Today in London trade history: master tailors go to court to restrict rights of their workers, 1415

In London, as in many other cities, the middle ages saw work and its rules and regulations codified in trade Guilds, composed of workmen from specific trades and crafts. Their purpose was to defend the interests of the trade, regulate the quality of workmanship and the training of new members, and provide support and welfare for their members. Established by charter and regulated by the City of London, London’s guilds also provided a political voice to their members, who as freemen of the City had the right to elect members of the Court of Aldermen and Common Council. London had eighty-nine guilds in the eighteenth century, ranked according to a hierarchy of precedence with the twelve Great Companies at the top. The powers of the guilds to regulate economic activity declined substantially in the eighteenth century, and their primary functions were increasingly confined to providing social prestige, business contacts and a political voice to their members. They also provided substantial charity to their members, partly funded by large charitable bequests which they administered.

Membership in a guild could be taken up in one of three ways: by completing a seven year apprenticeship, by patrimony (if one’s father was a member of the company), or by redemption (payment of a fee). None of these routes of entry ensured that the member would actually practice the company’s trade. Owing to the Custom of London, members of London guilds could practise any trade in the City. Consequently, even though a completed apprenticeship remained the most common route to membership, guilds often included numerous members who did not actually practice the relevant trade. The ratio of members practising the craft to others varied from guild to guild, with the less prestigious guilds such as the Carpenters’ Company having a larger number of practicing craft members. Other companies, such as the Grocers’, Fishmongers’, and Goldsmiths’, had many fewer practising members, and, owing to the high cost of admission, became “little more than gentleman’s clubs”.

Most guilds were composed of men from a mixture of social backgrounds. Apprentices were almost invariably young and came from both relatively poor and wealthy homes. Journeymen, craftsmen who had finished their apprenticeship but had not set up an independent business, were relatively poorly paid. Master craftsmen ran anything from a small one-man workshop to a thriving business with several apprentices, journeymen, and partners in other trades. By the eighteenth century most guilds did not include women, though sometimes widows who took over their husbands’ businesses became members by default, and took over the training of their husbands’ apprentices. Even in this instance, women were excluded from participation in company business.

Guilds were normally governed by a master, two wardens, and a Court of Assistants, which set policies, oversaw the administration of company properties, and governed the distribution of charitable funds.

But the Medieval guilds, while designed to unite trades vertically, were themselves inevitably split by class struggle. The interests of the masters and more prosperous employers diverged from those of the journeymen who worked for them, and the apprentices who were learning the job.

Journeymen’s resentment at working conditions, poor pay and lack on control over their work sparked attempts to get together, organise, demand change… this was met by guild hierarchies and the masters, to repress this organisation by the ‘servants’ of the guild.

Against this background the lower orders or ‘yeomanry’ of City companies like the founders, tailors, curriers, bakers and clothworkers fought running battles with the livery over elections to guild positions and the posts of aldermen in London’s council, over control of charitable funds for the poor and use of the right of search.

The Merchant Tailors Guild was notable among these struggles. For centuries one of crafts where organisation among the lower orders was most active.

Tailors were often seen as radical, politically, by tradition… it has been suggested that radical politics often flourished among tailors partly due to their working in quiet conditions, often one or two in a house or workshop, with time to think, discuss ideas… But economics also probably played a large part – in a trade where piece work was the norm, work was very subject to ups and downs of general prosperity, seasons, trade depressions, the imports of cloth…

The early fifteenth century saw legal moves by master tailors to shut down autonomy and ‘combinations’ among journeymen and apprentices. On 19 April 1415, masters challenged in court the right of their servants’ to live in their own dwellings, assemble and meet together freely, and to belong to their own separate fraternity. These yeomen possibly lived in “3 Shears Court,” described by Stowe in his Survey as lying adjacent to the church of St. James’, Garlick Hill.

The masters complained that the journeymen tailors were living in their own dwellings “by themselves alone in companies,” against the licence or will of the Master, and “without head or government.” Woo. Dangerous.

Not only that, but they had ‘behaved in an unruly manner, and that allowing them their own fraternity or gatherings ‘would lead to disturbances, as similar assemblies of the same mistery had done before’.

Two of the offenders were summoned to appear before the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, who adjudged “that the servants of the foresaid trade shall be hereafter under government and rule of the Master and Wardens of the aforesaid trade, as other servants of other trades in the said City are, and are bound by law to be, and that they shall not use henceforth livery or dress, meetings or conventicles, or other unlawful things of this kind.”

