Post-classical history


The populace shuddered at the spectacle of so many gibbeted bodies exposed to the light of day … Despite all the retribution thus visited on the guilty the severity of the royal displeasure seemed to be in no way mitigated but rather to be directed with increased harshness towards the punishment of offenders … It was widely thought that in the circumstances the king’s generous nature ought to exercise leniency rather than vindictiveness …

Westminster Chronicle

The firmer the grip Richard and his officers retook of the realm, the tougher they seemed to want to be. Lenience was not forthcoming.

At the end of June, this was understandable. The rebellious spirit was infectious. Even as Richard moved out of the City and into Essex, there was trouble from the West Country to the northern marches.

In Bridgwater, Somerset, the townspeople, in collusion with various willing accomplices drawn from the local gentry, had during the past week indulged in a typically gluttonous programme of violence. They had begun by bullying the inhabitants of the Augustinian Hospital of St John, and progressed to extortion, theft, charter-burning, jail-breaking and murder.

Likewise, in York, the spirit of violence had turned long-running and complex political grievances between factions among the citizens into open internal warfare. Again, attacks had been made on local religious houses, and serious trouble was fomenting by the end of June between factions attached to rivals for the office of mayor.

In character, if not method, isolated spates of urban uproar bore little relation to anything which Wat Tyler or John Ball had originally envisaged when they had been marching on London. They contained nothing but political point-scoring and violent rapacity. But they were problematic, as they both sprang from and furthered the countrywide spirit of chaos and disorder. That spirit had somehow to be quashed, and Richard’s methods were severe.

He split the rebellious parts of England into neat packages. Having sent commissions to the most troubled counties, Richard empowered them with extraordinary military and judicial discretion. Due process of law was to be applied in trying the rebels where practical, but the commissioners were authorised to keep or restore order or to settle cases by any other means they saw fit. The highways of England would have rumbled to the sound of these heavily armed commissions coming to bring military justice to the people. Judgement was always supposed to be awe-inspiring, but now it would have been terrifying. It was merciless and unrestrained, and it was brought in warlike fashion, rather than with wisdom and responsibility.1

The earl of Buckingham had been sent with his considerable army to pacify Essex. That Richard deployed his weightiest military resources in that direction was testimony to the volatile nature of the county. Though there had been Essex men in London and at Mile End, many of the first movers of rebellion had concentrated on terrorising their own county. There had been severe rioting, particularly along the east coast and in the stretch of countryside between Chelmsford and Colchester. There was still dangerous tension around the former, where the greatest public burning of county records had taken place on 11 June, and Buckingham wasted little time in opening sessions there.

But Essex was barely ready for peace sessions. Revolutionary fervour remained. And so, as Buckingham’s commission sat on Tuesday 25th, it was approached by one John Preston, a resident of Hadleigh, a small town west of Ipswich, not far inside the Suffolk border. Preston had presumably been active in one of the bands that played havoc across the Suffolk and Essex border. He was certainly one of the more ideologically literate rebels, but possibly one of the more politically naive, for he brought before Buckingham a written petition of demands, intended for the king.

Preston’s petition addressed Richard on behalf of the commons, and rehearsed again the demands for manumission of serfs and a fixed rent of 4d an acre made at Mile End. In effect, it was a request for confirmation of the charters that had been extorted from the Crown under the traumatic invasion of London.

Buckingham’s commission must have looked on Preston with disbelief. They had him immediately arrested and brought before them for questioning. The commissioners asked him who had produced the petition. He admitted that it was his work. Incredulous, they asked him who had delivered it to them, and again - there was little point in denying it - Preston said that he had brought it. He was immediately beheaded.2

If this seemed like rough justice for behaviour that at any other time would barely have been seditious, let alone treasonable, it was a mark both of the nervousness and of the arbitrary power of Richard’s commissions.

Such were the times. Ascribing such wide-ranging powers to his commissioners served to embolden the English nobility to act with the decisiveness and purpose shown by Bishop Despenser on his grand foray across East Anglia. And it was under Despenser that the next decisive event of the week took place. The bishop had finally reached Norwich on the weekend, at the same time as Richard was settling at Waltham. Despenser was, even in late June, still acting unsanctioned by the royal government, but he was playing a vital role in arresting any further development of rebellion. Commissioners rode hard behind him, to secure what he had won - Hugh de la Zouche in Cambridgeshire was seeking to track down and execute the Cambridgeshire rebel leader John Hauchach, while the earl of Suffolk was dispatched to begin restoring the East Anglian peace in his own county - but Despenser himself had one last target. It was one of honour as much of necessity, and it was also one of great symbolism. His target was the head of Geoffrey Litster.

Sensing his quarry near, Despenser had ridden into Norwich on Monday, 24 June, attended by an array of Norfolk’s knights and gentlemen, drawn to his side as he travelled through the countryside. The party entered Norwich to find the city despoiled, but no sign of his man. The King of the Commons was away in the countryside, holding court around the North Walsham area. After a short delay to help pacify the city, by Wednesday 26th Despenser was ready. He organised his company and set out from the city for his long-awaited confrontation with the architect of Norwich’s destruction.

Litster was waiting. On hearing that the bishop had arrived in Norwich, he sent riders thundering through the villages of north Norfolk, holding assemblies against the bishop, recruiting men and attempting to restore the unity that was last seen on Mousehold Heath. After two days of frantic conscription, they managed to recruit a semblance of an army, based just south of North Walsham.

