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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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s radical history: Wat Tyler killed as the Peasants’ Revolt begins to unravel, 1381.

The 1381 Peasants Revolt remains one of the most cataclysmic and inspiring events in British history. While in the immediate it was defeated, it sounded a death knell to a feudal system already rotten and decaying, and hastened social change in England, as well as inspiring 6 centuries of agitators, activists, rebels, socialists, anarchists, liberals communists, democrats and many more. Much of it can be read to support a number of conflicting political ideologies, and often is.

At its heart the Revolt pushed to the fore a character of who it can fairly be said that probably no other person has such historical significance while so little actually known or proven fact can be definitely stated about him. School and motorways can be named after him, but his name may not even have been his real name. Wat Tyler remains an enigma, a fascinating glimpse of a personality, thrust to the head of a fierce rebellion, articulating demands so radical they get you spied on by Special Branch even today, then cut down by royal servants and slaughtered.

The basic facts behind the Peasants’ Revolt are well known. An English government (dominated by an aristocratic and clerical coterie around king Edward III and his grand-son Richard II), tries to levy three poll taxes to raise more money to fight their pointless dynastic and genocidal hundred years war in France. Those living on the south coast notice that all this cash doesn’t seem to contribute anything towards coastal defence as French raiders regularly swan up and take revenge on the nearest English without much response from the rich or their lackeys. A large section of the English rural population in the south of England, already decimated by the Black Death 30 years before, and enraged by subsequent attempts to keep wages and social mobility down by law and force, reacts to the blatant attempt to get the poor to pay more of their meagre resources to fund the rich’s adventures in blood, by rising up, refusing to pay and killing or deriving out the tax collectors. Huge armies of angry peasants march on London, having first raided the homes of the rich and the local monasteries to destroy the manor rolls that record their ‘feudal obligations’ (the unpaid work they had to do for their landlords) and the levels of rent and tax they were liable for. A general agreement is reached that feudalism itself has to go. A stroppy London populace also rebels, opens the gates to the rebels, and a number of the upper class directors of Late 14th Century England PLC are seized and put to death; some racist twats also attack foreign workers in London, because there’s always a fucking Brexiter in the mix. In terror for their lives, the king and his remaining advisers meet the rebels at Mile End and lyingly promise to grant all the demands of the rebels, signing charters to this effect, but have as much intent to keep their word as, say, councillors and big building contractors have of honouring promises to the residents of council tower blocks. Shortly after many of the rebels then leave happily for home, the core leadership of the revolt met the king again, and Wat Tyler pushes for even more concessions, going beyond even the massive aim of abolishing feudalism and proposes to abolish all classes and religious hierarchy apart from the king himself. He’s stabbed, butchered and the young king cleverly persuades the rebels to not react by killing him and his gang. Because of the holy fucking reverence people held the king in the peasants don’t kill him out of hand, which they will regret, because immediately he can Richard II orders them rounded up; hundreds, perhaps 3000, are executed or killed out of hand, and the king goes back on everything that was sworn, telling the poor to get back to the land and work because that’s where they will be forever, in their place. Sadly for him he doesn’t live long enough to see that the revolt does in fact herald huge change because the ruling class realise you can’t keep stuffing shit in people’s mouths because they will spit it in your face. So the Revolt does bring about something of the aims of the mass of its participants; we’re still waiting and fighting for the classless society bit, Wat, but this time we really will not exclude the monarchy from the chop.

So who was Wat Tyler?

As Paul Foot said about him, “Wat Tyler, about whom, to his enormous credit, we know absolutely nothing. We don’t know what he looked like, we don’t know what he did for a living, we don’t know anything about him save that he led the biggest rising of ordinary people in Britain before Oliver Cromwell.”

Guesses and assertions on scanty evidence have abounded through the centuries… As Tyler seemed around forty when he was killed, he was likely born about 1340. One document suggested that as a young man he lived in Colchester. It has been suggested that during this time he became a follower of radical priest John Ball. He may have fought in the Hundred Years War and worked for Richard Lyons, one of the sergeant-at-arms of Edward III. By the 1370s Tyler was living in Maidstone, Kent.

Tyler is sometimes conflated with one John Tyler, an actual tiler working in Dartford, Kent, whose action was one of the sparks for the uprising there. Poll tax collectors were ordered to drum up as much cash as possible, including by checking the age of young girls, as they were exempt from paying the tax –  by measuring pubic hair. The opportunity for sexual assaults by these nasty and unscrupulous men being obvious. A little like UKIP’s failed general election to enforce checks on muslim girls returning from abroad for Female Genital Mutilation, only this policy actually happened. Happily John Legge, who drew up this policy, would by be killed in London by rebels a few days later. Maybe Farage and Nuttall should be drawing up wills.

John Tiler’s house was visited by assessors, who

‘had gone to the house of one John Tyler and commanded of his wife the payment of the poll tax on behalf of herself, her husband and her daughter. She refused to pay for her daughter, as not being of age, and the collector thereupon seized the daughter, declaring he would discover if this were true.’

‘Neighbours came running in, and John Tyler, being at work in the same town tiling of an house when he heard thereof, caught his lathing staff in his hand and ran reeking home, where, reasoning with the collector, who made him so bold, the collector answered with stout words and strake at the tiler. Whereupon the tiler, avoiding the blow, smote the collector with the lathing staff that the brains flew out of his head, wherethrough great noise arose in the streets and the poor people, being glad, everyone prepared to support the said John Tyler.’

This account is sometimes repeated but attributing the killing of the collector’s death to WAT Tyler. It seems though that this story may date only from John Stowe’s account in the 17th century. At least one chronicle written a few years after 1381 (John Trevisa’s World History, c. 1390) ‘refers to John Tiler, leader of the peasants’. So perhaps it was the same man… perhaps two people of similar names shoved together by history. It’s unlikely we will ever be certain. The mystic cockney communist William Blake was inspired by the story to illustrate it in an engraving (see the picture above this post), in 18th century dress!

Wat Tyler was elected leader of the Kentish peasant army in Maidstone, as John Ball was freed from prison by armed rebels. Ball, an unfrocked radical priest, had been imprisoned for preaching subversion, and immediately joined the revolt’s leadership. As Charles Poulsen, the author of The English Rebels (1984) has pointed out, it was important for the peasants to be led by a religious figure: “For some twenty years he had wandered the country as a kind of Christian agitator, denouncing the rich and their exploitation of the poor, calling for social justice and freeman and a society based on fraternity and the equality of all people.” John Ball was needed as their leader because as a priest, he had access to the word of God. “John Ball quickly assumed his place as the theoretician of the rising and its spiritual father. Whatever the masses thought of the temporal Church, they all considered themselves to be good Catholics.”

Whether or not he had personally bashed out the brains of a poll tax collector, Tyler was either well known and respected, or very quickly recognised as being intelligent and organised, since within days of a huge army of peasant rebels gathering in Kent he had been elected leader of the Kentish contingent: some 70,000 strong by contemporary accounts. Soon he was heading the march on London.

“His ability as leader, organiser and spokesman is clearly revealed throughout the revolt, while his standing among the rebel commons was proved by the immediate acceptance of his captaincy, not only in Kent and Essex, but in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, and even farther afield; while the strength and vigour of his personality impressed itself even on the unwilling recorders of his work.” (Reg Groves) Charles Oman, the author of The Great Revolt of 1381 (1906) claims that the main reason that Wat Tyler became the leader of the revolt was because he was a man with military experience and knew how to establish authority over a mob. However, a mob is often capable of establishing authority over itself. Tyler is recognised by even the ardent anti-peasant chroniclers as being cunning and able to make practical tactical and strategic decisions which people carried out because they made sense.

It had also been speculated that Tyler was a member of a pre-revolt underground network, sometimes called the ‘Great Society’; linked individuals and groups who shared a radical and subversive vision of a world without the hierarchies, class divisions and poverty medieval peasants endured. John Ball had been preaching a form of classless communism for several years; he was hardly unique in dreaming of a better world. Such networks are known to have existed around this time among heretical religious sects; it is hardly impossible that political groups also operated clandestinely (in fact heretical sects may well have influenced Ball and other social radicals, as millenarian theological ideas often described the coming rule of Jesus on earth in terms of a classless paradise with no suffering, poverty, work…)

We don’t know, though we can suspect, and if we have spent time in radical groups plotting social change ourselves we like to believe… Paul Foot clearly liked to think of the rebels being led by a group very like his own Socialist Workers Party: “Through Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, even Lincolnshire, there were peasants meeting together in the villages. Representatives had been previously appointed and marked down. We know that because when John Ball was released from prison in Maidstone he wrote and sent a series of letters. Only two or three have come down to us, but the letters are direct, like Party circulars mobilising the membership. They are to Jack So-and-so, get out there and get the people out. You there, John this or Wat that, go for this particular landlord, or for that particular set of manorial rolls.”

Ball for certain, and, as far as we know, Tyler were not among the Kentish rebels who had sailed across the Thames on June 2nd and held a 2-day conference with Essex rebels at which the plans to march on London had to have been drawn up (though it is possible Tyler was there). A collective leadership did arise, either from people with a rebellious past, or maybe just people with a quick mind. Despite Paul Foot’s back-projection of a form of democratic centralism at work in the woods and fields, it is more likely that there were underground networks, but that they were autonomous, making links, yes, but organising themselves without orders from some committee. Authority was granted to individuals to command the large armies that converged on London in June 1381, but the unknown number of years of grassroots agitation, discussion of ideas, preaching, maybe swearing oaths, can only really have been done voluntarily and in secret, which means either a cell structure, or self-directed local groups. It is also possible that all this was done within a few weeks, not years, because spontaneous self-organisation is possible; more likely the immediate upsurge was based on some period of subversive rumblings.

Tyler is reported to have articulated the peasants’ view that they were acting lawfully and were not out to completely expropriate the wealthy. He is said to have told a crowd: “Remember, we come not as thieves and robbers. We come seeking social justice.” Many of the rebels obeyed a strict moral code, self-imposed as far we can tell, not to steal the wealth of the rich and the church, though much was destroyed deliberately. Some who broke this code were put to death.

Henry Knighton records: “The rebels returned to the New Temple which belonged to the prior of Clerkenwell… and tore up with their axes all the church books, charters and records discovered in the chests and burnt them… One of the criminals chose a fine piece of silver and hid it in his lap; when his fellows saw him carrying it, they threw him, together with his prize, into the fire, saying they were lovers of truth and justice, not robbers and thieves.” In their own terms this reflects a belief that their actions were justified, and they could show the moral rightness of their cause by not breaking god’s commandment not to steal; though it is worth commenting that as with all uprisings and riots there will be different crowds with different agendas, and events can reflect many diverse motivations which appear part of the same movement, while having contradictions and internal conflicts.

Wat Tyler himself illustrates this, since while the majority of the rebels seem to have desired merely an end to the poll tax, or the end of feudal duties, or other definite ends, he is quoted as demanding a more fundamental program.

The Mile End meeting between king Richard and the rebel leaders, where the king ‘gave in’ and signed their charters, took place on June 14th. Large numbers of rebels then began to march home, thinking that was it. The following day, a second meeting between the king & the peasant rebels took place, at Smithfield, the great open space north of the City of London, famed for animal slaughter and the ritual execution of dissidents. The remaining rebels may not have trusted the king, and called him to come and give further assurances. At this meeting, Wat Tyler argued for equality for all under the king, the church’s wealth to be distributed among the poor, an end to men being outlawed:

“Then the King caused a proclamation to be made that all the commons of the country who were still in London should come to Smithfield, to meet him there; and so they did.

And when the King and his train had arrived there they turned into the Eastern meadow in front of St. Bartholomew’s, which is a house of canons: and the commons arrayed themselves on the west side in great battles. At this moment the Mayor of London, William Walworth, came up, and the King bade him go to the commons, and make their chieftain come to him. And when he was summoned by the Mayor, by the name of Wat Tighler of Maidstone, he came to the King with great confidence, mounted on a little horse, that the commons might see him. And he dismounted, holding in his hand a dagger which he had taken from another man, and when he had dismounted he half bent his knee, and then took the King by the hand, and shook his arm forcibly and roughly, saying to him, “Brother, be of good comfort and joyful, for you shall have, in the fortnight that is to come, praise from the commons even more than you have yet had, and we shall be good companions.” And the King said to Walter, “Why will you not go back to your own country?” But the other answered, with a great oath, that neither he nor his fellows would depart until they had got their charter such as they wished to have it, and had certain points rehearsed and added to their charter which they wished to demand. And he said in a threatening fashion that the lords of the realm would rue it bitterly if these points were not settled to their pleasure. Then the King asked him what were the points which he wished to have revised, and he should have them freely, without contradiction, written out and sealed. Thereupon the said Walter rehearsed the points which were to be demanded; and he asked that there should be no law within the realm save the law of Winchester, and that from henceforth there should be no outlawry in any process of law, and that no lord should have lordship save civilly, and that there should be equality among all people save only the King, and that the goods of Holy Church should not remain in the hands of the religious, nor of parsons and vicars, and other churchmen; but that clergy already in possession should have a sufficient sustenance from the endowments, and the rest of the goods should be divided among the people of the parish. And he demanded that there should be only one bishop in England and only one prelate, and all the lands and tenements now held by them should be confiscated, and divided among the commons, only reserving for them a reasonable sustenance. And he demanded that there should be no more villeins in England, and no serfdom or villeinage, but that all men should be free and of one condition. To this the King gave an easy answer, and said that he should have all that he could fairly grant, reserving only for himself the regality of his crown. And then he bade him go back to his home, without making further delay.”

As the king dithered, clearly reluctant to agree this even if he meant to renege later, there was a scuffle & Tyler was stabbed by the Lord Mayor, William Walworth.

“During all this time that the King was speaking, no lord or counsellor dared or wished to give answer to the commons in any place save the King himself. Presently Wat Tighler, in the presence of the King, sent for a flagon of water to rinse his mouth, because of the great heat that he was in, and when it was brought he rinsed his mouth in a very rude and disgusting fashion before the King’s face. And then he made them bring him a jug of beer, and drank a great draught, and then, in the presence of the King, climbed on his horse again. At this time a certain valet from Kent, who was among the King’s retinue, asked that the said Walter, the chief of the commons, might be pointed out to him. And when he saw him, he said aloud that he knew him for the greatest thief and robber in all Kent…. And for these words Watt tried to strike him with his dagger, and would have slain him in the King’s presence; but because he strove so to do, the Mayor of London, William Walworth, reasoned with the said Watt for his violent behaviour and despite, done in the King’s presence, and arrested him. And because he arrested him, he said Watt stabbed the Mayor with his dagger in the stomach in great wrath. But, as it pleased God, the Mayor was wearing armour and took no harm, but like a hardy and vigorous man drew his cutlass, and struck back at the said Watt, and gave him a deep cut on the neck, and then a great cut on the head. And during this scuffle one of the King’s household drew his sword, and ran Watt two or three times through the body, mortally wounding him.”

