Military history


An Absence of Kingship – Majority

Within a year of his return from France, the young King was showing some independence of spirit. In late November 1432, as Henry’s eleventh birthday approached, Richard Beauchamp appealed to the Council for additional corrective powers. The tutor complained that his increasingly unruly charge was ‘more and more to grudge with chastising and to loath it’ and he feared that the boy might ‘possibly conceive displeasure or indignation against those who would take upon them to chastise him for his defaults, which without due assistance is not easy to be borne’.1

As an anointed king, Henry was beginning to be perceived very differently from his former, mere childish, self. His wilfulness could be construed as betokening an, as yet, misdirected and unguided show of willpower. It would not be long before he took up the reins of kingship, and those who established themselves as his closest advisers would have a crucial advantage over their enemies. In the light of what had gone before, it is not surprising that Gloucester sought to increase the authority of the young King in order to undermine that of the Council. But in the light of what was to follow, it is ironic that it was Gloucester, not Beaufort or Suffolk, who first sought to exploit ‘the dependence of the monarchical system upon the private person of the king’.2 Yet the King himself was not ready. When Bedford was in England during the Parliament, once again as pacifier between Gloucester and Beaufort, the drift of power to the King’s private person had been reversed.3 But after Bedford’s return to France and, above all, after his death, the situation began to change permanently.

From late 1435, Henry increasingly took on some of the less challenging kingly duties, such as reading petitions and indicating his views.4 In May 1436, Beauchamp resigned his position as the Henry’s guardian, possibly ‘out of weariness with the King’s “simpleness”’5 and was not replaced.

Then in November 1437, after some attendance at Council over the previous two years, Henry was deemed to have reached his majority. The adult medieval king had an array of institutions at his disposal to assist him in his responsibilities: for the waging of war, the administration of justice, the distribution of offices and patronage and the maintenance of the proper state and estate of a monarch. But the personal active, interested and disinterested intervention of the king was necessary, because it provided the oil that lubricated the machinery of government. Under Henry V the machine had run smoothly. How would the young King do?

The early indications were not good. Henry VI did not exhibit the personality of a king. Indeed, he showed little personality at all. There was an immediate avalanche of gifts of lands and office to the favoured, including his great-uncle Cardinal Beaufort. It had to be tactfully pointed out to the King by his Council that, in some cases, these grants were not legally his to give to whom he chose. Some restraint then ensued, for a time.

Henry did undertake royal progresses, though they tended to be mainly around London, the South East and in the Lancastrian heartlands in the Midlands; but he did not, as was usual, personally administer royal justice. He was not interested in administration at all.

As for his French kingdom, the King’s general inclination was, with Beaufort, for a policy of peace. Initially, though, this could waver, as his relations with the more bellicose Gloucester continued for a time to be good.

Early in 1440, Gloucester launched his final campaign against Beaufort,6 taking advantage of the Cardinal’s loss of prestige following the failure of his recent peace negotiations with the French. With the King looking on, first in Council and then in Parliament, Gloucester presented a venomous and detailed range of charges covering Beaufort’s entire career, designed, as before, to destroy the Cardinal’s reputation and to initiate an impeachment on the basis of corruption and defrauding the Crown.7 Once again Gloucester’s attempt to wrest control from Beaufort and the Council was to come to naught. The charges were not taken forward.

Shortly afterwards, Beaufort did indeed take a step back from the forefront of affairs, but not as a result of Gloucester’s attempt at proscription. Though age played its part, the Cardinal’s reduced role came about primarily because of the emergence of a new group at Henry’s court, one which had no interest in maintaining the dominance of either Gloucester or Beaufort.

For in the extraordinary and unprecedented absence of any intervention by the now officially adult King, the exercise of real power had been moving decisively elsewhere, to those with constant access to him, under the leadership of William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk.