The masters thus won the case; ‘yoman taillours’ were subsequently only permitted to gather within the church of St John in the presence of their masters. Clearly there was already a dissident faction among the journeymen and apprentices, and they had been agitating prior to this court case…

The court case didn’t end the tailors’ struggles. Two years later in August 1417, the journeymen “as a Brotherhood of Yeoman Tailors,” approached the Lord Mayor for permission to assemble “on the Feast of the Decollation of St. John the Baptist next following and so henceforth yearly, in the church of St. John of Jerusalem, near Smythfield, there to offer for the deceased brothers and sisters of the said brotherhood, and to do other things which they have been accustomed to do there”. However, this proposal, while sounding innocuous, must have implied dangerous and rebellious tendencies – the masters objected, and the Court thought fit to “order and consider that in future times no servant or apprentice of the said trade shall presume by themselves to make or enter assemblies or conventicles at the foresaid church of St. John or elsewhere, unless with and in presence of the Masters of the said trade, etc., on pain of imprisonment and fine.”

Any gathering not overseen by the guild hierarchy was basically suspect.

In the 1440s the struggle between the lower orders of the tailors and their masters was to erupt into serious revolt. The wealthy masters were attempting to strengthen their rights to examine journeymen’s work, and prosecute those ‘guilty of defective work, while the ‘yeomen’ clamoured to be able to elect their own representatives to the ranks of the City Aldermen. Alliances were made between the journeymen across guild lines, and in 1443 a conspiracy was supposedly quashed, in which 2000 armed artisans were planning to riot in support of a demand to be admitted to the process of electing aldermen and the mayor. However, the masters were better organised, and not was this plot defused, but journeymen tailors and their allies in other guilds in fact faced defeat, with previously held rights lost, a situation that lasted decades for centuries. But the journey men tailors would maintain a stubborn resistance to their betters, organising in secret, evolving fraternities and clubs to agitate for better wages and conditions… So formidable that this network would be labeled the ‘tailor’s republic’ in the 18th century…

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Today in London’s religious history: Lollard William Sawtrey questioned for heresy at St Pauls, 1401

In 1399, the first time that William Sawtrey was arrested on charges of heresy, he went to prison until he broke down and gave up his beliefs. After he was freed, however, he felt as if he had betrayed Christ. The English priest from St. Margaret’s in Lynn, Norfolk, found employment in London.

William was one of many laymen and priests who accepted the teachings of John Wycliffe. These believers were known as Lollards. Wycliffe said that the church of his day had corrupted the plain teaching of the Bible. He made a translation of the Bible in English so that all the people could understand God’s word for themselves.

Alarmed by Wycliffe’s teachings, England passed a law which made burning the penalty for “heresy.” Archbishop Thomas Arundel ordered William to appear at St. Paul’s on February 12, 1401 and give an account of his teachings. Arundel questioned William closely.

This time, William Sawtrey stood firm. He had said, “Instead of adoring the cross on which Christ suffered, I adore Christ who suffered on it.” He stood behind those words now and it became one of the charges against him by persecutors who considered it proper to bow before crucifixes.

However, it was his beliefs about the mass that finally got him condemned. He agreed that the bread of the Eucharist after consecration was indeed the bread of life, but insisted it was just bread all the same. Roman teaching says it really becomes Christ’s flesh, so he was considered a heretic.

William also held that it was a better use of time to preach to the lost than to recite certain prayers. He said that money spent on pilgrimages to save one’s soul would be better spent helping the poor. The independent-thinking priest also said men were more worthy of adoration than angels.

Because of his answers, he was indicted. He answered each charge in the indictment with scriptures. Arundel questioned him for three hours on his interpretation of the mass. The archbishop tried to convince William to change his mind, or at least to accept the decision of church authorities. William refused.

On February 26, 1401, his sentence was issued. William was condemned as a relapsed heretic. Under the new law, this meant he would burn. Through seven steps called “degradation” he was removed from being a priest and handed over to the secular authorities to die.

Using the defenses at his disposal, William appealed to the king and Parliament. After his appeal was denied, he was burned to death at Smithfield in front of a crowd of spectators.

He was the first “Lollard” martyr in England.

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Today in London rebel history: Nicholas Jakes leads protest in London, 1450.

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. 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.

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Today in London religious history: John Oldcastle convicted as heretic, 1413.

The Lollards were religious reformers, heretics against the Catholic Church of the 15th century, proto-protestants, in some ways. Lollardy derived from the teachings of John Wycliffe, a 14th-century cleric, openly critical of the worldy wealth of the church, who questioned many of the leading catholic doctrines. Other clerical students took up these ideas, calling for a simpler, more down to earthy approach to religion, based among the people, and for much of the high church theology and hierarchy to be abolished or revised.

These ideas were heavily crushed by the church authorities, backed by the state; their symapthisers were rooted out of the universities, where they were first mooted, forcing Lollard students to recant their beliefs or go underground.

But Lollard ideas spread into the wider population, often through wandering preachers, teaching secret conclaves of believers, and fleeing repression to spread the word in other areas.

