Afterwards they came to the beautiful priory of the [Hospital of St John, Clerkenwell] and set on fire several fine and pleasant buildings within it - a great and horrible piece of damage to the priory for all time to come … At this time the king was in a turret of the great Tower of London, and saw the manor of the Savoy and the Hospital of Clerkenwell… all in flames. He called all the lords about him in to a chamber and asked their counsel as to what should be done in such a crisis. But none of them could or would give him any counsel…
London, Thursday, 13 June, 6 p.m.
Roger Legett was an assizer, a questmonger, a professional lawyer and, by popular consensus, a rogue. He had made a successful career in London mainly by demonstrating total moral flexibility in return for cash payment. The law had made him extremely wealthy, and he had built up a fine collection of lands and property around the western suburbs of the City. The law had also made him many enemies, not least among those who knew he had spent two years in the Fleet prison during the 1370s for putting vicious mantraps in the ditches around his land. Now, trembling inside the Collegiate Church of St Martin-le-Grand in the early evening, he guessed that his time was finally up.1
By the later hours of the afternoon, the rebel mob had splintered into groups about the City - still organised by company and just about holding to the principle of dispensing justice, rather than looting and pillaging, but no longer held together en masse quite so firmly as they had been when they were first outside the City walls. The great popular triumph of the day so far had been the burning of the Savoy, but around that had begun to revolve bodies of smaller, pettier, more private acts of retribution. The commoners of London had joined enthusiastically with the rural rebels, and the heterogeneous mob’s many and varied purposes formed an emulsion of private feuds and pursuits of individual justice within the fluid swell of the broader revolt.2
It would have been hard to find a man in all of London on that Thursday who was brave enough to defend Legett against the bands that sought him. In the rebels’ eyes, he stood for everything that was treacherous - for years he had profited from dispensing partial justice and conniving with colleagues like the undersheriff of London John Butterwick to obstruct, delay or deny due process of law and, therefore, the true and dutiful governance of England. He showed little concern for the life or limb of those who crossed him.
Now it was payback time. That afternoon Legett had made a will, evacuated his house and fled for the safety of St Martin-le-Grand. It was hardly an inspired hiding place, for this royal free chapel, with its right of permanent sanctuary, was well known as the bolthole of every rascal and fugitive in London. It was dedicated to the fourth-century bishop of Tours who had made his name by giving half of his cloak to a beggar, and those who ran there did so in the expectation of ecclesiastical protection - on the tacit understanding that no one who feared the wrath of God and the Church would dare breach sanctuary.
Unfortunately for Legett, the rebel band who found him felt that the weight of divine favour on that day rested with them, and not with the canons of St Martin’s. A group of them barged into the chapel and found Legett clinging to the high altar. They took him prisoner, and marched him out into the thronging street.
Leggett was dragged from St Martin’s, down the road known as West Cheap to Cheapside, a popular intersection of roads in the heart of the walled City. If he craned his head over his right shoulder as he was bundled through the streets, he would have seen the gigantic spire of St Paul’s cathedral, towering some 450 feet into the evening sky, and casting its long shadow east over the troubled City.
When the gang carrying him reached Cheapside, at the confluence of Milk Street, Wood Street and Bread Street, they stopped. This was a well-known place of trade, conversation, preaching, water-gathering and public punishment. Legett was pushed to the ground, the crowd all around eager to see justice done against one who had for so long perverted it. If Legett had kept his eyes open, his last sight may have been the Eleanor Cross that stood in the open street, its four hexagonal steps leading up to six idealised statues of the beloved queen. The cross was one of twelve laid by Eleanor’s grieving husband, Edward I, to mark the twelve stages of her body’s progress from Lincoln to its final resting place in Westminster Abbey. Legett may, amid the clamour and the bloodlust, have thought of the will he had written that afternoon, which asked his own wife, Emma, to do with his body ‘what God shall will’. Or perhaps fear and the awful proximity of death blocked everything from his mind. Soon the axe fell, tearing his head from his body, his neck pumping warm, sticky blood on to the Cheap.
Legett’s was one of eighteen heads to roll that evening, as the City grew frenzied with the urge for retribution. Just outside the City walls, meanwhile, a larger band of rebels was following the Holborn river north towards Clerkenwell. This was another varied troupe, with rural and urban rebels rubbing shoulders for the mile or so’s hike due north. Among them were artisans, servants, apprentices, farmers and traders. There was even a falconer in the service of the prior himself among the rabble; and all shared the common urge to repeat the exploits of the Savoy on the Priory of St John of Jerusalem, way out among the suburban fields.
The priory was the exquisite home of the Knights Hospitaller. This was a splendid building, enriched by the Hospitallers’ tradition as a grand European order of crusading knights and blessed with a very pleasant position well beyond the cornfields and horse markets of Smithfield. The route passed through Holborn, where Legett had a number of houses. The rebels set fire to all of them. They also torched all of the rented properties and tenements belonging to the Hospital of St John, before they reached the priory itself. It occupied almost as large a plot as the Temple. This gave the rebels ample run to trample and destroy the buildings of the priory. They left it ablaze. Many of the outbuildings were razed and the fire that the rebels left behind was so intense that it burned for a full week.
