Post-classical history

SEVEN
THE TRUE COMMONS

The king had his barges got ready and … travelled to Greenwich. But there the Chancellor and Treasurer informed the king that it would be too great folly to go to the commons for they were unreasonable men and did not know how to behave … And the said commons had a watch-word in English among themselves, ‘With whom haldes yow?’, to which the reply was, ‘Wyth kynge Richarde and with the trew communes’…

Anonimalle Chronicle

London, Thursday, 13 June (Corpus Christi)

The sound of London’s church bells ringing on Corpus Christi had, since the turn of the century, marked the beginning of a day of boisterous popular piety. It was a feast day given over specifically to honour the wonder of the Eucharist, in which thin slivers of unleavened bread and viscous droplets of wine were transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. A relatively new festival, it had been established in Europe since the mid-thirteenth century, but quickly gained wide popularity as a time to celebrate not only the most miraculous sacrament of the Church, but one that also had profound social significance.

London’s trade guilds loved Corpus Christi. It was a time to display their wealth, numbers and superiority over rivals as a day of parades and church processions spread throughout the City, spilling from the churches into the taverns, and from the taverns back into the streets. It was self-consciously a summer feast, in which the streets of towns were strewn with rushes and garlanded with flags, and in which the whole community (and smaller tight-knit groups within it) turned out as one to celebrate their unity, bound together by the remembrance and return of Christ’s broken body. Corpus Christi was characterised by noise and colour, and an organised shirking of the shackles.1

Corpus Christi in 1381 bore with it all these things and more. The City was buzzing, both inside and out, with an unprecedented number of strangers. Within the walls there were already many visitors from Essex and Kent, who had been agitating all week. They would have brought news of the disturbances in the countryside and traded speculation about what was to come in the days ahead. Outside the walls, two distinct parties were organising. The band of Essex companies that had been tilting at houses belonging to royal officials and hunting their terrified servants for the last ten days were now camped in the fields near Mile End, a few miles up the Aldgate Road, a road whose entrance to the City was just 1500 yards north of the Tower. They must have known full well that there were Kent rebels amassed downriver in Greenwich, camped on Blackheath Hill, carrying out their own assaults on Southwark and Lambeth.

Inside the Tower, King Richard and his court were rising and preparing to face the most testing day of the short reign. The rebels that had approached from the south-east were now camped virtually on their doorstep. As well as Tyler’s followers, in Blackheath, parties of rebels from Essex would have begun arriving at the northeast gates of the City. The royal servant and poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who rented an apartment above the Aldgate, could well have looked out of his window and spotted groups of Essex men milling around below, having wandered down the road from their own base camp at Mile End. It was as clear to those waking in the Tower as it was to the rebels camped in the open air that this Corpus Christi day had the potential to be extremely explosive.

The most immediate problem facing the court was a fresh crisis of leadership. Overnight Richard had received an unwelcome and highly disturbing visit from Simon Sudbury, the archbishop of Canterbury, who had come to him and resigned the Great Seal, the symbol of his chancellorship. Sudbury had been forced to flee from Lambeth as the rebels approached. This shock, together with the savage violence that had torn through his diocesan seat at Canterbury, had contrived to shred the ageing archbishop’s nerves. He may have blamed himself for the disastrous decision to levy the Northampton tax that had stirred the commons into their present state of ungodly uproar. His resignation was no doubt considered; but it was also cowardly. Sudbury had been a part of Richard’s life since he was a small boy - now he was abandoning his fourteen-year-old king as catastrophe loomed.

As he prepared for the mass that would have marked the beginning of the observances of the holy feast day and contemplated the presentation to the rebel bands later that morning, Richard may have been reminded of an earlier occasion of public display. At his coronation, when he was aged just ten, he had been paraded aloft on his tutor Simon Burley’s shoulders through the adoring throngs at Westminster, and hailed in the streets with extraordinary displays of fealty and pageantry. Sudbury, then, had appeared in all his archiepiscopal glory to anoint Richard with holy oils, and crown him as king. Sudbury, then gentle, wise, paternal and pious, invested him as semi-divine, a young demigod among fully grown men. As Richard received the sword of office, Sudbury had told him to use it to ‘execrate and destroy those of the faith who are false’, and to ‘glory in the triumph of good and as a great minister of justice be worthy to rule eternally with the Saviour of the world’. And after Richard was invested with the sceptre - the symbol of royal power - Sudbury had told him to use it to ‘correct the sinful, give peace to the righteous and give your aid in directing them to continue in the right way, so that after ruling in your earthly kingdom you may attain to the eternal kingdom’.2

In this time of popular crisis, it is quite probable that these sentiments and phrases would have come to Richard’s mind. He stepped out of mass (probably held in the Tower chapel of St Peter ad Vincula - appropriately, St Peter in Chains) down the thin steps to the fortress’s landing jetty and on to the royal barge, accompanied by his defeated former Chancellor. Hales joined them, as did Warwick and Salisbury. A party of royal knights followed, and a selection from the beleaguered court brought up the rear in a train of four more barges. The lead boat pushed off into the Thames - leaving behind a City in noisy preparation for a particularly raucous day of festivities - and pressed downriver towards a people in dire need of royal correction.

