Post-classical history

PART III

EIGHTEEN
RETRIBUTION

The king to his beloved and faithful William of Walworth… greetings. We desire with all our heart, especially at this time of disturbance, to duly protect, save and securely rule the city of London in the face of the invasion of those men who (as you know) have recently risen … We assign, appoint and ordain you … to keep, defend, protect, rule and govern the said city, its suburbs and other places without … at our command but according to your own discretion… you are to punish everyone who makes or presumes to make riots, risings and assemblies against our peace… either according to the law of our kingdom of England or by other ways and methods, by beheading and the mutilation of limbs, as seems to you most expeditious and sensible …

Royal Commission issued after Smithfield

Saturday, 15-Sunday, 16 June

Through the coincidence of divine providence and mayoral pragmatism, London had been saved. The pallid young king could have picked no more dramatic moment to come of age, while Walworth, the hard-bitten, wealthy old fishmonger who had plucked the City from the flames of the furious mob, had proven that he was a man of level-headed action.

As Sir William Walworth, Sir John Philipot, Sir Nicholas Brembre and Sir Robert Launde rose from being dubbed knights on the hard turf of Clerkenwell, there can only have been relief at God’s grace in delivering them from such severe adversity. The Kent rebels who trooped beaten and bewildered back through London could so easily have been swarming back in like a returning plague to finish the capital once and for all.

But the victory that Richard and his circle of loyal Londoners had won was by no means final. True, after the muddle of Mile End the flow of rebels to London had reversed, with tired villagers making their way back home with their charters of emancipation. But ripples of violent disaffection travelled with them.

The tremors of unrest rumbled out from London to the outlying towns and villages of the south-east, East Anglia and beyond with remarkable speed. While London had been the focus of the most dramatic uproar, by the time of the Smithfield confrontation, almost all of the southern counties had experienced some form of disruption. Trouble had flared continuously in Essex and Kent; villages in Middlesex and Surrey were in turmoil at the same time as London.

There was early trouble at the manor of St Albans in Hertfordshire, observed and recorded in scandalised detail by the resident chronicler there, Thomas Walsingham. The townsfolk had risen against the rule of the abbot of St Albans, Thomas de la Mare, and marched on London on the day of the Mile End meeting. Now, as word spread that London had been allowed to boil for three full days, with precious little resistance from the government, the spirit of disobedience and topsy-turvy threatened to carry throughout the entire realm.

Smithfield excepted, there had been precious little decisive action from the Crown. The state of torpor and paralysis could no longer be allowed to continue. Now, spurred into action, Richard gave his consent for the first strong move to restore order. Back in the City, with night now fallen, a royal commission was drawn up, conferring remarkable powers on the mayor and his allies. Walworth, Brembre, Philipot, Launde and their capable military ally Sir Robert Knolles were jointly appointed to an extraordinary panel with powers to hunt out, try and punish rebels wherever they found them. That did not just mean London. Assisted by the noted lawyers Sir Robert Belknap and William Cheyne, they were permitted, in theory, to carry out their investigations anywhere within a 70-mile radius of the City - throughout Essex, Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Middlesex.

This was unusual, to say the least. Though the new Clerkenwell knights had all served as senior London aldermen, and Walworth, Philipot and Brembre had been in control of parliamentary war finance for a short while in the 1370s, raising them to the position of cross-county hanging judges unconstrained by any of the normal conventions of the common law was a bold move. But if anything had been demonstrated by the rebels’ assaults on the City, it was the necessity of firm, pitiless action.

Richard effectively devolved the whole business of emergency government to this committee of seven men. They were appointed to ‘keep, defend, protect, rule and govern the said city, its suburbs and other places without, both by sea and by water, at our command but according to your discretion, by the means which seem to you most safe and expedient’.1 They were granted the power to command the defence of the city and the areas around it, to hunt out any illegal assemblies and pacify them as they saw fit.

Walworth’s commission was given explicit command over the entire network of royal law in the shires and towns around London - sheriffs, aldermen, citizen juries and all - and it was awarded awful powers of retribution. Those who made ‘riots, risings and assemblies against the peace’ were to be punished ‘either according to the law of our kingdom of England or by other ways and methods, by beheadings and mutilation of limbs, as seems to you most expeditious and sensible …’

These punishments went way beyond what was prescribed by law for even the worst treachery during ordinary times. Hanging usually punished felony, with traitors drawn as an aggravating discomfort. Beheading and mutilation spoke of anger, and it is possible for perhaps the first time to detect the young hand of the king - who witnessed the document in person - behind the savage instructions. He had been profoundly affected by his recent lonely days spent in the Tower. He had followed the debate between ineffectual older men professing to act in his best interests but recommending inertia while the City burned around them. His mother had been threatened, and the beloved abbey at Westminster, the site of his coronation, was desecrated by monsters. Several people to whom he was close had been savagely slaughtered. No wonder he placed his faith now in the senior citizens of London: what they lacked in nobility, they made up for in vigour.

