Post-classical history


During this crisis, the commons held the peaceful duke of Lancaster as their most hated enemy of all mortal men and would certainly have destroyed him immediately if they had found him …


As the Northampton parliament progressed, it would have occurred to many who sat throughout the days of financial wrangling that one man, and one man alone, was to blame for Parliament’s strange location outside its usual home of Westminster. That man was John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster, and it was because of his long and significant feud with the City of London, its common people and citizens, that Parliament had moved.

There had been little love between the duke and the City for many years. The common people thought him a tyrant, and the great merchants who controlled the City’s politics and trade saw him as a dangerous enemy of their influence. They disliked Gaunt, and resented his blunt meddling in City affairs. Inevitably, given the shadow he cast over government, he received a disproportionate share of personal blame for the disastrous conduct of the Continental wars and the resulting threat to sea trading routes on the Continent and around the English coast. The hatred percolated through the orders of City folk, and the common multitude regarded the duke with suspicion and contempt, and took any chance to rise against him. Gaunt, for his part, lacked the common touch to win over the mob, resented the merchant oligarchs’ close relationships with the king and despised the royal reliance on their finances.

During the decline and death of Edward III, and the infancy of the present King Richard II, relations had reached a woeful state. Gaunt had no firm power base in the City, yet could not resist dabbling in its politics. For all his smooth charm in the international arena, when it came to domestic politics Gaunt seems to have found it pathologically impossible to ignore an opportunity for trampling on his lessers. The result was a skein of disastrous instability in City governance, and a series of riots and risings leading up to the summer of 1381. The stunning palace of the Savoy, built on the wealthy riverside strip of affluent suburbia, had come to serve as a locus of discontent for hostile citizens and the urban mob.

One of the major sources of friction in London was Gaunt’s unsubtle support for John Wyclif, the outspoken advocate of Church reform, who was regarded by many as a dangerous heretic. In February 1377 Gaunt had prompted rioting across the City by interfering in Wyclif’s trial for heresy at St Paul’s. William Courtenay, bishop of London, and a hugely influential figure across the well-steepled City, in which stood ninety-nine churches within the square mile of its walls, had been presiding over Wyclif’s interrogation, and Gaunt had appeared in the cathedral in support of his protégé. The case drew enormous interest from the common populace, who were roughly split in their opinions of Wyclif, but who were united in their suspicion of the duke, not least because he was widely believed to be considering the appointment of a royal captain to govern the City, in place of a popularly elected mayor.

The case before a packed and turbulent St Paul’s soon descended into a slanging match between duke and bishop, who raged at one another over an issue as trivial as whether Wyclif should stand or sit while the charges were read. And it erupted into chaos when Gaunt threatened to drag the indignant bishop out of the cathedral and all the way to Windsor by his hair.

Gaunt’s arrogance prompted total outrage and the trial quickly dissolved into violence. After a day’s protest a furious mob baying for Gaunt’s head thronged out of the City walls at Ludgate, made their way for two miles along Fleet Street and the Strand and attacked the Savoy. Gaunt had the good sense to leave home before the mob appeared on his doorstep and had fled downriver so the Londoners had contented themselves with turning upside down Gaunt’s coat of arms - the mark of a traitor. It was left to the humiliated Bishop Courtenay to bring the City to order.

Having thus offended London’s clerical population, excited her common folk and united both sides against him on a generally divisive issue, Gaunt had the very next year contrived to involve himself in another, even more serious incident, which had a similarly grievous effect on City morale and stability. There had been another major conflagration, as the controversial knight Sir Ralph Ferrers had burst into Westminster Abbey during Mass, violated sanctuary and murdered both a sacristan and a squire, Robert Hawley, who had sought refuge there following his escape from the Tower of London. Ferrers was thought wrongly to be connected with, or under orders from, Gaunt, and though the duke was, in fact, in Brittany at the time of the outrage, he waded into the debate on his return, choosing to defend Ferrers’ plainly appalling behaviour. Once again, he had inflamed tensions in London for the sake of imposing his own authority.

