Post-classical history

7 : Away, Traitors, Away!

On Wednesday 5 August 1444, in the town of Reading a horse set out slowly through the crowded streets, pulling behind it a cart containing a prisoner. In procession behind came the sheriff of Berkshire and others, following closely as the prison cart bumped and trundled slowly towards Reading’s western outskirts, before turning around and traversing the town slowly in the opposite direction. The prisoner was one Thomas Kerver, a moderately wealthy local gentleman, until recently the bailiff of the abbot of Reading. He was being paraded around the town in which he had lived his life in a ritual of social humiliation. This would be his very last tour of Reading, for he was shortly scheduled to meet his death at the county gallows near Maidenhead.1

Kerver’s cart left town by the London road, heading east towards open country. A few miles down the road it stopped. Kerver was brought down from the cart and attached to a far less comfortable device – either a wooden hurdle or a rope tied to a horse’s tail. Then for several miles he was dragged painfully along the ground, each stone, rut and pothole in the road scraping against his body and head. In this bloodying fashion he was hauled around another public circuit, this time through Maidenhead and the riverside village of Bray, until eventually his journey reached its end, alongside the gallows where the court of King’s Bench had decreed that he was to die. Hauled up from behind the horse, Kerver had a noose placed around his neck and was then strung up to dangle. He did not die – hanging was an experience designed to torture a criminal by choking him, rather than killing him outright by snapping his spine. Everyone who looked on would have known what to expect next: the hangman’s knife cutting through Kerver’s stomach to pull out his entrails; the same knife hacking off his genitals which would then be burned in front of him. The body finally being cut down, beheaded and chopped into rough lumps. This was the ritual of hanging, drawing and quartering, the most fearsome punishment in English law.

Yet at the critical moment, Kerver’s punishment was interrupted. He was not slaughtered with a blade, but simply cut down from the gallows, then handed over by the sheriff to another party who had been watching the execution. The men who received him then disappeared at speed, taking with them the prisoner, who was presumably bloodied, bruised, half-conscious and very, very frightened.

Thomas Kerver’s near-death experience had come about because the court of King’s Bench – one of the highest in the land – had found him guilty of treason: of having ‘falsely and traitorously … schemed, imagined, encompassed, wished and desired the death and destruction of the king and his realm of England and with all his power traitorously proposed to kill the king’. On the Monday and Tuesday after Easter in April 1444 he was said to have tried to recruit others to join in a plot against the royal life, asking them whether the country was ruled by a king or a boy, and scornfully suggesting that the king was not as great a man as the dauphin. He repeatedly condemned the financial embarrassment of the English Crown, stating that ‘it would have been worth more than a hundred thousand pounds to England if the king had died twenty years ago’. It had taken only a few months for Kerver to be arrested, imprisoned in the Tower of London, and found guilty by a jury.

Kerver’s rescue on the gallows had come as the result of a secret last-minute order from the royal council, who had decided to show clemency on behalf of the pious young king. This fact was not widely known – it was thought that Kerver’s reprieve atMaidenhead had only taken place so that, as one chronicler imagined, he could be ‘thence drawen to Tyborn gallow, and hanged … and then his head smitten off, and set on London Bridge’.2 In fact, Kerver was jailed at Wallingford Castle for a few years and then quietly released. The point, however, had been made. Treasonous words spoken against the king would not be tolerated.

Kerver’s case was exceptional for two reasons. His release had shown that Henry VI’s personal piety could be a tempering factor in criminal cases. But far more striking was the fact that the full weight of the law had been used against a fairly innocuous malefactor whose ostensible plans to kill the king as detailed in the legal records smack of nothing more than hot air. What was notable about the case was the intensity of the judicial response to words which in reality posed little or no threat.

Yet it is also possible for us to understand the feelings of the government that lay behind the prosecution. For during the 1440s, England was full of muttering and grumbling about the mounting problems faced by the realm both at home and abroad. An insecure regime could sense itself tottering. Occasionally it needed to lash out.

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There is nothing new about grumbling against authority. Even the greatest kings in history have known that somewhere in their kingdom a drunkard is probably railing against them. But England in the 1440s was especially rich in public disaffection, as it was beset by increasingly serious political problems. In 1448, a man from Canterbury was recorded complaining that Queen Margaret ‘was none able to be Queen of England’. The complainant boasted that if he were a peer of the realm he would strike the queen down ‘for because that she beareth no child, and because that we have no prince in this land’.3 In 1450 two farmers from Sussex, John and William Merfeld, were indicted before a court for saying that the king was a simpleton who would hold a staff with a bird on the end, playing with it like a clown, and that some other king ought to be found.4 Songs lamented the poverty and incompetence of the Crown and the royal government. The parliamentary commons, theoretically representing the people, complained in February 1449 that ‘murders, manslaughters, robberies and other thefts, within this … realm [are] dayly increasing and multiplying’.5 These were formulaic complaints, of the sort made by plenty of parliaments over the years, but in the early spring of 1449 there was some truth to the argument that law and order were beginning to falter.

There were two basic functions to kingship in the middle ages. The first was to uphold justice. The second was to fight wars. There was no sense in the 1440s that Henry VI was capable of doing either.6 Disorder had been increasing steadily in England for several years. Disputes between magnates went unresolved. One especially nasty feud had boiled up in the west country, where a private war had broken out between the Bonville and Courtenay families. The feud had been directly caused by Henry VI, who in 1437 had granted a prestigious and lucrative office – that of the stewardship of the duchy of Cornwall – to two men simultaneously. Latent rivalry between two of the most important families in the region spilled into roadside brawls and physical violence, which the king and his officers seemed worryingly unable to stem. Over the course of the 1440s, the dispute would escalate, resulting in murder, home invasion, the raising of private armies and sieges on property. And this was far from the only area in which such problems were brewing. Disorder was growing markedly across England, not least in the north, where rival magnates held and jealously guarded near-autonomous regional power, and in East Anglia, where the duke of Suffolk was finding his role as private lord and covert executor of royal government increasingly difficult to balance.

Problems were even more pronounced in France, where the English position following the cession of Maine had gone from uneasy to positively perilous. Richard duke of York’s commission as lieutenant had expired in 1445, and in 1447 he had been removed from the French wars and appointed to serve with broad and sweeping powers as lieutenant of Ireland, an area traditionally associated with the Mortimer side of his family. He took up his post in June 1449, and in the meantime he was replaced in France by Queen Catherine de Valois’s old courtier Edmund Beaufort, now the head of his family and honoured with the title of duke of Somerset.

This turned out to be a very unwise reorganisation of personnel. Despite receiving his commission in 1446, Somerset delayed crossing the Channel to take up his command until the spring of 1448, arriving just in time to see the truce collapse. Blatant breaches of the peace had been taking place on both sides for months, but none sufficient to provoke a return to all-out war. However, on 24 March 1449 English forces under the trusted Spanish mercenary François de Surienne attacked and captured the Breton town of Fougères, robbing its wealthy merchant citizens and sacking the townsfolk’s houses. The attack was presented as a spontaneous piece of violence by a renegade captain, but in reality it was planned and ordered in London, by none other than the duke of Suffolk. But the plan, intended as a cunning means by which to curry favour with a potentially dissident ally of Charles VII, backfired spectacularly when the duke of Brittany, whose authority had been offended by the raid on his territory, appealed to Charles VII for assistance.7This was just the opportunity the French king had been waiting for, and in July he announced that he was no longer bound to keep the peace with England. He declared war on 31 July, launching a full and swift military invasion of Normandy. French forces swept through the duchy, dragging with them huge siege engines and a number of cannon. In many cases these were enough to convince English fortresses to surrender without a fight. Morale throughout the duchy quickly collapsed, a process hastened by the lack of swift support or reinforcement from England.

The Norman capital of Rouen fell on 29 October 1449. Somerset shamefully and unchivalrously saved his own skin by fleeing the city under a safe-conduct from Charles VII, for which he agreed to a monstrous ransom of fifty thousand ecus, to be paid within the year. Desperate to hold on to whatever they could of Normandy, the council scrambled two thousand additional troops to the duchy, funded by the treasurer, Lord Saye, who pawned the crown jewels to pay the bills. But it was too little, too late. Rouen’s fall was swiftly followed by the losses of Harfleur, Honfleur, Fresnoy and Caen. By the spring the English had been driven back almost to the sea. They had no choice but to stand and fight. On 14 April 1450 they met a joint French–Breton force in battle at Formigny, near Bayeux. Amid the boom of cannon fire, the English army was slaughtered and many of their best captains taken prisoner. Their control of Normandy was at an end. It was nothing short of a catastrophe.