But the orders also smacked of innate Plantagenet vindictiveness, an unpleasant trait shared by generations of Richard’s ancestors. Richard must have thought of how his uncle John of Gaunt would react in his place: Gaunt, who would taunt and bully and drag his opponents about by their hair when he was slighted, and who would surely be encouraging revenge were he not still stranded far in the north. Vindictive as it was, this was a classic Plantagenet call to arms; the mark of a young man putting his stamp on government for the very first time. The next day Walworth began his duties in earnest.

As London and its suburbs awaited Walworth’s wrath, the clamour of revolt in the surrounding counties began to rise. There were very likely those among the Kentish rebels who had fought in the wars with France, and they knew that the protocol for soldiers after the official end of hostilities was generally to engage in a profitable round of looting. As soon as the Smithfield meeting was dispersed, bands of rebels returning home from London began extorting money from villages like Clandon, a few miles from the City.

Up in St Albans, disturbances had been under way for some time.2 The townsfolk had marched to London in the early morning of Friday, 14 June, passing Jack Straw’s burning manor of Highbury on their way. They had been in and around the City during the Mile End conference before making their way to the Church of St Mary Arches (St Mary-le-Bow), the Norman church just south of Cheapside.

In St Mary Arches they had held a reasoned conference about the best way to go about securing their liberties from the manorial laws and customs imposed on them by the abbot. At this stage their aims had been broad ranging, but prosaic: they wanted to redefine the boundaries of the town, which affected their right to pasture their animals; to dispute and redefine fishing, hunting, fowling rights, and the rules governing hand mills and bailiffs - immediate, specific demands concerning their daily life, and requests for rights they felt had been gradually eroded since the imaginary good old days of King Henry I.

The St Albans rebels’ aims were banal, and their philosophy surprisingly conservative. The hotheads among them wanted to threaten the monks with arson and murder at the hands of Tyler’s ruffians, but the more level headed advocated applying to the king for a charter instructing the abbot to restore their liberties. They were angry and impassioned, but reasonable with it. At this stage, even surrounded by a City descending into chaos, this was, by and large, a group making the most of the upside-down state of society to force their hand.

But by the weekend St Albans was slipping into anarchy.

William Grindcobbe, an intemperate man with a history of assaults on monks and excommunication, had taken leadership of the townsfolk and represented them at Mile End, where he had obtained a charter of legal rights from the king. But Grindcobbe had subsequently gone to Wat Tyler, asking for reinforcements with which to threaten the abbot and ensure the terms of royal manumission. The radical, visionary mood of Tyler and his Kent rebels was infectious, and Grindcobbe had come away far more impressed by their bombast than with Richard’s legal concessions. He returned to St Albans with a promise of an army of 20,000 men, to come and slay the monastic population, and a head swollen with ideas about the universal abolition of lordship.

By late afternoon on Friday, word of the brutal murders on Tower Hill had reached Hertfordshire, prompting a number of the holy men to flee for St Albans’ daughter house in Northumberland. They went not a moment too soon - because when Grindcobbe and a baker called William Cadyndon returned, they declared themselves great lords and began to lead the townsfolk on a series of night raids to smash houses, woods and gates belonging to the monastery.

By Saturday, vandalism and destruction had become utterly widespread, large groups of rebels had descended on the town from nearby villages, and oaths of undying fealty had been sworn. The conventions of rebellion that had been observed in London were now applied to St Albans, as Grindcobbe’s rebels made a conscious effort to identify themselves through their actions with the wild philosophy of Tyler’s radicals. The protests about specific grievances had rapidly mutated into staged violence, which demonstrated not just their legitimate grievances against the abbot, but sang to the world of their righteous dissatisfaction with the whole social order. Another bloody summer game had begun.

All Saturday afternoon gangs of rebels from the lower ranks of St Albans society, joined by townsfolk from nearby Barnet, rampaged around the town and abbey lands. The violence they committed was, as in London, a combination of the symbolic smashing of anything that represented lordly authority, and vandalism of property that just seemed ripe for destruction. They shattered the great millstones that had been laid in the abbey cloister in the 1330s as a memento of the abbey’s overlordship in the town and surrounding countryside, and handed out fragments of the stone in imitation of the distribution of bread in parish churches after the mass. They extorted all the abbot’s charters of legal tenure and burned them in a great public bonfire. Then they began demanding that the abbot return to them a (mythical) charter granted by the Saxon king Offa, in which all their ancient liberties and rights were written down in beautiful letters of gold and azure.

To show their solidarity with the Londoners, the St Albans rebels had taken to imitating the chilling howls that had rung around Tower Hill as Sudbury’s head had been hacked off. The abbey jail was broken open, and a prisoner dragged out to be beheaded on a large piece of land before the abbey gates. Naturally, the victim’s head went up on a pole. By Saturday night, as Walworth’s committee was preparing to bring order to London, St Albans and all the Hertfordshire countryside around it were already deep into their own rebellion.

Just as in London, there was a growing strain of shire conservatism behind the mayhem. While recent manorial charters were burned, and royal charters arriving from Mile End were embraced, the desire for the fabled Offa’s charter grew stronger by the hour. To the rebels it became the physical symbol of their longed-for return to ancient times. The problem was that in reality it was as imaginary as the times themselves. By Sunday morning, the monks were in despair, for the rebels were threatening to burn down the monastery if Offa’s charter were not returned to them. No amount of pleading from the abbot could persuade Grindcobbe’s men that it did not exist. Like the king at Mile End, the abbot had diplomatically agreed to every rebel demand that addressed the reality of government, even where the result was to sanction destruction of property. But faced by the rebels’ demands for physical proofs of their mystic traditions, he was as helpless as if they had asked him to saddle them a unicorn.

On Sunday morning, with the magnificent abbey threatened with burning to the ground, the monks were preparing to flee their impossible tormentors. The mob now included common men from the surrounding settlements of Luton, Watford, Barnet, Rickmansworth, Tring and Redbourn, some of whom had bullied and threatened local gentlemen into speaking on their behalf. Swathes of men milled, armed, around St Albans, revelling in their newly elevated positions and enjoying the prospect of extracting charters new and ancient from the beleaguered abbot.

The situation was saved by the rumours spreading constantly and ever more urgently from London that Wat Tyler was dead. Hot on the back of the news, rapidly spreading, that Tyler had been killed in the king’s presence came a charter of protection from Richard.

That took some of the steam out of the rebellion. Grindcobbe and his fellow leaders continued to act in the high and pompous lordly fashion which they had adopted in the previous days, but they tempered it with a greater sense of decorum in their negotiations - the roads around the abbey were no longer blocked, and there seemed, suddenly, to be a chance of saving the monastery from the mob.

Negotiations continued on Sunday, in a more civilised fashion, though with Abbot de la Mare presumably grinding his teeth at the presumption and arrogance of the rebels. For the next few days nearby villagers continued to arrive at the abbey, trampling around the grounds waving rusty axes and making demands for liberties, the restoration of old customs and freedom from labour service. But they did so with ever-decreasing conviction, and none of the hotheadedness that had infected Saturday’s events.

Back in London, word had filtered through of the abbey’s predicament. Richard had followed his appointment of Walworth’s punitive commission by appointing the steward of the royal household, Sir Hugh Segrave, as Keeper of the Great Seal. But the best that Segrave and his fellow knight Sir Thomas Percy, who was a benefactor of St Albans, could do was to write to the abbot, advising him to continue to agree to all of the rebels’ demands until royal assistance could be sent.

Segrave, Percy and the regrouped royal council would have been very troubled that the influence and spirit of Tyler’s movement had passed so quickly north. But the news of the chaos at St Albans was swiftly becoming just one skein in a web of disorder being spun at speed outwards from London. By the end of Sunday, disturbances were spiralling out of control across Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk; urban disorder had reached as far north as Beverley, in Yorkshire. Essex remained turbulent, and Kent also had the potential to erupt back into revolt.

And though Tyler was dead, new leaders were beginning to come to prominence: names such as William Grindcobbe, John Wrawe and Geoffrey Litster were beginning to promise serious danger as they led bands of rebels on other outposts of lordly authority. And somewhere in all of this remained the most elusive and dangerous demagogue of them all: John Ball.

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