Suffolk was to become a marquess in 1444 and a duke in 1448 with, most importantly, the wealth to support the titles. However, he was not, at the beginning of his career at least, one of the leading peers of the realm. Indeed it could be held against him that his ancestry, a mere three generations of it documented, was of uncertain, perhaps even peasant origin.8 Though he had had the honour as a very young man of fighting and being wounded before Agincourt, he had shown no great military prowess in the French Wars during the 1420s. In fact, his active service came to an end after he was besieged in the walled town of Jargeau by Joan of Arc and forced to capitulate. The night before his surrender was remarkable, not for any heroic acts of defiance, but rather for his taking the opportunity to father a child with a French nun.9

Having been expensively ransomed, he returned to England in 1430 and it was then that his full range of opportunistic talents began to show. First he made an extremely good marriage to Alice Chaucer, the great poet’s granddaughter and dowager Countess of Salisbury. Then, with the support of both Cardinal Beaufort, to whom Alice’s father was extremely close, and, strikingly, Gloucester, with whom he had a rapport, he very quickly joined the Council. His attendance there was assiduous for the remainder of the King’s minority.10 To this he added, in 1433, the seemingly lesser role of Steward, in charge of running the King’s household. By the time of the King’s majority, he had gained the support of the Lord Chamberlain and was thus in control of both ‘Upstairs’ and ‘Downstairs’.

As the King took his first faltering steps in government, Suffolk was constantly on hand. His genius lay in his patience, in moving slowly but remorselessly: he maintained his position in the Council as an upholder of collective responsibility, while simultaneously, through domination of the royal household, strengthening his control of the King’s day-to-day affairs. And in East Anglia, where both had substantial landholdings, he merged his financial interests with the King’s, under his own direction.

Beaufort may have moved into the background, but there was still the troublesome influence of Gloucester with which to contend.

This influence was eventually destroyed, not by Suffolk, nor by Gloucester’s own quarrelsome actions, but by those of his wife Eleanor. Some said that Lady Eleanor Cobham had bewitched the Duke. He had happily put aside his existing wife with the aid of a legal technicality, in order to marry Lady Eleanor in 1428. From 1435, on the death of Bedford, the new Duchess clearly saw herself as wife to the possible heir to the throne. Her desire to know whether she might become Queen grew overwhelming. Astrology was a widely accepted and practised way of divining the future. But in matters touching the King, it was dangerous territory. When it became known in 1441 that her own expert astrologers, all priests, had forecast Henry’s death, they and she were put on trial. That two of the judging panel were Cardinals Beaufort and Kemp could not have helped her case. She was found guilty of witchcraft: not of forecasting the King’s demise, but of conspiring to bring it about. Her three associates suffered agonising deaths; Duchess Eleanor, the first lady of the realm, was forced to do public penance, walking barefoot like a common prostitute on three successive market days to London churches. She was then divorced by the Duke and imprisoned for life.11 Any residual influence Gloucester might have had was henceforth at an end. The Duke’s many enemies might have achieved their purpose, but the prestige of the court as a whole was badly tarnished. Observers could only conclude that something was badly amiss. There was also to be a long-term consequence for Henry’s Kingdom of France.

From this point forward, the power of the cautious Suffolk steadily advanced. Continuing to act scrupulously within the Council, he was quietly strengthening his domination of the royal household and entrenching his position close to the King. Most of the great magnates of the land, such as the Dukes of Exeter and Buckingham and the Earls of Salisbury and Northumberland, acquiesced to his influence. Thus by the early 1440s power lay with Suffolk and a small inner circle who enjoyed constant access to the King. This inner ring was served by increasing numbers of satellites all seeking to join it. The size of the royal household grew exponentially, as did the number of grants of land from the King’s estates. The royal debts, estimated at £164,000 in 1433, were up to £372,000 by 1450; this at a time when the regular annual income of the Crown was less than £33,000 per annum.12

Thankfully it was at a time of decreasing expenditure on the French Wars. The position there had stabilized. The defection of Burgundy and the death of Bedford, both in 1435, had indeed been major blows, with the following year’s consequent loss of Paris and the Île de France. But England had managed to hold on to Calais; and this had brought Gloucester a temporary prestige when he had led the expedition to relieve it. For a while it had given strength to his pro-war arguments.

Whether waging an aggressive French war was a viable option or not, with Gloucester’s disgrace it ceased to be considered. Suffolk and thus the King were in favour of peace. They wished to extend what had been a period of truces into something more permanent. It was a position that the wily Charles VII and his ministers were able to exploit from a position of strength and through the dark arts of diplomacy and negotiation.

