The first indication that there was going to be active resistance to the poll-tax came as the deadline approached for paying the third and final part into the exchequer and the government increased the pressure on its officials to enforce its collection. On 8 April 1381 the sheriffs of all the counties were strictly enjoined ‘by all manner of ways and means’ to compel the collectors to pay all the dues and arrears at Westminster by 21 April ‘without delay or dispute’. When the collectors and controllers for the city and suburbs of London duly appeared at the exchequer the following day, they declared that they were unable to supply the names, rank and condition of every person, as required, without causing ‘dangerous agitation’ among the tax-payers. House-to-house enquiries to find evaders had been instituted in March but only £1019 17s. from 20,397 people had been collected – despite around forty thousand having been eligible for the first poll-tax in 1377. Perhaps because the London populace was so notoriously volatile, the exchequer officials accepted that the risks of pursuing the missing tax-payers outweighed the benefit of their contribution and allowed the collectors to submit their accounts, as they had done in the past for subsidies, solely on the basis of the number of eligible tax-payers in their district.1
The first recorded act of violence – an attack on a poll-tax collector – occurred shortly before this. There were two surprising elements: first, it took place in Oxfordshire, which was not a county at the forefront of the revolt, and secondly, its victim, the aptly named William Payable, was collecting not from the laity but from the clergy. He had been sent by the dean of Bicester to levy the money due from the vicars and rectors of four villages between Bicester and Woodstock when he was set upon by a group of unidentified assailants: they allegedly tortured him, beat him to within an inch of his life and cut off the ears and tail of his horse, which they fixed to the pillory for public derision. He had not even reached his first destination, so robbery is unlikely to have been the motive, but many of the clergy were as aggrieved as the laity at the imposition of the poll-tax. For them the burden was even greater, since all beneficed clergymen were expected to pay 6s. 8d. and the unbeneficed, including nuns and monks below the rank of prior, 3s. 4d. Whether it was the clergy expecting a visit from Payable who were responsible for ordering the attack, or simply a random criminal act, on 20 April 1381 the bishop excommunicated the unknown perpetrators and ordered that the sentence against them was to be read each Sunday and feast day in every church in the archdeaconry of Oxford until further notice.2
There must have been other poll-tax collectors up and down the country who were subjected to violence but there was one incident, at Brentwood, Essex, on 30 May, which at least two contemporary chroniclers3 would identify as the start of the great revolt. Its significance was due to the fact that it was not relatively humble individual collectors who were assaulted but the powerful judicial commissioners appointed to investigate and reassess the poll-tax: what is more, the victims were actually holding court when they were attacked.4 That it should happen in Essex was unsurprising. One of the greatest landowners in the county, through his wife Eleanor de Bohun, was Thomas of Woodstock, on behalf of whose Breton campaign the poll-tax had been levied. What is more, his personal retinue had made up almost half of his army in Brittany, many of them were from Essex and by May they were returning home to regale their family and friends with personal tales of how the campaign had been mismanaged and the tax revenue wasted. The people of Essex therefore had good reason to know that the poll-tax was no longer needed for its avowed purpose – and yet the reassessment and enforcement of its collection were still being pursued actively in the county.
The seven members of the Essex reassessment commission were typical of those teams working in every shire. They were led by the sheriff, John Sewale, of Coggeshall, whose office dated back to Saxon times. The sheriff was the king’s personal representative in the thirty-nine counties of England and in the two cities, London and Bristol, which also enjoyed county status. He was entrusted with a wide range of military, judicial and financial duties: he alone could raise the posse comitatus (the direct ancestor of the sheriff’s posse in the American west) by summoning all the able-bodied men of the shire to arms so that they could assist him in arresting felons and dealing with breaches of the peace, including invasion and rebellion; he presided over a monthly county court which dealt mainly with small personal actions of trespass and debt and received indictments for serious crimes, such as murder, wounding, arson, rape and robbery, which were then forwarded to the higher courts for judgment; he was personally responsible for executing the king’s writs and collecting debts to the crown and he enforced justice by levying fines, proclaiming outlaws and arresting and executing convicted criminals. Though officially appointed by the king’s council, local magnates often exerted their influence to secure candidates favourable to themselves, and many sheriffs were actually retained by them, either for life or by annuity, receiving fees which obliged them to act in their lord’s interest, rather than with the impartiality the office should have required.
