Having made their stand at Brentwood the newly fledged rebels appear to have dispersed back to their homes to organise the uprising in their own localities. Thomas Baker and William Gildeborne, for instance, returned to Fobbing, accompanied by almost half of the village’s adult males who had gone with them to Brentwood. They appear to have been the biggest group: around half of just over a hundred names on one of the indictments prepared at Chelmsford on 3 July to prosecute Gildesburgh’s and Bampton’s attackers were from Fobbing itself, while at least twenty more came from their neighbouring villages of Corringham, Stanford-le-Hope, Mucking and Hornden.1 At some point soon after their return, Baker and Gildeborne contacted Robert Berdon of Orsett, who had not been at Brentwood (or is not mentioned in any of the relevant indictments) and commissioned him to proclaim the uprising in at least six places throughout Rochford hundred and as far north as Witham. Berdon was the most active of all the agitators in Essex, coveringdistances of between twenty and thirty miles from Orsett over the course of the following week and he was still at his task on 7 June when he made his proclamation at Rayleigh.2 Whether he proclaimed an oral message or read out letters addressed to the people of each place is another of the frustrating questions to which we have no answer, though he seems to have passed the torch on to others: John Hurt of Shoebury, for instance, came from one of the places visited by Berdon and, at the behest of John Syrat of Shoebury, went to Prittlewell to cause that town to rise.3
While the Fobbing contingent was raising the south-east of the county, other representatives at the Brentwood meeting were spreading the word elsewhere. William Roger of South Ockendon, for example, went home and joined forces with John Smyth of neighbouring Rainham; both then rode throughout Chafford hundred, giving the signal to rebel and allegedly forcibly compelling the local men to join them in ‘conspiratorial meetings and assemblies’.4 Only one of the indictments gives us an insight into what went on at such meetings. On 2 June there was a major gathering of men from north Essex at Bocking. Presumably it was called by Robert Cardemaker, who had been involved in the Brentwood assault on 30 May and would play a very active role in the revolt. A maker of cards for combing wool, he was one of only twenty people out of 216 in Bocking who had already been forced to contribute more than twelve pence for his poll-tax in 1381, paying 2s. 6d. for himself and his wife Agnes.5 Perhaps this explains his willingness to join the Brentwood representatives in refusing to accept any further demands from the reassessment commissioners: the level of his payment certainly suggests that he was not a wealthy man, even if, like many other rebel leaders, he was one of the better-off inhabitants. Most of those who attended the Bocking meeting were from six villages in Hinckford hundred, including Bocking itself, but they were also drawn from Great Coggeshall and Dedham in Lexden hundred, Little Coggeshall in Witham hundred and Dunmow in Dunmow hundred.6 All lay within a twenty-five-mile radius of Bocking, the area where the rebellion in Essex would assume its most serious dimension. Significantly, this same region was the heartland of John Balle’s influence.
We first hear of the man whose preaching was blamed for inciting the great revolt in a royal writ of 25 February 1364 which declared that ‘John Balle, chaplain’ had petitioned and received from the king a special protection because ‘he feared bodily injury from some of his enemies in the prosecution of his business’. The king now withdrew that protection because he had learned that Balle was ‘not prosecuting any business but wanders from country to country [sic] preaching articles contrary to the faith of the church to the peril of his soul and the souls of others, especially of laymen’.7 Eight months later Simon Sudbury, who was then bishop of London, notified the secular authorities that he had excommunicated Balle, whom he described as having been ‘staying for a considerable length of time in our diocese’. Sudbury’s intervention arose not because Balle had found his way to the capital, as some commentators have believed, but because the London diocese then included much of the county of Essex: Balle was therefore subject to the bishop’s authority and answerable to him for his preaching activities in that county. Two years later, in 1366, when Sudbury’s superior, archbishop Langham, cited Balle to appear before him to be interrogated ‘for the safety of his soul’, the recalcitrant chaplain must still have been in Essex because the order was sent to the dean of Bocking – the very place where the rebels of 1381 gathered to plan and launch their revolt.8
Sudbury became archbishop of Canterbury in 1375 and in December of the following year stepped up his actions against Balle, certifying him as excommunicate at Canterbury and, on 13 December 1376, obtaining a royal writ which ordered the parsons of Panfield and Little Tey, together with Thomas Joye and John Blyton, both of Colchester, and John Flecham of Shalford, to seize ‘John Balle, chaplain’ and deliver him to the sheriff of Essex so that he could be brought to justice as an unrepentant excommunicate. Since Panfield, Little Tey and Shalford all lay less than twenty miles from Colchester, Sudbury clearly believed Balle was still in that area twelve years after their first confrontation.9
It is surely highly significant that Sudbury’s final efforts to bring Balle to account took place just weeks before the outbreak of the great revolt. On 29 April 1381, the archbishop wrote again to the secular authorities, reissuing the excommunication and ordering the arrest of ‘the said vagabond John Balle, on account of the errors and divisions he has sown’. In the strongest terms he had yet used, Sudbury accused Balle of being a false prophet who spread his poison by preaching sermons that ‘reeked of heretical depravity’, holding forth not just in churches and cemeteries, but also in public markets and other secular places. What is more, the archbishop alleged, he had falsely denigrated the Church authorities, attacked the pope and bishops and even slandered Sudbury himself by spreading ‘scandals about our person’. It is a measure of how personal their quarrel had become that Sudbury reserved to himself alone the right to sit in judgment on Balle, who, at this point in his long career, had succeeded in attracting condemnations from four successive archbishops of Canterbury as well as bishop Bateman of Norwich, bishop Buckingham of Lincoln and bishops Northburgh and Courtenay of London. On this occasion Balle was quickly arrested and incarcerated in the episcopal prison at Bishop’s Stortford, Essex.10
The fact that Balle had been able to elude the authorities for so many years, despite his activities being confined largely to one county, suggests that his radical preaching had won him friends and sympathisers among the inhabitants of Essex. Not only had they sheltered him from the authorities but now, at Bocking, they would seem to have turned his beliefs into a political agenda which they were prepared to risk their lives to implement. One indictment tells us that the men who met at Bocking ‘swore an oath that they would be of one accord in seeking to destroy divers subjects of the lord king and his common laws and even all lordship of divers lords’; another states that ‘they would be of one accord in killing and destroying divers subjects of the lord king, saying and pledging that they did not wish to have any other law in England excepting only certain laws that they themselves put forward to be ordained’.11 These objectives chime well with what we know the rebels sought from the king at Mile End and Smithfield: the execution of ‘traitors’ among the king’s ministers, no law except for the law of Winchester and the abolition of all lordship except that of the king. The natural conclusion to be drawn from this is that the men of Bocking had a radical agenda even before the revolt began in earnest and that it was one they carried with them to London.12 There are a couple of caveats that need to be entered here, however: we cannot entirely trust the wording of the indictments since the specific details could well have been beefed up by clerks anxious to secure conviction; and, even if the pledge to destroy ‘all lordship’ is true, even in the indictment it was limited to ‘all lordship of divers lords’, which is a rather different thing. Even if we interpret the abolition of ‘lordship’ as only getting rid of villeinage and villein tenure, rather than the dismantling of all private jurisdictions, there is no denying the revolutionary nature of the programme the Bocking rebels pledged themselves to carry out.
