Post-classical history


When the king with his retinue arrived there, he turned to the east … and the commons arrayed themselves in bands of great size on the west side … And when he was called by the mayor, this chieftain, Wat Tyler… approached the king with great confidence, mounted on a little horse so that the commons might see him… Thereupon the said Wat rehearsed the points which were to be demanded; and he asked that there should be no law except for the law of Winchester…

Anonimalle Chronicle

Smithfield, Saturday, 15 June, 5 p.m.

The sun was settling low in the sky over Smithfield; the Smooth Field, field of meetings, place of death. Crowds streamed out of the Newgate and Aldersgate, filing north towards London’s ancient site of horse trading and racing, games, festivals, markets and fairs. Smithfield was a mixing ground for the rich and the humble, a playground for horse-fanciers and jockeys, tool-makers, stallholders and farmers driving plump-uddered cows and long-flanked, snuffling swine.1

It was a place where livestock was slaughtered and traitors were butchered, where in 1305 the Scottish rebel William Wallace had been dragged naked at the heels of a horse, strangled, castrated and gutted, his bowels burned before him and his decapitated body hacked into four parts for dispatch about the realm. Like all places of regular public gathering, Smithfield brought together the local community to mingle, trade, marvel at the tilts of knights and look on at awful, bloody punishment. Wallace was not the first to be seen off in gruesome fashion there, and the thicket of elm trees clustered in the north-west corner of the field beyond the Horse Pool watering pond had held beneath their shade many rough and gory acts of justice over the centuries.

Now, as Saturday afternoon wound towards an evening that capped a second day of anarchy in the City, masses of rebels began to arrive at Smithfield. Fanning out across the broad field towards the elms and the broken countryside to the west, they could quite easily have seen smoke still rising to the north from the Priory of St John of Jerusalem, the ruined home of the dead treasurer. Half a mile south of Smithfield was the battered Temple, ransacked on Thursday for its legal records. Back inside the City walls to the south-east lay the exhaling wrecks of houses torn down or smoked out, their inhabitants chased, threatened, harassed, intimidated, robbed, bullied or killed by the bands that had lost their discipline and their leadership, and had wallowed gluttonously in the lawlessness that had followed Richard’s timid showing at Mile End. The perpetrators of these deeds spread themselves about the field, properly ordered for the first time since they had camped on Blackheath, into large organised bands.2

Richard approached Smithfield from Westminster, accompanied by 200 retainers. Depleted as he was, and ranked against - at the very least - several thousand rebels, his train must still have cut an impressive sight, the rich-clothed splendour of a royal party in marked contrast to the filth, soot and sweat of a woollen-clad rebel band, many of whom had spent more than a fortnight on the road. Close also to the king in spirit and probably in physical placement were Walworth and his trusted mercantile allies Philipot and Brembre.

They had all spent the afternoon in preparation for whatever was to come at Smithfield, but Walworth and Richard had gone about it in very different ways. At 3 p.m. Richard had ridden with his grand retinue out from Baynard’s Castle and the Wardrobe and on to Westminster. He left his mother behind him at La Reol. Word was sent ahead to the dazed religious community of Westminster that in the light of the horror of Imworth’s murder, the king would be visiting.

Shortly after passing through the village of Charing, Richard was met by a forward party of canons and vicars from the Collegiate Church of St Stephen. They arrived in a solemn procession, mantled all about in their copes, their feet bare against the cold earth. They accompanied the king back along the road to Westminster and up to the doors of the desecrated abbey.

At the abbey, Richard had dismounted from his horse, and knelt before a cross that had been carried out to him. He was brought to the shrine of St Edward, where he knelt on the smooth pilgrims’ steps, tears rolling down his cheeks as he prayed devoutly to the Confessor for protection. Behind him, all of the knights and esquires in his retinue had engaged in similarly devout genuflections, weeping openly, while subtly jostling for position in the effort to appear the most pious and eager to make an offering to the saint’s remains.