Expectation of the king’s barge had been feverish on Blackheath Hill, and the deputation that was detached to negotiate with the king’s party on the banks of the river at the royal manor of Rotherhithe was enormous. Perhaps more than one tenth of the entire Kent rebel army rode and marched behind Tyler, many of them in a heightened state of agitation owing to the auspicious occasion, the festive overtures of Corpus Christi, and a night spent outdoors on an empty stomach. They brought with them their two flags of St George and a decent number of their sixty pennons - rectangular flags with a V-shape cut into them, which were used in conventional military formations to denote separate companies of soldiers. Tyler was a competent general, and would have wanted his men carefully ranked and kept to order in expectation of his grandest moment.

So the rebels waited. But they did not wait peacefully. Corpus Christi was Ball’s day, and straining against the good order demanded by a meeting with the king was a wild, righteous zeal, which the preacher whipped up in the rebels’ hearts early that morning in one of the greatest sermons of his life. He had taken as his theme a familiar rhyming proverb that struck at the very heart of all who heard it:

When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who, then, was the gentleman?

This sort of radical egalitarian theme was a mainstay of popular preaching, and had earned Ball much favour with the disenfranchised and poor. It was also what made him such a dangerous heretic to the Church hierarchy, compounding as he did both heresy and sedition in an easy couplet that would trip off the lips of even the rudest parishioner. To the authorities, his proverb was gross and blasphemous, rejecting wholesale a human hierarchy that to conventional minds was divinely ordained and instituted. It was also a pointed attack on the ease and luxury of the landed political classes, who neither delved nor spun, and in doing so dodged God’s punishment, issued at the Fall, when man was cursed to labour for his survival.3 But to his audience, inclined more than at any time in their lives to loathe the corruptions and ill-used ease of their social betters, it was music to the ears.

Ball preached that morning on the nature of human equality - that in the beginning there had been no division between men, and that God had never ordained such an unfair institution as serfdom:

Ah, ye good people, the matters goeth not well to pass in England, nor shall do till everything be commons, and that there be no villains nor gentlemen, but that we may be all united together, and that the lords be no greater masters than we!4

Heads would have nodded among his audience, and cries of approval would have greeted him when he thundered that now was the time to cast aside the yoke of servitude and serfdom, and to enjoy the liberty that each of his flock yearned for:

What have we deserved, or why should we thus be kept in servage? We be all come from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve: whereby can they say or show that they be greater lords than we be, saving by that they cause us to win and labour for that they dispend?

They are clothed in velvet and camlet furred with grise, and we be vestured with poor cloth: they have their wines, spices and good bread, and we have the drawing out of the chaff and drink water: they dwell in fair houses, and we have the pain and travail, rain and wind in the fields; and by that that cometh of our labours they keep and maintain their estates: we be called their bondsmen and without we do readily them service, we be beaten; and we have no sovereign to whom we may complain, nor that will hear us nor do us right.

Never mind that Kent was, in fact, one of the few English counties in which there was no serfdom left; in the county where the lower orders had tasted freedom and legal liberty in morsels but never in its entirety, this was, of course, an even more powerful appeal to the heart. The crowd could hardly ask for more.

Ball had likened his vision of the promised land they were all on the brink of achieving to a field, in which the good husbandmen should now get rid of the weeds that threatened to choke the wheat - those weeds, he said, were the great lords of the realm; the lawyers and justices and jurors, as well as any who did not share his vision of a free and equal society.

On Corpus Christi, this would have resonated in the hearts of his listeners, their minds filled with images of Christ the ploughman, bearing his cross like the wooden handle of the plough. Ball conjured a powerful, mystical righteousness in the hearts of his audience, and showed them a promised land, in which England’s order was not stood on its head, but reformed and cleansed of the inequities of power. He promised peace and security, and proclaimed that this day of Corpus Christi was about to present them with the opportunity to carry out a divine cull of society - a cull that at any moment would be started with the arrival of the king.