We do not know whether all the other ‘conspiratorial meetings and assemblies’ taking place at this time adopted the same set of principles as their plan for action, but this seems likely given that rebels in Essex and indeed throughout the whole of that part of England affected by the revolt, pursued remarkably similar targets. The swearing of an oath to bind themselves together and to carry out their objectives was also a feature of rebel gatherings from Surrey to Yorkshire.13 Its value should not be underestimated because it was never taken lightly. The oath underpinned the fundamental workings of medieval society: it bound tenants and manorial officials to their lords and local men when they joined their tithings or served on juries; it was even taken by the king’s subjects on a regular basis to ensure that they obeyed the Statute of Labourers and the Statute of Winchester, both of which had a daily impact on their lives. An oath was a personal and sacred obligation upheld by state and Church: to a deeply religious society, breaching an oath was punishable in this world and the next. So when the rebels pledged themselves to be of ‘one accord’ in what they set out to do they were committing themselves as seriously as if they had signed a legally binding contract – with the added twist that their eternal salvation depended on them being true to what they had sworn to do.
There was also a religious significance to the date on which the Bocking meeting was held: 2 June 1381 was not just a Sunday but Whitsunday, a festival of huge importance in the Church calendar. Much has been made of the fact that the rebels entered London on the feast of Corpus Christi, but the importance of the religious festivals preceding the revolt, which provided the opportunity for it to be planned and organised, has not been fully recognised.14 Whitsunday marked the end of the Easter cycle, with its highly emotional sequence of events, from the self-denial of forty days’ fasting in Lent (Shrovetide) through the desolation of the crucifixion of Christ on Good Friday to the joy of His resurrection on Easter Day, His ascent into heaven at Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles on Whitsunday (Pentecost). For almost fourteen weeks, therefore, parish life had been dominated by Church ritual and a mixture of public humiliation and celebration. Shrove Tuesday, when all meat, eggs and cheese had to be eaten up in preparation for the fasting through Lent, was an opportunity for licensed gluttony, drunkenness and sports such as football and cock-fighting. The following forty days of fasting were marked by an absence of festivity and the exclusion of notorious sinners from church, where the images and altar were veiled. Palm Sunday brought blessings on foliage, processions through the churchyard to church, the readmission of excluded sinners and the unveiling of the altars. Maundy Thursday brought the socially awkward ceremony of washing the feet of the poor, which not only royalty but all the upper hierarchy of the Church, including abbots and priors, were supposed to carry out. On Easter Eve all the lights in church were extinguished and a new, single Paschal candle was lit in preparation for Easter Day, which ushered in three days of feasting and merry-making second only to Christmas, since Lent had ended and the Church had decreed that not even villeins by blood could be made to work. Throughout the weeks between Easter Day and Ascension Day most parishes held boundary walks and Rogation processions, led by their priest, with banners carried, bell-ringing and communal feasting. According to a fourteenth-century commentary on Holy Days, attendance was compulsory: absence from the Rogation processions was regarded as a sin on a par with not attending church since their purpose was to seek God’s protection on the growing crops. On Ascension Day itself, the Paschal candle was extinguished for the last time and church bells were rung. Ten days later Whitsunday brought more processions and celebrations, including the holding of church-ales, where communal feasting and merry-making were held to raise funds for the parish church.15 As the feast celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit to the apostles, enabling them to go out and preach the Gospel to the whole world, it was a peculiarly appropriate day for the Bocking rebels to hold their meeting in preparation for sending out messengers to raise the revolt throughout the rest of the county.
No doubt the Eastertide message also fanned the flames of the prevailing sense of injustice: every clergyman in every church and at every preaching cross would be proclaiming that Christ died for all men, not just for the privileged few. Or, as John Balle put it, ‘the king’s son of heaven shall pay for all’.16 Ascension Day, in particular, was one of the high points in the preaching calendar, when public sermons would be preached in English, often by mendicant friars and other travelling preachers. Even after the great revolt they could still be inflammatory: Nicholas Hereford, a follower of Wyclif at Oxford University, preached a public sermon in English in St Frideswide’s churchyard on 15 May 1382 in which he called on all faithful Christians to put their hands to the wheel, seize the property of the friars, monks and canons who lived off the labour of others, and set them all to manual work. If this were done, he argued, there would be no need to tax the poor commons.17 Sentiments like these, if uttered just a year previously, could well have tipped popular anger over into a desire for action. Perhaps, in this context, it is significant that archbishop Sudbury’s order for the arrest of John Balle was issued on 29 April 1381, in the period between Easter Day and Ascension Day: the specific condemnation of Balle’s sowing ‘errors and divisions’ and of his attacks on the Church hierarchy suggest that he may have made the most of the season to spread his views and so incite revolt.18
The Church calendar observed thirty-nine holy days in the year, with an additional four days each for Eastertide and Whitsuntide. That was two periods, in mid-April and the beginning of June, of four consecutive days in which no one had to report for work or perform labour services.19 The week after Whitsunday, with its processions, merry-making and church-ales, was also traditionally the period for the annual view of frankpledge, when the courts of each hundred checked that every adult male was enrolled in a tithing, the small group of around ten men which formed the basic unit of judicial administration and was collectively held responsible for the good behaviour of its members. This provided a valid excuse for large numbers of men to travel outside their manors and meet together to exchange information. In the weeks and days leading up to the revolt, therefore, there were an unusually large number of legitimate opportunities for people to gather together for communal activities in every parish and in every hundred in the country. There could have been no more convenient time of year to organise resistance to the commissioners enforcing collection of the third poll-tax and to plan for rebellion.
