Post-classical history


John Balle seynte Marye prist gretes wele alle maner men and byddes hem in the name of the Trinite, Fadur, and Sone and Holy Gost stoned manlyche togedyr in trewthe, and helpez trewthe, and trewthe schal helpe yowe. Now regnith pride in pris and covetys is hold wys, and leccherye withouten shame and glotonye withouten blame. Envye regnith with treson and slouthe is take in grete sesone. God do bote, for nowe is tyme amen.

Letter from John Ball, preserved by Henry Knighton

Tuesday, 18 June-Wednesday, 19 June

Two full days had passed since London had been emptied of rebels, and at last Richard and his council could begin to establish some sense of structure to government.

In London, the proceedings of the extraordinary commission awarded to Walworth and the aldermen became active. With the powers of mutilation, decapitation and summary, extralegal justice, reprisals were swift and brutal. ‘Gibbets arose where none had been before, since existing ones were too few for the bodies of the condemned,’ remembered the Westminster chronicler.

In the busy thoroughfare at Cheap, where the blood that had spilled out of the rebels’ victims was barely washed away, a new block was erected. Speed was of the essence in executing anyone condemned for taking part in the rising. Some of the guilty were beheaded, others hanged before decapitation. Royal law was now responsible for the gore that congealed in the straw and dirt of the streets, and it would have been a shocking scene even to a City so recently privy to the same acts at the hands of the rebels. Royal law was usually expected to act with restraint in equal measure to the awful symbolism of ritual public punishment.

But Walworth’s justice was chillingly biblical. It was less a case of an eye for an eye, and more a head for a head. Flemings from the riverside communities massacred by the rebels were allowed to execute with their own hands the rebels found guilty of taking part in the slayings. Flemish wives struggled with heavy axes and killed their husbands’ murderers. London’s executioners were no impartial agents of justice, but friends to murdered men, and axe-wielding widows.1

If the punishments were severe it was because to Richard and the council, clemency after the ordeal could not be countenanced. Following his show of royal magnanimity at Smithfield, the young king had hardened his heart. No longer fearful for his life and the City’s immediate safety, panic turned to anger. An English king slighted was a dangerous prospect, and early in life Richard began to display the same easily fanned tendency towards vengeance that Plantagenet kings right back to Henry II had demonstrated.

Having provided for the security of London, on Tuesday, 18 June, he witnessed by his own hand a commission that went out ‘to each and every one of the sheriffs, mayors, bailiffs and others of our loyal subjects’ in the shires, calling them to oppose by force all rebels against the peace. Far from being a dry legal formality, Richard’s commission fairly bristled with rage: ‘We would have you know through this present letter that it is not at all with our approval or authority that [various rebellious subjects] have gone ahead with such risings, assemblies, and harmful deeds, for these should not have been planned or carried out,’ he wrote, tartly.

‘Indeed,’ the commission continued, ‘our displeasure resulting from these deeds could not be greater than it is, and we feel that their actions have been a very great insult to us, injurious to the crown, and harmful and disturbing to the whole of our kingdom.’2

These letters sped across the country, arriving within days in the English shires that remained turbulent and hot with conspiracy and confederations. All the country now knew the king was wrathful.

In East Anglia, however, news of the king’s wrath was barely beginning to affect the enthusiasm of the rebel bands that pocketed the shires. The bloody murders committed under John Wrawe at Bury St Edmunds ended with the news from London that Tyler had been vanquished, but north of Suffolk the mayhem continued. Manors across Norfolk and Cambridgeshire continued to be plagued by rioting crowds demanding their ancient liberties and burning court rolls and other symbols of land tenure and lordship. Unlike in London, there was scant thought for reforming the realm at large; by and large it was individual disputes which were pursued.

The widespread violence put an extreme skittishness into the hearts of lords and local governors across England. Henry Knighton recalled how ‘the hearts of all men in every part of the realm, however remote, trembled with fear of the rebels; and everywhere it was fearfully believed that the rebels were about to arrive in person and without warning’. In Leicester itself the mayor had everyone in the town arm themselves in preparation for the arrival of a rebel band rumoured to be marching from Harborough, about five miles to the south-east. The band never came, but the fear was such that the abbot refused to store in Leicester Abbey any valuable property belonging to the duke of Lancaster. Gaunt was a marked man in one of his own towns: his possessions had already been cleared out of the town’s castle in the hope of avoiding a repeat of the nightmare at the Savoy.

