Post-classical history


The commons took to the woods, for fear that they had of [Sir John Bampton’s] great malice. They hid there for some time, until they were almost famished; and afterwards they went from town to town inciting other people to rise against the great lords and good men of the country.

Anonimalle Chronicle

Whitsun 1381

Brentwood brought everything that had been hidden into the open. Many things that had been secret in the hearts and whispers of ordinary men were now known. Having driven Gildesburgh and Bampton from town with bows, arrows and volleys of violent threats, the angry crowd, realising that what was done was serious and dangerous, scrambled for the thickets and leafy anonymity of the woods. One set of royal officials had been sent packing, but there were more crawling around the county. Before long they would return, seeking retribution, punishment and bloodshed.

But the woods were no place for ordinary folk to live, and after nightfall hunger drove the rebels back on to the roads and into the open. The next day they began to venture back to their villages to report to their kinsmen and neighbours the detail of what had happened. The response far and wide throughout the villages along the estuary was common determination that what had started should not be an isolated flare-up, but the beginning of a county-wide rebellion against the constant encroachments of oppressive royal justice and the impositions of lordship.

But there was no real model for ordinary English villagers seeking to mobilise large-scale protest against the established order of lordship and justice. The county had to be raised by improvised methods. So the rebels began, said the Anonimalle chronicler, to go ‘from place to place to stir up other people to rise against the lords and great folk of the country’. Men, almost certainly on horseback, given the speed of the rising, were sent out from village to village, proclaiming the start of a movement and whipping up rebellious fervour.

The leader of the first rebel company, which drew its followers from across the hundred of Barstaple, was Thomas Baker. Lurid rumours swept around of his personal motives: the chroniclers heard suggestions that he had been the avenging father whose daughter was molested by the hands of the tax inspectors. Perhaps that was true. What is certain is that he was a man of resolution and organisational skill, and well connected in Essex, Kent, Suffolk and Hertfordshire.

Soon the names of Baker and Fobbing were known across Essex, as runners and riders passed news of the movement he directed for miles around. They found like-minded men both in north Essex, close to Colchester, and south, beyond the broad Thames estuary, in Kent.

In Brentwood, Baker had been in contact with men from Bocking, a village comparable in size to Fobbing, situated farther north, in Hinckford hundred. The Bocking men would have carried back with them enthusiastic reports of Bampton and Gildesburgh’s humiliating defeat, and they too began to move out into the county and spread the message of open insurrection. Village by village, the whole county began to move.

By Whitsun - Sunday, 2 June - it was clear that there were hundreds of willing men and women throughout Essex who would stand together and advance what had begun. This raised some practical questions. Clearly, it would not do simply to have the county plunged into anarchy. There was a clear and present need for structure.

So, as Bocking prepared to celebrate Whitsun, the village filled with men. Eight villages within a 10-mile radius sent representatives: Coggeshall and Stisted to the south-east; Braintree and Dunmowe to the south-west; and Ashen, Dedham, Little Henny and Gestingthorpe, all to the north or north-east. All would have come knowing the symbolism of their meeting place. Bocking had a long history as a place where the lower orders had attempted to resist the legal impositions of their manorial overlords. Sixty years earlier their ancestors had pursued a long legal battle with the priors of Christ Church, Canterbury, to try to wriggle free of some of the burdensome feudal obligations that came attached to their land and lives. Rich in this history of determined independence, it was a fitting meeting-place in 1381.

A large meeting was convened. There were no minutes, and what was said is lost, but a later legal case would allege that it was here that the assembled villagers rose ‘treacherously against the lord king’. As a mark of the general commitment to what was sure to be a dangerous and perhaps fateful undertaking, all swore oaths to work together with one aim: ‘to destroy divers lieges of the lord king and to have no law in England except only those they themselves moved to be ordained’. With that, the foundations for the county rebellion were laid.

