Today in London rebel history: William FitzOsbert, or Longbeard, executed,1196, after popular disturbances.

‘Around this time I noticed that there was bad feeling and conflict in the city of London between the rich and the poor’. (Ralph Diceto)

‘And in the same yere an heretyke called with the longe berd was drawen and hanged for heresye and cursed doctrine that he had taught.’  Chronicle of London, 1196

‘He (King Richard) used England as a bank on which to draw and overdraw in order to finance his ambitious exploits abroad.’ A. L. Poole in the Oxford History of England

In the early 1190s, taxation was provoking serious tensions between the rich and poor people of the city of London. King Richard I, bafflingly nicknamed the Lionheart (read either ‘pschopathic warmonger’ or ‘little bloke who wants to kick off in the playground but gets battered’) by centuries of groveling muppets, urgently ‘needed’ vast wodges of cash to fund his pointless dynastic wars to defend the parts of his lands he really cared about, in France, and his inept attempts to go down in history as a valiant defender of the holy faith by re-conquering a few slivers of territory in Palestine. Being the king, he felt it was his right to extort this from the population of England (though he only every spent two very brief periods in England in his whole life, amounting in total to less than six months.) In the process he would nearly bankrupt the country, increase poverty and desperation, and spark dissent among even his own family.

This would also contribute to a little-known incident in London history, a brief flash of anger and rebellion, the true significance of which is shrouded and will likely never be known: the ‘revolt’ of William Longbeard.

The late 1180s and early 1190s saw a succession of taxes imposed to fund the crusades, wars, and later the ransom for king Richard when he lion-heartedly managed to get himself kidnapped by a rival prince. London, being the largest and most important city, had to bear the largest share, including for the massive ransom demanded when the king was captured on his way home. A levy for the aid of Jerusalem, known as the ‘Saladin Tithe’, in 1188, a tax to contribute to the king’s ransom in 1193, and another tax in 1194, were all on top of the regular sums extracted from the city of London, such as the farm, which was paid once a year. The crown’s exceptional demands on the city brought taxation to the forefront of the civic political agenda.

Like most taxes, in theory the better-off pay more, as in the same percentage of earnings of property means more if you earn or possess more. As usual, however, the rich and powerful of London tried, (and often succeeded) in passing on the main burden of the taxes onto the ‘poorer sort’, commonly evading or getting out of their duty to pay. How things have changed eh? You wouldn’t see the authorities allowing that sort of behaviour these days.

The poor of London in the 1190s complained that they were far more heavily taxed than the rich.

In 1196 a brief and abortive rebellion sparked in London against the heavy taxes, led by one William Fitz Osbert, nick-named Longbeard, because, he and his kinsmen had ‘adhered to this ancient English fashion of being bearded as a testimony of their hatred against their Norman masters’. (Matthew Paris). Apparently long beards then were viewed as symbols of pilgrims, and of learning, but also had the implication of ‘resistance to authority’… The hippies would like that (though as to hipsters…? Hmmm) His striking beard which ‘made him more conspicuous in meetings and assemblies’.

It is thought William was a Londoner, the son of ‘Osbert the Clerk’. The family wasn’t rich but was certainly well-to-do, thus William had been able to study law at university, supported partly by his brother Richard. Later he went on crusade to the Holy Land, returning about 1192-3, when he became involved in the internal civic politics of London. He was said to have been endowed with ‘a sharp mind’, was ‘moderately educated but unusually eloquent’.

The chronicler Gervase of Canterbury, who was one of FitzOsbert’s most hostile critics, adds that ‘he was most eloquent’. Even allowing for the chroniclers’ exaggeration of FitzOsbert’s charisma, which was intended to explain why he secured a following among the masses, it seems clear that he must have been an articulate and sophisticated man, with a forceful personality.

At this time the collection of taxes and levies was ‘left to Londoners themselves’. The aldermen of each city ward met at the ‘wardmoot’, an institution that went back to Anglo-Saxon times. Consent needed to be obtained and then each citizen was meant to contribute according to his wealth, although normally wealthier citizens were expected to pay at a higher rate than poorer people. If anyone possessed a ‘stone house’ they were deemed to be wealthy and ‘singled out and required to contribute at a higher rate’.

This Anglo-Saxon custom was being increasingly bypassed and ignored by the wealthier citizens of London, many of whom were the French-speaking descendants of the Norman conquerors; the poor being mostly the English.