There were also plenty of opportunities for self-advancement. The sheriff, in common with other royal officials, paid a farm to the crown for all the royal revenues derived from the shire: this was a fixed sum, payable annually and agreed in advance, but set at a level below the expected return, allowing the sheriff to collect the difference personally in lieu of wages. The more efficient, extortionate or corrupt the sheriff, the more he could collect for himself. Bribery was ubiquitous and sheriffs were notorious for assisting or impeding plaintiffs in their cases, procuring indictments simply to increase the fines they received for bailing the indicted and fixing the selection of jurors to secure favourable verdicts. The popular perception was that the shrievalty was oppressive and dishonest – it is no coincidence that the sheriff was one of the principal villains in medieval ballads about Robin Hood. This was a view shared by the rebels in 1381, who made sheriffs a prime target of their violence, and also by the House of Commons, which had tried to limit their powers by obtaining statutes restricting their tenure of office to one year and, as recently as 1377, prohibiting their reappointment within three years. Yet the system would not have worked if it had been totally venal; the influence of one local magnate might prevail for a period but this was in no one else’s interest and others would intervene to undermine or overthrow such dominance. And the administrative burden borne by the sheriff outweighed for some the benefits that might accrue from office. John Sewale had actually paid for a licence excusing him from holding any public office in 1380, only to find himself in post as sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire (the two counties were often linked together for administrative purposes) when the revolt took place. Nothing in his record suggests that he particularly merited the hatred of the rebels: it was what he represented, rather than what he was, which made him one of the revolt’s first victims.5
There were two other royal officials directly employed by the crown on the commission. John de Asshewell was a royal sergeant-at-arms, a professional soldier who was a member of the king’s household and employed by him to carry out his commands whenever something more than simple message-carrying was required, such as carrying writs requiring enforcement by arrest or seizure of goods. Asshewell may have had links with the Hertfordshire town of that name but not all medieval surnames were necessarily an indication of place of origin or occupation. Thomas de Wilford, the king’s clerk, was employed in the royal chancery, which issued the king’s orders in the form of writs and enrolled copies of them which were preserved at its base in the palace of Westminster. Like many medieval clergymen he held several offices simultaneously, being not only a chancery clerk but also parson of Ardingly, Sussex, and a prebendary of Chichester Cathedral. Ironically, given his current employment, Wilford had been excused his own contribution to the first poll-tax because, like the prior of Lewes, he had been captured while fighting the French invaders at Rottingdean, Sussex, and forced to pay a crippling ransom to obtain his release. Both Asshewell and Wilford acted in a supervisory role and had a number of deputies who assisted them in completing their business.6
The local gentry appointed to assist the royal officers were all powerful and influential men in their own right. Thomas Bataill had been escheator of Essex and Hertfordshire in 1377, a position which, though inferior to that of sheriff, was only open to those with more than twenty pounds in annual landed income. Escheators were responsible for the old feudal revenues of the crown. When one of the king’s tenants died, his lands would be taken into royal hands, valued and administered by the escheator until a local jury, empanelled by him, confirmed the identity of the heir and anyone else, such as the widow, who might have a claim upon the estate; where the heir was a minor the lands would remain under royal control until he or she reached the age of twenty-one. It was therefore in the escheator’s power to determine the value of an estate and effectively to decide disputed inheritances. He was also empowered to forfeit into the king’s hands the property and goods of convicted felons, value them and sell them. Like the sheriff, he was required to keep detailed records of all these transactions and make regular submissions of his proceeds to the exchequer. It was a role which naturally offered the escheator opportunities for exercising undue influence and feathering his own nest, but it also aroused considerable hostility from those who felt themselves to have been unfairly or wrongly treated even when there had been no maladministration. As recently as the November parliament of 1380, a Commons petition had complained that escheators procured biased inquests by which ‘your people are frequently and fraudulently disinherited, and suddenly ousted from their lands and tenements’; they were then prevented from recovering them by cunning, the exercise of undue influence or legal chicanery. A request for a remedy was rejected and escheators, like sheriffs, were to become a primary target of the rebels.7