The rebel army dug in. There was but rudimentary field experience among the ranks, and they arranged themselves as best they could to await Despenser’s arrival. A military ditch was fashioned around the place of assembly, and it was reinforced with tables, shutters and gates, all held together with wooden stakes. They barricaded the rear with carts and carriages.3

Whatever slight military know-how lay behind the rebel fortifications, it was no match for the bishop’s knightly training. Years spent close to the action in the French wars had hardened him to tough enemies and unfavourable odds. A peasant army underwritten by a few hasty earthworks and a higgledy-piggledy wagon train was hardly intimidating.

He led his small armed band towards the rebels, and with a command fired by all his righteous indignation, called his buglers and trumpeters to sound, seized a lance and charged. His display of leadership and military skill left a lasting impression on his contemporaries - Thomas Walsingham likened him to ‘a wild boar gnashing its teeth’ - and he scattered the rebel ranks in a whirlwind of vicious hand-to-hand combat.

Very rapidly the carts that made up the rebels’ rear defences became more attractive as getaway vehicles, and there was a rush among Litster’s men to mount them and flee. But, as in Huntingdon, Despenser gave orders to hunt down the deserters, who were struck down until the bishop had vanquished the whole sorry rebel rearguard.

Finally, amid the melee, Litster was captured, and the fighting drew to an end. Despenser used the discretionary powers he had assumed to himself as the diocesan avenging angel and sentenced the King of the Commons to a traitor’s death.

Yet for all his furious heroics, Despenser did not forget that he had a pastoral duty, even to the most errant of his flock. He confessed and absolved Litster as his office demanded, and as the condemned man was dragged to the gallows, Despenser held up his head to prevent it from banging on the ground.

It was a small mercy; Litster was hanged, then cut down and his bowels cut from his body and burned in front of him, before finally being beheaded. His body was cut into four pieces. Three were sent to Yarmouth, Norwich and Lynn. The last was nailed up outside his house in Framlingham, as a reminder to all who passed by what happened to false kings.

Richard, still at Waltham, would have heard of all of this with satisfaction. His honour was being restored, and the memory of the shame brought upon his royal dignity was being erased. But there was work still to do, and the audacity of the commons continued to surprise the court.

Driven back from Chelmsford by Buckingham’s presence, crowds of Essex rebels had begun to gather a few miles to the south, around the village of Rettenden, near Billericay. ‘Trusting too much in their own strength,’ wrote one observer, ‘and deceived by their own pride they determined either to enjoy the liberty they sought by violence or to die in fighting for it.’4

Probably at the same time that Richard Preston was sent to treat for the rebels’ liberties with Buckingham, envoys were sent east to Waltham, to plead the same case before the king and council. They asked once again for their liberty to be equal with that of the lords, and for freedom from enforced appearance before the courts.

The request, as at Chelmsford, met only with astonishment at the rebels’ temerity. For a time, Richard and his council deliberated on the best course of action. There was, as with Buckingham, a reasonable precedent for instant retribution; but Richard was either minded or persuaded to respect the traditional rights of envoys.

Rather than beheading them, he delivered to them a personal speech that could have left the commons in no doubt whatever that the pact between ‘King Richard and the trew commons’ was exposed as utterly false. Walsingham recorded the king’s words, and even if there was a poetic licence to his rendition, the sentiment was undoubtedly preserved:

Oh! You wretches, hateful on land and sea, and not worthy to live, who demand to be made equal to your lords. You would certainly have died a most ignominious death if we had not determined to observe the rights of envoys …

Give this message to your colleagues from the King. Villeins you are, and villeins you will remain; in permanent bondage, not as it was before, but incomparably harsher …

While by God’s grace we rule over this kingdom, we shall strive … to keep you in subjection, to such a degree that the suffering of your servitude may serve as an example to posterity, and that now and in the future men like you may ever have before your eyes your present misery as something to contemplate, a reason for cursing you and for fearing to perpetrate crimes like yours.5

The rebels departed, the young king’s scolding hanging dark in the air behind them, and the rumble of an avenging army hard on their heels. Two days later, on Friday, 28 June, exactly two weeks after the Kent, Essex and London rebels had besieged the Tower of London, taunted their king and the great burgesses of London on their way to Mile End, dragged Flemings from sanctuary and flooded the streets of the capital with blood, the stage was finally set for royal retribution.

The court had crossed Hainault Forest to Havering-atte-Bower, five miles east of the rebel camp in Billericay. Between them was Brentwood, where Thomas Baker’s assaults on the poll tax commissioners had lit the first flames of revolt. Like Litster’s men, the Essex rebels had dug in, hundreds of men fortifying the woodland’s natural defences with ditches, stakes and carts.

Like Litster’s rebels, their rudimentary defences were hopeless. Buckingham and Lord Thomas Percy marched on Billericay and sent a small company of ten lances into the woods to drive out their target.

With heavily armed soldiers piling through the undergrowth, the stand descended swifly into chaos. The rebel positions were scattered, hopeless against heavy cavalry, and the forest erupted with frightened men fleeing for their lives. All they found as they broke cover, though, was the main body of Buckingham’s encircling army. Those who survived abandoned their horses and possessions and hiked north to Colchester, and then to the Suffolk border and Sudbury - no doubt hoping vainly to find John Wrawe still active there. But John Wrawe was gone, and behind them, relentless and well supported, came Buckingham’s knights Sir William Fitzwalter and Sir John Harleston, full ready to pick off the weak, and imprison the lucky ones.

The rest of the Essex rebels - perhaps five hundred of them in all - eventually ran confused and indisciplined from the Billericay woods, the place where everything had begun, and exposed themselves, ramshackle and totally vulnerable. They were cut down without mercy as they poured out from among the trees.

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