It was with peace in mind that in 1444 the King was betrothed to a French princess. This was not, however, a marriage such as that of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, bringing vast lands to the English Crown. Margaret of Anjou would bring no lands at all. Her father, René, had a full range of exotic claims with titles to match – King of Jerusalem, King of Sicily and King of Sardinia – but these were titles without territories. What would have impressed Suffolk more was that René, married to the sister of Charles VII, was also a close adviser to the French King. In that fact, at least, a man very like himself.13

Though the marriage in 1445 was at the time popularly celebrated as likely to produce an heir and a satisfactory peace, it became clear that a ‘dowry’ had indeed been offered … but, astonishingly, by the English. It was Maine: the key French province that Bedford had secured to protect Henry V’s reconquest of Normandy. But, as with the Munich Treaty in 1938, one side was seeking a solution, the other to make a ploy. The cession of Maine was seen by the English as the final part of their successful peace negotiations, by the French as an intermediate strategy. And as the talks dragged on in fits and starts and the English were seen to have breached ancillary terms, by 1447 Maine’s cession became the key not to peace but to a continuing truce. This had been a catastrophic misjudgement. As Henry V and Bedford had known well, Maine was the gateway to the plains of Normandy – and now that gateway was wide open to the French.

Charles VII may have been talking about peace, but he was busily preparing for war. He now had the resources for a breakthrough, having forced through a new compulsory tax grant. He had at his disposal a well-equipped professional army, with the latest technology, in the form of effective siege cannon; so advanced were his preparations in this regard that it was said ‘never in the memory of man did a Christian king have such a numerous artillery at one time’.14 When the moment arrived, he would have the means to reduce Normandy’s fortresses.

Gloucester was also aware of Maine’s importance. He may have been sidelined and humiliated, but his opposition to the peace policy was well known. Suffolk feared that Gloucester would, at the very least, become a figurehead for opposition. In February 1447, a parliament was called in what was for Suffolk the highly friendly territory of Bury St Edmunds. Gloucester came to it with troops and was arrested by the collective force of the Dukes of Somerset and Buckingham, the Earl of Salisbury and Viscount Beaumont.15If it was Suffolk’s intention to put him on trial for treason, then Gloucester’s sudden death made that unnecessary.

It is probable that he died from natural causes. Though how ‘natural’ a stroke16 might be considered, when brought on by the stress of finding himself in the very situation he had tried to inflict upon his enemy Cardinal Beaufort, is debatable. (Beaufort survived him, if only by just over six weeks.) But Gloucester’s convenient death, in suspicious circumstances, was to generate all kinds of rumour. In the words of one chronicler: ‘Many tales were blown about the land, some saying that he was stuffed between two feather beds, some that [in the manner of Edward II] a hot spit was put in his fundament; and some that he was drowned in wine and afterwards dried again.’17 Far from extinguishing his influence, Gloucester’s death and the persecution of his bastard son Arthur and many of his associates only served to fan the flames.

Though the confusion of Henry V’s deathbed instructions and the actions of Beaufort and the Council had given Gloucester much cause for complaint, he had in life been an immensely disruptive force. The quarter-century of vicious vendetta waged between himself and Beaufort, and acted out in public, had had an effect on the young King which was soon to take an extraordinary turn. Yet within a few years of his death, Gloucester would be celebrated in popular opinion as ‘Good Duke Humphrey’, immortalized in popular verse and song, and transformed into a rallying point for a popular uprising of unprecedented coherence and lasting significance.

In 1449, England’s alliance with the Duchy of Brittany was lost through a combination of French strength and English diplomatic misjudgement. The English Duchy of Normandy was left completely exposed to the French attack that followed at the end of July. Fortress after fortress was reduced through the devastating power of the French siege cannon. Or, shamefully, they fell with scarcely a fight. Rouen was surrendered at the end of October. Caen, the remaining centre of government, went the same way the following 1 July. There had been only one major battle: a devastating English defeat at Formigny in April. The English army’s commander, Sir Thomas Kyriell, was taken prisoner along with all ransomable men-at-arms. The common soldiers, regarded as having no value, were slaughtered in an orgy of bloodlust. Agincourt, in its full ghastliness, was avenged.18

In August 1450 Normandy was lost for ever. By then, its commander, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, was already back in England. Gascony – the lands that Eleanor of Aquitaine made English by her marriage to Henry II three hundred years before – was virtually unprotected following the withdrawal of resources to the north and fell rapidly the following year. This left Calais, a tiny enclave in the Flanders territories of the Duke of Burgundy, as the solitary remnant of England’s empire on the Continent.

