Post-classical history


The bishop hurried towards Norwich, moving to North Walsham, the place the commons had chosen to wait for the King’s reply and the return of their colleagues. As the bishop crossed through the country the number of his forces increased. The knights and gentlemen of the area who had previously lain low for fear of the commons joined the bishop’s side when they saw him dressed as a knight, wearing an iron helm and a solid hauberk impregnable to arrows as he wielded a real two-edged sword…


East Anglia, Saturday, 22 June

Moving north-east towards his diocesan seat in Norwich, every mile took Despenser closer to the most perilous area of the revolt. Its western fringes, in which he had dismissed and dispatched bands of urban and rural rebels with a dashing combination of military aggression and ecclesiastical pomp, were its least organised. But as he pushed in the direction of the Norfolk coast, Despenser was riding into the rebel heartlands.

Norfolk, as the most northerly county to experience truly widespread rioting, was also the latest to rise. Whereas Suffolk and Cambridgeshire had both been infected with rebellion from Essex since before Corpus Christi, the eastern parts of Norfolk had remained calm until Monday 17th, when Despenser was far away at Burleigh.

Since then, nine of the fourteen peace commissioners for Norfolk, who had been appointed in November and December 1380, had been marked for attacks by the county commons. They included John of Gaunt, who owned property in the north-east of the county, William Ufford, duke of Suffolk, Robert Howard, Stephen Hales, Reginald de Ecceles and others.1 The bishop’s own manor at Hevingham had been plundered and its records burned.

During the previous weekend, rebel agitators had ridden through the villages of north-east Norfolk, inciting the local people to insurrection. And on that Monday, villagers from across the county had beaten a steady path towards Mousehold Heath, a large, rolling patch of heathland and forest close to Norwich.

They had gathered under the leadership of Litster, a dyer from the village of Felmingham. Litster seems, like Tyler and Ball, to have been capable of commanding large ranks of men by the force of his natural charisma, and he had associates responsible for some isolated rioting in the west of the county. He was also able to bring to his movement a calibre of support that made it very dangerous indeed: the presence of a significant number of Norfolk gentlemen.

Chief among Litster’s associates was Sir Roger Bacon. Bacon was a knight of Baconsthorpe, a manor some six miles from the north Norfolk coast, and half a day’s hard ride from Norwich. The cause of Bacon’s disgruntlement with the politics of the region and nation is obscure, but he very clearly held the nascent hierarchy in poor enough regard to risk his position by throwing in his lot with the rebel movement, knowing as he did so that he added immeasurably to the strength of the Norfolk insurgents.

Along with Bacon, Litster could count on the support of several other well-to-do county dignitaries, including Thomas Gyssing, son of one Sir Thomas Gyssing, who had sat as an MP for Norfolk in 1380. And the rebels were numerous enough and sufficiently threatening also to coerce others of the gentry into joining them. Sir Roger Scales, Sir Thomas Morley, Sir John de Brewes and Sir Stephen Hales, a poll tax controller, were all captured and forced to serve with Litster.

In mixing with gentry, Litster seems to have been indulging a fantasy of regality. As soon as his leadership was established, he began to style himself as ‘King of the Commons’ - a position that reflected a common medieval type played out in the deliberately topsy-turvy summer games that were played at village festivals. Litster, however, set out permanently to invert the tradition. He forced Scales, Morley, Brewes and Hales to do his bidding as courtly servants, tasting his food and attending to a variety of similarly menial tasks. Litster doubtless took as much pleasure in the ritual humiliation of his social betters as he did in indulging his lofty social ambition - he may also have been dabbling with the ideology of restoring the kingdoms of the commons.

Whatever it was that motivated him, he had, on that Monday, assembled a large and willing crowd on Mousehold Heath. The target was Norwich. When the respected courtly knight and war veteran Sir Robert Salle rode out from the city to attempt negotiations, he was dragged from his horse and murdered.2 It was a taste of what was to follow.

In Norwich, Tuesday, 18 June was remembered as a day of bloodshed and plunder. Litster’s huge band swarmed in from the heath, entered the city - led by Bacon - and embarked upon a vicious orgy of violence and rapine. Huge crowds tore into the houses of those connected with the law and with royal government (one prosecution after the revolt named 800 defendants for a single attack). Salle’s house was smashed and robbed. The wealthy citizen Henry Lominor, who, like Salle, had been an MP in 1378, was robbed of goods worth 1000 marks. Reginald Eccles, a Justice of the Peace, had been snatched by a mob from his manor lodgings in Heigham; his house was looted, rebels making off with goods including his furred official gown. He was brought into the city melee, dragged to the pillory, stabbed in the stomach and beheaded.

