Post-classical history

FIVE
A GENERAL AND A PROPHET

The Kentishmen, hearing of things most of them already desired, without delay assembled a large band of commons and rustics in the same manner as the men of Essex: in a short time they stirred up almost the whole province to a similar state of tumult.

THOMAS WALSINGHAM

Kent

By Thursday, 6 June, all of Essex and Kent was in uproar. Voices declaring for the rebellion pealed, with the urgency of church bells, from village to village, and the rule of law began to dissolve into the rule of rough rebel justice.

The rash of congregations and troublemaking took the authorities by surprise. The Crown had no army ready in the south-east. The nearest significant military force had left London in early May on a new, northern mission, once more commanded by Gaunt. It was now far away in the borders, insurance against the failure of the latest round of peace talks with the Scots.

Without the threat of royal military intervention, and increasingly defiant of the authority of any travelling legal commissions, rebel bands took to the roads in great numbers. They crossed county borders and opened lines of communication between the now numerous fringes of the revolt. Adding fuel to the flames, two London butchers, Adam Attewell and Roger Harry, were riding throughout Essex and the City’s hinterlands, informing the rebel bands organising in the villages that if they came to London they could count on the support of urban allies.

The Londoners had their own grievances, and though they were not exactly the same as the provincial rebels’, there were factions in the City who understood that inciting and stirring the lower orders in the countryside might provide a useful mask of disorder for them to settle some scores of their own - not least against property belonging to the absent Gaunt.

But before they considered any move on London, there were targets closer to home for the shire rebels to consider. On 6 June, a mob formed in Coggeshall, a village near Colchester in the north of the county. Coggeshall was home to Sheriff Sewale. Like all other representatives of judicial authority in the county, Sewale was now in grave danger.

For reasons best known to himself, as rebellion ripped through his county, Sewale had remained at home, and on 6 June he was barricaded, terrified, in his house next to the village chapel with Robert de Segynton, an exchequer clerk. A detachment of men from Bocking arrived in Coggeshall. There was a serious commotion. As the mob swelled outside the house, inside the two men grew desperate. The rebels made a barrage of hot threats against Sewale, which intimidated him so much that he thought seriously neither of raising arms against the rebels, nor of leaving his house. He simply sat inside, petrified, as outside the air rang with sinister promises of vengeance.

Throughout Essex, other members of the higher judicial and administrative class shivered at home in anticipation of the arrival of the same terror. The rebels had a specific list of victims. It included Sewale, Gildesburgh and Bampton, as well as men like Walter Fitzwalter, who had acted as deputy to the office of the constable of England, Thomas Mandeville, William Berland, Geoffrey Dersham, a royal manor steward, Thomas Tyrell, the Chief Justice, Robert Belknap, Clement Spicer and Robert Rikeden. All of these men had been peace commissioners, they were significant landowners in the county and had performed some judicial or administrative role in it. To a man they were marked out for attacks on their property and, if possible, their persons.

Rebel policy across the river in Kent was a bit different. Abel Ker, with his advance party of Essex recruits and early risers from Kent, based himself at Dartford. Having hounded Belknap out of the county, and encouraged two days of widespread vandalism and rioting, they proceeded to ride out and begin agitating in villages within a 10-mile radius of the town. On 5 June they had banded together in the town and identified their target for a 6 June strike: Rochester Castle.

As the rebels flooded down towards Rochester, along the course of the old Roman road that cut down into the Medway villages and off towards Canterbury, they would have seen Rochester Castle looming: a huge, square fortress with an imposing Norman keep that had made a convenient prison since the twelfth century. King John had besieged it in the thirteenth century, digging mines beneath its walls then using burning pig fat to cause such a violent fire that a corner of the castle had collapsed. But by the late fourteenth century it had been repaired and occupied an important strategic position on both the London road and the Medway river. It should have been a bastion of county authority, and pretty much impenetrable, as the keep had walls 12 feet thick. It was a difficult target, built to keep prisoners in and invaders out.