“Great and frequent were the talliages imposed upon the City of London, for Richard’s ransom: and the burthen, according to the popular opinion, was increased, by the inequality of its apportionment or repartition. London at this period, contained two distinct orders of citizens: the Aldermen, the “Majores” or “Nobiles”, as they are termed in the ancient Year Books of the City, the Patricians or higher order, constituting (as they asserted) the municipal Communia, and constantly exercising the powers of government. To these, were opposed the lower order, who — perhaps being subdivided amongst themselves into two tribes of plebeians — maintained that they were the true Communia, to which, as of right, the municipal authority ought to belong. And in these conflicting ranks, an historical theorist may suppose that he discovers the vestiges of the remote period, when London was inhabited by distinct races or nations, each dwelling in their own peculiar town — the Ealdormannabyrigy still known as the Aldermanbury — inhabited by the nobles or conquering caste: whilst the rest of the city was peopled by the tributary or subject community. All contemporary chroniclers tell the same story: there was massive discontent because the wealthy and powerful were trying to avoid their share of the levy being raised to pay the king’s ransom. (Sir Francis Palgrave)

By 1194 King Richard’s ransom had been collected from the citizens of London and from the rest of the country, and early that year Richard returned to England for a brief visit. At this time, William Fitz Osbert, who might have known the king, them being together on crusade, denounced his own brother, Richard Fitz Osbert, and two other rich Londoners to the king. He claimed they were not only avoiding paying their fair share of the taxes that were still being raising for Richard’s campaign plans in France, but that they had traitorous discussions against the king as well.

“A document preserved in the rolls of the curia regis confirms that in a November session of the court in the sixth year of the reign of Richard I (1194), Richard FitzOsbert, Robert Brand, and Jordan Tanner were accused by William FitzOsbert of having held a meeting in Richard FitzOsbert’s stone house at which treasonous statements were made. Richard was accused of resenting the obligation to pay royal taxes. Jordan Tanner was held to have expressed a desire that the king never return home, and Robert Brand was charged with declaring that London would never have any other king except the mayor.”

The thrust of the accusation may have been family jealousy or an attempt to win favour with the king; in any case the accusation ended in either no action being taken against the three, or it being dismissed. Hostile chroniclers took it as evidence that FitzOsbert was really motivated by a desire to acquire his brother’s possessions or personal animosity.

However, it marks the beginning of FitzOsbert’s rise to prominence as a critic of the rich as tax avoiders and, briefly, a popular agitator.

From personal accusations against people he knew, FitzOsbert moved onto a more general campaign of disruption and propaganda. He is reported by the chroniclers who tell the story as alleging that ‘on the occasion of every royal edict the rich spared their own fortunes and because of their power placed the whole weight on the poor and defrauded the royal treasury of a large sum’.

All the chroniclers suggest that FitzOsbert was organising a popular movement, under his leadership. There is no record of FitzOsbert ever serving in any recognized or elected post, as a sheriff or alderman: he seems to have gained influence without holding office. Prominent and established Londoners dominated the ranks of the mayors, sheriffs and aldermen. Aldermen at this time probably inherited or bought their position, without being directly elected; it is possible that Fitz Osbert achieved prominence by speaking out at the wardmoots or the folkmoot, effectively public meetings usually used for agreeing and ratifying local decisions.

The Folkmoots, assemblies of male citizens held at St Pauls, and wardmoots, local meetings in each ward, served as venues of London community self-government, on the level of local decision-making, but could also inevitably be opportunities for popular discontent and agitation, especially in times of particular grievance or pressure.

A charismatic speaker, such as William FitzOsbert is said to have been, might well become popular by being a loud voice of dissent and criticism at such meetings. According to Newburgh, Fitz Osbert disrupted public meetings, and Diceto, the dean of St Paul’s, suggests that he “bound the people to himself with oaths and that his rhetoric was responsible for a riot in St Paul’s.” (Note that the folkmoot was held next to St Pauls, so perhaps a riot that began at a folkmoot?)

Disrupting official meetings, and binding the citizens with oaths, represented a threat to the established political order. FitzOsbert was also prepared to appeal to the king, according to Newburgh FitzOsbert ‘deemed it necessary to go overseas to complain to the prince that he suffered the enmity… of the powerful’. Again, the budding popular leader may have been trading on personal contact with the king developed in the crusades, and made a point of public support of the king while challenging the immediate authorities in he city. Howden asserts that FitzOsbert ‘obtained [the king’s] peace for himself and the people’. If so, it was a temporary peace…

Although, the chroniclers use a variety of terms to describe FitzOsbert’s supporters, including paupers, plebs, and cives Lundoniarum, this may not mean all of FitzOsbert’s support came from the very poor. At a time when the idea of the poor having a voice in the city’s politics, or wider political decision-making, was not considered at all, or would have been seen by the elite to be a joke, an impossibility, or represented a threat of chaos and disorder, this emphasis may be deliberately aimed discrediting the movement. FitzOsbert’s supporters could in fact have included many people from the ‘middling sort’ and had wealth worth taxing – certainly people who had something to lose to the extra tax regimes, not people who had nothing. Proof is impossible to come by on this, though when Hubert Walter, archbishop of Canterbury and Justiciar of England, was drawn into the troubles, and pressurised London’s citizens to hand over FitzOsbert, he ordered the arrest of London merchants visiting fairs in the surrounding counties. It’s not clear whether the merchant classes were known as supporters of Fitz Osbert, or merely being used as hostages.

In antagonising Hubert Walter, responsible in the king’s absence for keeping order in the realm, Fitz Osbert over-reached himself. Walter ‘convoked the common people, spoke to them squarely . . . and admonished them to give hostages for being loyal to the king’… but FitzOsbert, ‘supported by the crowd proceeded with a show of pomp and organized public meetings on his own authority’.

