Today in London radical history: a mutiny halts royal army’s move against Kentish rebels, 1450.

England, 1450. A hundred years of war against 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. (Any resemblance to possible Brexit scenarios is purely coincidental.)

Throughout 1450-1, a number of revolts broke out, mostly in the south of England, against king Henry VI’s regime. Henry being a somewhat daft religious twat with a tendency to go mad, his government was generally run by a clique of aristos, often bossed by whoever could get the favour of his French wife, Margaret of Anjou, who made up for her husband’s bewildered wandering through life by being ruthless and single-mindedly dynastic. But the ruling class elite was split by vicious rivalries and enmities, and Richard Duke of York, the king’s cousin and effective heir to the throne, was often popularly held up as an honest geezer who would sort out problems in the kingdom and give the French a good hiding if only he was in charge. Trouble was the queen and her mates thought he was on the make, and distrusted him, and he was elbowed out of the centres of power. (For more, read your Shakespeare).

But Richard of York had a lot of support, especially among the lower orders. The most significant revolt in 1450, Jack Cade’s Kentish rebellion, combined a demand that York be included in the government, with a number of other economic complaints. As with many medieval revolts, the removal of ‘the king’s evil counsellors’ was a central plank: 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.

Kent (as usual in the middle ages) was a particular centre of unrest – not only were they plagued by French raiders, but in 1450 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 grounds for the king and his mates…

To some extent Cade’s rebellion was a sort of prelude to the Wars of the Roses; the rebels’ support for the Duke of York mishmashed in with anger about austerity and a patriotic fury…

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.

Jack Cade and his army retreated into the impenetrable forests of the Weald, and possibly unwisely, the Royal army followed, only to be lured into an ambush, on June 11th, and beaten by the rebels in a minor skirmish; the royal army commanders and a few of their soldiers were killed. Cade marched his forces back to to his camp at Blackheath.

This defeat was initially most significant because it prompted mutiny in the royal army. A number of the soldiers apparently voiced approval of Jack Cade’s demands, and a rowdy meeting demanded the heads of Lord Say, the former Treasurer, Lord Dudley, and other royal commanders. Lord Say, was well known and extremely unpopular in Kent, as was his son-in-law, William Crowmer, the Under-sheriff of the county. The mutinous soldiers then marched back to London, and began rioting and looting when they got there. The mutiny scuppered the attempt to repress the revolt and in effect opened the way for Cade’s rebels to march on the city…

In July Cade’s men entered Southwark looting houses and burning, and the rebels spent several days in the City, managing to capture Lord Say and William Crowmer and beheading them, but eventually pissing off the initially sympathetic Londoners by their random violence. The revolt fizzled out after a fierce battle on London Bridge, and a general pardon was issued, cleverly including most but not Jack Cade, who in the end was caught and killed.

It’s unclear whether the royal army mutineers suffered any comeback for refusing to fight against the rebels.

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

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