Excommunication, arrest, imprisonment, and eventually executions, were used to try to extirpate Lollardy. Numbers persecuted were relatively small; how widespread these underground ideas became will always be unclear, but substantial communities did develop in various parts of England.

The church feared Lollardy could spread destabilising doctrines which could undermine its spiritual power and its material riches (at this point church institutions in one form or another owned between a third and a half of the land in the country). The secular authorities feared Lollards were also rebels, linking grassroots demands for reform of the church with social and economic dissatisfaction. In the wake of the 1381 Peasants Revolt, this was not an idle or unjustified worry. But repression of Lollards also bred anger and hatred, and played a part in an abortive Lollard rebellion on 1414.

If most Lollards were increasingly drawn from the poorer classes, there were, in its early years, a fair number of the gentry and merchant classes attracted to the creed. But Lollardy’s only prominent political leader was from even more rarified stock.

“John Oldcastle was born in 1378. His family, though of only moderate standing and wealth, had taken a worthy part in the local affairs of Herefordshire for at least two generations…

Like many other gentlemen of small fortune from Wales and its marches, Sir John, earned renown… in the wars of the Lancastrian kings. He was on Henry IV’s fruitless Scottish expedition of 1400 and saw considerable service thereafter against Owen Glyndwr and his Welsh. It was thus that he became the companion-in-arms and the personal intimate of the future Henry V, to whose household he became attached. In April 1406, the king rewarded his military exploits with an annuity for life of 100 marks. He had already found time to represent his native county n the parliament of January 1404, and in 1406-7 he served it as a sherriff. By his thirtieth year he had won a name for himself as a tough fighter who enjoyed the confidence of the heir to the throne. It was then that a second marriage raised him to baronial rank.

His wife, Joan de la Pole, had already buried three husbands when in the summer of 1408 she ventured upon a fourth. She seems to have had a weakness for soldiers of fortune and, in all, married five of them. She was herself an heiress twice over – of her father, Sir John de la Pole, who died in 1380, and of her maternal grandfather John, Lord Cobham, whose death in extreme old age occurred in January 1408. By marrying her, Oldcastle obtained the custody of a dozen scattered manors and of Cooling castle overlooking the Thames estuary. On the strength of this property and of his past services,, he was in the following year summoned to parliament as a baron. He celebrated his good fortune by taking part in an Anglo-French tournament at Lille. So far, no-one had breathed a suspicion of his orthodoxy.

But practices that received small attention in remote Herefordshire could not be safely indulged in for long under the very nose of a watchful Archbishop. [Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury]. Arundel was at Dartford in the spring of 1410 when he learnt that John, a chaplain living under Oldcastle’s roof, had been preaching heresy in the churches of Hoo, Halstow and Cooling, and particularly in the last, of which his host was patron. Too late to escape discovery, the rash offender had gone into hiding; only his baronial accomplice remained. Arundel’s reception of this news makes it reasonably clear that he at once guessed Oldcastle’s secret, but thought that it might still be possible to avert trouble. He cannot have known that he was dealing with a man who was unshakably committed to his heresies; for most men in Oldcastle’s position a clear warning would have been enough. So on April 3 the archbishop ordered the prior of Rochester to put the three parishes under an interdict and to cite John the chaplain for trial. Then two day later “out of reverence for” the lady Joan he relaxed the interdict and soon afterwards removed it altogether. But in future he had an eye on Cooling and its inhabitants.

How far Oldcastle was from heeding the primate’s warning is shown by two letters which he caused to be written not long afterwards. The first, dated from Cooling castle on 8 September 1410, was addressed to a Bohemian noble who was a prominent supporter of the Hus. [Bohemian religious reformer Jan Hus, who had been influenced by Lollard guru Wyclife, and founded a similar reformist movement.] Its purpose was to congratulate the Hussites on their recent successes and to exhort them to continue the struggle against the adherents of antichrist to the death. A year later Oldcastle wrote to king Wenceslas of Bohemia himself in a similar manner, mentioning that he had also been in correspondence with Hus. The chief interest of these letters is their clear assumption that the writer was a recognised leader of the English sect; it is therefore probable that he had been an active heretic for some time. Yet, apart from the chaplain John, the only other Lollard with whom his association can be traced was a priest named Richard Wyche. From the diocese of Hereford Wyche had wandered preaching as far afield as Northumberland, where in 1400 he fell into the hands of Walter Skirlaw, Bishop of Durham. It may have been a mere coincidence that Oldcastle was in that Oldcastle was in that area at the same year. After prolonged examination and many attempts to persuade him to submit, Wyche was finally driven to recant… he is next heard of writing to Hus from London on 8 September 1410. The letter had a similar purpose to that written by Oldcastle on the same day from Cooling: the noble congratulated the noble, the priest the priest; it is fairly obvious that they were accomplices.