It was very likely agreed at Bocking who constituted legitimate targets of the rebellion, and the methods by which recruits could be gathered. All men present agreed to catch and kill royal ministers and officials, and those whom they held responsible for the dismal governance of the country and the perceived corruption of justice that had repeatedly been visited on the common folk of the country, most recently by the poll tax commissions. First among these targets was Sheriff Sewale. Others included all those who had exercised positions of royal government or onerous private lordship in the county. Woe betide anyone who counted in both categories.

Violent coercion was also approved as a legitimate part of the recruitment drive. One observer wrote that the rebels ‘went to the manors and townships of those who would not rise with them, and cast their houses to the ground or set fire to them’.1 According to Thomas Walsingham, the St Albans chronicler, ‘men of just two villages’ - Fobbing, perhaps also Bocking - had

made it their business to send with all haste to every village, however small. Their aim was to get both the old and those men in their prime to join them equipped with such weapons as they could muster, allowing no excuses at all, so that those who refrained from joining them, and those who refused or disdained to do so, would know that they would have their possessions pillaged, their homes burned down or demolished and themselves be executed.

The revolt was cast from the outset as a community rebellion - and there was a ‘with us or against us’ mentality that had dire consequences for those opposed.

Bocking reflected the model of rebel organisation - sworn chapters or companies of men banded together by oath, led by the natural leaders of village society, in close communication with other bands of rebels and working to a common timetable - which revolved around strategic, coordinated strikes on selected targets. And as such the rural revolt can be seen not as a spontaneous, itinerant riot, but a carefully choreographed orgy of violence and retribution.

At the same time as the Whitsunday conventicles in Bocking were starting a month’s rioting across Essex, the spirit of disorder was ghosting across the Thames and into Kent. Whitsun weekend had become a time for banding together, committing to the movement and readying the country community to rise as one. So communication began between the men in and around Barstaple hundred and the inhabitants of Dartford, which was one of the larger towns on the south bank of the estuary.

The prominent figure in this early stage of the Kent rebellion was Abel Ker, an inhabitant of Erith, a small port village just upstream from Dartford, south of Fobbing, with close links to London through the trading traffic of the river. Ker, like Thomas Baker, was a prominent enough member of local society to command the respect and deference of his peers. On Whitsunday, he gathered together a sizeable band of villagers from Erith and from Lesnes, a couple of miles west along the river, and took them to the nearby Augustinian abbey of St Mary and St Thomas the Martyr.

The abbey of Lesnes, like many other abbeys about England, was well endowed with land both in its own county and those surrounding it. Monastic communities tended to find themselves frequently in dispute with their tenants, and there was widespread ill feeling towards their use of their own courts to squeeze as much in the way of convenient labour services and feudal dues from their tenants as they could get away with. Lesnes had been a sloppily run institution throughout most of its recent history, with monastic discipline reaching a low point in the 1340s, when the Crown had had to be enlisted to help arrest vagabond and apostate monks. The abbot in 1381, William de Hethe, was obviously marked by men in the Dartford area as a prime example of bad lordship.

Hethe was at home when Ker’s band bundled their way into the abbey. The rebels stormed in and took him hostage. They forced him to swear an oath in which he promised to be of the rebels’ company, a prospect that no doubt terrified him to the limit of his wits, but which was marginally preferable to death at the hands of an angry mob.

The capture of the abbot was, for Ker’s rebels, an impressive coup - regardless of the fact that his oath (and the mea culpa that it implied) was made under duress. It held enormous propaganda value, and to a degree it legitimised their actions about the county. The policy of forcing their social betters to profess support for the rising soon became a motif of the rebellion at large, which tells us something important about the rebel mindset: they aimed not to overturn or transform society, but to correct it from the top down.

Encouraged by his success at Lesnes, the next day - Whit Monday - Ker gathered together a small group from his conventicle and (presumably in a convoy of fishing boats) crossed the Thames to enter Essex. Assize sessions were due in Dartford under Sir Robert Belknap, Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas. Belknap was one of the two most senior judges in the country, and the prospect of answering to him for the attack on Lesnes Abbey and thus bringing to an end the successful protest after a single day held no appeal.