Tax collectors were, naturally, at great peril, and Walter de Bixton, who represented the city at the parliaments where poll taxes had been granted, and was subsequently appointed a collector, had his house broken into and pillaged. John de Freston, archdeacon of Norwich, suffered similarly. The only way that marked townspeople could seek protection was by paying extortionate ransoms to protect their property.

As Norwich suffered, outbreaks of violence erupted right across the county. On the 18th, while Despenser was in Peterborough, there were riots in Rougham and Wyghton, Langford and Southery. One Robert de Gravele narrowly escaped death, agreeing, as his head was held on the block, to pay his tormenters 8 marks, 16 pence and 28 cows in return for his life.

By the next morning, the 19th, while Despenser was in Cambridge, the Norwich rebels had splintered outwards. They behaved more like the Essex men than the Kentishmen, dispersing around the county in small groups to pursue private quarrels, and indulge themselves in largely aimless plunder and extortion. Bacon and Litster headed east, taking a band across the broads and the marshland that sprawled out along the banks of the River Yare and on towards the coast to Great Yarmouth. There was a long-standing dispute at Yarmouth concerning the jurisdiction of a nearby port, and rights to the herring trade on which the town was built.

On arriving at Yarmouth the rebels broke open the jail and freed all the prisoners but three Flemings, whom they beheaded. Rioting ensued, and the houses of local gentlemen were smashed. The town’s charter of liberties was extracted from the town’s burgesses by menace; Bacon and Litster had it torn in two, and sent one half the few miles down the coast and across the county border into Suffolk, where they understood Wrawe was fomenting trouble around Beccles and Lowestoft. Bacon then turned north, riding along the coast and up to Winterton, stopping on the way to plunder and extort ransoms in Caister. Litster, too, went north, heading towards North Walsham and Thorpe Market.

Having destroyed their county town, and surely realising that the wrath of the Crown would not be delayed indefinitely, by the end of the week Bacon and Litster had run out of steam. Their followers were scattered about the county, and Wrawe had retreated from Beccles back towards Essex. Bacon seems to have tired of action, and brought his part in the rampage to an end.

Litster, however, had warmed to the grandeur, and by Friday, 21 June, he was to be found at Thorpe Market, comporting himself in as grand a fashion as befitted the King of the Commons. There were attacks on John of Gaunt’s manors around Gimingham, and extensive burning of court rolls. There were outbursts in Mundesley, Knapton, Southrepps, Northrepps, Sidestrand, Trunch and other places. There were similar extensive attacks on the manors of the abbey of St Benets-at-Holme in the Flegg. Litster’s men still rode about the countryside proclaiming the rising in his name.

Yet for all these noisome efforts, Litster’s revolt was splintering and beginning to lack structure or direction. Accordingly, at the end of the week, as Despenser was leaving Cambridge, Litster had decided to seek a resolution to his game. He sent two of his knightly retinue, Sir Thomas Morley and Sir John de Brewes, along with three of his trusted commons - John Trunch of Trunch, William Kybyte of Worstead and Thomas Skeet also of Worstead - with instructions to seek out the king and lobby for a pardon and a grant of manumission. As leverage for this royal charter, they provided the party with a large sum of money extorted earlier in the week from the citizens of Norwich as an alternative to having their houses fired and their lives extinguished.

Laden down with plundered wealth and heavy expectations, Litster’s envoys took the road south-west out of Norwich. Unfortunately for the commons in the party, they were passing along the very same road as, and in the direction of, Bishop Despenser. Close to the village of Icklingham, in south-west Norfolk, on the edge of the king’s forest, at a spot where a watermill narrowed the road, the two parties met.

Having sent one of their number away to find victuals, the rebel party was one man down when they met the bishop. Nevertheless, the ragtag quartet he encountered struck Despenser as odd. As they approached, he greeted the knights, and ordered them to declare on their loyalty whether there were any traitors to the king present in their party.

This presented Morley and Brewes with a dilemma. Their service as Litster’s knights attendant had been uncomfortable and distressing. Even as they had been granted leave to find Richard II, Brewes’ manor at Heydon had been robbed by the rebels and his manorial court records burned. The sight of the professionally armed and well-supported bishop would have been a welcome glimpse of a return to order. On the other hand, their treatment under the commons had turned their world so firmly upside down that they had all but lost hope of rescue. Numbers were now strongly in their favour, but who knew what the reaction of the commons at large might be if they were ever discovered to have betrayed their captors? Frightened and uncertain, they told Despenser that everything was well.

