Post-classical history


To London

On the same day that the Kentish rebels launched their attack on their sheriff and the workings of royal government in Canterbury, the Essex rebels began a similar all-out assault in their county. Men from more than forty parishes throughout Essex had gathered at Bocking, where the meeting had been held on 2 June and the oath taken to be of one accord in their rebellion. Since then, messengers and agitators had ridden the length and breadth of the county preparing the way so that, when Monday 10 June dawned, a sizeable army of rebels from every corner of Essex was gathered there. All the men who had been involved in the initial assault on Gildesburgh and Bampton on 30 May were alleged to have been present, including Thomas Baker and William Gildeborne from Fobbing, Robert Cardemaker from Bocking itself and one of the more unusual rebels, John Flemyng, a Flemish weaver who represented the parish of Benington, just over the border in Hertfordshire. They were joined by John Geffrey, a serf from Suffolk, whose administrative talents had allowed him to rise in the service of the earls of Pembroke to the point where he became bailiff of the earl’s Essex estates at East Hanningfield: there he had bought a smallholding, purchased the reversion of a further fifteen acres and was about to build himself a new house. Yet, when the revolt came, he used his personal authority to call out all the men from East, West and South Hanningfield and then personally led them seventeen miles north to take part in the rebel gathering.1

Their first objective, surprisingly, was not the sheriff but Cressing Temple, a preceptory of the Knights Hospitaller just four miles south-east of Bocking: it had originally belonged to the Templars and passed into the hands of the Hospitallers only when the Templar order was suppressed in 1312. It was one of their most valuable possessions in England, comprising the two manors of Cressing and Witham and the half-hundred of Witham, over fifteen hundred acres of prime agricultural land, five mills, a weekly market at Witham and two annual fairs. An inventory drawn up for the Grand Master in 1338 recorded its annual profits as £133 12s. 4d. Just two Hospitallers lived on the estate, John Luterell, the warden, and his assistant, but within the household they employed a steward, baker, cook, gate-keeper (literally ‘a keeper of the keys’), two grooms and two pages, all of whom were laymen, and three chaplains to pray for the souls of their benefactors in the chapel at Cressing. What the inventory does not record are the labourers who would have been essential to maintain the home farm, nor the value of the tithes collected from its parishioners. How important these were is still obvious today in the sheer size of the two great aisled barns which are now all that remain of the medieval buildings. Tree-ring dating on the locally felled oak which was used to create their framework suggests that the barley barn was erected in 1205–36, and the wheat barn in 1257–90; using techniques employed in building cathedrals, almost five hundred oaks were shaped in the green for each barn then allowed to season in situ so that they could support the massive weight of the huge roofs, which were each covered with forty-five thousand tiles.2

Cressing Temple was targeted either because of local issues over its lordship (one of its most profitable sources of income was the proceeds of its courts) or the fact that it belonged to the Hospitallers, whose prior, Sir Robert Hales, had been an extremely active royal councillor and, as treasurer of England since 1 February 1381, was responsible for the appointment of the reassessment commissions which had sparked the revolt in the first place. Either way, the rebels broke into the preceptory buildings, stole armour, vestments, gold, silver and other goods and chattels worth twenty pounds, and burned ‘books’, presumably manorial records, valued at twenty marks. They also allegedly looted and razed the buildings – one man, for instance, was accused of stealing lead worth eight shillings from the buildings – but the survival of the two great barns is a clear indication that the destruction was not as wholesale as is usually claimed.3

From Cressing it was just a few miles to Coggeshall where the sheriff and escheator of Essex and Hertfordshire were both in residence. The rebels found the sheriff John Sewale4 at home, forced their way in, abused him, tore his clothing and did such ‘insult’ to him and Robert de Segynton, an exchequer clerk, that they had despaired of their lives. They stole a thousand marks in cash (presumably the proceeds of the poll-tax reassessment), all his writs, rolls and summonses from the exchequer, as well as his personal goods and chattels worth ten pounds. More to the point, they pursued John Ewell, the county escheator, who was responsible by virtue of his office for surveying and controlling the assessment of the poll-tax, cornered him in front of the sheriff’s house, beheaded him and placed his head on a lance; two of his clerks and Nicholas Davenant, an ‘auditor’ of the chief chamberlain and royal favourite Aubrey de Vere, were similarly murdered at Brentwood.5 Some of the rebels then went to Ewell’s house, two miles away at Feering, where they broke in and removed all ‘the writs and muniments pertaining to his office’. These records, together with all those seized from Sewale, were carried off to Chelmsford, where they were ceremonially burned in a public bonfire the following day, just as the Kentish rebels had burned the shrieval records in Canterbury on 10 June. These defiant public acts were a symbolic rejection of abuse of process by royal offices but they must also have inspired others to take matters into their own hands and do the same.6 Sewale, like his counterpart in Kent, was apparently so traumatised by his experience that he sued for his immediate release from office and was replaced as sheriff on 25 June. The fact that he would later bring charges against 193 named individuals is an indication of the numbers involved in the attack on him, since there must have been many more unnamed rebels drawn from the poorest ranks of society who were not worth his pursuing through the courts for compensation. That those he was able to name came from sixty-seven different places in Essex is also telling evidence of how effectively the original group of rebels had managed to spread and organise the insurrection.7

The rebels also targeted Sewale’s fellow poll-tax reassessment commissioner Sir John Gildesburgh, whose house in Coggeshall was robbed and demolished; two days earlier, in what must have been one of the first such attacks in Essex, goods had been stolen from his manor at Wennington on the outskirts of Rainham, probably by men from that place who had been involved in the attack on Gildesburgh and Bampton at Brentwood on 30 May. Before the rebels left Coggeshall they also invaded the precincts of the local Cistercian abbey and carried away ‘divers goods, charters, writings and other muniments’ to destroy them.8