Rotherhithe was a little farther upstream than Blackheath, and the rebel party would have been able to see the royal barge train almost as soon as it left the Tower. They would have seen the rich colours of the splendidly adorned lead barge catch the light, their hearts hanging on the tantalising pull of the little oars through the grey water of the Thames: their king inching towards them, silent and magnificent.

In the midst of the crowd, Sir John Newton, still a rebel hostage, would have felt a wall of noise building, as the barge crept around the river’s right-hand bend and ever closer into view. He might have seen Tyler, Ball and Straw, together at the head of their band, visibly steeling themselves for the sight of their life: the quasi-divine king - still little more than a child, but anointed and glorious, and here just for them.

Newton would also have tried to imagine the tension aboard the barge. He had been exposed to, and understood, the rebels’ rough, loud methods. Richard had not yet clapped eyes on them. In his report to the court the previous day Newton had been instructed to assure the king that the rebels meant him no harm; but with the whooping and hollering that were building around the mob, Richard was going to be hard pressed to believe him.

Indeed, the barge’s passengers were growing steadily more nervous. The closer the vast and fevered host on the shore appeared, the greater was the concern for Richard’s physical safety. Sudbury, sitting alongside the king, was still gripped with the panic of the night. As they drew nearer and the rebels’ halloos grew ever louder and more urgent, he may have been able to pick out Newton, terrified still for his life in the midst of the fray.

The fright that hung over Sudbury had also infected Hales. He, too, had had his house wrecked at the rebels’ hands and was acutely aware that even if the king were to be welcomed by the rebels, he, as treasurer, Essex landowner and prior of the Knights Hospitallers, was most definitely not. He began to caution against negotiation with such a frightening crowd of bare-legged rascals. The ill ease spread. Salisbury, as chief soldier on the barge, also weighed against landing near such a dangerous-looking and, by his standards, ill-disciplined army. That they were roughly armed with rusty swords and old bows only made them appear more unpredictable. There were no known rules of engagement for an army of rustics led by their own kind - normally these were the rabble put out for slaughter under foreign nobles.

Dissuaded from any thoughts of youthful boldness by the counsel of these three older men - all of whom were at least thirty-five years his senior - Richard abandoned all thoughts of going ashore. The safest option was to remain on the water, so rather than landing Richard consented to receive a petition from the rebels.

Word went across the water to Tyler’s men, and without delay a written schedule of demands was brought out to the royal barge by a yeoman. Its contents were shocking. Stirred up by Ball’s flamboyant sermon that morning, and dizzy with their own success, the rebels sent a petition that required not subtle forms of political restitution, or legal redress, but the crude justice of heads on poles. They demanded the death of all around the king whom they thought guilty of perverting the realm. They included John of Gaunt, Sudbury, Hales, Bishop Courtenay of London, Bishop Fordham of Durham, who was Clerk of the Privy Seal, the Chief Justice, Sir Robert Belknap, Sir Ralph Ferrers (the knight Gaunt protected for his infamous part in the Hawley affair in 1378), Sir Robert Plessington, Chief Baron of the Exchequer, John Legge, the serjeant-at-arms popularly associated with farming out the poll tax inquiry commissions, and John de Bampton, the egregious Brentwood tax collector himself.

The council on the river was stunned. Although the king protested his willingness to address the raucous, hotchpotch army of his people, he was overruled. Unsurprisingly, with two of the targets of this gruesome petition on the barge itself, any thin, lingering prospect of going anywhere near the baying mob on the south bank now evaporated. The rebels’ watchword, ‘With whom holds you?’ - answerable by ‘With King Richard and the true commons’ - was in their minds a clear badge of loyalty. But it meant nothing to Sudbury and Hales. To them, the only safe action, and that which the royal party took without a moment’s ado, was to bolt for the security of the Tower. They sent word to the rebels that if they wished to continue negotiations, they might do so at Windsor the following Monday. The barges turned in the water and began to move once more upstream towards the City.

On the shores there was disbelief. Tyler’s army stood on the river-banks, their climactic moment now ebbing way. The hurrahs and bellows of exultation turned into howls of anguish, screams of rage and denial, and a furious impulse to action. Livid at the snub during what should have been their moment of greatest triumph, the leadership turned their inflamed party around and set off back to Blackheath Hill. Restraint was ebbing away, leaving behind it a raw plane of retributive fury The moratorium was over. London Bridge stood a couple of hours’ march away; the party of Essex rebels at the brink of the Aldgate. Against the will of the true commons, there could be no escape for traitors to the realm. A Corpus Christi parade unlike any seen before was about to descend upon the City, and the wicked were to be plucked from the ground, like so many wretched weeds.

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