The other reassessors had all served regularly on royal commissions in the county, often acting in conjunction with Thomas of Woodstock, the sheriff and each other. Sir William de Wauton had been a commissioner of array, responsible for mustering and inspecting the armed levies when they were called up to defend the shire, a commissioner for examining and putting into good repair the sea defences of the county and, most significantly, as we shall see, a justice of the peace.8 Another commissioner of array was Sir Richard Waldegrave, whose name appears to have been added to the Essex poll-tax reassessment commission by mistake. He was actually a knight of the king’s household and a major Suffolk landowner who sat as MP for that county in every parliament between 1376 and 1390 and would be elected Speaker of the Commons in the first parliament after the great revolt.9 Perhaps because his links were primarily with Suffolk, he seems to have been replaced by John Bampton, who was not an original member of the commission but may have been co-opted to serve as one of the ‘loyal and faithful men in the county’. Bampton was a justice of the peace and commissioner of array who first appears in the records as bailiff of Ongar hundred, one of the nineteen jurisdictional subdivisions of Essex dating back to Saxon times. Though some hundreds (known as wapentakes in the north of England) belonged to the crown and the bailiff was therefore directly answerable to the sheriff, more than half, including Ongar, were in private hands, so Bampton, in this instance, was responsible to the earl of Stafford, though he also worked closely with the sheriff. His duties were primarily judicial and financial, including holding a court every three weeks for which he empanelled a jury of twelve freemen to hear all the cases which could not be dealt with further down the system in the manorial courts and to indict those whose cases would be referred to the higher courts of the sheriff and, ultimately, for the most serious felonies, to the judges of the King’s Bench. As bailiff Bampton had been notorious for repeatedly imprisoning those accused of breaking the labour laws and only releasing them when they paid him fines, which he kept personally. Blatantly accepting bribes had not hindered his career: he had served as sheriff of Essex in 1372 and by 1381 he was steward of the estates not only for the nuns of Barking Abbey but also for the royal manor of Havering-atte-Bower.10
The final member of the reassessment commission was the current MP for Essex, none other than Sir John Gildesburgh, the Speaker of the Commons which had granted the third poll-tax. Like many of those MPs who had obtained the exemption from serving as a collector or controller of the third poll-tax, he apparently had no qualms about acting as its enforcer. The combination of his close involvement with the tax and his being a well-known retainer and councillor of Thomas of Woodstock made him hugely unpopular – and a provocative figure to have appointed to the commission. He too had served as a commissioner of array, most recently in September 1380, when he had been appointed ‘to take order for the defence of the coast of Essex against the enemy’s galleys and other vessels now there, to assemble and array all men of that county able to defend it and lead them to the sea coast or to the Thames to resist invasion’. Like his gentry colleagues he was also a justice of the peace.11
The presence of so many justices of the peace on the Essex commission, as on those for every other county, was an indication of how influential they had become. They permeated, indeed dominated, the entire county administration. Yet this was a relatively recent development. Local knights and gentry had been appointed occasionally to assist the sheriff in enforcing law and order since at least the end of the twelfth century. From 1287 they had acquired a more formal role as keepers of the peace: between two and six landowners in each county were thereafter regularly commissioned to act as supervisors and enforcers of the Statute of Winchester (1285), which had set out a community-based framework for the maintenance of the peace and defence of the realm. The provisions of the statute included curfews and night-watches for towns, the clearance of trees and undergrowth from two hundred feet either side of roads to remove hiding places for robbers and community penalties for any vill (the smallest administrative unit of the medieval hundred, similar to the later civil parish) which failed to bring robbers and felons to justice. The statute also prescribed that every man aged between fifteen and sixty, on his personal oath, should have in his possession the appropriate arms for his status, which was assessed on the value of his lands and chattels: these ranged from the hauberk, open helmet, sword, dagger and horse required of those with lands worth fifteen pounds and goods worth forty marks down to the bows, arrows, crossbows and bolts of ‘everyone else that can’. Two constables from each hundred were to carry out biennial inspections and present defaults and defaulters to the sheriff or to the keepers of the peace.12
