March and Massacre

THE KENTISH REBELS at once sent their hostage, the Governor of ‘ Rochester Castle, to the King with a message: “Sir John Newton was dispatched from Blackheath to speak to the King at the Tower, asking him to come and address the rebels, and informing him that all their actions were performed in his service. For the country had of recent years been sadly misgoverned, to the dishonour of the realm and the detriment of the common people by his uncles, by the clergy, and most of all by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the chancellor, from whom they wanted an account of his ministry (119).”

Newton conveyed their wish for a meeting with the King: “Sir John did not dare refuse, but crossed the river to the Tower. The King, and those with him, were in a state of great suspense, and everyone made way for him as he landed. . . And kneeling before the King, he said: ‘Most honoured sire, do not be displeased with me for the message I bring, for my dear lord, it is not of my own free will that I bring it.’ ‘No, Sir John,’ replied the King. ‘Tell us your message; we hold you excused.’

“Most honoured Sire, the commoners of your realm have sent me to entreat you to come and speak to them at Blackheath. They want to hear no one but yourself. You need have no fears for your person; they will do you no harm, since they are and will always continue to be your loyal subjects. They will only tell you a number of things which they say you ought to hear, but of which they have not charged me to inform you. My dear lord, have the goodness to give me an answer that will satisfy them and will convince them that I have come before you; for they hold my children as hostages, and will kill them if I do not return’ (120).” Newton was told that Richard would see the rebels the next day: “The King replied: ‘You shall have an answer at once.’ He then held a council, at which he was advised to say that if they would come down to the river Thames on Thursday morning he would speak to them without fail. Sir John Newton conveyed this message to them, and it gave great pleasure. The rebels, who now numbered 60,000, encamped and spent the night as best they could (121).’

Next day, before their meeting with the King, the rebels were stirred by a sermon from John Ball. Ball had been prominent among them ever since his release from prison: “And when he had thus been set free, he followed them, egging them on to commit greater mischiefs, and saying that such things must surely be done. And, to corrupt the more with his doctrine, at Blackheath, where 20,000 of the commons were gathered together, he began a dis­course in this fashion:

When Adam delved and Eve span,

Who was then the gentleman?

“And continuing his sermon, he strove to prove by the words of the proverb that he had taken for his text, that from the beginning all men were created equal by nature, and that servitude had been introduced by the unjust oppression of evil men, against the will of God, who, if it had pleased Him to create serfs, surely in the beginning of the world would have appointed who should be a serf and who a lord.

“Let them consider, therefore, that He had now given them the hour wherein, laying aside the yoke of long servitude, they might, if they wished enjoy their liberty. . . They must be prudent, hastening to act after the manner of a good husbandman, tilling his field, and uprooting the tares that are wont to destroy the grain; first killing the great lords of the realm, then slaying the lawyers, justices and jurors, and finally rooting out everyone whom they knew to be harmful to the community in future (122).”

The Chronicon Angliae went on: “And when he had preached these and many other ravings, he was in such high favour with the people that they cried out that he should be Archbishop and Chancellor, and that he alone was worthy of the office, for the present Archbishop was a traitor to the realm and the commons, and should be beheaded wherever he could be found (123).”

King Richard was rowed down the Thames to meet the rebels at Rotherhithe: “On the feast of Corpus Christi, the King heard mass in the chapel of the Tower, with all his lords, and afterwards embarked in his barge, with the Earls of Salisbury, Warwick, and Oxford, and other knights. They were rowed downstream to Rotherhithe, where over 10,000 men had assembled from Black‑ heath. When they saw the royal barge approaching, they set up such a hue and cry that it sounded as if all the devils in hell had been let loose. They had brought Sir John Newton with them, and they would have hacked him to pieces, as they had threatened, if the King had failed to appear (124).”

After a brief exchange with the noisy crowd, however, the royal party returned to the safety of the Tower: “When the King and his lords saw the hostile state of the crowd, there was none of them so bold as not to feel alarm. The King was advised not to land, but to have his barge rowed up and down the river in front of the crowd. ‘Tell me what you want,’ cried the King. ‘I have come here to talk with you.’ That part of the crowd that was nearest him answered with one voice: ‘We Want you to land, and then we can tell you more easily what we require.’ The Earl of Salisbury then answered for the King: ‘Gentlemen, you are in no fit state nor are you properly dressed to speak to the King.’ Nothing more was said, and the King was conducted back to the Tower (125).”

The rebels, angry and hungry, now made for London: “When the people saw that they could achieve nothing more, they returned, in a rage, to Blackheath, where the bulk of the mob still was, and explained what had happened. Then they all cried out: ‘Let us go to London!’ They set out at once, and destroyed on the way a number of houses belonging to lawyers, courtiers, and the clergy; and on reaching the suburbs of London, which are extensive and beautiful, they destroyed several fine houses. In particular they demolished the Marshalsea (the King’s prison) and liberated all who were confined in it. Altogether, they did great damage in the suburbs and threatened those who had closed the gates of London Bridge, saying that they would burn all the suburbs, take London by force, and burn and destroy everything (126).”

The Anonimal Chronicle described how sympathizers in South­wark helped the Kentish rebels over London Bridge into the City. The rebels “went on to the bridge to pass into the City, but the Mayor was ready before them, and had the chains drawn up, and the drawbridge lifted, to prevent their passage. And the commons of Southwark rose with them and cried to the custodians of the bridge to lower the drawbridge and let them in, or otherwise they should be undone. And for fear that they had of their lives, the custodians let them enter, much against their will (127).”