To prevent the rebels massacring them for the murder of Tyler, the king promised them all their demands if they would go home…Tyler meanwhile, carried wounded to Bart’s Hospital, was seized by Walworth & beheaded in Smithfield.

“[The king] spurred his horse, crying to the commons to avenge him, and the horse carried him some four score paces, and then he fell to the ground half dead. And when the commons saw him fall, and knew not how for certain it was, they began to bend their bows and to shoot, wherefore the King himself spurred his horse, and rode out to them, commanding them that they should all come to him to Clerkenwell Fields.

Meanwhile the Mayor of London rode as hastily as he could back to the City, and commanded those who were in charge of the twenty four wards to make proclamation round their wards, that every man should arm himself as quickly as he could, and come to the King in St. John’s Fields, where were the commons, to aid the King, for he was in great trouble and necessity…. And presently the aldermen came to him in a body, bringing with them their wardens, and the wards arrayed in bands, a fine company of well-armed folks in great strength. And they enveloped the commons like sheep within a pen, and after that the Mayor had set the wardens of the city on their way to the King, he returned with a company of lances to Smithfield, to make an end of the captain of the commons. And when he came to Smithfield he found not there the said captain Watt Tighler, at which he marvelled much, and asked what was become of the traitor. And it was told him that he had been carried by some of the commons to the hospital for poor folks by St. Bartholomew’s, and was put to bed in the chamber of the master of the hospital. And the Mayor went thither and found him, and had him carried out to the middle of Smithfield, in presence of his fellows, and there beheaded. And thus ended his wretched life. But the Mayor had his head set on a pole and borne before him to the King, who still abode in the Fields. And when the King saw the head he had it brought near him to abash the commons, and thanked the Mayor greatly for what he had done. And when the commons saw that their chieftain, Watt Tyler, was dead in such a manner, they fell to the ground there among the wheat, like beaten men, imploring the King for mercy for their misdeeds. And the King benevolently granted them mercy, and most of them took to flight. But the King ordained two knights to conduct the rest of them, namely the Kentishmen, through London, and over London Bridge, without doing them harm, so that each of them could go to his own home.”

So king Richard II led many of the remaining peasants, to nearby Clerkenwell Fields, where they were then surrounded by royal troops. After days of disorder and rebels imposing their will on the authorities, the government now had the upper hand, and hundreds of executions followed…

“Afterwards the King sent out his messengers into divers parts, to capture the malefactors and put them to death. And many were taken and hanged at London, and they set up many gallows around the City of London, and in other cities and boroughs of the south country. At last, as it pleased God, the King seeing that too many of his liege subjects would be undone, and too much blood split, took pity in his heart, and granted them all pardon, on condition that they should never rise again, under pain of losing life or members, and that each of them should get his charter of pardon, and pay the King as fee for his seal twenty shillings, to make him rich. And so finished this wicked war.”

The promises to the rebels were now so exposed as so many empty words, and a vicious repression was launched against the scum who had dared to question their place and even worse dared to act upon it and deprived a few rich plutocrats of their heads.

“Every home in London was visited by the forces of the king and asked to swear an oath of allegiance on pain of death. John Ball was half-hanged, disembowelled while still alive, hanged again and drawn at St Albans. John Rawe, Jack Straw, John Sherwin of Sussex, William Grindcobbe in St Albans, all of them were executed in one way or another after varying forms of resistance in different towns.

William Grindcobbe from St Albans was arrested, imprisoned, and told that he would be killed unless he went back and told the insurgents to lay down their arms. He agreed to go back, and spoke to some 100-150 armed men at St Albans. He told them on no account to lay down their arms, to continue the struggle – and he was taken from behind while he was speaking and executed. Such was the spirit of the Peasants’ Revolt.” (Paul Foot)

So the sun set on both the largest mass movement for social change that England witnessed in the middle ages, and the lives of the radicals who briefly challenged the whole idea of order and hierarchy. Tyler remains a mysterious figure, like a bright light shining in a dense fog. John Ball too, a comet of brilliant love and rage which can be hidden by death – but you know it’s coming round again. Because he expresses eternal ideas, the kernel of which we struggle with today: why should any live off the labour of others? Why should anyone be in power over us? Why can’t we work together for the good of all and not for profit and self-enrichment? How can we ourselves change this situation?

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Sorry to nick this next bit so directly from Paul Foot, with all our reservations about him he had a proper way with words; at the end of a talk about Tyler, Ball and the Revolt, he links it so well to the future that we will give the last words to him (ok, in reality the hard work was done by William Morris). Yes we know Foot was in the fucking SWP and we don’t support them at all. William Morris’s Dream of John Ball is well worth a read though.

“In 1881, one hundred years ago, inspired by the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Peasants’ Revolt, William Morris, a great socialist writer, grappled with this same idea. We do have something in common with what John Ball and Wat Tyler were doing in 1381. How could William Morris, with his enormous writing powers, try to bridge the gap for the socialists of his time? He did it in a really very brilliant piece of writing. It took him a long time to do it, and didn’t in fact appear until 1885.

He imagined himself or somebody like himself, a socialist in 1881, being plunged back into the villages of Kent in 1381, beating off the barons and the nobles. He describes John Ball coming to a village – probably the best description there is, better than the chronicles themselves because William Morris really went into it and found out about it.

At the end of the piece, which is called The Dream of John Ball, this man, who has all this experience of 500 years after 1381, has a long discussion with John Ball about what will happen. John Ball says, in effect, that he knows the revolt is going to fail, but asks what is going to happen after that? When, he asks, is his dream of all people living in common and sharing everything and there not being any vassals or lords going to come about?

Morris replies sadly that it won’t come for 500 years at least.

Not surprisingly, John Ball gets a bit depressed about that. He reminds his guest that he is marching to certain defeat and execution, and asks: For what? Is it worth it?

Here is the reply:

‘John Ball, be of good cheer, for once more thou knowest as I know that the fellowship of man shall endure, however many tribulations it may have to wear through. It may well be that this bright day of summer, which is now dawning upon us, is no image of the beginning of the day that shall be – but rather shall that day dawn be cold and grey and surly, and yet, by its light shall men see things as they verily are, and, no longer enchanted by the gleam of the moon and the glamour of the dream-tide, by such grey light shall wise men and valiant souls see the remedy and deal with it, a real thing that may be touched and handled and no glory of the heavens to be worshipped from afar off.

‘And what shall it be, as I told thee before, save that men shall be determined to be free, yea free as thou wouldst have them, when thine hope rises the highest and thou arte thinking, not of the king’s uncles and poll-grote bailiffs and the villeinage of Essex, but of the end of it all, when men shall have the fruits of the earth and the fruits of the earth and the fruits of their toil thereon without money and without price. That time shall come, John Ball, when that dream of thine shall this one day be, shall be a thing that man shall talk of soberly, and as a thing soon to come about as even with thee they talk of the villeins becoming tenants paying their lord quit-rent.

‘Therefore hast thou done well to hope it, and thy name shall abide by thy hope in those days to come, and thou shalt not be forgotten.’

It’s coming sometime. Get out there and sharpen the scythes, companeros/as…

Some excerpts were nicked from This Bright Day of Summer, by Paul Foot

Read William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball

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

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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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2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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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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Today in London’s theatrical history: Paul Robeson stars as black revolutionary Toussaint Louverture in CLR James play, 1936

“I was tired of hearing that the West Indians were oppressed, that we were black and miserable, that we had been brought from Africa, and that we were living there and that we were being exploited.” (CLR James)

“James’s treatment of ‘the most glorious victory of the oppressed over their oppressors in world history’ will remain an inspiration, because of its universal theme, for the foreseeable future.” (Christian Hogsbjerg)

In 1791, inspired both by the ideals of the French Revolution and the horrors and toil of their existence, slaves on the Caribbean island of San Domingo rose in revolt. For twelve years they fought off the white French masters, and armies from France, Spain and Britain, ultimately founding the independent black republic of Haiti. A number of outstanding military leaders masterminded the war for Haiti’s freedom: most famously, Toussaint L’ouverture, who emerged from the struggle as its most clear thinker and general, though he was betrayed into the hands of the French before the final victory and died in a French prison.

Hollywood, the socialist Paul Foot once noted, ‘made a film about Spartacus, the leader of the Roman slave revolt, because Spartacus was beaten. Toussaint L’Ouverture was victorious, so they haven’t made a film about him’. His being black may have something to do with it…

There may be no Hollywood blockbuster (I’m guessing it’d end up with Matt Damon in blackface anyway), but there is a French TV movie

And there was once a ground-breaking play…

In 1934 the fantastic Trinidadian Marxist polymath CLR James, then living in London, finished writing his play Toussaint L’Ouverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History. The playscript was long presumed lost, (although James did revise the text in the 1960s), until the rediscovery of a draft copy in 2005. James was to go on to write the classic account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, published in 1938.

Born in Trinidad in 1901, Cyril Lionel Robert James was to become a marxist activist and theorist, leading pan-Africanist, cricket commentator, and cultural thistorian. He had arrived in England in 1932, and became engaged not only in literary challenges to racism, in revolutionary politics and the African and West Indian independence movements, in resistance to fascism… James’s play about a revolutionary leader defeating brutal oppressors was both a historical drama and a response to the news of the day.

Toussaint Louverture was staged on March 15th and 16th 1936 at London’s Westminster Theatre; another black communist, the incredible Paul Robeson, starring in the title role, one of the world’s most famous actors and singers– making it an event of international interest. The League of Coloured Peoples (discussed on this blog the other day), of which James was an active member, helped sponsor the performance. This was the first time black professional actors had starred on the British stage in a play written by a black playwright, and interestingly despite his long acting career and lifelong anti-racist stance, was to be the only time Robeson starred in a play by a writer of African descent. Just the idea of a meeting of the work these two giants of the twentieth century is enough to send shivers down the spine…

James wrote the play in 1934, but it remained unproduced until 1936, when the script came into the hands of Robeson, who had been looking for a chance to portray the Haitian leader on stage. Back in 1926, Robeson had told an interviewer that he dreamed “of a great play about Haiti, a play about Negroes, written by a Negro, and acted by Negroes . . . of a moving drama that will have none of the themes that offer targets for race supremacy advocates.” In 1935 Robeson had even discussed the idea of a film about the Haitian revolt with the great Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein, who had become fascinated with the Haitian story. Sadly this film never happened (is there an alternative universe where Eisenstein filmed Robeson in James’s play! – imagine…)

For an interesting and detailed description of the plot, themes and staging of he play, it’s worth reading Christian Hogsbjerg’s introduction to his published edition of Toussaint Louverture.

“The cast assembled around Robeson was remarkable, featuring as it did other black professional actors from throughout the African diaspora, including Robert Adams, who played Dessalines. Adams, born in British Guiana, had, like James, been a distinguished schoolteacher who produced and acted in amateur productions before coming to Britain. He had worked with Paul Robeson in Sanders of the River and Midshipman Easy, and in 1935 he made his London stage debut in Stevedore. Also recruited from Stevedore was the Nigerian Orlando Martins, who played the role of Boukman. Black amateur actors—including other veterans of Stevedore, such as John Ahuma, Rufus E. Fennell, and Charles Johnson—were included, while the remaining cast was recruited through the Stage Society itself, many of whom were experienced professional actors or rising stars such as Harry Andrews.

The play was staged at the 730- seat Westminster Theatre, on the fringes of London’s West End in Palace Street. The owner of the Westminster Theatre during this period was A. B. Horne, and it was managed by Anmer Hall. Michael Sidnell notes that Hall learnt that “Sunday performances were a way of getting a hearing for new or neglected plays without going to great expense.” With its quite liberal management, it is not surprising that the Westminster Theatre was a home for the radical Group Theatre, and James’s Toussaint Louverture had followed a series of plays by “the Auden Group,” most notably Auden and Isherwood’s The Dog beneath the Skin. The famous theatre critic Herbert Farjeon noted at the end of the 1930s that “the Westminster Theatre has probably housed during the present decade a higher percentage of interesting plays than any other theatre north of the Thames.” In 1955, the Westminster Theatre produced an all- African play, Freedom, which toured Europe and was filmed in Nigeria in 1956 with a cast of thousands.

Those wishing to see the performance had to pay at least one guinea, the basic annual membership subscription to the Stage Society. As well as the Sunday evening performance on 15 March, there was a matinee the next day, and for this final performance James himself was called upon to step in for Rufus E. Fennell, the actor playing the “small part” of Macoya. “I was in it by accident. . . . I wanted to sit in the back and watch the play . . . not to be mixed up in it. But I dressed myself up and played it.” Overall, though the production went well, James would always remember it was Paul Robeson who stole the show.” As James, interviewed in November 1983, recalled, “The moment he came onto the stage, the whole damn thing changed. It’s not a question of acting . . . the physique and the voice, the spirit behind him—you could see it when he was on stage.”

Reviews were said to be mixed (twould be interesting to know on what grounds – the explicit radical, anti-racist, and anti-imperial message may have coloured the artistic opinions of white reviewers), but by all accounts Robeson’s performance was typically outstanding. The first performance received an ovation. Broadway made noises of interest, and a couple of critics suggested the play would adapt well to screen, though in the end neither a Broadway run or a film materialised.

James was, according to Christian Høgsbjerg, (who discovered the manuscript in the papers of the former trotskyist Jock Haston, a sometime comrade of James in 2005), “acutely conscious of the need to challenge the mythological British nationalist narrative of abolition, one that glorified the role played by British parliamentarians such as Wilberforce. Indeed, in the original version of the playscript C.L.R. James mentioned Wilberforce himself in passing, but then later in a handwritten revision… decided to remove the explicit mention of the abolitionist Tory MP… to help bring home the essential truth about abolition — that it was the enslaved who abolished slavery themselves — to a British audience who would almost certainly be hearing such a truth for the first time.”

The play mingled elements of classic theatre (eg the use of the rebellious slave army as a kind of chorus, in the ancient Greek tradition) – though radically subverted “the final scene of revolutionary history sees what James would in 1963 describe as “the entry of the chorus, of the ex- slaves themselves, as the arbiters of their own fate,” making for an ending to a drama that no Greek tragedian or even someone with the far- reaching imagination of Shakespeare could have envisaged” – with modern alternative theatrical ideas and ideals. The mix of music dance and drama evokes the latest methods in European theatre, like the work of Brecht, while also deliberately echoing African culture.