This perhaps explains why Whitsunday was also the day on which the first act of the revolt took place in Kent. Abel Ker of Erith, near Dartford, confessed after the revolt that he and his fellow villagers John Eylward and John Young, and Richard atte Frythe from the adjoining village of Lessness, who had served as one of the local ‘worthy men’ levying the first poll-tax there, had gathered together sworn assemblies of malefactors and entered Lesnes Abbey, where they compelled the abbot to swear ‘that he would be of their company’. This phrase could be interpreted in different ways, to mean being forced to agree with their objectives, to accompany them, or to give them varying degrees of assistance, but the monk of Westminster tells us that the rebels forced ‘everybody they met who was not of their fellowship into sworn association with themselves in the defence of King Richard, since they held themselves out as champions of the king and the welfare of the kingdom against those who were betraying them’. The next day the same four individuals with three others from Erith and Ralph Erliche of Bexley, banded together under oath and sailed across the Thames to Essex. Once there they set about raising a sworn company of more than a hundred men whose names Ker professed not to know. The following day, 4 June, they sailed their Essex recruits back across the Thames to Dartford, where they incited the men of the town to join their rebellion.20 The remarkable fact that a band of Kentish rebels thought fit to cross the Thames twice in order to bring back sympathisers from a different county to instigate rebellion in their own neighbourhood raises obvious questions. Could they not find enough support locally to carry out their aims? Were they aware of the Bocking assembly and its stated aims? Were they already in touch with dissidents in Essex before they acted? How did they ship such a large company across the Thames without attracting hostile notice?
The likely answer to all these questions lies in the abbey of Lesnes, a house of Augustinian canons with a poor reputation for both religious discipline and management of its affairs. What it did have, however, was extensive property in Essex, including the churches of Elmdon, Ramsden Bellhouse and Rainham, so that there must have been regular contact between these places and Lesnes Abbey before the revolt. Rainham lay just across the Thames from the abbey and the nearby town of Dartford; a ferry already operated between Erith and Coldharbour Point, just outside Rainham, so it was the obvious place to land and to gather recruits for the return journey. We can speculate that the abbot was forced either to provide shipping for the rebels or to lend his authority to recruit in the towns where he held property. The Kentish rebels were concerned to obtain such validation for their actions: Ker’s men were alleged to have compelled John Chaundeler of Prittlewell, on the eastern Essex coast, to go with a message to Sir William Berland and John Prittlewell senior commanding them to rise and come to Rainham to join the rebel recruits.21 This suggests that Ker expected a sympathetic response, though it is not immediately obvious why: Berland was a justice of the peace with extensive lands in Prittlewell, Rayleigh, Rawreth and Goldhanger, all places which would be involved in the revolt; Prittlewell had served as an assessor of the second poll-tax in 1379. The two men were neighbours in Prittlewell, had served on the same commissions and the latter would witness the former’s will in 1383. We know more about Berland than Prittlewell but there is little to mark him out as different from the Essex gentry who would be targeted by the revolt. He had the military distinction of having captured the French hero and ‘flower of chivalry’, Bertrand du Guesclin, at the battle of Nájera in 1367, which earned him a ransom of £1427 14s. 6d.; and, more relevantly, having made conventional provision in his will for his two daughters and co-heiresses, and for alms for the souls of himself and his family, he left the remainder of his estate ‘to aid the poor of his lineage, to mend public bridges and highways where shall be most in need in the towns where his said lands are, especially in the hundred of Rochford, and to aid his tenants who are poor or distressed’.22 This was an unusual and generous provision, especially as Berland had ordered all but one of his lands to be sold after his death, so the estate was likely to be considerable. If he was as charitable in his life as he intended to be after his death, this might explain why the Kentish rebels thought he would come to Rainham and join their cause.
Ker seems to have stolen a march on his Essex allies, for while they spent the week after Whitsunday sending out messengers to rally support and gathering their forces, he landed his recruits in Dartford on 4 June and immediately set about gathering reinforcements in the town. The townsmen were in receptive mood, not just because of simmering discontent about being subjected to a reassessment of their contributions to the poll-tax but also because Robert Bealknapp, chief justice of the Common Bench, had held assizes in Dartford the day before. It is possible that among the cases he heard was that of Robert Bellyng of Gravesend, who was still in Rochester Castle as a result of failing to purchase his freedom from Sir Simon Burley.23 Feelings were already running high on this subject and the coincidence of the timing of the chief justice’s arrival is suggestive, particularly as Dartford erupted in riots the day after the assize ended there.24
An equally intriguing possibility is that John Legge, the king’s notorious sergeant-at-arms, was also in Dartford or its vicinity, carrying ‘with him a great number of indictments against the people of that area, to make the king rich’. Legge may have brought indictments to Bealknapp at the assizes; he may even have been one of the sergeants-at-arms sent to arrest Bellyng as a runaway villein; but what we do know for certain is that he had good reason to be in Kent at this time because on 3 May he had been appointed as the sergeant-at-arms to the poll-tax reassessment commission for that county.25 Whether or not he did use the inappropriate method of determining if teenage girls were old enough to be eligible for the poll-tax attributed to him,26 Legge’s very presence on the commission was enough to make him a hated figure. His name alone, out of all the Kent commission, appears on the list of royal councillors whose heads the rebels sought from the king at their first encounter at Rotherhithe on 13 June and he was one of the handful to be summarily executed the following day. The other commissioners, as we shall see, did not escape popular vengeance but the attacks on them were limited to their property and did not endanger their lives.
Legge was clearly in a different category, perhaps because he was not a local man and, as the sole ‘courtier’ on the commission, was held personally responsible for its work. The chronicler Knighton even went so far as to assert that Legge had suggested the commission to the king in the first place and had ‘contracted to give the lord king a large sum of money for his assent’. This was probably not true but Legge had benefited substantially from his court associations in the past. In 1370, for instance, he had agreed to pay the crown £9 6s. 8d. annually for the right to collect in Surrey and Sussex the subsidy on cloth granted by parliament, a grant which was initially made for three years but renewed on the same terms for five years in 1377; he got to keep anything raised above the fee he paid to the crown and also any forfeitures, making it a highly lucrative business venture. He had even served as a knight of the shire for Surrey and Sussex in the parliament of 1378, despite not being of knightly rank.27 All this suggests that Legge was capable of driving a hard bargain and lining his own pockets at the expense of the hard-pressed Kentish tax-payers, which may have contributed to the loathing he inspired.
The activities of the reassessment commission in Kent were the final ingredient in an already toxic situation and anyone involved in collecting the third poll-tax was likely to be a victim of the rebels’ anger. On 5 June, the day after the arrival of Ker and his Essex contingent, there were ‘uprisings and assemblies’ in Dartford, culminating in an attack on the house of Nicholas Heryng in which goods and chattels worth a hundred pounds were carried off. This was not a random act of violence. Heryng was just the sort of local official who would feel the full weight of the rebels’ anger. A former escheator of Kent, he was a justice of the peace and steward of the king’s lands in the county: to cap it all, he was a member of the reassessment commission. The rebels may have been searching his Dartford house for poll-tax records to destroy but they were also determined to inflict as much damage as they could. Three days later they attacked his manors of North Cray and Foots Cray, which were less than six miles from Dartford, destroying his records there, demolishing the buildings and taking property worth a thousand marks. The following day they broke into his house at Rochester. His estates on the Isle of Sheppey were also plundered and two oxen, twenty-seven sheep and 482 fleeces were stolen, together with twenty-four pounds’ worth of movable goods. Not finding him in residence in any of his houses, they were so determined to capture him that they even broke into Tonbridge Castle, fourteen miles from Maidstone, thinking that he and John Bampton were hiding there and hoping to kill them both. Heryng was fortunate to escape with his life – though not for long, as he was murdered a year later.28
During the disturbances in Dartford two notable rebel captains emerged to join forces with Abel Ker and his band of Essex men, both of whom were accused of causing uprisings and holding assemblies on 5 June. Thomas atte Raven is described as being of both Rochester and Southwark; he was an important and influential figure in Rochester and had represented the town in the House of Commons in 1378, where Legge would have been one of his fellow MPs. He was involved in most of the early violence in Kent, including the attacks on Heryng’s manors at North Cray and Foots Cray, and, as we shall see, he was one of those who joined the march to London, where he also played a major role in the events unfurling there.29 The other leader to emerge at this time was Robert Cave, or Baker, of Dartford, who also owned a dwelling house with a garden and four acres of land eleven miles away at Otford, where the archbishop of Canterbury had one of his Kentish palaces. Although he was acquitted by a trial jury of involvement in the revolt and his pardon stated that the charges against him had been made by his enemies, he did not secure his release from prison or his pardon until 1392, which must raise some doubt as to his innocence. He is named in a number of indictments and in Abel Ker’s confession as actively participating in every stage of the early days of the Kentish rebellion, though there is no suggestion that he went with the rebels to London. What is particularly interesting about Cave’s alleged role is that he alone was indicted for having led the band of men from Essex and Kent that rescued Robert Bellyng from prison in Rochester Castle on 6 or 7 June, which implies that this was a personal mission on behalf of a friend.30
The Anonimalle tells us that Cave’s band ‘laid strong siege to the castle and although the constable defended it vigorously for half a day he at last handed the castle over for fear of the great multitude of people’. When one looks at the impressive ruins of the castle today it defies belief that it should fall to rebels armed only with hand weapons of the most basic kind, even if there were several hundred of them. It is possible that their leader was a man of professional military experience, if he was the same Robert Cave who had served as a man-at-arms in Arundel’s naval expedition of 1378, but this would not have been sufficient to enable him to lead such ill-armed troops to victory in a siege against one of the kingdom’s most renowned strongholds. This was a castle which had withstood a two-month siege by the armies of King John in 1215: it had suffered considerable damage to its domestic offices from artillery fire during another major siege in 1264 but since the renewal of the war with France thousands of pounds had been poured into repairing its curtain walls and building new towers, including, most recently, one overlooking the bridge over the river Medway. The ancient stone bridge itself had been badly damaged on 2 February when a sudden thaw, after a winter so severe that the river had frozen above Rochester, sent a huge flood of water and ice downstream which carried away ‘the great part of the bridge’. Since it was one of the most important river crossings in Kent repairs were carried out immediately but it was still in a ruinous state at the time of the revolt and indeed for over a decade until a new bridge was completed in 1392.31 Only a skeleton garrison would have been in residence but, even so, had those guarding the castle simply pulled up the drawbridge the rebels could not have breached its defences. Either the constable and his garrison were taken by surprise and were therefore remiss in their duty, or they must have actively colluded with the rebels.
Froissart’s answer to the conundrum of Rochester’s capture echoes the Anonimalle’s: the constable, Sir John Newenton, surrendered his castle and his person when the rebels threatened to kill him unless he joined them. Newenton had only been in post since October 1379, paying the king a yearly rent of twelve pounds for the city and thirty-eight for the castle and its wards, while collecting any surplus revenues for himself. Even so, he must have been aware of the serious consequences he would incur for failing to defend the castle properly, including prosecution for treason under the law of arms for ‘negligence, carelessness or feeble resistance’.32 No such action appears to have been taken against him and there is no evidence of his seeking or receiving a pardon for colluding with the rebels, even though, as Froissart tells us, he was forced to accompany them to London and act as their messenger to the king. The key to Newenton’s behaviour, including his holding out for half a day before suddenly surrendering the castle, was that the rebels captured his children and held them hostage, threatening to kill them if he did not do their will. We learn this only from Froissart, who cannot always be trusted: he was not a witness of the events he described and his accuracy is often compromised by his love of flowery speeches and all things chivalric, not to mention an abysmal knowledge of English geography. In this instance, however, at least two of his close friends and fellow Hainaulters, Jean, lord of Gommegnies, ‘whom I had known at the English court when he and I were both young’, and Robert, count of Namur, the patron at whose request he wrote his Chronicles, were present when Newenton delivered his message from the rebels to the king and told them that, unless he returned to his captors, his children would be killed. And, as we shall see, the vital role he played as intermediary would more than compensate for his failure to hold Rochester Castle.33
While Cave and his company sprang Bellyng from jail, Raven and Ker made for Maidstone with their combined forces. Maidstone was the last navigable town on the Medway, making it an important commercial centre for the cheap transportation of grain and wood to London and its famous local stone to Canterbury; its thriving markets served as a hub for the exchange of pastoral and arable products throughout the Weald and into north Kent and they were regularly frequented by London merchants. It was dominated by the presence at its centre, on a loop in the river, of a palace belonging to the archbishop of Canterbury, who was lord of the manor of Maidstone. Like the palace at Otford it was intended to serve as a resting place for the archbishop on his journeys between London and Canterbury, but it was also a potent symbol of his lordship over the town.34
The rebels’ objective was not the palace, however, but the house of William Topclyve, a local justice of the peace who had been sitting with Bealknapp at the assizes in Dartford but was also steward of the archbishop’s liberty in Kent. Neither occupation was calculated to make him popular. The rebels burned down his house on the outskirts of the town and stole goods and chattels worth a thousand marks (Robert Glover of Strood even made off with a hauberk, shield, lance, bow and two quivers of arrows); what is more, they made a bonfire of all his ‘evidences’, the legal documents upon which his stewardship depended.35 A year later he exacted his revenge by obtaining a royal commission to compel all the archbishop’s tenants to draw up new rent and custumal rolls to replace those they had burned and destroyed; he also obtained a licence from the king, at the new archbishop’s special request, to add battlements and fortify his ‘small place called “Shoford” in the parish of Maidstone’ which had been ‘levelled’ by the insurgents: this was not so much to make the place more defensible but rather a defiant public gesture to reaffirm his status and authority in the face of those who had tried to destroy him.36
It was at Maidstone on 7 June that the first recorded fatality of the Kentish revolt occurred: John Stonhelde of Maidstone was killed there, allegedly by his fellow townsman John Webbe and William Brown of Bexley, though Cave’s and Raven’s companies were also implicated. Stonhelde is likely to have been a local official, since he was one of the ‘worthy men’ appointed to levy the first poll-tax in 1377, but no reasons for his murder are given in the indictments. His alleged murderers were also accused of going three days later to Borden, ten miles from Maidstone, where, with others, they murdered John Godwot, demolished his house and burned ‘certain evidences’ kept there.37 How Godwot had offended the rebels is unclear but he was probably a lawyer and evidently a close colleague of several of the revolt’s most prominent Kentish victims; only a few weeks before the revolt, on 6 April, for example, he had been in Dartford to have a document witnessed which granted the reversion of rents and services in various parts of Kent jointly to himself, Nicholas Heryng, Elias Reyner and Thomas Holt, which suggests that they had business interests together.38
Elias Reyner had been attacked the day before Godwot at his home in Strood, on the north bank of the Medway, just across the bridge from Rochester. Reyner was the escheator for Kent and steward of the king’s hundred of Milton, in northeastern Kent, which included the village of Borden and the Isle of Sheppey. He and Nicholas Heryng had been appointed royal commissioners of inquiry on 10 January 1380 on behalf of five London merchants whose chartered Flemish vessel had foundered in a storm off the Isle: the merchants claimed it was not actually wrecked, but the islanders had treated it as such, broken up the ship, carried off the tackle and goods and were now refusing to pay for them. We can guess the result of the inquiry given that Heryng’s extensive estates on Sheppey were plundered during the revolt.39 Despite his having served by virtue of his office as one of the Kent commissioners to reassess and enforce the collection of the third poll-tax, Reyner’s house and property were spared, possibly because he took the judicious decision to offer no resistance to the rebels but simply handed over all the records of his escheatorship and stewardship, which the rebels took to Rochester, where they were ceremoniously and publicly burned in the market-place on Trinity Sunday, 9 June. The same thing happened to his colleague Thomas Shardelowe, the chief coroner of Kent, whose house in Dartford was plundered and all his documentation stolen and publicly burned in the town’s market-place.40
John Glovere, however, did not escape so lightly: his house was demolished during the disturbances in Rochester on Trinity Sunday and he himself was murdered by John Boox of East Malling, a village five miles from Maidstone. It is unclear whether this was a private quarrel or, as the demolition of his house suggests, a targeted action against a local official who was probably a lawyer, possibly steward of a local estate or perhaps an under-collector of the poll-tax. A similar target was John Charlet of Chatham, on the outskirts of Rochester. He was beheaded the same day by William atte Broke of Chatham, who had also been involved in razing Glovere’s home, though not, apparently, in his murder; Charlet’s house in Clerkenwell, London, would also be broken into by another Chatham man, William Drew, on 14 June.41