Other groups of rebels were not prevented from entering the City gates. According to Froissart, the authorities were too scared to resist them: “The peasants in Essex, Kent, Sussex and Bedford therefore flocked to London, to the number of 60,000 in all. The chief rabble-rouser was Wat Tyler, and under him were two other leaders, Jack Straw and John Ball. This Wat had been a tiler of roofs; he was a bad character, and a deeply embittered man.

“All London, except for the rebels, was in terror. When they approached the city, the mayor and the richer citizens held council and decided to close the gates of the city and let no one enter; but they decided on reflection that there would then be a danger of all the suburbs being burned to the ground. So the city remained open to them, and they entered in troops of anything from twenty to two hundred depending on the size of the towns from which they came (128).

The City Letter Book of London told of the mob in the streets. The mob destroyed several buildings, including the Palace of the Savoy in the Strand, which belonged to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the King’s uncle and the most powerful man in the kingdom. They also destroyed the Priory of St. John at Clerkenwell because Sir Robert Hales, the Treasurer of England, was also Master of the Order: “By the aid also of perfidious commoners within the City, of their own condition, who rose in countless numbers there, they suddenly entered the City together, and, passing straight through it, went to the mansion of Sir John, Duke of Lan­caster, called ‘Le Savoye’, and completely levelled the same with the ground, and burned it. From thence they turned to the Church of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, without Smithfield, and burned and levelled nearly all the houses there, the church excepted (129).

They also ransacked the Temple, the headquarters of the lawyers of England. They burned the many books and records and charters they found there, since these contained records of the feudal services due to lords of the manor by serfs: “Afterwards they went to the Temple to destroy the tenants of the said Temple; and they threw the houses to the ground and cast down the tiles so that the houses were left roofless and in a poor state. They also went into the church, seized all the books, rolls and remembrances kept in the cupboards of the apprentices of the law within the Temple, carried them into the high road, and burned them there (130).”‘

In the evening the rebels encamped in the open space around the Tower. They “announced that they would not leave until they had obtained from the King all that they wanted; and that the chancellor of England must give them an account of all the revenue levied in England for the last five years; and that if he could not give a satisfactory account it would be the worse for him (131).”

Inside the Tower, as flames from the burning buildings lit up the night sky, the young King Richard anxiously sought the advice of his nobles: “At this time the King was in a turret of the great Tower of London, and could see the manor of the Savoy and the Hospital of Clerkenwell, and the house of Simon Hosteler near Newgate, and John Butterwick’s place, all on fire at once. And he called all his lords about him to his chamber, and asked counsel what they should do in such necessity. And none of them could or would give him any counsel, wherefore the young King said that

he would send to the Mayor of the City, to bid him order the sheriffs and aldermen to have it cried round their wards that every man between the age of fifteen and sixty, on pain of life and members, should go next morning (which was Friday) to Mile End, and meet him there at seven o’clock (132).”

The next morning, the King set out for Mile End, but a mob broke into the Tower: “Most of the common people from the villages set out, but not all; for a great part of the mob only wanted to riot, to destroy the nobility, and to plunder the city. They clearly showed that this was the chief purpose of their rebellion; for when the gates of the Tower were opened and the King came out with his two brothers and a number of attendant lords, four hundred of the mob, led by Tyler, Straw, and Ball, dashed in by force and rushed from room to room (133).”

There they murdered Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop who was also Lord Chancellor and much concerned with the intro- slain duction of the poll tax: “During this time the Archbishop sang his mass devoutly in the Tower, and shrived [assigned penance to] the Prior of the Hospitallers and others, and then he heard two masses or three and chanted the Commendacione, and the Placebo, and the Dirige, and the Seven Psalms, and a Litany, and when he was at the words ‘Omnes sancti orate pro nobis’, the commons burst in, and dragged him out of the chapel of the Tower, and struck and hustled him rudely, as they did also the others who were with him, and dragged them to Tower Hill (134).

Together with the Archbishop, they beheaded Sir Robert Hales and other royal advisers: “All of whom they beheaded in the place called ‘Tourhille’ [Tower Hill], without the said Tower; and then carrying their heads through the City upon lances, they set them up on London Bridge, fixing them there on stakes (135).”

The rebels also killed many prominent citizens and Flemish weavers, who had been invited into England by Edward II to establish better methods of cloth manufacture. These men were unpopular because they were thought to be sending gold out of the country: “Upon the same day there was also no little slaughter within the City, as well of natives as of aliens. Richard Lions, citizen and vintner of the said City, and many others, were be­headed in Chepe. In the Vintry also, there was a very great massacre of Flemings, and in one heap there were lying about forty headless bodies of persons who had been dragged forth from the churches and their houses; and hardly was there a street in the City in which there were not bodies lying of those who had been slain. Some of the houses also in the said city were pulled down, and others in the suburbs destroyed, and some too, burned (136).”

Geoffrey Chaucer recalled this massacre in the Nun’s Priest Tale when he described the farm servants chasing a fox (137):

So hideous was the noise—God bless us all,

Jack Straw and all his followers in their brawl

Were never half so shrill, for all their noise,

When they were murdering those Flemish boys.