Post-classical history

CHAPTER THREE

Landlords and tenants

The village of Fobbing in Essex whose inhabitants began the great revolt was not an obvious place to find a nest of insurgents. Some thirty miles from London, it sat on a spur of higher land above the tidal marshes which separated it from the Thames estuary. With an adult tax-paying population of 225 in 1377, it was the second largest of about a dozen small settlements established round the northern edge of the salt marshes which would all produce rebels in 1381. The marshes were then an archipelago of small islands separated by creeks, some of them large enough to be permanently filled with water and navigable by boat, others simply natural channels which drained the surface of the marshes but were liable to flood at high tide. Since at least Roman times they had provided valuable grazing for livestock and by the time Fobbing, with its Saxon church, was mentioned in Domesday Book there were already hundreds of sheep pastured on and around the manor. The proximity of London, which was easily accessible by both river and road,meant that there was a ready market for the flocks farmed on these south Essex marshes and by the thirteenth century the great ecclesiastical landowners were enthusiastically buying land and attempting to reclaim more. The Cathedral Priory of Christ Church in Canterbury was one of these early investors but, despite heavy spending on maintaining its sea defences, in 1327 it ‘lost beyond recovery’ 240 acres of salt marsh, providing pasture for 120 sheep, when the embankments were breached; this did not deter the monks who continued their programme of reclamation on Canvey Island into the fifteenth century. Between 1350 and 1365, Westminster Abbey also built up its estates around South Benfleet, purchasing a dwelling house and its appurtenances, sixty acres of land and 240 acres of marsh.1

More significantly, for our purposes, however, in 1208 the lord of the manor of Fobbing, Sir Thomas Canville, made a gift of land there to Barking Abbey, a Benedictine nunnery founded in the seventh century, some twenty miles away on the outskirts of London. Barking had long enjoyed royal patronage and was one of the wealthiest and most prestigious convents in the country. John of Gaunt secured places there in 1377 for Margaret Swynford, the daughter of his mistress by her first marriage, and in 1381 for her cousin, Elizabeth Chaucer, daughter of the poet, whose admission cost him £51 8s. 2d. in expenses and gifts. Thomas of Woodstock’s widow may also have taken the veil there in her final years, while Sybil, daughter of Sir Thomas Felton, the seneschal of Gascony captured in the French invasion of 1377, was not only a nun at Barking but rose to become its abbess in 1394. (Her widowed sister, by contrast, seems to have been an unwilling postulant because in 1385 she absconded from the convent of the Minories in Aldgate, London, and was declared an apostate and vagabond nun.)2 The abbess of Barking enjoyed not only extensive rights to fell and take wood for fuel and building work but also to hunt hare and foxes in the forest of Essex and to free warren on her demesne, providing her with rabbits which were then the preserve of ‘gentlefolk’. Church law prohibited members of monastic houses from hunting and hawking, though many did so. Abbot William Clowne of Leicester, who died in 1378, was such a skilled hunter of hare that Edward III and the Black Prince were among the many magnates who sought to join him in the field. (He justified his sport by claiming that he hunted not for pleasure but to facilitate the abbey’s business with important men.)3 As we shall see, such monopolies on hunting, which also involved enclosing forests, woodland and parkland to prevent poaching, were to be vocally challenged by the rebels in 1381.

Perhaps because of its prestigious clientele, in 1279 Barking Abbey had been criticised for its laxness: the nuns were ordered to celebrate the divine offices in full and at the proper hours, to observe their rule of silence and, in particular, there was to be no more chattering in the parlour after sunset, they were not to go outside the convent except in the gravest necessity, such as a parent dying, and no men were ever to be admitted to their rooms except, again, in exceptional circumstances. By 1291 the abbey had acquired substantial landholdings throughout south Essex, including estates worth over thirty pounds a year at Ingatestone, twelve miles north of Fobbing, to which were later added eight churches, including those of Mucking and Horndon-on-the-Hill, and the advow-sons to six rectories, including that of Ingatestone: men from all these places took part in the assault on the poll-tax enforcers at Brentwood on 30 May 1381 which began the revolt and they would play a major role in the events that followed. It seems likely that the reason for this was that in recent years the abbey had become a more exacting landlord. In 1377 it had suffered a major disaster when flooding swamped many of its Thames-side estates, leading to a loss in annual income of four hundred marks; despite receiving royal permission to impress labourers to repair their sea defences and spending over two thousand pounds in their efforts to reclaim the land, their marshes at Barking and Dagenham still appear to have been largely under water more than a century later. The man charged with administering the abbey’s estates and maximising its income was its steward, John Bampton, JP and enforcer of the Essex poll-tax collection. Clearly, then, he, and his methods, would have been well known to the men of Fobbing when he demanded their presence at Brentwood and tried to bully them into making a further contribution to the poll-tax.4

In 1381 almost a third of the manors in Essex were held by ecclesiastical landlords. In addition to the great houses outside the county, such as Christ Church in Canterbury and Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s in London, whose property extended into most counties in the south-east, there were many local foundations. The most influential were those closest to London, Barking Abbey and the Augustinian abbey of Waltham Holy Cross, the wealthiest house in Essex, which had been refounded by Henry II and had particularly close links to the crown. Richard II had spent some time living there as a young prince and rewarded the abbot by granting him extensive hunting rights in the forests of Essex in 1378 and 1379 and permission to increase his parks by enclosure in 1380. Waltham’s properties would also be attacked in the revolt and it too had a link with Fobbing, owning the rectory or advow-son of the chapel of St Nicholas in the nearby village of Stanford-le-Hope, which had joined its neighbours in resisting Bampton’s demands at Brentwood.5