James portrayal of Toussaint is of a tragic hero, as a revolutionary leader who ends his days in prison, having failed in the end to follow through the struggle to complete independence for Haiti (a task his lieutenants were left to finish), and paid the price for it. Having not begun the slave revolt, but emerged from it and been shaped by it, he became its outstanding strategist and thinker, but didn’t have enough faith in the black rebels’ ability to make their own future. Believing they should make a semi-colonial peace with revolutionary France, in the end he contrasted this with too much faith in the European enlightenment, and was betrayed, captured and imprisoned by the French republic. James was again bringing past, present and theory together in his raw discussion of the ideas of revolutionary leadership, charismatic thinkers and hero-figures, and the ability of the oppressed to shape their own destiny: vital questions then, as in the 1790s, as now…

The story of Haiti’s successful slave revolt is inspiring at any time, but in the 1930s, with almost all of Africa still under the colonial control of white European powers, putting on the play in the heart of what was then the most powerful empire of all was a bold move. The context of the times is crucial – fascism, based securely in the idea of racial hierarchies and white superiority, was rising; Italy had Just invaded Ethiopia (James was also a founder of the International African Friends of Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was then called, and the parallels of Haiti with Ethiopian resistance to Italian invasion were obvious and stark); but also political opposition and revolt against the colonial powers across Africa was beginning to coalesce. This could not ever be seen only as a play about incidents from the past; it was also a clarion call for massive social change from below for in the present and the future. It’s worth noting that the audience very likely included a range of vital figures in the future development of black self-determination across three (if not more) continents, with Pan-African figures as George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, and Eric Williams being part of James’ immediate circle.

As Christian Hogsbjerg points out, the staging of the play also illustrates “the radical counterculture that has always existed in the “dark heart” of the British Empire”, and forms a brief bright illustration of the black radical traditions, leftwing ferment and literary bohemianism which all met and flowered so productively in both James and Robeson. James’ background in the Caribbean added a specific motivation for telling Toussaint’s story (which he had been researching for several years, spurred on by inadequate and racist accounts of Haiti and dismissals of black people as inferior to whites). If the project was “fundamentally inspired by James earlier environment, the colonial Caribbean society in which he was born and grew to intellectual maturity,” (Hogsbjerg) it also reflected how James had evolved politically since he left the West Indies – moving from “a continuing identification with imperial Britain” to a Pan-Africanist viewpoint and then on to Marxism.

But Christian Hogsbjerg also discusses how the staging of the play itself, not just the subject matter, formed both a break and a link with theatre traditions. A link to black West Indian theatre: “Although James’s play has been celebrated as a pioneering production in the history of black British theatre, and an important moment in the history of African and Caribbean theatre, Toussaint Louverture also stands as an outstanding contribution to what the late Trinidadian dramatist and scholar Errol Hill once described as “the revolutionary tradition in black drama,” a “tradition of writing and producing plays that deal directly with black liberation.” This revolutionary tradition dates at least as far back as the Haitian Revolution itself, for after Toussaint seized the power to rule as black Consul in Saint- Domingue, James noted in The Black Jacobins that “the theatres began to play again, and some of the Negro players showed a remarkable talent.”

But also a defiant two fingers to the racially dubious portrayals of black people on the British stage – of ‘nigger minstrels’, or credulous childlike figures needing a white authority figure.

Interestingly, nearly 30 years later, James also adapted his account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, into a play:

“James felt the victory of many national liberation movements internationally in the postwar world meant that, as he later recalled, “the idea I was expressing should be differently expressed . . . writing about the struggle for independence in 1956 or 1960 was very different from what it was in 1936.” As James told Reinhard Sander, “After twenty- five years the colonial revolution had made great strides so about that time I began to rewrite it [the play] in view of the new historical happenings.” The play version of The Black Jacobins was first performed at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria in 1967, directed by Lyndersay amid the tumult of civil war to an enthusiastic reception. It has since been staged numerous times, and this later script has necessarily formed the basis of scholarly discussion of “James’s play.” The later play essentially followed the same chronological structure as Toussaint Louverture. There is the same humour, the lively music, drumming ebbing and flowing into the action, and there are still moments of rare dramatic power. Yet by the 1960s James had experienced for himself, in Trinidad with Eric Williams and in Ghana with Kwame Nkrumah, both the excitement and the disappointment generated by movements for colonial liberation in the Caribbean and in Africa. If Toussaint Louverture was about the vindication of national liberation struggles written in the age of colonialism, in The Black Jacobins James and Lyndersay explored what lessons the Haitian Revolution might hold for national liberation struggles in the age of decolonisation.”

Christian Hobsbjerg’s book, which includes the full script of the play, the programme, photographs, and reviews from the 1936 production, a contextual introduction and editorial notes on the play, and selected essays and letters by James and others, is published by Duke University Press. Tis a bit expensive however… 

Have a look at Hogsbjerg’s blog

And you can watch an abridged performance of the play put on by Bowdoin College (Maine, USA) students in November 2014.

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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 radical history: Bethnal Green Chartists in court, for assembling, illegally, armed, 1840.

In 1839-40, the Chartist movement reached its first great peak of strength. Building on decades of agitation for constitutional and political reform, emerging from the ruins of earlier political groupings, but adding in the massive experience of the struggle against the stamp tax on the cheap press, the beginnings of large-scale trade unionism, and the birth of the co-operative movement, Chartism was bringing together millions of working class people to demand a voice in the decision making processes – the vote. Monster rallies took place of thousands, mass agitation was drawing in recruit and spreading ideas in the cities and countryside, a huge petitioning effort was underway to show Parliament the strength of the feeling across the country. To many the pressure for change seemed unstoppable.

But in the wake of the rejection of the first Chartist petition by Parliament in July 1839, the outright refusal of the ruling elites to consider further reform, pressure began to build within Chartism for achieving results by other means. Chartism had inherited from earlier reform movements an inherent division, between those who thought campaigning and mass demonstrations, petitions and ‘moral pressure’ from below could bring change – and others who felt their rulers based their control of society of force, and would not give up even a share of it without being forced themselves. The latter, a substantial minority, were strengthened by the refusal of the state to compromise with polite Chartist petitioning, and also by the rhetoric of Chartist leaders who talked a good fight when they really were not prepared to rise in arms…

After the petition was rejected, plans were set in motion for a Sacred Month, the ‘Grand National Holiday’ of William Benbow revived – a General Strike, in effect. Although agreed and even launched, many Chartist leaders were scared by the implications of leading such a movement, and back-pedalled. The strike fizzled out. In the wake of this the ‘physical force’ Chartists began working in earnest to plan for uprisings to overthrow the government that held them down, going beyond demanding a the vote to conceiving of a working class that could take power itself, in its own interests, dispossessing the classes that lived on their backs. This manifested in the Newport Rising of November 1839, when South Wales Chartists launched a revolt, intended to be part of a wider revolutionary attempt. The revolt was put down and its leaders tried for treason.

But even as the trial of John Frost and the other Newport leaders ended with sentences of death and transportation, in early January 1840, plans for uprising were still being hatched in the north of England. Revolts were planned in Sheffield, Dewsbury and Bradford, but were either foiled by the authorities (often with the help of spies) or failed to gather the support needed. And there were spirits abroad in London, too, willing to arm with the aim of overthrowing the hated government:

“In the metropolis, too, the work of disaffection was apparent. Repeated meetings took place, and schemes of the very worst character were devised; and, on Tuesday the 13th of January, the government received private information that an insurrection was to break out on that night or on the following morning, and that the firing of London in various parts was to be the signal for a general rising throughout the country. Orders were in consequence instantly transmitted to the Horse Guards, for the preparation of a sufficient force to repel any treasonable attack which might be made; and here, as well as at all the barracks in the vicinity of the metropolis, and at the Tower, the whole of the men were put under arms. The metropolitan police-force and the city constables received orders to be ready for immediate action, and the London Fire-engine Establishment — a body of most enterprising and active officers — formed into a fire-police, was placed in readiness to employ their exertions to assist the municipal authorities to suppress the supposed intended conflagration.