Although accomplished quickly, the collapse of the English kingdom of France was still a human disaster. As town after town fell to besiegers, streams of inhabitants were forced to flee. Women trudged out into the countryside with as many of their belongings as they could carry, their children strapped to their bodies with scraps of linen. Garrisons were cleared of their male inhabitants: soldiers and landowners who had made their whole careers in the defence of Normandy were now abruptly forced out into hostile terrain. Some would stay on and find employment in the newly French territory or even serve in Charles’s armies; but many hundreds, probably thousands of others would join a flood of refugees making their way in pitiful fashion to England. Cheapside – the main thoroughfare through London – was daily occupied by miserable families wheeling their life’s possessions on carts in the street. It was, said one chronicler, ‘piteous to see’.8

Losing the war in Normandy was not just militarily humiliating: it triggered severe financial problems for the Crown. At the parliament of November 1449 it was said that the Crown was indebted to the dizzying tune of £372,000, against an annual income of just £5,000.9 Not all of this was due to the war. The running costs of the royal household alone were estimated at £24,000, meaning that, as it was somewhat tortuously expressed in parliament, ‘your expenses necessary to your houshold, without all other ordinary charges … exceedeth every year in expenses necessary over your livelihood’.10 Even with the income taxes granted by parliaments for war finance, individual loans, customs revenues, the special tax on wool and the practice of purveyance (by which the travelling royal household requisitioned supplies and goods without payment), the Crown still could not keep up with its obligations. During his relatively short time as lieutenant in France, Richard duke of York had accrued personal costs of £20,000 – five times the yearly return of all his extensive estates in England and Wales – for which he had great trouble in extracting repayment.11 A similar sum was owed in unpaid wages to the Calais garrison.

This seemed all the more perplexing given that, in theory, Henry VI ought to have had greater private resources than any of his ancestors in living memory, since he had the fewest living relatives to endow. All three of his uncles (Bedford, Clarence and Gloucester) were dead. So was his mother, and Henry IV’s widow, Joan of Navarre. Queen Margaret’s household had inflated the running costs, but she was far from the most profligate queen consort England had ever had (Edward III’s wife Philippa of Hainault had been the grande dame of reckless extravagance). Other than the queen there was no one left alive who absolutely required their own landed endowment from the Crown. The royal couple had produced no children, so the king still held the principality of Wales and the duchy of Cornwall in his own right. His duchy of Lancaster was by far the largest private estate in England. And yet Henry was broke.

It was not wildly unusual for the king to be insolvent or even technically bankrupt – throughout the middle ages the Crown was almost always in debt – although it must be said that Henry’s financial problems were unusually severe.12 The greater problem was one of perception: debt was generally tolerated in times of military success, domestic order and convincing royal leadership; at times of distress and disorder, it became a serious political problem. The common idea, which in many ways reflected reality, was that lands which should have supplied a stable income to the Crown, even if only to cover the costs of the royal household, were carved up for personal gain by the men who governed in the king’s name. ‘So poor a king was never seen,’ went the subversive popular song.13 Technically this was not entirely accurate, but the impression was what mattered.

The first utterances of public disaffection were probably in the taverns and townhouses, from the mouths of men like the unfortunate Thomas Kerver. But in November 1449, when a parliament met to address the dire distress of Normandy, the anger of England’s political classes was made absolutely plain. Parliament opened in Westminster, before moving to Blackfriars in London for a few weeks, on account of the ‘infected air’. Whatever plague hung in the air, it was not nearly so deadly as the wrath of England’s commons.

Parliament had ostensibly been called by the king to deal with ‘certain difficult and urgent business concerning the governance and [defence] of his realm of England’. But very swiftly the search began for someone to blame. The news of Rouen’s loss was fresh and raw. Every day brought new defeats, and there was a fear that once Normandy fell, Calais would be next. Since it was impossible for parliament to turn on the king himself – direct criticism of the king was politically dangerous and implied serious constitutional crisis – his leading ministers would have to suffer for their evil counsel.