The Kent peasants may have been organised, but they were not set up to wage siege warfare. Their ambition, however, made up for their lack of coercive means. Relying on their ability to cause panic, rather than their capacity to breach stone defences, they descended on the castle.

The irreverent lawlessness in the villages around the castle must either have infected or intimidated the castle’s guards, for without the suggestion of a struggle, they simply gave up their posts. A mob opened the castle jail, and freed the prisoners that were kept there. And to the band of felons they added another, even more valuable trophy: the castle’s keeper, Sir John Newton, was taken hostage.

The addition of a noble hostage to their ranks swelled the confidence of the rebels, and a party splintered off from Rochester and made their way to Maidstone. All around and behind them, there was organised tumult. The Roman road had been effectively closed off to anyone who would not swear to be of rebel company. This paralysed a vital communication route in the south-east, as this busy thoroughfare was the direct road leading from London to Canterbury - in whose cathedral the relics of St Thomas à Becket made the town one of the most famous pilgrim sites in the country. The fall of the Roman road isolated the capital and royal government from any potential loyalists in the south-east. Anyone passing along the road was liable to be stopped and commanded to take an oath of loyalty to the rebel cause, to be faithful to King Richard and the true commons, to accept no king called John (a sign of hatred for Gaunt),1 to agree that they would be ready to rise with the rebels when summoned, and to pledge to convert as many of their neighbours to the same way of thinking as they could.

Even among the chaos and rioting, then, a clear statement of ideology was emerging. The rebels fixated on the cult of kingship, but despised all those dripping poison into the king’s ear and spreading rot through the timber of government by their self-serving use of royal positions and power. And they saw themselves as the voices of true moral justice, on a mission to restore the natural order of things to the realm. They were the true commons indeed.

And they knew their targets well. Maidstone contained property belonging to William Topclyve, one of those who had sat in judgement with Belknap at Dartford. He had an impressive house at the Mote that was an ostentatious symbol of the wealth and status he held as the archbishop of Canterbury’s steward and an important royal administrator. The rebels demonstrated their contempt for Topclyve and his class by joining with a party of excited townsfolk, running rampant through the building and razing it to the ground.

Most important of all, by the time the rebels reached Maidstone, they had gained two important leaders. Of everything that took place in the hours after the fall of Rochester Castle, the most significant was the rise to power of John Ball and Wat Tyler.

They were totally different in character and neither of them native to Kent, but Tyler and Ball were definitive of the subsequent events of the revolt. Tyler was an Essex man, probably from Colchester, who had settled in Maidstone and seems to have known Kent well. Possibly he had fought in the ranks of one or more of the English armies that had been taken to the Continent in previous years, for he certainly had the ability to marshal, muster and command a disparate band of recruits on long marches and flash raids. He may well have been behind the remarkably mature command that went out early in the Kent revolt instructing anyone that lived within 12 leagues of the sea to remain in the villages for defence of the coasts against possible French invasion.2 He was a bold and inspirational general who seemed to leave a mark on many of those who came into contact with him. Certainly he outshone the other petty generals of the early stages of the revolt, for during the day that the rebels spent in Maidstone, he rose from an inconspicuous figure among many who joined in the rapine and plunder, to the overall commander of the riots.

His first major act, as Maidstone fell, was to raid the prison, and release Ball.