Edward III’s reign had seen an exponential expansion in the role of these keepers of the peace, not least because the gentry, sitting in parliament as members of the Commons, had demanded it. Royal justice, in the form of professional judges sent out on circuit from the central courts in London, was in great demand because it was open to all free men and deemed more impartial than private manorial courts, giving all litigants a chance of winning, even against their social superiors. Paradoxically, this also caused problems because it could spring nasty surprises by riding roughshod over local custom. The Statute of Treasons (1352), for instance, which identified the crimes that were treasonable and therefore punishable by death and forfeiture to the crown, was the direct result of a Commons complaint that the king’s judges were condemning people as traitors ‘for various reasons unknown to the commonalty as treason’.13 Reliance on a small group of professional judges also meant that the administration of justice was extremely slow and, as central government became increasingly interventionist in social and economic affairs at local level, particularly after the Black Death, it was in the crown’s interest to rely more heavily on the gentry in the shires to act on its behalf. By 1361 they were no longer merely keepers of the peace but had officially become justices of the peace, with powers to pursue, arrest, imprison and punish malefactors, to hold trials and decide cases involving felonies and trespasses, to take securities for good behaviour and to enforce legislation concerning weights and measures. The justices were appointed in a commission for the peace which was issued by the crown for each county, led nominally by a magnate, with ‘three or four of the most worthy in the county, together with some who are experts in the law’: in practice it was usually sufficient for two or three of the ‘worthies’ to act together and magnates rarely attended the regular quarterly sessions. The Statute of Westminster (1361), which formalised these powers and used the term ‘justices’ for the first time, was not a radical departure from previous practice, but by gathering the various strands together and placing them explicitly within the jurisdiction of the justices of the peace it gave their role greater emphasis and authority. The following year they were also given authority to enforce one of the most unpopular of all pieces of medieval legislation, the Statute of Labourers (1351).14
This statute had been introduced in the panic engendered by the first outbreak of plague in England. The personal suffering was unimaginable but such high levels of mortality also seriously affected the economy. Agriculture was particularly badly hit because it was so labour-intensive: there were tales of ripe corn being left to rot in the fields because there was no one to reap it and of beasts and cattle straying everywhere because there was no one to tend them. ‘There was such a dearth of servants and labourers’, wrote Henry Knighton, ‘that men were quite bewildered as to what they should do about it’.15 With no access to any form of census and only anecdotal evidence to rely on as to the scale of the disaster, the first instinct of landowners was to blame the idleness and greed of survivors for rocketing prices and shortage of labour. In June 1349, with the plague at its height, the government therefore responded to the crisis by issuing the Ordinance of Labourers, which attempted to set the clock back by compulsory enforcement of wages and prices at pre-plague levels. Underpinning the legislation was the principle that all able-bodied men and women under the age of sixty were to be compelled to work unless they were demonstrably self-sufficient, earning a living by carrying out a trade or craft or cultivating their own land. The act of giving alms to able-bodied beggars was made illegal and punishable by imprisonment ‘so that thus they may be compelled to labour for the necessities of life’. No one was to ask for, or pay, wages which were higher than those paid in the five or six years preceding 1347, on pain of fines double the amounts involved for both employee and employer; sellers of foodstuffs were similarly penalised for charging more than a ‘reasonable’ profit; ‘craftsmen’ ranging from carpenters and tilers to boatmen and carters were to be imprisoned for charging more than they had done in 1347, as were servants who left before their agreed term of service had ended.16
