In 1449 King Henry VI was almost bankrupted. The hundred years War in France was grinding to a halt through lack of funds and a succession of defeats at the hands of the French. Parliament refused to raise any more money for a government it distrusted. The cloth trade from City of London guilds was prevented from exporting to Flanders for fear of the French ships invading. The loss of trade and tax revenues crippled chances of recovery.
The years 1450-1 saw a number of revolts, mostly in the south of England, some abortive – one serious. The tone of most was to remove ‘the king’s evil counsellors’: as in 1381, the naivety of many of the lower orders enshrined in a belief that the king was good, ordained by God, but the nobles, churchmen and advisors surrounding him were corrupt and were robbing the poor, mismanaging affairs, and ballsing up the ever-popular war effort. The cloth trade was crippled by fear of French ships. Parliament had refused to raise any more cash to fund the increasingly doomed war. Kent (as usual in the middle ages) was a particular centre of unrest – not only were they plagued by French raiders, but the county sherriff was notoriously crooked. Private armies loyal to aristocrats were roaming the country doing as they liked. Huge parts of the county were also being fenced off for private hunting groun ds for the king and his mates…
In June 1450 the commons of Kent gathered on Calehill Heath, north of Ashford, and hailed Jack Cade as their leader. 1000s marched on Canterbury, and then on London. They camped on Blackheath, echoing the much larger Peasants Revolt nearly 70 years earlier, but initially withdrew south into the Wealden Forest as a royal army approached. However, some of the soldiers sent against them mutinied, and the rebels killed a number of the leaders sent against them. They then marched back to London.
In July Cade’s men entered Southwark looting houses and burning. Cade tried in vain to stop them. Even though Cade executed a man called Parys for indiscipline, it did little to end the burnings.
On 3 July the rebels, cut the drawbridge ropes, and as the bridge fell poured onto the City streets. Cade dressed in the blue velvet of the slain Sir Humphrey Stafford, rode in pomp into the city. The rebels looted Alderman Philip Malpas’ palatial home. On 4 July, the citizens were left to defend themselves. The King and court had fled to Kenilworth. As the Oyer et Terminer sessions opened at Guildhall, Cade replaced the judges with his own men; Lord Saye was accused for losing Henry VI’s French possessions. John Trevilian and Thomas Daniel were also put on trial for implementing Suffolk’s notoriously extortionate policies. They were also accused of plotting the death of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, a popular uncle of the King who had been was arrested in 1447, accused of treason, and died in captivity. Lord Saye was beheaded at Standard-in-the-Cheap, his degraded corpse dragged through the streets.
After looting for two days and nights, London citizens attempted to evict the rebels from the capital. Cade gathered his men together to assault the city. He opened Marshalsea Prison and let out the inmates, as the Peasant’s revolt had done. Aided by the garrison from the Tower, Cade’s men cleared the streets of rioters on the night of 5th July, and won control of London Bridge.
Cade massed on the south bank – while Lord Scales and Captain Matthew Gough gathered the king’s troops. The Londoners side had the Tower’s arsenal, but Cade burnt the drawbridge as the fighting raged all evening and night.
On 6 and 7 July 1450 some of Cade’s followers were registered for the offered royal pardon. Some of Cade’s men continued to ravage northern Kent. Cade failed to take Queensborough Castle. Robert Spenser was executed at Rochester for trying to raise a rebellion there in Cade’s name. The revolt began to collapse and men were abandoning the cause. Cade legged it.
On 12 July, Alexander Iden, Sheriff of Kent harried and chased Cade to Heathfield, Sussex where he was severely wounded. The following day Cade died on the journey to custody in London. His body was cut into quarters and the parts sent to Blackheath, Norwich, Salisbury and London.
But the fizzling out of Cade’s revolt was not the end of the popular uprisings.
In the last week of August 1450 and throughout September riots broke out in Sussex and the Weald, Wiltshire, Essex and Kent. In the latter county events occurred in Margate, Canterbury, and Chatham. But the rebellion dispersed almost as soon as it had began.
In the Autumn Sussex labourers gathered and denounced the king;, there was an attempt to launch a class war against the rich and clergy in the county. John and William Merfold, yeomen brothers from Sussex, were later executed for what can only be described as communist expressions, demanding an end not only to the taxes, exactions and fines visited on the poor by the rich, but to the rule of the rich and the king in itself. Demonstrations continued sporadically, and on February 8, 1451 the commission at Canterbury condemned eight yeomen and farmers to death for treason. The next day men at Maidstone urged people to tell the King to grant letters of pardon because 5,000 armed men were ready there. In June 1452 the peddler John Wilkyns and 28 others were hanged while others were granted pardons. The tailor John Percy led a revolt in the Weald in April 1456, and the next week riots broke out in London. In 1456 men were still rioting in Hawkhurst, and as late as February 1459 a yeoman led a hundred people in Brixton, and they were accused of plotting against the King.
These outbreaks and expressions of class antagonism were soon overshadowed and channeled into the civil war that became known as the War of the Roses; and we’re still waiting for, and working for, the kind of change John and Thomas Merfold, and many of Cade’s supporters, dreamed of… Time to gather on Blackheath again folks!
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online