The first to face retribution was Adam Moleyns, the bishop of Chichester, keeper of the privy seal and a man whose hand touched virtually every aspect of royal business. For fifteen years Moleyns had served as a high-ranking ambassador and clerk (and subsequently a full member) of the privy council. Closely allied to Suffolk, he had been a key figure in the negotiations for the royal marriage, and a member of the diplomatic party that had formalised the cession of Maine. He had fallen out with Richard duke of York, publicly accusing him of corruption and incompetence during his French lieutenancy. Moleyns was a thoughtful and talented humanist scholar, but his career as a politician had ultimately been a failure and he was associated with almost every disastrous decision that had been made with regard to France. Having attended the first session of the parliament, he was granted royal leave to stand down from his secular duties and leave the country on a pilgrimage. He never made it out of England. He was in Portsmouth on 9 January 1450 when he was attacked and murdered by one Cuthbert Colville, a military captain who was waiting to embark to fight in France.

It was widely said that as he died, Moleyns cursed Suffolk as the author of all England’s misfortune. Whether this is true we will never know, but the rumour spread far and wide throughout England. The king’s chief minister would clearly be the next to face the anger of the realm.

Parliament broke for Christmas. As soon as it reconvened on 22 January, Suffolk tried to pre-empt the attack he knew to be coming. In the Painted Chamber at Westminster, richly decorated on every side with ancient murals of scenes from the Old Testament, he stood before the king and parliament and denounced ‘the odious and horrible language that runneth through your land, almost in every commons’ mouth, owning to my highest charge and most heaviest disclaundre [i.e. slander]’. The de la Pole family, he argued, had been conspicuously loyal, sacrificing almost everything in the name of the Crown: Suffolk’s father had died at Harfleur, ‘mine eldest brother after … at the battle of Agincourt’. Three more brothers had died in foreign service and he himself had paid £20,000 in ransom money after being captured at Jargeau in 1429. He had borne arms for thirty-four winters. He had been a knight of the Garter for thirty years. Since returning from war, he pleaded, he had ‘continually served about your most noble person [fifteen] year[s], in the which I have found as great grace and goodness, as ever liegeman found in his sovereign lord’.14 The impassioned appeal to Henry’s pity would save Suffolk’s life, but not for long.

How had it come to this? Since the 1430s, Suffolk had played a vital role in English government, managing relations between the royal household, the council and the nobility, and in general he had done so with the approval of those who understood just how disastrously ineffective and inert the king was. Yet in the winter of 1450, Suffolk was on his own. The nobility who might have been expected to rally to the defence of Normandy had conspicuously failed to do so. In fact, gradually since 1447, many of them had stopped attending council meetings and stayed away from court. Effectively, they had abandoned the government, leaving Suffolk and his diminishing group of allies looking increasingly like a domestic clique around the king, subverting his power for their own gain and ruining the country in the process.15 When he was deserted by his fellow peers, Suffolk’s method of rule – directing government minutely but disguising his hand – was brutally exposed. Since he, even more than Moleyns, had been at the heart of royal government for the years of greatest calamity, he would have to take the blame.

Suffolk’s plea of loyalty had no effect whatever on the commons. The lower house of parliament tended to be far less sympathetic to failures of noble government than the lords. Four days after the duke’s speech, they petitioned the king for Suffolk to be jailed on ‘a generalty’ – a non-specific charge by which he could be held until a detailed impeachment case could be put against him. There was something close to hysteria whipping around parliament. ‘From every party of England there is come among them a great rumour and fame, how that this realm of England should be sold to the king’s adversary of France,’ stated the petition, by way of justifying its demands: a ludicrous notion, but one that spoke of the extreme political tension in the air.

On 7 February 1450 Suffolk was formally impeached of ‘high, great, heinous and horrible treasons’. He was accused of inviting the French to invade England, stirring the king to release Charles duke of Orléans, giving away Maine and Le Mans, passing diplomatic and military secrets to the French, embezzling money through grants of office, tricking the king into granting him lands and titles, including the earldom of Pembroke, which he had held since 1443, giving money to the queen of France, and generally aiding and abetting Charles VII against the English Crown. Scurrilous gossip was written up into formal accusation, including the somewhat implausible suggestion that the night before the duke’s capture at the battle of Jargeau, ‘he lay in bed with a nun whom he took out of her holy orders and defiled’.16 A month later, on 9 March, the duke, having been given time to prepare his defence, knelt before the king and parliament and denied the charges one by one, ‘and said, saving the king’s high presence, they were false and untrue’.17