            The alarm, which was necessarily spread through the metropolis in consequence of these warlike preparations, however, turned out to be without cause; for although on that night a very large meeting of Chartists took place at the Hall of Trades, in Abbey-street, Bethnal-green, there was no attempt at violence. The conduct of the speakers at this assemblage, indeed, sufficiently showed the extremes to which they desired their followers to go; and a subsequent meeting on the following Thursday proved that they were not quite so harmless as their apologists would have had it supposed. At this convention, held, as it was announced, for the purpose of discussing the existing state of the working-classes throughout the country, upwards of seven hundred persons attended, the majority of whom seemed to be individuals of low rank. At nine o’clock the committee came upon the platform, when Mr. Neesom was called to the chair. After the chairman had detailed the objects for which the meeting had been called, Mr. Spurr, who had on a former occasion taken an active part in the discussions, rose to propose the first resolution. After a few preliminary observations, he contended that the only way to preserve the peace was to be prepared to wage war; and in support of such an assertion he thought it would be well deserving the attention of the meeting to bear in mind the words of a celebrated person, “to put their trust in God, and keep their powder dry,” which was received with loud cheering. On silence being restored, the speaker was about to proceed, but a body of police appearing at the door with drawn sabres, caused the greatest possible confusion. The chairman entreated the meeting not to be disturbed, as it was held on constitutional principles, but in order not to give their enemies an opportunity of succeeding, he hoped there would be no breach of the peace committed. The police then, having blocked up every avenue leading to the room, prevented all present from retiring, and proceeded to search their persons. Daggers, knives, sabres, pistols primed and loaded, and other weapons of an offensive character, were taken from many of them, while upon the floor were discovered others of a like description, evidently thrown away by their owners in order to enable them to escape detection. Twenty-one of the persons who were taken into custody on this occasion unarmed, were detained in the Trades Hall, and eleven others, upon whom pistols and daggers had been found, were removed to safe custody, in order to await their examination before the magistrates. Upon subsequent inquiries taking place, several of them were discharged, while, however, others, with new prisoners subsequently secured and identified as parties to the meeting, were tried and convicted at the Old Bailey Sessions, and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.” (The Newgate Calendar).

Chartist would of course continue to agitate, strike and plot revolution for several more years… But if 1848 has often been seen as the highpoint, the moment when radical change could have come, it is possible that in 1839-40 the moment was in reality even closer. Sadly, general strikes, insurrections, plots for uprisings, armed meetings, failed to achieve a working class seizure of power 176 years ago…

But hey, there’s still time…

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

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 judicial history: hanging Judge Jeffreys caught in Wapping pub, fleeing uprising, 1688.

George Jeffreys, 1st Baron Jeffreys, was a judge, notorious for “acting as an instrument of royal policy”.

Rapidly ascending through the legal hierarchy in the 1670s, to become Lord Chief Justice, and Lord Chancellor, he also tied himself to the coat-tails of James Stuart, Duke of York, brother of King Charles II, and rose accordingly to great power.

During the Popish Plot he was frequently on the bench which condemned numerous innocent men of taking part in catholic plots to overthrow the monarchy, on the perjured evidence of Titus Oates, a protestant Senator MacCarthy. When it suited the political needs of the times, Jeffreys backed the opposition condoning of Oates framing catholics for nebulous political crimes; however, when James became king, Jeffreys was quick to back the winner. (Showing his enthusiasm by procuring the conviction of Oates for his perjury at the same trials Jeffreys had presided over.) He is most famous for hs role as the hanging judge in the ‘Bloody Assizes’, the trials arising from the aftermath of Monmouth’s failed Rebellion against the new king.

In 1683 Jeffreys presided over the trial of Algernon Sidney, who had been implicated in the Rye House Plot, a plan hatched by republicans and opposition leaders to off the king and his brother. Sidney was convicted and executed: Jeffreys’ became infamous for his conduct of the trial, ruling that while two witnesses were normally required in a treason trial, and the Crown had only one, Sidney’s own writings on republicanism were a second “witness” on the ground that “to write is to act”.  Jeffreys’ also successful convicted Lord Russell in connection with the same conspiracy as Sidney, replacing Sir Francis Pemberton, who had presided at the same trial and made clear his doubts about Russell’s guilt, much to the King’s displeasure.

Jeffreys’ historical notoriety comes from his actions in 1685, after Monmouth’s Rebellion. Jeffreys was sent to the West Country in the autumn of 1685 to conduct the trials of captured rebels.

Although the Duke of Monmouth’s uprising was nominally intended to replace the catholic king James with the protestant Monmouth, a substantial part of his support came from former levellers, republicans, veterans of the ‘good old cause’ and the Commonwealth… Around the campfires as they were on the march, Monmouth’s army discussed the possibilities of introducing a reforming program if James was defeated…

Even if the rebellion was very much doomed from the start, it was important to punish the participants, especially given the association with the radical underground. Jeffreys, as the pre-eminent establishment legal mind of his day, was co-opted to conduct the trials of the captured rebels after their defeat at the battle of Sedgemoor. The Centre of the trials was based at Taunton. Estimates of the numbers executed for treason have been given as high as 700, however, a more likely figure is between 160 and 170 of 1381 defendants found guilty of treason.

In the wake of King James succeeding to the throne, Jeffreys had been named Lord Chancellor; in the late 1680s he became in effect James appointed Dictator of London. But storm clouds were looming…

In 1688, as a burgeoning revolt against king James grew (mainly based on protestant opposition to James Catholicism), Jeffreys stuck by the king, even after other allies abandoned him. But after the king fled the country on 10th December, in the face of uprisings in London and the invitation of notables to rival candidate William of Orange to take over, Jeffreys decided it was time to leg it abroad…

“… lying concealed, he caused preparations to be made for his escape from the kingdom. It was arranged that a coal ship which had delivered her cargo should clear out the custom house as for her return to Newcastle, and should land him at Hamburg.

To avoid, as he thought, all chance of being recognized by those who had seen him in ermine or gold-embroidered robes, with a long white band under the chin, his collar of S.S round his neck, and on his head a full-bottom wig, which had recently become the attribute of judicial dignity, instead of the old-fashioned coif or black velvet cap, – he cut off his bushy eyebrows, wont to inspire such terror, he put on the worn-out dress of a common sailor, and he covered his head with an old tarred hat that seemed to have weathered many a blast.

Thus disguised, as soon as it was dusk he got into a boat; and the state of the tide enabling him to shoot London Bridge without danger, he safely reached he coal ship lying off Wapping. Here he was introduced to the captain and the mate, on whose secrecy he was told he might rely; but, as they could not sail till next day, when he had examined his berth, he went on board another vessel that lay at a little distance, there to pass the night….” Unfortunately, he also nipped over to a Wapping pub, now called the The Town of Ramsgate, to have a final drink… and was recognized by a sailor who had previously appeared in court before him. “But hardly believing his own senses, he entered the tap-room of the alehouse to examine the countenance more deliberately…. An immense multitude or persons were in a few minutes collected round the door by the proclamation of the scrivener that the pretended sailor was indeed the wicked Lord Chancellor Jeffreys… He was now in the greatest jeopardy, for… the persons here assembled were disposed at first to tear him limb from limb, and he was saved only the interposition of some of he more considerate, who suggested that the proper course would be to take him before the lord mayor.

… but before he could be secured in a carriage to be conveyed thither, they assaulted and pelted him, and might have proceeded to greater extremities if a party of the train bands had not rescued him from their fury. They pursued him all the way with whips and halters, and cries of ‘Vengeance! Justice! Justice!’ Although he lay back in the coach, he could still be discovered in his blue jacket, and with his sailor’s hat flopped down upon his face.”