Over the course of the next few days the rebels sought out three former MPs who had all served as sheriffs of Kent and on numerous commissions of array and inquiry. Thomas Cobham, of Allington Castle, near Maidstone, was a substantial landholder in Kent and London; John Freningham and James Peckham were both justices of the peace and on 3 May had been appointed commissioners to reassess and enforce the poll-tax collection in Kent. All three would be captured, threatened with death and held prisoner until they swore the oath to become members of the rebel associations or assemblies. Before he was released, Peckham, who had been sheriff in 1379–80, was also compelled to surrender to William Skele and Nicholas Hakbourne eighty acres of meadowland which he had acquired by an assize of novel disseisin before Chief Justice Bealknapp; this was presumably an example of abuse of power and process by a sheriff who had bribed a jury to swear that he was the rightful owner.42
Trinity Sunday marked a noticeable escalation in the level of violence as the revolt, having taken hold throughout northwestern Kent, began to spread into the east of the county. This coincides with what appears to have been changes in leadership. Although Robert Cave would later be accused of taking part in the burning of the Savoy Palace, the Hospitallers’ preceptory at Clerkenwell and John Butterwick’s manor at Knightsbridge, his activities as recorded in the local indictments appear to have been limited in time to Whitsuntide and geographically to Dartford, Maidstone and Rochester. The later accusations, placing him in London at events which excluded him from the general pardon and made him liable to the death penalty, are no doubt the false and malicious charges brought by his enemies that delayed his release for over a decade. It seems, rather, that, like many other unlikely rebels provoked into action, he dropped out of the picture because he had achieved his limited local objectives.43 Both Abel Ker and Thomas Raven remained involved but their names are now associated with other leaders in the indictments, such as John Hales and William de Appledore of East Malling, a village five miles north-west of Maidstone, where, on 8 June, Sir Thomas Trevet had been abducted and imprisoned until he took an oath to support the rebels. Trevet’s capture was a major coup as he was a professional soldier who had spent a lifetime in loyal service to the Black Prince and his son: most recently he had been a captain in Arundel’s disastrous naval expedition of 1379 and Thomas of Woodstock’s campaign in Brittany, where he had served on the earl’s inner council during the siege of Nantes. On his return earlier in 1381 he had been made a commissioner of array and charged with the defence of the Kentish coast.44 His seizure removed one of the people most likely to take up arms against the rebels, leaving the way clear for them to head east under the leadership of the most famous of all the rebels, Wat Tyler.
Although his name is synonymous with the rebellion we know next to nothing about Tyler: not his background, not his motives, not even what he looked like.45 He emerges from complete obscurity to the attention of the chroniclers only after the rescue of Bellyng from Rochester Castle and the disturbances in Maidstone on 7 June. The Anonimalle tells us that it was at this point that the people of Maidstone ‘made their chief one Watt Teghler of Maidstone, to maintain and advise them’. The timing is confirmed by the indicting jury from Maidstone, which described the events of 7–9 June and then put Tyler at the top of its list of ‘first malefactors and maintainers of the malefactors and perturbers of the peace’.46 It is tempting to think that he was chosen to lead because he had displayed military skills: the choice of Canterbury as the rebels’ next objective suggests some appreciation of tactics, particularly if the decision to go to London had already been taken. Canterbury was the seat of England’s premier archbishop but it was also the centre of royal administration in the county. If the rebels anticipated that any action might be taken against them by the authorities, it was most likely to have come from the sheriff of Kent, who was based in the city; it would not have been sensible, therefore, to leave his power-base in his hands behind them while they marched west to London. And of course the sheriff himself, William Septvans, personified everything that the rebels were seeking to destroy: he was second only to the king in the administration of the county and he headed the commission which had sought to reassess and enforce collection of the third poll-tax. It is only surprising that he had not been the first target of the revolt, as his counterpart in Essex would be.47
The attack on Canterbury was carried out with such speed and efficiency that the authorities were caught by surprise. Riding good horses and travelling at around eight miles an hour, it would have taken the rebels just over four hours to get from Rochester to Canterbury.48 They were unencumbered by the baggage and ordnance which slowed down conventional armies and had the advantage of being able to use Watling Street, the old Roman road that ran straight between the two places, but all along their route they had sparked further uprisings: the theft of ‘charters, writings and muniments’ from Thomas Bedemanton at Gillingham, who was so traumatised by the threats made against him that he fled and did not dare return home even after the revolt was over; the murder of John Godwot at Borden; disturbances and assaults at Sittingbourne, Faversham and Ospringe; the demolition of a house and a violent attack on the constable at Boughton, who, presumably, had tried to intervene to stop the disorder.49 In each case it was people from the locality who committed the offences, not members of the rebel band on their rapid march to Canterbury. The popular image of Tyler at the head of a growing army of angry rebels, armed with pitchforks and staves, marching on foot and swelling their ranks with new recruits in every place through which they passed, is therefore wide of the mark.
Much the same was to happen when Tyler’s forces arrived at their destination. Canterbury, like so many other English towns, especially those with a powerful ecclesiastical presence, had a long history of internal conflict between the townsmen and the cathedral priory dating back to the 1320s. The 1370s, however, had brought a change of focus, pitching the town increasingly against the crown and its insatiable demand for money. Almost every year of the decade inflicted new commissions on the city and its wider area, enforcing improvements in the coastal defences and repairs to Canterbury’s walls, towers, gates and dykes, which were in such a poor state that the Westgate was completely demolished in 1380 so that it could be rebuilt from scratch. All these repairs were funded from murage, a tax on rents in the city and on market tolls, which added to the financial burden of the townsmen and their suppliers from the surrounding countryside.