In addition to these larger foundations, whose tentacles reached into almost every corner of the county, there were many smaller houses whose impact on their locality could be just as great. The Cistercian abbey of Coggeshall, for example, was founded between Braintree and Colchester by the crown in the twelfth century and continued to enjoy generous royal grants, including licences to enclose the woods on many of its manors and have free warren on its demesne; it was also granted the right to hold a market every Saturday and a weeklong fair at the beginning of August in Coggeshall. Like the nuns at Barking, the monks enjoyed a privileged lifestyle: the abbot was allowed to eat out of the monastery and to permit two of his monks to eat flesh on lawful days – allegedly because of a shortage of fish in the area, despite the abbey being just a few miles from the sea. The house also received an annual gift of a tun of red wine from the king in return for having one of its monks celebrate divine service in its church for Edward III and his family, a grant which Richard confirmed in 1379. The laxity of the observance at Coggeshall was accompanied by such profligacy and poor management that the king had intervened in 1370 to order an inquiry. This found that the abbey had been greatly impoverished by excessive expenditure, allowing arrears of rent to go uncollected, parting with its lands at rents below their value and granting too many corrodies, a form of pension or annuity by which, in return for a lump sum, the abbey promised the donor (even if he or she were laity) food, clothing and sometimes even lodging for the rest of their lives. Since many recipients of corrodies were imposed by the abbey’s own patrons, in this case the crown (the usual culprit), this charge was not entirely fair. Nevertheless, in the wake of the inquest, Coggeshall seems to have become more aggressively businesslike in its dealings, acquiring the manor of Tillingham Hall in Childerditch in 1377 for the maintenance of a taper burning daily before the high altar at high mass and, three years later, the church of Childerditch, enabling the abbot to enjoy the latter’s profits, including tithes, while paying only the salary of a stipendiary priest to serve the spiritual needs of the parish. Men from the abbey’s manors were at the forefront of the revolt: those from Goldhanger, Horndon and Warley participated in the attack on Bampton and Gildesburgh at Brentwood and, with others from the abbey estates, were involved in some of the most violent later incidents; they even invaded the abbey itself and carried off its goods, charters and documents.6

In addition to the significant landholdings of the Church in Essex, about a quarter of manors in the county were held by magnates in 1381. As we have already seen, by far the largest estates belonged to the Bohun family and, since the death of the last Bohun earl of Hereford in 1373, they had been divided up among his daughters and co-heirs, Eleanor and Mary, who had married Thomas of Woodstock and his nephew Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt, respectively.7 However, the earl’s widow, Joan de Bohun, countess of Hereford, was also another major landowner in the county. One of those redoubtable aristocratic widows who defy modern notions of submissive medieval women, Joan had refused to remarry after the death of her husband in 1373, despite being in her twenties, preferring instead to remain single and in personal control of the vast estates she held in dower for the remaining forty-six years of her life. That she was an exacting landlord can be guessed from the fact that so many of her manors would be targeted in the revolt and it is probably significant that the wealthiest of all the Fobbing rebels was also one of her tenants. William Gildeborne, a former juror of Barstable Hundred and, ironically, a collector of the first poll-tax, in 1377, held most of his lands from the countess; they were worth 37s. 4d. a year, compared with the fourteen shillings he paid in rents for his other holdings. He also owned movable goods valued at £48 5s. 3d., including seventy-two sheep, reflecting the scale of his farming enterprise.8

Curiously, two other powerful widows held large estates in Essex: the king’s mother Joan, countess of Kent, widow of the Black Prince, and Margaret of Brotherton, a granddaughter of Edward I. Both had been touched by scandal. At a time when the Church accepted a simple exchange of vows in front of two witnesses as a valid contract of marriage, Joan, aged twelve, had clandestinely married a twenty-five-year-old landless knight, Sir Thomas Holland, only to make a better match the following year while her husband was away on crusade by marrying the son and heir of the earl of Salisbury. Only after eight years, during which time her first husband served as his successor’s steward, did they admit the bigamy and secure papal annulment of the second marriage. Less than a year after Holland’s death, Joan required papal dispensation again, this time to marry her cousin Edward, the Black Prince. Margaret of Brotherton’s life was no less colourful. Married off at fifteen to Lord Segrave, she endured fifteen years of marriage before setting out in person for Rome to secure a divorce, only to be arrested for travelling abroad without the king’s licence. When her husband died in 1353 she promptly married Sir Walter Mauny, and was imprisoned again, this time for marrying without the king’s permission. After Mauny’s death in 1372 she remained a widow for twenty-seven years, acquiring a vast portfolio of lands and wealth through her marriages and a series of inheritances which she managed with ruthless efficiency: demanding royal commissions of oyer and terminer to defend her property, declining to pay the annuities charged on lands she held in wardship and leaving it to her executors – in 1400 – to pay compensation for the oppressions that she and her officers had caused. Her forceful character even persuaded the crown to accept her self-bestowed titles, Countess Marshal and countess of Norfolk, even though her father’s hereditary office of Earl Marshal had been granted to others and neither of her husbands had adopted his title to the earldom. It will come as no surprise to learn that this formidable woman’s estates in Essex, and elsewhere, were at the heart of the revolt and suffered substantial losses. Or that, after the revolt, she personally obtained a royal order to the sheriffs of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk to compel her tenants to return to their former status and duties and a special royal commission to inquire into the depredations committed by the rebels on her lands so that she could obtain exemplary punishments.9

The crown itself held lands in Essex, including the manor of Havering-atte-Bower, where there had been a royal house since at least the eleventh century. A favoured royal residence because of its woodland setting, just seventeen miles north-east of London, it usually formed part of the queen’s dower. Its tenants, like those of all lands held directly in the king’s hands, enjoyed numerous privileges denied to those who lived outside the royal demesne, including the extremely valuable right to exemption from paying tolls throughout the kingdom, which Richard confirmed in 1383. The fact that there is no record of any offences being committed at Havering-atte-Bower during the revolt suggests that the king’s tenants here, at least, were not unhappy with their lot: the two who did join the revolt, John Hermare and Nicholas Gromond, were arrested in Guildford, Surrey, and were apparently engaged in a personal vendetta, despite almost certainly being falsely indicted on charges of having boasted that they were the first in Essex to rebel and that they had participated in the attack on John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace in London.10

By contrast, other royal properties in the county did suffer: Aubrey de Vere, a member of the king’s council between 1378 and 1380 and, since January 1381, chamberlain of the king’s household, had been granted the constableship of Hadleigh Castle in 1378, the keepership of three royal parks at Hadleigh, Thunderly and Rayleigh, in 1379 and the keeping of Rochford hundred in January 1381. Just a few months later Rochford hundred was to be one of the worst afflicted areas of Essex during the revolt and both Hadleigh and Rayleigh, where Geoffrey Dersham was their unpopular steward, would suffer attacks on property and the burning of official documents. Men from both places, together with Dersham’s former servant William atte Stable, would go to Dersham’s own manor of Bernehall, several miles away at Downham, where they demolished buildings and made off with five oxen, three bulls, 160 sheep and 120 capons as well as household goods and chattels which together were worth over twenty-five pounds. Dersham had obviously done well out of his stewardship: in 1369 he had been disqualified from acting as coroner for Essex because he did not have sufficient economic standing but by 1380 he was rich enough to be counted a member of the gentry and was appointed a justice of the peace. No doubt the turnaround in his personal fortune was connected to his stewarding methods and explains his being targeted by those whom he managed.11

