Post-classical history

NINE
FIRST FLAMES

And at last they came before the Savoy, broke open the gates, entered the place and came to the wardrobe. They took all the torches they could find, and lighted them, and burnt all the cloths, coverlets and beds, as well as all the very valuable head-boards … All the napery and other goods they could discover they carried into the hall and set on fire with their torches … They burnt the hall and the chambers as well as all the apartments within the gates … and the commons of Kent received the blame for this arson, but some said that the Londoners were really guilty of this deed …

Anonimalle Chronicle

London, Thursday, 13 June, 3 p.m.

Any stragglers in the band that hurtled down the hill out of Ludgate and past the sprung gates of the Fleet prison to their right would have seen before them an orgy of destruction already in full flow. The heat of the afternoon sun was just beginning to mellow, but the fury of the rebels’ retribution on their enemies was edging towards blistering point.

Outside London’s walls, but inside the City boundary, which was marked by a series of bars hammered into the ground in a jagged semicircle around London’s periphery, there were several large plots of land occupied by the wealthy and well-to-do. Both the Carmelites (or White Friars) and the bishop of Salisbury, whose pleasant riverside dwellings were ordinarily among the first to be encountered by a visitor strolling along Fleet Street, would have echoed to the sound of the rushing feet and raucous voices of the rebels as they pounded out of the City they had only recently broken into. Fear gripped the holy orders in particular - they had suffered disproportionately throughout England during the course of the revolt. But the friars and the bishop’s men need not have worried, for the rebels were quite focused on specific targets, and they were not in the main motivated by anticlericalism.

These targets included, for a start, any house belonging to Marshal Imworth, of which there were several on the fringes of the City. As these were pointed out, rebels leapt up to rip off the roofs and set fire to the buildings beneath. The marshal himself, understanding that his unhealthily close connection with Gaunt - and his office’s symbolic attachment with tyrannical and unjust authority - was enough to mark him out as a hunted man, had gone into hiding. He feared the worst, following the debacle of the previous day, in which his official and private possessions in Southwark had been comprehensively trashed.

After Whitefriars and the bishop of Salisbury’s Inn, the first really great dwelling along the road was the New Temple. Originally the grand dwelling place of the Knights Templar in the twelfth century, for the past seventy-three years it had been in the possession of their rivals, the Knights Hospitaller, of whom Treasurer Hales was the prior. The Temple was leased by the Hospitaller to London’s lawyers and provided lodgings for legal trainees and a repository for important legal documents and records. As the spiritual home of the legal profession, and a place crammed with the documents and charters that they despised, it was a building with a special significance to the rebels, who reserved the same sort of venom for lawyers and practitioners - or, as they saw them, corruptors - of the law as they did for politicians such as Hales.

The rebels burst into the Temple grounds, and began to tear down the lodging houses and buildings that occupied six or seven acres of prime, beautiful land stretching down to the Thames. Men clambered on to the rooftops and (ironically, given their commander) threw down the tiles until the roofs were in a bare and pitiful state. Next, the rebels forced their way into the Temple’s round church. This stunning building had been copied from the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, with the sharply projecting porch that characterised the original; the rebels marched in though this and found their way to the treasure house, where the most valuable books, rolls and remembrances were kept.1 These were the highest badges of a legal system that in rebel eyes preferred contracts and statutes to trusted community tradition, and the rebels plundered the trove with glee. They squeezed back out of the narrow porch, their arms laden with enrolled parchment, which they took up to the high road, gathered into a large pile and burned. It was a damning funeral pyre for England’s legal system, and the road would once more have filled with yelps and whoops of pleasure.

This was not base vandalism. It was a pointed attack on a legal profession that the rebels hated for squashing and oppressing them, for using chicanery and book learning to damage their condition, and for putting unjust rules in place where natural justice ought to have prevailed. Their revenge was crude, but it was horribly effective.

The sack of the Temple prompted a more general letting-off of steam among the rebels, who had held off from general vandalism throughout the entry into London. The reins were loosened a little, and smaller bands of rebels ran up and down the road, pulling down the houses of questmongers (professional legal informers) and setting fire to anything they could not destroy with their hands.

With the Temple records and the lawmakers’ houses fuelling fires along the road, and the hour of the afternoon creeping round towards four o’clock, the rebels moved on to the main prize - the Savoy.2

Passing between the bars of the City, and into suburbia proper, the crowd continued along Fleet Street until it became the Strand. On the left they passed the great succession of Bishops’ Inns - Exeter, Bath, Llandaff, Coventry and Worcester - the Church of St Mary le Strand, and a string of smaller shops and houses. All of these buildings and grand ecclesiastical mansions were in fact part of the duchy of Lancaster, and therefore in some way connected with John of Gaunt; but none held the special appeal to the rebels of the palace of Savoy itself. They plundered a few tuns of wine from one of the bishops’ cellars but otherwise saved their energies for the duke’s house.

When they arrived there, the rural bands found that some keener Londoners - who saw Gaunt as their special enemy above all others - had been at the palace for some time. So as new waves of Essex and Kent men rolled in, they would have been greeted by an almighty clamour and, already, the first wisps of smoke curling up into the summer afternoon sky.

