Post-classical history


… on this, the king, although a boy and of tender age, took courage and ordered the mayor of London to arrest Tyler. The mayor … arrested Tyler without question and struck him a blow on the head which hurt him badly… His death, as he fell from his horse to the ground, was the first incident to restore to the English knighthood their almost extinct hope that they could resist the commons. Immediately the commons saw Tyler’s downfall they cried with sorrow for his death: ‘Our captain is dead; our leader has been treacherously killed. Let us stay together and die with him; let us fire our arrows and staunchly avenge his death.’ And so they drew their bows and prepared to shoot…


Smithfield, Saturday, 15 June, 6 p.m.

There was silence.

Wat Tyler and Richard II stood face to face, each uncertain what to do next. Tyler’s demand for a vision of England with the clock turned back to a semi-imaginary time of ancient traditions and a lordless society had met with the one response that did not suit him: complete acquiescence.

Part of the point of asking for such radical terms of peace had been to maintain the momentum of the revolt, which now seemed to be spreading into East Anglia, and drawing in ever-greater numbers of rebels. Pursuing these sorts of demands kept the movement vital, idealistic and committed. But without such a central focus, it would inevitably dissolve back into local riots and isolated spates of rural complaint. Royal assent to his ludicrous demands guaranteed Tyler nothing.

Richard seemed to have realised this, and was prepared to repeat the monumental gamble of Mile End even with now the entire safety of his capital city at stake. If he lost, then the rumours of Tyler’s intention to torch the whole City and murder every noble and churchman inside it stood to be realised. But if he won, he stood to gain everything. He faced down Tyler, his retinue silent behind him, and his heart presumably jumping almost clean out of his chest. To every other party to this stand-off, the impasse between Richard and Tyler was so unbearably tense that they hesitated to say a single word, for fear of provoking some egregious act of violence. The two men stared at each other in silence, neither willing to back down.

Tyler broke first. The heat of the moment and of the summer afternoon must suddenly have felt very oppressive. In an attempt to earn himself some physical respite, he turned and demanded a jug of water. When it arrived, he swilled it around his mouth deliberately coarsely and spat in front of the king; an act of gross vulgarity before his lord. Then he demanded a jug of ale. Again, this was brought, and Tyler took another great slug from it, before climbing - without having been given leave to depart the king’s presence - back on to his horse.

It was clear from his disrespect that Tyler had completely lost his grip on reality. His ambition now stretched beyond reform and restitution. The power he had wielded for the last week had totally consumed him, and the way he acted towards Richard suggests that he truly believed that before long the whole realm would bend to his will as king of the commons. Tiring of the negotiations, and having shown his contempt for his opponents with his deliberate show of bad manners, he made as if to leave.

What occurred next happened quickly. Tyler’s display of baseness and blatant disrespect for his king’s worship had exceeded the patience of Richard’s servants. A mocking cry went up from among the royal retinue to the effect that the rebel leader was nothing more than a common thief and a robber. Some later said it came from Sir John Newton, Tyler’s hostage from Blackheath - others that it was merely a valet from Richard’s party. Either way, the words rankled with Tyler, and he took the bait, gripping his dagger and retorting angrily that whoever had just spoken would lose his head.

This was the moment that Walworth had been waiting for. The mayor rode out to Tyler - who was waving his dagger and ranting - and shouted that he was arresting him for his contemptible behaviour in the king’s presence. But as he made a grab for the rebel leader, Tyler thrust at him with his dagger, aiming to cut through his vital organs.

The blow bounced off Walworth’s body armour, and with that single, blunt collision of blade on vest, Tyler was doomed. Walworth, triumphant, pulled out his own dagger - a short blade known as a baselard - and plunged it deep into Tyler’s neck. Then he pulled it out and thrust it again, this time hitting Tyler’s head. The exchange of blows happened in a flash - but there were others who were as alert as Walworth. A royal valet, Sir Ralph Standish, broke ranks and hurtled towards the grappling men, running the rebel leader through with a sword.

From the other side of Smithfield, with the shadows of the elm trees lengthening across the field towards St Bartholomew’s, the rebel army could neither hear nor understand any of this. All they saw was a period of brief animation between their leader and a couple of figures from the royal party, all of them on horseback. Then they saw Tyler wheel away, spurring his horse towards them.

They did not see the blood pouring from his neck; nor could they make out his dying cries for revenge. They just saw the skittish dance of his small horse towards them and, then, after he had come 80 yards, their leader - who had brought them from Maidstone to London, who had unleashed them in the City, and now represented them before the king - fall like a rag doll from his horse and collapse to the ground.

There was bewilderment, then anger. What had happened? The silent tableau offered them nothing. What had been said on the other side of the field? What was the message that Tyler had been bringing? Why had he fallen, when he was apparently charging vigorously back towards them? Their only reaction was to bend back the strings of their bows, and ready themselves to fire.

On the royal side, similar confusion reigned. The king’s party had the advantage of knowing that the mayor had felled Tyler, but Walworth had turned his own horse and charged away from the scene the instant that he had withdrawn his knife from Tyler’s head. That spooked the king’s ranks, and several of the knights and squires of the household began to panic and followed Walworth’s charge back to London.

For the boy who had hitherto seemed so timid and passive in the jaws of crisis, Richard’s next act was remarkable. He drew on the strength he had garnered that afternoon at St Edward’s tomb, his own instinct of faith in the rebel protestations of loyalty to him alone, and the spirit of the moment; and for the first time in his reign, Richard acted decisively and bravely. He kicked his own horse forward, racing past Tyler’s fallen body and on towards the rebels. As he approached he began to shout to them that he commanded them as their king to make their way out of Smithfield and follow him to Clerkenwell Fields, a safer, more open space a few hundred yards to the north.