Most of the rebels then seem to have made their way to Chelmsford to watch the burning of the sheriff’s and escheator’s rolls on Tuesday 11 June before splitting up into various groups which were despatched to carry out raids against royal officials farther afield, just as had happened after the Kentish rebels swept through Canterbury. Robert Rikedon, an Essex justice of the peace and lawyer employed by both Woodstock and his mother-in-law, Joan, countess of Hereford, was attacked in his house at Witham on 11 June by a band of men led by John Frost from Chipping Ongar, over twenty miles away; they forced Rikedon to ride back to Chelmsford with them and to swear to join their conspiracy to ‘destroy divers lieges of the lord king’.9 The same day William Pampelon went to Rivenhall, some thirteen miles north-east of Chelmsford, and there used ‘hangs and hooks’ to demolish the houses of Robert Leynham, another lawyer and colleague of many other victims of the Essex rebels; his unscrupulous behaviour was characterised by his concealing rents he owed in Rivenhall, worth 19s. 3d., from the heir when his landlord died.10 Also on 11 June there was a concerted attack on John Gildesburgh’s property: his manor house at High Easter, ten miles north of Chelmsford, and a house at Fambridge, on the river Crouch, fifteen miles south-east of the county town, were both broken into, his charters and muniments burned and his servants driven away; his manor at Wennington was also attacked for a second time in the same way. The fact that the rebels were able to organise a co ordinated assault on three of Gildesburgh’s far-flung properties on the same day says much for their focus and for the sophist ication of their planning and logistical skills, particularly as property on the southern bank of the river Crouch at Canewdon belonging to Gildesburgh’s colleague, the hated John Bampton, was also given similar treatment.11

In addition to Rikedon, Gildesburgh and Bampton, almost all their fellow justices of the peace who had been appointed to the bench with them the previous year were singled out for some act of violence against their persons or, more usually, their property; some, like Sir Walter Fitzwalter, had all their records burned; others, like Geoffrey Dersham, had their manors ransacked and everything of any value stolen, from their oxen and sheep right down to the brass pots and pans from their kitchens.12 A more unusual victim was Edmund de la Mare, whose house at Peldon on the northern shore of the Blackwater estuary was broken into by a company of rebels led by Ralph atte Wode of Bradwell. There they ‘despoiled him of all his goods and chattels’ but also carried off ‘a writ patent of the King with all the muniments touching the office of Admiral upon the sea’. Instead of burning the writ, however, they stuck it on a pitchfork and allegedly had it carried before them all the way to London for the meeting with the king at Mile End, and then back to Peldon again. This was clearly a symbolic action, perhaps intended to show that Ralph atte Wode had claimed the office of admiral from de la Mare. In fact, there were two Bradwells in Essex. Atte Wode is likely to have come from Bradwell near Coggeshall, since he had been involved in the attacks on Cressing Temple and at Coggeshall, but it is possible he came from Bradwell-on-Sea, a maritime village on the opposite shore to Peldon, which makes it more likely that he had clashed with de la Mare, possibly over the seizure of his boats or their cargo, or because he had been prevented from carrying out his trade by the French ships which plagued the south-east coast. Whether his reasons were personal or political, he received a pardon on 20 April 1382, but when he produced it before the court to secure his release he was recommitted to prison while consideration was given as to whether his action in assuming royal office to himself put him outside the scope of the general amnesty.13

As the rebellion spread, two other notable figures found themselves the object of the rebels’ loathing. Henry English was sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire at the time and had served as MP for Cambridgeshire in 1373 and 1377; although the bulk of his property and interests lay in that county and Suffolk, he also owned estates at Birdbrook, twenty-six miles north of Chelmsford, which he had acquired through his wife. He had been a justice of the peace for Essex, as well as Cambridge, in the decade before the revolt, and had served regularly on crown commissions and as an administrator for the East Anglian estates of Edmund Mortimer, earl of March. Described as a franklin in the third poll-tax records, he paid just five shillings, jointly for himself and his wife, which seems a serious underestimate for a man of his means and standing. English was therefore the archetypal lawyer and royal official but his shrieval office, albeit for an adjacent county, probably made him the rebels’ quarry. His manor at Birdbrook was invaded on 12 June and goods and chattels stolen. Interestingly, one of the main agitators for the revolt in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, Henry Wroo, came from Woodditton, where English’s principal residence lay, and he had already been at work for several days preparing the groundwork for the revolt in those counties.14

Again the pinpointing of specific victims and the coordinated nature of the revolt is evident in the fact that two of the leading rebels who had taken the oath at Bocking, Robert Cardemaker (who had also been at Brentwood) and Robert Chapman of Dunmow, led the attack on English’s property at Birdbrook. More importantly, earlier in the day, they had also led their band to the village of Liston, twelve miles away, on the river Stour which formed the border between Essex and Suffolk. It was here that Richard Lyons, one of the most notorious figures of the late fourteenth century, had a manor. Lyons was a merchant and financier, probably of Flemish origins, who had made his fortune as a vintner and ship-owner. By 1363 he was already so rich that, when he divorced (in itself an extremely unusual and expensive process), his London revenues alone were valued at £2443 and his wife claimed £3333 6s. 8d. as her share of his wealth. In 1376 he had been impeached in the Good Parliament on charges of corruption, including abuse of his monopoly on the sale of sweet wine in London, bypassing the Calais Staple to export his wool, acquiring customs duties and subsidies without the sanction of parliament and profiteering in his loans to the crown. Though John of Gaunt had secured his pardon and restoration of his lands and properties, Lyons was never re-elected to office in London; the corporation’s refusal to readmit him even to the franchise would add to the tensions between the city and Gaunt. Denied his former status in London, Lyons turned instead to establishing himself as a country gentleman with a property portfolio across several counties. He achieved recognition of this in 1380 when he was elected MP for Essex, only to sit in the parliament which granted the third poll-tax. This alone was enough to make him a marked man but his previous record as a corrupt royal official and the perception that he had escaped his due punishment through Gaunt’s influence would seal his fate. Lyons was not at his manor of Overhall at Liston when the rebels came to call but two days later he would be beheaded in Cheapside by the Londoners who were only too glad to seize this opportunity to avenge themselves on a man universally loathed.15