In the autumn of 1411 Oldcastle was one of the captains sent by the prince of Wales to help the Duke of Burgundy to recover Paris. If the prince regarded him still as a trustworthy subordinate, there cannot have been any widespread knowledge of his Lollard sympathies. Unlike some of his co-religionists, he was no pacifist. The expedition was a distinguished success. When, therefore, his friend succeeded Henry IV as king on 21 March 1413, Oldcastle could with justice look forward to high military employment in the new reign, But already in the convocation which began its debates on 6 March, damning evidence against him was being brought to light. It remained to be seen whether Henry V would allow him to be persecuted.

In St Paul’s on the first day of the convocation Arundel’s registrar had just examined the credentials of those answering the primate’s summons when he was informed that there was present in the church a chaplain who was highly suspect as a heretic, accompanied by tow other unknown men. The registrar immediately sent for the chaplain and cross-examined him. His name, the man replied, was John Lay; he was attached to St. Mary’s Church Nottingham, and came from those parts; he had arrived in London two days before and that very morning had celebrated mass in Sir John Oldcastle’s presence. But when he was asked for his credentials and his bishop’s licence, Lay answered that he had failed to bring them with him. He was given a week to produce them. The episode has many odd features and suggests that Oldcastle was being watched. Unfortunately, there is no record of any sequel. One is left to assume that Lay, like John he chaplain, who may, indeed, have been the same man, made himself scarce.

Convocation, one gathers, then turned to other questions, but it can hardly have come as a surprise to anybody when the search of an illuminator’s shop in Paternoster Row led to the discovery of a number of heretical tracts belonging to Oldcastle. This was evidence that he would find it difficult to explain away and it was decided at once to inform the king. A meeting took place in the inner chamber of the royal manor of Kennington at which both Henry V and Oldcastle were present. Some of the most heretical passages inthe confiscated literature were read aloud and greatly shocked the king; never, he said, had he heard worse matter. Turning to Oldcastle, he challenged him to disagree. Oldcastle was unruffled, answering that the doctrines recited deserved condemnation, and excused his possession of the tracts on the ground that he had only dipped into them without grasping their character. If this satisfied the king, it quite failed to impress the clergy, who withdrew to prepare a more extensive indictment of the accused.

This, at any rate in the summarized form which has come down to us, was full of generalities and devoid of any factual detail. Oldcastle was alleged to have uttered and maintained heretical doctrines in man places, to have given aid and comfort to Lollard preachers and to have terrorised those opposed to them. In short, he “was and is the principal harbourer, promoter, protector and defender” of heretics, especially in the dioceses of London, Rochester and Hereford. When the lower clergy pressed for his trial and condemnation the prelates pointed out that more circumspect treatment was desirable in the case f one who was a member of the king’s domestic circle. It was therefore agreed that Henry should once more be consulted. A second visit to Kennington found him sympathetic towards the church’s case, but anxious to do all he could to avoid the public humiliation of a trusted servant. He asked the clergy to wait while he tried the effect of a personal appeal.; should he fail to move Oldcastle, then he promised to throw the full weight of the secular arm on to the side of the church. This was reluctantly agreed to.

Henry’s hopes of an obliging submission were disappointed. Oldcastle was obdurate and in August the king wrote to tell Arundel to proceed in accordance with the law. But when the primate tried to serve the accused with a formal summons the gates of Cooling castle were shut against his officer. This defiance was as short-lived as it was foolish and by 23 September Oldcastle, who had meanwhile sought another interview with the king at Windsor and been arrested for his pains, was a prisoner in the Tower of London. On that day his trial opened before Arundel, assisted by the bishops of London and Winchester in St Paul’. He was at once promised full forgiveness in return for submission. But deprived though he was of the king’s protection, Oldcastle was unwilling to admit his guilt. Instead he treated his ecclesiastical judges to a statement of his views which lacked precision on all the material points. Arundel was not convinced; he had had to do with such documents before. He admitted that as far as it went the confession of faith was satisfactory but he would like plain answers to two plain questions: Did Sir John believe in transubstantiation and did he regard confession to a priest as necessary in the sacrament of penance? Oldcastle at first refused to say another word. Then, irritated by the steady pressure to which he was submitted, he denied the right of popes, cardinals and bishops to lay down what should be believed about such matters. Even so, Arundel’s scrupulousness was inexhaustible. He gave the prisoner a week-end to think over his plight and provided him with a statement in English of the orthodox doctrine on the disputed points. He had little hope of securing a conversion or he would not have reinforced the court so powerfully for its next session.

