Post-classical history

Chapter Eighty-Two


Bad Beginnings

Between 1369 and 1381, the kings of France and England come of age, and the common people revolt

THE ENGLISH AND THE FRENCH were still fighting.

In the summer of 1369, Charles V of France was assembling ships and men for an invasion of England. Edward III responded with immediate force. His chief general, his oldest son Edward the Black Prince, was suffering from chronic dysentery and was unable to ride (or even walk for long), so Edward III sent his third son John of Gaunt with four thousand men over to raid and plunder the land around Calais.

Charles delayed his invasion. Instead, he turned his army, commanded by his younger brother the Duke of Burgundy, to meet the English raiders. A series of battles along the northeastern coast began.

At first, the fighting was inconclusive. The Black Prince arrived, carried on a litter, to help his brother; not long after his arrival, he discovered that the English-held town of Limoges had surrendered, at the request of the French, without a fight. He was, says Froissart, “much vexed” and insisted on laying siege to retake it.

English sappers, tunneling under the walls, brought a large chunk of the defenses down without too much trouble. But the Black Prince had worked himself up into a towering fury at the town’s inhabitants, who had been so quick to open the gates to the French. “It was a melancholy business,” writes Froissart. “All ranks, ages, and sexes cast themselves on their knees before the prince for mercy; but he was so inflamed with passion and revenge, that he listened to none of them: all were put to the sword wherever they could be found.”1

The Black Prince had been afflicted with spells of irrational rage and frightening hallucinations along with his dysentery symptoms, suggesting that he may have been suffering from porphyria.* Whatever the cause of his viciousness, three thousand defenseless civilians died at Limoges. Charles V, hearing the news, was “sadly grieved” and equally angry. Taking measure of the popular indignation against the English, he appointed the professional soldier Bertrand du Guesclin to be the new chief commander of the French offensive, with the title Constable of France: a position generally awarded to a nobleman rather than to a common-born soldier.2

And now the tide of the war turned in favor of the French.

The Black Prince, growing progressively sicker, finally went back to England. Edward III announced that the would personally arrive in France to lead the English army, but he was now into his sixties and showing some signs of early senility; he never left England. In 1372, the English fleet was defeated at La Rochelle, by a joint Genoese-Castilian fleet fighting under the French flag; by the following year, the constable Guesclin had recovered almost of all of the land between the Loire and the region of Gironde for France. Only Bordeaux, Bayonne, and Calais remained in English hands. The English now possessed the same French lands they had claimed in 1337, before the war had begun. Badly weakened, disheartened, Edward III negotiated a two-year truce with Charles V.3

“During the period of the truce,” writes Froissart, “on Trinity Sunday, 1376 . . . the Lord Edward of England, Prince of Wales . . . departed this life in the palace of Westminster.” The Black Prince was forty-six years old; his chronic illness, whether it was dysentery complicated by kidney failure or porphyria, had finally killed him.

Edward himself was in poor health, and he immediately made clear that the Black Prince’s nine-year-old son Richard would become his heir. The following year, King Edward III suffered a series of strokes and died. “He had been a glorious king,” notes the contemporary Chronica Maiora, “benevolent, merciful and magnificent. . . . [But] I must briefly note that, just as at the beginning of his reign all the popular successes one after another made him renowned and famous, so, as he moved towards old age and went down the sky to his sunset . . . many unfortunate and unlucky disasters mushroomed in their place.”4

Young Richard was crowned in London, lavishly; a castle had been built in Cheapside, with wine flowing from its turrets and through the aqueducts of the city for the commoners to drink. There was some expectation in the capital that the king’s oldest surviving son, John of Gaunt, might challenge the child’s right to the throne; Richard II was now the first English king to inherit the crown without his father’s first holding the throne. But John of Gaunt refrained from objecting.5

With a child on the throne of England and the truce expiring, Charles V finally launched his fleet across the Channel. Between 1377 and 1380, French ships raided all along the southern coast: Rye, Sussex, the Isle of Wight, Dartmouth, Plymouth, Southampton, and Dover all suffered from French invasion. But he was unable to seize victory. He too was suffering from some chronic illness, most likely a form of heart trouble, and Froissart says that he saw his death coming. He was only forty-two, his son and heir only twelve; so he summoned his brothers and solemnly charged them to look after young Charles VI. On September 16, 1380, the king of France died.