Additionally, because of the renewed threat from France, every able-bodied man between the ages of sixteen and sixty was regularly arrayed almost annually throughout the decade, the latest such commission being issued on 14 May 1381. This too necessitated financial outlay in order to keep equipment and weapons in good order. Added to these burdens was the repeated imposition of poll-taxes and, for Canterbury, the unwelcome distinction of being the only city in the country to merit a commission to reassess and enforce collection of the third poll-tax. A fifth of its tax-paying population of 2574 had disappeared off the record since the first poll-tax of 1377 and a commission of three local men, not including the sheriff or escheator, was appointed on 20 May in the last of its kind to be issued.50
Canterbury had a large and volatile population of tradesmen, craftsmen and their servants working to supply food and drink to the many pilgrims visiting the shrine of St Thomas Becket as well as manufacturing leather goods, cloth and textiles. The urban rent rolls reveal a very high turnover in tenancies, which usually lasted no longer than three or four years, though a substantial number survived for only one. Such was the demand from hopeful entrepreneurs migrating in from the surrounding villages, however, that tenancies were rarely left vacant for more than three weeks, even after the plague of 1374–5, which had a significant impact on the population of the city and its monastic houses. At the other extreme, there was a small but extremely wealthy group of merchant tradesmen who had significant business connections with London and regularly traded as far afield as the Low Countries and Italy: as in most urban governments, they dominated the administration and it was from their elite that the two annually elected bailiffs and six aldermen representing each ward in the city were chosen.51
The latter part of the 1370s had seen regular clashes between city officers and middle-ranking townsmen, many of whom were excluded from the franchise. In 1376 the bailiffs and commons were ordered, under pain of forfeiture of life and limb and loss of the liberties of the city, to desist altogether from dissensions and brawls and in July 1378 a royal commission was appointed to inquire into ‘certain malefactors and disturbers of the peace, citizens and other inhabitants of the city and suburbs, [who] have assembled in great numbers and stirred up strife, debates and contentions therein, sowing great discord amongst the citizens, and so obstinately holding together that they will not in any way submit to justice, but combine by insurrection to resist the king’s ministers in the execution of their office’. On 8 April 1380 the king sent a strongly worded mandate ordering the bailiffs to arrest, imprison and certify the names of those ‘citizens and other inhabitants thereof [who] have recently assembled in large numbers and daily cause great disturbances therein, refusing to submit to justice, and resisting the king’s ministers in the execution of their office’.52 Even this did not have the desired effect: the troubles continued and, when Tyler’s rebel force appeared at the city’s gates on 10 June, it was assured of a sympathetic reception.
No doubt it was this local knowledge that allowed the rebels to target their action so effectively. Their main objective was Canterbury Castle, which, since its foundation by William the Conqueror, had been eclipsed by Rochester and Dover as a fortification and had become the county prison. It was there that, by luck or acting on information, the rebels surprised the sheriff of Kent, William Septvans: Wat Tyler, Abel Ker, John Hales and many others surrounded him and forced him, under threat of death, to swear an oath to them that he would deliver up all the rolls and writs in his custody. They then frog-marched him to his manor house at Milton, on the outskirts of the city, where he kept all his records. There he was compelled to hand over the fifty rolls of the pleas of the county and the crown and all the royal writs in his possession to Tyler, who took them back to Canterbury and publicly burned them. In a further grand gesture, the rebels broke open the prison and released all the fettered and manacled prisoners, who turned out to be a rather pathetic bunch of just four people: an informer, John Burgh, a convicted cleric, Richard Derby, and two women, Agnes Jenkyn and Joan Hampcok, whose crimes are not specified.53 Septvans apparently escaped without injury because he cooperated with the rebels: he would continue in office and serve on the commission to suppress the rebellion but there is an interesting coda to his story which suggests that his experience affected him deeply and permanently. Before he died in 1407 he made an unusual provision in his will that, in return for their good services to him, all his servants, even those who were villeins by blood, were to be set at liberty and each of them was to be given a deed of manumission under his seal in testimony of his will.54
The rebels’ next target was William Medmenham, the county coroner, steward of the lands of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, and officer of the crown, whose house was broken into by a mob which ‘trampled upon’ and carried away ten pounds’ worth of goods and chattels. They evidently didn’t find what they were looking for – the estreat rolls recording outstanding fines and amercements, also known as the rolls of the green wax because they bore the exchequer’s distinctive seal – because three days later a proclamation ‘by commission of John Rakestraw and Watte Tegheler’ was made by, among others, the chaplain, clerk and sacristan of the churches of St John, Ramsgate and St Lawrence, just outside Margate, that the county levies of the Isle of Thanet were to be called out to search Medmenham’s house there and destroy any records they found. This is, incidentally, the first recorded reference to Jack Straw55 and the coupling of his name with that of Tyler is significant because he too was from Essex, where he is alleged to have been one of the leaders of the revolt in that county.
