Post-classical history


The slavish band, which utter lunacy possessed, tried to join the hand of victory with theirs. And so the savage throngs approached the city like the waves of the sea and entered it by violence.


Southwark, Thursday, 13 June 1381

The mob stood, stunned. Then their anger, whipped up by their leaders, burst out. When Gower remembered the days at Blackheath, it was Ball and Tyler’s rabble-rousing which dominated his description:

The whole mob was silent and took note of the speaker’s words, and they liked every command he delivered from his mouth. The rabble lent a deluded ear to his fickle talk, and it saw none of the future things that would result… so the Jackdaw [Tyler] stirred up all the others with his outrageous shouting, and he drew the people’s minds toward war … He said, ‘Strike,’ and one man struck. He said, ‘Kill,’ and another killed. He said, ‘commit crime’; everyone committed it, and did not oppose his will…1

The primal fury that Gower recalled had possessed Tyler, Straw, Ball and the rest of the rebel leadership since their snub by the royal party earlier that morning. As they had begun to move from Blackheath, the plans they laid became tinged with indignant fantasy. After the revolt, Straw was said to have confessed that the rebels plotted not merely to confront the king, but to capture him and parade him around the country as a figurehead for John Ball’s vision of destroying all forms of noble and ecclesiastical hierarchy.

If these plans existed they were a knee-jerk response to the impotence the rebels felt in their moment of highest expectation. As they moved west along the Thames from Blackheath towards Southwark, their mood grew dark, and their desire to release the pent-up tension that had built all through the night had reached a new intensity. The City of London was now a fortress to be stormed.

Of course, storming a fortress required the right combination of guile and brute force. The main obstacle to entering London was the river. There was only one bridge across the Thames - London Bridge, which straddled the water between Southwark on the south bank and the church of St Magnus at Bridge Street, just a few hundred yards west of the smelly clutter of Billingsgate fish market. The bridge was a great commercial highway built in stone, with shops along its whole length and a stone chapel in the centre. Towards the Southwark end was a great drawbridge, and it was this which secured the City against invasion. There was no way that Tyler could hope to get his men across the Thames’ powerful tidal waters solely by boat. Somehow they would have to secure a passage across the bridge.

In this respect they had the advantage of good contacts within the City. It was no secret that there were many among the lower ranks who wished to see the rebels come to town. But there were also a few sympathisers in the upper reaches of City society. The most prominent of these was Alderman John Horn. (After the revolt, five aldermen - Horn, Adam Carlisle, Walter Sybil, William Tongue and John Fresh - were all accused of being to some degree in league with the rebels, but in all cases except that of Horn, this seems unlikely2) Horn had met the rebels the previous day at Blackheath as part of the process of negotiation that had been under way between the rebels and the royal and municipal authorities. He had actually been sent by Mayor Walworth with a sharp warning to the rebels not to enter the City. But Horn did not relay the message with anything like its due conviction, and the rebels seem to have gathered from his demeanour that there were those close to the summit of power in London who were sympathetic to their cause.

There was, of course, definitely sympathy for the rebels among the common folk of the City, who realised that there was a broad community of interests between Tyler’s men and themselves. Hatred of and opposition to John of Gaunt stood at the head of the list of shared grievances. That Gaunt was far away from London mattered little - he had property in and around London, ripe to feed an increasingly agitated populace’s appetite for destruction.

The thirst for a reckoning was contagious, and it is likely that on Corpus Christi there was an especially heightened sense of community among the marching guilds turning out into the streets for the festival, and the organised band of peasants on the other side of the river. For their superiors in City government, there was also the worry about what the Essex rebels, who had only a gate to contend with, and those rebels already inside the City, might exact in retribution if they were to enter the City and find their Kentish comrades thwarted.

There was also the matter of Southwark itself. It had been infected by the same spirit of chaos that had gripped the rest of London’s suburbs, and was ready to rise both from within and without. As the bands of Kent rebels approached - their numbers swelling with Southwark natives - they made for a brothel tucked away on the banks of the Southwark fishponds in a house rented from Mayor Walworth. They tore it down and set fire to it, terrifying the Flemish prostitutes inside, and delighting those in the City proper who disapproved of the squalid tenement. Agile and angry, the rebels demonstrated their tenacity by scrambling on to rooftops and smashing buildings to the ground. The loyal people of Southwark who remained cried to the citizens on the north bank of the Thames that Southwark would not survive much more of an onslaught.3

There followed a short stand-off, as the rebels stood on the southern third of London Bridge, and a mob of excited Londoners looked back at them from the north, watching plumes of smoke curl upwards from Walworth’s smouldering whorehouse. Looking past the raised drawbridge, Tyler’s men would have seen Walworth himself, the inscrutable fishmonger, politician, financier and courtier, nominally in charge of the City but probably aware that he was past the point of resisting the tide of public will. Walworth surely realised that he did not command, in the City militia, anything like the resources to disperse them or to control the City, especially if rebellion spread and took root among the Londoners themselves. The rebels’ most inspired move had been to make it publicly known that they did not approach London with the intention of plundering; that they would buy provisions at market prices; and that the people of the City need not fear the destruction of their property. They were on the hunt for traitors.