Just under a half of Essex manors were in the hands of men like Geoffrey Dersham whom we might loosely term the gentry: knights, esquires, prosperous farmers, even successful London merchants and lawyers who had invested their profits in country estates. Unlike the magnates, whose lives were largely spent in a constant round of travelling, shuttling between their London houses and their various provincial castles and following the king and court as they moved around the realm, the gentry were much more likely to be resident on their manors and were therefore the backbone of the county administration. They served the king as coroners, escheators, sheriffs and justices of the peace, but also the magnates as stewards and administrators and their own peers as members of parliament. They therefore exercised multiple layers of lordship on behalf of others – and, of course, in their own right as lords of their own particular manor or manors.12

However large the great estates, whether they belonged to the king directly, or to the Church or secular magnates, they were not the monolithic blocks of countryside we associate with more modern aristocrats but a collection of manors spread piecemeal across the county and beyond, whose acquisition was dictated principally by accidents of inheritance rather than a deliberate policy of purchase. Of course families looked to extend and consolidate their landholdings by judiciously marrying off their sons and daughters to the children of their neighbours: it made financial and administrative sense to do so. What they could not control, however, was the permanency of those arrangements. A failure to produce a male heir in the direct line or his early death, the division of lands between female co-heirs, like the Bohun sisters, the requirement to provide a widow with a third of the estate for her lifetime, a decision to give property to the Church or a conviction for felony or treason, could all diminish or even wipe out an ancestral landholding. Although a number of manors might be concentrated under one lordship in certain areas, therefore, the more usual pattern was for them to be scattered across different parishes and intermingled with other lordships. The same was also true of individual manors: some were so large that they extended into several parishes and the various component pieces of land might be as much as fifteen miles apart; others consisted of little more than a single house and garden. Most Essex parishes had at least two manors within their boundaries and sometimes many more, each held by a different lord. Most had some free tenants who paid rent for their land; some had villeins or bond tenants, who were personally tied to the manor and obliged to perform customary dues and services. It was the exercise of lordship over these tenants, specifically through the lord’s private court, that was the defining quality of a manor and made it distinct from a simple landholding no matter how large or small.13

What the entire landholding system had in common, regardless of the social or financial status of the owner, was that there was no such thing as freehold tenure as we understand it today. The concept that one might own one’s own property outright was alien to medieval society. In theory only the crown could claim ownership and the whole structure of English society since the Norman Conquest was based on the premise that all land belonged to the king and ultimately was held of him. Certain estates, as we have seen, remained in his hands and were one of the sources of income from which he maintained his household and funded the administration of the realm; the only area of government which did not have to be paid for out of his own pocket was war, the defence of the kingdom being considered a shared responsibility to which his subjects ought to contribute. Virtually all magnates, including the bishops and abbots of great monastic houses, held their lands directly from the king as tenants-in-chief. They acknowledged this relationship by doing homage to him in each generation whenever an heir came of age, or forfeited lands were granted to a new tenant, or a new bishop or abbot was appointed. This was a public ceremony in which the new tenant knelt down, placed his hands between those of the king and swore an oath of personal loyalty ‘for the tenements I claim to hold of you’.

Only after the ceremony had taken place was the new incumbent formally vested with his lands and allowed to enjoy his income. By the fourteenth century the old obligations of having to serve with the king in his wars and provide a certain number of knights for his campaigns and for castle guard had been commuted into cash payments but the legal fiction that the lands were only held of the crown for life endured. When a tenant-in-chief died, therefore, his eldest son had to pay a ‘relief’, or entry fee, to succeed to his father’s estates, the rate for which had been fixed by Magna Carta at one hundred shillings for a knight’s fee and one hundred pounds for a barony. If the heir was under age he became the king’s ward and his lands remained in royal hands until he was twenty-one, allowing the crown to exploit the revenues to the benefit of the royal purse. If the heir was a daughter (or daughters), then the king could sell off her marriage to the highest bidder, though not against her will. The same was true for widows. The king could also claim financial aid from his tenants-in-chief to pay his ransom if he was captured (as Richard I had been in 1192), for the knighting of his eldest son and for the marriage of his eldest daughter. In return for these benefits, the crown incurred the obligations to protect its tenants-in-chief from attack by force or by legal process and to consult with them on issues affecting the realm. The greater tenants-in-chief, including some sixty lay peers, were personally and individually summoned to attend parliament by the king’s writ; there they formed the House of Lords, which acted as a form of high court, as well as offering advice to the king. By the beginning of Richard’s reign their titles had become hereditary and the summons to parliament of this elite group was therefore a matter of course.14

The relationship between the crown and those who held land directly from it was therefore mutual and personal. It was upheld by the sacred nature of the oath sworn at homage, breach of which (in theory at least) dissolved the bond, allowing the king to take back his lands and the tenant-in-chief to withdraw his services. In practice, however, both rights and duties were defined and limited by custom and by the common law which protected rights of tenure and inheritance. An eldest son expected to inherit his father’s lands, whatever the king’s wishes, as Richard II would discover to his cost: it was his arbitrary decision to seize John of Gaunt’s lands on his death in 1399, thus disinheriting the latter’s rightful heir, Henry Bolingbroke, that led to his own deposition. Greater freedom in disposing of land according to the holder’s personal wishes had also been assisted by the development of sophisticated legal devices, such as entails in tail male, which preserved the inheritance as a whole by excluding heiresses, and enfeoffment to use, which circumvented royal occupation and wardship by putting the land into the hands of trustees. Considerable latitude in choosing a marriage partner, for instance, could also usually be obtained simply by purchasing the king’s licence.15

The same sort of relationship was replicated further down the social scale by those lords of the manor who held from the tenants-in-chief and, yet again, a step further down, by the tenants who held from the lords of the manor. There was, of course, a world of difference between tenants-in-chief such as Thomas of Woodstock, Edmund Mortimer and the abbot of Westminster Abbey, whose incomes of over five pounds a day were more than three hundred times the average daily wage of an ordinary labourer, and the many smaller landlords who could expect to receive anything between ten and one hundred pounds per annum from their estates. What they all had in common, however, as lord of many manors or just one (or even part of one), was the right to exact certain dues and services from their own tenants in return for the land the latter held from them. Theoretically there were only two types of manorial tenants: the free and the unfree. To a casual observer the distinction was not always entirely clear-cut: free tenants were able to dispose of their land to whomsoever they wished and were at liberty to leave the manor whenever they wished, but they still paid annual rents and were obliged to perform (or pay someone else to perform) certain services, such as a specified number of days’ harvesting on the lord’s personal holding or demesne each year; they were also subject to the manorial court, though they could appeal against its judgments to the royal courts over the head of the lord. Unfree tenants, otherwise known as villeins, bondsmen, or serfs, were legally the property of their lord, together with their families and their chattels, and they were tied to the land they held of him: they could not leave it for longer than a day without his permission; they could not sell it or bequeath it; in addition to paying rent they were also required to give several days a week of their labour to the lord; they could be taxed by the lord at his discretion; they were obliged to attend his court every three weeks, where they were entirely subject to his authority and could be punished for alleged misdemeanours at his will; and when they died the lord had the right to have the best beast or chattel they owned in a tax known as the heriot. In practice, however, the arbitrary rights of lordship were limited and restrained by the power of custom. Just as it did with the secular tenants-in-chief, custom demanded that the eldest son of a villein could take on his deceased father’s tenancy so long as he paid his lord an entry fine. Similarly, since villein status was hereditary, his daughters were not allowed to marry without the lord’s approval, which again meant paying for the privilege, in this case a cash payment known as a merchet. By the fourteenth century the heriot too was more commonly levied as the value of the best beast or chattel, rather than the physical object itself. Permission to leave the manor temporarily or permanently could be purchased by paying the chevage. Any villein who ignored or attempted to get round these, or any other limitations on his freedom of action imposed by his caste, was liable to punitive fines in the manorial court – from which he had no right of appeal.16

That, at least, was the theory, though there was no single or absolute definition of villeinage in the Middle Ages and its practical application differed from manor to manor according to local custom. Thus, for instance, though it was usually the case that a villein owed three days’ labour each week to his lord, on some manors it was much more: the bishop of Ely’s villeins in his Norfolk manor of Walpole, for example, were even said to have had to work an improbable six days a week for him, leaving them no time to tend their own land. There were even differing practices on manors within the same county and lordship: Canterbury Cathedral Priory, for instance, was still claiming labour services from its Essex manor of Lawling in the late 1380s even though it had entirely commuted them to cash at Bocking by 1369. Indeed, the lord’s own manorial court sometimes struggled to decide whether a tenant was a villein or not, though usually it accepted that past performance of regular week works and payment of heriot and merchet were the qualifiers. Though such decisions were taken by the steward or bailiff sitting as judge in the court, he had to rely on the evidence presented to him by the tenantry, acting as jurors, who were not always willing to denounce their neighbours. In 1378, for example, two villeins from Great Leighs, Essex, who ‘could not deny’ that they had conspired to present false evidence that Joan Lyon was free and therefore should not be fined for having married without licence, were themselves fined exemplary payments of 13s. 4d. and twenty shillings.17 On the other hand, as Nicholas Est discovered in 1377, villeins on the manor of Heston, Middlesex, who begrudged his holding three acres of bond land without having to perform any services, maliciously indicted him before the manorial court as a villein, even though he and his ancestors had been free from time immemorial. Est was obliged to petition the king through parliament to obtain confirmation of his free status and avoid being compelled to carry out the services. Though he was successful, his resentful neighbours did not forget their feud and, under cover of the great revolt, exacted their revenge by robbing his house, beating him up and holding him to ransom.18

In fact the whole question of freedom and villeinage was much more nuanced than a bare recital of duties and obligations suggests. Many landlords had been forced to make concessions to secure tenants in the labour crisis caused by the great mortality of the first outbreak of the plague in 1348–9. Some villages had to be abandoned altogether, such as Tusmore and Tilgarsley in Oxfordshire and Hale in Northamptonshire, but these were exceptional cases and most landlords were able to find new tenants, albeit by excusing entry fines, relaxing services and leasing out holdings for a term of years. Nearly half the holdings at the Hertfordshire manor of Park, which belonged to the abbey of St Albans, thus changed hands between 1348 and 1350, all but four being taken on by relations of the original tenants. A third of the heirs were under age, however, and when many of them died in the second plague of 1361–2, their places had to be taken by remoter relatives or passed out of a family’s hands altogether; four tenancies remained vacant in the abbot’s hands until 1374.19 The landlord’s fear of losing his income if he could not find the labour he needed to prevent his estates going to waste was an opportunity for the ambitious and able, whether free or unfree, to increase the size of their holdings and exploit the tenurial concessions on offer. Landlords naturally regarded these arrangements as temporary and for the term of the lease only, but they also wanted the security of enduring tenancies, so, initially at least, they were often prepared to turn a blind eye to their more successful tenants building up substantial holdings in return for an assured income from the rents they paid. The more often the lease was renewed and the longer these supposedly interim measures continued, however, the more difficult it became to reassert the original status of the land in question. Landlords therefore had to look to new arrangements in order to obtain an alternative secure supply of labour, such as employing freemen to work for wages as tied labourers: in 1364 John Dryvere of Foxearth, Essex, was granted a cottage, its curtilage and an acre of land for life, at an annual rent of five shillings, ‘on condition that the same John will serve the lord of this manor for the whole of his life … as a common labourer’. In 1377 Thomas Whetelee was similarly granted five acres at Birdbrook, Essex, ‘as long as he remains in the service of the lord’ and the following year Roger Wiseman was granted a holding in Suffolk in return for serving the lord ‘as his labourer, taking for his wage what is just’.20

Long before the Black Death challenged the dynamic between landlord and tenant, labour dues on many manors had already been commuted into cash payments, reserving only the seasonal reaping and mowing when as many hands as could be found – free or unfree – were needed to bring the precious crops safely into store. Distinctions between the free and unfree were further blurred by the fact that there was a difference between personal status and the status of the land itself: at the bottom of this social pile were the ‘nativi’, or ‘serfs by blood’, whose obligations were both personal and tenurial; at the top were the freemen, who had charters which set out the terms of their tenure, ensuring that these remained fixed and enduring. In between, however, and by far the largest group in Essex and East Anglia, were those who held some lands which were freehold and some which were customary tenure (owing villein services). The majority of these mixed holdings were acquired through purchase or exchange, though they could result from a serf by blood being formally set free by his lord or from the marriage of a free man with a bond woman. Manumission of an ancestor should have made his descendants free for ever – though in 1373 Margaret of Brotherton found a way of extorting punishingly high merchet fines of 13s. 4d. each from the two daughters of a man whom her father had freed by declaring void the late earl’s charter of manumission (which the women produced in court) on the legally spurious grounds that the earl, who had died in 1338, could only alienate land for the term of his life, rather than in perpetuity.21

Strictly speaking, villeins were not allowed to acquire freehold land or hold land by charter, but in practice they had been doing so for over a century. When the abbey of Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, carried out an investigation in the 1330s, the monks discovered that their villeins had been purchasing land, much of it freehold, since as long ago as Edward I’s reign. What is more, they had recorded its conveyance to themselves ‘and their heirs’ in charters even though the common law held that villeins could not have heirs or devise land by charter. The abbey therefore confiscated both the charters and the land: the unfortunate purchasers were only able to regain the latter if they agreed to hold it in future by customary tenure and at increased rents. The abbey of St Albans, Hertfordshire, had similarly cracked down hard on such illegal acquisitions since at least the beginning of the fourteenth century and would only recognise the legal title of even its free tenants to their land if the charter conveying it was copied into the abbey’s own manorial court rolls. Though they had to pay the abbey for the privilege of having it enrolled, this provided security for those who did have legal charters since the abbey seized the land of any of its villeins who could not find their transaction recorded in the abbey’s court rolls and confiscated their charters as spurious. Simon Sudbury, acting as bishop of London just before he was elevated to the see of Canterbury in 1374, similarly ordered the seizure of William Joyberd, together with his family, lands, goods and chattels in the Essex manor of Crondon, because he had acquired a messuage and nine acres of free land in a neighbouring village and ‘never gave to the lord an increment of rent, nor rendered the said lands to the lord as serfs ought’. Margaret of Brotherton, too, was a vigorous enforcer of this policy, seizing around fifty acres and ten and a half messuages between 1358 and 1376 in her Norfolk manor of Forncett alone, downgrading them from freehold to customary tenure and imposing heavier taxes and rents.22

Such manifestly unfair tactics were not calculated to improve relations between landlords and tenants and they were criticised by contemporaries. Chaucer’s shining example of a country parson, for instance, citing St Augustine’s De Civitate as his authority, roundly condemned the practice: ‘certainly these lordships do wrong that take away from their bondsmen things that they never gave them’. It therefore comes as no surprise to learn that some of the rebels in 1381 had been penalised in this way. William Grindecobbe, who had an acre of land transferred to him by charter confiscated by the abbey of St Albans in 1377, would lead the revolt in his town against the abbey; when James atte Ford of Takeley rebelled he was still paying off a huge fine of almost two shillings an acre so that he could recover eighteen and three-quarter acres of customary land seized into his lord’s hand because he had bought it without permission the previous year.23

Why, then, did landlords continue to pursue such an unpopular policy? The first and most important reason was to avoid losing their tied tenants and tenancies: holding by charter was recognised as a mark of freedom and no landlord wished to lose their much more profitable villeins and customary land by a covert process of creeping emancipation. The second was the desire to establish a permanent written record which could then be produced as proof whenever disputes arose in future: proving that a person was a villein was much more difficult than proving that a tenement was held by customary tenure. And the documentary evidence of the manorial court rolls was much harder to challenge or subvert than the collective memory and oral witness of the tenantry. The third reason, however, was that landlords were looking to increase their profits by any way or means possible. Rents and services from freehold land were fixed but they could be varied for customary tenements, providing a useful source of income when revenues from other sources were under pressure. It therefore mattered whether a tenancy was free or customary and the 1370s and 1380–1 consequently saw a number of great estates tightening up their administration, making enquiries into the status of their tenants’ holdings to discover if any had been ‘usurped’ by unofficial transfers and drawing up new rentals. These inquisitions sometimes turned up long-concealed or simply long-enduring offences, such as the unlicensed marriage of a widow in 1366 which was not uncovered by her manorial court until 1378; but their primary purposes were financial – to obtain payment of punitive fines known as amercements, as distinct from the usual fines, which might be regarded as permission fees – and to record acknowledgement of error so that future transgressions could also be punished. In Eleanor de Bohun’s Essex manors of Great Waltham and High Easter, heavy amercements were imposed on twenty out of forty-six villeins who had married without the lord’s permission between 1350 and 1389, compared with only seven out of fifty-one between 1327 and 1349. It would appear that it was not the incidence of illicit marriages taking place that had changed, but rather the lord’s determination to enforce his rights. Merchets were also being imposed more frequently in the 1370s on Westminster Abbey’s Essex manor of Birdbrook than they had been in previous decades.24

At the same time many landlords were also ratcheting up the pressures on their tenants by stricter enforcement of other customary dues. The abbey of Bury St Edmunds doubled the payments it demanded of all new tenants taking up customary holdings from 3s. 4d. in the 1340s to 6s. 8d. in the 1370s and demanded a heriot of a cow worth 6s. 4d. from a widow whose husband had held only a single acre of customary land; her co-heirs found the abbey’s levies so onerous that, after fifteen years, they eventually gave up the effort and in 1386 abandoned the holding altogether. It was no doubt in an attempt to avoid such arbitrary impositions that in 1378 the villein tenants of Barking Abbey at the Essex manor of Ingatestone offered to pay forty shillings just to have their rents and services made ‘certain’. The abbey of St Albans had also become noticeably more vigilant after the first outbreak of the Black Death, imposing amercements on those who cut down trees on their holdings without the abbot’s licence, allowed their beasts to trespass on his demesne or poached in his woods, parks and waters: all issues which, as we shall see, were grievances for which the local rebels in 1381 specifically sought redress.25

Few tenants could escape fines of one sort or another imposed by the manorial court – either for obtaining the lord’s permission to do something or as punishment for failing to do so – or even, in some cases, for protesting against a verdict. Edmund Patyl was amerced 3s. 4d. in 1380 for contempt and for abusing the jurors who had revealed his illicit purchase of nine acres of customary land which the court had therefore just seized into the lord’s hands. William Morkyn was similarly amerced twelve pence in February 1381 because his wife refused to accept a judgment against her and ‘spoke badly’ of those who had given the evidence which convicted her. New offences were constantly being created. Allowing buildings on customary holdings to fall into disrepair was rarely subject to punitive fine before 1349 but became commonplace in the 1360s and 1370s as lords asserted their right to the ownership of the property of their villein tenants. Similarly, in an extension of the lord’s right to chevage, the mother, brother and uncle of a villein, William Phelipp, who ‘received and entertained’ him after he had absconded from the Essex manor of Thorrington were found guilty of trespass against their lord and had their goods seized into his hands: unsurprisingly, a few weeks later, mother and brother joined the rebels in burning the Thorrington court rolls.26