Calamitous as was the impending loss of Normandy, it was the reaction to it which was most devastating for Suffolk’s government. Well before the final military defeat, political retribution came. On 6 November 1449, on the exact day of the twentieth anniversary of Henry’s coronation in Westminster, parliament assembled. Suffolk sought much needed funds to retrieve the situation in France and the dire necessity for parliamentary grants was outlined. But, for the first time since Henry V’s consolidation of Lancastrian rule, these were not forthcoming.

Instead the House of Commons was determined to call the government to account. Any open criticism of Henry was unthinkable: it would have been treason. Instead the focus for their ire was Suffolk. The House moved for his impeachment on 27 January. The first line of attack concerned the conduct of the war. To the fore was a ‘confession’ from one of the inner core of the administration: Bishop Moleyns, the Privy Seal, had been set upon by mutinous unpaid troops in Portsmouth and, perhaps in a vain attempt to save own his life, had accused Suffolk of treason with the French. This tiny unsubstantiated thread was added to a whole tapestry of charges, the worst of which was that Suffolk had planned since 1447 to assist a French invasion, to kill the King, to have his son betrothed to Henry’s wealthy cousin and conceivable heir, Lady Margaret Beaufort, and to make his son king instead.

The charge of treason against Suffolk was nonsense. Suffolk, for all his faults, was not a traitor. But England was a country fearing the permanent loss of its French territories and the greatest national humiliation since the Norman Conquest. Worse still, it feared a greater reversal: its own invasion by France.

The Commons presented the initial bill of impeachment to the Lords, followed by further charges including, for the first time, a condemnation of Suffolk’s government at home. The Lords agreed several times that Suffolk had a case to answer, but the King blocked all judicial action until, on 13 March, Henry finally allowed Suffolk to be brought before him and the Lords. Suffolk vehemently defended himself and, rather than asking for the customary trial by his peers, put his fate in the hands of the King. On 17 March, against all precedent, Suffolk was banished for five years, commencing from 1 May. On that day, he set sail for what he expected would be a short exile in Burgundy.

Though Suffolk had escaped the Tower of London and the normal operation of the law, he did not escape justice of a rougher sort, nor, in a piece of symbolism that would not have been lost on him, did he escape the ‘Tower’. Off the coast of Dover, his ship was waylaid by a privateer. The master and sailors on board the eerily named Nicholas of the Tower ignored the safe conduct granted Suffolk by the King. None of his own protected him but instead stood witness to what followed, reporting that the Nicholas’s sailors said that ‘as the King did not wish to punish these traitors, that they recognized no such King; that the Crown of the realm was the community of the realm and that they would now make another person from outside the kingdom the king in his place’.19 That they were so clearly referring to Richard, Duke of York, does not of course mean that he instigated the event.

There was then a hiatus until two days later when a mock trial was held on deck. As the men on Suffolk’s own yacht watched, he was ‘tried’ and sentenced to death. He was taken into a small boat where, with respect to his aristocratic position, a sword was prepared to execute him. Unfortunately for Suffolk, his executioner was not a skilled professional but ‘one of the lewdest of the ship’.20 The sword was rusty and it took half a dozen blows to sever his head from his body. The body was then taken to Dover Sands and left there. It is a tale which has about it the air of myth, particularly as the manner of Suffolk’s death very closely resembled that of Pompey the Great. But as the Paston Letters – a treasure trove of fifteenth-century correspondence – show, these were the details that were recounted within days of the event and were heard by a horrified political nation.21

Further shocks lay in store, both from within the accepted political order and without. The former included an attempt by the Commons to gain the return of all lands granted by the King to Suffolk and his associates. The attack from outside the political order was focused on London. In 1450, up to forty thousand people lived in the City of London itself and its immediate suburbs such as Southwark. This was the economic and trading hub of the nation and probably four to five times the size of York, the next largest city.22 Of an estimated fourteen thousand adult males living there, only four thousand could be regarded as men of property, freemen or citizens, with a say in choosing the city’s mayor from amongst the twenty-five aldermen. To be an alderman you needed to be seriously rich and almost exclusively from one of the established merchant companies, such as the Mercers or Goldsmiths. The occasional unattached artisan freeman might be elected but this was a rarity, and the frustration at this exclusion could express itself in violence. Far more volatile however were the ten thousand unenfranchised – including labourers (both skilled and unskilled), apprentices, the retainers and servants of magnates with nearby town houses and, lastly, vagrants.23 This volatility could be a danger to almost anybody, as Cardinal Beaufort had found, and it was a major ongoing concern for the Court of Aldermen. There was also the fear of incursions from outside and the destruction that could be caused by an angry collective mob: with the example of the Peasants Revolt of 1381 still very much in mind.

In the summer of 1450, that fear again became justified. In May, the very month of Suffolk’s death, traditional seasonal gatherings to celebrate Whitsun started, in Kent, to transform themselves into a mass movement.24 Though it was well disciplined and included many members of the minor gentry in its ranks, they turned to an ex-soldier of lower rank but commanding presence as their leader. That man, of mysterious background, called himself Jack Cade, Jack Amend-All, or Jack Mortimer – the latter name highly suggestive of a link with the Mortimer background of Richard, Duke of York. As the premier lord of the realm, albeit absent from the King’s counsels in Ireland, York was viewed as a potential saviour, whether or not he wished it.

By 11 June a force of thousands had camped on Blackheath. Their grievances arose partly from the collapse in France and the resulting dislocation to trade. Kent was a major outlet to the Continent and would have been disproportionately affected by, for instance, the halving of imports of wine in 1450.25 Their grievances were also partly political: held chiefly against James Fiennes, Lord Saye, Treasurer of England, Chamberlain of the Household, Warden of the Cinque Ports, and direct if distant ancestor of actor Ralph. Fiennes, a close ally of Suffolk, had treated the counties of Kent and Sussex as a personal fiefdom.26 With his son-in-law Crowmer, he had trampled on the rights of the minor gentry and better-off yeomen farmers. But these were men who saw themselves as worthy of social respect in their small towns and villages. They were taxpayers who expected to be the agents of administration, justice and military recruitment – not its victims. They were part of a chain of service and protection – of ‘good lordship’ – rising up through gentry and lords to the king himself. And they saw themselves as ‘the commons of England’ with the right to complain against injustice and to petition the king in defence of the common weal – ‘the general good’ – on the basis that there were matters of concern to all who had a stake in society.27

Their grievances might have been local, but they understood that the ultimate cause of them was national. As expressed in their Proclamation, issued on 4 June,28 their criticism of the Suffolk regime was in no way parochial. Declaring themselves his ‘liegemen’, they appealed to the King as the ‘true commons’.

Taken out of context, their assertions might be seen as revolutionary. But that would be completely wrong. They were in fact conservative. They looked to the national level as the ultimate cause of their grievances at the local level in Kent, but for redress they sought the restoration of the King’s ‘true blood’ – including the Dukes of York, Exeter, Buckingham and Norfolk – and the dismissal of the ‘false progeny and affinity of the Duke of Suffolk’. They urged the return of ‘good counsel’ at the national level and ‘good lordship’ at the local. Here are their chief points:

We believe the king our sovereign lord is betrayed by the insatiable covetousness and malicious purpose of certain false and unsuitable persons who are around his highness, day and night, and daily inform him that good is evil and evil is good …

[They] assert that at his pleasure our sovereign lord is above his laws, and that he may make them and break them as he pleases … The contrary is true …

[They] say that the king should live upon his commons, and that their bodies and goods are the king’s …

We seek remedy for this: that the false traitors will allow no man to come to the king’s presence for any reason, unless there is a bribe such as ought not to be …

[It] is a grievous thing that the good Duke of Gloucester was impeached of treason by one false traitor alone and was then so soon murdered that he might never answer the charges. But the false traitor [William de la] Pole [Duke of Suffolk] was impeached by all the commons of England …

[The king’s] false council has lost his law, his merchandise is lost, his common people are destroyed, the sea is lost, France is lost, the king himself is so placed that he may not pay for his meat and drink, and he owes more than ever any King of England ought, for daily his traitors about him, when anything should come to him by his laws, at once they ask it from him …

[The king’s true commons] desire that he will dismiss all the false progeny and affinity of the Duke of Suffolk, who are openly known, and that they be punished according to the law of the land. Moreover, the king should take about his noble person men of his true blood from his royal realm, that is to say, the high and mighty prince the Duke of York, exiled from our sovereign lord’s presence by the machinations of the false traitor the Duke of Suffolk and his affinity. He should also take about his person those mighty princes the Dukes of Exeter, Buckingham and Norfolk, together with the true earls and barons of this land. Then shall he be the richest Christian king …

