Because it seemed to various lords and the commons that these subsidies had not been properly or honestly collected … the royal council appointed certain commissions to make inquiry in every township how they had been levied … [and] the said inquisitors much provoked the people …
Essex, May 1381
The prosperous market town of Brentwood was a familiar stop on the busy trading road through Essex that connected London with Colchester. Originally known as Burnt Wood, it was a relatively young town, hacked out of the thick Essex woodland by the canons of Osyth Priory in the 1170s. It was part of the county’s diverse, healthy economy, which was driven by (but by no means solely reliant on) the wool trade with Flanders. Served by clusters of villages that were dotted along the banks of the Thames estuary, Brentwood was a natural hub for the county’s traders. Many inhabitants of the economically busy and geographically mobile shire would have been familiar with its streets, and with the market that drew together traders, hawkers and farmers from across the shire on a regular basis.
On Thursday, 30 May, the town of Brentwood hummed with the presence of several hundred such local villagers. The most senior men from the rural settlements in and around the hundred of Hinckford, including the villages of Fobbing, Corringham, Stanford, Mucking, Horndon, Billericay, Rawreth, Ramsden, Warley, Ginge, Goldhanger, Ingatestone and other places farther afield, had been summoned to town to participate in peace sessions before the county justices, led by Sir John Gildesburgh. Influential local men sat in judgement of the lesser, who mingled around the town in a state of taut anticipation.
On the surface, this was part of the familiar yearly ritual of medieval life. Late May and early June was a time of business and merrymaking in England. It was a time of popular religious observance, with the festivals of Whitsun, Trinity and Corpus Christi following closely upon each other, giving rise in the villages and towns to fairs, festivals, pageants, processions and ‘summer games’ - social rituals of playful mischief and controlled disorder, where labourers played at being lords and the lords tried to bear it all with good humour. This year there was added tension: a great storm had blown up earlier in the month, exciting and stirring the lower orders, and sending a portentous crackle through the air.
Whitsun, which was to be celebrated on the coming weekend, was a familiar time of official administration. The central law courts in Westminster were on vacation, and the royal justices made their routine county visits. Manorial courts - private law courts held by local landowners - also held their sessions, at which they would take views of frankpledge - oaths from all the adult males in their jurisdiction that they would agree to keep their tithing (little arrangements of ten or so households) in good order, and present any misdemeanours before the court. All in all, it was a busy time, at which men and women congregated, communicated and travelled through the local area - the perfect time for mobilising large groups of people.
Between Christmas 1380 and Whitsun 1381 Essex and every other county in England had grown used to seeing the members of royal commissions. Almost as soon as the Northampton parliament had granted the tax, collectors had been appointed right across the country, to take receipt of the money gathered by individual communities.
There had been a strange ferocity about the government’s demands. What had not been revealed to the Northampton parliament about the huge sum demanded was that it was to fund not one but two military tasks. The first was indeed the sustenance of the earl of Buckingham’s French front; but the second was to equip an entirely new army to be sent to Portugal. John of Gaunt had grand territorial designs on Castile, and by his insistence a fleet was to be equipped in May under his brother, Edmund Langley, earl of Cambridge.
With such huge obligations to fulfil, a new treasurer had been appointed on 1 February. Direction of the exchequer had been handed over to Sir Robert Hales, prior of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, and owner of several fine estates in Essex and Hertfordshire.
Throughout February, Hales had carried out ‘viewings’, or audits, of the tax receipts. They were grim, riddled with evasion. In Essex, which had declared a taxable population of nearly 48,000 in 1377, the eligible folk of the county now claimed to number just 30,748. Similar numbers were reported all across the country. To believe the returns, it would seem that the population across the whole of the south-east had fallen between 20 and 50 per cent in the space of two years. In the century of the Black Death, this was not unprecedented - but as there had been no serious outbreaks of plague in recent years, it was clear that those villages and towns that were declaring a depleted population and paying an accordingly reduced tax bill were engaged in blatant fraud.
The main tactic was to refuse to acknowledge unmarried females. Widows, sisters and daughters levied a burden on communities which they could not make good by work, so it made sense to exclude them from the community levy, especially if they were new additions to the tax roll, when their inclusion seemed the most unjust.
By mid-March the government had reached the limit of its patience. The members of the king’s council were furious, and blamed corruption and dishonesty on the part of the collectors and the leading figures in the localities. The response - quickly rumoured to be at the behest of a royal householder and serjeant-at-arms, John Legge - was to launch royal commissions of inquisition to go into the countryside and find out what was happening.
These commissions were dispatched under orders to ‘investigate and inspect’ copies of the original assessments, and compare their findings with ‘oaths of the constables and bailiffs of each vill and borough’ as to the true number of eligible taxpayers lurking undeclared. They were commanded to extract in full the shortfall, and pay it into the exchequer. The date for final payment of the entire £66,666 lay tax contribution was dragged forward from 2 June to 21 April.
So it was that counties like Essex and towns like Brentwood had been subjected to a second round of government interference in their lives. The inspecting commissions quickly gained a reputation for ugly methods. Their official instructions also commanded them to ‘seize and arrest all those whom you find acting in opposition or rebellion to the above commands’; such men were ‘to be held in… prisons where they are to stay until we make provision for their punishment’. Muscle was provided to each commission in the form of a pair of royal serjeants-at-arms assigned to travel with them. Serjeants-at-arms - such as Legge - were effectively royal thugs, heavily armed members of the king’s bodyguard who expected to intimidate with their might and worship as members of the royal household, and - frequently - their sheer physical size.