In tandem with the rising paranoia across the country, there was a disturbing development to the rebellion in Norfolk. Several local gentry were rumoured to have assumed leadership of bands of rebels. Geoffrey Litster was backed in Norwich by Sir Roger Bacon, who had helped lead the storming of the city, riding at the head of the rebel band, decked out as if for war, flags fluttering above him. This was a serious development, showing as it did that the social boundaries of rebellion were expanding dangerously.

Amid all this, however, there was one important pocket of East Anglian authority. At the centre was Despenser. Following his success at Peterborough, Despenser and his well-armed retinue started to gather in their orbit the first coherent armed band of loyalists in the region. By Tuesday 18th the effect was beginning to be seen on the triangular region of fenland between Peterborough, Huntingdon and Ely.

Late the previous evening a party of commons had passed by the small town of Huntingdon, on their way north, where - according to one chronicler - ‘in their malice and villainy they intended to ravage the land and destroy good men’.3 Huntingdon was a necessary stage on the route north that linked London, Lincoln and York, because its large, five-arched stone bridge over the River Ouse, which had been erected in the 1330s, was the principal crossing point in the region.

It was most likely a combination of the added geographical security that the river border offered, the cheering news of Despenser’s progress through the Fens and a steeliness of collective nerve which emboldened Huntingdon’s townsmen. When the rebels arrived at the bridge, they encountered a belligerent crowd. William Wightman, an official from the Westminster bureaucracy, headed the townsmen, who must have been well armed, for they gave battle to the rebels, killing two or three and putting the rest to flight. It was a small but important victory, later rewarded by the king, who in December publicly thanked the borough for its loyalty and who the next year awarded Wightman a pension for his actions in repelling the invaders. They were deserved accolades: the little town of Huntingdon had shown greater spirit in defending its bridge than all London had shown on Corpus Christi.

That spirit travelled on the air a couple of miles north to Ramsey Abbey, where a band of rebels from Ely had been blackmailing the abbot in much the same manner as was occurring all across East Anglia - where the standard form was to invoke the menacing prospect of either John Wrawe or the late Wat Tyler sending thousands of rampaging commons unless liberties and court rolls were handed over. The Ely rebels had spent much of the night camped in Ramsey town, dining and drinking themselves to satiety on bread, wine, ale and other supplies they had extorted from the abbey. Consequently, they had been late rising that morning.

Hung over - or, at the very least, tired and confused - they presented an easy target for Despenser. His retinue bolstered by the men of Huntingdon keen to follow up their earlier victory, he laid into the rebel band, in what seems to have been an uneven skirmish. Those that fled were chased down and dispatched by the roadside. The trees around the towns, villages and highways of Huntingdonshire were decorated with the severed heads of the insurgents as a warning to anyone considering an attack on this remarkably resilient outpost of order.

And so Despenser pushed on towards his diocese. So far he had seen little to test his zeal. But the road back to Norwich was still littered with danger. From Huntingdon the bishop turned east, and set out towards Cambridge.

He reached the small university town on 19 June, arriving from the north-west. The castle that sat on the lone hill that emerged from the surrounding fenlands cast an impotent shadow over the troubled settlement below it. Travelling the relatively short distance from Huntingdon, Despenser would have heard of severe unrest in Cambridge.4 It had been caused by a combination of townsmen and agitators from the county. Rioting began with attacks on property belonging to a local landowner and Crown agent, Roger of Harleston, and spread outwards, involving factions from the whole of Cambridge society.

Harleston was one of the principal victims - he had been roundly punished for his inflammatory status in both town and county community. He was a burgess of the town and a conspicuously wealthy one, at that. But he was also tightly connected to the county administration, having held office as an MP, and a commissioner both for the labour laws and the poll tax. He was an aggressively acquisitive office-holder and land speculator with recent and lavish wealth throughout the town and the outlying county manors. In his unfortunate person was summed up every iniquity resented by the rebels at large, and his property paid the price in the days of rioting that took place over Corpus Christi weekend.