Despenser saw straight through their fiction. He asked them a second time, pleading with them to have confidence in him and deliver up any traitors who were with them. His iron will was effective, and the knights took courage. They told Despenser that they had two of the greatest leaders of sedition in the county with them, while a third was foraging somewhere for their next meal. They told the bishop everything that had happened to them, and the purpose of their mission out of the county.

The bishop understood it all.

A little farther along the road was the small town of Newmarket. When Bishop Despenser’s party arrived there, they nailed up for public view the three freshly severed heads of Skeet, Trunch and Kybyte.3

Back in London, Richard and his court now felt secure enough to leave the City. The military commission under Walworth had restored public order, and re-established the disrupted flow of victuals into London, backed as he was by the power to use armed escorts to protect suppliers passing through the simmering countryside.

To ensure the loyalty of the citizens, on Thursday 20th Walworth had commanded the aldermen to take an oath of fealty from everyone in their wards, and to arrest anyone who refused. And the judicial commission to punish rebels, over which Walworth and Chief Justice Robert Belknap presided, had been meeting in the Guildhall all week. It was preparing to deliver by the following Monday all those prisoners that had been taken and were now held in Newgate jail.

With London restored to capable hands, Richard could contemplate turning his attention to the rest of the country. He still sorely missed the presence of Gaunt, whose personal influence over vast stretches of England through the duchy of Lancaster would have been immensely valuable in bringing the realm to order. But Gaunt had problems of his own, way in the north of the country. Despite having known privately of the disaster that had befallen the country and his own palace of the Savoy on Corpus Christi, the duke had held his nerve during the talks and negotiated a favourable peace treaty with the Scots from a position of extraordinary weakness. He left the chilly east coast border town of Coldingham, near Berwick, on the 20th to attempt to bring his retinue south to help his nephew.

Unfortunately, ill news had blown hard north. Wild rumours and distortions of what had passed at Mile End had consumed the country. It was said that the government had heard that Gaunt was bringing an army of 20,000 to seize the Crown for himself, and had accordingly declared him a traitor. Muddying this was the rumour that he had freed all the serfs on his estates, and was preparing to sweep into power at the head of a peasant army.

Of course, none of this was true, but Gaunt had enemies enough who were willing to believe the worst. These included the earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy. Percy sent Gaunt a message stating that he could offer him no reception or hospitality without the king’s explicit approval. The promise was made good when the duke reached the castle of Bamburgh to find its gates locked, on the earl’s command. Gaunt was forced to return north and throw himself on the hospitality of the Scots. Some four hundred miles from the worst crisis of order the country had ever known, the most experienced and powerful noble in the land was left exiled and impotent.

Events outran the speed of communication between the king and his uncle, so it was not for another week that Richard could send orders for Gaunt’s honourable protection in returning to England. In the meantime, he could take solace in the return of the earl of Buckingham, who was supported by an army from Brittany that had been intended for the harassment of the French.

Accordingly, on Thursday, 20 June, while Despenser was preparing to enter Norfolk and Walworth was taking oaths of good behaviour in London, Richard began to issue commissions to fight, try and punish rebels across the country.

The first commission went to Robert Tresilian, a senior judge who was now invested as Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench to replace the murdered Cavendish. Tresilian was a tough, unscrupulous Cornishman, who was both legally astute and personally intimidating. He was the perfect candidate to accompany Richard in person, a hanging judge to travel with the court out of London and into the shires. The second commission went to Buckingham, who was empowered to take his large armed force wherever it was required across the country to quell the revolt, but directed in the first instance towards the birthplace of the troubles: Essex. This commission required less in the way of legal finesse; rather, it was a blunt military instrument intended to hammer the rebels into submission.

With these first commissions established, the court moved. On Saturday, the king headed for Waltham, an abbey town in the southwest corner of Essex, right on the border with Hertfordshire. To get there, he would have taken the Bishopsgate out of the trembling City. The road that took him north led past the smoking husk of Hales’ manor in Highbury. This ugly reminder of the damage that had been done to the realm would have heaped fuel on to the young king’s furious heart.

When he arrived in Waltham, he prepared further punitive commissions. He sent his half-brother Thomas Holland into his new earldom of Kent to vanquish the rump of the rebellion there. William Ufford, earl of Suffolk, who had been forced to flee from John Wrawe’s rebels, was sent back into East Anglia with 500 lances to follow Despenser’s vanguard and pacify Norfolk and Suffolk. Suffolk headed first for Bury, where the most heinous crimes had taken place.

The tide, now, was turning. And so was Richard. Finally backed by military and judicial force, he prepared to take his full revenge on the rebels. He was no longer the benevolent boy who had captained his commons at Smithfield, and let them slip back home unharmed.

Now emerged a side of his personality that England would come to experience with terrible relentlessness during the course of his reign: cruel, obsessive vengeance.

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