The significance of the attack on Overhall was not just that the place was deliberately wrecked – doors, windows and walls demolished, even the tiles stripped from the roofs of the buildings and smashed – but that this was a combined operation by Cardemaker, Chapman and their band of Essex rebels and a newly formed group of insurgents from just over the border in Suffolk. The latter were led by John Wrawe,16 who, despite turning approver and giving a lengthy and detailed confession, John remains something of a mystery figure. The list of people excluded from being able to apply for the general pardon, published in parliament in November 1381, includes two men of his name: the first, who heads the list of Suffolk rebels, is simply described as ‘John Wrawe, chaplain’; the second, who is tenth on the same list, as ‘John Wrawe, late parson of the church of Ringsfield’. The former was the ringleader of the revolt in Suffolk; he is called ‘of Sudbury’ in his confession and all his alleged and admitted offences were committed in the west of the county, culminating in his inciting the rebellion in Bury St Edmunds and the events of 15 June.17

The name John Wrawe does not appear among the parsons of Ringsfield but the crimes for which the ‘late parson’ was indicted were all committed within three and a half miles of that village, between Beccles and Bungay in the north-easternmost corner of Suffolk on its border with Norfolk. He was accused of having led ‘an estimated five hundred men’ in an attack on Mettingham Castle, a fortified manor house belonging to William Ufford, earl of Suffolk. The raid netted gold and silver to the value of forty pounds, jewels and armour worth over a thousand pounds and all the court rolls and other manorial records. The next day, 19 June, Geoffrey de Southgate was dragged from his house in Beccles, even though he was clutching a royal protection in his hand, and brought before Wrawe, who appears to have sentenced him to death because Southgate was then taken to the east end of the town and there beheaded by Edmund Barbour, whose name is the eleventh on the list of Suffolk rebels excluded from grace. Southgate had been investigated by a royal commission as long ago as 1363 after allegations that he and his fellow constable of Beccles had repeatedly abused their powers to collect ‘much corn and other victuals as well as divers sums of money beyond those at which the commonalty of the town was assessed … and detained the same to their own use, and [they] have done and do many trespasses and oppressions in the town by colour of their office’. That he had felt the need to obtain a royal protection and his brutal execution on 19 June both suggest that he had continued to milk his fellow townsmen over the years.18

It is possible that the two John Wrawes were one and the same man, who had returned to his former haunts to seek revenge for old injuries after completing his more serious business in west Suffolk; how or why he had been demoted from parson to a mere chaplain might provide the answer to his doing so. Nevertheless, it seems odd that he should not have included his offences committed in and around Beccles in his confession. Neither the clerks drawing up the indictments, nor those compiling the parliamentary list from them, made any connection between the Wrawe there and Wrawe of Sudbury, but that does not mean it can be ruled out altogether: John Bettes of Wymondham appeared twice on the parliamentary roll because the clerks did not realise he was also known as John Creyk.19 Beccles, as well as most of the local churches (though not Ringsfield), fell within the all-powerful lordship of the abbey of Bury St Edmunds. If Wrawe had lost his position because the abbey had intervened in some way, or if Southgate was an employee of the abbey, then we might have a reason for Wrawe’s actions in Bury St Edmunds.20

The sacking of the manors of Henry English at Birdbrook and Richard Lyons at Liston on 12 June by the joint forces of Essex and Suffolk marked the end of the politically motivated phase of the revolt in Essex and the passing of the torch to the rebels of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. This did not mean that the Essex rebels had ended their uprising: far from it; but having joined together systematically to destroy the records of a corrupt administration and vented their wrath against those who had been involved in it, most rebels now returned to their homes and, if they had not done so already, turned their attention to their local landlords. Just as they had burned the records emanating from central government, they would also seek out and destroy the manorial court records, the rent rolls and custumals which shaped their daily lives. The rebels believed that, if there were no written evidence of services, rents or dues exacted in the past, then their lord’s administrators would not be able to enforce them in future: in a perceived return to a golden age, the bailiffs and stewards would have to rely completely on the oral testimony of village memory which the rebels believed would be less arbitrary, more sympathetic and more nuanced than the black-and-white proofs afforded by memoranda written by the landlord’s own clerks. Throughout the whole of Essex, tenants seized the opportunity to destroy their manorial records: documents were burned in at least seventy-seven places and eighty-two more were affected by unrest of some kind, usually the destruction or seizure of disputed property. Many acts of violence were an attempt to right a perceived wrong: in December 1384, for instance, Robert Palmer was accused of having incited the murder of John Ewell so that he could enter the manor of Langdon Hills, some four miles from Fobbing, which the escheator was then holding on the grounds that its rightful ownership was unclear; Palmer had occupied it and enjoyed its revenues for three and a half years before an investigation was launched into how he had acquired it.21