None of this was particularly radical in itself: similar measures had been enforced in local manorial courts for at least sixty years. What was new was that the ordinance was nationally imposed and took no account of differences in local customs or rates of pay. What was also new, and even more iniquitous, was that it lumped together all tenants in one category, regardless of their personal or tenurial status, thereby extending the powers landlords already possessed over their villeins, who were bound by customary law to perform certain dues and services for their tenancies, to their free tenants who were under no such obligations. Landlords were also given first call on the labour of their own tenants, so that a cottager or smallholder, who supplemented his income by working for wages in the fields of his richer neighbours, on or off the manor on which he resided, was obliged to give priority to his lord, even if he could earn more working for others. The ordinance was, of course, intended to prevent exactly this scenario: demand for agricultural labour services at peak times, such as reaping or mowing, had meant that free tenants could offer their services to the highest bidder. The fixing of wages and the legal prioritising of the lord of the manor’s rights to that labour were intended to reinforce the latter’s control over his own tenantry and ensure that the short window of opportunity available for such time-and weather-critical events like harvesting would always be open to him before anyone else. The crops of his neighbours or his wealthier tenants, who had too much land to cultivate without assistance, would have to wait until his own were safely taken in.17
Early in 1351, the first parliament to meet after the outbreak of the plague confirmed and reinforced the provisions of the ordinance by issuing the Statute of Labourers. This set out in great detail the wages allowed for a range of activities from a penny per day for weeding and haymaking to five pence per day or per acre for mowing meadows. The most important variation was that enforcement was no longer the prerogative of the local manorial court but of specially appointed royal justices who were given the power to investigate and punish all offences against the statute. (These were the same justices whose jurisdiction would later be absorbed into that of the justices of the peace.) All agricultural workers were now to appear twice a year in front of local officials to swear to abide by the terms of the statute, and those same local officials, stewards, bailiffs and constables had themselves to take an oath before the justices to seek out and certify the names of ‘rebels’. Craftsmen too had to swear before the new justices that they would practise their crafts as they had done in 1347. Breach of any of these oaths made the perpetrator liable to fine and imprisonment and further infringements could result in outlawry. As an inducement to prosecute offenders who were likely to be neighbours, the statute allowed that any fines collected before 1351 could be offset against the local contribution to the final part of the subsidy due for payment that year. The new justices, most of whom were landowners themselves, set to work with such alacrity that in the first year the statute was in force, in Essex alone over 7500 labourers – a sixth of the adult population of the county – were prosecuted for labour offences. A further amendment in 1361 extended punishments from fines to imprisonment without bail and allowed labourers who absconded to be branded on the forehead with the letter ‘F’ for ‘falsehood’.18
As a response to a specific crisis it might have been expected that the labour legislation would become redundant as the emergency faded. This was not the case for two reasons. First, renewed outbreaks of plague in 1361–2, 1369 and 1374–5 meant that the population would not quickly recover to pre-1348 levels: it remained static at around two to three million (from a pre-plague height of perhaps five million) and would not even begin to rise again until the end of the fifteenth century. The shortage of labour would therefore continue.19 Secondly, it was in the interests of landowners, both secular and ecclesiastical, to enforce the legislation so that they could continue to enjoy a reliable and relatively cheap supply of labour. As late as the October parliament of 1378 MPs were still petitioning for stricter implementation by the justices and demanding the arrest and punishment of those servants and labourers who ‘refuse now to work, serve, or labour, and take themselves off to the towns, boroughs and cities, both old and young, some of whom become artificers, and others mariners, or clerks, so that husbandry cannot be maintained, nor the lands of the realm cultivated, to the great injury of the kingdom’.20
Not unnaturally, the rigorous enforcement of the labour legislation caused huge resentment. It was seen as self-interested and corrupt because the same people who benefited as landowners and employers also sat as justices to decide offences and were allowed to keep a proportion of the fines they imposed as their wages (one-sixth in 1378); nor were they above competing for labour by offering their own workers higher wages and extra payments in kind while using the statute to prevent others from doing so.21 Some landlords were able to apply the law to the letter without causing unrest or dissent among their tenants. The bishop of Durham, for instance, who owned one of the largest estates in England at around thirty-seven thousand acres, over half of it as villein tenements, actually enrolled a copy of the statute in his chancery roll – the only statute to appear there – and employed a commission to implement it: yet this repressive lordship apparently did not cause protest or revolt. The same was also true of the duchy of Cornwall.22These were unusual cases, however, where a single lord not only dominated the landownership but also enjoyed extensive judicial rights over his tenantry.
