Post-classical history


When this party was approaching London and near a certain estate of the Master of St John’s Hospital called Highbury they saw there a multitude of twenty thousand rustics and common people who had set fire to the its buildings, already burning inextinguishably, and were striving to pull down with their tools all that the fire could not destroy. I myself saw men summoned and forced before one of the leaders of the rebels, called ‘John Strawe’, who made them promise that they would adhere to King Richard and the commons.


St Albans, Friday, 14 June, 4 a.m.

The bleary pre-dawn service of matins was still in progress at the abbey of St Albans, when the monks in the abbey church heard the noisy tramp of feet marching into town. The small monastic town was only 25 miles north of London, and both the abbot and the townsfolk had been well informed of the progress of the revolt. There had been a tense, agitated air in the town for days, as news of the rebellion had emboldened the townsfolk to take up arms against the rule of the monastic landlords.

Now, clumping up the old Roman road through the chilly early morning air from Barnet, there came the first deputation of rebel messengers that the town had seen. They had marched through the night to spread word of the glorious victories won on Corpus Christi, to tell tales of the City in uproar, nobles scattered and confused, and the suburbs sending up tongues of jagged flame into the midsummer night sky.

The messengers from Barnet had come from territory belonging to the Essex rebels, and they spoke with an authority they claimed came straight from the rebel high command. The rebellion was spreading; the traitors in the Tower were surrounded. And now the next phase of the plan was to begin. St Albans and Barnet, demanded the messengers, must now rise, and join the bands of true commons amassed in and around the capital. They demanded that all in the town were to arm themselves with the weapons that they could best handle and set out immediately for London. The townsfolk were warned that if they were foolish enough to resist, they could expect an army of 20,000 rebels to visit, and lead them off under duress, leaving the ancient Roman settlement of St Albans nothing more than a collection of charred stumps in the ground.

Though to the monks this was a terrifying interruption to their morning’s worship, to the townsfolk of St Albans the threats of arson and forced service in the rebel army were quite unnecessary. They had already caught the fever of rebellion, and gathered together quite cheerfully when Abbot Thomas de la Mare called immediately on all the residents and tenants of the abbey, whether clerical or lay, to set out for London in order to assuage the insane demands of the rebels and save their town from destruction. They had a whole litany of grievances to rehearse against the monks, and the call to arms met with an enthusiastic response.

So a strange and disparate party set out from St Albans as first light was creeping above the horizon - the monks shivering in the morning air, shaking their heads in consternation and lamenting a day of affliction, anguish, calamity and grief;1 the townsfolk making light of their mission to swell the ranks of the insurgents. They headed south-east down Sopwell Street, past the poles where the heads of miscreants would normally be stuck, and out of the town in the direction of Barnet, and, beyond Barnet, London.

As the two parties neared the City, they came upon the manor of Highbury, a small village to the north of the City, where Treasurer Hales was the local landlord. As the St Albans men approached, they would first have smelled woodsmoke. Then cries of a substantial crowd would have carried to them; as they came closer they would have spied a mass of figures gathered around a number of very large and beautiful houses, all ablaze, and with a multitude seemingly 20,000 strong thronging a scene of proud destruction. The stone country house was overrun by rebels; the grange and barn were burning down.

Leading the mayhem was Jack Straw. As the rebels had divided into three main parties, Straw had been given command of the contingent responsible for attacking traitors’ possessions in the suburbs - it is likely that the orders to rise that were being sent to villages and towns such as St Albans were emanating from him. Straw clearly relished the task of leadership, and had taken to directing actions with the haughty zeal of a petty tyrant. He was summoning men before him to swear oaths of allegiance, and when the St Albans party were spotted arriving, they were called to Straw, and commanded to swear the familiar rebel oath: that of obedience to ‘King Richard and the commons’.

Straw’s style of command reflected the growing self-confidence of the rebel leadership. They had marched to London, negotiated the loyalty of the urban commons, successfully entered the City, committed with impunity all number of wanton acts of violence and destruction, laid waste the greatest palace in England, turned Cheapside into a gruesome butchering block for traitors, and gained the firm upper hand in their dealings with the royal party pinned down inside the Tower. Their strategy could not have been more effective, and with the millenarian whispers of John Ball in their ears, their ambitions began to swell.

As dawn broke around the Tower of London, there was a far more terrifying noise than the rhythmic plod of messengers’ feet. The whole night had been interrupted by the yells of the rebels camped at St Katherine’s. Many of them had gorged themselves on drink provided by the London commons, and on the victuals intercepted on their way for delivery to the Tower. Those who did not lie snoring in darkness clamoured, yelped and generally made as though the very devil was among them.2 The confidence of being close to their leaders gave rise to all manner of fanciful plans. They would camp out until the king had come to them and they could embrace one another as liege lord and faithful subjects ought. Chancellor Sudbury was to be seized and commanded to make account of all the money that had been levied in taxes during the previous five years - and woe betide him should he not be able to offer a satisfactory reckoning.