Dragged to the Tower of London, Jeffreys was grateful for the protection of the authorities from the crowd… But he was to die, untried, in prison, in April 1689.

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

Today in London radical history: Spa Fields reform demo erupts into uprising, 1817.

“In consequence of an advertisement which was placarded throughout the metropolis, stating that a meeting of manufacturers, artisans, etc., would be convened in these fields, to take into consideration the propriety of petitioning the prince regent upon the present distressed state of the country, an immense concourse of people was on Friday assembled.”

Two hundred years ago, Spa Fields, Clerkenwell, described then as “a wild uninclosed space”, was, for a while, a favourite gathering point for radical mass meetings; some of which became riotous demonstrations, and one of which, on December 2nd 1817, erupted into a riot, an abortive attempt at a revolutionary uprising.

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, there was an upsurge in demands for political reform and the extension of the vote. This was also fuelled by the collapse of the war economy into recession and mass unemployment; thousands of soldiers and sailors were being discharged with little prospect of work, too – a dynamic common to large-scale wars: compare the pressures for social change after World Wars 1 and 2 (many sailors and soldiers were also being demobbed unpaid – it was common for navy and army pay to be owed years in arrears then). On top of this a rampant succession of new laws, abolishing old protections for workers and the poor, in the interests of the factory owners, merchants and employers, was introducing unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism, with devastating consequences for the lower classes.

Mass radical agitation – for political reform, but also for improvement in the lives of working people – revived for the first time since the heady days of the London Corresponding Society in the 1790s. Major movers in organising public meetings and mass rallies were the Society of Spencean Philanthropists, followers of agrarian communist Thomas Spence (died 1814), radicals and revolutionaries who were constantly agitating for an uprising of the poor against their masters. Co-operating with them was a more moderate wing pressing for peaceful change; this uneasy alliance had fallen in and out for many years, and would continue to tentatively co-operate for decades to come.

Although a small remnant of Spa Fields still exists, they were once much larger. Originally known as the Ducking-pond Fields, they later went by Clerkenwell Fields or Spa Fields, and later still acquired the nickname of the Pipe Fields, from the wooden pipes (hollowed-out elm-trees) which radiated from here, dispersing the water from the reservoirs at New River Head to various customers. The small remnant that exists by that name now is a pale survival of a much larger space that stretched across what is now Farringdon Road, and up the hill around what is now Amwell Street to the north.

On the 15th of November 1816, the famous moderate reformer Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt spoke to an enormous crowd of 20,000 demanding reform, from a window in the Merlin’s Cave Tavern, on the edge of Spa Fields (where Merlin Street now stands). The mass meeting was ‘adjourned’ for two weeks until 2 December 1816; on which occasion the third mass radical protest meeting of the year on the Fields ended in a riot.

“Hand-bills were afterwards diligently distributed, and a large concourse of people accordingly took place on the 2nd December, and is supposed to have consisted of at least 10,000 persons.”

The massive turnout on 15th November encouraged the committee organising December 2nd – possibly it led some of them to think the poverty and hardship the working classes were facing could be overturned in one fell swoop. A fair number of leaders and some of the crowd were prepared for a revolutionary uprising; not, fatally, the majority of them, however.

Rumours had spread that ‘something would happen’ at the rally; with some leaders talking of taking control of the Bank of England, the Tower of London and the prisons, police spies riddling the committees and planting weapons, and a genuine climate of rage and desperation, plots were clearly afoot.

“As a prelude to the scene that followed, a coal waggon, filled with persons of mean appearance, was stationed, shortly after 12 o’clock, at that part of the Spafields next the House of Correction. The waggon had two tri-coloured flags borne by its company: on one was inscribed, in large letters, the following inflammatory sentences:

‘The brave Soldiers are our Brothers, treat them kindly.’

On the other were these words:

‘Nature Feeds the Hungry,
   ‘Truth Protects the Oppressed,
   ‘Justice Punishes Crimes.’

Mr Hunt then came forward amid the most tumultuous applause, and addressing the crowd by the usual title of ‘Friends and fellow-countrymen,’ exhorted them in the usual joke to keep silence, by holding their tongues, and not by calling out silence. He then harangued them as before for a considerable time, and in the course of his speech read his correspondence with lord Sidmouth, on the subject of the late petition.”

James Watson, one of the Spencean leaders, addressed the crowd from the cart, then leapt off, and led a crowd to attack the Tower. “Those actually engaged in the excesses, about 200 in number, separated from it about or a little before the arrival of the orator, and proceeded in a tumultuous manner through the streets of the metropolis.” Other groups “surged off in different directions. Several gunsmiths’ shops were looted. Some of the rioters reached the Tower and a man… climbed on the wall and called on the troops to join the people. In the Minories there was rioting for several hours…” But the government was forewarned by spies, and constables were stationed at prisons and other targets. However the majority of the crowd remained at Spa Fields to listen to Hunt, then dispersed.

Many discharged sailors from the wars took part, in the trouble, including a large number of ‘blacks and mulattoes’ (who made up huge chunks of the navy). Black sailor Richard Simmons “harangued the crowd for half an hour”.

The following March, prisoners arrested after the riot were tried for treason, but it collapsed, after the activities of government spies in the crowd and infiltrating radical meetings and pro-reform groups were exposed. However Irish sailor William Cashman was hanged for taking part in the looting of a gun shop in Skinner Street, (on the edge of the Fields) during the riot.

Cashman had, according to his evidence, been discharged from the navy, virtually destitute, owed five years pay, which he had repeatedly tried to chisel out of various Admiralty departments, to no avail… As EP Thompson points out, this contrasts sharply with the huge sinecures and awards to naval bigwigs and army generals in the wake of the victory over Napoleon. When Cashman was hanged in March 1817, in Skinner Street, a huge popular demonstration gathered in support of him: : “the mob expressed the strongest feelings of indignation; groans and hisses burst from every quarter, and attempts were made to rush forward…   When the executioner advanced to put the rope round his neck, the tumult increased to an alarming degree…”

The scaffold had to be defended by barricades and “an immense force of constables”.

Mass meetings continued on Spa Fields in February and March 1818, but the riots triggered vindictive government repression; severe laws restricting the right to gather and suspending other rights were passed, and many leading radicals were interned. But several of the Spenceans and other agitators involved in the Spa Fields affray would go on to take part in future plots and plans for uprisings, culminating in the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820.

The summer’s evening resort

The modern London Borough of Islington has now been built over now, and these days counts as part of the ‘inner city’; in fact it has the lowest ratio of open green space to built up areas of any London borough. At one time though Islington was well-known for open space, much of it famous for pleasurable gatherings and rowdy political meetings. The area between Clerkenwell and Angel, known as Islington Hill, once teemed with pleasure gardens, resorts and spas. Spa Fields was the most famous – and infamous.

200 years ago, apart from being briefly the epi-centre of a growing movement for political reform, Spa Fields was also notorious for its rowdy and immoral pleasures…

The Fields had a long history.