Richard left his own offering, then made his way out to the anchorage in the abbey garden. A hermit had lived in these grounds for some time, and Richard had repaired to this mystic man to make his confession and remain for a time in spiritual consultation.

This, then, was the pious young king’s preparation for the greatest test of his life.

Mayor Walworth had more pragmatic concerns. Before he left the City he had fitted himself with body armour beneath his fine clothes. He had then made sure that all those servants of the king who had access to and command of men and weapons were ready to act on his word. He must have advised London’s aldermen to be ready to join him in defending the City. While all at Westminster made their offerings to the shrine, Walworth’s mind would have been occupied with the likelihood that soon he would be called upon to raise arms to protect the City that had made his name and fortune.

When Richard emerged from the garden, his soul refreshed from his conversation with the anchorite, the royal party set out for Smithfield. The rebels were always noisy, and their clamouring would have carried through the afternoon’s stillness as the royal retinue closed in on the meeting place.

The party turned east when they arrived at Smithfield, keeping their distance from the bloc of rebels arrayed to the west, and stopped in front of the Priory of St Bartholomew. The huge, thickset Norman church of St Bartholomew-the-Great loomed behind them, while the massed ranks of the most troublesome popular army ever to be raised in England waited restlessly across the field to the north-west.3

Walworth, beside the king, was ready. So was Richard. He called the mayor close and asked him to ride out to the ranked masses and demand that Tyler approach.

Walworth had been eye to eye with Tyler before, staring across London Bridge two days earlier as the Kentish general directed the terror unleashed on Southwark and organised the storming of the bridge. Now the gap between these two rough-hewn leaders was not the swirling eddies of the Thames, but the smooth turf of Smithfield, bitten here and there by hoof-prints, dried piles of dung erupting from its surface like molehills. The mayor rode out to the rebels, stopped his horse before them and called for Tyler by name, summoning the chief author of all the weekend’s misery to show himself before the king.4 Then he wheeled around and returned to Richard’s side.

As Walworth stood before Tyler’s ranks and bellowed the leader’s name, Tyler himself must have been filled with pride and self-importance. Not in his fondest imagination could he have predicted such a moment as this: the mayor of London summoning him, the general of an army of the shires, to come before the king. It was validation - elevation, even - the stuff of outlaw ballads and popular legend.5

The royal retinue was set back a safe distance from the rebel ranks, and Tyler rode out towards it filled with supreme confidence. Thus far the rebels had triumphed in all their interactions with agents of the Crown. Whether outnumbering them in destructive rioting, outmanoeuvring them in negotiations or simply chopping off their heads and putting them on poles, Tyler and his fellow rebel leaders had shown themselves to be irresistible generals and persuasive demagogues. Tyler knew it. But he also knew that the key to all that had gone before in the revolt had been skilful management of popular momentum. From the early days in the villages to the massacres about the City, everything had been bound together by the fervent belief that still greater successes lay around the corner.

For that reason, Tyler trotted his horse out in the direction of Walworth’s retreat ready to present the king with a set of populist demands that would go far beyond the pragmatic, and frame the revolt in the language of social revolution. He had in mind a scheme of requests that far exceeded the modest political demands of Mile End, which would entail the total transformation of society from the lawyer - and landowner - dominated state it now was, and back to the fabled shire community they imagined their great-grandfathers had known 100 years before.

As the limber and roll of his horse carried him step by inevitable step closer to his king, Tyler’s mind filled with the scope of what he had decided to ask. When he drew up before the royal party, he seems to have been half delirious.

The late afternoon sun slanted down on his woollen hood, but he did not take it off. To do so would have felt like deference. Nor did he dismount from his horse, until he was sure that the commons assembled on the far side of the field could see him in front of the king. He felt the blunt press of his dagger handle in his side, and slipped it out into his hand. With the other, he kept his balance as he dismounted from the little horse.

