Post-classical history

FOURTEEN
THE RUSTICS RAMPANT

They yelledon, as feendes doon in helle
The dokes cryden, as men wolde hem quelle,
The gees, for feere, flowen over the trees;
Out of the hyve cam the swarm of bees;
So hydous was the noyse, ah benidicite!
Certes, he Jakke Strawe and his meynee
Ne made never shoutes halfe so shrille
When that they wolden any Flemyng kille …

GEOFFREY CHAUCER

Charing, near London, Friday, 14 June, 11 a.m.

The road out of London to the royal village of Westminster was scarred and burned, littered with the smoking remains of Thursday’s mayhem. Any wisp of a summer breeze would have stirred across the road the ash and debris that was all that remained of the palace of the Savoy. Boundary walls and hedgerows had been left jagged and ruined from the assaults of the rampant mob, while rooftops were rent through with holes made by the hands of Wat Tyler’s irreverent apprentices.

London’s dignitaries quaked inside those houses and inns that had escaped rebel punishment. Word of Richard’s decision to grant the rebels the freedom to hunt traitors had begun to filter throughout the city and its suburbs, and the paralysis that had characterised London’s initial reaction to the rebel invasion would by now have turned to outright terror.

Though the day was young, the morning’s events had profoundly transformed the nature and character of the rebellion. The rustics were rampant. Any former sheen of honesty, zeal and righteous discipline was no more. Their band had split - divided and radicalised - in the aftermath of Mile End, and those who remained in London were emboldened and openly bloodthirsty.1

The repercussions of Richard’s naive charter of endorsement, which was now being copied out by a team of thirty royal scribes and circulated about the City, were twofold. In the first place, the desired effect of drawing to a close the rebels’ mission had been a partial success. Flocks of rebels from the Essex and Hertfordshire villages had taken the Mile End meeting to be the end point of their excursion and set off back for their homes, elated at the success of their mission, admiring the simple justice of their child king. Some waited to receive their royal charters, others just made for home. In total perhaps one half of the rebels bade farewell to the City in which they had revelled, and departed for the security of familiar comforts: the village, the summer rhythm of feast days and games, the farm and the Church. The main road up to Colchester would have teemed with hungry, ragged, happy faces; the air would have thickened with exchanged stories of an incredible adventure.

But on the other side of London, on the ruined road to Westminster, the radicals stalked. Anyone brave enough to have stood by the Eleanor Cross in the hamlet of Charing would have seen an awful procession bumping along the highway. A crowd of rebels marched beneath a gruesome banner. Five lances pierced the morning sky, and on each was the butchered head of a servant of the Crown.2

First among the grisly relics was the head of Archbishop Sudbury. It had taken eight blows from an inexpert executioner to decapitate him, leaving his neck an ugly mess, the spinal column more likely crushed and torn than cut clean through. There would have been blood spattered across his face from the second blow he suffered; the first had been so unskilled that it had merely opened a gash in his neck. Onlookers had heard him cry out that this was the hand of God, and when the second blow had fallen, he had instinctively raised his own fingers to touch the wound. The executioner, excited but hopelessly inaccurate, had chopped off the ends of his ringed fingers. Now the bloodied head sat on top of a pole; above, the coup de grâce – Sudbury’s red mitre nailed on to his skull.

Around him were the four heads of the others killed alongside him: Hales; Legge; John of Gaunt’s physician, William Appleton; and a juror, identified by City records after the revolt as Richard Somenour of Stebenhithe (Stepney).3 They bobbed along like grotesque puppets.

Were these the heads of traitors? Or were the traitors those who waved the poles about, banded together in a sinister procession down towards the royal village? Richard’s approval of the rebel manhunt had now muddied the waters to the point where legally - and indeed morally - both sides of the argument stood open. Prior to Mile End, the rebels had, by and large, held back from indiscriminate slaughter, and upheld a strict code with regard to the property they targeted, and their behaviour when they were attacking it, for it would have been clear to them that they must behave in accordance with the just principles that underpinned the revolt. Now, though, the king had brought all of their previous actions within the compass of natural, equitable law, and handed to them in written form a charter that legitimised their pursuit of ‘traitors’ and effectively gave them the power to decide whom exactly that included. The charter’s polite request that these ‘traitors’ be brought before the king to be tried was an unenforceable trifle.