On 17 March, Henry VI summoned all the lords of parliament, including Suffolk, to his private chamber, ‘with a gable window over a cloister, within his palace of Westminster’.18 Kneeling before the assembled lords and king, Suffolk once more protested his innocence, pointing out that it would have been quite impossible for him alone to have committed the long list of crimes of which he was accused. He waived his right to trial by his peers, and threw himself on the king’s judgement. Then Henry, through the chancellor, told the lords that he did not find Suffolk guilty of any counts of treason. Rather, he said, there were several lesser charges (known as misprisions) for which the duke could be held responsible. Rather than condemning Suffolk to a traitor’s death, he banished him from the kingdom for five years. The sentence was to begin on 1 May.

Despite the lack of a formal trial by peers, it is likely that this was a judgement that had been taken with the lords, whose desire to prevent one of their number from being humiliated by the commons outweighed their desire to see all blame for the realm’s ills conveniently fall on Suffolk’s shoulders. No record exists of this news being transmitted to the commons, but it is safe to speculate that it was met with something between astonishment and rage.

On 19 March, in the dead of night, the duke was removed from London and taken to his manor of East Thorp, in the county of Suffolk. The journey was supposed to be secret, but around two thousand angry Londoners nevertheless chased the party, jostling and abusing Suffolk’s servants all the way. By removing the target of popular disgruntlement, the lords had only served to increase the thirst for blood among their countrymen. A riot broke out in London two days later, in which the leader, a vintner’s servant called John Frammesley, was heard to shout, ‘By this town, by this town, for this array the king shall lose his crown.’19 Parliament was prorogued for Easter on 30 March. By now it was clear that the situation in and around London would be too dangerous for it to continue sitting after the break.

The final session on 29 April thus opened in Leicester, one hundred miles to the north of the capital. On the first day of the new session the king was presented with yet another petition: this time calling upon him to issue an act of resumption, by which all lands originally belonging to the Crown or to the king’s private estate, the duchy of Lancaster, ‘in England, Wales, and in the marches therof, Ireland, Guînes, Calais, and in the marches thereof, the which ye have granted by your letters patent or otherwise, since the first day of your reign’ would be taken back, in an attempt to bolster the royal income. In other words, everything that had been given away by royal favour would now be taken back. It is quite likely that this had been demanded for some time, but demands were now all the louder and more persistent. The king had chosen to save his favourite. The government would therefore have to satisfy the calls for reform in some other radical way.

As the Leicester session of parliament debated the proposed act of resumption, Suffolk was on the east coast of England, in Ipswich, preparing to leave for his sentence of banishment. He and his servants set sail on 30 April in a small fleet of two ships and ‘a little spinner’ – a lighter craft, which we would now call a pinnace – heading for Calais, from where he could make his way to the duke of Burgundy’s lands. Before leaving, Suffolk swore on the sacrament that he was innocent of the charges put before him. Others, however, were not so sure.

The ships reached the straits of Dover the following day and the pinnace had gone ahead to make contact with the Calais garrison when, as one correspondent put it, they ‘met a ship called Nicholas of the Tower, with other ships waiting on them, and [from those in the pinnace] the master of the Nicholas had knowledge of the duke’s coming’. Suffolk’s ships were intercepted and the duke was persuaded or commanded to board the Nicholas, ‘and when he came, the master bade him, “Welcome Traitor”’. According to the same correspondent, Suffolk was held aboard for twenty-four hours, with the agreement of all its crew. The writer heard a rumour that the crew had set up their own tribunal to re-try the duke on the charges he had faced in parliament. What is more certain is that after a period of time aboard the Nicholas Suffolk was removed to a smaller boat with a chaplain to shrive him, ‘and there was an axe and a stoke [i.e. a chopping block], and one of the lewdest of the ship’ – later named in court as a sailor from Bosham called Richard Lenard – ‘bade him lay down his head … and took a rusty sword, and smote off his head within half a dozen strokes’. Suffolk’s servants were put ashore, robbed but unharmed, to tell their tale. Two days later the duke’s body was found dumped on Dover beach, with his head standing next to it on a pole.20

