The rebels committed … many other enormities without sparing any grade or order - in churches and cemeteries, in roads and streets as well as in houses and fields. Neither fearing God nor revering the honour of mother church, they pursued and executed all those against whom they raised their cry. After a whole day spent in such detestable actions, they were at last exhausted by their labours and the drinking of so much more wine than usual; thus in the evening you could see them lying scattered about on the streets and under the walls, sleeping like slaughtered pigs.
Westminster Abbey, Saturday, 15 June, 9 a.m.1
Richard Imworth, keeper of the King’s Bench prison in Southwark, was a jailer and a brute. He was responsible for the custody of prisoners who found themselves on the wrong side of the law, and indicted for serious crimes against the king’s peace. He was known as ‘a tormentor without pity’2 by those who resided under his watch in the prison down on the south bank of the Thames. He had been a marked man from the beginning of the revolt, and when Southwark suffered at the hands of raiders from the Blackheath camp on Wednesday, Imworth’s property and his life had been explicitly placed under threat.
As a result, Imworth was hiding. Since the first word had reached London that the rebels were advancing towards the City, Imworth had known that he would be one of their targets. By Saturday 15th, it may even have surprised him that he had survived the previous two days. The murders that had taken place on Corpus Christi and the following day - Legett, Sudbury, Hales, Legge, Appleton and Somenour; hundreds of foreigners and numerous overzealous agents of the law - had been visited on a group of which Imworth was quite clearly a member. An agent of the royal law renowned for his diligent, unsympathetic application to duty had every reason to fear the rebels’ wrath.
The paranoia and panic that had gripped Imworth and his wife in the days immediately before the revolt had been obvious to his prisoners - indeed, one later claimed that as the rebels approached the capital in the days leading up to Corpus Christi, he had been entrusted with some small items from the Imworth family treasury to safeguard in the event of retribution from the rebels.3 Now, on Saturday morning, seeking proximity to one of the few remaining outposts of royal authority, Imworth had taken refuge in Westminster Abbey.
The abbey (more properly known as the Collegiate Church of St Peter) should symbolically, if not militarily, have been the safest haven in the City and suburbs. It was grand, imposing, reasonably secure and intimidatingly pompous. It represented the locus of royal divinity, true in its fourteenth-century form to the magnificent design of Richard II’s great-great-great-grandfather, Henry III. English kings had been crowned here since before the Norman Conquest, with ever-greater ceremony, pageantry and rhetoric concerning their bond of duty to rule. The great kings of the Plantagenet dynasty lay buried in its vaults, with pride of place going to an Anglo-Saxon: Edward the Confessor, the sainted patriarch who had ruled England with legendary holiness and laid the abbey’s foundations, and to whose memory and bodily remains great miracles had been ascribed.4
The abbey was the place where the legal and mystical aspects of kingship came together - a place of awe and of profound sanctity. With sanctity came sanctuary, and to sully either in the abbey was taboo. As Gaunt knew from the Hawley affair, the Church took an extremely dim view of any violation committed here, and it was said that St Peter did likewise, and would severely punish transgressors on the Day of Judgement.
So, of all the churches, chapels, monastic houses and hospitals in and around London, this should have been the place, if there were one, that the rebels dared not approach. Knowing this, and knowing that the streets of the City now flowed with the blood of the hundreds massacred by the demented mob, Imworth had thrown himself upon the mercy of the Westminster monks and entrusted his person to the sanctuary of the abbey.
But if he thought that those who had shown the measure of their regard for the wrath of the Almighty and his saints by breaking out and murdering targets from churches all around the City would draw the line at entering Westminster, he was sorely mistaken. At 9 a.m. they arrived from London, beating what was now a well-trodden path.5 The previous day, the bloody array of ministers’ heads had been paraded down to the abbey, while a raiding party had also attempted to break into the treasury there, with the intention of destroying legal records.
The new morning had not much dimmed their bloodlust, and as there were now rebels well familiar with the layout of the abbey, it seems that they had little difficulty pushing their way in and making for the high altar, where Imworth cowered, perhaps hoping that the mercy he had denied others might somehow be bestowed upon him.
Imworth might have been vicious, but he was not stupid. With an instinct for the symbolism of his surroundings, he had chosen as his refuge the shrine of the Confessor. He would have banked on the first rebels to burst in immediately seeing the shrine, which stood just behind the altar, for it was visible all the way down the nave, a raised mound approached by two small steps on which pilgrims knelt in pairs, their knees polishing the stonework. He would have hoped that the sight of the shrine, flanked on either side by two pillars, one topped with a statue of the Confessor, the other with St John disguised as a pilgrim, would have brought to rebel minds the seriousness of the crime that they were about to attempt.6
It should have, but when the rebels did break into the abbey, their hearts proved as hard as the smooth, cold floor of the nave. As they approached, the sound of their footsteps bouncing around and up into the vaulted roof, they would have recognised Imworth clinging, literally for his life, to one of these pillars, and beside him the gold feretory containing the coffin of the Confessor. Was there an exchange of words? Did Imworth try to appeal to his kidnappers’ God-fearing consciences? We do not know. All we do know is that alongside the high altar of the highest place of sanctuary in all of England, Richard Imworth, tormentor of men, was plucked from the pillar of the richly gilded shrine to England’s patron saint, hauled down the nave, outside into the cool morning air and off into London, to be beheaded at Cheapside.