In short, Richard may as well have handed a blank charter to the rebels, upon which they could write his approval for any act they chose. Murders became executions. Assaults became punishments. Treachery became justice. And the pilgrimage of bloodied heads down to the king’s favourite holy spot at Westminster4 was both a repulsive subversion of the Corpus Christi parades of the previous day and a nightmarish parody of the hated judicial circuits.

Richard would have seen the gruesome parade pass close to the walls of the Royal Wardrobe, where he had ridden at great haste following the Mile End conference, having left the Tower, with its unfortunate inmates, to fall.5 The Wardrobe was in the ward of Castle Baynard, in the south-west corner of the walled City, an area normally under the control of Alderman John Redyng. The rebels’ route through the City and towards the Ludgate very probably passed along Carter Lane, the passageway between the Wardrobe and St Paul’s Cathedral - if so, then the noise and the horror could not have escaped any of the royal party.6

With the spectacular failure - both in concept and in execution - of their strategy to defuse the revolt, Richard and his court were now so paralysed by fear that it was all they could do just to watch the bloody heads of two most senior royal ministers bob past on lances. Some would have begun to rue the fact that they had not countenanced the belligerent solutions suggested by Mayor Walworth.

Their hand was now even weaker than before. There was nothing to be done to halt the progress of the procession of heads; and the other half of the rebels also had to be served with hundreds of charters freeing them to do as they pleased across the realm. The king was forced to pass the Great Seal, so recently relinquished by his late Chancellor Archbishop, into the hands of Richard Fitzalan, earl of Arundel, who was handed the unenviable first task of overseeing the production line of charters being hastily copied out by the royal scribes, and distributed from the royal party’s new base.

Outside in the City, with the people emboldened by the timorousness of the royal government, any fragile order that had persisted now dissolved into anarchy. While Sudbury’s head was taken on its pilgrimage to Westminster, gangs of rebels (composed both of radical rural rebels and the ebullient London commons) began to roam the streets in broad daylight, seeking out all the ‘traitors’ they could.

By the time the heads returned from their journey to Westminster Abbey, at least four more murders had taken place, all by beheading. The heads were carried triumphantly in procession to London Bridge, the usual spot above which dismembered bodies were impaled as a warning to would-be peacebreakers. Sudbury’s head, with its red mitre still nailed in place, was set the highest and most central. Around it went Hales, Legge, Somenour, Appleton and the four new trophies.

The heads above the bridge gate symbolised the humiliation of the City and the royal government. With the physical manifestation of rebel law in place, chaos reigned. Mobs charged through the streets. Personal vendettas started to be played out. Disputes that had rumbled along for years were suddenly settled, violently. One rebel, Thomas Raven of Rochester, made his way from Tower Hill, where he had been in the crowd when Hales was beheaded, and went to the house of Reginald Allen, a grocer to whom he was heavily indebted, and forced him to give up the bond that proved the debt.7 Another group of rebels, containing relatively wealthy and prominent men from a number of Essex villages, including Manningtree, in the very north of the county, set about the property and houses of John Butterwick, the undersheriff of Middlesex, who lost property that afternoon in Knightsbridge, Ebury and Westminster - all well beyond the City walls.8

Unscrupulous members of the better ranks of London society seized the day of chaos to pursue their own feuds. Sir Robert Allen, a fishmonger, co-opted a band of Kent rebels to help him evict another of his trade, Hugh Ware, from a house he claimed to own.9A brewer, Walter ate Keye, spent much of the afternoon desperately hunting for a mysterious document known as the ‘Jubilee Book’, leading a mob who contemplated burning down the Guildhall in their hunt to destroy it.10 All over the City, hundreds of cases frustrated in the law courts or driven by private hatred and political vendetta were pursued according to the rules of the angry mob, and resolved in the climate of terror and lawlessness.