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The news of Suffolk’s death reached parliament in Leicester on 6 May. It was the final shock that forced the royal government to accept the act of resumption (albeit with an extensive list of exemptions, which somewhat blunted its practical effect). A sense of general crisis had by this time escaped the confines of parliament. Towards the end of May 1450 men began to gather in bands across south-west Kent. The county had been in a state of some alarm for around six weeks: the military collapse in Normandy had awakened fears that once Charles VII’s soldiers reached the coast, they would cross the Channel and attack or even invade England, in which case Kent would be one of the first places to suffer. Coastal raids were bloody and terrifying experiences. On 14 April the royal government had issued a commission of array: a command to raise the county militia in every Kentish hundred (the local unit of county administration), assessing each community for its readiness to protect the realm. Men were selected to serve in a potential defence force and provided with clothing, some equipment, money and armour. A night watch of the coast would have been organised. Perhaps most importantly, constables were appointed to take command of each hundred’s militia.21

This was a perfectly reasonable notion, given the gravity of the perceived threat from across the Channel. However, at the same time as the county was being put into a state of military readiness, Suffolk’s murder triggered a panicked rumour that the king intended to hold Kent communally responsible for the death of his favourite. It was said variously that a visiting court would carry out exemplary hangings of ordinary Kentish folk and that the whole county was going to be razed and turned into royal forest. The people of Kent were therefore armed, organised, angry, frightened and ready to go to war to defend the realm from its enemies.

Unfortunately, they did not see enemies only in the spectre of plundering Frenchmen aboard landing craft. Like the parliamentary commons, they began to see the true threat to the king’s realm as the clique around him: ministers and household men like the treasurer Lord Saye, the prominent councillor and royal confessor William Aiscough, bishop of Salisbury, the diplomat John, Lord Dudley and several others. On 6 June word reached these men, and the rest of parliament assembled at Leicester, that Kent had risen in rebellion, and armed bands were assembling around Ashford, in the south-east. It was said that they had elected as their leader and the ‘captain of Kent’ a man called Jack Cade, who was going by the suggestively aristocratic name of John Mortimer – a name he may have adopted to imply an affiliation to the duke of York’s family, who in past generations had been the instigators of rebellion and dynastic plot. (See above, p. 88.) This was nothing more than fantasy, however: Cade had no contact or connection with York, who was then still in Ireland providing loyal service to the Crown.

Cade was to prove a highly effective captain and leader capable of articulating a sophisticated programme of reform that appealed to men of considerable status: his lieutenants included the Sussex gentleman Robert Poynings, the son of a peer who agreed to serve as Cade’s sword-bearer. One song that survives makes the rebels’ high intentions – a purge of government – quite clear:

God be our guide,

And then shall we speed.

Whosoever say nay,

False for their money ruleth!

Truth for his tales spoileth!

God send us a fair day!

Away, traitors, away!22

Henry VI was sent back to London, and two separate commissions of lords were sent to Kent to try and squash the rising: one headed by the king’s cousin Humphrey Stafford, duke of Buckingham, and the other a party of decorated war veterans led by Viscount Beaumont, the constable of England.

By the time they had ridden south, the rebels had moved west: by 11 June they were encamped on Blackheath, just downriver of London. This was the camping-ground of the men who had risen in the so-called Peasants’ Revolt, during the summer of 1381. By 13 June the king was lodged in St John’s Priory in Clerkenwell, most of the important lords and bishops were in London, and Jack Cade’s men had been established just a few miles from the capital for several days.

After an uneasy stand-off, on 16 June negotiators from the government met with the rebels at Blackheath to try and establish their terms for dispersal. The king would not come in person, and after two days of fruitless discussions, on the night of 17 June the rebels retreated from Blackheath back into Kent. But this was no wilting. Sir Humphrey Stafford and William Stafford, kinsmen of the duke of Buckingham, led a force of about four hundred men into Kent to chastise the rebels. Yet when they went into battle near Tonbridge, they were ambushed and slaughtered. Both Staffords were killed.

A half-hearted attempt was made to subdue Kent, but it had little effect. Large numbers of the forces supposedly loyal to the king and his magnates lost their nerve and threatened to defect to the rebel side. Calls went up from the Crown’s own troops for the trial of so-called traitors: Saye, Dudley, Aiscough and others. On 19 June, London dissolved again into rioting, and in response to the mayhem Henry gave his permission for Lord Saye’s arrest as a traitor and imprisonment in the Tower of London. The following day word was given that further offenders would be arrested.