Ill feeling spread fast. Rumours circulated concerning the harsh and disrespectful methods of the commissioners. Word spread that in one village (after the revolt the tradition sprang up that it was Fobbing, an Essex estuary village close to Brentwood) a commissioner ‘shamelessly lifted the young girls’ skirts to test whether they had enjoyed intercourse with men’.1 This would make them liable for taxation, but it was not a test to which any decent parent would consent - ‘many would rather pay for their daughters than see them touched in such a disgraceful way’.2
Possibly as a result of their apparently gleeful heavy-handedness, it was also rumoured that the government was trading in poll tax commissions, by allowing court favourites to buy a licence to collect the tax shortfall, and keep any profits above what was owed to the exchequer for themselves. Whether any of this was true or not, it is clear that the aggression and contempt shown towards the villagers of the south-east by certain zealots on the tax commissions were provocative in the extreme, and in protest against what the chronicler Henry Knighton summed up as ‘the imposition of new and almost unbearable burdens which appeared to be endless and without remedy’, the people of the region began to conceive of a plan to resist.
Just such a plan had been gestating in Essex for some time. In all of the incursions into the shires, royal government was represented by familiar local faces from the gentry landowning class. In Essex the three most prominent were Sir John de Gildesburgh, Sir John de Bampton, a former sheriff and royal steward, and Sir John Sewale, the sheriff of Essex. Since the later years of Edward III’s reign all three had been active in transacting royal business in the county. Bampton was a particularly notorious figure. In 1377 he had been one of the panel appointed to oversee the recruitment and training of archers and men-at-arms to resist invasion, and to provide for beacons to be lit across the county in the horrible event that the French landed. The following year he had been appointed a JP. In March, Gildesburgh and Sewale had sat on the panels to investigate the paltry returns that had reached the exchequer in payment for the third poll tax. Now Bampton and Gildesburgh returned at the head of peace commissions. Though these were regular events in the judicial calendar, to the majority of people in Brentwood their nominal purpose was immaterial. These were simply more royal commissions, making more punitive incursions into Essex life. A whisper of resistance went around.
Those men who gathered for the 30 May peace sessions in the town were there to represent their villages. As such, they included men of some local seniority, many of whom could claim to be representative of the interests and ideas of the broad mass of those with whom they lived and worked. Villager after villager would have spoken of their frustration with the incessant demands and interference of the machinery of royal justice; its lack of equity, and the misgovernment of the realm in the name of an innocent young king. That sentiment, allied with the mischievous spirit of the season and the electric foreboding that had come with the storms, had manifested itself in a readiness to resist and rebel - to stand against Gildesburgh, Bampton, Sewale and all those like them.
As the day’s peace sessions progressed, Bampton and Gildesburgh called before them various representatives of the villages in Hinckley.
Fobbing, represented by a man called Thomas Baker, was a village in high foment. During the days leading up to 30 May, Baker had ‘[taken] courage and beg[u]n to exhort and ally himself with the men of his village. These men leagued themselves with others and in turn they contacted their friends and relations so that their message passed from village to village and area to area.’3
We do not know what business Bampton called Baker forward on, but it was assumed afterwards that it was connected with the earlier poll tax investigations. Our main source records that, sitting there in his pomp, Bampton commanded Baker and his associates to make on behalf of Fobbing ‘a diligent enquiry [into tax evasion], give their reply and pay their money’.4 Baker’s men, who had been waiting, no doubt nervously, for this moment, ‘replied that they would pay nothing at all’,5 arguing that Bampton himself had just months earlier accepted their previous payment - which made his current commission little more than a thinly veiled excuse for yet another new tax.
Bampton was taken aback by the insolence. He snapped back with a threat and a pointed reference to the armed serjeants that flanked him. But numbers and solidarity between the different sets of villagers all assembled in Brentwood made the Fobbing men bold. Bampton’s tartness served not to subdue but to embolden them and their allies from all the other villages gathered in the town. As a mob, more than a hundred villagers told Bampton outright ‘that they would not deal with him nor give him any money’.6Knighton later recorded that they were ‘delighted that the day had come when they could help each other in the face of so urgent a necessity’.
Livid at this display of insubordination, Bampton ordered his bodyguards to arrest the malefactors. By the letter of his commission it was a reasonable demand. But realistically, he was being absurd. Two serjeants were ample to deal with a couple of recalcitrant defendants, but against a mob they were useless. The commons advanced menacingly towards the two increasingly pathetic serjeants and the entire commission realised their lives were in jeopardy. The villagers were armed - rudely, but capably - and Bampton’s party fled, heading for home before their throats were slit. They rode hard south-west along the road back to London, bound for the royal council, their tails between their legs and a hail of arrows from the contemptuous mob following swiftly behind them.
Out of a mixture of frustration, belligerence and resentment, the first blow of the irate lower orders against what they saw as the overzealous and pompous agents of an incapable government had been struck. The village rebels disappeared into the forest that surrounded the town. As the night set in, the first band of rebels to have taken arms shivered beneath the trees. When the sun rose on the first day of June, the Great Revolt had begun.