Under mob rule, there were groups in the City who would feel especially vulnerable to attack. Chief among them were foreigners. Medieval London was home to significant populations of Genoans, Lombards and other Italian merchants, and traders from the Hanse (German and Baltic states). Foreigners often traded under royal protection or favour, frequently to the perceived detriment and chagrin of the native merchants, who felt themselves undercut by the economic favours afforded the foreigners by governments that, from the 1370s, sold export duty exemptions to foreigners as a (short-sighted) source of quick income.

One of the most prominent of these alien communities was the Flemings. As a group, they were responsible for the bulk of the cross-Channel trade that was carried out between England and the Continent.11 Beside the merchant tensions, there was a strain of xenophobia against them, including the popular belief that they were responsible for running London’s brothels.12 And they must have been aware that they were at serious risk when order - particularly royal order - was lost.

The Flemings and their families, mirroring the guilds of London which tended to ghettoise themselves in different areas of the City according to their trades, had found their home in the Vintry, along the north bank of the Thames, clustered around the two churches of St Martin-in-the-Vintry and St James Garlickhithe, about one third of a mile upstream from London Bridge, where the heads of the murdered ministers were now displayed. Around the churches and down to the wharves on the bank of the river, there were large cellared houses, originally built by the great Bordeaux Gascon wine merchants in the earlier part of the century.13

It was in this area that a large gang descended. They crowded around the church of St Martin-in-the-Vintry, where word had spread that a number of Flemings were taking shelter from the anarchy. When the first rebels burst through the church doors, they found forty or more foreigners huddling inside, terrified for their lives. Showing no respect for the sanctity of their refuge - that Rubicon had been crossed too long ago - the mob seized any Fleming they could, and dragged them into the street, where the beheadings began.

In La Royal, or the Queen’s Wardrobe, the royal residence in London just a few hundred yards up the road, the queen mother would have been able to hear the horrible screams of the mob, and their butchered victims, as the massacre began. What she wondered about the wisdom of her young son and his advisers, huddled in Castle Baynard, overseeing a production line of pardons and charters, as the bodies began to pile up, and the streets ran with blood, we can only guess.

One of the voices that rang through the melee was one she might have recognised: that of Richard Lyons, the fantastically rich London merchant. Lyons had been notorious in London since he had found disgrace in 1376 for colluding to the point of corruption with the court of Queen Joan’s father-in-law, Edward III. Though shamed in Parliament, Lyons was an intimate of the court she would have known while her late husband, Edward the Black Prince, was alive. Though Edward had not approved of the morally wavering merchant, Queen Joan would undoubtedly have been familiar with him as a fixture of London society. Lyons lived in the opulent trading heart of Vintry, and it was from here that the mob snatched him.

Lyons knew he was a target for rebels inside London and farther afield. He had probably heard that on Wednesday his manor at Liston, near Melford, in Suffolk, had been attacked by a rebel band under John Wrawe, the captain of the most dangerous band in that county, who was that day hunting down the rebellion’s third great target: John Cavendish, the Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench, and the most senior judge in England.

With his property at risk, so was Lyons’ person. When the London gangs arrived in the Vintry, they tore him from his house and pulled him through the rich streets of Cordwainer ward, to Cheapside. From his effigy in St James Garlickhithe we know the rebels were hunting for a man

very fair and large, with his hair rounded by his ears and curled, a little beard forked; a gown, girt to him down to his feet, of branched damask, wrought with the likeness of flowers; a large purse on his right side, hanging in a belt from his left shoulder; a plain hood about his neck, covering his shoulders, and hanging back behind him.14

Of course, they found him. The sun beat down on the noisy, bloody and chaotic streets of midsummer London, and the block set up the previous day in the Cheap was glutinous with the blood of Thursday’s dead. As the City shuddered to the sounds of the massacre, and bodies piled up in the streets, it was here that another was added to their number, as one of London’s greatest merchants lost his life to brutal decapitation.

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