So Ker took his band over the river to Rainham, another small village, about ten miles west of Fobbing, to gather new recruits. His men spent the day raising and swearing into Ker’s allegiance more than a hundred men from villages spread across southern Essex. Besides the ordinary villagers, Ker had specific targets for recruitment. He specifically targeted William Berland, a serving justice of the peace who had been an assessor for the 1379 poll tax. Ker’s methods were not subtle: he coerced as his recruiting agent one William Chaundeler of Prittlewell, a seafront village in Rochford hundred, out in the eastern islands of Essex. Chaundeler later claimed to have been forced against his will to instruct Berland and John Prittlewell Senior to rise and meet the rebels at Rainham. Whether they got their men or not is unclear, but by the morning of Tuesday, 4 June, Ker had managed to summon a sizeable force of both Essex and Kent men, all sworn by solemn oath to the rebel cause, one or two of them probably in fear for their lives. They crossed back into Kent and readied themselves for Belknap.

Sir Robert Belknap was not merely a senior judge. He was a career lawyer who had been a favourite with both the royal court and with John of Gaunt from the early 1370s. Belknap was a familiar figure across the whole of the south-east, but not a popular one - those men who knew a little of London’s politics would have been aware of the contempt in which London’s populace held him. During Richard II’s coronation ceremony the citizens had erected a likeness of his head on a water conduit along the route of the parade, so that all who passed would see him spewing wine out of his ridiculous mouth.

On Wednesday, 4 June, he arrived in Dartford on his regular Whitsun assize duty. He had been in Stratford, not far from London, on the day that Bampton and Gildesburgh were chased from Brentwood, and during his subsequent scheduled visits to Barnet, in Hertfordshire, and then down to Southwark, the famous first staging post on the pilgrims’ road to Canterbury, he would have heard the frantic reports coming back from Essex and Kent of the disorder that was spreading through the country. There must have been some advance word of his mood, because when it was learned that he was soon to arrive in Dartford at the scene of Ker’s arm of the rebellion, there was such consternation that people across the countryside were said to have proposed abandoning their homes in fear.

But even with as grand a judge as Belknap at its head, fear of the law was quickly subsumed beneath popular anger against it. When the judicial train arrived at Dartford, the town dissolved into rioting. The chroniclers recall how ‘the commons rose against [Belknap] and came before him to tell him that he was a traitor to the King, and that it was of pure malice that he would put them in default… And they took him, and made him swear on the Bible that never again would he hold such a session, nor act as a judge in such inquests.’2

The nonchalant tone belies a quite remarkable feat - one of the grandest judges in the country bewildered into submission by a band of rogues armed with recommissioned farm tools. Belknap, like Bampton before him, beat a hasty retreat.

From the chronicles next comes a sense of unstoppable disorder - the flashpoint in Brentwood spreading like flames through tinder, and erupting into a fire that consumed the whole of the south-east of England. In fact, during the first ten days of June the rebels’ progress was phenomenally coherent, well organised and purposeful, as they unleashed a campaign aimed against agents of central government in the shires, and finally the national government itself. In south Essex, the Brentwood and Fobbing rebels continued to travel the county, raising villages, organising new sworn chapters or rebels, ensuring the coherence of the revolt and spreading the word that on Thursday, 6 June, the rebellion was to begin in earnest. It seemed that the authorities were powerless. Their usual monopoly of violence and control had been suddenly, ruthlessly broken by a group of ordinary working folk operating with an astounding level of organisation and coherence, and with a penchant for gruesome, summary dispensation of natural justice.

The first thing that each new village saw as the leading Kent rebels visited during that week was three gory standards. As Belknap was chased from the county, he had been compelled to give up the names of the jurors that had informed him of the perpetrators of the first Brentwood rising on 30 May. The rebels had tracked down three of them, severed their heads from their bodies and stuck them on poles. The bloody trophies went everywhere the rebel companies rode, their blackened, decaying features a warning: the time to rise had come, and the cause must be heeded.

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