On 25 June Henry and his council abandoned London, leaving the defence of the city to the mayor. There was deep discomfort in the king’s household. Henry and his retinue rode north to Kenilworth in Warwickshire, where they took shelter in the splendid palace-fortress, hiding behind the moat and thick stone walls and sending urgent word to nearby counties asking for the recruitment of soldiers to guard Henry’s life.

As soon as he heard of the king’s flight, Cade immediately marched his men back to Blackheath. They arrived between Wednesday 1 July and Thursday 2 July, then moved upriver to Southwark, where they took over the local inns and taverns, effectively occupying the suburb at the foot of London Bridge. At the same time a rising in Essex saw men marching out of the countryside on the north bank of the Thames, fanning out before the city walls around the Aldgate. Just as it had been in 1381, London was besieged.

Unlike in 1381, when the demands of the rebels had been somewhat vague and jumbled, Cade’s men had a very clear idea of their political demands. The sixteenth-century antiquarian John Stow collected and transcribed a number of original documents relating to the revolt, one of which is Cade’s manifesto.23

In the first place, the ‘commons of Kent’ repeated the rumour that ‘it is openly noised that Kent should be destroyed with a royal power, and made a wild forest, for the death of the Duke of Suffolk, of which the commons of Kent were never guilty’. The manifesto went on to condemn various detestable practices in government, complaining that the king was being stirred by his minions to ‘live only on his commons, and other men to have revenues of the crown, the which hath caused poverty in his excellency and great payments of the people’. It was claimed that ‘the Lords of his royal blood have been put from his daily presence, and other mean persons of lower nature exalted and made chief of his privy council’; that purveyance – the odious practice of forcibly requisitioning goods from ordinary people to support the royal household – was ‘undoing’ the ‘poor commons of this Realm’; that the legal process for protecting land and goods and obtaining justice in the royal courts was being subverted by ‘the King’s menial servants’; that an inquiry was needed to investigate the loss of royal lands in France; that MPs in Kent were not being freely elected; that the offices of tax collectors were being distributed by bribery; and miscellaneous other local laments and grievances.

At every point in his rebellion Cade attempted to prove that he was more than simply a freewheeling lout, but rather that he spoke to and for the ‘poor commons’ both in Kent and the realm at large. This was no easy task since, like all principled popular risings, Cade’s rebellion had attracted large numbers of unscrupulous criminals who used the general mood of chaos as an excuse to burn, loot, pillage and murder. This was not just the case in London: as word of the disorder spread throughout England, violent attacks were made on all manner of hated local officials and dignitaries, including most shockingly Bishop Aiscough of Salisbury, who was robbed and murdered by a mob in Wiltshire on 29 June. All the same, in London, at the heart of the rebellion, Cade did his best to lead his men with a semblance of military order, which included beheading one of his captains on Blackheath for indiscipline.

Even this sort of exemplary justice could not keep all the rebels in check. Henry, hiding terrified in Kenilworth, played directly into Cade’s hands. When the rebel leader arrived at Southwark he received word from the king’s household that he was to be allowed to set up a ‘royal’ court to try traitors. The Crown had sunk so far into torpor and fear that its authority could now be exercised by anyone who rose up to take it. On 3 July Cade and his men advanced from Southwark to London. They were resisted by the London militia, but managed to fight their way across London Bridge, cutting the ropes of the drawbridge to ensure that it would remain open after they entered the city. Cade made proclamations around the city that order was to be kept and that robbers would be executed, then moved on to the Guildhall to set up his court for traitors.

Around twenty prisoners were brought before the court, where the mayor and aldermen were forced to sit in judgement. The unfortunate victims were led by the royal treasurer Lord Saye, who was dragged out of the Tower of London to face his fate. Saye begged for a trial before his peers, but Cade refused. The mob wanted blood. He was permitted only to see a priest before being dragged to Cheapside, where he was beheaded on a block in the centre of the street. Later his son-in-law, William Crowmer, the sheriff of Kent, was pulled out of the Fleet prison and taken outside the city gates to Mile End, where he too was hacked to death. Saye’s body was roped to Cade’s horse and paraded around the city. The treasurer’s head was stuck on a spear, and displayed at various places in the city, where it was made to ‘kiss’ Crowmer’s similarly impaled head, in a grotesque and morbid puppet show.