John Ball was a preacher, a poet, a maverick thinker and a natural rabble-rouser. He had been known to the Church, the secular authorities and the common people of the south-east for the best part of twenty years. Originally a priest in York, he had been imprisoned three times by the archbishop of Canterbury for being an incessant, heretical nuisance, preaching in churchyards and in public places across the region, railing against inequality, the corruption of the established Church and the tyrannies of the powerful against the powerless. His philosophy was in total defiance of medieval orthodoxy, and he had long been a thorn in the side of Archbishop Sudbury, under whose jurisdiction he practised much of his mischief. The archbishop had tried to subject Ball to everything from imprisonment to excommunication. If anything, this drove him to greater irreverence. By the time he was released from Maidstone, Ball had developed an ideology that called for an end to lordship in whatever form it could be found. In his enemies’ eyes, his radical egalitarianism meant an end to all ‘lords, archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors as well as most of the monks and canons so that there should be no bishop in England except for one archbishop, namely himself’.3

Tyler and Ball in combination were a dangerous prospect: the captain and the prophet; military nous married to popular demagogy. Together they provided a military and a visionary hub for rebels to cluster around. As support swelled for them, they picked up a travelling following, who moved between towns with them, but they also had a catalytic effect on villagers and townsmen all along the pilgrim road.

From Maidstone, Tyler’s men marched back across the Kent Downs to the road, and during the weekend of 8 and 9 June they made their way to Canterbury. Trouble flared all the way along the road, as the rebels hunted for royal officials, servants of Gaunt and county administrators. They were looking out for men such as Thomas de Haselden, the controller of John of Gaunt’s household, and Sir Thomas Osgrave, the sub-treasurer of England, and Nicholas Herring, an escheator, JP, poll tax investigator and steward of the king’s lands in the county. Having a considerable contingent of Essex men among them, who may have known of the attacks that had begun against Sir John Sewale, they also had their sights set on William Septvantz, the sheriff of Kent.4 And, of course, there was also petty plunder. A horse was seized back at Chalk, and the nearby town of Gravesend was incited to riot. Without the castle to provide a looming figure of authority, and with Sir John Newton sequestered to the rebel ranks, the area around Rochester remained chaotic. Fires and riots spread across the countryside, the air alive with smoke and fury. All the way from Rochester to Canterbury, villages began to burn. In Frindsbury, a house was set on fire, and a little way east along the pilgrim road, to the south of the Isle of Sheppey, there was further uproar. Houses were destroyed in the small market town of Sittingbourne, and one John Godwot was killed in Borden, a village about half a mile away. In Faversham, where the road began to cut through the woods on its approach into Canterbury, rioting caused damage to a limeworks.

Wat Tyler’s men marched through the chaos, adding to it and inciting it as they went until, just before noon on Monday, 10 June, they arrived in the city of Canterbury. The city was ready for them.

Meanwhile, in Essex, Monday, 10 June was also marked as a day of decisive action. As in Kent, separate gangs coalesced into great mobs, with the aim of decapitating royal government in any sense they could.

Bands of rebels from all across Essex and northern Kent converged at nearby Cressing Temple. This was the site of the wealthy and imposing Hospitallers’ estates, and as such was naturally associated with the Church, the landowning class in the county and the misgovernment of the country at large - for the prior of the Hospitallers, Sir Robert Hales, was also England’s treasurer. The rebels descended on the Cressing estates and sacked the manor. They stole armour, vestments, gold and silver, burned books, helped themselves to the food victualled there and drank three casks of wine. Then they pulled the building to the ground and set fire to it.

They could have smelled the smoke in Coggeshall, just three miles to the east. There, Sheriff Sewale was still at home, barricaded behind his door since before the weekend. As he quivered inside, men pushed into the village. There were representatives from at least forty different settlements terrorising the inhabitants. Some went to the abbey and raided it for muniments and charters - but others went to Sewale’s house. This time threats were not enough. Sewale was not as lucky as he had been on 6 June. His house was overrun. He was beaten up and his clothing torn, and the house relieved of any official documents that the rebels could find. Sewale escaped with his life, but the escheator of Essex, John Ewell, was not so lucky: he was captured in Coggeshall and murdered.

With the sheriff of Essex toppled, royal power was symbolically extinguished. The next day the rebels moved on to Chelmsford, where there was a ceremonial burning of royal records in the streets. Anything with green sealing wax attached - the sign of a financial document - was given special attention. From that point on, the rebel gangs split back into their component parts, fanning out through the county and beyond in the pursuit of disorder and adventure.