Hubert Walter saw the threat of disorder would be reduced by removing the figure at the movement’s head, and used both persuasion and threat to try to convince Londoners, including ordering the arrest of any Londoners caught outside the city (‘at Stamford Fair [March 31] some merchants… were arrested’.) But by April 1196, Walter resorted to force, after his men sent to bring FitzOsbert to trial were intimidated by the latter’s supporters. Walter sent armed men, supported by ‘noble citizens’, to arrest FitzOsbert; the latter and some of his followers fought them off, by all accounts, FitzOsbert personally killed one of the officers.

Realisation might have set in then that the forces arrayed against him might outweigh the 1000s he was supposed to by then command, or at least influence. FitzOsbert and a few supporters legged it to St Mary le Bow church, and took sanctuary refuge in the church tower, relying on the inviolability of sanctuary. But Hubert Walter decided to violate the sanctity of the church (very controversial at the time) and the steeple was burned to force FitzOsbert out, while more soldiers were sent into the city to overawe the common people.

FitzOsbert surrendered when the church was ‘besieged with fire and smoke’. Once captured, William FitzOsbert was taken to the Tower, tried, and then on April 6th, 1196, brought to Smithfield for execution, dragged “through the centre of the city to the elms, his flesh was demolished and spread all over the pavement and, fettered with a chain, he was hanged that same day on the elms with his associates and died”. This was unusual for the time, as “the public execution of a prominent public figure was clearly not part of the normal political process.”

His execution, and the occupation of the city by archbishop Walter’s soldiers, squashed the immediate threat of class disorder in London, though it did also, for a while, turn FitzOsbert into a martyr.

“Gervase of Canterbury relates that ‘a sudden rumour spread through the city that William was a new martyr and shone through miracles’. People started seeking out his place of execution. Newburgh notes that the gibbet was stolen and ‘the earth underneath, as if it were consecrated by the blood of the hanged man… was scraped away by the fools in small bits until a considerable ditch was formed’.

Even in death FitzOsbert was a threat to order, and Newburgh remarks that the ‘multitude continually kept watch’ at the execution site ‘and this very vain error became so strong that it could have misled even the wise’. The intensity of the spiritual focus on him after death does suggest the strength and depth of his support within the population at large, and could have sparked further imitation of his methods – or so the authorities though. Again, they resorted to violence. Gervase of Canterbury records that ‘an ambush was laid and those who came at night-time to pray were whipped’.” (John McEwan)

The budding cult of William Longbeard was suppressed.

It remains unclear, and is unlikely to ever be clarified, at this distance of time, how much William Longbeard FitzOsbert was the head of a genuine popular movement, how large the discontent spread, and how much of a threat to the London authorities it was. It seems to have dissipated quickly under the repression led by Walter and the London notables. And how much was Longbeard seeking to exploit anger for his own ends – power in the city? Impossible to tell.

Its clear that the events caused no immediate change in the power structures in London; “the civic leadership was disconnected from the population”, and it remained so afterwards. But the incident shows that popular pressure could have an impact, and that there the civic authorities could not necessarily expect unquestioning deference, and that there was a preparedness, at least from some elements in the lower and middling strata, to protest the unequal financial economic burden of taxation.

“The chroniclers maintain that the lower orders were willing to express their opinions, and indeed that they believed that their interests should play an important role in determining the policy of the community. The chroniclers also make clear that there were recognised mechanisms whereby public opinion could be made manifest. Public meetings provided a vehicle for the expression of sentiments of dissatisfaction, and indeed it was possible for a man such as William FitzOsbert, who was not in the first rank of London merchants, to acquire influence by articulating the critical opinions of an angry section of the population. Furthermore, even though poor and middling men did not serve as mayors or sheriffs, their opinions ultimately mattered in civic politics, because they were not easily coerced. When a restive section of the population opposed their methods of organising taxation, the authorities could not implement a policy.” (John McEwan)

William Longbeard’s posthumous reputation in written sources was initially dim, as the main chroniclers of London at this time generally took pains to portray him in negative terms, while acknowledging the anger the unequal burden of tax had aroused. But this was to change in the years following the events. To some extent the memory of Longbeard chimed with the tales of outlaws like Robin Hood: the good rebel, supporter and friend of the good absent king, who is being betrayed by evil counselors or rapacious sheriffs, who are oppressing the loyal people.

Less than a century after his savage death, in the hands of Matthew Paris, FitzOsbert was transformed from a villain into a hero. “Paris presents a stridently sympathetic portrait of FitzOsbert, describing him as the leader of a movement which resisted the unreasonable impositions made upon the poor by the mayor and aldermen. He calls the attack on St. Mary le Bow church a ‘sacrilege’ … Paris’s account, in addition to providing a perspective which contrasts with those of the earlier chroniclers, provides evidence that FitzOsbert lived on in the popular imagination. In part, this was because of the dramatic nature of his death, but it was also because taxation and conflict between the rich and the underprivileged continued to be relevant issues that excited passions and sparked debate.”

Alot of this was nicked John McEwan, William FitzOsbert and the Crisis of 1196 in London

 

https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/flor/article/viewFile/14454/15526

 

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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