Post-classical history

TWELVE
MILE END

At that time the crowd of rustics was divided into three separate sections, one of which (as we have seen) was busy destroying the manor of Highbury. A second band waited in London in the place called ‘le Mile End’, while a third occupied Tower Hill… And the king, being in a quandary, allowed the rebels to enter the Tower and to search the most secret places there at their wicked will…

THOMAS WALSINGHAM

Mile End Road, Friday, 14 June, 7 a.m.

For the first time in the week, Aldgate Street bore human traffic passing eastwards out of the City, rather than westwards towards it. There was a tramp of feet and a clattering of hoofs as large bands of men from the countryside piled back out through the old gate and on to London’s summer sports fields.

They had been sent there by Richard himself. After having spent the night in fraught deliberations with his council in the Tower, while the rebels made a din outside, Richard had summoned up the courage to take some sort of positive action. In a policy that combined the spirit of Salisbury’s softly-softly approach to negotiation with Walworth’s desire to meet the rebels head-on, Richard had commanded the mayor to have the sheriff and aldermen of London announce to their wards that everyone between the ages of fifteen and sixty should leave the City and make their way out to Mile End to meet him at seven of the bell.

It was a fairly straightforward idea. For the royal party, Mile End was a convenient trot north-east from the Tower, comfortingly close to the City, yet far enough away to count as neutral territory. Richard would have hoped that, for the rebels, it would seem a point of familiarity and safety; it was where the Essex camp had made their base during the second week of the revolt, and so they would feel they were finally receiving the king according to their own terms. And if the rebels could all be lured away from the Tower by following Richard himself as bait, then the siege would be lifted and some of the council might be able to escape. All they had to reckon on was the rebels wanting to meet their king more than they wanted to kill his servants.

So Richard took a large party of knights and nobles from the Tower, leaving behind only those who were thought to be most at risk of assassination. In this moment of crisis, it would have seemed like a rather meagre crowd. His two half-brothers, Thomas and John Holland, rode alongside the king, accompanied by the earls of Warwick and Oxford, and Oxford’s kinsman Sir Aubrey de Vere, who carried the royal sword. The soldiers Sir Robert Knolles and Sir Thomas Percy, and the mayor, were also in tow. Behind the party, riding in a whirligig rather than on horseback, came Queen Joan, mother of Richard and of the Holland boys.

If Richard had hoped to play the saviour, leading his entire people out to the promised land, it was clear as soon as they set out from the Tower that his people were less willing to play along. The royal party was forced to cut a path through the streets with the rebel crowd swarming all around, rowdy and intimidating. In a sheriff’s report compiled eighteen months after the revolt, it was recorded that the London captain Thomas Farringdon managed to push his way close enough to Richard to make a grab for the reins of his horse. In a show of exceptional rudeness, Farringdon raged at the king, shouting out demands for revenge on ‘that false traitor the prior’ - a reference to Hales. Already the policy of leaving the treasurer in the Tower seemed to be a wise one. Notwithstanding the general hatred of Hales on the basis of his political position, Farringdon was additionally believed to hold a personal grudge against him, born of some obscure dispute over property. As Richard trotted onwards towards the City limits, Farringdon told the king that if he could not obtain royal recompense then he was now ‘strong enough to take justice on my own account’.1

It was not just Richard who was harassed. Walworth’s ally Nicholas Brembre was spotted in the royal train by a brewer called William Trewman, who began shouting threats at him. Probably he was warning Brembre that he could expect to find his luxurious life and wealth in the City under threat, because later that day the same Trewman would visit Brembre’s houses and extort money from the inhabitants with extreme menace.

This kind of behaviour should have been acutely worrying. There was a sense that the rebellion was starting to fray around the edges as the main focus on protesting the realm’s misgovernment was joined by numerous examples of petty rivalry and jealousy. The crowd was so intimidating that the queen mother’s nerve failed and her whirligig turned back for the safety of the Tower. But despite the fracas, Richard seems to have maintained his princely calm.

When they arrived at Mile End, Richard and his followers saw once again a great sea of subjects, clamouring for his arrival. The mob from London was being joined by roaming gangs from all over the counties - and piebald conventicles from Essex, Hertfordshire and Suffolk had all travelled down to join the fun.

At each encounter with the rebels, Richard would have seen a more dirty and disorderly rabble. They were still arranged under the pennons and banners of a loyal army, but in his eyes the comparison even between here and two days earlier, at Rotherhithe, would not have been favourable. Two days of sleeping rough, indulging in London’s bacchanalian pleasures and cavorting among burning buildings would have left them filthy and hung over. Various trophies were borne aloft on sticks and pikes: Richard may have seen with surprise two books bobbing above the crowd. They belonged to Edmund de la Mare, the admiral of the east coast. They had been stolen by one group of Essex rebels who had taken the tour to London via the villages of Essex’s eastern seaboard and they were impaled on the double prongs of a pitchfork. The rebels here were at first noisy and disjointed. There were attacks on the property surrounding Mile End all morning and scuffles and fights were breaking out across the fields between rival companies - at least one Kent man was killed there that day.2 Richard must have looked at his subjects - this adoring, muddy rabble - and felt his lordly benevolence erring rather close to simple disgust.

