King Henry VI, nominally ruler of England between 1422 and 1461. was throughout his whole reign successively a child, then pious, frail and mentally unstable; he was never in charge of the government for very long before he fell ill. He fell under the influence of a succession of powerful aristocrats; some his own close relatives; while some were fairly pragmatic, others were rapacious power-brokers out for what they could grab into their own hands, both in terms of power and wealth.
In 1449 the King was almost bankrupted. The 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 humiliation and retreat from France threatened to end the Lancastrian monarchy, running a deficit of £320,000 pa.
In the late 1440s, the power behind the throne was William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk and his willing lieutenants the Bishops of Salisbury and Chichester. Suffolk however became wildly unpopular – widely blamed for a series of military disasters in the long war against France; to the point where he was accused of being a traitor and plotting to support a French invasion of England.
He was generally believed to have embarked on large scale corruption, embezzling vast sums of money which should have been spent on the war effort, and of allowing his personal retainers in East Anglia to run riot.
Suffolk was also accused of using his lieutenants in Kent and Sussex to evict tenants unlawfully from their land. His arbitrary conduct was enforced by Stephen Slegge, Sheriff of Kent 1348-9.
A combination of populist discontent at the disastrous turn the French war was taking, and the collapse of the economy, sparked widespread unrest, and in early 1450 this became violent.
On 9 Jan 1450 a furious mob of unpaid soldiers attacked Adam Moleyns, Bishop of Chichester, a partisan of Suffolk who had been accused of embezzlement, and murdered him.
Days later, Suffolk was impeached by Parliament, accused of trying to surrender Wallingford Castle to the French.
But this didn’t put a stop to protest. Around 29th January Westminster yeoman Nicholas Jakes led a protest in London against the government; thought there are no records of what the demonstrators said or demanded, whatever it was spelt death for Jakes: “…on the last day of Janeuer in the same year was oon Nicholas Jakes, a servaunt late of Bassingbourne, Squyer, drawen through London to Tibourne and there hanged, beheaded and quartered for treason of language…”
In the same week, Thomas Cheyne, a labourer from Newington, Southwark, led an uprising of people from Kent between Sandwich and Dover who had a list of men they wanted beheaded that included Bishop of Salisbury William Ayscough, Duke William of Suffolk, James Fiennes the Lord Saye, and Lord Dudley the abbot of Gloucester. They appointed other captains (who adopted nicknames like ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘king of the fairies’ to conceal their identities); two hundred people marched on January 26, but thousands were said to have joined as they marched to Canterbury where an anti-clerical group attacked St. Radegund’s abbey hospice. However Cheyne was captured in Canterbury on January 31.
A week later on February 6th, Cheyne, who had called himself Bluebeard, was taken outside Canterbury to Westminster, where he was tried with plotting the murder of the king’ leading counsellors, and faced the same fate as Jakes. His head was stuck on a spike on London Bridge.
It’s not known whether these attempted revolts were co-ordinated.
This disorder scared the government immensely. In February 1450, proclamations were issued in London, Kent, Surrey and Sussex, banning all persons except lords, knights and eminent esquires from wearing arms or carrying weapons of any kind. Around the same time, the civil powers in Maidstone, Canterbury and Oxford, among other towns, were thanked by the King Henry’s Privy Council for sending in reports regarding gatherings of people ‘under untrue faines and pretense colours of intending to the common weal of the land’… The relevant authorities were ordered to break up any such rebellious gatherings.
But the ominous sense of impending rebellion hung about. In March, the King was finally forced to banish the Duke of Suffolk from the realm effective from 1 May, as rioting broke out against Suffolk’s rule. In April, the Sheriffs of London and Middlesex issued a proclamation denouncing the dissemination of false and seditious rumours, bills and libels, many of which had been fixed to the doors of churches and other buildings in the capital.
The duke fled to Eastthorp, his manor in Suffolk, but was chased there by the angry Londoners. As he was trying to get to the continent, the duke was spotted and men of Nicholas of the Tower boarded his vessel in the Channel and beheaded him on board. The body washed up on Dover beach.
However, all these events were to some extent just precursors to the more large-scale and dangerous Jack Cade’s revolt that took place in Kent in the summer of 1450.
An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar