Post-classical history


Urban society

For the upwardly mobile, including escaped villeins, town life had many attractions. Unlike life in the countryside it was not dependent on the seasons and therefore offered the opportunity of less cyclical work. There were also more openings for engaging in different kinds of unskilled employment, ranging from domestic service in a merchant or artisan household to working as a groom or ostler in an inn. The more ambitious might have hoped to acquire a craft or a trade, though apprenticeship schemes were hard to come by without contacts, as was the substantial sum demanded as down-payment by the employing master.

Urban living in the late fourteenth century had far more in common with rural life than it does today, even in the largest towns and cities. Indeed, the two were inseparably linked, since the towns relied on their surrounding countryside for a regular supply of fresh produce such as eggs, butter and cheese as well as less perishable but equally essential consumables like firewood. There was a constant two-way traffic between them. Country people brought in the surplus yield from their fields but also reared livestock and made goods specifically for the market: they had to pay tolls to obtain a licence to sell and might have to engage an intermediary who held a market stall or shop, but the sales brought in cash which was vital in what had become a predominantly money-based economy, not just to purchase essentials such as tools, cooking pots and shoes, but also to pay rents, tolls and taxes. Townsmen too would go out into the countryside to help with the harvest in August and to seek suppliers of raw materials either for their own trades or acting as factors on behalf of larger concerns such as magnate households, university colleges and even great monastic houses which made their own contracts direct with rural producers of grain and meat. East Anglian grain and wool were regularly shipped through its ports, not only to London but as far afield as the Low Countries and the Baltic, so corn-mongers, wool-mongers and clothiers from the towns travelled the countryside buying up local produce for bulk selling to longer-distance markets. Walter Sibil, for instance, one of the elite band of wealthy London merchants and aldermen of the city, was at Great Yarmouth in 1375 when a band of men armed with swords assaulted him and carried off 160 quarters of his wheat, worth one hundred pounds, which prevented him selling it in the market. Such people were familiar figures in the shires – so much so that when John Seynt-Pere set out in 1381 to recruit rebels in the Northamptonshire villages of Church Brampton and Harlestone to avoid detection by the authorities he passed himself off as another great London merchant and financier, Sir John Philipot, on a wool-purchasing mission.1

London was far and away the largest city in the kingdom – and the only one comparable in size and population to its commercial competitors in the Low Countries and Italy. Exchequer records from 1377 reveal 23,314 tax-payers over the age of fourteen living within the city limits, though this figure does not take account of the hundreds, if not thousands, who had their principal homes outside the capital, nor the vast numbers of clergy who lived or worked there but were taxed separately, nor indeed the large numbers living in the adjacent suburbs, nor those who were exempt from paying tax. Taking these omissions into account, London’s total population was probably at least double that figure and possibly around fifty thousand. London was more than three times the size of the largest provincial cities, York and Bristol, which had comparable tax-paying populations of 7248 and 6345 respectively.2

As the rebels of 1381 were well aware, London was also the political capital of the realm. Kings, who in the past had been itinerant, were now increasingly in residence there, holding court in the Tower or at Westminster Palace, a couple of miles upriver, beyond the city walls. The expansion of government and its administration, which had always centred on the person of the king, had made a more permanent home necessary for the various departments of state. The courts of law, the exchequer and the chancery had therefore all settled into Westminster Hall, carrying out their different functions in elbow-jostling proximity. The vast number of documents they generated could not all be stored there, so repositories were to be found all around Westminster and in London itself: the chancery rolls, for instance, were stored in the House of the Jewish Converts in Chancery Lane from the 1370s.3 Anyone wishing to transact legal or financial business, whether a soldier about to go abroad and seeking a royal protection for his property in his absence, a plaintiff demanding a royal writ in a dispute with his neighbours, or a sheriff coming to present his accounts, had to go to Westminster Hall. All around Westminster, and in the Temple and Chancery Lane, he would find lawyers and clerks with thenecessary expertise to draw up his petitions and charters, so there was a constant influx of people from the country in need of the services that only the capital could provide. Parliament, too, met more frequently at Westminster in the later fourteenth century, drawing to it not only those lay and secular aristocrats, shire gentry and borough representatives who sat in its sessions, but also a horde of petitioners seeking remedies for their problems.

Even without the constant ingress of visitors from the rest of the realm, London was already a cosmopolitan city. It was home to merchants from the Low Countries, the Baltic and the Mediterranean, who brought in wine, spices and luxury goods, including silks, fine linens and armour, as well as bulk raw materials such as the alum and dyes which were vital for English cloth manufacture. Merchants based in the capital were responsible for exporting between thirty and forty per cent of English wool and forty-five per cent of the country’s cloth. The city was therefore a major centre of international trade but it was also a distribution hub for the rest of the country. Great magnates of Church and state, in particular, relied on London for their supplies of hard-to-find merchandise which could then be transferred to their homes in the provinces: wax, exotic imports of dried fruit and nuts, home-produced pewter-ware and the intricately chased, enamelled and gem-studded goldware and silverware for which English goldsmiths were justly renowned. Bishop Arundel of Ely even spent eight pounds in 1381 on having a heavy carriage made in London, presumably so that it could be used to cart his purchases on the long seventy-mile journey back to Cambridgeshire. Twenty-five years later, bishop Mitford of Salisbury was buying forty-one per cent of his supplies from London – slightly more than he did from the much nearer ports and markets of Bristol, Southampton and Salisbury combined – and he still managed to save a halfpenny on every pound of liquorice by buying directly in bulk from the importing merchant in the capital instead of in Southampton.4

Commerce had changed the face of the city in subtle ways. It still retained its Roman walls, enclosing a square mile within which most of the population lived; seven gates controlled access to the landward side and two, Billingsgate and Dowgate, remained on either side of London Bridge, even though the Thames-side wall itself had long gone to make room for quays, wharves and jetties where merchandise could be loaded and unloaded. Ludgate and Newgate also served as prisons, the former for debtors, the latter, notorious for the corruption of its regime, for criminals referred from the provinces. The other gates were mainly occupied by city officials, including the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who, in 1374, had been appointed Controller of Customs and granted a lifelong lease on ‘the whole dwelling above the gate of Aldgate’. Since this was the city gate nearest the Tower he must have had a prime vantage point for viewing the rebels as they surged through the streets of London; in his only recorded comment on the revolt he would note that ‘surely Jack Straw and his band never made shouts as shrill when they wanted to kill the Flemings’ as the crowds pursuing the fox which had taken Chanticleer the cockerel.5 We might have expected more than this passing reference from the greatest poet of the age, particularly given Chaucer’s close connections to the royal court, and even closer personal relationship to John of Gaunt, but his discreet silence is symptomatic of the careful course this consummate diplomat steered through all the political travails of Richard’s reign.

Within the city walls the greatest building, in every sense, was the twelfth-century St Paul’s Cathedral, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666: six hundred feet long, with a rose window forty feet in diameter at its east end, and a spire soaring five hundred feet above the city, it was ‘one of the most magnificent Gothic buildings in Christendom’.6 Some 114 parish churches were constantly being rebuilt and enlarged by prosperous Londoners anxious to earn salvation by endowing chantries where daily prayers and masses would be said or sung for their souls. Outside the walls the city was ringed by a series of great religious houses, churches and hospitals, from the Carmelite convent of the White Friars on Fleet Street in the west, round to St Katherine’s church and hospital for the poor next to the Tower in the east. Slightly farther out, but still within a quarter of a mile of the walls, lay three more important buildings: the Temple, once the monastery of the Knights Templar, but now owned by the Knights Hospitaller and leased out by them since the beginning of Edward III’s reign to the justices, lawyers and clerks who formed the embryonic inns of court; the Hospitallers’ own great preceptory, head of the order in England, lay a short distance away to the north-east at Clerkenwell; and, close to that, the Charterhouse, a new Carthusian monastery founded by Sir Walter Mauny in 1371 on the site of the chapel serving the cemetery he had dedicated for plague victims.7 The position of all these major buildings outside the city walls and on London’s periphery made them vulnerable to attack and all, except the Charterhouse, would suffer incursions by the rebels in 1381.

In addition to the great religious foundations, there were some fifty town houses, or inns, belonging to Church prelates, which they used as a base for attendance at court or parliament. Both archbishops, all nineteen bishops and most abbots and priors owned one, ranging from the relatively modest quarters of the abbot of Waltham, just outside Billingsgate, which had a chapel, dormitory, great hall, kitchen, gatehouse, stable, courtyard and other domestic offices, to the palatial residence of the bishop of Ely in Holborn, which was set in large private gardens with an orchard and fourteen acres of pasture beyond. Most of these ecclesiastical inns were in the favoured suburbs of Holborn and the Strand, lying between the crowded walled city and Westminster, which was then a separate community under the jurisdiction of the abbot, but three were on the south side of the river: the bishop of Winchester’s inn was at Southwark, which lay in his own diocese and conveniently close to London Bridge, while the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of Rochester both had their establishments in Lambeth, a short boat ride across the Thames from Westminster. Virtually all lay aristocrats also had their London inns, chiefly in Southwark, Holborn and the Strand. The most sumptuous of these was the Savoy Palace on the Strand, which had been rebuilt at a cost of thirty-five thousand pounds by Henry, duke of Lancaster, out of his profits from the Hundred Years War; the most eminent prisoner of those wars, King John of France, had lived and died in his custody at the Savoy. Now it belonged to Lancaster’s son-in-law, John of Gaunt, and its fabulous buildings, combined with its dominant position on the Strand, with gardens, orchards and fishponds running down to the Thames waterfront, made it a potent symbol of his power.8

Access to the river was highly prized since the Thames was a larger and faster thoroughfare than any of the city’s roads. The medieval Thames would have borne a strong resemblance to the modern Grand Canal and Canal Basin in Venice, its waters indiscriminately crammed with merchant vessels and fishing boats vying for space with aristocratic barges and hundreds of small boats rowed by the watermen (and women) ferrying their passengers up, down and across the river. London Bridge, too, was a longer and shabbier version of the Rialto: built of stone in the twelfth century to replace an earlier wooden one, it had nineteen arches, with towers and drawbridges at each end, and a chapel dedicated to St Thomas Becket in the middle. Altogether there were 139 shops lining the bridge: many of them were several storeys high and encroached on the road, so that it was scarcely wide enough to allow carts and carriages to pass. The throng of pedestrian traffic was swelled, at times, by the many pilgrims who, traditionally but inconveniently, began their pilgrimage to Canterbury at St Thomas’s chapel. (The bridge and chapel had been built as an act of penance by Henry II for the murder of his archbishop, so the chapel was a natural starting point for a pilgrimage to the place of Becket’s martyrdom.) The bridge’s considerable upkeep was the responsibility of the city but delegated to two bridgemasters elected annually to maintain it from the income raised by tolls from those passing over or under it, charitable donations and property rental.9 London Bridge was the only crossing over the Thames in the city – indeed it was the only river crossing between London and the North Sea and there was no other bridge farther inland for some twenty miles. This gave it an importance out of all proportion to its size: possession of the bridge effectively controlled access not only to the heart of London itself but also to the north bank by those on the south. Anyone intending to enter the city in any number – as the Kent rebels wished to do – would first have to gain the bridge. That they were able to do so with such ease would naturally raise suspicions of treachery and, after the revolt, Alderman Walter Sibil, who was responsible for Bridge ward, would have to stand trial on charges of criminal conspiracy with the rebels.10

In addition to the bridge itself, the city corporation also owned the waterfront on either side, stretching from Queenhithe in the west to Billingsgate in the east, and it was here that ships were loaded and unloaded on the quays, wharves and jetties, wholesale markets were held and Londoners bought their coal, salt, corn and oysters. A new customs house had been built below the bridge at the end of Edward III’s reign, reflecting a shift in commercial focus downstream owing to the increasing size of ships, which made it more difficult and dangerous for them to negotiate the narrow arches of the bridge. Other than the goods sold at the landing places, most were taken for sale to various market-places throughout the city, each having its own dedicated areas: fish, for instance, in New Fysshestrete, meat in Eastcheap and corn outside St Benet Gracechurch – though gardeners selling their produce close to St Paul’s churchyard had been moved on because their cries were disrupting mass. The livestock markets, particularly for larger animals such as horses and cattle, were held at Smithfield, a large open area just outside the city walls, which was also the site of the annual St Bartholomew Fair and a favourite venue for tournaments and public gatherings: it was here, well away from the crowded streets of the city, that Richard would summon the rebels to meet him for the dramatic denouement of the revolt in London.11

Despite the pressure on space within the city walls, a sixteen-foot-wide band of land immediately inside their circuit was kept free of development for defensive and maintenance purposes. This, together with the area between the walls and the outer ditch that surrounded them, was given over to gardens which could be leased from the city authorities. All the great houses, and many of the smaller ones too, had their own private gardens where they grew vines, herbs and vegetables, and kept poultry, goats and even pigs. These would generally be for home consumption but on some large estates, like that surrounding the bishop of Ely’s palace, gardeners were employed to produce onions, garlic, turnips, leeks, parsley, herbs and beans for the market. Many of the merchants, the financial elite of the city, lived in grand houses modelled on those of the aristocracy: they imported Caen stone from Normandy to build vaulted cellars and arched gateways leading to a courtyard, with a great hall on one side and subsidiary chambers, kitchens,outhouses and a private chapel completing the quadrangle, and walled gardens, yards and orchards beyond. Richard Lyons, the notorious financier who was murdered in the great revolt, might not have been an aristocrat but he lived like one; his hall was hung with tapestries from Arras, leopard skins and ermine decorated his chamber, and his bed curtains, fashioned from the finest red and blue worsted cloth, were embroidered with lions (a playful allusion to his name). He even had a pavilion or tent to put round his bathtub to keep out the draughts as he bathed.12

Most inhabitants of London could only aspire to such luxury. The poorest families lived and worked in a single room within a tenement in an alleyway which they rented for a few shillings a year. Small shopkeepers were at least able to separate their living and working spaces, though the majority probably only had one room behind or above a shop which itself might only be five or six feet by ten; even the larger shops, purpose-built in identical rows, often had a street frontage only ten or twelve feet wide, though they extended twenty feet back and might have a garden of equal size to carry out the noisier or smellier aspects of their craft (the manufacture of leather-work and armour was particularly noxious). The ground floor of such buildings would be dedicated to the shop, with a storeroom and perhaps a counting house behind, the first floor would house the living quarters and the second floor the bed-chamber in which the whole family might sleep. Ever since the great fire of 1212, which began in Southwark and destroyed the church of St Mary Overy before spreading across London Bridge into the city, building regulations had been imposed which decreed that all party walls were to be three feet wide, sixteen feet high and made of stone. Though difficulties in obtaining stone meant that this was not always followed, most houses were built over stone cellars and with stone chimneys, only the superstructure being of wood, and tiles of clay, stone or lead, rather than thatch, were used to cover the roof. Windows, even in quite ordinary houses, were shuttered for warmth and security but usually glazed as well.13

As the existence of building regulations and glazing suggests, urban life at this period was much more sophisticated than popular legend would have us believe. Accounts of the city being overrun with rats, pigs wandering out of control through streets awash with animal and human excrement, where households flung their waste and butchers the entrails of slaughtered animals, are a huge exaggeration. Since they are drawn chiefly from complaints to the city authorities and prosecutions of offenders they reflect not common practice but the opposite – public intolerance of such things being allowed to take place. Rats, of course, were as endemic then as they are now but breeding pigs within the city was forbidden and carried a hundred-pound fine; butchers were obliged to carry out their trade in appointed areas – though that did not stop a myriad of complaints from neighbours about the nauseous smells and filth emanating from the Shambles. (The problem was not solved until 1392–3 when the butchers were ordered to cut up their offal on a special pier in the Thames, take it out by boat to the centre of the river and dump it there at ebb tide so that it could be carried away without polluting the river banks.)

It was already recognised that insanitary conditions bred disease and the city tried hard to enforce cleanliness in private homes and public areas. Larger houses had their own cesspits which had to be properly lined and drained or the owners could be fined for causing a nuisance to their neighbours; those living in upper tenements or small houses had access to shared privies which would have to be regularly emptied unless, like the householders along Walbrook, they were able to pay an annual fine of twelve pence for a licence to have their latrines built over the running waters of the stream. There were even public latrines available in many wards, some of them provided and maintained by charitable donation or bequest: as early as the twelfth century the wife of Henry I had built a ‘necessary house’ at Queenhithe ‘for the common use of the citizens’ and London Bridge had its own set which emptied directly into the Thames.14

In each of the twenty-four wards of the city scavengers were employed to oversee the work of publicly funded rakers, who travelled round with a horse and cart, cleaning and clearing the streets and lanes, and carting away the rubbish to specially designated sites outside the walls; dung boats were also in operation, some of them privately chartered to carry valuable horse dung from the city’s many stables out to manure the fields in the surrounding countryside. Illicit dumping into the rivers and the city ditch was an incurable problem but the perpetrators were fined heavily if caught. Where there was a recurrent problem, caused by the transaction of legitimate business, such as the cattle market at Smithfield or the quays between the Bridge and the Tower, tolls were levied on the sale of beasts and merchandise specifically to fund regular cleansing of the area.

In 1372 the penalties for causing nuisance were increased: householders who left rubbish outside their houses, threw kitchen slops or the contents of chamber pots out of their windows or had excrement inside or outside their houses were to be fined two shillings, rising to four for anyone who committed such offences outside someone else’s house. It was permitted to carry ‘dirty water’ (including urine) to empty into the open drains which ran down each side, or along the middle, of the street but faecal matter was strictly prohibited: an ingenious woman who put a latrine in her solar and connected it to the street sewer by a wooden pipe was ordered to remove it immediately.15 The city even had its own municipal water supply, which, from the mid-thirteenth century, was piped from the Tyburn via a conduit to storage cisterns in Cheapside; at times of exceptional public rejoicing, such as Henry V’s return from his victory at Agincourt, they could be converted to carry wine. Water was also available to purchase from commercial water carriers but most people relied on rainwater, collected from their roofs in cisterns or butts and sometimes carried by gutters directly to their kitchens; the wealthiest were able to sink their own wells, though at the risk of contamination by leakage from neighbouring cesspits.16

Though furniture remained simple, even in the grandest houses, with trestle tables for dining, chests for storing clothes, documents and silverware, and canopied beds serving a dual purpose as couches, Flemish and German influences were beginning to be felt by the end of the fourteenth century: chairs, folding tables, clothes presses and carved bedsteads ‘of beyond sea making’ were all introduced. Soft furnishings added considerably to comfort and warmth. Wall tapestries and bed curtains served not only to keep out draughts but also as opportunities to boast of one’s ancestry by displaying family heraldry or insignia and of one’s cultivation by depicting hunting scenes or stories from the chivalric romances. Linen sheets, tablecloths and napkins were obligatory in polite households, as were linen towels.

The idea that medieval people rarely washed is a nineteenth-century fallacy. Every courtesy book stressed the need to wash one’s hands and face daily and it was also customary to wash the hands before eating: guests might be offered water scented with garden herbs or flowers or even, in the wealthiest households, with perfume imported from the east. Bathing was a regular ritual for those with servants to fetch and carry hot water from the fire to the portable bathtubs which look like half-barrels in the manuscripts where they are portrayed. Those fortunate enough to possess a dedicated bathroom could enjoy the luxury of piped hot water and tiled floors: Richard II upgraded his grandfather’s facilities by adding new bath-houses at his favourite manor houses and purchasing two thousand painted tiles to pave the floor of the one at Sheen. (The fastidious Richard, incidentally, is also credited with the invention of the pocket handkerchief and normalising the use of spoons instead of hands at dinner.) Such luxuries were only available to a very few but even those who did not have access to a bathtub at home could utilise the public bath-houses which had been a feature of urban life since Roman times. They were popularly known as ‘stews’, deriving their name from the stoves which were used to heat the rooms and water. Although there were ‘honest stews’, which women were not permitted to enter, stews in general had a deservedly unsavoury reputation because, like massage parlours today, they were frequently a cover for running a brothel. In Richard’s reign there were eighteen of them in the London ward of Southwark alone and so many were sited along the waterfront that it was known as Stewsbank.17

Richer merchant households possessed a substantial amount of silverware, not just for use and ornament, but because it was readily pawned as security for loans or cashed in to pay debts. It was in this portable wealth that canny merchants preferred to invest, together with their merchandise, shipping, money-lending and property in London: only a few, having made their fortune, invested in land outside the capital. Richard Lyons was an exception, as was the draper John Hende, a collector of the third poll-tax in London, whose manors and other properties in Kent and Essex brought in annual revenues of some eighty-two pounds, compared with an annual income of almost fifty-five pounds from his London properties. This was insignificant in terms of Hende’s overall worth, however, for when his investments in money-lending and merchandise were also taken into account, this amounted to four to five thousand pounds: trading was where fortunes were to be made – and lost – not building up a portfolio of landholdings in the countryside.18

Men like Lyons and Hende belonged to an elite group of super-rich merchants from whose ranks the mayor and aldermen of the city were elected; only nine of the 260 aldermen serving in the fourteenth century were not merchants, and one of those, a corn-monger, had to resign for lack of means. In 1381 the mayor of London was William Walworth, who was serving his second term of office; since 1369 he had also been mayor of the Westminster Staple, but he had also served as sheriff of the city in 1370 and as its MP in 1371, 1376 and 1377. Friend, adviser and money-lender to many royal courtiers and to the crown itself, Walworth’s glittering career and fabulous wealth belied his origins. For, like the better-known Richard Whittington of pantomime fame, and indeed, like many others in London’s highly mobile society, he had come to London from the provinces (in his case from a family manor just outside Darlington, County Durham) and risen by a combination of luck and ability. He had served an apprenticeship with John Lovekyn, a wealthy fish-monger and wool merchant who had himself served four times as mayor of London, and, when Lovekyn died in 1368, stepped into his shoes both in business and in politics.19

Walworth had lived the dream even before he achieved the ultimate accolade of knighthood as a reward for his loyalty during the great revolt and, more especially, for his decisive action in striking down Wat Tyler at Smithfield. Like Lovekyn before him and Whittington after him, however, Walworth died childless, so his enormous wealth was not handed down to the next generation but instead dedicated mostly to charitable causes: not content with merely adding a new choir and chapel to the London church in which he chose to be buried, he also endowed it with a college of chantry chaplains to sing masses for his soul. He also bequeathed twenty pounds to each of his two apprentices, one of whom, William Askham, would then step into his shoes just as he had stepped into Lovekyn’s: Askham would take over the house Walworth had acquired from Lovekyn, become sheriff, mayor of the Staple and city, and serve several times as a member of parliament for London.20

As the Lovekyn–Walworth–Askham example demonstrates, apprenticeship was the key to making a fortune and the prospect of doing so drew young men from all over the country, a high proportion of them from the north of England. They came from every social background between the two extremes of pauperhood and aristocracy: many were younger sons of either the gentry or provincial merchants, but the majority were sons of artisans, yeomen and husbandmen – the aspirant middle class. They had to pay for the privilege: apprenticeship to a goldsmith, for instance, was for a period of at least seven years and cost the young man’s parents anything between £6 13s. 4d. and one hundred pounds, usually in the form of an interest-free loan. The only pre-condition was free status but, in practice, London’s liberties allowed a villein who served a year and a day unchallenged to claim his freedom. This was a sore point with landlords, who, in 1376, complained in parliament about the difficulty of retrieving their absconded villeins from the city, but it perhaps made Londoners more sympathetic to the rebel demand for the abolition of serfdom.21

Completion of an apprenticeship opened the doors to membership of the guild which regulated that particular craft and to citizenship which entitled the holder to a voice, and even a role, in the governance of the city, as well as to enjoy the commercial privileges and legal protections of the royal charter of liberties. Even though the older, more powerful, guilds, such as the mercers, drapers, grocers, fish-mongers, goldsmiths, skinners and vintners, embraced a wide range of men (and sometimes women), from the great merchants who had fingers in many pies to independent artisans with a single shop and even those working for wages, the majority of those living in London were not citizens. Known as ‘foreigners’, even if they had been born in the city, they were unenfranchised and excluded from many commercial activities, such as buying for resale or keeping a retail shop, but the opportunity to succeed remained open to them. Indeed, it was actually encouraged. In 1381, the very year of the great revolt, the Common Council of the city decided to make it easier to obtain the freedom of the city because houses were standing vacant and the number of citizens had fallen.22 It was no wonder that London attracted so many immigrants dreaming of a freedom and wealth denied them in more rigidly structured parts of the country.

No other city in the kingdom could come even close to London in terms of size, wealth or political influence. The next largest towns, York, Bristol, Coventry and Norwich, with tax-paying populations in 1377 ranging from 7248 to 4817, shared similarities in appearance, structure and governance but could not compare in scale. Yet even these towns must have seemed huge metropolises to ordinary urban dwellers, most of whom lived in small market towns which were little more than glorified villages. A typical example was Chelmsford, Essex, where around 240 tax-payers were recorded in 1377. The town consisted of little more than a quarter of a mile of high street, topped and tailed by its church and its bridge over the river Can; by 1381 a ‘new street’ had begun to develop, together with an area to the north where a particularly entrepreneurial family lived. The houses were much the same as those found in rural villages and hamlets, consisting mainly of single-storey cottages and hall houses built with thatched roofs, timber frames and walls made with a mixture of clay and straw or wattle and daub (a weave of thin wooden lathes or twigs plastered over with mud or clay). Just as they did in the countryside, more prosperous families would have added extra chambers, wings or even a second storey to their hall, creating private space for the owners to sleep or withdraw from the communal life of the hall, but also to provide separate accommodation for servants; in towns, however, one of these additional chambers might have been built to create a shop or workshop with a door or window on to the street allowing customers to come and go without impinging on the domestic life of the inhabitants. Unlike modern towns, each house was surrounded by its own gardens and orchards capable of producing staple dietary items such as garlic, onions, cabbage, peas, beans, herbs, apples, pears, plums and walnuts, as well as the more exotic items favoured by urban gardeners, including cucumbers, parsnips and celery, and even flax and hemp for spinning. Additionally, each house would have its own yard, where the privy would be sited – its contents, one assumes, being one of the reasons why urban gardens were so productive – and usually an oven or bakehouse built of stone or brick and separate from the main house to limit the risks created by cooking over open fires.23

In appearance, then, a small town would have had little to distinguish it from a rural village. In the case of Chelmsford the distinction was blurred even further since the town was situated within the manor of the same name which belonged to the bishop of London. Just like any other ecclesiastical manor it was administered by the bishop’s steward, who visited regularly to hold manorial courts, and, in the intervals between his visits, by the bailiff. Indeed it might be argued that the only reason that it should be classified as a town at all was that its inhabitants pursued non-agricultural occupations: the tax-payers of Chelmsford in 1381, for example, were mainly smiths, chandlers, bakers, maltsters, skinners, tanners, shoemakers, ostlers and servants, with a mercer, fuller, roper, chaloner and wool-monger thrown in for good measure. Yet rustic appearances could be deceptive, for Chelmsford was a medieval ‘new town’, founded by the bishop of London in 1199 to take advantage of a focal position at the junction of routes to all four points of the compass: it therefore had a thriving weekly market but, more importantly, it was also the place from which royal administrative, financial and judicial business was carried out in Essex. That is why, after the rebels had raided the houses of the sheriff and escheator and collected up all their records, they did not destroy them immediately but instead made the symbolic gesture of carrying them off to Chelmsford, where they made a bonfire of them in the middle of the high street.24

The significance of small towns like Chelmsford is that they were particularly prevalent in the counties most severely affected by the great revolt – and those counties were the ones with the highest population density. By the late fourteenth century East Anglia had more than sixteen people for every two and a half square miles, compared with less than three and a half in the northern marches of England, where the lack of both good-quality arable land and access to markets, as well as regular raids by the Scots, all combined to keep population levels low. The average number of markets across the country was 3.7 per hundred square miles, but again East Anglia had a much higher proportion and in Suffolk it rose to almost ten, the highest density in England. Suffolk, like Hertfordshire and Kent, which were also at the forefront of the revolt, was a county of small market towns and the practical consequence of this was that an ambitious and hard-working small farmer or craftsman might have four or five local markets, all held on different days, within a few miles of his home. He or his wife, or his children, could therefore travel there and back within daylight hours to sell his goods. And of course those who lived and worked in the market towns had the advantage of not having to travel to sell their own products but also a weekly influx of potential customers coming to buy from them.25

The importance of the market economy in Suffolk is indicated by the fact that eighty per cent of its poll-tax-payers in 1381 were recorded as non-agricultural workers – a proportion which was much higher than in many other places in England, though broadly equivalent to that of Essex and Norfolk. Though this figure included labourers and servants, it clearly demonstrates that only a small minority of people were able to live solely off the land, despite this being one of the most fertile and productive areas of the country. The practice of dividing up holdings between children, rather than allowing the eldest to inherit, had increased pressure on the availability of land and created many small holdings which could not support a family: only three per cent of Suffolk tenants held more than thirty acres of land, hence the diversification into the market economy, particularly into the burgeoning cloth industry.26

Even those who were employed in agriculture were often obliged to seek other sources of income to supplement the seasonal nature of their work: records of offences against the Statute of Labourers reveal that a ploughman might also have worked as a carter and a labourer, threshers and mowers as carpenters, or, in the case of one versatile Norfolk man in the 1370s, as a plasterer, mower and thatcher. Conversely, those in domestic service, even in towns, were sometimes required to return to their homes to assist with the harvest, an obligation which was not as onerous as it might seem, since a month’s harvesting might double a female servant’s usual wage.27

A large number of urban residents were actually temporary emigrants from the countryside. Servants, in particular, were far more common in towns than in rural areas: less than a sixth of households in rural Rutland employed servants, compared with over a third in most towns. In the wealthiest parts of a town or city the proportion was much higher: in Coney Street, York, over sixty-five per cent of households had servants and over forty-five per cent of those living there were in service; in Bailey Lane, Coventry, a remarkable eighty-four per cent of households employed servants. The reason why such high numbers of servants were employed in places like these was that their duties extended beyond the purely domestic into the commercial activities of their employers. Female servants were most often to be found in the households of victuallers and merchants, where they would be involved in baking, brewing, preparing food, needlework and dealing in the market-place or shop; male servants tended to work in more physically demanding trades such as metal- and leather-work as well as weaving, which was then predominantly a male occupation.28

Almost all servants were young, unmarried and lived with their employers. Unless they were apprentices, in which case they were legally bound to serve their masters for a term of years, they rarely stayed more than one or two years in the same situation, moving on at the traditional hiring time of Michaelmas at the end of September. Many of them came from the countryside in search of payment for labour which they might otherwise have to give to their families free of charge or find in seasonal tasks: service in towns offered year-round security of employment and frequently better wages than could be found back at home, but it was not usually a long-term career choice. Most servants in Essex, for example, left their rural homes in their early teens and returned in their twenties; very few of them travelled more than ten or fifteen miles to find employment. They regarded their time in service as a short-term opportunity to earn a nest egg which could then be used to purchase land or the tools to establish a craft or trade; frequently it also laid the financial foundations which enabled a marriage to take place. Crucially, however, most of them kept up their connections with the place of their birth, returning seasonally to help with the harvest and then permanently as soon as they were ready or able to do so. For them there was no sharp distinction between being a country dweller or a townsman; they had a stake in both places.29

Servants, together with craftsmen, artisans and tradesmen, formed the eighty per cent of poll-tax-payers in East Anglia who followed non-agricultural occupations. This meant that four-fifths of the adult population in this region depended on wages to earn a living – wages which, as we shall see, would be specifically targeted both by the Statute of Labourers and by the poll-taxes. It was no wonder, then, that so many of those living and working in market towns felt aggrieved enough to rebel in 1381, or that East Anglia, with its unusually high number of such places, should have been at the heart of the revolt.

If small market towns were primarily centres of local trade, larger ones tended to be regional centres for more specialist trades. Colchester, Essex, was a prime example of a failing ancient borough which had been revitalised and found a new identity as a centre of cloth manufacture in the years after the Black Death. Colchester russets were a byword for mid-market, good-quality cloth. Unlike the finer cloths produced for the aristocracy, they were scoured and thickened mechanically by water-powered fulling mills and, despite their name, they were mainly shades of grey, which required less and cheaper dye than the vivid colours of more expensive fabrics. Of better quality than home-produced cloths, they enjoyed a niche market among the religious orders, who made them into habits and cloaks, but were also bought for garment-making by the better-off among the labouring, farming and artisan classes. From the moment that the raw wool was brought into the moot-hall cellars, every part of the cloth-making process was carried out in the town: from the washing, carding and combing to the spinning, weaving and finishing. The river Colne was vital to the trade: it supplied water power to the fulling mills, some of which had been converted from grain because of the demand, and it provided direct access to the sea via the neighbouring quays at Hythe, which had been developed specifically so that cloth could be carried inexpensively to its principal markets in London, Gascony, Prussia and the Baltic. It was a mark of the town’s commercial success that it not only had a thriving market but also, twice a year in June and July, it held a two-day annual cloth fair which, in 1374, was extended to three days; this attracted sellers from the wider region but more importantly merchant buyers, particularly from London.30

The 1370s saw Colchester at the peak of its prosperity, with 2995 inhabitants over the age of fourteen according to the returns for the first poll-tax. Confined as the town was within the bounds of its crumbling Roman walls, which were about to be repaired at vast expense, pressure for building space meant that two-storey shops and houses with cellars below now filled the high street on both sides and houses and tenements were frequently subdivided. As in many other larger towns, certain streets had become home to specialist trades: ‘the bakery’, Cook Row and the butchers’ shambles vied for space with the fish market, corn market and Cordwainers’ Row, where the shoemakers plied their wares. There were ten churches within or just outside the walls, as well as a decaying royal castle, which was mainly used as a prison. Just across the fields lay the fast-developing quays and warehouses of the Hythe, where demand for a street frontage meant that many new buildings were narrower than their older counterparts. Nevertheless, despite the crowded streets, most houses retained their gardens and courtyards and there was still open space within the town.31

Colchester enjoyed borough status, which granted it the highly prized privilege of self-government. Some boroughs had existed since before the Conquest but the vast majority had been created by royal or seigneurial charter in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In return for paying an annual fee farm, or rental, a borough received in perpetuity the right to exercise civil and sometimes criminal judicial power over its own townsmen and to administer justice according to its own customs; since the reign of Henry III such boroughs could even be summoned to send two elected representatives to parliament. By the fourteenth century they were recognised in law as corporate bodies, governed by a mayor and aldermen, who were nominally elected by the burgesses but in practice were self-selected by a small group of the wealthiest families. Simply living in a borough did not qualify a resident to be a burgess: this role could only be acquired by inheritance, by purchase or by completing an apprenticeship to a craft. Townsmen who were burgesses enjoyed the privilege of being able to sell directly to the public without paying any tolls; they could also, in theory, have a say in the borough’s government, hold office and be members of a craft guild, but they were liable to taxes which were not levied on ‘foreigners’, the residents who did not share their elite status.32

Unusually, Colchester had avoided many of the internal conflicts which, as we shall see, contributed to the revolt of 1381 in similar towns, despite an influx of emigrants from the countryside and also from the Low Countries. Colchester had encouraged such immigration since the Black Death, admitting an average of twenty-two new burgesses each year in the 1350s, including, uncommonly, a number of women. In 1372 its constitution had been reformed so that the two bailiffs had to provide annual accounts for scrutiny by auditors and were to share responsibility for governing the town with a newly instituted council of twenty-four leading townsmen, most of whom were merchants. This opening up of civic office to the newly wealthy seems to have forestalled the struggles for power between old and new money which broke out in other urban centres, such as York, particularly as lesser tradesmen were given a role in electing officials which also included them in the process of government. The complete absence of craft guilds in Colchester may have contributed to its commercial success, since there were none of the restrictive regulations and practices which frustrated the efforts of new entrepreneurs to establish themselves in business elsewhere. The bailiffs and their councillors had even managed to protect the town’s inhabitants from prosecution under the Statute of Labourers by failing to present any offenders to the justices.33

Colchester, then, might be regarded as a model town full of happy citizens, who had little motivation to join the revolt in 1381. Yet this did not mean that it escaped unscathed. The town was a gathering point for rebels from Tendring hundred who were preparing to march to London, and men from Colchester were present at Mile End on 14 June when their demands were put to the king. After their return, on 16 June, they invaded the moot-hall and carried off some of the borough records, preventing any courts being held for the next five weeks; the same day they attacked St Cross Chapel in Crouch Street and St John’s Abbey, which lay just outside the town walls, carrying off and burning both muniments and court rolls. The town clerk and custodian of the borough court rolls later wrote that he had been ‘in very great fear both for himself and for his friends’ but neither he nor any other borough official appears to have been targeted personally or harmed in any way. Indeed it seems that at least some of the rebels came from the outlying villages and their anger was directed solely against the abbey: two men from Brightlingsea were involved in the attack there and the court rolls of Greenstead and West Donyland were destroyed – all three places being manors in the abbey’s hands. Men from the town were responsible for the most serious acts of violence, however, which resulted in the only fatalities in Colchester. The victims were the usual casualties of English mob violence – the Flemings who had settled there to pursue their craft of weaving. Who or how many they were we do not know. Indeed their fate would have passed unnoticed had not one of their murderers, Adam Michel of Colchester, received the king’s pardon for his involvement four years later. What his motives were we can only speculate, though the fact that he employed three servants suggests that he might have been their competitor.34

More significant than any of these events, which were repeated in almost every place involved in the revolt, is that Colchester appears to have produced not one, but two, of the most famous rebel leaders. Wat Tyler, despite being ‘a captain, leader and chief … of the county of Kent’, was identified by Kentish jurors, at the beginning of July 1381, as being ‘of Essex’ and, even more specifically, as ‘of Colchester’.35 John Balle, the revolutionary priest, in one of the letters circulating in his name during the revolt, refers to himself as ‘now of colchestre’. For at least seventeen years, and probably much longer, Balle had been a vagabond, wandering from place to place throughout Essex and ‘preaching articles contrary to the faith of the church to the peril of his soul and the souls of others, especially of laymen’.36 Monastic chroniclers would be quick to blame him for stirring up the great revolt by his heretical and seditious preaching but, if this were so, the seeds he had planted had taken many years to grow and had been scattered far beyond East Anglia.

For the evidence suggests that tensions were rising in many other towns too on the eve of the great revolt. Just eleven months before its outbreak, there was a riot in Winchester, Hampshire, when some three hundred townsmen attacked the prior of Southwick, who was meeting his fellow commissioners of array in the city. The reason for the assault is not clear but it was not a random riot: the mob was led by the bailiff of the commons, William Wygge, a member of one of the borough’s most important families, whose father or uncle had served three times as mayor and four times as an MP, and who would himself become the future leader of the revolt in Winchester in the summer of 1381.37 Not long afterwards, on 2 September 1380, and less than twenty-five miles away, John Haukewode was alleged to have come to Salisbury, Fisherton Anger and elsewhere in Wiltshire, with a band of Salisbury men armed with swords, shields, bows and arrows. In each of these places he denied the king’s statutes and laws and proclaimed in the market-place that anyone who contradicted him or denied him his will would be beheaded. The reference to ‘statutes’ as well as laws suggests that this was possibly a protest against the Statute of Labourers, but the indicting jury had no hesitation in declaring Haukewode ‘a common rebel’, agitator and inciter of rebellion. Haukewode was found not guilty when he was tried for this offence in April 1384; a couple of weeks later he obtained a pardon at Queen Anne’s request ‘for taking part in the revolt’. Whether his pardon was a precautionary purchase after his acquittal to protect him against further accusations of wrongdoing, or whether he had genuinely joined the great revolt as well, is unclear.38

Shrewsbury, Shropshire, also witnessed violent upheavals over the winter of 1380. The mayor and ‘worthy men’ of the town petitioned the king in the November parliament, complaining that ‘men of lesser sufficiency’ in the town had banded together and chosen two bailiffs ahead of the appointed time, who had removed money from the town coffers, ‘risen against their betters and assaulted and imprisoned one of them, Reginald Scryveyn, refusing to obey the king’s writ for his release, so that his three sons died of grief’. The bailiffs counterclaimed that Scryveyn had rescued an outlaw indicted for murder and assaulted the bailiff who had arrested the alleged murderer. When the customary time came round for the election of bailiffs, a mob of people who had no lands or tenements in the town (and were therefore not qualified to vote) assembled and by their menaces and threats prevented the elections taking place. On 26 March the king intervened, appointing seventeen men from the locality as commissioners to restore order, supervise the election and imprison all who disturbed the new bailiffs or made unlawful assemblies and would not give security for their good behaviour. Three days later, under the auspices of their lord, the earl of Arundel, the bailiffs and commonalty reached an agreement that twelve men elected from their number should govern the town for the next two years, but they had to render an account of their receipts at the end of each year to six auditors also elected from the commonalty.39 This suggests that the financial probity of the bailiffs was at the heart of the dispute, an issue that was of major concern in many urban areas owing to the increasing exactions made on the community by the king.

Similar reasons lay behind the serious uprising in York which had taken place a couple of months after the Salisbury riots. On 26 November 1380, ‘various malefactors among the commons of the city’ forcibly ejected their mayor, John Gisburn, from York. They then commandeered the guildhall, which they had stormed by breaking down the doors and windows with axes and other weapons, and there compelled the leading citizens to swear an oath of loyalty to Simon Quixley, whom they had chosen as their new mayor. They went on to issue a new ordinance that whenever the bells on the bridge were rung ‘aukeward’, meaning backwards or in reverse order, ‘all the commons of the said city should rise together and have proclaimed various ordinances newly composed by them’. The significance of this was that the bridge was where the council chamber was situated and, in normal circumstances, the bells were rung in the proper way to assemble the inhabitants for the reading of public proclamations. Both Quixley, and those who had sworn to be loyal to him, later claimed that they had acted under duress and against their will but the whole episode smacks of a coup organised by his party against Gisburn and his supporters. That was certainly the interpretation put upon it by the king and parliament, who acted immediately to order the arrest and imprisonment without bail of twenty-four of the ‘most notorious leaders and abettors of the said rioters and malefactors’ and summoned Quixley to resign his post and answer for his actions before the king and council. Gisburn was to be restored and remain in office for the rest of his term and a royal proclamation was to be made in York commanding the populace to obey him ‘as the person who represents the state of our lord the king in the said city’.40

These words must have had a hollow ring to those who had engineered Gisburn’s overthrow, for no one was more identified with the abuse of royal authority. This was one of the main reasons for the coup against him. Gisburn was one of the richest and most powerful men in the city. His wealth was built on the export of wool and cloth and he was mayor of the York Staple from 1358 until its closure in 1363, then one of the twenty-four aldermen chosen to govern the town of Calais and the new national Staple which had been established there. As an elite member of both the Staple and York’s civic government he was instrumental in securing huge corporate loans to the crown and in building ships to serve in the king’s wars; he had also made his own personal contributions as a royal creditor and supplier of ships. And he reaped his rewards by being appointed to royal offices which gave him further opportunities to extend his influence and to enrich himself, often at his fellow citizens’ expense. He was a regular collector of royal taxes, including the 1379 poll-tax, a justice of the peace for York every year from 1377 and represented the city in parliament, where he was appointed to royal advisory committees. He even had influence over the royal mint in York, where, it was later alleged, he profiteered from the conversion of ten thousand pounds of English money into the lighter Scottish coin of the same face value. None of these things was calculated to make him popular in a city which, throughout the 1370s, had found itself increasingly burdened by the crown’s financial demands to support the war in France. The issue of building ships at the city’s cost to serve in the royal navy was a particularly sensitive one since Gisburn and his cronies benefited from using them when they were not in the king’s service to carry their wool and cloth abroad, so that York’s citizens were effectively subsidising Gisburn’s private business interests. Yet he had still succeeded in being re-elected as mayor four times between 1371 and 1380, despite a city ordinance which prohibited re-election until eight others had occupied the post – a measure which, ironically, had been brought in after Gisburn himself was elected in two successive years.41

Simon Quixley, on the other hand, despite being a wealthy merchant in his own right, was one of only four aldermen not to have served as mayor by the time Gisburn received his third term of office and obviously resented the fact that he had been excluded from his turn at the post. That Quixley enjoyed so much support right across different interest groups is telling evidence of the levels of discontent in the city. This was not a purely factional struggle for power among York’s oligarchy, even though Quixley’s main supporters were the butchers, who had complained long and vociferously about the penny a week toll they had to pay for selling meat from their stalls and the extortions and heavy-handed tactics of the city bailiffs. The leading rebels were all freemen of the city and included a mercer, shipman, carpenter, sheather, two tailors, four weavers and three drapers, as well as six butchers. Only one of them had ever held high civic office, which suggests that this uprising was an attempt to obtain more say in the way the civic administration was run, not least by obtaining a mayor who had been chosen and installed by those excluded from the self-selecting elite which controlled the city. With their own mayor at the helm, the rebels could, and did, become involved in actual decision-making, rather than simply endorsing decisions already taken by the oligarchy. They immediately began issuing ordinances, including one imposing a new tax, the collection of which was prohibited by royal writ on 5 December as part of the measures to overturn the uprising in York.42

Gisburn may have prevailed upon his royal connections to have himself re-installed as mayor, but he was unable to prevent his being legitimately replaced by Quixley in the elections held in February 1381. Their rivalry had now reached such a pitch that the two men began issuing liveries of different-coloured hoods to their supporters, a move which inevitably exacerbated tensions and escalated acts of violence, since tribal loyalties were paraded publicly and provocatively. Quixley continued to cultivate popular support to shore up his position but the uprising had made both men more aware of the dangers in destabilising the city. This perhaps explains the concerted efforts made by the collectors of the third poll-tax to ensure that the burden was as light as possible. Not only did the wealthy subsidise their poorer neighbours, as they were required to do, but the poorest parishes were excluded entirely from the assessment, resulting in a drop in taxable population from 7248 in 1377 to just 3810. A reassessment carried out by local officials only added a further 205 to the total.43 Since collection of the poll-tax spanned the change in mayoralty from Gisburn to Quixley it can be assumed that both men sanctioned this deliberate evasion of the city’s common liability. If so, it was a brief moment of consensual politics in a period of increasing division and volatility which, a few months later, would erupt into a second uprising even more violent in character than the first.

York was a long way, physically and metaphorically, from the village of Fobbing whose inhabitants began the great revolt at the end of May 1381. Yet the men and women of the second city in the kingdom shared a deep and abiding sense of grievance with those from the fen-edge village in rural Essex. Indeed, the sense of grievance was almost nationwide. Town and country might have different causes for dissatisfaction, and there were specific local issues which roused strong feelings, but there was a groundswell of opinion that was united in its resentment of what contemporaries would call ‘bad governance’. The reek of corruption was everywhere: whether it was civic officials lining their pockets at the community’s expense or religious houses abusing archaic rights to extort the maximum amount of money and labour from their tenants; sheriffs and escheators who accepted bribes to give a favourable judgment; justices of the peace who enforced the Statute of Labourers against others but happily breached its terms themselves to obtain the labour they needed; royal justices who were in the pocket of lay and ecclesiastical aristocrats and used their knowledge to benefit these private clients at the expense of less well-connected litigants.

There was, of course, nothing new in any of this, hence the popularity of the aphorism quoted in one of John Balle’s letters: ‘no man may come to truth but he sing “si dedero”’, in other words pay a bribe.44 From time to time popular frustration had boiled over into violence, and even concerted action by a community, against the perpetrators of perceived injustice. These had always been local incidents, however, which did not have the resonance to chime with discontent elsewhere. The difference in 1381 was that there was a common cause to unite all the disaffected: bad governance at the heart of the realm. The convention had always been to blame the king’s advisers, rather than the king himself, since to criticise the monarch risked the charge of treason. But because Richard II was a boy, albeit one whom parliament had as recently as 1380 judged old enough to rule in person, he really could be excused responsibility for the failures of his reign. The disastrous conduct of the war against France, with its ineffectual campaigns abroad and its inability to protect English coastlines and shipping from attack, could be placed squarely at the feet of the king’s uncles, especially John of Gaunt. So could the crippling financial burden which this military incompetence placed upon the realm, though it was the chancellor, archbishop Sudbury, and the treasurer, Sir Robert Hales, who would have to bear ultimate responsibility for the way in which this had been imposed and, in particular, for the crass attempts to reassess and enforce collection of the third poll-tax, which sparked the great revolt.

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