Although no corner of the county was spared, the destruction was neither random nor wholesale: the targets, once again, were carefully chosen. Joan, countess of Hereford, and the king’s mother, Joan of Kent, each had at least five manors attacked and their archives burned; the great religious houses, including the cathedral priories of Canterbury and St Paul’s, London, similarly suffered heavily, as did local houses such as Coggeshall Abbey and individuals like the bishop of London. But not every manor belonging to a particular landlord joined the uprising, presumably because customs varied from place to place and local officials were not uniformly oppressive. Adjoining manors did not necessarily suffer the same fate: while Henry English’s manor at Birdbrook was attacked and property stolen, the manor of Birdbrook Hall apparently remained untouched. Even at Childerditch, where the lord of the manor was Coggeshall Abbey, the tenants reclaimed as common land a croft which the monks had enclosed as part of their demesne and allegedly caused all the abbey’s servants ‘to depart from their offices and duties against their wills’, but they did not burn the court rolls where their offences were duly recorded.22

Some 954 individual Essex rebels have been identified from the various records still extant, more than from any other county except Norfolk, which had 1214. Yet the mass actions taken privately by John of Gaunt and John Butterwick, under-sheriff of Middlesex, to obtain punishment for, and compensation from, those who had destroyed their properties in London, which together list about twelve hundred people, name only around 170 rebels from Essex.23 The two Essex figures are not entirely comparable and neither is an exhaustive record, yet they support the broad conclusion that the majority of the rebels appear to have chosen to remain at home rather than take their grievances to London to share them with the king himself. What is surprising is that the former group includes most, if not all, of those who had assumed early leadership of the revolt: Thomas Baker and William Gildeborne of Fobbing, Robert Cardemaker of Bocking and Robert Chapman of Dunmow. The only member of that first group who can be identified as being involved in events in London was William Roger of South Ockendon, who had also been one of the first agitators sent round the Essex villages to raise the rebellion in the first week of June.24 Even more surprising is the fact that, unlike Wat Tyler in Kent, no single captain seems to have stepped forward to take their place. Neither chroniclers nor judicial records give any hint as to who led the Essex rebels to London. The nearest we get is the accusation that on 13 June Henry Baker, bailiff of Tendring hundred, William Cundewayn, constable of Manningtree, and Richard Beve ordered the men of Manningtree to prepare themselves and go to join the rebels at Colchester on pain of having all their goods confiscated if they refused. Since this evidence of organisation and compulsion comes from a confession by John Glasene and John Webbe of Manningtree, who were seeking a royal pardon for their involvement in the revolt, it is not necessarily trustworthy, though Glasene admitted having been present at Mile End and killing a Fleming (again under orders) on his return.25

Three groups of Essex rebels appear to have made their way to London. The smallest, a band of just nineteen, came from in and around North Weald Bassett, twenty miles from the city. It was here that John Bampton had first held public office as bailiff of the hundred and the king’s mother later prosecuted 110 people for burning her manorial records. The ruthless nature of royal lordship exercised there was epitomised by the Black Prince’s orders to the sheriff of Essex in November 1374 to impress carpenters and other workmen to enclose a park and make his charcoal within its bounds: although he undertook to pay their costs and wages, none of them had the luxury of refusing to do his will since the sheriff had powers to arrest and imprison ‘all who are contrariant or rebellious’. The enclosure of woodland was a serious loss to tenants who relied on it for firewood and forage for their pigs. In their circumstances, nothing short of an appeal to the king in person could improve their lot, though their proximity to the capital also made it an obvious objective.26

The second and largest group was an amalgamation of rebels from Thaxted, some forty-six miles from the capital, and men who joined them along their route, but particularly at the halfway point as they passed through Ware, Hertfordshire. Since the original party must also have gone through Bishop’s Stortford on their way to Ware, it is possible that they were responsible for storming the bishop of London’s prison there and releasing ‘the traitor John Balle’ and the Carmelite friar Brother Andrew, but it seems more likely that this was carried out in a separate raid coordinated from Chelmsford after the burning of the sheriffs’ and escheator’s records.27 The arrival of the rebels from Thaxted sparked off a major uprising in Ware, which had a long and bitter commercial rivalry with its neighbour three miles upstream, the town of Hertford, which claimed the monopoly on river traffic and the right to levy tolls on freight passing through Ware. Men from Ware had repeatedly broken the weirs at Hertford, held illicit markets when theirs was suppressed in favour of Hertford’s and, despite having their bridge torn down several times, eventually won the battle for the more convenient river crossing on the profitable Cambridge to London road. Hertford had responded with frequent litigation, most recently using the Statute of Labourers to accuse Ware’s dyers and tanners of charging and receiving exorbitant rates. The fact that the lord of the manor of Hertford was John of Gaunt made his castle there an obvious target: the rebels from Ware stormed it, ripped the lead off the roof, battlements and Gaunt’s own chambers – causing considerable damage which would necessitate major repairs over the next couple of years – and carried off goods worth a thousand pounds. Some fifty men from Ware would also join the Essex rebels on their journey to London, including Nicholas Blake, who owned a manor just outside the town, and Philip of Hertford who, confusingly, was vicar of Ware. Not surprisingly, they chose to repeat their assault on Gaunt’s property by attacking his Savoy Palace, forming the largest group of rebels from outside London whom Gaunt would prosecute for its destruction.28