He again began the proceedings on Monday 25 September with a conditional offer of absolution. Oldcastle first declined to be absolved by anyone other than God. Then he went on to assert that the bread remained bread after consecration and that confession, though sometimes expedient, was never essential to salvation. `next he broke into a tirade against the hierarchy: the pope was the head of antichrist, the bishops his members and the friars his tail. And finally, raising his hands he warned the crowd of spectators that those who judged and wished to condemn him were deceivers and would lead them to hell. It is recorded that the archbishop once more implored him in tears to return to the bosom of the church. Then, seeing it was vain to wrestle with him any longer, he delivered the judgement of the court. Oldcastle was excommunicated and left to the mercy of the secular arm.

…Oldcastle had had every chance, but he was a conscientious Lollard and when offered a choice between recantation or death he was to straightforward and too brave to deny his faith…”

(KB MacFarlane, The Origins of Religious Dissent in England)

However, Oldcastle’s closeness to the king meant he continued to be given a chance. Instead of the usual immediate execution, King Henry allowed him 40 days respite to think things over, locked in the Tower of London. But less than half this time had elapsed when, on October 19th, Oldcastle was helped to escape the fortress, and went into hiding in Smithfield… Where he began to plot a Lollard uprising to overthrow both king and church.

For the tale of that uprising, see our previous post

Oldcastle would escape the defeat of the uprising, but be captured in 1417, and burned as a heretic.

To a limited extent, Oldcastle was the original model for Falstaff in Shakespeare’s plays king Henry IV and V… When Shakespeare adapted that play in Henry IV, Part 1, Henry’s companion was called Oldcastle, but when the play was printed in 1598, the name was changed to Falstaff. Though the fat knight still remains “my old lad of the Castle”, the stage character has nothing to do with the Lollard leader. In Henry IV, Part 2 an epilogue emphasises that the debauched buffoonish Falstaff is not Oldcastle: “Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already a’ be killed with your hard opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man.”

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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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Today in London’s religious history: Lollard William Sawtrey ordered to be burnt for heresy, 1401.

The Lollards were religious reformers, heretics against the Catholic Church of the 15th century, proto-protestants, in some ways. Lollardy initially derived from the teachings of John Wycliffe, a 14th-century cleric, who had criticised the worldly wealth of the church and disputed many of the leading catholic doctrines; other students and clerics took up these ideas, calling for a simpler, more down to earthy approach to religion, based among the people, and for much of the high church theology and hierarchy to be abolished or revised.

However, fierce repression of these ideas by the church authorities, backed by the state, rooted many of the ideas out of the universities, where they were first mooted, forcing Lollard students to recant their beliefs or go underground.

From this, these ideas spread into the wider population, often through wandering preachers, teaching secret conclaves of believers, and fleeing repression to spread the word in other areas.

Excommunication, arrest, imprisonment, and eventually executions, were used to try to extirpate Lollardy. Numbers persecuted were relatively small; how widespread these underground ideas became will always be unclear, but substantial communities did develop in various parts of England.

The church feared Lollardy could spread destabilising doctrines which could undermine its spiritual power and its material riches (at this point church institutions in one form or another owned between a third and a half of the land in the country). The secular authorities feared Lollards were also rebels, linking grassroots demands for reform of the church with social and economic dissatisfaction. In the wake of the 1381 Peasants Revolt, this was not an idle or unjustified worry (and Lollards would attempt to launch an uprising a few years later).

Alarmed by Wycliffe’s teachings, the English government passed a new law, the Statute of Heresies Act of 1401, which made burning the penalty for “heresy.”

In 1401, William Sawtrey, a priest from St. Margaret’s in Lynn, Norfolk, became the first Lollard martyr to suffer the death penalty under this new law. He had developed doubts about church practices and dogma, and was arrested in Norfolk on charges of heresy in 1399. Sent to prison, he eventually broke down and gave up his beliefs. His recantation got him released. But it did leave him with mixed feelings. Shortly after his release, he moved to London, and found a job. But he got into trouble again for preaching his unorthodox views.

Archbishop Thomas Arundel ordered William to appear at St. Paul’s on February 12, 1401 and give an account of his teachings. Arundel questioned William closely.

This time, William Sawtrey stood firm. He had said, “Instead of adoring the cross on which Christ suffered, I adore Christ who suffered on it.” He stood behind those words now and it became one of the charges against him by persecutors who considered it proper to bow before crucifixes.

However, it was his beliefs about the mass that finally got him condemned. He agreed that the bread of the Eucharist after consecration was indeed the bread of life, but insisted it was just bread all the same. Roman teaching says it really becomes Christ’s flesh, so he was considered a heretic.

Sawtrey also held that it was a better use of time to preach to the lost than to recite certain prayers. He said that money spent on pilgrimages to save one’s soul would be better spent helping the poor. The independent-thinking priest also said men were more worthy of adoration than angels.

Because of his answers, he was indicted. He answered each charge in the indictment with scriptures. Arundel questioned him for three hours on his interpretation of the mass. The archbishop tried to convince Sawtrey to change his mind, or at least to accept the decision of church authorities, but Sawtrey refused.