[The king’s] true commons desire the punishment of the false traitors who plotted the death of the high, mighty and excellent prince the Duke of Gloucester …

[They] desire that all extortions be laid low …

Finally they made an appeal as men from Kent: ‘[We] move and desire that true lords and knights be sent into Kent to enquire of all traitors and bribers, and bring true justice’, having first given assurance: ‘[We] will have it known we will not rob, thieve or steal but, when these wrongs have been amended, then we will go home …’

It was a devastating critique of the government both of county and country. The rebels wanted to see the King. This they did not achieve. However, having issued their proclamation and having met Archbishops Stafford and Kemp they did begin to disperse. By the time the King was brought to meet them, all had departed. Fortunately so, because he came with armed men. Henry was at last to appear on the field of battle, but appallingly, it was for the purpose of attacking his own subjects who had tried to exercise their right to petition.

That, however, should have been the end of the rising, had it not been for agents of Fiennes and Crowmer who started harrying the rebels. Worse, they introduced a rule of terror in Western Kent with the declared intention of turning the county into a deer forest.29 This ‘chevauchée’ – rapid, organized killing and destruction of the type practised by Edward III against the French a century before – was as foolish as it was appalling.

What was novel about the protest was its articulacy and coherence, something that had been lacking in the 1381 Peasants Revolt.30 The petitions of 1450 were framed by educated men representing those who felt they had a stake in society. They were seeking the better exercise of existing forms of government and in no way constitutional change – that was not their place or their role. However, these were not the landless peasants of the past, there to be harried by their thuggish lords; they were men with a ‘voice’ in their own small towns and villages, if normally a quiet one at a regional and national level where they looked for leadership from their local ‘good lord’ and, ultimately, the king.

That their own position and, even more, that of their forefathers had changed was due to the most cataclysmic event ever to afflict this country. It had first traumatized and then transformed England. It began almost exactly one hundred years before: it was the first visitation of the Black Death.

One of the greatest dangers to life and limb in the mid-fifteenth century was from the collapse of old buildings. Even prosperous towns were scarred by sudden gaps in streets, where houses had once been but where there were now empty spaces, stripped of all the materials which had once created a home. These gaps were a legacy of the Black Death, the devastating pandemic that had originated in China, spreading along the trade routes to reach mainland Europe in 1346. It struck England in 1348 and within two years had killed around 40 per cent of a population of around six million.31 Additional outbreaks continued to strike down the population until by 1400 it was half what it had been before the plague hit. There were further outbreaks during the fifteenth century, though none with the virulence of the first, but a particular prevalence of the disease amongst children and adults of child-rearing age kept the population pegged at the low level of 1400.32

The spread of this plague was due to a number of factors. There had been previous plagues, but in one sense this was a new disease, as the last one of any significance had occurred hundreds of years before. It was ubiquitous, spreading along the networks of trade and human contact, from city to town, even to the smallest hamlet. Moreover, it was portable, transmitted by fleas carried by the black rat (rattus rattus) which, having killed their hosts, transferred themselves to humans. Remarkably adaptable, it came in three separate forms: bubonic, the most common, with a name derived from the inflamed swellings or buboes in the groin, armpits and neck; septicaemic, where the infection was so massive that it entered the bloodstream and the victim died even before the buboes appeared; and pneumonic, where the bacteria was passed from human to human in breathable droplets.33 These forms of the plague were seasonal, bubonic and septicaemic being particularly prevalent in the summer, pneumonic in the winter. The causes were a mystery to medieval man and are not conclusively understood even today. Indeed, over the past decades some medical research studies have put forward the case that the Black Death was not a plague at all but an epidemic of pulmonary anthrax or perhaps an ebola-like virus.34

Whatever the cause, it was terrifyingly deadly. The bubonic version had the lowest fatality rate of the three, but even that ran at 50–60 per cent. Pneumonic claimed a massive 90–100 per cent. For septicaemic, the victim’s chances of survival were virtually nil.35

While even the most elevated families were not safe from the Black Death – Edward III’s daughter Joan and daughter-in-law Blanche of Lancaster died, as did two Archbishops of Canterbury – it did show some respect for class. Amongst the peerage and gentry the death rate was an estimated 27 per cent of their number; within the parish clergy, this rose to 42–45 per cent;but amongst the great mass of the population – the peasantry – the rate, and hence the national average, according to manorial records, was around 50 per cent (with variations from area to area of between 40 and 70 per cent). It seems that more space per person and stone walls and floors to keep the nimbly climbing and nesting black rat further away would have afforded some degree of protection to the fortunate minority.36 For some families and communities the death rate was comprehensive, leading to the desertion of villages and to a vast number of houses in towns with no surviving relative to inherit.