The new king of France was twelve; Richard II of England was now thirteen. Both boys had inherited countries at war; neither one had a wise counselor who could help to orchestrate a peace.

IN PARIS, Charles VI’s four uncles (the Dukes of Anjou, Berry, and Burgundy, all younger brothers of Charles V, and the Duke of Bourbon, brother to Charles VI’s mother Joanna) spent the days after the royal funeral quarreling over the right to control their young nephew. Eventually, they agreed to recognize the oldest, Louis, the Duke of Anjou, as regent.

The Duke of Anjou had ambitions to be the king of Naples, and he promptly used the royal treasury to raise an army for his own purposes. He convinced the antipope Clement VII to crown him in Avignon, and then marched into Italy with forty thousand cavalry behind him. A harsh winter and the reluctance of the Italians to provide him with fodder killed off most of the horses; food ran short; dysentery mowed down his officers. The pope in Rome, Urban VI, declared him a heretic and announced a crusade against him. In September of 1384, with plague spreading throughout the remnants of his army, Louis died on campaign.6

The young king of France was no better served by his other uncles. As a group, they recommended a tax increase in Paris; the incensed citizens rioted, and Paris grew so dangerous that the boy and his uncles fled to Meaux. The Duke of Berry was busily diverting royal funds to buy himself rare manuscripts and beautiful works of art, which he added to his extraordinary collection. The Duke of Burgundy, who shared Louis’s political aspirations, suggested that Charles VI go off and fight in Flanders to put down a growing rebellion against the Count of Flanders—who happened to be the Duke of Burgundy’s own father-in-law.7

Victory would pay out far more benefits to the Count of Flanders and the Duke of Burgundy than to Charles VI. But the boy agreed, and marched off to Flanders with the royal army. On the way, they “gained a very considerable plunder” by looting for “cloth, linen, knives, money in gold and silver, silver dishes, and plates,” all of which were sent back to the royal treasury.


82.1. Richard II and Charles VI

The rebellious Flemish army met them near the village of Rosebecque, and in the carnage that followed, the long-speared French infantrymen spitted the close-packed Flemish foot soldiers until the ranks broke and fled. The Flemish captain was found dead in a ditch without a wound on him; he had been trampled and suffocated by the masses of men climbing across him.8

High on triumph, Charles returned to Paris. The residents came out to greet him in arms, determined to show their new young king just how much power they had; in response, Charles ordered his captains to remove the gates from the city and clear the streets, so that he could stampede the entire army into the city to put down any further rebellion. This proved adequately terrifying: the Parisians slunk back into their homes, “so fearful of being punished,” Froissart says, “that, as the King entered the city, none dared to venture out of doors, or even to open a window.” In retaliation, Charles VI and his advisors levied heavy fines on those who had protested publicly: “as a punishment for their past behavior, and as an example to other towns in the kingdom of France.”9

RICHARD II was given no better guidance.

The logical regent for the underage king was his uncle John of Gaunt, the oldest surviving son of Edward III. But John was widely disliked, and more than one courtier suspected that he had designs on the English throne. Instead, a governing council was formed; its membership varied from year to year, but all, says the Chronica Maiora, were “good, sensible men of repute.”10

They may have been good, but their decisions were bad ones. To raise money for the ongoing war with France, the king’s council orchestrated a series of new taxes: “poll taxes,” flat payments imposed on everyone in the country. The first of these, collected in 1377, required each person in England to pay one groat—a coin roughly equivalent to the price of a goat (the tax was slightly higher for clergymen). The second, passed in 1379, required a groat from the poor, but much more from knights and landowners. It was a “subsidy so wonderful that no one had ever seen or heard of the like,” groused the fourteenth-century Anonimalle Chronicle—unprecedented and wildly unpopular.11