Sawtrey was condemned for eight counts of heresy. On February 26, 1401, Sawtrey’s sentence was issued. Condemned as a relapsed heretic, under the new law, this meant he would be burnt to death. Through seven steps called “degradation” he was removed from being a priest and handed over to the secular authorities to be put to death.

Using the defenses at his disposal, William appealed to the king and Parliament. After his appeal was denied, he was burnt at the stake in Smithfield in March 1401, in front of a crowd of spectators.

His death caused many of the early Lollards to recant their views (at least publicly.)

Smithfield, being then a large open space outside the City walls, proved an ideal open space for dealing in livestock – horses, and especially cattle. As this market, and the accompanying slaughterhouses and butchers’ stalls, grew up, so the surrounding area became famous for dirty, unpleasant work and unruly, drunken behaviour. The open space was also handy for hosting sporting gatherings and fairs – as well as executions; where “cows might be sold for slaughter and men slaughtered for religion”. As well as the inevitable disorder that came with the holding of tournaments, fairs, markets and the like, the constant meeting and intermingling of people helped radical social, religious and political ideas to spread: subversive religious and political ideas bubbled under in the Smithfield area for centuries.

Smithfield’s fame as a gathering space made it ideal for use as a public execution ground, mainly for criminals, rebels, and especially religious heretics and dissenters.

But it may have been chosen not simply because it was a convenient large open space. Those in power often had complex psychological reasons for designating where executions and public punishments should take place. Streets or junctions with great symbolic resonance, centres of public discussion and meeting places, were useful; the memory (and thus the public example, to teach others a lesson) could then have a greater impact. Criminals were also often put to death or punished at, or near, the site of their crime. But an additional incentive to use Smithfield may well have been its proximity to troublesome slums and liberties, areas where many heretics, rebels, and criminals were identified as inhabiting. The authorities long had a definite policy of carrying out executions in such areas, partly to overawe the poor, and deter people from following the bad examples of the executed.

In addition, the streets around Smithfield were known as the haunt of Lollard sympathisers, so executing Sawtrey there also served the practical purpose of scaring them in particular. At least nine more Lollards would be executed at Smithfield in the course of the 15th and early 16th centuries; to be followed by protestants, Anabaptists, and the odd catholic later in the 1500s.

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

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Yesterday and today, in London’s rebel history: Lollards heretic uprising defeated in St Giles Fields, 1414.

The Lollards were religious reformers, heretics against the Catholic Church of the 15th century, proto-protestants, in some ways. Lollardy initially derived from the teachings of John Wycliffe, a 14th-century cleric, who had criticised the worldy wealth of the church and disputed many of the leading catholic doctrines; other students and clerics took up these ideas, calling for a simpler, more down to earthy approach to religion, based among the people, and for much of the high church theology and hierarchy to be abolished or revised.

However, fierce repression of these ideas by the church authorities, backed by the state, rooted many of the ideas out of the universities, where they were first mooted, forcing Lollard students to recant their beliefs or go underground.

From this, these ideas spread into the wider population, often through wandering preachers, teaching secret conclaves of believers, and fleeing repression to spread the word in other areas.

Excommunication, arrest, imprisonment, and eventually executions, were used to try to extirpate Lollardy. Numbers persecuted were relatively small; how widespread these underground ideas became will always be unclear, but substantial communities did develop in various parts of England.

The church feared Lollardy could spread destabilising doctrines which could undermine its spiritual power and its material riches (at this point church institutions in one form or another owned between a third and a half of the land in the country). The secular authorities feared Lollards were also rebels, linking grassroots demands for reform of the church with social and economic dissatisfaction. In the wake of the 1381 Peasants Revolt, this was not an idle or unjustified worry. But repression of Lollards also bred anger and hatred, and played a part in the abortive Lollard rebellion on 1414.

The events of 1414 grew largely from the inspiration of one man, Sir John Oldcastle, the most prominent Lollard. If most Lollards were increasingly drawn from the poorer classes, there were, in its early years, a fair number of the gentry and merchant classes attracted to the creed. Oldcastle was a knight from Herefordshire, who had achieved prominence by fighting in the wars in France, and becoming a confidant of prince Henry (later Henry V), and marrying into a baronial family. He inherited various lands, became Lord Cobham, and was summoned to Parliament.

But in parallel with this, Oldcastle was secretly an adherent of the new heresy. Accused of protecting Lollard preachers, corresponding with religious reformers abroad, and uttering heretical statements, he was at first given some leeway by the new king, but the church pressed for him to be questioned, and he was eventually imprisoned in 1413 and brought to trial. Here, he was eventually pushed into refuting the right of the pope, bishops or clergy to determine what people should believe, and rejecting central tenets of faith. He was excommunicated. The king gave him some time to think over his beliefs instead of executing him immediately; however, Oldcastle took the opportunity to escape the tower of London in October, with the help of some London Lollards.