It was the arbitrary and discriminatory nature of so many of these judgments that grated with tenants. Two families in the same village with adjacent holdings of the same size and comparable productivity might find themselves paying vastly different amounts in rent, services and customary dues simply because one was free and the other unfree: the same might even be true of a single tenant who held one holding by charter and the other by customary tenure. Wealthier tenants, in particular, often found themselves in the position of paying regularly, and above the odds, for alleged infringements of manorial by-laws. Robert Wryghte of Foxearth, Essex, for instance, had three horses, two cows and six pigs and year after year was constantly amerced unusually high amounts for allowing his animals to trespass on the lord’s demesne, paying out the considerable sum of 4s. 8d. in 1378 alone; the following year his wife, the chief brewer in their village, was also subjected to a very high fine of ten shillings for breaking the minimum standards of quality and quantity nominally regulated by the assize of bread and ale. Geoffrey Rook, a tenant of the abbey of St Albans’ manor of Park, Hertfordshire, was also regularly amerced for allowing his cows and pigs to forage in the abbot’s grain, peas and pastures and was the most persistent offender in the manorial court for breaking the assize of bread and ale, incurring fines on eighteen separate occasions, and being succeeded in this dubious distinction by his widow. Both Wryghte and Rook would become rebels, the latter venting his frustrations by plundering the house of Richard Scryveyn, whose name suggests that he may have been one of the court clerks responsible for recording his offences.27 Imposing and paying a regular punitive fine or amercement for offences, particularly those against the assize of bread and ale, was regarded by both parties as an incidental expense more akin to acquiring a licence than an acknowledgement of guilt for producing allegedly substandard goods. In effect the lord was using his manorial court to take a regular cut from, or tax on, the success of men like Wryghte and Rook and there was little or nothing his tenants could do to prevent it. Chaucer’s country parson voiced the frustration of many when he complained that greedy landlords demanded ‘more taxes, customs and tolls than duty or reason requires’ and that they took fines from their bondsmen that ‘might more reasonably be called extortions than amercements’.28

The most effective way of resisting such ‘extortions’ was to withhold customs and services, especially when the tenantry of a manor acted in concert. In the first parliament of Richard’s reign, which met in October 1377, the House of Commons expressed fears that the country was now on the brink of civil war because so many villeins and tenants were withholding customs and services from their landlords, who were unable to act against the disobedient ‘through fear of death which might arise from their rebellion and resistance’. Tenants were not only banding together to offer communal defiance to their landlords’ demands but also contributing to a common pot to pay for lawyers to challenge their legal status in the king’s courts as well as in their local manorial court. What they were trying to prove was that their manor had once belonged to the crown and could therefore be classified as ‘ancient demesne’. Tenants of ancient demesne, like the crown’s current tenants, had access to the royal courts, did not have to attend the hundred courts or county courts, were not liable to pay taxes to anyone except the king and, most important of all, their rents and services were fixed and could not be increased.29

The key to demonstrating this privileged status was Domesday Book, William the Conqueror’s great survey of 1086, which was the land registry of its day: a written record of which of his tenants-in-chief owned what, and where, in England ‘on the day that King Edward was alive and dead’ in 1066 and again in 1086. If a manor was recorded in Domesday Book as belonging to the crown its tenants could claim that it was ancient demesne despite the fact that it had subsequently changed hands. To obtain this information required both legal knowledge and money to pay for a certified copy of the relevant entry, known as an exemplification from Domesday Book, which was purchased in the form of letters patent from the royal chancery, hence, as the parliamentary petition had noted, the formation of ‘leagues and conspiracies’, the employment of lawyers and the communal funds set up by dissident tenants.30

There had been regular appeals to Domesday Book since at least the reign of Edward I, when written verification of tenurial status began to be more important than the oral memory of local juries, but the outcome was not necessarily predictable. In 1320, for example, Roger Hervy, acting on behalf of a group of tenants at Mildenhall, Suffolk, brought an action against their landlord, the abbot of Bury St Edmunds; Domesday Book revealed that Mildenhall had belonged to Edward the Confessor, so the manor was indeed part of the ancient demesne. It was a hollow victory, however, as the abbot argued that, as a villein, Hervy had no right to bring a case against his lord, and the abbey continued to exact all the additional customs and services which Hervy had disputed. On the other hand, in 1364 Edward III intervened on behalf of the tenants of the manor of Crondall, Hampshire, and prohibited the priory of St Swithun at Winchester from imposing ‘other services than those which their ancestors used to do at the time when the manor was in the hands of our forebears’: this despite the fact that Domesday Book actually showed that Crondall, which had been given to the priory by King Edgar in 972, had ‘always belonged to the Church’. Clearly, Domesday Book was not quite the ultimate arbiter whose ‘decisions, like those of the Last Judgement, are unalterable’.31

What caused parliament such alarm in 1377 was a sudden and exponential rise in the number of appeals to Domesday Book. Between October 1376 and August 1377 just under forty manors applied for exemplifications. Most of them lay in Wiltshire, Hampshire and Surrey, and all but one were held by ecclesiastical landlords. This was an extraordinary number of appeals in such a short space of time and the fact that the manors were situated within a relatively small geographical area (some even within the same parish) suggests that this was either a concerted campaign of action or that news of it spread quickly, inspiring others to follow suit. Certain landlords seem to have been specifically targeted: four Surrey manors of the abbot of Chertsey applied for the writ, as did eight of the abbess of Shaftesbury in Wiltshire and Dorset.32 Some of the appellants were repeat offenders: despite winning its claim in 1364, Crondall reapplied in 1377, presumably because St Swithun’s Priory had succeeded in overturning the king’s orders or had simply reimposed the additional services. The villein tenants of Badbury, Wiltshire, had failed to qualify as ancient demesne in a previous application made in 1348 but appealed again in 1377. Quite why they thought they could obtain a different result is unclear, especially as their earlier attempt bore all the sophisticated organisational hallmarks of the later mass of applications which so alarmed parliament. According to their landlord, St Mary’s Abbey at Glastonbury, they had formed a conspiracy, contributed to a common fund according to their means, ranging from six pence to five shillings each, and even appointed their former reeve as its assessor and collector. We do not know how they organised their second application but, like their first, it failed to produce the result they wanted.33

But what did those who appealed to Domesday Book really hope to gain? The desire to escape the burden of arbitrary fines and dues and replace it with fixed rents and services was clearly an important motivation – and it would be at the heart of the rebels’ demands in 1381. But there is a clear implication (at least on the part of the landlords) that those who sought exemplification believed that they were also gaining personal freedom. The warden and college of St Mary Ottery, Devon, alleged that its tenants relied on their exemplification to declare that they were exempt from rents and services; the Commons petition similarly stated that the applicants used the process to claim ‘that they are entirely released from all manner of service as well of their bodies as for their aforesaid holdings’. The abbot of Chertsey went even further, complaining that the villeins and tenants of villein holdings on four of his Surrey manors had performed all their rents, customs and services without interruption until their recent purchase of their exemplification ‘by which they really imagine that they are free and of free condition’.34