The third group to make their way to London, consisting of forty-two Essex rebels, included those who had also travelled the furthest, sixty-six miles, from Manningtree, via Colchester and Chelmsford. They were therefore drawn from the most active area of the revolt in Essex and, if the indictment against them is to be believed, they were involved in all the most brutal incidents of the rebellion there, including the chasing down and beheading of John Ewell at Coggeshall and the executions of two of his clerks and Nicholas Davenant at Brentwood. In their own home town, much of their anger had been directed at Thomas Hardyng, lord of the manors of Manningtree and Mistley and ‘a common extortionist [who] had been a plague to his neighbours for twenty years’. Hardyng had manipulated food prices in Manningtree, avoided paying customs duty on wool and, in the weeks leading up to the revolt, used his position as ‘the steward of the king to inquire into royal revenues in Essex’ to extort money and goods from his neighbours. He was also just the sort of person who brought the law into disrepute, bringing malicious and vexatious prosecutions against those who crossed him until he met his match in Sir Richard and Sir John Sutton, whom he had accused of conspiring to defraud the crown over the manor of Bradwell, Essex: the case was appealed to parliament in 1391 which found that Hardyng had acted ‘wholly out of malice’ and sentenced him to remain at the king’s will in the Fleet prison. Hardyng’s property was the first to be attacked in Manningtree and some of the leading figures who joined the group travelling to London were among those who had suffered at his hands. Naturally he brought private prosecutions against them and against all those he alleged had damaged his property during the revolt, unscrupulously persuading them that he would drop his action if they entered a bond with him, only to start new actions against the same people on slightly different terms so that he could extract more bonds from them. He actually earned more money from his actions against them than he had lost as a result of the attacks on his property during the revolt. Several of those whom he vindictively pursued through the courts in this way for years were described as ‘rich’, including John Sumner, who had extensive lands and owned goods worth four hundred marks in Manningtree alone; at least three others were able to pay Hardyng ten pounds each in compensation.29 These men, again, were unlikely rebels, yet years of provocation and persecution at Hardyng’s hands tipped them over the edge. And since they could not obtain satisfaction against him through the normal processes, they joined in the destruction of county administration which had failed to protect them and took their grievance against his royal servant to the king himself.

As the various rebel groups from Essex converged on the northern fringes of London on the eve of 12 June, their fellow insurgents from Kent were also gathering on the opposite side of the Thames on the great open heathland above Greenwich known as Blackheath. This suggests that there must have been a plan of joint action in place before the trip to Canterbury. It would therefore have been possible for the Kentish rebels to make their way to London for the appointed time, just as the Essex rebels did, either travelling in independent bands or joining Tyler as he made his way back from Canterbury. The evidence of the private prosecutions brought by Gaunt and Butterwick suggests that most of the Kentish rebels came from places closest to London: only forty-one came from more than fifteen miles outside the capital and most of them were from either Rochester or Maidstone. One of the largest groups, for instance, came from Eltham, which lay on Tyler’s direct route to Blackheath, and it says something for the universal appeal of the revolt that they were led by William Spalding, keeper of the king’s manor there. The approach of the rebel army proved a magnet for further willing recruits from Surrey villages slightly farther afield, places like Tooting and Wandsworth, whose inhabitants would play a major role in the sacking of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace.30

How many rebels there were we do not know. The chroniclers predictably claim that between one and two hundred thousand were eventually gathered in London but, even when joined by the Londoners themselves, the reality is likely to have been less than ten thousand. Only 456 Kentish rebels have been identified from the records and the majority of them did not go to London.31 Just as in Essex, some of the earliest rebels appear to have remained in their localities. There is no suggestion that either Abel Ker of Erith or Robert Cave of Dartford, for example, took part in this stage of the revolt, though Thomas atte Raven of Rochester, who had been a prominent figure in the uprising from the beginning, not only went to London but played a significant role in the events there too.32

Wat Tyler was also at the forefront of the Kentish rebel hordes, though it is unlikely that John Balle was with him. Although historians have always believed that Balle was rescued by the rebels from Maidstone prison in Kent, the only chronicle source for this information is Knighton, who specifically states that Balle was in the archbishop of Canterbury’s prison in the archbishop’s town of Maidstone and was released by the rebels because they proposed to make him archbishop of Canterbury. Two pieces of judicial evidence lend weight to this: the writ ordering his arrest was issued to the sheriff of Kent (though it may have been duplicated to others) and two indictments confirm that rebels broke open Maidstone prison and freed all the prisoners on 11 June. Given that Wat Tyler may also have been living in Maidstone at the time, it seems obvious that he would have made a point of rescuing his fellow denizen of Colchester when he became involved in the revolt.33

Why, therefore, should there be any doubt? The problem is that an Essex indictment reveals that the same day, 11 June, John Bowyers of Pleshey ‘broke open the prison of the bishop of London at Bishop’s Stortford and treacherously carried off a certain Friar Andrew of the Carmelite order and John Balle the traitor incarcerated in that same castle having been convicted of divers felonies’. This indictment has been dismissed as ‘difficult to reconcile with the other evidence, and probably mistaken’ by the scholar who discovered it.34 Yet there are compelling reasons for believing it to be true. All Balle’s known activities over almost two decades had been located within the bishop of London’s diocese and Essex in particular. His only identifiable link with Kent was that Sudbury, the former bishop with whom he had tangled for so long, was now archbishop of Canterbury. What is more, since at least the 1330s the prison at Bishop’s Stortford had housed mainly convicted clerics, particularly apostates and heretics. Where more natural for Balle to have been incarcerated than in his own diocesan prison? Conditions were harsh, with prisoners kept shackled and fettered on a daily allowance of ¼d. each for food, and there were high mortality rates. Perhaps because it was not in the keep but in buildings near the gatehouse, the prison had a large number of escapees, including mass break-outs of sixteen in 1392, eighteen in 1393 and ten in 1401, all of them being ‘convicted clerks’.35 The escape of Balle and Friar Andrew was comparatively small scale.

