The men of Kent and Essex had attracted an army of about one hundred thousand commons and rustics. They were joined by men from all parts who were oppressed by debt or feared the censure of the law because of their misdeeds, and they formed so large a conglomeration of plebeians that no one could remember seeing or hearing of the like. And so the mob came to the place called ‘le Blakheth’ where they decided to view their numbers and count the multitude of their fellows …
Blackheath, Wednesday, 12 June
Even with a keen eye and on a clear day, the great south-eastern point of the Tower of London is not quite visible from the hill at Greenwich, which juts up in front of Blackheath, into the gentle countryside close to the banks of the River Thames. But to the tens of thousands of rebels who gathered on the heath, among the scratchy dark green undergrowth in the late afternoon of Wednesday, 12 June, the Tower’s presence would have been felt; as imposing and impossibly grand as if they were actually standing before its thick and heavily fortified walls.
Before them lay the wide maw of the Thames. The best route along the river was by boat, and on a busy day the Thames - even this far from the crowded and stinking docks that cut into the City walls upstream - would have been a noisy, teeming thoroughfare, the powerful tidal waters busy with London’s famously foul-mouthed boatmen. Probably the rebels who looked down from the hill saw fewer fishing boats than usual, for the chaos of the last few days had involved a high proportion of men from the Essex fishing villages in the Thames estuary. But the river on Wednesday, 12 June was busy with a different sort of traffic. There had been a flurry of activity all afternoon, with boats bearing messengers between the rebel captains and the king shuttling urgently back and forth through the rough, grey sink.
There had been a steady stream of rebels up to the hill all afternoon - men from Kent and Essex mingling with reinforcements picked up as they moved through the suburban manors and villages that clustered around the capital. It had been known since Tuesday that the men of Kent were coming and the news had infected the villages close to the City with the same sense of agitation that had gripped the shires during the previous fortnight. Right around London’s orbit, villages emptied of their excitable inhabitants, all racing to join the excitement taking place along the riverbanks.
As they arrived in their tens of thousands, wild rumours had begun to circulate among the swelling band. As many as sixty thousand people were expected on the hill, with the same number approaching from Essex and Hertfordshire to congregate on the opposite bank of the Thames.1 It was suggested that the earl of Buckingham was preparing to join the rebel camp. (There were those who said they had seen him in the crowd, and others who said that it was merely a Kentishman who looked like him.) Others passed on a story that Joan of Kent, the queen mother, had bestowed her blessing upon the rebels as she encountered one of the blockades set up on the road from Canterbury, the route along which so many of the rebels had ridden that day. It was a day of high excitement. Legends were already in the making.
Upstream, the royal household had just arrived at the Tower of London. Once agreement to meet Tyler’s rebels had been made, the royal court had moved rapidly to leave its sanctuary at Windsor, and had made its way from royal suburbia to the impregnable safety of the City’s ancient fortress. In the name of royal security, this was the only practical option.
When the royal train had entered the City, Richard had been met by the mayor, William Walworth, and a trusted group chosen from his closest supporters - men such as Nicholas Brembre, John Philipot and Robert Launde. They had seen him through the City and into the Tower. By evening Richard was embedded among a depleted court that included these Londoners, Treasurer Hales, his half-brother Thomas Holland, the earl of Kent, as well as the earls of Arundel and Warwick, and the earl of Salisbury, a veteran soldier who had fought in France with Richard’s father. The court also included 600 courtiers, soldiers and servants.2 Among these was Richard’s cousin, Henry of Derby, and his close friend Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford, both of them teenagers - Derby was not much older than Richard himself, while Oxford was a rather immature nineteen-year-old. The company of contemporaries would have been cold comfort. Richard would have wished for the reassuring presence of Derby’s father, John of Gaunt, or their other senior uncle, Edmund Langley, earl of Cambridge.
Unfortunately neither was close. Gaunt, of course, was in Scotland, and Cambridge was in Plymouth, about to set sail with a fleet bound for Portugal. He had been forced to anchor the fleet offshore, for fear of attacks from angry villagers along the south coast. The court also missed the earl of Buckingham, who was occupied at the head of the army in France; Sir Simon Burley, Richard’s tutor and a senior knight of the household, was also absent.
Shorn of experience and holed up in a fortress, they faced a situation that was acutely disturbing. When the Tower was built it had been the first great monument to the power of the Norman kings; now it was fast becoming the bolthole of a terrified court, run to ground by its own insurgent people.
If the feeling at court was tense, however, in the rebel camp jubilation reigned. With king and court a mere hour or so upriver, to Tyler and his followers their liege lord was now tantalisingly close. It was the promise of contact with him which had spurred those who had made the march from Canterbury; and it was the prestige of negotiating with the king himself which bolstered Tyler’s position of command. Now, as they waited in the cool of the evening for the next boat to bring word from the Tower, the mere sense that a message was coming directly from the young king himself would have filled the rebel rank-and-file with a combination of foreboding and quasi-religious ecstasy.
Wise to the value of their hostages, Tyler’s rebels had maintained in their service Sir John Newton, the keeper of Rochester Castle.3 Being a knight, he was a useful messenger, so they sent him up to the Tower to announce their arrival. Newton was sent to negotiate the terms of a meeting between king and commons, and although he must have felt the greatest apprehension about his task, after a week in rebel company, no doubt he was glad to go.