To the rebels, this swift turnaround must have seemed almost like a dream. They were wrongfooted by the speed with which Tyler had fallen, and the confusing movement among the royal party across the field, but before they descended into anarchy, Richard had stepped in. To their eyes Richard was fulfilling the role of the kings of legend, the benevolent leader recognising his true subjects, seeing their audacious behaviour as a defence of justice. A seemingly trance-like spirit took hold of the whole company. Spellbound by the sight of their teenage king, they lowered their weapons and began to follow him across the field, like sheep.

To Richard - riding at the head of a ragtag mob of several thousand of his lowly subjects - it must have seemed utterly surreal. He had never seen his father or grandfather in their full glory, leading troops into the battlefield. It was to his credit that he went along with the momentum that had turned in his favour, but it must also have been an exhilarating feeling for him - and as he rode, a whole vision of his own kingship was confirmed in his young mind.

He led the rebels purposefully out of Smithfield to the open fields at Clerkenwell. Here the strange army settled, Richard at the head, and the rank-and-file arrayed in their bands on the western side.

Meanwhile, Walworth rode hard back to London, Tyler’s blood drying on the dagger by his side. He would have hoped, as he tore towards the Aldersgate, that his instructions to the loyal soldiers of the City and the aldermen who controlled the musters in the twenty-four London wards would carry, and that the citzens’ nerve would hold. He had probably used Brembre and Philipot to enforce his message in the wards, but having seen the royal guards at the Tower suffer a collective failure of nerve two days earlier, raising London in force against the rebels required faith in the willingness of the citizens to save their City.

That faith was repayed. Ward by ward, the citizens that had remained in the City armed themselves and headed to Smithfield and Richard’s aid. Sir Robert Knolles led a company of knights, whom he had kept in reserve during all the previous days of the revolt.1Other companies of armed citizens followed behind. Walworth sent them off in their numbers, the aldermen leading the keepers of the wards, a well-armed parade finally ready to throw themselves against their enemies in defence of their livelihoods. But the mayor himself hung back to collect a company of lances. His most important business remained unfinished.

The last thing that Walworth had seen as he charged back to London was Tyler, wounded but defiant, charging towards his men with vengeance on his lips. The mayor knew that destroying the captain once and for all was vital if the rebels were to be dispersed. He rode, determined, towards Smithfield, ready to separate the ailing Tyler from his allies and finish him off.

When Walworth arrived back at Smithfield, he found it empty. Neither the rebels nor the king were there. Looking north, he could see the rebel army hemmed in on all sides by the aldermen and citizens - he would have to trust that the king was safe now in the hands of the reinforcements.

But where was Tyler?

A brief enquiry revealed that he had been taken, alive but fatally wounded, to the hospital of St Bartholomew, yards from where he was struck down. Walworth went to the hospital, where the rebel captain languished in bed, half dead and at the mercy of the master. Walworth had Tyler dragged from his deathbed, and hauled, bleeding, to the middle of Smithfield. Those few companions who had remained with their sad captain were forced to watch as he was propped up in the field and beheaded.2

Across in Clerkenwell Field, an uneasy stand-off was taking place. The rebels had temporarily surrendered themselves to Richard’s leadership, but the speed with which Walworth’s muster had arrived had taken them by surprise. Now they were penned in on all sides by a better-equipped, better-drilled force, and deprived of their inspirational general, the last sighting of whom had been his limp body being carted away in the direction of the hospital.

The presence of the king was the only encouraging sign, for all the signals he had given them thus far were that he would act benevolently towards his loyal subjects. But that illusion was halted suddenly, as the judder of hoofs on the soil announced the arrival of Mayor Walworth.

He bore a grisly relic. Wat Tyler’s head, hoodless but easily recognised, was carried in front of the company of lancers, just as Archbishop Sudbury’s head had been paraded down to Westminster some days previously. The king summoned the pole-bearer, and had Tyler’s head set up in front of him, to symbolise that the rebellion was finished, its captain defeated and the City saved. Ignoring the rebels, he thanked the mayor effusively for what he had done.

Seeing this was too much for the exhausted commons. Their will to fight drained away, and they sank to their knees among the corn-rows of Clerkenwell, beaten in arms and broken in spirit. Cries for mercy went up, imploring the king to show forgiveness and let them go home. There was nothing for Richard to prove, and he was not foolhardy enough to provoke any more violence that weekend. He appointed two knights to lead the way through London, and sent the rebels packing.

As they watched the men file out of the field, guarded on all sides by the quickly assembled citizen army, Richard turned to Walworth and told him to put a basinet on his head. A basinet was a small, pointed metal helmet designed to protect the head in battle, and Walworth was understandably confused. With all signs of danger passed, he asked the king why he now needed protection.

Richard told him that as repayment for the great debt he owed Walworth for saving the City, he was going to knight him in the field, and that he ought to look fit for his new station. After a few token protestations, Walworth kneeled and, with Brembre, Philipot and Robert Launde alongside him, all four men received the firm dubbing of knights of the realm.

With this honourable scene playing out behind them, the rebel army filed away from Clerkenwell, tired men casting long shadows in the late light of a dying day. They were shepherded back through the subdued City, through the large gates in the north wall, then south through the narrow streets and thoroughfares such as Bread Street, back towards Bridge Ward. The streets were no longer theirs. The executioners’ blocks at Cheapside were now nothing but monuments to a festival that had come to an end: an orgy of retribution that had thrashed itself to a bloody conclusion. The Tower, so recently the rebels’ playground, now loomed ominous, as the shroud of the summer twilight closed around it. Down at the river, where Flemish blood had darkened the eddies of the Thames, the drawbridge was lowered, and the Kent rebels passed in a sad parade back out of the City the same way they had come.

They knew the road home backwards.

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