By contrast, none of the Kentish indictments mention any of the released prisoners by name, let alone one as notorious as Balle. What they do say is that Julia Pouchere, wife of Richard, ‘came to meet with the men of Canterbury and the county of Essex’ and persuaded them to attack the warden of Maidstone jail Alan Doghere and his servant John Grage, ‘with the result that the … evil-doers tore down the above-mentioned jail and destroyed it, similarly threatening to tear down and destroy the house of the same Alan … and Julia was a party to this and encouraged it’.36 Aside from the fascinating glimpse this gives us of a woman inciting rebels to act, this sounds like a wife seeking revenge for her husband’s imprisonment and provides a more likely local scenario for the attack than a desire to rescue an excommunicate chaplain from Essex. The problem with accepting that Balle was sprung from prison in Bishop’s Stortford, rather than Maidstone, is that it makes it virtually impossible for him to have given his famous sermon at Blackheath on the eve of the feast of Corpus Christi. He could not have made his way across London in time to preach to the Kentish rebels on the other side of the city and the Thames the following day. Indeed, why would he do so, since he could more easily have preached to the Essex rebels who had released him and were assembling on the northern side of city? In fact, not a single source authoritatively places Balle in London during the revolt: his name is mentioned with those of Tyler and Straw in general references to the rebels’ activities in the city but no individual sighting of him is recorded. He disappears from view from the moment of his release on 11 June until his appearance before the chief justice on 13 July.37

Despite this, the Blackheath sermon has been a cornerstone of every account of the great revolt. It is seductive because it gives us an insight into the character of this evidently charismatic leader and it articulates powerfully the sense of injustice that drove so many otherwise respectable people to rebel. It also seems entirely credible that the rebel leaders would have wanted to fire up the morale of their disparate troops as they prepared to unite for their biggest challenge yet by giving a platform to their very own rabble-rouser and firebrand. This is Walsingham’s account of that celebrated speech:

… to corrupt more people with his doctrine, at Blackheath, where two hundred thousand of the commons were gathered together, he began a sermon in this fashion:

When Adam delved, and Eve span,

Who was then a gentleman?

And continuing his sermon, he tried to prove by the words of the proverb that he had taken for his text, that from the beginning all men were created equal by nature, and that servitude had been introduced by the unjust and evil oppression of men, against the will of God, who, if it had pleased Him to create serfs, surely in the beginning of the world would have appointed who should be a serf and who a lord. Let them consider, therefore, that He had now appointed the time wherein, laying aside the yoke of long servitude, they might, if they wished, enjoy their liberty so long desired. Wherefore they must be prudent, hastening to act after the manner of a good husbandman, tilling his field, and uprooting the tares that are accustomed to destroy the grain; first killing the great lords of the realm, then slaying the lawyers, justices and jurors, and finally rooting out everyone whom they knew to be harmful to the community in future. So at last they would obtain peace and security, if, when the great ones had been removed, they maintained among themselves equality of liberty and nobility, as well as of dignity and power.

This speech might not sound completely unreasonable, even if the call to violence is unpalatable to modern sensibilities, but Walsingham himself had no hesitation in condemning it as ‘perverse … insane … ravings’.38

Walsingham is the only contemporary source to place Balle at Blackheath. It is true that Froissart also ‘quotes’ an example of Balle’s preaching (which he describes merely as ‘reckless’). Froissart’s version is far more elegant, eloquent, passionate and reasoned than Walsingham’s, which suggests to the modern reader that the author is himself sympathetic to the plight of the ‘poor commons’. In fact, to his intended audience, the literate ‘gentlefolk’ who loved their aristocratic tales of knightly deeds and chivalry, it merely enunciated, powerfully and alarmingly, the politics of envy which threatened to destroy them.

… things cannot go right in England and never will, until goods are held in common and there are no more villeins and gentlefolk, but we are all one and the same. In what way are those whom we call lords greater masters than ourselves? How have they deserved it? Why do they hold us in bondage? If we all spring from a single father and mother, Adam and Eve, how can they claim or prove that they are lords more than us, except by making us produce and grow the wealth which they spend? They are clad in velvet and camlet lined with squirrel and ermine, while we go dressed in coarse cloth. They have the wines, the spices and the good bread: we have the rye, the husks and the straw, and we drink water … Let us go to the King – he is young – and show him how we are oppressed, and tell him that we want things to be changed, or else we will change them ourselves … when the King sees and hears us, he will remedy the evil, either willingly or otherwise.39

It is telling that Froissart has Balle propose that redress for the people’s wrongs should be sought from the king, rather than in the universal bloodbath of Walsingham’s version, because this points to the fatal flaw in both accounts. Despite their persuasiveness and air of what we assume to be authenticity, they were written not just by hostile witnesses but by men who were not present at Blackheath and had never heard Balle preach. They are not first-hand accounts, therefore, even though they claim to ‘quote’ Balle’s words. Both chroniclers used hindsight to extrapolate his alleged ideas from the actions of the rebels during the course of the revolt. They were also familiar with the sort of language that was the common vocabulary of all critics of the Church. There was, for instance, nothing radical or new about Balle’s alleged preaching that in the beginning God had created all men equal and that serfdom was thus unlawful and should be abolished. The counter-argument (also drawn from the Biblical Book of Genesis), that serfdom, like slavery, had been imposed on mankind as punishment for sin, officially prevailed in both Church and state.40

Although Froissart’s sample of Balle’s preaching has elements in common with Walsingham’s, he does not suggest that it relates to Blackheath or even to a single grand-standing sermon. He even admits that it is a generic representation rather than a verbatim record of a particular sermon, introducing it by stating that Balle ‘had a habit’ of preaching in the churchyards on Sundays to the people as they were leaving church and reiterating at the end that ‘These were the kind of things which John Balle usually preached in the villages on Sundays when the congregations came out from mass’.41