He should also have started to feel extremely uneasy. For there were some important absentees from the rebel ranks. As with the royal party, the rebel party was incomplete. There was no Tyler, no Ball, and no Straw.3 In fact, if Richard could have stepped out and enquired among the Mile End crowd at large, he would have found that this was by no means a representative mob. The most radical rebels were not there. Rather, they had remained in London, lingering around the Tower and keeping a keen eye out for any sign of movement within.

For the commons who had travelled to Mile End, however, this was the moment they had been waiting for. The foremost leaders of those who had made it to Mile End came before Richard, their knees bent in supplication to their king, flags of their loyalty fluttering above the crowd behind them. To them, this must undoubtedly have registered as the greatest moment of their lives. The king could be expected to remain, in the lives of all but the grandest of subjects, an enigmatic totem. So to approach him and to approach with permission to discuss freely with him their place in the world and the course of his reign, was an unimaginable honour.

Richard asked them what they wanted, what they lacked, and why they had come to London. The reply he received was straightforward and heartfelt. It was a request for a countryside charter of justice. They asked him to make them free for ever - themselves, their lands and their heirs. They asked that all the men in the realm of England be made of free condition, and that all those of future generations should live free from the yoke of servitude. They asked, specifically, for a rent limit of 4d per acre, which meant in effect a limit to the financial power of the landlords and an end to the oppressions of cash payments through rents, feudal and semi-feudal fines, through the manor courts, through the royal courts, and most recently through the tax system of royal government. Finally, they asked that no man should be compelled to work except by employment under a regularly reviewed contract.4

In the light of the violence and rising hysteria that had gripped London under the reign of the rural peasants and the rebellious City commons, this was a remarkably lucid and reasonable set of demands. There were no calls for the heads of nobles, nor for any purge of government - all that was requested of the king, in simple but intelligent terms, was a reassurance that the creeping tendency towards a legal form of serfdom should be halted, and that a legal framework protecting the rights to free labour be set up. They took issue not so much with serfdom, but with the threat of serfdom, and the whole principle of the commons of England being bullied by the royal law that ought in fact to have been protecting them. The Mile End peasants gave their king a succinct account of their grievances, and asked for reasonable, limited demands founded on their simple concept of natural justice, but pragmatic enough for consideration in the world they saw around them.

If he was surprised by what the rebels had asked - whether its boldness or its lucidity - Richard did not show it. He was at Mile End not as a true negotiator, but as a lure. Whatever the rebels had demanded Richard would that morning most likely have granted. He and his party had come to Mile End with the whole purpose of buying off a large portion of the crowd by a policy of appeasement. Though it was disconcerting that not all the rebels had vacated the City, it must still have come as a relief that he was not being pressed to agree to anything more radical, unrealistic or deranged.

To reward the commons before him, the king had the rebels arrayed in two long ranks. As they shuffled into order, Richard had it proclaimed to all that he would guarantee their freedom as they requested, and that it should be confirmed by charters secured by the royal seal. If they wanted freedom, all they needed to do was to wait in line and take their new charter of liberties.

If he had ended his Mile End speech with that, Richard would have played his hand perfectly. The revolt, which had threatened utter calamity, would be about to go out with a whimper.

But Richard did not end there. Either drunk on the calming effect his words seemed to have on the rebels, or else feeling an inexperienced negotiator’s urge to push compromise too hard, he told the commons that in addition to the charters, they were all free to go across the realm of England catching traitors, whom they should bring before him to be tried according to due process of law.

In saying this, he undid all the good work that had preceded. It was a damning indictment of the quality of his counsel that he was allowed to offer of his own volition this extraordinary and provocative promise. It was a massive blunder, and by granting the rebels the radical demands he had expected them to make, rather than the relatively conservative demands that he in fact received, he changed the whole character of the revolt. Word quickly spread among the crowd that the king had sanctioned the taking of rebel enemies. Almost instantly, companies began detaching, leaving Mile End to join the vanguard staking out Tower Hill. It was no secret where the ‘traitors’ were holed up, and with royal sanction for their arrest, there was only the Tower drawbridge to save them.

Richard, as he watched the companies detach, dissolving back into their apparent disorder and hollering around word of what had just happened, would have hoped with all his heart that Sudbury and Hales - as well as everyone else who was stuck in the Tower, a group that included his mother and his young cousin Henry of Derby - had managed to board the boats on the Thames. But in truth he had no idea. He had given the rebels a blank charter to storm the Tower; now it was only to be hoped they would find it empty. The royal party set off back for the City, towards their new base of Baynard’s Castle, and all must have prayed that they would not soon be watching the destruction of their former fortress.

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