Yet again, there were protests, but Gaunt continued to meddle, and with his connivance, statutes were passed at the Gloucester parliament of 1378, stripping the fishmongers - one of the leading groups of merchants in London - of their trade monopolies and roles in national government: the richest and most powerful fishmonger, William Walworth, was removed from his position as war treasurer; the same treatment was afforded to the leading grocer in the City, John Philipot, who had contributed handsomely to the war effort not only via loans to the Crown, but also by chartering a private fleet of warships to protect the coast from Scottish pirates; and the earl of Buckingham had made a vehement speech attacking Nicholas Brembre, another of the greatest merchants in London and a close associate of Walworth and Philipot.

By summer 1379, the City had begun to develop something of a persecution complex. Rumour had started to spread of a plot, led by Gaunt, to strike still harder against London’s ruling elites. It was said that the Genoan ambassador to England, Janus Imperial, was in negotiations with the Crown not just to secure favourable trading terms, but to move England’s primary point of trade away from London. Speculation was rife that Southampton was to be made the new trading capital of the country, and that Gaunt and the Genoans were on the verge of brokering a deal that would break the London merchant oligarchs for good. In August, the merchants struck back: Imperial was brutally stabbed to death on the doorstep of his lodgings in St Nicholas Acon Street. John Kirkby and John Algor, a pair of small-time hoodlums selected from London’s native trading guilds, were sent to pick a fight with the ambassador’s servants, during the course of which Kirkby had stabbed the unfortunate ambassador twice in the head, killing him with two cuts to the skull, which the coroner described quite precisely as ‘seven inches long and deep into the brain’.1

This was more than just a warning shot. Imperial was an ambassador to the Crown, protected by royal warrants of safe passage and evidently extremely well connected. Killing him was an act of lèse-majesté - a wilful derogation of royal authority. Gaunt and the government strained every sinew to frame the case not simply as murder, but as treason. Forces in the City pressed hard on every investigating jury that was involved in the case to return no verdict, to resist the overtures to convict that were placed on them by judges, and generally to obstruct the case in every way possible.

Now the outcome was to be settled once and for all in a grand trial in Northampton. The result would be a serious boon for whichever party it favoured.

So, in early November 1380, Gaunt was heading south. He had spent late October and the first week of November in the chilly borderlands that buffered England from Scotland, negotiating peace between the realm of his nephew the king, and a deputation of Scottish lords. Now, as rain tipped down out of a leaden sky, he was riding home to England.

He had reason to be proud of his achievements. The king’s council had sent Gaunt north in late October as a trusted member of the court to squash the various petty northern squabbles that were threatening to erupt into an outbreak of serious violence. Trouble largely stemmed from pirates operating out of Hull and Newcastle, who had captured a Scottish ship. Sea-raiding was an occupational hazard for traffic in the North Sea, but on this occasion the Scots had reacted to the loss by breaching the border, terrorising the northern counties and looting Penrith. This was not an unusual occurrence, but the timing was bad, opening as it did another unwanted front in the war.

Gaunt, as the greatest landowner in the country, boasted territorial interests in every corner of England and Wales, from a castle in Northumberland to manors in south Devon; and fortresses and properties across the breadth of the country, from Carmarthen to East Anglia. Protecting the northern border certainly held some private interest for him; but he was also a champion of the rights of the Crown - a trait that often saw him unfairly characterised as having personal ambitions to the throne, but which made him a hugely effective ambassador in negotiating international settlements.

One of Gaunt’s maxims in diplomacy was ‘peace in time of peace, war in time of war’.2 With the war coffers virtually empty, he had gone north to ensure that this remained a time of peace. The royal council had sent advance orders to restrain the belligerent local lord, Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, from turning a squabble into a bloodbath, and Gaunt had been dispatched with sufficient military strength to subdue the enemy by force if necessary, but enough common sense to see the value of making peace, particularly when his own retinue contained a notable contingent of Scots.

On 8 November, Gaunt had completed his negotiations and left Newcastle with his retinue of soldiers, officials and servants. Conciliatory talks had ended with the agreement that neither side would invade for the next thirteen months. Gaunt had appointed officials to keep the peace on behalf of the Crown, successfully safeguarding his own small clusters of properties in Northumberland, Cumberland and County Durham from attack, as well as bringing peace to the realm at large. The northern border was secure, and Gaunt was free to turn his attentions to matters much farther south.