But as Despenser rode into town, he saw more than simply the piecemeal destruction of one wealthy social climber’s property portfolio. The town was a mess. Its economic and religious centres had been roundly despoiled. St Mary’s church, which had been terrorised and plundered on Sunday, bore the scars of a rambunctious desecration. Jewels and plate had been stolen, and the great university chest, in which were kept important documents and muniments pertaining to the scholars’ administration of their considerable jurisdiction in Cambridge, had been forcibly opened and raided.

Riding a hundred yards or so along the road, Despenser would have seen Corpus Christi College, which had also been invaded, and its books, letters, charters and other documents taken from it. The Carmelite house had suffered the same fate. Elsewhere a house belonging to the university bedel, William Wigmore, had been looted and destroyed.

The marketplace bore the signs of another riot. On Sunday, Despenser would have discovered, with merely the slightest of effort, that a great bonfire had been held to consign to oblivion all those charters that had been gathered from university strongrooms. A mob had gathered about the flames to throw in the plundered parchment. Ash mingled on the ground with thin slivers of sealing wax, scratched away from documents with sticks, knives and whatever other weapons had come to hand. A townswoman by the name of Marjery Starr had achieved brief notoriety for throwing ash up to blow about in the summer air, while shouting ‘Away with the learning of the clerks! Away with it!’

Marjery Starr’s spirit of jubilant vandalism had stolen into the whole city, and a mob comprising both townsmen and country rebels had laid waste the parks and property belonging to Barnwell Priory, a little way out from the town centre. The prior had been terrorised into signing a bond worth £2000 to submit to the rebels’ will. With John Cavendish, chancellor of the university, several days dead at the hands of Wrawe sympathisers, there was little choice for the university members but to follow suit; they had £3000 extorted from them, as well as a series of agreements concerning civil governance that were skewed as heavily in the townsmen’s favour as those previous had been against them.

Like the town, the surrounding countryside had also suffered. The roads in and out of town had been trampled in both directions by hoofs and human feet alike. County men, some of whom had been at least inspired by, and possibly even in contact with, Tyler’s rebels, had come to town to join in the attacks on Harleston’s townhouses; returning the favour, men from the town - including the first movers in the anti-Harleston riots at Cottenham on 9 June - had gone frequently in the opposite direction. As many as 160 mounted townsmen had ridden out on Saturday to the hospital at Shingay and the two manors at Steeple Morden and Giles (Guilden) Morden to join attacks inspired by county men who resented both the Hospitallers and the local landowner, Thomas Hasilden.

It is a shame that no record of Despenser’s conversation with Mayor Edmund Lister of Cambridge exists, for the bishop would have surely had some coruscating words for the supposed civic leader concerning his role in the city riots. Unlike in London and the other major towns affected by the revolt, the town hierarchy was extremely prominent in leading the rebellion. The mayor, claiming he had acted under duress and in the belief that the king had sided with the insurgents, had led them throughout much of the weekend, most notably against the university and the Priory of Barnwell. It was - Despenser would have seen - fairly clear that the county element of the Cambridge mob had been emboldened and enfranchised by the leadership, whether enthusiastic or otherwise, of mayor and burgesses.

Whatever was said by Despenser to Lister, it seems to have been effective, because, unlike in Peterborough and Huntingdonshire, there appears to have been little need for the bishop to show off his military competence. News of his own approach and the king’s extreme displeasure with rebels throughout his realm had arrived the previous day, swiftly winding down the rebellion. The town and countryside had been turned upside down, but there had been relatively little bloodshed, and no display of armed resistance. The matters of damaged property and extorted charters were serious, but could not merit summary justice against the upper reaches of the town’s hierarchy for fear of reducing the town to total anarchy. There was already quite enough of that in the surrounding countryside.

And with Cambridge, Despenser was closing in on his diocese. To get there he had to pass through one of the most dangerous and lawless parts of the country. What was left of Norwich, and who now ruled, he could not have known for sure. There was only one way to find out.

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