Post-classical history


In Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, the commons … rose in large numbers at various places, did many wrongs and beheaded many worthy men … They beheaded John Cavendish, chief justice of the king, and also executed Sir Robert Salle … Likewise at Peterborough the neighbours and tenants of the abbot rose against him and proposed to kill him, which they would have done without redress had God not laid his restraining hand upon them at the last moment. For help came in the shape of lord Henry le Spencer, bishop of Norwich …


Monday, 17 June

John Ball was on the run.

After Smithfield, he headed north. Unlike the rebel rank-and-file, Ball could not return to Kent or Essex - even before the revolt he had been notorious in those counties, and now, having preached to tens of thousands at Blackheath, and been party to the murder of an archbishop at Tower Hill, he was one of the best-known men in south-east England.

As Ball moved north, heading in the direction of York, his birthplace, news raced ahead of him. Word of the rebellion he had baptised with his rhetoric had now spread to his home town. Even as he travelled on Monday, aggrieved townsmen had begun destroying York’s gates, walls and religious houses.

York was among the most northerly points of what was now fast becoming a national insurrection. Scarborough and Beverley, too, were facing insurrection. Latent tensions in towns and communities all the way up the east coast and inland as far as Leicester and Buckinghamshire were set to flame by news of what had happened in London. Ball was travelling in harness with the sweep of anarchy.1

It seems likely that he moved close to the western border of the insurgency, without ever straying deep into its new heartlands. With the government slowly moving into action to try to provide some sort of resistance, it would have been too dangerous. Preaching, too, would have exposed him, but this put Ball in a dilemma: how could he retain influence over a movement he felt he owned without making himself vulnerable to arrest and the same fate that had already befallen his comrade Tyler?

The answer lay in finding a new means of spreading his message, so as he travelled he wrote letters of spiritual instruction, and began to send them out to his distant flock. Numerous examples of Ball’s letters survive, and they are a compelling insight into his state of mind. He saw both the ideals of the movement diluted and its true adherents wavering in the face of the loss at Smithfield and the easy resort to simple plunder. As revealed in his words, Ball’s concerns about the changing nature of his revolt could not have been plainer. One typical letter went to the Essex contingent:

John Schep, sometime Saint Mary priest of York, and now of Colchester, greeteth well John Nameless and John the Miller, and John Carter, and biddeth them that they beware of guile [treachery] in the borough, and standeth together in God’s name, and biddeth Piers the Ploughman go to his work and chastise well Hob the Robber and taketh with you John Trueman and all his fellows, and no more, and look schappe you on to heued [i.e. be alert to take heed for yourselves] and no more.

The letter broke into verse:

John the Miller hath ground small, small, small;
The King of Heaven’s son shall pay for all
Be ware or be woe,
Knoweth your friend from your foe,
Haveth y-now [enough] and say ‘Ho’ [i.e. ‘no more’]
And do well and better, and fleth [i.e. shun] sin,
And seeketh peace and hold you therein,
And so biddeth John Trueman and all his fellows.2

Clearly, the north was on Ball’s mind, as he emphasised both his Yorkshire roots and his Essex links. The covert, almost masonic language of the letters spoke to all his former comrades, and their characterisation as ‘John the Miller’ and ‘John Trueman’ was not merely to avoid incriminating potential recipients, but also to conjure up the spirit of the ideal, stout and comradely commons.

Ball, now more than ever, feared treachery and the perversion of the aims of the revolt. The paranoid language in which he counselled his followers to beware of ‘guile in the borough’ and called for moderation and godly, industrious virtue suggested that as he travelled he saw the original aims of the rebellion slipping from the minds of the splintering movement, subsumed beneath greed and theft.

As he travelled north, he sent more of these letters, using various allegorical pen-names in addition to his own. Sometimes he wrote as ‘Jakke Carter’, sometimes as ‘Jakke Trewman’. In almost all his letters he wrote of a time now arrived, the necessity of holding firm, guarding against deceit and purifying hearts against gluttony, covetousness and plunder.