Inside the Tower, the night had been understandably tense. There was a sharp divide between Richard’s counsellors. The rich burgesses of London - Mayor Walworth’s party - were in belligerent mood. On a personal level they would not have been entirely sorry to see John of Gaunt’s possessions destroyed and his retainers hiding their badges of service in terror of the mob. But personal grievances with the duke himself were overridden by a necessary sense of class solidarity. The commons both of country and City had become a menace to property in general, and there was absolutely no guarantee that they would not turn from setting fire to properties of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Hospital of St John and the London legal profession to attacking the houses of the privileged men in the City. Mayor Walworth had already lost property in Southwark. The vast wealth and properties belonging to him and his two most prominent colleagues, Nicholas Brembre and the greatest magnate merchant of them all, John Philipot, were obvious targets for the jealous London rebels; and the Guildhall might be next to feel the lick of flames if their grudge against certain lords mutated into a grudge against all forms of lordship.

With these concerns for their property and the good governance of the City in mind, Walworth’s party had pressed hard on the king during the night’s debates for a clean, sharp strike against the rebels. He, Brembre and Philipot had all been active in the military defence of the City - in 1378 Philipot had, in fact, kitted out at his own expense a sea defence party that had vanquished Scottish pirate ships with remarkable success. They were no soft-handed money-men, but hard-bitten merchant oligarchs who were more than capable of military ruthlessness in the name of protecting their financial interests. And here their interests were threatened as never before. Walworth had argued that with many of the rebels dead drunk, a raiding party split into four might issue out of the Tower, take the City by four different entrances and slay the rebels while they slept. They were poorly armed and full of wine, said Walworth, bluntly - and in such a sorry state they might be killed like flies.

Furthermore, argued Walworth, the veteran soldier Sir Robert Knolles was bristling in his home, guarding his treasure and ready to leap into action with 120 well-armed men at his disposal. Knolles was a war captain of immense experience and repute, whose yeoman stock and vast wealth, earned through a glittering thirty-five-year career on the front line of the Hundred Years War, had earned him close ties to the City. He owned property all around London, and would have been able to monitor closely the movements of rebels both inside and outside the walls from his manor of St Pancras and houses in Islington, Kentish Town to the north, Barking and All Hallows to the east and St Giles Cripplegate, which lay within earshot of the butchering block at Cheapside. He had fought in some of the bloodiest encounters of the century and survived - with his leadership and the assistance of the famous French knight Sir Perducas d’Albret, who could also command a loyal force if necessary. The increasingly deranged rebels might be vanquished in one swift, bloody cull.

With evening bringing a temporary lull, Walworth’s plan had appealed as a decisive move of the sort sorely lacking since the first word of revolt had come back from Brentwood in late May. But to the majority of Richard’s counsellors, an overnight raid through the City represented a gamble whose consequences did not justify the risk. It was becoming clear that this was no invading force, and that the fomenting elements were drawn as much from the City itself as from the rural invaders. As had been made abundantly clear since the early days of the rebellion - when the social compact was broken and the common multitude forgot the duty of service and respect for lordly hierarchy - their numbers told. So cautious heads around the king had outweighed the proactive scheming of Walworth, Brembre and Philipot, arguing that until the London commons could be relied upon to remain loyal, there could be no strike against the insurgents.

Salisbury - a soldier of similar age to Knolles, and another of Edward III’s old captains - was one of the foremost of these cautious voices. He had been characteristically shrewd in all his advice to Richard, since accompanying him on the expedition to Blackheath on Wednesday afternoon; now he advocated a policy of reason towards the rebels. He had recent experience of siege tactics, and eight years previously had managed to relieve the famous siege of Brest, purely through negotiation. Though he was certainly not unduly circumspect by nature, and had, in his thirty-five years of military service, put to the sword far better-organised forces than the current rabble. He had counselled the young king that in the present circumstances it was better to grant the rebels everything they asked, appease them with a show of fairness, and take the sting out of the movement. The alternative was to be dragged into a fight that, with such a small party of men, they might not win - the loss of which might end in catastrophe, ruin and disinheritance.

In the end, Salisbury’s caution had won the night. Unlike his father, who had led an army into battle at Crécy when he was a teenager, Richard was not a precocious commander, and he lacked the experience and mettle to throw caution to the wind and attack. Walworth, outranked by the superior nobility of the more timid party, was commanded to sit on his hands. Nevertheless, as the Tower had settled down for the night, the City divided into commotion and slumber alike, it had been resolved that dawn should open on the last day of the rebellion.

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