The clerical status of those making the proclamation suggests that it was read out loud, rather than a verbal message, which has implications for our interpretation of how agitators elsewhere raised the revolt by proclamation. The fact that the rebels hijacked the official forms and usages for raising the county levies, rather than simply urging everyone to rebel, also reveals a degree of sophistication in the organisation of the revolt which implies either that someone at its heart was familiar enough with the workings of the system to draw up the appropriate documentation or, perhaps, that Septvans or one of the other royal officials captured by the rebels was compelled to do so. At least one of those who attacked Medmenham’s house in Canterbury, John Reade, came from Thanet, so he could well have carried the proclamation back to the Isle. It was a punishable offence not to obey the summons, so some two hundred men were said to have answered the call, broken open Medmenham’s gates, doors, chambers and chests of his house at Manston, taken away his rolls of the crown and estreat rolls and burned them. Though it is possible that the ‘commission to raise the county levies’ was invented afterwards to provide an excuse for those who had taken part in the rebellion on the Isle, two other indictments name the same group of Church officials and laymen and state that they raised a proclamation or cry in the churches compelling everyone, on pain of death and forfeiture of goods and chattels, to demolish Medmenham’s house, destroy his muniments and kill him if he could be found.56
Further evidence that the rebels were using official administrative systems to attack their targets comes from the raids carried out against Medmenham’s fellow coroner John Colbrand, a former MP and associate of Simon Burley. His muniment rooms at both Wye, where he stored his books and papers, and Boughton-under-Blean, where he kept his estreat rolls, were broken into on Tuesday 11 June and everything was taken away and burned; his wife, who evidently tried to intervene, was assaulted and badly beaten. Both places were within eleven miles of Canterbury, which suggests that orders for the destruction of his records were issued there. The attack at Wye, in which Joan Colbrand was injured, was led by Thomas Steyhame, constable of the neighbouring hundred ofLongbridge and therefore leader of the local levies there. The following day, a local esquire and tenant-in-chief of the king, Bertram de Wilmington, led a group of rebels to plunder and burn the documents held by two of his landowning neighbours, John Laycestre and Thomas Kempe, at Wye. On Thursday 13 June, Wilmington was accused of having called out the local levies by ordering John Gerkyn to make a ‘proclamation that all of the foresaid hundred should assemble and prepare themselves with divers arms’. Wilmington received a pardon in April 1382 but Kempe successfully brought a civil suit against him and was awarded substantial damages for the destruction of his records.57 After destroying Colbrand’s estreat rolls at Boughton, some of those involved made their way fifteen miles south to Mersham, where, the same day and with the assistance of willing locals, they broke into the manor of John Brode, Elias Reyner’s predecessor as escheator of Kent and also an assessor of the third poll-tax; they destroyed not only his escheat roll but also his poll-tax records. The death of John Hemyngherst, killed by rebels at Mersham, may have been linked to the attack on Brode’s records.58
Back in Canterbury on Monday 10 June, the rebels were systematically destroying all the records and disabling all the machinery of royal and civic government. They broke into the town hall and set free all the prisoners held there. Septvan’s under-sheriff, Thomas Holt, had his house outside the walls at Westgate attacked and goods worth forty pounds stolen. Holt was a highly successful professional lawyer with a client base stretching throughout Kent into London who, over the previous decade, had built up a huge personal property portfolio in Canterbury and Thanet; his neighbours in Westgate were among those who attacked his house but, significantly, he was also personally threatened and told that he should no longer carry out his duties as under-sheriff.59 Thomas Oteryngton had been one of the bailiffs in 1376 when the trouble between them and the commons first broke out and two years later was one of the royal commissioners appointed to inquire into the dissensions; it was not just his lack of impartiality in this ongoing confrontation, nor even his being the rent collector in the city for the cathedral priory, which led to his house being sacked, but rather the fact that he was one of the hated reassessment and enforcement commissioners of the third poll-tax. Oteryngton himself was seized during the attack on his house, carried outside, threatened and assaulted so that, in the words of the indictment, ‘he despaired of his life’.60
Both his fellow poll-tax commissioners, John Taunton and John Tece, seem to have escaped unharmed, perhaps because they were absent from the city at the critical moment, but Tece’s reprieve was short-lived. On 15 June, after Richard agreed the rebels’ demands at Mile End, Henry Bongay the armourer had it proclaimed through the city that Tece was a traitor who should be killed and he was therefore dragged from his horse and murdered in a mob attack. Bongay had been a thorn in the flesh of the Canterbury authorities for at least six years before the revolt began (though he had paid his poll-taxes) and had previously clashed with Tece, who had arrested and imprisoned him for helping a prisoner escape from the town jail and find sanctuary in a local church. He undoubtedly played a leading role in the Canterbury revolt, just as he had in earlier dissensions within the city and although his name was not on the list of rebels excluded from pardon in November 1381, this was probably because he had already been executed for treason and felony: property he owned in Norfolk, including a cottage at Great Yarmouth and thirty-three acres of land and 2s. 6d. rent in Mundham, are recorded as being confiscated to the crown.61
John Tebbe was another member of the city elite who had been involved in the long-running dissensions in the city: he had been appointed to the commission with Oteryngton in 1378 to inquire into the discords between officers and people, was closely associated with the cathedral priory for which he acted as a rent collector and had served as MP for Canterbury in 1373, 1376 and 1380. Since the parliament of 1380 was the one which granted the third poll-tax it is particularly ironic that he managed to avoid paying the tax himself and was only caught during the sheriff’s reassessment. Perhaps this had become public knowledge, for he was murdered on Monday 10 June by a local mob and his house in St George’s parish was plundered and burned; his widow was unable to produce her title-deeds at the assizes two years later because they had been destroyed in the fire.62 Thomas Garwynton, who had served regularly on royal commissions, had both his houses, inside and outside the city, ransacked;63 Sir Thomas Fogg, a retainer of John of Gaunt with many years’ service in France, MP for Kent in 1376, 1378 and 1380, and regular commissioner of array for the county, suffered extensive damage to his house in Canterbury and to his manor house at nearby Tonford, where the rebels took a fancy to his wife’s wardrobe, purloining a white ermine fur for a gown, a length of scarlet cloth, fine linen, rings and brooches;64 William Watership, one of two brothers who had served as civic officials and collectors and assessors of the poll-tax, was forced to pay a ransom and threatened with having his house burned down unless he handed over the keys to a shop near St Andrew’s church; Nicholas atte Crouch, a sheriff of Kent in 1376 and a commissioner of array in Thanet who had also been given powers in February 1380 to compel the islanders to repair their neglected sea defences and the boats they were supposed to maintain to carry people and animals, was physically assaulted at his house in Ospringe on Saturday 15 June and compelled to pay one hundred shillings.65
The list of Canterbury victims reads like a roll-call of royal officials; many more were attacked in the days following the arrival of the rebel forces under Tyler and Hales on 10 June. The riots in the city continued for the rest of the month and spread out across the surrounding countryside, where so many of the Canterbury elite had second homes. Although most of those involved, rebels and victims, had played leading roles in the city’s turmoils since 1376, it had required Tyler’s arrival to turn that unrest into a coordinated assault on officialdom which wiped out the administrative records and machinery of city and county, leaving both in a state of complete paralysis. Having passed the torch of rebellion into willing hands, Tyler and his cohorts were able to leave Canterbury, retrace their steps across Kent and head for London.