Down in Kent, events were taking an even more serious turn.

Tyler’s men entered Canterbury before noon. It seemed that there were thousands of them, pouring into the city with the momentum of a weekend’s rioting behind them. High mass was under way in the cathedral when the rebels arrived. Evidently still keenly disciplined by Tyler, they knelt before the monks and then called on them to elect one of their number to be archbishop, ‘for he who is archbishop now [i.e. Sudbury] is a traitor, and will be beheaded for his iniquity’.5

Their next action was to summon before them the mayor, bailiffs and citizens of the town and force them to take oaths of faith and loyalty to ‘King Richard and the true commons’. Then the rebels demanded to know the names of any traitors in the town. Three names were handed over, and the victims were dragged out of their houses and beheaded in the street.

The vicious riots that began with the murders of these supposed traitors would consume Canterbury for the best part of the next month. There was fertile ground in the city in which rebellion could take root: urban government had been riven by faction and royal administrators had suffered attempts to obstruct their business for the past three years. Now many suffered violence, ruin and death. They included William Medmenham, whose property was targeted all over the county, and John Tebbe, a former bailiff and MP who had served on royal commissions in the 1370s. Medmenham’s house was vandalised and stripped of its goods - and Tebbe was murdered. John Tece, a manorial official and another former bailiff, was also killed, and houses belonging to various other lords, including Sir Richard de Hoo, Thomas Garmwenton and Sir Thomas Fog, were plundered. All across Canterbury, Tyler’s rural army joined with the artisans and servants of the city in delivering it into chaos.

In Canterbury, just as in Rochester, the fall of the castle was the principal sign of the rebels’ dominance. Tyler led a party up to the castle, with Abel Ker alongside him. They broke into the jail and freed four of the prisoners chained up in the dungeon. Then, just as their Essex counterparts had done that same day, the Kent rebels turned on the sheriff. They took William Septvantz into their custody and swore him to the same oath that they had imposed upon the mayor and citizens. They demanded that Septvantz hand over all his books containing legal records of the Crown and county and any royal writs in his possession. The collection numbered about fifty in total, and the rebels heaped them in the street in a great public bonfire. To be sure that they had obliterated every piece of royal writing that they could find, they then marched the terrified Septvantz out of town to his manor of Milton, where more writs were kept. These, too, were consigned to the flames.

This, then, was the scene in Canterbury after an entire afternoon of looting and terror: blood ran in the streets, clotting with the fragments of parchment, jagged lumps of broken sealing wax, the ash from bonfires and the charred splinters of destroyed houses. The city and suburbs were in uproar, heaving with insurgent townsmen and aliens from towns and counties miles away. Smoke drifted up from vandalised buildings, blowing out across the Kent downs; and everyone from Canterbury to Dartford quaked at the name of the new pillars of county authority: Wat Tyler and John Ball.

Though the Roman road was in rebel hands, word had still reached London of the chaos in Kent, and on Tuesday, 11 June, royal messengers arrived in Canterbury. They had been sent from the royal court at Windsor, under the authority of the teenage king and his royal council, and they demanded to know why the commons were acting in so monstrous a fashion. They exchanged messages with the rebels throughout the day, and Tyler explained on behalf of his men that they had risen to save the king and the kingdom from traitors, and that they would not desist.

It was a brazen message to send. Clearly the rebels understood the strength of their position - perhaps also they felt they had nothing to lose. Certainly it resonated with the royal council, because by the end of the day, a decision came down from Windsor: Richard sent word that he would meet the rebels in person at Blackheath, on the outskirts of London itself, the next day.

The offer to negotiate with a king was almost too good to believe. Trusting to his lord’s good word, and driven by the incredible momentum that had swept his movement along even in its early days, Tyler gathered together his men, organised them for a quick march, and set them out - like pilgrims in reverse - on the greatest mission of all their lives: the advance on London.

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