At this point heresy became attempted rebellion. Oldcastle and his associates decided on a desperate measure, which would set the destiny of the Lollard movement. Faced with persecution by church and state, they determined on an uprising with the aim of kidnapping the king and his brothers, seizing power, and instituting the religious reforms they were bent on.

However, the government managed to get wind of the Lollards’ plans. The threat of the Lollards coincided with plots of ‘treason’ among certain nobles against the new king, Henry V, so spies were abroad and the authorities were on edge. After the rising, the ‘king’s spy’, one Thomas Burton, was rewarded with a gift of £5 (worth a wee bit more then) for “his assiduous watchfulness” in ferretting out the rebels’ plans, and two other men were also awarded pensions for similar services.

Oldcastle sent out agents all across the county, rousing Lollards and imploring them to take up arms, or offering money to the poorer sort to recruit them. Small bands were seen marching to London; an observer related how “you might see the crowds… drawn by large promises from almost every county in the realm, hastening along by footpaths, high roads and byways, to meet at the day and hour then at hand. When asked why they hurried thus and ran themselves nearly out of breath, they answered that they were going as fast as they could to join their lord Cobham who had paid them a retaining fee and was now in need of their service.”

The plan was to converge on London, while the king and his family celebrated Epiphany, in the first days of January 1414 at Eltham Palace, rendezvousing in the fields outside the city walls, northwest of Temple Bar. Here Oldcastle and London Lollards would meet them and they would quickly seize the capital. Simultaneously, a picked band would blag their way in to the court at Eltham, disguised as mummers, and capture the entire royal family.

However, this plan was reckless in the extreme, and was unlikely to have succeeded, without the support of thousands in arms. Not only was this not forthcoming, but such numbers gathering would have alerted the government to the danger – as it was, they became aware of the plan. They were either betrayed by rebels who had second thoughts, or were not prepared to take religious dissidence as far as rebellion, or penetrated by spies from the first. At any rate, on Twelfth Night (6th January), the Mayor of London took armed men to the ‘sign of the Axe’ at Bishopsgate, place of business of John Burgate, a Lollard carpenter.

Burgate and seven others of the band picked to seize the king were nicked, including one of Oldcastle’s squires, and they were hauled to Eltham and questioned. Other Lollard meeting places, like the Wrestler-in-the-hoop tavern in Smithfield were let alone or not known about, and the arrests in Bishopsgate did not lead Oldcastle and his confederates to postpone the plans. Perhaps on the grounds that things were too far advanced to pull back now…

In the end though the arrests seem to have demoralised or confused the London Lollards, since the hundreds expected to rise in the city didn’t appear. This “wonderfully discouraged” the Lollard leaders. The Lollards from the provinces gathered at St Giles’ Fields, known as a secret meeting place of Lollards before this time, but were walking into a trap. The king and his brothers further attempted to confound the plotters by moving in force to Westminster.

The gates of the City of London were guarded to prevent entry or any linkup between the rebels outside and sympathisers within, and stringent searches were made to try to root out Oldcastle and other leaders. Bands of troops guarded the approaches to St Giles, and after midnight o January 9th the king assembled his main force and proceeded to the Fields. In the darkness, all was confusion, but bands of untrained countrymen were no match for the royal army, and there was little real fighting. The rebels were scattered, some eighty being captured, a few being killed, but many escaping into the night. Some ringleaders were rounded up, but Oldcastle wasn’t among them.

Among those arrested the majority were weavers; glassmakers, shoemakers, glovers, tailors, goldsmiths, carpenters, ploughmen, and some clerics, although a number of the better off were also involved in the rising, notably Oldcastle’s main lieutenant, Sir Roger Acton, from humble background, who had his fortune and become a landowner through the French wars; Sir Thomas Talbot of Kent, and some gentlemen and esquires. A number of landowners and minor gentry implicated in the plans managed to talk their way out of arrest since they had not been present in the Fields.

What the rebels had hoped to achieve was not properly known, it if was ever really thought out in advance. After the rising failed it was announced by the authorities that the rebels had planned to massacre the royal family, the aristocracy and the higher clergy, and to strip the church of its wealth and divide the kingdom up amongst themselves under Oldcastle, as regent. Whether this is true, or merely the propaganda of their enemies after they couldn’t reply, is debateable; however, they had no chance of success once the king had become aware of the plans and instituted counter-measures. While the Peasants Revolt would have been uppermost in the minds of the authorities, as a very nearly successful revolt in living memory, the events of 1414 were not on the scale of 1381. However the link between the two would have been inevitable in the minds of both rebels and their opponents, and burning grievances from the earlier events, as well as the memory of both the glorious feelings of possibility and the vicious repression of 1381, remained alive in many places in England.

Many of the captured rebels were executed, after brief trials. 38 were dragged on hurdles through the streets from Newgate to St Giles on January 12th, and hanged side by side in batches of four; the bodies of seven who had been condemned as heretics were burned afterwards. Four more were hanged a week later. In the meanwhile, lists of suspect were drawn up by a commission, who supervised the arrests in various parts of the country.

Roger Acton was nicked and executed in February, but despite long searches and even an offer of pardon, Sir John Oldcastle eluded the authorities until 1417, when he was finally seized in Wales, brought to London, and since he had already been condemned as rebel and heretic, was hanged and burned on St Giles Fields.

The defeat of the January 1414 Lollard uprising reduced Lollardy from a social threat with a political edge, to a movement of wandering preachers and small and increasingly persecuted gatherings of artisans, craftspeople and farmers. The rebellion led to the more substantial classes who had been attracted to the movement to shy away from religious reform, and the executions and imprisonments of the leaders lost the creed it s political leadership. Lollardy survived for another century, more and more isolated, a heresy of the poor. Some Lollards would still be found in England even as early Protestantism was finding its first adherents in the 1520s.

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

Today in London’s rebel history: Jack Cade’s Kentish rebels fight all night battle on London Bridge, 1450.

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!

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: riots break out as the Duke of Suffolk is banished, 1450.

William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, was the effective head of the English government in the late 1440s. The king, Henry VI, was pious, frail and mentally unstable; during his reign a succession of his relatives or favourites largely took charge of affairs of state.

With the deaths in 1447 of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and Cardinal Beaufort, Suffolk became the principal power behind the throne.

However, Suffolk was 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 also accused large scale corruption, that he had embezzled 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.

“Whichever way Suffolk looked, there were only enemies to be seen. His appointment as the King’s Chief Minister would have given rise to jealousy and hatred among other greedy, ambitious and sometimes able men who would not have scrupled to pull him down and disgrace him if they could in the hope that they might replace him, or at least enjoy some of the power and the fruits of his office. The only way that Suffolk could have survived as Chief Minister for any length of time would have been to provide successful government, and his had been spectacularly unsuccessful… He owed his position to his friendship with Queen Margaret [a French princess, which made her immediately suspect to most ‘right-thinking’ Englishmen…!], who saw to it that her weak-willed husband, the King himself, accepted Suffolk as his favourite. ]There were even stories that Suffolk was Margaret’s lover]… Suffolk’s haughty demeanour had done nothing to endear him to the new up-and-coming men, often of humble birth, who felt that their talents, which were often considerable, entitled them to a say in public affairs. He behaved towards them as one of the ancient nobility towards the new parvenues, a view which was scarcely justified, because the de La Poles had only been ennobled during King Richard II’s time. Nevertheless, he treated them with all the contempt of the highly-born aristocrat and caused much resentment in those whose friendship he would have been well advised to seek.”

In short, popular feeling was against Suffolk, and in January 1450 he was impeached in Parliament, and locked up in the Tower. Tried for treason and embezzlement in March, he was banished from the realm for five years.

Riots broke out in the City and in Deptford (where Suffolk owned estates, and seems to have been widely hated) on 17th March as the sentence was announced… As the common people saw it, the sentence of banishment was only intended to get Suffolk out of the way for the time being, and at an appropriate moment in the near future, it would be lifted and Suffolk would be restored to the King’s Grace. When the situation seemed to be less tense, Suffolk rode for his mansion near Ipswich to use the remaining time before the 1st May to put his affairs in order before a long absence. He was waylaid by the London mob, aiming to seize and lynch him, which his strong escort, provided by Queen Margaret, had difficulty in beating off. There was a fierce scuffle, and lives were lost on both sides.

The Duke sailed from Ipswich on 30th April 1450 in two small vessels, bound for Calais. However, his ship was waylaid by some of the king’s ships, though on whose orders was never made clear. Suffolk’s ship was hailed by the ship, Nicholas of the Tower, and bidden to send Suffolk on board. Suspecting nothing, he duly went, to be greeted by her Captain with the single word “Traitor” and being put under close arrest. The seamen formed an impromptu ‘court’ and ‘tried’ Suffolk. He refused to plead before such an assembly, and not surprisingly, was sentenced to death. In mock deference to his rank, he was told that he would be beheaded rather than hanged from the yard-arm. The next day, his head was forced over the gunwale of one of the boats, and was struck from his body with one of the ship’s cutlasses. His headless corpse was thrown onto the Dover sands.

It seems likely Suffolk was largely fitted up, a victim of both populist disappointment with the course of the war in France, and the myriad mazes of court rivalries, caught up in the earliest deadly manoeuverings among rival aristos that would very shortly erupt into the War of the Roses.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online