In many more areas of the country, however, there were multiple lordships, or large numbers of substantial landowners who were not lords of the manor and therefore relied on hired servants and labourers to farm their lands. With only a diminished pool of available labour to draw on, the statute was as much an impediment to them as it was to those seeking better payment for their work. And the people who were expected to enforce the legislation at local level, the constables, bailiffs and jurors, were the wealthier, more ‘respectable’ members of their communities, who were precisely those who had taken advantage of the increased availability and cheapness of land since the plague, to build up their own holdings to a size where they also needed to hire labour at peak periods. Trying to freeze wages to the levels of 1346–7 was therefore unrealistic, particularly as the years rolled by. By the 1360s even great estates belonging to bishops, earls and Oxford colleges routinely hired labourers at double the wages prescribed by the statute, concealing these illicit payments in their accounts as cash bonuses and grants of food, clothing and even allotments of demesne land. There is perhaps no more illuminating example of the way that the statute was routinely ignored than the fact that the carpenter who made the stocks to imprison those labourers who refused to take the oath at Knightsbridge, Gloucestershire, was himself paid 5½d. per day – instead of the two or three pence he was supposed to receive depending on whether he was an ordinary or master carpenter. And, despite the statute, the reality was that wages for both agricultural and craft workers would increase by thirty per cent between 1350 and 1380.23
Nevertheless, whenever the justices of the peace held their quarterly sessions, it could be guaranteed that much of their business would be concerned with the labour legislation. More than half the indictments before the Norfolk justices in 1375–9 were concerned with its breaches, as were some two hundred of the two hundred and eighty extant cases dealt with in Essex in 1377–9. Often they were brought by aggrieved employers who had lost their servants to others despite paying over the statutory limits themselves: one man who lost his two servants had been paying them two pence a day, plus their food, an extra seven shillings a year and a quarter of corn every ten weeks; their new employer had offered them twelve pence a day.24 A typical Essex indictment included the accusation that Richard Blake, a reaper, was paid ‘3d. per day and food and 6d. for an acre’, in contravention of the statutory two or three pence daily rate ‘without food or other favours being demanded, given or taken’. More interestingly, we also see examples of passive resistance, a common tactic in manorial disputes but more perilous where royal justice was involved. Gilbert Rougge, from Sturmer, Essex, was indicted as ‘a rebel against the constables’ because he was ‘unwilling to swear or justify himself’, in other words take the oath to the statute. His refusal to cooperate, even at this level, is understandable since he was one of the poorest labourers in the village and would pay only twelve pence jointly for himself and his wife in the poll-tax of 1381: clearly he actually needed better wages if he could get them. In another area of the county it was the constables themselves who were mutinous: the Essex justices were told that ‘no constable of Dunmow hundred has done his duty of making labourers swear to serve and take wages according to the statute’. In the royal borough of Colchester the bailiff was responsible for collecting the fines imposed by the justices: in 1352 he and his sub-collectors were imprisoned for refusing to surrender the £84 7s. 7d. they had collected, presumably because they feared it would not be offset against the town’s subsidy payment as the statute had then allowed. The justices also found it equally difficult to enforce the statute within the town in later years when no such concessions were available: in 1377–9, for example, no breaches of the labour laws are recorded at all, which is highly unlikely given the thriving economy of Colchester.25