As the mob took Imworth up to the broad marketplace and bloodied makeshift chopping blocks of Cheapside, they chanced upon a valet named John of Greenfield, who made the grave error of ‘speaking well of John of Gaunt’s murdered physician William Appleton and other victims of the rebels’ murderous purges’. He was seized in Bread Street, the long north-south thoroughfare that ran through the City down to the riverside port of Queenhithe, dragged north up it to the Cheap and murdered with Imworth.
By lunchtime, anarchy reigned. No law ruled now - nothing but the will of the rebels. There were no more lines to cross.
By mid-morning news would have reached the royal base at the Queen’s Wardrobe and Baynard’s Castle that the abbey had been desecrated. There were still reports of house-burning and widespread violence in the City. Worse, rioting was breaking out across the south-east. There were pockets of popular disturbance in Middlesex, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, where the senior royal judge, Sir John Cavendish, was reported dead. Some of these were merely in sympathy for the London rebellion, but others, very worryingly, were claiming the direction and protection of Wat Tyler himself.
The day and night of chaos that had followed the Mile End conference had demonstrated the terrible error of the appeasement strategy Richard had pursued on the advice of his more timorous nobles. With the blood of his two most senior ministers and several hundred, largely innocent, inhabitants of London, Richard had bought nothing but anarchy, blasphemy, treachery, theft, extortion, arson and murder. Now he was faced with the worst threat to England’s internal order in living memory.
Rumours swept through the City: Tyler was going to light fires in four corners of London and burn it to the ground; the king was going to be taken hostage; the Church was going to be abolished; John Ball was going to be the chief and only bishop in England; all other lords and bishops were going to be executed.
Attempts to negotiate with the rebel leadership via messenger were proving fruitless: in the last twenty-four hours Tyler had three times refused to accept chartered peace terms on a par with those taken by the bands that had departed from Mile End, correctly surmising that with chaos came momentum for his movement. Any rational, political character to his aims had disappeared, and a muddled vision of a society shorn of all real administrative institutions came to the fore.
Now, after days of holding back from his headstrong counsel, it seems that Richard finally started listening seriously to the advice of William Walworth. Walworth, confident in the resources he banked upon mustering through his own political and financial influence and that of his colleagues Nicholas Brembre and John Philipot, combined with the belligerent military know-how of the veteran Sir Robert Knolles, seems to have been a consistent voice favouring tough action against the rebels. He had advocated a decisive show of force against them since Thursday night; what had smacked of haughty recklessness then now seemed to be the only course of action left.
The argument against military action was fear that the loyalty of the London commons could not be relied upon, and that to provoke them into full uproar with the radical Kentishmen would spell destruction for the City. But in the light of events since Mile End, that argument was defunct. In terms of public order, there was little left to maintain, and if the latest rumours were correct, then by Monday night, Tyler planned to have the whole City burning in any case. Stopping him was therefore imperative: if they succeeded, there was a slim chance that the City could be saved; if they continued negotiations with a rebel captain whom they now had good reason to suspect was acting in bad faith, it would certainly be lost. With the terror now spreading all over the south-east and East Anglia, and word likely to be leaking out of the country to England’s enemy across the Channel, the end of London could easily mean the fall of the whole realm.
So on Saturday morning, as the holiest sanctuary in his realm was being vandalised by the mob, it seems that Richard must have given his permission to mobilise the well-armed private forces of soldiers like Knolles, and the resourceful merchant oligarchs - Walworth, Brembre, Philipot and their associates. The rebels were to be drawn once again outside the City walls, this time to the closest practical point to the new royal headquarters: the great playing fields and marketplace at West Smithfield, half a mile north of Baynard’s Castle and the Queen’s Wardrobe, just outside Aldersgate, the north-east entrance to the City wall. Messengers were briefed to make the proclamation that Richard was coming once more to meet the rebels, and that they should all remove to Smithfield in readiness for their king.
The choice of Smithfield, rather than a return visit to Mile End, was not random. It was a logical site for negotiations with a massed band of rebels, for the fields were used to holding massive crowds on festivals and holidays, when fairs, markets and tournaments were held there. As such, it would have been familiar territory to many of the London insurgents, and probably a fair number of those rural rebels who had visited the capital for trade or festivities. In summoning his subjects there, Richard would once again have given them a sense of what we could now think of as home advantage, a placatory gesture that also no doubt played to Tyler’s pride, puffed up as it was by his unpunished intransigence in the peace negotiations that had taken place so far.
If negotiations were all that were to take place at Smithfield, then this was a soothing environment in which to conduct them. It was also, however, a clever choice of venue in anticipation of Walworth’s armed strategy. Smithfield was physically walled on its eastern side by the precincts of St Bartholomew’s Hospital and its sister priory. To the north, a combination of the walls of the Charterhouse and the shallow waters of Faggeswell Brook provided awkward natural boundaries; while to the south-west, the deeper swells of the River Holborn and the City ditch controlled access back into London. In short, Smithfield was a welcoming but semi-enclosed environment, in which a pitched battle could be at worst contained and in the best case turned - even by a modest military force - into a rout. There was the whiff of bold, ruthless and calculating strategic planning behind the Smithfield meeting. Whether it would prove necessary to negotiate with the sword would be up to the character of the young king. And that, as had been proven by Mile End, was the great unknown.
Richard himself, in anticipation of the most critical moment of his short life and shorter reign, gathered together his large retinue of nobles, knights and attendants, and set out on what might have been a final pilgrimage. Before he could once again meet his delinquent subjects, he needed to seek spiritual solace, and ask the favour of God for what he was about to face. So, following in the footsteps of the mob, Richard set out for Westminster and the shrine of the Confessor.