Hostility to Hales and his order was deep-seated and intense, and he seems to have been the figure, after Gaunt, who roused the greatest and most universal hatred among all manner of rebels. Despite his short tenure at the head of the Treasury, people hated him for his dual position as the prior on the one hand of an extremely wealthy monastic order, and on the other of a royal administration that seemed financially inept to the point of corruption. Across the entire City, and right out into the countryside, property connected with him and his order attracted violence and arson.
Hales himself was safely barricaded inside the Tower with the king. No doubt he despaired at the destruction all around him, but at least the thick walls of the royal fortress protected him. Outside, a large crowd had gathered, crying out for another audience with the king. When their requests were rebuffed by the stony silence of the castle walls, they laid siege to the nearby area. The bulk of the mob gathered in the walled grounds of the Hospital of St Katherine, which was outside the City walls but directly adjacent to the southeast corner of the Tower, at the foot of the eastern half of Tower Hill. The rebels lay around in the gardens and gazed up at the great White Tower, surrounded by the crenellated walls and watchtowers that lay beyond the fort’s deep moat.
The Tower had a guard of perhaps 1200 men, but its council that evening was plagued by uncertainty, insecurity and fear. There was deep division concerning the best course of action. Mayor Walworth theoretically controlled the City militia, but with so many of the rebels now drawn from the ranks of the London mob, it was by no means certain that a reliable force could be raised to clear the City of insurgents, without in the process provoking either further destruction or losing control entirely. The rebels at St Katherine’s were clamouring for the surrender of their supposed enemies in the king’s council, and looked to be camped out for some time. The situation was so unprecedented that the whole machinery of government had ground to a halt; all that the besieged nobles could do was to survey the destruction on all sides and despair.
As the evening wore on, Richard - uncounselled and alone - picked his way to the top of a little turret on the eastern side of the Tower and looked down into the grounds of the hospital, where his subjects lay. As he looked at them he perhaps saw, unfettered by the cynicism of his older counsellors, that their simple devotion was not mealy-mouthed; rather, it was a sincere expression of their world-view. Their adoration of him alone played directly into his burgeoning sense of self-esteem. Richard had wanted to negotiate with the rebels at Rotherhithe the previous day, and Salisbury, Sudbury and Hales’ caution in forbidding this had served only to bring the danger closer to home. To prevaricate further might send another plume of smoke spiralling into the London skyline. The loss of the Tower would have rendered insignificant the terrible fates of the Savoy and the Priory of St John, both of which could be seen burning from the turrets on the opposite side of the fortress. The only option that promised any hope of resolution was to talk to the rebels.
Accordingly, Richard decided to experiment with taking charge. He sent a royal messenger down to St Katherine’s to offer the rebels a deal: everyone camped there should go peaceably to their homes, and in exchange Richard was prepared to grant pardons for all the offences that they had so far committed.
To Richard it may have sounded like a plausible deal, but when the messenger stood before the rebels and announced the terms to them he was laughed away. The exhilaration of the day’s destruction and the momentum of the revolt had put the rebels in a position far stronger than they had held at Rotherhithe. They would leave only, they said, in exchange for custody of the traitors in the Tower, and charters of manumission from all forms of serfdom.
Richard was in a quandary. He could not contemplate handing over his mentors and advisers, including Sudbury, the man who had crowned and anointed him, or Hales, the prior of such a prestigious and holy order as the Hospitallers. Yet he had to concede something to relieve the Tower. The next tactic he tried was one of acquiescence. He sent instructions to a royal clerk to prepare a bill.
A short while later, the rebels at St Katherine’s would have been fascinated by the arrival of two royal knights, bringing with them a parchment bearing the king’s personal signet seal. A space was made, and a man among them who could read was brought a chair. He stood above the crowd and read the message that had come straight from the fourteen-year-old monarch:
‘Richard, king of England and France,’ he began, ‘gives his great thanks to his good commons, for that they have so great a desire to see and maintain their king; and he grants them pardon for all manner of trespasses and misprisions and felonies done up to this hour, and wills and commands that everyone should now quickly return to his own home.’3
So far, this was nothing more than had been promised by the earlier messenger, and the formulaic flattery of the king’s greeting did little to sell the promise of a simple pardon as a bargaining tool. The message continued:
‘He wills and commands that everyone should put his grievances in writing and have them sent to him; and he will provide, with the aid of his loyal lords and his good council, such remedy as shall be profitable both to him and to them and to the kingdom.’4
It was a polite fob-off. There was nothing whatsoever in the king’s offer to appeal to the commons. One of their principal sources of loathing was the tendency of government towards the supremacy of the written word - so to be told that the king would not deal with them in person, but requested that they go home and submit written articles of legal complaint, was not only inadequate, it was downright insulting.
A great shout went up around the crowd that the king’s bill was nothing more than a trifle and a mockery. Stirred from the evening lull, the rebels started filing back into London, crying out all around the City that all the lawyers, and anyone who could write a legal writ or a letter, were to be beheaded, wherever they could be found. Fires started beneath the houses of the first victims, and all around the City, acts of terror, murder and bloody score-settling continued. London was in uproar, and a night of chaos beckoned.
In a high garret of the Tower, the young king watched in desperation as a new set of flames rose around the City. He summoned his lords once more, to demand their counsel. The rage of the insurgent multitude had somehow to be dampened, and before the night was out, a plan of emergency action was required.