Richard looked at this peculiar sight, and saw a rough, arrogant and self-conscious older man clamber one-handed from his mount, armed and giddy with pride. In a hopeless and unwitting parody of his betters, the rebel captain half-curtsied at Richard, then lunged forward, grabbing his arm and shaking it roughly in comradely greeting.

‘Brother, be of good comfort and joyful,’ rasped Tyler, ‘for you shall have, in the fortnight that is to come, forty thousand more commons than you have at present, and we shall be good companions.’6

Good companions? Even ignoring the crude attempt to intimidate him, Richard can scarcely have heard anything so impudent in his life. It certainly riled those around the king, and the mood immediately tautened.

Richard asked Tyler: ‘Why will you not go back to your own country?’

Perhaps irritated by the child’s dismissive lack of comradely respect, Tyler swore a great oath, saying that neither he nor the masses ranked away on the side of the Horse Pool would leave until they had a charter as they had demanded. This was a petulant demand, and Tyler followed it with another ugly threat - if his demands were not met, the lords of the realm would rue it bitterly.

Hackles must have been raised on the royal side. But Richard remained calm, seemingly unwilling to countenance head-on confrontation. Just as at Mile End, he tried to call the rebels’ bluff, asking Tyler for his demands, and saying that whatever he demanded, he should have, freely, and written out under the royal seal. Even after the events that followed Mile End, Richard was still prepared to pursue the line of least resistance as a means to taking the sting out of Tyler’s populist campaign. At Mile End he had probably known he was gambling with the lives of his ministers in the Tower - now he had reason to believe he was risking the fate of London and possibly his Crown. Perhaps with the rebels lined up, armed, organised and outnumbering the royal party by hundreds to one, there was little other option.

This played nicely to Tyler’s arrogance. Sensing his moment, he began to speak. What emerged was less a list of demands than a fantastical description of the shire community. It was an ideal of England rooted in popular tradition. Gone were the specific political demands of Mile End, and in their place was a song of freedom - a paean to a wished-for world, a giant village community with a simple, popular law: the law of Winchester.

Winchester was the old Anglo-Saxon capital of England, burial place of the British kings such as Alfred, birthplace of the Domesday Book (also known as Liber Wintoniensis, or the Book of Winchester), which many villagers believed held the secrets of their ancient rights of landholding. The town was closely associated with Edward I, whose Statute of Winchester in 1285 had codified community policing, and called for all villagers to share in the responsibility of keeping the peace, as opposed to central agents of the law, who were seen as having patchy knowledge of and little regard for local community. It sanctioned unsparing punishment for all criminals (‘no one will be spared and no felony will be concealed’), a sentiment that clearly resonated with the vengeful rebels so rampant in the aftermath of Mile End. Winchester was the home of ancient, traditional, moral law, and of government rooted in divine equity and a love for the simple principles of right and wrong that were assumed to be the true measure of good kingship.

As Tyler began to elaborate his philosophy, it became clear how far from reality the rebel vision had strayed. The end to serfdom that had been demanded at Mile End had now blossomed into a demand for the end of lordship wholesale. There should be no more outlawry, and no lordship of any sort, except for that of the king. Tyler called for the abolition of the Church hierarchy, and the appointment of only one bishop and one prelate. All clerical lands and possessions not required to provide an adequate living to their owners should be stripped from the Church and divided among the people of the parish. Finally, Tyler repeated the Mile End demand for an end to villeinage, declaring that all men in England ought to be free and of the same condition.

With this final, thunderous vision painted thickly in the rich colours of his spiritual comrade John Ball, Tyler closed his speech.

What could Richard reply? This was not a negotiating position. It was the fantasy of a madman. But after the weekend just passed, that was hardly a surprise.

Sticking to his chosen policy of appeasing the rebels by any means possible, the young king told Tyler that he could have whatever he could fairly grant, ‘reserving only for himself the regality of his Crown’.

Then, rather more sharply, he told Tyler to go home.

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