Post-classical history

THIRTEEN
THE TOWER

A little later the executioners entered crying, ‘Where is that traitor to the kingdom? Where is the despoiler of the people?’ The archbishop was not at all disturbed and replied to their shouts: ‘Good my sons, you have come; behold, I am the archbishop whom you seek, but not a traitor or a despoiler.’ On seeing him, those limbs of Satan laid their impious hands on him and tore him from the Chapel…

THOMAS WALSINGHAM

The Tower of London, Friday, 14 June, 9 a.m.

In the Chapel of St John the Evangelist, the dense scent of incense hung in the air, and the thick stonework was lit irregularly by the flicker of candlelight. Backed by the solemn song of a chorister, Archbishop Sudbury’s voice echoed around the chamber, filling it with the quick, calm patter of Latin devotion.1

This was Sudbury’s second Mass of the day; he had sung his first before the king at sunrise, and later confessed Treasurer Hales and others of the royal party. He would have been tired from a sleepless night of prayer. And he was not alone. Richard and his entourage had left the Tower in a state of profound gloom, as they headed out into the unknown to their showdown with the rebels at Mile End; those left behind faced the dangerous uncertainty of escaping a siege that seemed harder to hold with each hour that passed.

Ever since Wednesday evening, when he had sat, shocked, on the barge to Rotherhithe, looking out upon the throng that bayed for the young king’s approval in executing their archbishop, Sudbury had known that of all the royal party, it was he who faced the greatest danger. Vandalism and destruction had been wreaked on his property and palaces, from Canterbury to Southwark. His name came second only to John of Gaunt’s on the list of traitors to be executed by the rebels - and the experience of having seen it written down when messages were being exchanged with the Kent rebels at Blackheath must have been sickening. It was well known that he and Hales were blamed personally by the rebels for squandering the tax that had been raised to pursue the war with France. This, combined with some latent anticlerical feeling in the crowds that thronged through the streets and suburbs of London, and the total disregard in which they seemed to hold the sanctity of churches when hunting down their victims, must have expelled from Sudbury’s intelligent mind any hope of mercy if he were to be caught.

Now, despite the cool of the chapel, that prospect was loud and very close at hand. The sweaty, dirty, dangerous cabal of vagabonds strutted about like peacocks on the green swell of Tower Hill, an arrow’s flight away from the place where he now stood and prayed among the wisps of waxy candle smoke. And the ringleader of these tormentors was a man with whom Sudbury was intimately acquainted: John Ball.

Sudbury would not have missed the irony of being imprisoned at Ball’s hands. Ball had dogged Sudbury’s footsteps over his distinguished career, cropping up like a virulent weed in churches, churchyards, markets and highways, travelling the country preaching his dangerous and unorthodox dogma of equality, told through the quasi-mystical language of the peasant oral tradition, which was rich with cryptic allegory and the rhythms of traditional song, and drawing his audience into his web of apostasy. No matter how hard Sudbury had tried to squash him, he had reappeared, not with the intellectual tenacity or the theological sophistication of the troublesome Oxford don John Wyclif, but with a command of popular thought and the powerful ability to aggravate social tension through bogus religious rhetoric and relentless sermonising.

In April, Sudbury had managed to imprison Ball for the third time in fifteen years, excommunicating him for the fourth time and writing to the secular authorities in outrage at Ball’s schismatic and erroneous pronouncements, his heretical depravity, and his poisonous influence as a malevolent shepherd misleading the English flock.2

But now Ball was loose and Sudbury was the quarry. Inside the Tower chapel, the archbishop solemnly finished the Mass and took Holy Communion.

Elsewhere in the Tower, the mood was just as sombre. Those left out of the Mile End party included Treasurer Hales, a number of courtiers most closely associated with Gaunt - including his son Derby - and several politically sensitive royal counsellors, including the widely loathed John Legge, who was charged by the rebels with being the author of the policy of farming out poll tax investigative commissions for the profit of royal favourites.

The composition of the group left in the Tower was informed by two considerations - first, that it would be dangerous and inflammatory for the king to take these provocative targets with him to Mile End, where the sight of their arch-enemies might incite the rebels to clash with the royal party; and second, that the best chance for Sudbury, Hales and the rest to escape was for them to hope they could use Richard’s absence from the Tower as cover for their getaway.

But as the morning had passed, and the uneasy still that Richard had left behind settled over the Tower, it became clear that escape was not an option. Queen Joan had returned from the trip to Mile End and would have reported the sorry news that the rebels were not to be herded as though they were sheep. She would have seen that while a large, ribald party had followed the king out of the Aldgate to Mile End, the most radical elements had remained by the Tower, eyeing the prizes that they knew lay inside. Tyler, Ball and Straw were, presumably, at that moment outside the Tower, heading a band composed of men from villages that had been active in the rebellion since its inception. Lookouts kept close watch on all exits from the Tower - and when movement just after dawn had been spotted on the escape jetty, an old woman with her eyes trained on the river raised such a racket that all hope of immediate escape was lost.

Without a recognised military leader among the Tower party (Salisbury, Knolles and Walworth, the three surest heads, were with the king), morale had plummeted among the 180 or so archers and guards who were left quite literally to hold the fort in the king’s absence. For the last day or so, taunting parties of rebels had camped out on Tower Hill, pointing out their mastery of the capital, and the futility of continuing to hold out against those who had achieved so much so quickly that weekend, and implying that the guards were traitors for protecting enemies of the country. Supplies had dried up, as the rebels enforced an aggressive blockade against the king’s victuals - as much to feed themselves on royal supplies as to inconvenience the defenders of the Tower. The rebels were used to breaking castles and prisons by psychological warfare, rather than with battering rams, and now it seemed that London’s great fortress, which days before had seemed the safest place in the city, was suddenly an island.