As they waited for Newton’s return, the rebels decided to make the most of the south bank. By six o’clock in the evening they had announced their presence in Southwark, the town directly adjacent to the bottom end of London Bridge. Southwark was in the hinterlands of the City, famous for its brothels, prisons and generally unsavoury character. It was an area of colourful ribaldry, where drinkers and pimps rubbed shoulders with cripples, transvestites and whores. The rebels had again, just as in Maidstone, Canterbury and Rochester, engaged in their favourite pastime of jail delivery, ransacking the Marshalsea - where London’s prisoners were kept, under the watch of the marshal, Richard Imworth - and removing all the prisoners held there for debt and felony.
The marshal was no hero either to the London citizens or to those in the suburbs. He had had the good sense to flee, earlier in the day, to the City proper. In his absence, the Southwark townsmen rose in partnership with the rebels.
This joint venture between Tyler’s rebels, the Southwark mob and the native Londoners opposed to John of Gaunt’s policy of using the marshal’s office to attempt to bully and control the City was the first open sign that rural and urban rebels were now working in perfectly destructive harmony. (More than likely this was premeditated - during the earlier part of the week, vanguard parties of rebel sympathisers had been passing with relative freedom in and out of the City gates, spreading word of the movement that was building to the south-east.)
At the head of the revolt Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball must have been filled with a surreal sense both of achievement and of giddy expectation. Ball’s philosophy spoke of standing steadfast, true and firm, and of seizing the great moment that God had provided. He would have watched the riots of the ordinary people of England with a feeling that they were a product of divine fate. And he would also have been pleased with a muddled, gloriously inverted time when sins were to be stood on their heads - a time of what he called in his famous sermons ‘lechery without shame’ and ‘gluttony without blame’.
Ball’s mystic urgency, backed by the enthusiastic army of thousands that Tyler and regional lieutenants like Ker had mustered, would have created in the leaders’ minds a sense that they were about to embark upon the greatest ‘summer game’ ever played. Looking west along the river with Ball’s words in his ear, and then across at his ragtag but determined rank-and-file, Tyler would have felt a great confidence that the game he planned on the grandest scale - to turn London inside out and jest with the king himself - was destined for success.
Before long, out of the river traffic and into the noisy encampment, thick with rumour and expectation, finally came the word that all were waiting for: the royal messenger had arrived.
The king sent word that he would meet the rebels for a conference on the banks of the Thames the next morning. It was a momentous announcement, and vindicated in the rebel minds the purpose and divinity of their mission: to correct the iniquities of the kingdom and demonstrate before their young king the tyranny of his advisers. That the king had declined to meet that evening, opting rather for the safety of the next morning’s light, presented a minor practical problem. With the numbers of rebels camped on Blackheath far exceeding the provisions available, around a quarter of the peasant army were required to spend the night hungry. But it hardly mattered. There was plunder to be had on the south bank for those who could not last until morning. For the rest, food was the last thing on their minds. With the knowledge of the king’s agreement to meet them, Tyler and Ball no doubt thought that their position as the scourges of wickedly used authority was about to be given royal blessing.
Unsurprisingly, that excitement translated quickly into further spates of disorder. One of Marshal Imworth’s fine Southwark houses had already been torn down, as part of the operation to deliver the Marshalsea; now a series of nightly raids was organised on the houses of all jurors and questmongers (professional legal informers) connected with the marshal. No doubt the names and addresses of these men derived in part from City informers - perhaps the newly freed debtors and felons had their own scores to settle.
Next, the rebels pushed farther along the south bank, to the manor of Lambeth, and stormed the archbishop of Canterbury’s palace. They entered the buildings, destroyed Sudbury’s goods and burned as many of the archiepiscopal legal records as they could find. They destroyed Sudbury’s clothes, vestments and books, and broke open casks of his wine, some of which they drank and some of which they poured scornfully - blasphemously? - on the ground. The force that went to Lambeth must have been sizeable, and their run of the palace total, for they had free enough access to Sudbury’s rooms and quarters that they could smash all the kitchen utensils by crashing them together, whooping at their excellent progress as they did so. Their chilling cries as they destroyed the primate’s palace - ‘A revell! A revell!’ - stuck in the minds of clerics throughout London’s suburbs.4 Over the river in Westminister, monks and royal servants must have quaked at the terrible din.
The attack on Sudbury’s palace was intended to be symbolic and corrective; the raiding parties returned to Blackheath Hill giddy with success, but not yet overtaken by bloodlust. The monk of Westminster looked back at the revolt and attributed to the rebels even at this early stage the aim of slaughtering Sudbury and all the lawyers in London. But the evidence points to a remarkable discipline among the rebels. Up in Essex, the northern party of the rebels had performed similar rites of destruction on the property and legal records at Cressing Temple, Coggeshall and elsewhere. Unpopular royal officials like John de Bampton and John de Gildesburgh had been threatened, the sheriffs of Essex and Kent kidnapped, and numerous acts of vandalism and housebreaking committed. But even on the worst evenings of orgiastic destruction, there still remained an element of restraint to the rebels’ actions. They had, for most of the fortnight of open revolt, largely restricted the focus of their violence to property and records, saving executions for a very few hated enemies. The same held true that night in Southwark. Tyler had his men well marshalled, and they bedded down for the night with negotiation and justice, not bloodletting and murder, on their minds.
So as the chill of a summer night drew in, and the evening of Wednesday, 12 June turned into the early hours of Thursday 13th - the festival of Corpus Christi - the crackle and glow of campfires would have lined the heath, casting an eerie, wavering light over excited, dirty faces, filled with pride and expectation. An incredible adventure was about to reach its climax before the highest, most worshipful authority of all. The fires may just have appeared as tiny orange pinpricks in the night, visible from the Tower upriver, where a young king slept, preparing for the first great showdown of his life.