He had been content to leave the management of parliamentary taxation to lesser men than himself, but Gaunt was eager to get to Northampton before the proceedings at large were finished. He reached the town in time to see the end of the parliament, and to take his place at the head of a panel of nobles assembled to try Janus Imperial’s alleged killers, Kirkby and Algor. He lined up with Richard, earl of Arundel, Thomas Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, Hugh Segrave, steward of the king’s household, William Beauchamp, the king’s chamberlain, and Sir John Burley, and on 3 December, Algor was brought before them to give evidence. He was questioned first because he was the more malleable of the two men. Either his conscience or the king’s jailers had persuaded him to plea-bargain, so he came before the nobles not to fight his case, but to make a confession of his guilt, and to implicate his conspirators.

Algor, out of his depth and no doubt traumatised after a year in prison, did little more than rehearse the words Gaunt and the government wanted to hear. He explained what had happened when he and Kirkby had attacked Imperial’s servants, accepting responsibility for deliberately stamping on the ambassador’s feet, noting his own involvement in the knife fight, and blaming Kirkby for delivering the final wounds to Imperial. At this point his confession became political.

Algor implicated by association not only his master, Richard of Preston, but also the triumvirate of merchant oligarchs so troublesome to Gaunt: Brembre, Walworth and Philipot. Algor claimed Preston and Philipot had a financial interest in seeing Imperial killed, owing to an outstanding lawsuit between them, while Walworth and Brembre were identified as the owners of households in which anti-Genoan gossip and slander were rife. These were serious accusations, because Philipot was serving as mayor at the time of Imperial’s murder, and had personally arrested Kirkby and Algor. Walworth and Brembre, on the other hand, were not being directly accused of treason, but were compromised by their inclusion in the confession and now knew that they were being closely watched. Their latitude to govern effectively within their own city had been publicly clipped, and though no direct blow had been struck, the taint of treason by association now hung over them.

Having fulfilled his side of the bargain, Algor was returned to prison, where he would remain until 1384. Kirkby was dragged before the court the next day, charged with his crime and condemned to a traitor’s death. The sentence could not have been carried out in London, such was the outrage that it, and Algor’s blatantly political confession, would have generated among the citizens. But in the neutral territory of Northampton, Kirkby was hanged, drawn and quartered. It was a satisfying victory for Gaunt over the Londoners, and it completed what, for the government, was a successful month in the provinces: peace had been made, political points scored and justice dispensed. Taxes had been granted and the impetuous native government in London had been very publicly slapped down.

Yet the short-term gains at Northampton stored up some very serious problems for the future. An inequitable tax that targeted relatively poor rural communities had been approved by a combination of a notoriously inept government and a landowning class that had the strongest interest in shifting the fiscal burden away from themselves. The only remedy for the constant harrying of the coast and the crippling disruption of trade had been to throw more money at the problems.

Furthermore, the City of London, where many of these problems crystallised most visibly, had suffered once again from John of Gaunt’s destabilising influence. Determined to impose his personal authority, he had undermined a group of men who had ruling experience, private military means and sufficient private wealth to support the Crown when necessary. Instead of supporting their rule during a period of national insecurity, he had opened them up to attacks from their enemies within the City. The mayor, John Philipot - whose office was already under threat from Gaunt’s desire to impose direct royal government on London - was now suffering under the implied taint of treachery, as were other influential citizens, including Walworth and Brembre. This encouraged political division in the City, especially among the lower orders and lesser citizens who grumbled against what they saw as the overweening influence of the merchant oligarchs. This in turn added to the uneasy mood felt among the common folk of London, while simultaneously inflaming their dislike of Gaunt himself.

All of these things would have serious repercussions the following summer. But as Parliament closed and Northampton emptied of its exalted visitors, none of that was known. For now, all that seemed to be necessary was to pack up, return to Westminster and begin the demanding task of collecting the poll tax.

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