We therefore come back to the fact that the only evidence for the great revolutionary sermon delivered at Blackheath comes from Walsingham. And Walsingham had form where the fabrication of speeches was concerned. Just a few pages earlier in his chronicle he had described how Jack Straw, ‘the most important of [the rebel] leaders after Walter Tylere’, had been captured and sentenced to death by William Walworth, mayor of London. At the place of execution, and in response to Walworth’s offer to have three years’ worth of masses celebrated for his soul, Straw was persuaded to make his public confession to the assembled crowds, which ‘proved’ how the rebels had planned to destroy the realm. Walsingham gives the confession in full, as if reporting it verbatim, and it is a suitably long and horrific catalogue of murder and arson. Yet we know from a parliamentary petition of 1383–4 that Jack Straw was one of four rebel captains who were summarily executed during the revolt without due process of law, making it impossible for him to have been tried and condemned to death in London by Walworth.42

Reluctantly, therefore, we shall have to accept that the Blackheath sermon was the invention of a partisan historian determined to blame the corruption of heresy, embodied in Balle, for causing the revolt. By putting his speech into Balle’s mouth at Blackheath, making him address the assembled rebels who were about to invade London and murder the head of the Church in England, he placed the excommunicate chaplain at the spiritual and physical heart of a rebellion which threatened to overthrow the establishment in both Church and state.

With or without John Balle, the Kentish rebels gathered on the heights at Blackheath had a spectacular panorama of London lying before them. The marshy south bank of the river Thames was a semi-rural patchwork of fields and woods, with the palaces, gardens and parks of royal and episcopal manors fronting the river, culminating in the archbishop’s palace at Lambeth to the west. Immediately below them lay the royal manor of Greenwich on a peninsula in one of the many loops in the river Thames as it wound its way lazily past the city on the opposite bank. From their vantage point the rebels would have been able to see right across the city: rising above the mass of lowlier buildings, the solid mass of the White Tower of the Tower of London some five miles away; the soaring spire of St Paul’s beyond it within the city walls; and, farther west, round a further bend in the river, the distinctive twin towers of Westminster Abbey. They would also have seen that there was only one bridge by which their forces could make their entrance into the city and that Watling Street, the old Roman road and pilgrimage route which they had followed from Canterbury and across Blackheath, would lead them straight there.

That same evening, a contingent of rebels rode on a further seven or so miles down the road to Southwark, a small town set on a tongue of land in the low-lying marshes of the south bank of the Thames, which stood at the entrance to the bridge.43 Though Londoners liked to consider Southwark a suburb of the city, it was actually an independent borough composed of five different lordships (each with their own courts, liberties and privileges), five separate parishes and just 1750 inhabitants, many of whom had moved there to take advantage of the lack of a single over-arching authority: entrepreneurs escaping the restrictive commercial practices and regulations of the city, fugitives from justice slipping through the cracks between the jurisdictions, foreigners seeking refuge from the xenophobia of more tightly knit communities. Its distinctive, slightly raffish air was enhanced by the constant influx of travellers, especially pilgrims, from all over the country for Southwark was, above all else, the gatehouse and guesthouse for London.

As the rebels rode into the borough they could have counted twenty-five inns along the High Street alone, including the famous Tabard, where Harry Bailly presided in fact and fiction as the host of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims. The inns, displaying at the front their painted signs or carved representations of their names – the Boar’s Head, the Bell, the Cardinal’s Hat – were several storeys high, with gables overhanging the street and courtyards behind; chambers and beds were rarely private but shared between travellers of the same sex; ostlers and grooms looked after the horses, took them out to graze in the neighbouring fields or offered those belonging to the establishment for hire.

Alongside the inns jostled a host of small shops offering their wares to the passing trade. There were victuallers of every kind, including ‘pyebakers’ and brewers, as well as the saddlers, carters, hackneymen, porters and boatmen who facilitated the travellers’ onward journey. Towards the bottom of the street, near its junction with the old Roman road to Chichester, Sussex, was the twelfth-century priory of St Mary Overy, with its massive cruciform church. Had they been interested in poetry, the rebels could even have called in on Chaucer’s friend the poet John Gower, who was then living within the priory precincts and would later express his gratitude by choosing its church for his burial-place and founding a chantry chapel there. They might not have received a sympathetic hearing, for though Gower had bewailed the corruption which permeated every level of society in a poem of 1376–9, he had also warned the nobility to guard against ‘the folly of the common people’, which he compared to a nettle ‘which is too violent in its nature’ and has been allowed to grow unchecked:

He who observes the present time

Is likely to fear that soon,

If God does not provide his help,

This impatient nettle

Will very suddenly sting us,

Before it can be brought to justice.44

To the east of the priory, on the other side of High Street, the rebels would have seen St Thomas’ Hospital, originally the canons’ own infirmary but refounded and expanded in the early thirteenth century to care for the poor and sick of the parish. On the priory’s other side stood the sumptuous palace of the bishops of Winchester which had a double quadrangle, gardens, fish-ponds and a park as well as its own private wharf and landing-place on the banks of the Thames. The bishop held one of the five lordships in Southwark and in the grounds of his palace stood what now claims to be the country’s oldest prison, the infamous and eponymous the Clink, which housed both men and women (in separate accommodation) who had transgressed the laws of his liberty.