The letters also indicate a man who felt he still had a claim to the central momentum of the revolt. This, though, was his mistake. For his star, inevitably, was waning. And though he did not know it, as Ball rode up towards the east Midlands that Monday on his way to York, he came within two days’ hard ride of another maverick churchman who was about to take charge of the final phase of the topsy-turvy summer.

Henry Despenser, bishop of Norwich, was, like Ball, a man of piety and of action. But he was also a landed aristocrat, a man of the established Church, and a staunch ally of king and Christ. He was a typical member of the lusty class of Edwardian knights: a wealthy young man whose formative years had been spent earning his spurs in battle on the Continent, where, as a vigorous and skilful soldier, he had caught the eye of Pope Urban V. In 1370, when Despenser was just twenty-seven years old, the Pope had seen in him not just the virtues of a soldier, but of a soldier of Christ, and a man who might protect the interests of the Church by his ability to proselytise with his sword as well as his sermons. The normal rules of episcopal appointment had been abrogated in appointing him to the vacant see of Norwich, and for the last eleven years, Despenser had been building a reputation as a bishop with wider concerns than the mere welfare of his flock.

Like Ball, Despenser had seen enough of the revolt in East Anglia to know that Tyler’s death and the young king’s reported victory at Smithfield were an end as much as a sea-change in the drama of the revolt. Despenser had seen the chaos that was beginning to grip the countryside while he had been travelling at pace across it from Norwich, during the beginning of the weekend, when he had moved from his diocesan throne to the manor of Burleigh in the east Midlands - a family home in a village nestled among forests and the flood plain of the meandering River Gwash.

Despenser’s exit from Norwich on Saturday had been well timed, for even as he arrived in Burleigh, the area surrounding the city was falling to a mob under a dyer called Geoffrey Litster. In leaving Norwich, Despenser had avoided a siege at Litster’s hands and - potentially - the same fate that had befallen his archbishop in London. Burleigh was a convenient point of safety within two days’ hard ride of the seat of his bishopric - a well-armed base on the western edge of the known revolt from where he could safely monitor it without risking capture.

As he had ridden, he had passed north of areas threatened by roaming gangs of insurgents. He managed to avoid any significant encounter with the rebels, but the news reaching him would have promised that very soon he would have to face them.

The countryside would have buzzed with reports of widespread uproar. Property belonging to John of Gaunt was under attack throughout Norfolk, from the coast to the edge of the Fens. Bands of men were riding together throughout the county committing a variety of violent and criminal acts, besieging towns and monasteries and attempting to coerce county gentry to accept leadership of their gangs.

Everywhere he stopped, Despenser would have learned of very serious trouble breaking out around most of the major towns in the east. As well as Litster’s rule in and around Norwich, there was uproar in Cambridge, King’s Lynn and Ely. Huntingdon was braced for attack as, farther north, was Leicester.

Throughout the region, power had been almost entirely usurped by rebel bands. The most dangerous of these was led by a renegade priest called John Wrawe. Wrawe and his men were peculiarly vicious in their methods, which included extortion, arson, robbery and murder, and were concentrated mainly upon the triangle of land between Cambridge, Bury and Ely.

Wrawe’s name must have been known to Despenser by the time he arrived in Burleigh on Sunday, for by that time he and his followers had already smashed and plundered the Priory of St Edmunds at Bury, stolen jewels and treasure worth hundreds of pounds, drunk themselves insensible on wine paid for with plundered goods, blackmailed the town of Thetford and various people of Suffolk for protection payments, ransacked churches, rustled horses and destroyed houses. For those crimes alone Wrawe was already notorious, but in addition to all these things, a band closely sympathetic to his leadership had murdered the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, Sir John Cavendish.

This was a crime as grave as the murders of Sudbury and Hales, and the horror of Cavendish’s death by beheading in the village of Lakenheath on Friday would have rippled out from Bury, where his head was displayed on the pillory in the marketplace. Certainly it would have reached Cambridge, where Cavendish was chancellor of the university, and from there it had no doubt travelled north-west to Burleigh. Terrible stories circulated, recounting games that had been played with the severed heads of Cavendish and John of Cambridge, the prior of Bury St Edmunds: poles had been jammed into their bloodied necks and their heads made to perform grotesque puppet shows, talking together and kissing in imitation of their close relationship in life. The prior’s body, stripped to his shirt and breeches, was still lying in an open field, untouched and unburied for fear of the wrath of Wrawe’s band.

So by Sunday evening, when he arrived at Burleigh, Bishop Despenser had little time to sit and reflect. In any case, that was not in his nature. Trouble was now virtually at his doorstep. The next day he mustered a small group of armed men - eight lances and a handful of archers - armed himself to the teeth and headed out into the storm.

From Burleigh, Despenser rode east along the course of the river to Stamford. Here news reached him that Peterborough, a few miles southeast, was under attack. The magnificent and modern abbey was one of the richest institutions in England. It housed relics of the murdered martyr St Thomas à Becket and the arm of the Northumbrian king St Oswald. But, more likely, what interested the invaders was the highly visible wealth of the abbey, the head of the abbot and the court rolls and documents relating to large swathes of land, the mills, water tolls and woodlands. Just as at St Albans, there was long-harboured tension between the abbey and its tenants, and chaos provided the perfect environment in which to seek justice.

Relief, however, came not in reasonable protest but in a murderous petty crusade. Despenser arrived to find a wild scene unfolding. The huge, arched west front of the abbey church was besieged; the statues of St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew, high above on the gables, gazed down upon a crowd of neighbours and tenants of the abbey hollering for the abbot’s life.3 They were in a state of high agitation. The country had been further whipped up by news that the renowned knight Sir Robert Salle had been murdered in Norfolk.4 It was also rumoured that William Ufford, earl of Suffolk, had fled his county disguised as a servant, for fear of capture and subjugation by a rebel band eager to recruit him as a puppet leader of real worship and nobility.

With churchmen and now nobility under siege, it is no surprise that the Peterborough rebels had not anticipated the arrival of a vigorous bishop carrying a large, heavy, double-edged sword. Despenser’s men charged the mob, scattering them in terror. Holy compassion was in short supply, and Despenser’s small company hacked down all the rebels they could catch.

A number fled into the abbey church, seeking refuge behind the thick Norman walls in the hope of sanctuary under the eyes of God. But the warrior in Despenser prevailed over the churchman. Reasoning that those who had not feared to destroy the ramparts of the church did not deserve its immunity, Despenser pursued the rebels to the altar and his men cut them to ribbons.

There was a certain irony in a bishop rescuing the abbey with a sword, and it did not escape the Lancastrian chronicler Henry Knighton, as he recorded how the confidence of the Peterborough rebels had evaporated once those of their number were either taken prisoner, or slain against the inner and outer walls of the church.

‘So was fulfilled the saying of the prophet [i.e. St John the Evangelist],’ he wrote, satisfied at the conclusion of this episode. ‘“You will rule them with iron rods and break them like a potter’s vessel.”’

For the bishop, however, this was not the fulfilment of his journey, but the beginning. As John Ball, off to the west, stole home towards Yorkshire, Despenser aimed, purposeful and bold, back east to his home in Norwich. Geoffrey Litster, the dyer who hankered to be King of the Commons, was preparing to enter the city, forcing knights to act as his servants and extorting protection money from the townsfolk. The king and council were barely reasserting their grip on power around London - there would be no help from the government for the foreseeable future. To all practical ends, the security of the whole of East Anglia now fell under the protection of Despenser. The bishop secured his prisoners and turned his sights south, towards Huntingdon.

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