A number of other men were similarly slaughtered under Cade’s temporary rule. Predictably, the longer the captain kept his men in the city, the more futile his attempts to keep order became. By the evening of 5 July, the mayor and aldermen had managed to array a military force under Lord Scales and Matthew Gough, two veterans of the French wars, and were prepared to lead a counter-attack against the occupying rebels. A battle began on London Bridge at around 10 p.m. and raged through the night, concluding long after sunrise the next morning. Hundreds of men crowded onto the tight causeway across the Thames, fighting hand to hand by torchlight. Cade, in an act of desperation, had broken open the Marshalsea prison in Southwark, flooding his ranks with freed prisoners. But he could not break past Scales and Gough’s defensive lines. In a final act of reckless rage, the rebels set fire to the wooden drawbridge, choking the battle site with smoke and sending men at the heart of the fight tumbling from the bridge to drown in the cold water below. Finally, in the mayhem, the gates on the London side of the bridge were bolted shut. Hundreds of bloody and burned bodies were left outside, including that of Gough and the alderman John Sutton. The rebels had been driven back to Southwark.

The following day, 7 July, on the advice of the queen, who had – remarkably and bravely – remained during the rebellion at her manor of Greenwich, the Kentishmen were offered a chance to take charters of pardon and disperse. Many welcomed the opportunity, but Cade refused, preferring to withdraw once again to Kent, taking with him goods and treasure that had been plundered (quite at variance with his own commands) and vowing to continue the fight. But his luck had run out. On 10 July Cade was officially denounced as a traitor and a bounty of one thousand marks was put on his head. After several days’ flight he was captured ‘in a garden’ at Heathfield in Sussex by Alexander Iden, who had replaced the unlucky Crowmer as sheriff of Kent.24 Cade fought to the last, and although he was taken alive, he died of his injuries on the road. Justice thereafter could only be symbolic: Cade’s corpse was beheaded at Newgate on 16 July, taken around the city as far as Southwark for public viewing, then returned to Newgate to be chopped into quarters. His head, rather appropriately, was put on a pole above London Bridge, lifeless eyes staring down over the scorched remains of an extraordinary urban battle site.

Cade’s revolt was over but tension smouldered throughout the summer. The king, his household and the nobles who had joined him at Kenilworth crept back towards London at the end of the month: on 28 July a service of thanksgiving was held at St Paul’s Cathedral, and a month later a high-ranking judicial commission of oyer and terminer, including Humphrey duke of Buckingham, the archbishops of Canterbury and York, and the bishop of Winchester, was sent into the country to investigate the abuses that had been decried in the rebel manifesto.

Many towns and villages in the south-east of England remained dangerously volatile: several other individuals tried to raise Kent, Essex and Sussex into rebellion during the autumn, gangs of robbers roamed the countryside looting and killing, and London simmered constantly. Soldiers returning from Normandy swelled the urban population and veterans committed several offences against the heraldic arms of Lord Saye, including vandalising the stone that marked his burial place at the Greyfriars. In August the Tower was broken into and the armoury there was robbed of many of its weapons. The autumn saw disturbances in reaction to the routine election of a new mayor, while bill-posters railing against the government appeared all over the city and at one stage a disgruntled keeper of Newgate prison started a riot by setting all the inmates free.

At every level, 1450 had been a year of strife, violence, chaos and terror, the product of a gradually building crisis in government that stemmed ultimately from the vacuity of the twenty-eight-year-old king. For years Henry’s semi-absent kingship had been managed by a succession of patches and muddles: first by a minority council that balanced the differing views of his uncles against the corporate will of the lords, then by the rule of Suffolk, whose command of government was constructed through his own connections in the council, the royal household and the countryside. Neither of these had proven to be a satisfactory solution and Suffolk’s rule had collapsed into murderous chaos and rebellion, of which Suffolk himself had been the first victim. Yet if they had succeeded in destroying a supposed governing clique, the protestors had done precisely nothing to address the root of all the country’s ills. Following Suffolk’s death and Cade’s rebellion, Henry’s personal incompetence remained as pressing a problem as ever. Another man would soon thrust himself actively into the centre of political life in an attempt to address it. In September, Richard duke of York returned from Ireland to make his own bid to rescue England from its dizzying decline.

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