As the morning wore on, the threats from across the Tower ditch, a moat that siphoned from the Thames a broad, cold, murky wall of water, became louder and more urgent. Ball’s railing and vitriol had long since taken seed among the assembled rebels, and they could smell blood. Pressing close to the Tower drawbridge, they began to harangue the guards on the gate. Behind the mob on the moat, plumes of smoke and the occasional collapse of burning buildings in the continuing melee would have given the impression that all of London was close to lost - a rumour that was, by this stage, becoming ever more believable. The Tower’s last guards looked out on the wonder and despaired.

Their desperation undid the Tower. It could have been physically held against the rebels, but the guards’ minds were fragile, and a fatal paralysis of the spirit overcame them. When word came back from Mile End that Richard had acquiesced before the demands of the Essex rebels and given his permission for the punishment of traitors, it not only emboldened the besiegers, but broke the hearts of the besieged. The worst fears of those left in the Tower were realised: the king had forsaken them in the name of saving the City. Seemingly without even a show of resistance, the drawbridge came down.

The rebels flocked in. As they passed by the pathetic guards, the archers and war veterans who should have been holding the royal fortress until the bitter end, they tousled their hair and pulled playfully on their beards.3 Gnarled hands holding filthy sticks prodded at the hapless defenders and the gleeful rebels began to run into the bedrooms and cupboards of the Tower. They ran into rooms and bounced on the beds, joking and laughing among themselves as they did so. There was banter with the dejected soldiers, who were invited - with a cheeky smile - to be friends.

At least one party began to force locks on doors that looked as if they might conceal legal repositories; but the main object here was not more records for the bonfire, but living, breathing victims.4

Sheer terror broke out among the inhabitants, as they scrambled for safety. Henry of Derby survived only because a soldier helped conceal him from the invaders. (Derby never forgot this kindness, and years later, when he himself was king, rewarded the soldier that had saved him.) The queen mother, in the company of other ladies of the court, swooned when the ruffians broke in, and was smuggled out to a waiting barge. But others were not so lucky. Hales was found, as was Legge. Derby was fortunate to be hidden, because anyone connected to Gaunt was also captured. But as chaos reigned in the hallways of the Tower, the duty soldiers stood helpless, and the rebels rounded up their traitors with impunity.

In the chapel, Sudbury would have heard the commotion and sensed that his time had come. Yet the devotions continued. As voices echoed around the Tower’s corridors, Sudbury chanted the Commendatio, the Placebo and the Dirige – common medieval prayers for the dead. As the clattering and the thuds of knobbled staves on the thick, bolted doors of the Tower grew louder and closer, he chanted the Seven Psalms - penitential passages that called on God for forgiveness, remission of sins and protection from enemies. And as the rough laughter of the invaders mingled with the screams of those inside the Tower who had been uncovered from their hiding spots and marched out to face the wrath of the crowds assembled on Tower Hill, Sudbury sucked down still more lungfuls of the scented chapel air and began to chant the litany - the long, imploring catalogue of requests for protection, forgiveness and prayer from all the holy saints of the Church.

As he reached the end of this long stream of requests to individual saints, the chapel door flew open, and the commons burst in, accompanied by a minor official who had been intimidated into leading them to the archbishop.

'Omnes sancti orate pro nobis,’ were the last words that Sudbury could muster5  - ‘all the holy saints, pray for us’ - as the gang crossed the chapel floor and hustled him through the corridors of the Tower, some with their hands on his hood and his arms, others delivering what threats and blows to his anointed person they could. He was bundled past the raucous crowds that had bullied their way into the inner sanctum of the royal fortress, and out into the daylight.

It was said afterwards that Sudbury argued with his captors - imploring them to accept that he was no traitor, and no plunderer, but their archbishop. What sin had he committed? he asked. What good could come of destroying their prelate? He told them that such a deed would bring down nothing but the wrath of God and the Pope, and would lead to an interdict over the whole of England.6

But his arguments flew up and over the rebels like dust in the morning breeze. Sudbury would have realised that his fate was sealed. His hooded head bowed, he was shoved at the head of a train of helpless victims to the top of Tower Hill. He saw Hales, Legge, and one of Gaunt’s servants lined up and ready to face the same doom.

It is just possible that Sudbury remembered Psalm 42, a popular beginning to the mass, and one that no doubt he had had cause to recite regularly, and perhaps even on that very day:

Judica me, Deus, et
discerne causam meam
de gente non sancta: ab
homine iniquo et doloso
erue me.

[…]
Emitte lucem tuam et
veritatem tuam: ipsa me
deduxerunt et
adduxerunt in montem
sanctum tuum, et in
tabernacula tua.

Et introibo ad altare
Dei: ad Deum qui
laetificat juventutem
meam…

Its elegant Latin would have sounded splendid in the dark hush of a royal chapel - the vernacular, though, is just as poignant:

Do me justice, O God, and
fight my fight
against an unholy people,
rescue me from the wicked
and deceitful man.

[…]
Send forth Thy light
and thy truth: for they
have led me and
brought me to thy holy
hill and Thy dwelling
place.

And I will go to the
altar of God, to God, the
joy of my youth.

Sudbury knelt amid the rabble on Tower Hill, and as the first blow of the axe fell, blood-curdling screams went up from the crowd. Then there was nothing but the crunch of iron through flesh and bone; the savage butchering of the archbishop; the ashen resignation of the rest of the shocked captives, and the beginnings of descent into chaos and inferno.

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