To modern minds it seems odd that these prisoners did not include the prostitutes who plied their trade alongside the boatmen on the river-bank and even odder that they actually enjoyed the bishop’s protection. The Church had an ambivalent attitude towards prostitution, condemning the sin but in practice being prepared to look the other way ‘withholding censure, lest perhaps something worse result from it’. It was considered acceptable to take tithes from prostitutes (as from actors and minstrels, who were held to be equally immoral) but only after they had repented and given up their life of sin. The state, by contrast, saw no reason not to tax prostitutes and their pimps and brothel-keepers, whatever the state of their immortal souls. It is a curious fact that the stew-mongers of Southwark paid some of the highest rates recorded in the borough’s 1381 poll-tax returns, ranging from 4s. 6d. to a massive 6s. 8d. As a result of the bishop’s leniency, however, there were so many brothels in the Bankside area of his lordship that it was colloquially known as ‘The Stews’.45

The rebels who rode down High Street, however, were not interested in any of the services Southwark had to offer. Under the leadership of Thomas atte Raven, the former MP for Rochester, who was himself a Southwark man, they had one objective in mind: to break open the prisons and free the prisoners, just as they had already done in Kent and Essex. In addition to the Clink, there were two royal prisons in Southwark, that of the King’s Bench and the Marshalsea. The attack on the latter was particularly significant because the Marshalsea housed many of the king’s prisoners, especially debtors and indicted felons sent from the shires, such as Roger Forster, otherwise known as Roger Underwode, from Billericay, Essex, who escaped when the prison was stormed. It was also a major source of contention between the crown and the city of London. The marshal of the royal household had always had jurisdiction over the king’s servants and his court dealt with debt, contract and covenant cases between them and with trespass offences involving any one of them committed within twelve miles of the king’s person. This had been designed to suit a travelling royal household but the increased residency of the king in London in the fourteenth century, coupled with a more elastic view of the court’s jurisdiction, had led to clashes with the city corporation, which saw its own jurisdiction being threatened and undermined. The tensions were manifest in the building of a new courtroom on Southwark High Street to hear the growing volume of pleas in 1373, repeated parliamentary petitions to the crown to observe the city’s privileges in 1376–7 and the riots that followed rumours that John of Gaunt was planning to extend the marshal’s jurisdiction over the city in 1377.46

Thomas atte Raven, whose pardon describes him as ‘the principal and chief malefactor and maintainer [of malefactors]’, may have had personal experience of the Marshalsea, perhaps through his business dealings: not only is he described as being ‘of Southwark’ as well as ‘of Rochester’, but his wife, Alice, was the daughter and co-heiress of Thomas Skynner, a London goldsmith. Clearly he knew his way around Southwark for he led the rebels on an orgy of targeted but wholesale destruction that demolished not just the prison buildings but also the houses of the jurors and professional informers involved in the court and the personal property of its warden. Richard Imworth had profited so much from his office that he had had to pay six shillings for himself and his wife Margery, as well as a further twelve pence for his daughter Margaret, in the recent poll-tax.47Imworth was well aware of the hatred that he and his office inspired and took the precaution of fleeing into sanctuary at Westminster Abbey. Two days later, in one of the more horrific incidents of the London uprising, Richard Mugge of Westminster and a clerk named William Pecche barged into the abbey church at the head of a band of rebels, entered the sanctuary where Imworth was lying prostrate at his prayers before the tomb of St Edward, prised him from the pillars of the shrine to which he was clinging and dragged him outside to kill him. This was a serious offence – a flagrant breach of the sacred and legal protection which the Church afforded to those who sought sanctuary – but it was compounded by the allegation that it was done ‘in the presence of the king himself’, which would have been an act of lèse-majesty. Though Richard did attend a service at the abbey the following morning, it seems unlikely that he was present when Imworth was murdered since Pecche received a pardon on 12 January 1382; three months later another cleric, Richard de Uttokcestre, parson of Lyminge, five miles from Folkestone, Kent, was acquitted of the charge that he had bribed Mugge to commit the murder.48

As Raven led the destruction of the Marshalsea and its associated buildings another group of Kentish rebels crossed to the other side of the Southwark peninsula and made a concerted attack on the archbishop of Canterbury’s manor at Lambeth Palace. Forewarned of the rebels’ approach, Simon Sudbury, together with the king and his court, had already moved earlier in the day from Westminster Palace to the greater security of the Tower of London; it was there that Sudbury, realising that his position was no longer tenable, resigned as chancellor of England and handed over the Great Seal to the king.49 The archbishop was therefore absent when the rebels sacked his twelfth-century manor house, burning all the books, registers and chancery rolls they could find, together with vestments and his personal possessions; they broke open his casks of wine, pouring away what they could not drink, and they even shattered his kitchen utensils by smashing them together. All the while, according to a monk sitting across the river at Westminster, they shouted ‘A revel! A revel!’, as if they were taking part in some midsummer festival.50

Just as had happened elsewhere, the Kentish rebels’ arrival encouraged the local people to rise up, join in and spread the disturbances. John Trentedeus, an innkeeper of Southwark who had just paid double the per capita poll-tax rate for himself and his wife, was later prosecuted by William Latymer for the loss from his inn of chests worth forty marks and the muniments they contained and by Robert Grey for the disappearance of fifty-four pounds: they held him responsible whether he stole them personally or was simply negligent in preventing their theft. On 14 June three men from Lambeth, Richard Lorchon, Ralph atte Croste and Simon Gerard, were also inspired to lead a group of men from the vicinity in an attack on the king’s manor of Kennington, just a mile outside Lambeth, burning the custumal and other muniments kept there; all the king’s demesne tenants on the manor implicated in this action were later arrested and held without bail.51

With the south bank of the Thames now firmly in their hands, or those of their sympathisers, the rebels could turn their attention to their principal objective: obtaining a personal interview with the king.

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