In the light of all this, Walworth realised that resistance was no longer an option. As the welcoming swell grew, with a resigned nod from the leaders of Bridge Ward, under whose immediate jurisdiction London Bridge fell, the bridge’s keeper let down the drawbridge, and the Kentishmen, seeing their path stretch out before them, flooded into London. Announcing themselves with a cacophony of diabolical howls, they swept forward past the little shops and the buildings that leaned hugger-mugger about the Chapel of St Thomas à Becket in the middle of the bridge, towards the Church of St Magnus on the riverbank. Beneath their feet, the powerful water of the Thames rushed hard, swirling in dangerous eddies through the bridge’s tight arches. Seven hundred yards past Billingsgate to the east, the Tower stood impregnable but now open to close siege; upriver, past the commercial docks on either side of the ancient corn port of Queenhithe, the mouth of the River Fleet marked the western boundary of the City, where the busy commercial riverbanks gave way to luxurious palace wharfs and the rolling gardens and orchards that belonged to the bishops’ palaces. Straight ahead lay the close, dirty streets of England’s capital, thick with excitable, drunken rascals and wealthy traders alike, the timid scuttling for cover, and all the clergy of the city rushing away to pray for peace in a time of chaos.4

Ahead of the incoming rural rebels, the City mob gathered and set out with a single common purpose for the western gates of London’s wall. Beyond the huge wooden roof of the Norman cathedral of St Paul’s lay the Ludgate, a stone entrance to the City rebuilt and fortified the previous century with stones removed from the houses of London’s rich Jews, and decorated with statues of England’s ancient monarchs, including King Lud, the pre-Christian King of the British. The gate opened into Fleet Street, which in turn became the Strand. These were the main streets of medieval suburbia, the green-acred outskirts of the City, dotted with gated palaces and gardens backing on to the Thames - its pleasant and clean atmosphere a far cry from the cramped, dirty streets of the City. Interspersed between the residences were around fifty goldsmiths, selling silver salt cellars, drinking cups and finger bowls, along with plenty of popular pewter plates. The Londoners piled through the Ludgate and into this well-to-do neighbourhood.

There was one residence along the Strand that stood aloft from all the others: John of Gaunt’s great Savoy Palace. As befitted the richest man in England, it was a masterpiece of architecture and luxury; Gaunt’s military expeditions had allowed him to take to a new level the already impressive splendour of a residence that had served the dukes of Lancaster since Edmund Crouchback, the first earl, had lived there in the previous century.

The Kent rebels ran behind the Londoners. The Savoy was on their list of targets, but geographically they had other, more immediate concerns: the jails. By freeing prisoners they were making a pointed stand against the power of the law. It also provided an opportunity to increase their numbers with men who might be relied upon to put their experience of causing trouble to good use.

As they headed for the first jail on their list of targets, Tyler’s men held their discipline and made their way through the south-west quarter of the City without succumbing to an urge to loot or to terrorise the general population. Instead, they too flooded through the narrow streets to the Ludgate. Having left the City’s walls almost as rapidly as they entered them, the rebels turned right up the banks of the Fleet river, and stormed towards the Fleet prison. They broke into the prison and freed everyone who was held there - many of whom were debtors, a class of prisoner for whom the Fleet had earned a reputation as early as 1290. As with the Marshalsea, the purpose was an attack on the law and abuses of the law in general - any concern about letting genuine malefactors back into the community was completely disregarded.

The Kentishmen’s ranks were now swollen by another arrival, for in the east of the City, the Aldgate had finally been opened to the Essex rebels. Influenced by the likes of Thomas Farringdon and the London butcher Adam atte Welle they had either persuaded or coerced the gatekeepers into letting them into the City. For the City’s guardians to have thought of holding out after the bridge had fallen would have been suicidal. The Essex men rushed in to join the charge being led by the London rebels and the radical Kent wing about whom they had heard so much during the previous fortnight.

With native Londoners for their guides, the Essex rebels’ path through the City was assured. And when they, too, flooded out of the Ludgate, past the stony gaze of the famous British kings who decorated it, and joined their Kentish comrades in a jubilant march down the paved streets of suburbia, west towards the Savoy, their hearts would have been filled with jubilant, reforming fire. They bellowed into the afternoon sun and waved their swords and axes in the air, drunk on success and ready to tear the duke of Lancaster’s proud palace to the ground.

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