In December of 1380, a third “wonderful subsidy” was proposed: three groats from every man and woman in England over the age of fifteen. Triple the first tax, the 1380 poll tax was levied equally all across the country; peasants were called on to pay exactly the same amount as John of Gaunt and the Mayor of London.*

As tax collection began, in the spring of 1381, tax collectors noticed something odd. Five hundred thousand or so laborers, shepherds, and farmers seemed to have simply disappeared from England since 1377. Devon was particularly afflicted by this strange vanishing-peasant phenomenon. Apparently its population had dropped by half in three years.12

The size of the quiet tax revolt suggests massive underground organization, and an almost universal agreement that enough was enough. The laborers of England were fed up.

Two additional springs, one religious and the other secular, had been feeding into a broad river of English resentment. “There came to prominence in the university of Oxford a man of the north, called Master John Wycliffe, a doctor of theology,” writes Thomas Walsingham in the Chronica Maiora. “He publicly asserted mistaken, heretical doctrines, which were quite absurd . . . that the church of Rome is not the head of all the churches . . . that the pope at Rome does not have greater power than any other ordained priest . . . [and] that the Gospel is sufficient guide in this life for any Christian.” This was hardly new and startling; the Cathars of Languedoc, the Waldensians, and the Pastoureaux had all called for the dissolution of the Roman church, and both Dante and Marsilius had already argued against the special authority claimed by the pope. But Wycliffe’s ideas were expressed both in scholarly writings and in the pulpit. He had a knack for plain and forceful expression, uncommon in an Oxford don, and his preaching throughout London had gained him a considerable following. He condemned the wealth and privilege of the English clergy and argued that salvation came directly from God to the sinner, with no “prelate” needed to convey grace: both were messages that took power from the hands of the privileged and handed it over to the men and women in the pews.13

At the same time, the “mad priest” John Ball had been traveling through the countryside, calling for a radical reorganization of English society. “It was his habit on Sundays after mass,” Jean Froissart tells us, “when everyone was coming out of church, to collect a crowd round him in the marketplace and address them more or less as follows:”

My friends, the state of England cannot be right until everything is held communally, and until there is no distinction between nobleman and serf, and we are all as one. Why are those whom we call lords masters over us? How have they deserved it? By what right to they keep us enslaved? We are all descended from our first parents, Adam and Eve; how then can they say that they are better lords than us, except in making us toil and earn for them to spend? They are dressed in velvet and furs, while we wear only cloth. They have wine, and spices and good bread, while we have rye, and straw that has been thrown away, and water to drink. They have fine houses and manors, and we have to brave the wind and rain as we toil in the fields. It is by the sweat of our brows that they maintain their high state. . . . Let us go to the King. He is young, and we will show him our miserable slavery, we will tell him it must be changed, or else we will provide the remedy ourselves.14

Meanwhile, the royal council had decided to deal with the tax revolt by appointing special inquiry agents with powers of arrest and punishment to go out and find the missing peasants.

In June of 1381, the inhabitants of the village of Brentwood greeted the arrival of one of these inquiry agents fully armed. When the agent, one Thomas Bampton, ordered them arrested, they drove him out of Brentwood by force.

Immediately, revolt spread across the south of England.

This was not, like the rebellion of the Jacquerie, a matter of roving disorganized peasant bands. It was a civil war. Thousands of English commoners had fought in France; they knew how to conduct a campaign. In towns throughout Essex and Kent, they elected leaders, lined up in regiments, and prepared to march on London.15

By the time they arrived at the capital city and made their way through its gates, they boasted an army ten thousand strong, and one of the elected leaders had emerged as chief spokesman: Wat Tyler, a man about whom almost nothing at all is known. He may have fought in France; he was, says Walsingham, an “able fellow”; “a crafty man, endowed with great sense,” another chronicler adds.16