The pandemic completely changed English society. From a clearly hierarchical, feudal system, one evolved where obligations of duty and service remained but in a more nuanced and complicated form, less rigidly enforced than before. Money rather than feudal obligation had increasingly become the medium for transactions involving labour and goods. This was accompanied by a change in the language, with French gradually being replaced by English in matters of administration and culture.37

This did not happen overnight, of course. The initial reaction of the King and nobility was to seek to enforce their traditional rights, to maintain the minimal rate of reward for those who worked their land and to keep them tied to the estate. This, together with the Crown’s attempt to maintain its revenue by widening the tax base with a Poll Tax, were major causes of the Peasants Revolt of 1381.

But, during the decades that followed, and in the face of the practicalities of the situation, compulsion was largely abandoned. Scarcity of labour helped promote its transferability: in short, if peasants wished to do so, they could move to a new area beyond the reach of their lord, where they would have no trouble finding work.

Of course, many stayed and took advantage of the new order. Landowners gradually abandoned feudalism and the sharecropping principle whereby they provided land and seed and took a percentage of what their tied labour force produced; instead of farming everything themselves they began to rent out much of their estates, with the less productive land being set aside or turned to pasture. This in turn changed the peasantry: some retained their economic dependence on their social superiors, but as servants rather than serfs; many became farmers themselves, increasing their holdings until, over a period of years and a few generations, they had turned into yeomen and then minor gentry; the less entrepreneurial or less fortunate became waged labourers, with no land to call their own, but in most cases enjoying a far better standard of living than their ancestors.38

It was a much more productive system, better able to support a vastly greater number of sheep and consequently to produce the country’s most valuable commodity: wool. Furthermore, this did not occur at the expense of the population as a whole. Everyone, no matter what their class, benefited from a better diet – even the beggars. The latter also had some sort of safety net, courtesy of alms from the houses of the great and from the monasteries and churches which owned roughly a third of all the land.39

Dietary improvements were vital for producing a population capable of long-term sustained effort. It was even more essential for that part of the population employed in soldiering, where a prodigious amount of strength was required even to undertake the regular and routine practice of archery and stave-fighting. And it was in the area of preparation for combat, including the recruitment and maintenance of troops, where a sense of social obligation remained particularly strong. In the absence of the authority of the King, all looked to the protection – the ‘good lordship’ – of the local lord during troubled times.

The moronic aggression of Fiennes towards his own people was a spectacular example of bad lordship. In the 1440s, he had taken advantage of a power vacuum in Sussex and, most particularly, Kent, to build a regional domination. He sought to rule through fear. But in a part of the country uniquely destabilized by the collapse in France, his tactics promoted anarchy rather than security. This was especially so in June 1450. Men turned again to Cade.

By 29 June the rebels were back at Blackheath. This time the rebellion took on a harder edge and there was a disturbing new development. As Isobel Harvey, the leading expert on the revolt, makes clear, it was at this very point that in and around Blackheath retainers of the King himself and his magnates threatened to join the rebels unless those royal servants now deemed to be both dishonest and public traitors were immediately arrested.40 Fiennes was denounced together with Bishop Ayscough of Salisbury and other members of the Suffolk inner core; though by this time, the hated Ayscough may have already been dead, ‘hacked to death by his own flock’41 and ‘despoiled to the naked skin’42 at Edington, as news of events around London spread west. By order of the King, and for their own safety, Fiennes and Crowmer, the Sheriff of Kent, had been committed to the Tower. As to the general safety, that was devolved to the Mayor and aldermen. Henry had cast away the opportunity to emulate his predecessor Richard II, who as a fourteen-year-old had charmed and disarmed the dangerous insurgents of the Peasants Revolt. Instead, having ordered an inquiry and ignoring the pleas of the Mayor, he left for the Duchy of Lancaster stronghold of Kenilworth near Coventry.