If the allegation is true, then it suggests a misunderstanding about the nature of ancient demesne, since personal freedom, unlike fixed rents and services, was not a privilege of crown tenants. We might suspect the landlords of deliberate exaggeration to gain their point, but there were other misconceptions about the whole process which originated with the appellants. For example, they seem to have believed that the act of purchasing the exemplification was in itself a form of licence to withhold services rather than simply evidence of former manorial status. Only three out of the forty manors which applied for exemplifications in 1376–7 actually had legally justified claims to ancient demesne status, yet the rest still relied on their purchase to refuse their dues. They also seem to have thought that any land which had ever belonged to the king, even long before the Conquest, qualified as ancient demesne. Very many of those who applied for writs were actually looking back to the tenth century, and some as far back as the seventh, as the period when their manors had been in possession of the king, who had then donated them to the Church. The fact remains, however, that the legal definition of ancient demesne did not extend any further into the past than the day that Edward the Confessor died.35

This unprecedented spate of appeals to Domesday Book is clearly relevant to the great revolt which would erupt just a few years later. It is true that nearly all the manors where most of the appeals originated appear not to have been involved in the revolt, perhaps suggesting that they preferred to put their faith in the legal process which so many of them had evoked before, and would evoke again, as part of a long tradition of resistance to their landlords’ demands. It is also true that the king’s council responded so promptly and forcefully to the parliamentary petition that it effectively ended the practice, declaring that the exemplifications ‘could not and should not have value or force in respect of the [appellants’] personal freedom, nor change the condition of their tenure and customs due of old’ and allowing aggrieved lords to have letters patent confirming this. Special commissions were to be available to indict, imprison and fine those tenants who refused to perform their accustomed dues and services; as for ‘their counsellors, procurers, maintainers, and abettors’, their more serious offence required that they were to be imprisoned and not released until they had paid a fine to the king and compensation to the lords they had aggrieved.36

Despite this, the ‘great rumour’, as modern historians have christened this episode, anticipates many of the themes which would emerge so forcefully in the great revolt: the desire to end arbitrary exactions by landlords, to have rents and services ‘fixed and certain’ and to win personal and tenurial freedom; the belief in the power of the written word; the idea that royal lordship was fairer and less onerous and therefore preferable to any other. At another level, it gives us a valuable insight into the ability of rural inhabitants to organise themselves both within the manor and as part of a group: half of the writs issued were on behalf of tenants of one or more manors in the same lordship, bearing out their landlords’ accusations of ‘conspiracy’ and ‘confederation’, emotive words which would also be used against the rebels of 1381. We even have an example of the disaffected tenants at Farnham, Surrey, making their alliance against the bishop of Winchester more solemn by swearing an oath to resist him and his officials, just as their later counterparts (including men from Farnham) would do on so many occasions.37

In the light of what happened in 1381, it may be significant that seventeen out of the twenty-two applications made during the ‘great rumour’ were registered between 7 March and 10 August 1377. This coincides with the imposition of the first poll-tax, the collectors of which were appointed on 4 March.38 Did the necessity of paying this new burden add to the grievances of those who were seeking a reduction in their manorial liabilities and give impetus to their campaign? Clearly it did not provoke revolt, or even resistance, as it would in 1381, but the government’s abrupt blocking of the only legal avenue for obtaining the abolition of manorial dues can only have added weight to popular frustration and encouraged violence. When the abbot of Chertsey tried to enforce his rights in his Surrey manors of Chobham, Frimley, Thorpe and Egham, his officials were attacked ‘with arrows, cudgels, halberds and other weapons’ by the tenants, who seized back their distrained goods and allegedly threatened to burn down the abbey with all the monks in it; they subsequently defied a writ of distraint from the sheriff and ‘openly threatened that if they did not get their own way, a thousand men in this country would die’.39 The tenants of the priory of Harmondsworth, Middlesex, had claimed ancient demesne status as long ago as 1233; when they appealed to Domesday Book in 1276, and lost again, they still refused the disputed services, ‘saying they would rather die than render them’; they too forcibly recovered goods seized by distraint and ‘openly threatened’ to burn down the priory. Royal intervention restored order but a century later a low-level campaign of disobedience had begun which built up into something akin to organised resistance: tenants refused to take part in the lord’s haymaking and harvesting or obey the bailiff’s summons; they were trespassing in the abbot’s woods, poaching in his waters and in 1379 one of them opened the sluices so that his hay field was flooded. Tensions were running so high that the man elected as reeve in the manorial court of 1379 paid 13s. 4d. rather than take up office; the following year, in a worsening situation, the price for escaping the onerous role had risen to £1 6s. 8d. – but it was still paid since none of the tenants were prepared to act as the prior’s enforcer. It was not until the revolt of 1381 that the priory’s tenants exchanged passive resistance for physical violence but then they made a concerted effort to ensure that their disputed services could never be demanded again. As the prior claimed in an emotional plea to the king, large numbers of them had come to him

threatening to cut off his head and burn his houses, and they entered his chamber, and commanded him to open his coffer, and when it was open they took from it everything that was inside, including all the foundation charters of the house and the custumal, registers, rentals, court rolls and account rolls, letters of quittance and all the other muniments relating to the house and they burnt them all to powder.