For those rebels who had never seen the Savoy before, the vast, opulent expanse of it would have taken their breath away. It was known with good reason as the finest palace in England, and had cost around £35,000 to build - the equivalent of around four and a half months’ wages for an entire English army. Gaunt’s father-in-law had funded its construction with wealth plundered during the high point of the Hundred Years War. Huge walls barricaded its grounds from the Strand. Within lay a multitude of buildings - the state apartments, the great hall, a private chapel, cloisters, a few meaner, thatched buildings and stables, and a fishpond. Gates opened out on to the Strand on the north side, and to the Thames in the south, where, as with all riverside mansions, a jetty allowed the duke and his servants to travel back and forth between the City, Westminster and Sheen by water.

Now all these splendid buildings were surrounded by chaos. The Strand-side gates were broken, and rebels ran freely between the high road and the palatial gardens. Those servants who had remained in the palace while Gaunt was in the north on his diplomatic mission had scattered, either along the river or down the road towards the village of Charing, taking with them what they could: a bed and a handful of other items. Everything left was condemned. The rebels who arrived shortly after showed no mercy: furniture, tapestries and all manner of possessions were piled up in huge bonfires in the street. Any torch that could be found was grabbed and used to burn the mansion’s cloths, coverlets and beds. The duke’s 1000-mark decorated headboard was burnt, as was his table linen, which was carried to the great hall and built into another fire. From this petty arson, the hall itself caught light. The fire was then deliberately spread to the chambers and apartments of the manor.

Meanwhile, below the main rooms of the palace, a group of thirty or so rebels came across the duke’s wine cellar. Throughout all the raids, the rebels had adhered to a strict code, true to the compact made between the Londoners and the Kent men: there was to be no looting of goods, only the destruction of ill-gotten wealth, corrupt lawyers and traitors. Nevertheless, a jovial little party broke out as the cases and kegs of Gaunt’s sweet wine were burst open. As the wine flowed there was much singing, joking around and marvelling at the fine new circumstances in which the group found themselves.

Above them, as the rebels and the Londoners continued to pull apart the duke’s magnificent palace, greater and greater discoveries were made. Barrels of gold and silver plate were turned up. Some were dragged up to the roadside and smashed, and others rolled down to the riverside gates and hurled into the Thames. Jewels were stamped on and crushed into dust to ensure they could not be rescued or reused. Gilded cups were beaten out of shape by rebels wielding swords and axes. That which could not be adequately mangled or smelted on the bonfires was thrown into the sewers. As the excitement built, some of the mob began to pocket Gaunt’s wealth for themselves: one small party loaded an ornate chest worth £1000 into a boat and removed it to Southwark, where they divided up the spoils between them. But this sort of behaviour was soon stamped out, when another rebel was spotted trying to hide a silver goblet from the duke’s wardrobe in his pocket. He was grabbed and hurled into the flames for violating Tyler’s strict instructions not to turn a symbolic event into a thieves’ paradise. As the pilferer burned to death, a stark warning was issued to the rest of the crowd - anyone else caught stealing would suffer the same fate.

As the screams of the condemned man rang out above the roar of the burning palace, there was a sudden explosion. Fire had already been spreading through the timbers and walls of the palace, weakening its structure and making it an ever more risky task for the rest of the rebels to remove the duke’s goods. Now, to make it worse, three barrels presumed to contain gold or silver had been hurled into the furnace in the hall. They had, in fact, contained gunpowder, and the blaze erupted. Before long, a section of the building collapsed. Timber crumpled and stone crashed downwards, causing a huge blockade of the wine cellars and completely trapping the thirty revellers inside. They began to cry out, but above the noise and the excitement outside, no one could hear them.

In a final act of humiliation for the absent Gaunt, one of his fine vestments was brought into the street. The contemporary term was a ‘jakke’ - a padded and richly embroidered jerkin. It was hoisted above the crowd on the end of a lance, and all those rebels with bows and arrows took the opportunity for target practice. They loosed off flurries of arrows, which thudded into the padding, ruining the rich and expensive garment. When it had been riddled enough, the lance was lowered, and the mob tore the trophy to bits with their weapons. It was not the duke himself, but it was a cathartic substitute.

With gunpowder aiding its demise, the Savoy now became more of a spectacle than a sport, and the rebels began to split into bands. One band charged off down the road towards Charing and Westminster, where they carried out another jailbreak at Westminster jail. By this stage, word seems to have reached those invested with any sort of royal or municipal authority that resistance was futile. After delivering Westminster, the party took a long loop back up from village suburbia to rejoin the fray at Newgate, a few hundred yards up the City wall from Ludgate. Here there was yet another prison break taking place, as Newgate jail was delivered of its inhabitants, and another set of vagabonds, felons and debtors was released from the filthy riverside dungeon, back through the Newgate itself and into the City’s mutinous throng.

As evening drew in, the fires along the Strand raged on, sending out great plumes of smoke that were visible right across the City, sparks lighting up the gloaming and wisps of soot and ash carrying in the cooling summer air. In the cellar of the Savoy, thirty frightened revellers continued to batter and scream at the debris that kept them trapped underground, surrounded by wine, but no longer celebrating. Passers-by heard them, but no one dared, or cared, to help. The next morning the cries continued; after seven days of neglect, whether suffocated or starved, they were no more.

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