By 1 July the rebels had moved to Southwark and on 3 July they forced their way over London Bridge and looting began. That day, the inquiry commenced at the Guildhall. Cade’s rebels had been denied access to the King’s judgment, a crucial part of the ideal of the common weal. They were almost denied access to their hated target Fiennes, as Henry once again sought to protect a member of the inner circle on whom he had become so dependent. He tried to have Fiennes secretly released from the Tower, only to be thwarted by the Duke of Exeter, the Constable of the Tower, for reasons of his own.43

The rebels took ‘justice’ into their own hands. Fiennes was denied his demand for the judgment of his peers and the inquiry, overawed by the rebels, turned into a trial. Its decision was swift and the next day Fiennes was beheaded. Crowmer was taken by the Essex men and executed at Mile End.

From the moment the protest movement had gained access to London it had started to change shape. Whatever voice of restraint might have existed among the minor gentry behind Cade, it was drowned out as the mass cries for justice changed to the call for looting, pillage, arson and murder. There can be no doubt that the more unstable elements within London itself seized the opportunity for instant profit and to settle scores.

Cade was no longer the gallant captain. In vile scenes, Fiennes and Crowmer were reunited: their severed heads were made to kiss. Cade then rode around the city of London with Fiennes’s body attached to his horse,44 before it was taken away to be quartered.45Cade himself took to theft on a grand scale, loading a barge with loot as his mob swarmed through the gateways of London and then back out, staggering under the weight of their trophies.

This continued for three days, until, on the evening of 5 July the Mayor and aldermen, backed by a great number of Londoners and commanded by Lord Scales and their own captains, veterans of the French Wars, sought to re-establish control. After a battle on London Bridge that lasted from nine o’clock at night until nine the next morning,46 the rebels were driven back into Southwark and the entry to the bridge barred.

The next day the two archbishops and William Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester, met with Cade in St Margaret’s Church, Southwark. Pardons were granted to Cade and three thousand others who were desperate to ensure their disassociation from the descent into barbarism. Almost all the pardons were respected, that to Cade was not. He was hunted down, mortally wounded and captured, but died en route back to London. There he was decapitated and quartered. The body was then roughly reassembled, with its head sewn on to its chest. This was to ensure that it would be recognized when it was dragged through the filthy streets of London.

What had begun as an ordered petition of grievances had, through the crass inaction of the King and even crasser mishandling of the situation by Fiennes, degenerated into something disgusting and degrading. The political and commercial nation was profoundly shocked.

The minor gentry and yeomen of Kent who had taken part in the march to London were appalled at the way their dignified protest had been completely overshadowed by the horrors of what followed. They welcomed the re-establishment of order, and lent their support to the judicial commissions which brutally punished the unpardoned or defaulting rebels and brought a ‘harvest of heads’.47 Yet there remained a vacuum of ‘good lordship’, which a great lord might fill; one was to do so with panache ten years later.

In London and the South East the undercurrent of scarcely contained turmoil continued, fed by unrest among the unsettled population, displaced soldiery returning from the French Wars, and retainers from the households of the great magnates, whose riotous behaviour was perhaps less anarchic and more targeted than it at first seemed. There were to be further short, sharp eruptions in 1450 and 1451, but this time the great lords – who had been judiciously absent in June and early July 1450 – saw to it that the insurgents were put down firmly. But though there was no further massive eruption on the scale of Cade’s revolt, the fear of another uprising was ever present. This contributed to a febrile atmosphere at the upcoming parliament, where the great nobles began to surround themselves with an ever-increasing number of personal bodyguards.

There can be no doubt Cade’s rebellion had a marked effect on one crowned person in England: the Queen. King Henry might have been safely ensconced in the Midlands during the anarchy of early July, but Queen Margaret was at Greenwich. It has been suggested that she played a small part in negotiating the pardons. Whether she did or not, her later actions were to demonstrate a marked apprehension about London – enough to make her move her court away from the capital. This in time was also to make London markedly apprehensive about her.

And as speculation continued as to who had fomented the rebellion, the finger of suspicion came to point at a man who was not even in the country when it happened, who would not cross from Ireland to England for a further two months. That man was Richard, Duke of York.

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