Scarborough and Bridgwater, but also to Kingston-upon-Hull, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bath, Bristol and Oxford.25 The revolt had spread so far and so fast that the government was in danger of being overtaken by events even as it tried to suppress them. By 10 July, however, even Scarborough had its commission empowered to put down the uprising, with force if necessary, and to restore to their posts any royal officials removed by the rebels.26