Until now, the revolt had been relatively bloodless; the peasant army had ransacked parish offices on their way to London, burning land records and birth documents, but not laying siege to castles or attacking their inhabitants. But in London the restraint broke. The elaborate London mansion owned by the unpopular John of Gaunt, the Savoy Palace, was set on fire (John himself was in Scotland, which probably saved his life). The Temple Bar, where London’s lawyers practiced, was destroyed. The peasant army opened the gates of Fleet Prison and set the prisoners free. Fires burned all over London; the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Treasurer of England, a chief poll-tax collector, and two other men were dragged out of the Tower of London, where they had taken refuge, and executed.17

Richard himself had retreated to a royal storehouse called the Wardrobe, where he was now trapped with his advisors. He was forced to agree to a parley. On June 14 and again on June 15, he rode out to meet with Wat Tyler.

Tyler’s list of demands was blunt. Laws passed during Edward III’s reign in order to give landowners more power over the peasants who worked the land were to be repealed. The legal category “outlaw” would be abolished. All of the wealth of the English church was to be redistributed among the people; all bishops would be stripped of their rank and only John Ball would hold that title. All of the ranks and titles of English aristocracy would be done away with. “And finally,” Tyler concluded, “let there be no more villeins in England, but all to be free and of one condition.” By royal decree, Richard II was to do away with the entire structure of lord and servant that had shaped England since the Norman Conquest.

Richard agreed to all of it, “saving the regality of the crown.” He, alone in England, would bear a title.18

He had neither the power nor the inclination to enforce any of these promises. But Tyler, satisfied, asked for a mug of beer with which to toast the new agreement. The chronicles disagree about what happened next; one says that Tyler drew his dagger and attacked the Mayor of London; another says that a knight in Richard’s party taunted the peasant leader; a third that the Mayor tried to arrest Tyler without provocation. Within ten minutes, though, Wat Tyler lay on the ground, mortally wounded.

The London militia, which had been quietly assembling behind the scenes, immediately surrounded the peasant army. Massive bloodshed seemed inevitable, but young Richard rose to the occasion; drawing himself up with sheer Plantagenet nerve, he shouted out to the rebels, “I will be your king, your captain and your leader, and grant your requests.”

After a few tense moments, the peasant soldiers began to lay down their arms. The militia allowed them to disperse; and over the next few days, more and more of them trickled back to their homes.

They had put their hopes in the young king, and he had promised to change their condition. Days passed before it became clear that he had absolutely no intention of keeping his word. Rioting began again; but by then the English army had assembled in full force, and the punishment of the rebels began. “The king and lords, pursuing them, had some of them dragged behind horses, some put to the sword, some hanged on gallows, and some dismembered,” wrote the fourteenth-century Welsh lawyer Adam Usk, “and thus did they slaughter them in their thousands.” Richard gave the Mayor of London absolute military authority to keep order in the city. John Ball tried to flee into the countryside, but he was arrested and brought back to London, where he was drawn and quartered.19

On June 22, Richard was personally leading a reprisal attack in Essex when a delegation of laborers requested an audience with the king. They asked, says Walsingham, for the fulfillment of his promises: for the abolishment of serfdom, for equality with their lords. Richard, “completely amazed at such boldness,” retorted,

Peasants you were, and peasants you are. You will remain in bondage, not as before, but in an incomparably worse state. For as long as we are alive to achieve this and by the grace of God rule this kingdom, we shall work our minds, powers and possessions to keep you in such subjection . . . that now and in the future men like you shall always have before their eyes, as if in a mirror, your miseries, as a reason for cursing you and fearing to commit similar crimes themselves.20


*Porphyria, a genetic disorder that produces an imbalance of certain chemicals in the body, often produces vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps, along with seizures and mental symptoms such as paranoia and hallucinations. Other members of the English royal family, most notably Edward’s distant relative King George III (1738–1820), may have suffered from the disease as well.

*There was a provision requiring the rich to make up shortfalls if the poor were simply unable to pay—but the overall intention was to impose a flat tax.

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