The Statute of Labourers was deeply unpopular because it represented repressive lordship at its worst and one of the main political objectives of the rebels would be its abolition, enunciated in their demand to the king that ‘no one should serve any man except at his own will and by means of regular covenant’.26 Those who enforced the labour legislation were hated for the same reason, even by those who did not personally fall foul of it. Justices of the peace who combined that role with being commissioners appointed to enforce the equally hated poll-tax were to find themselves prime targets of the rebels’ wrath. When the Essex commissioners, led by John Bampton and Sir John Gildesburgh, arrived at Brentwood at the end of May 1381 it may have been unclear, even to those gathered there, whether they were acting in their familiar capacity as justices of the peace or as new-fangled poll-tax commissioners. The quarter sessions were due to be held in the first week of June, as was the annual view of frankpledge, and, as far as the people of Essex were concerned, they had paid their poll-tax as demanded and there was nothing more to be said or done about the matter.27
When, therefore, Bampton displayed his royal commission and announced to the assembled constables, bailiffs and other ‘sound and law-worthy’ representatives of the county administration whom he had summoned to meet him at Brentwood that he had come to inquire into how the poll-tax had been levied and ensure that the shortfall was made good, he was greeted with anger and disbelief. The general view was that they were being asked to pay a new tax: no doubt they even suspected that Bampton himself, rather than the royal treasury, would be the beneficiary, as he had been of the ‘fines’ he levied for offences against the Statute of Labourers. Thomas Baker from Fobbing, a small village at the southernmost edge of the county, spoke for them all when he protested that they would not pay a single penny more because they had already paid the tax and indeed had a receipt from Bampton himself for their contribution. They therefore regarded themselves as fully discharged of any further obligation. The commissioners responded, as they were entitled to do, by threatening to arrest them but the representatives of Fobbing, having consulted with their fellows from the other villages, decided to stand firm. Around a hundred of them were then alleged to have confronted Bampton, refusing either to give him any more money or have any further dealings with him. When the commissioners ordered their sergeant-at-arms to arrest them and put them in prison, Baker and his fellow representatives drew their bows and arrows and forced them to flee, possibly even, as the indictments later alleged, ‘pursuing them to kill them’, though this may have been an exaggeration to ensure conviction because all the supposed victims escaped with their lives and, apparently, without injury.28
The incident at Brentwood was by no means an unprecedented act of violence: royal officials were often attacked in the course of their duties. We have already seen how attempts to enforce the collection of the parish tax in 1371 led to the villagers of Lakenheath, Suffolk, assaulting the collectors and how, only the previous year, 1380, up to three hundred citizens of Winchester had physically attacked the prior of Southwick when he led a commission of array in their town.29 The incident at Brentwood, however, was significant because it was a concerted act of defiance by respected and responsible delegates from sixteen different villages: most of them came from within a twelve-mile radius of Brentwood, and from the two adjacent southernmost hundreds, or administrative districts, of Barstable and Chafford, so they probably knew one another and had worked together in the past. But there were also representatives from Benington, more than thirty miles away in Hertfordshire, and from Bocking, twenty-three miles north-east of Brentwood in Hinckford hundred, the northernmost administrative district of Essex. Whether they consulted together before they decided to act is unclear, though it seems likely. What is beyond doubt is that, having attacked royal officers as they attempted to carryout their official duties, they knew that they had crossed a threshold and would be held to account. Rather than submit to royal justice, or rather to royal justiciars,30 from whom they could not expect a sympathetic hearing, they decided to raise the standard of revolt.