When they discovered that he kept other letters at Westminster they ordered him to have those sent over, on pain of death, and then burned them to ashes too. Among those who were later punished for their involvement in this wholesale destruction of the priory’s archives were those whose names had featured frequently as defaulters and delinquents in the manorial court records in the years leading up to the revolt.40

Increasing levels of discontent among the tenantry in the years leading up to 1381 are observable in the court records of many places which would participate in the great revolt. The manor of Brandon, Suffolk, which belonged to the bishop of Ely, is a case in point. In the 1370s, despite his attempts to impose punitive fines on offenders, the bishop’s control over the manorial court was demonstrably slipping: in 1372 the chief pledges were fined forty shillings for not presenting their evidence and thus hiding poaching offences, concealment of rent arrears was endemic (one man had not paid his for twenty-two years) and it proved more financially viable to allow tenants to buy licences to absent themselves legitimately from court than repeatedly to fine defaulters.41 At the abbey of Bury St Edmunds’ manor of Lakenheath, Suffolk, which would play a pivotal role in the revolt, there had been a decade of hostility and violence: in 1370 the constables of Blything and Hoxne hundreds were charged with corruption and extortion; a year later Simon, vicar of Lakenheath, led twenty-six named people ‘and others’ in an attack on the abbot’s officials who were trying to take goods in lieu of the parish tax which the villagers had refused to pay, breaking one’s wand of office and threatening them so that they were forced to flee empty-handed; and in 1379 the two constables of Lakenheath (who had both taken part in the assault in 1371) were indicted before the King’s Bench for refusing ‘to answer for certain articles’, probably concerning the Statute of Labourers, resulting in a common fine which the villagers refused to pay.42

Concerted action, even in the form of passive resistance to the lord’s demands, was not always an option and many individuals preferred to take the easier course of simply running away. The evidence suggests that many places saw a marked increase in flight of bond tenants after the Black Death. At the Bohun manors of Great Waltham and High Easter the court rolls record only eight instances of villeins paying chevage to leave or having left illegally without payment between 1327 and 1349; in the period 1350 to 1389 this increased to sixty-two, the vast majority of them being orders for illegal absentees to return. This was not an isolated phenomenon and though in part it reflects an increased determination on the part of landlords to record offences, prevent the loss of tied labour and increase income from fines, it also seems to represent a heightened desire on the part of the villeins themselves to escape and better their condition. A man like John Hamond, for instance, who had the intelligence (and the means) to conceal from Margaret of Brotherton the fact that he had acquired a free tenement and enjoyed its profits for ten years by using the sophisticated legal device of putting it into the hands of feoffees, was clearly capable of achieving much more than the limitations imposed on him by his status and her repressive regime. Two of her other Suffolk villeins similarly demonstrated their entrepreneurial skills by setting themselves up as leading townsmen in Manningtree, Essex, one of them acquiring sixty-three and a half acres of freehold land, the other twenty-one acres and eleven messuages, shops and cottages, all without the knowledge of her manorial officials.43

If enterprise was effectively punished by rural landlords, it was more likely to be rewarded in towns, where it was said that if a villein could live undetected for a year and a day he would earn the right to his freedom. Their former lords naturally took an entirely different view: Richard Gregory, who abandoned his holding at the abbey of St Albans’ manor of Park in 1354 and fled to London, was recorded as a fugitive at almost every single court for the next fifty years, only disappearing off the list after 1396, presumably because he was either dead or deemed irrecoverable. William Colyn, a leather worker who fled the same manor in 1356, was known to be living and working right under the abbot’s nose in the town of St Albans itself; though he was not brought back to Park he clearly bore a grudge since, like Geoffrey Rook, he joined in the attack on the house of Richard Scryveyn during the revolt of 1381, and he remained on the manorial list of fugitives for an impressive fifty-nine years.44 For the most part there was little that landlords could do to enforce the return of their recalcitrant villeins. As a matter of course the latter’s holdings and any goods they left behind them were seized into the lord’s hands. Sometimes their relatives were also punished: Robert atte Chirche of Drinkstone, Suffolk, was fined twenty shillings because he failed to produce his two runaway sons before the court (and flatly refused to do so) and we have already seen how William Phelipp’s mother, uncle and brother were fined for receiving him after he had absconded from Thorrington.45

The most notable case for our purposes, however, was that of Robert Bellyng – not just because he was pursued and arrested but because his plight was alleged to have sparked the revolt in Kent. According to the Anonimalle chronicle, the only one which tells this story, Sir Simon Burley came to Gravesend on 3 June 1381 with two royal sergeants-at-arms, accused Bellyng of being his villein and, when the townsmen intervened on Bellyng’s behalf and tried to negotiate a settlement between them, demanded no less than three hundred pounds in silver, ‘a sum which would have ruined the said man’. Deaf to all pleas for mercy, he ordered Bellyng to be seized, bound and thrown into Rochester Castle for safe-keeping. ‘Great evil and mischief derived from this action; and after [Burley’s] departure, the commons began to rise, welcoming within their ranks the men of many Kentish townships’: three days later they laid siege to Rochester Castle and set Bellyng free.46

There are several problems with this account, not least the fact that Burley, the young king’s tutor and trusted confidant, had already left England on 15 May to negotiate Richard’s marriage to Anne of Bohemia, so he clearly did not visit Gravesend in person or act as described; until October 1379, however, he had personally been constable of Rochester Castle and had then sanctioned his successor’s appointment, so he had strong connections with the place.47 Secondly, the county of Kent was unique in England in that its peculiar forms of land tenure meant that villeinage did not exist there; Bellyng therefore cannot have been a Kentishman. While it is possible that the men of Kent were acting entirely altruistically in taking to arms on behalf of a single escaped villein from another county – and it should not be forgotten that they were as ardent in their demands for the abolition of serfdom as the men from Essex – it seems extremely unlikely that this was the sole, or even the main, reason for their rebellion. Yet the story cannot be dismissed out of hand. Among the indictments lodged against Robert Cave, otherwise known as Robert Baker of Dartford and Otford (Kent), was that, aided by unidentified rebels from Kent and Essex, he had broken into Rochester Castle on 6 June and carried away Robert Bellyng, a prisoner detained there.48 Dartford was just seven miles from Gravesend so it is likely that the two men knew one another if both were, as the evidence suggests, substantial citizens in their towns. The particular significance of Gravesend was that it lies on the south bank of the Thames at the point where the river begins to narrow and become shallower: and on the opposite shore, a short boat distance away, lay Essex. Was Bellyng an Essex man? That remains speculation but the town had links with its neighbour across the Thames, including the fact that the endowment of its chapel, chantry and hospital at Milton was almost entirely based on lands in the Essex hundreds of Barstable and Rochford. Its geographical position enabled Gravesend to secure a royal charter confirming its right to ferry passengers to London by river in 1401, thus avoiding the difficult and dangerous road over Blackheath, and, as the first riverside borough and market on either side of the Thames on the approach to the capital, it benefited from the shipment of goods upstream from the easternmost parts of both Kent and Essex.49 Gravesend was therefore an ideal place for a runaway Essex villein to build a new life and, since the town had been a borough with its own mayor since 1268, the reaction of its townspeople to Burley’s attempt to recapture him becomes more understandable: it was not just the principle of serfdom and personal freedom at stake but the borough’s own liberties and independence, which were being infringed by the arrest of one of its own. That was a cause for which many proud burgesses throughout the kingdom were prepared to fight and even die.

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