On the night of the 12th June 1381, the main body of the Kentish peasant rebels, inflamed against poll taxes, serfdom and oppressive laws of all kinds, camped on Blackheath. But a sizable minority too angry and inspired to rest even after a long day’s march, pushed on, as far as Southwark and Lambeth. “There they were met by a mob of malcontents belonging to the suburbs and even by numerous sympathisers from the city itself, who had been obliged to take boat across the river to join them, for the drawbridge in the midst of London Bridge had been raised on the news of their approach.”
This advanced guard of the rebellion broke open the two prisons in Southwark, those of the Marshalsea and King’s Bench, and let loose the captives:
“And before the hour of Vespers the commons of Kent came, to the number of 60,000, to South-wark, where was the Marshalsea. And they broke and threw down all the houses in the Marshalsea, and took out of prison all the prisoners who were imprisoned for debt or for felony.”
The Marshalsea Prison was built to hold prisoners brought before that court and the Court of the King’s Bench, to which Marshalsea rulings could be appealed. Also called the Court of the Verge, and the Court of the Marshalsea of the Household of the Kings of England, the Marshalsea court was a jurisdiction of the royal household that, from around 1290, governed household members who lived within the verge, defined as within 12 miles (19 km) of the king. Thought to have been built some time in the fourteenth century (though there are records of an earlier prison of this name), the prison was at one time second in importance only to the Tower of London. Though most of the prisoners held in the Marshalsea throughout its history were debtors, from the 14th century onwards, minor political figures were held there instead of in the Tower, mostly for sedition. William Hepworth Dixon wrote in 1885 that it was full of “poets, pirates, parsons, plotters; coiners, libellers, defaulters, Jesuits; vagabonds of every class who vexed the souls of men in power …”
Having trashed the prison, the peasant rebels “levelled to the ground a fine house belonging to John Imworth, then Marshal of the Marshalsea and the King’s Bench, and warden of the prisoners of the said place, and all the dwellings of the jurors and questmongers belonging to the Marshalsea during that night.”
As Imworth’s house burned, flames flared up all night in the sight of the King and his councillors in the Tower, and of the citizens of London, who watched from their wharves and windows the signs of approaching trouble.
Around the same hour that day, “the commons of Essex came to Lambeth near London, a manor of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and entered into the buildings and destroyed many of the goods of the said Archbishop, and burnt all the books of register, and rules of remembrances belonging to the Chancellor, which they found there.”
Lambeth Palace was (and still is) the official London residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury. In 1381 the Archbishop was Simon of Sudbury, former Bishop of London. As the Peasants Revolt gathered pace, Sudbury became one of the main targets of the people’s rage, as he was also the Lord Chancellor of England, the ultimate authority for tax-gathering and raising revenue, blamed for the latest poll tax bearing heavily on the poor. That he was a close ally and crony of John of gaunt, the king’s uncle, long a hate figure for the populace and Londoners in particular, only increased the price on his head. Having released John Ball from his prison at Maidstone, the Kentish insurgents attacked and damaged the archbishop’s property at Canterbury.
On the 14th, the commons flocked to the Tower of London; the most heavily guarded fortress in the land. However, so unpopular was Sudbury with the rebellious peasants that guards simply allowed the rebels through the gates, rushing into the Tower, they seized the archbishop himself, and dragged him to nearby Tower Hill, a traditional execution ground. The peasants consciously satirised and ritualised their instant justice on Sudbury by using the physical spaces of repression – beheading the Archbishop, they stuck his head on a spike on the gate of London Bridge, where authority usually impaled the heads of rebels and traitors.
And on Saturday morning (June 15th), the poor’s vengeance on the Marshalsea prison was completed: John Imworth, “a tormentor without pity”, the Marshal of the Marshalsea, had taken sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. A body of rioters entered the church, “passed the altar rails, and tore the unhappy man away from the very shrine of Edward the Confessor, one of whose marble pillars he was embracing in the vain hope that the sanctity of the spot would protect him.
He was dragged along to Cheapside, and there decapitated.”
All of London’s other prisons, and lockups in other towns, were opened and their inmates freed by the rebellious armies.
Even after the defeat of the Revolt, the Marshalsea remained an object of fear and loathing. Prisoners were sprung in 1450 during Cade’s rebellion; the prison was rocked by riots in 1504; at Xmas 1505, in 1539, in 1592 there was a riot outside the Marshalsea (see yesterday’s blog entry)… more riots broke out in 1639 over the terrible conditions – some prisoners were standing 23 to a cell, unable to sit down…
Lambeth Palace meanwhile, has also been regularly attacked by London rebels: in 1639, 1640, 1780; bombed by the Angry Brigade in 1970. Unlike the Marshalsea, however, it still stands… One for next time eh?
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online