To Clerkenwell Fields, on 15th June 1381, king Richard II led many of the rebels who had flocked to London during the Peasants’ Revolt, after the murder of Wat Tyler at Smithfield – they were then surrounded by royal troops. After days of disorder, of rebels imposing their will on the authorities, the government now had the upper hand, and executions followed…

“In former times,” according to William Pinks, “the district around the chapel known as Spa Fields, or the Ducking-pond Fields, now intersected by streets of well-built houses, was the summer’s evening resort of the townspeople, who came hither to witness the rude sports that were in vogue a century ago, such as duck-hunting, prize-fighting, bull-baiting, and others of an equally demoralising character. We are informed by an old newspaper that in 1768 ‘Two women fought for a new shift, valued at half a-crown, in the Spaw Fields, near Islington. The battle was won by a woman called ‘Bruising Peg,’ who beat her antagonist in a terrible manner.’ In the summer of the same year ‘an extraordinary battle was fought in the Spa Fields by two women against two taylors, for a guinea a head, which was won by the ladies, who beat the taylors in a severe manner.’ On Saturday, the 28th August 1779, ‘a scene of fun and business intermixed took place in Spa Fields, to which no language can do justice. Bills had been stuck up and otherwise circulated, that an ox would be roasted whole, and beer given to the friends of their king and country, who were invited to enlist; that two gold-laced hats should be the reward of the two best cudgel-players; that a gown, a shift, and a pair of shoes and stockings should be run for by four old women; and that three pounds of tobacco, three bottles of gin, and a silver-laced hat, should be grinned for by three old men, the frightfullest grinner to be the winner.”

Spa Fields became notorious; for centuries it was thought dangerous to cross them “in the dusk of evening, robberies being frequent, and the persons filched were often grievously maltreated by the villains who waylaid them.” Especially in the mid-eighteenth century, footpads (an old name for muggers), knocked down pedestrians passing to and from London, and made off with their hats, wigs, silver buckles, and money. The well-to-do visiting the popular local theatre of Sadler’s Wells hired ‘link boys’ to light them home.

Spa Fields also hosted popular fairs, such as the Whitsuntide “Welsh Fair” or “Gooseberry Fair” (a field in old maps is marked as “the Welsh Field”); specialising in horse and donkey racing. This fair was later moved to Barnet, becoming the Barnet Fair (of cockney rhyming slang fame). This Fair was noted by the Middlesex County Justices (who met at Hicks Hall, in nearby St John Street) as one of a number of places, resorts and events that were guilty of encouraging disorder, in 1744.

Also in 1779, there appeared in the Clerkenwell Chronicle the following notice of sports which took place in Spa Fields: “On Friday, some bricklayers enclosed a piece of ground ten feet by six, for roasting the ox; and so substantial was the brickwork that several persons sat up all night to watch that it did not fall to pieces before the morning. An hour before sunrising the fire was lighted for roasting the ox, which was brought in a cart from St. James’s Market. At seven o’clock the ox was laid over the fire in remembrance of the cruelty of the Spaniards in their conquest of Mexico. By nine o’clock one of the legs was ready to drop off, but no satire on the American colonies was intended; for if it had fallen there were numbers ready to have swallowed it. At seven o’clock came a sergeant and a number of deputy Sons of the Sword. The sergeant made an elegant speech, at which every one gaped in astonishment, because no one could understand it. At half-past two the beef was taken up, slices cut up and thrown among the crowd, and many and many a one catched his hat full to fill his belly.

“Instead of four old women to run for the gown, &c., there were only three girls, and the race was won without running; for two of the adventurers gave out before half the contest was over, and even the winner was a loser, for she tore off the sleeve of her gown in attempting to get it on. Only one man grinned for the tobacco, gin, &c. But it was enough. Ugliness is no word to express the diabolicality of his phiz. If the king had ten such subjects he might fear they would grin for the crown. Addison tells us of a famous grinner who threw his face into the shape of the head of a base viol, of a hat, of the mouth of a coffee-pot, and the nozzle of a pair of bellows; but Addison’s grinner was nothing to the present, who must have been born grinning. His mother must have studied geometry, have longed for curves and angles, and stamped them all on the face of the boy. The mob was so immense that, though the tide was constantly ebbing and flowing, it was supposed the average number was 4,000 from nine in the morning till eight at night; and as this account is not exaggerated, 44,000 people must have been present. All the ale-houses for half a mile round were crowded, the windows were lined, and the tops and gutters of the houses filled. The place was at once a market and a fair; curds and whey were turned sour, ripe filberts were hardened, and extempore oysters baked in the sun. The bread intended for the loyal was thrown about the fields by the malcontents. The beer was drunk out of pots without measure and without number; but one man who could not get liquor swore he would eat if he could not drink His Majesty’s health; and observing an officer with a piece of beef on the point of his sword, he made prize of it, and ate it in the true cannibal taste.

“The feast, on the whole, was conducted with great regularity; for if one got meat another got bread only, and the whole was consumed; but to add to the farce a person threw a basket of onions among the bread-eaters. Some men were enlisted as soldiers, but more were impressed, for the bloodhounds were on the scent, and ran breast-high. If not spring-guns, it might fairly be said that mentraps had been fixed in the Spa Fields. The beef was good of its kind, but like the constitution of Old England, more than half spoiled by bad cooks.”

The number of spas and resorts that grew up on the Spa Fields area had, by the eighteenth century, multiplied and branched out into an astonishing number of taverns, tea houses and gardens, drinking establishments and places of entertainment.

Work Is the Ruin of the Drinking Classes

Open spaces remain areas of contestation. Spa Fields’ long reputation for unruliness has continued long after most of the open land that bore this name was built over. A tiny remnant of Spa Fields has survived the last two centuries of building; of the small area that remains, one half has been turned into a brilliant kids’ adventure playground. The other section is still a park, although extremely landscaped, and heavily controlled. The park is subject to an alcohol control order that allows police to stop you from drinking alcohol, on penalty of a £500 fine if you refuse. This method of dealing with ‘problem drinking’, and the rowdiness that can arise, has been in vogue for 15 years or so.

But the urge to gather, to hang out with your mates, get off your head, is older than all the control orders, temperance movements and moral panics. Open space, in the dark, far from bounced and CCTVed bars and high streets, out of sight of parents and uniforms, the hidden pleasures of the unlit; when so much space is subject to absolute control, restriction and hemming us in, monitoring our movements, tagging us and following our transactions, the struggle for uncontrolled space is a very human one. There’s no doubt booze and other substances have their risks, or that teen dodginess can become turned on other folk for fun or profit; but much of the control on youth, on open space, on our movements, is more about keeping people in line, treading the correct paths of work, obeying the status quo, not challenging the life we’re supposed to lead. Politicos of left and right have fought for centuries to reform our immoral urges; by force, through religion, through uplifting social activities… Still many of us stick two fingers up to all that. Have another drink.

Today, one small and brilliant remnant of Spa Fields history as a gathering point for pleasure continues to sparkle: the Clerkenwell Festival, held every August, a lovely little bash with lots of great live rockabilly and punk, great junk and secondhand clothes stalls, and lots of other fun stuff… Well worth a visit!

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An entry in the 2014 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

A short pamphlet we published and gave away at the Clerkenwell Festival 2016 is available from the past tense publications page

Today in London’s insurgent history: radical uprising postponed, 1802

On 6th September 1802, 200 soldiers gathered in several houses near the Tower of London. They were armed, but not in the service of king and country. They were waiting for a signal to size the Tower, as part of a desperate plot for a revolutionary coup d’etat, organised by the remnants of a movement for radical political reform, which had been reduced to an underground network of cells working for an insurrection.

The central figure in this plan, as it was later set out at his trial, was Colonel Edward Despard. As recounted in an earlier post on this blog, Despard was a former soldier, who had become radicalised, after seeing the effects of British colonialism in the West Indies and in Ireland.

His experience of the intermixing of race, class, slavery, and colonial conflict in the Caribbean led to his dismissal as crown representative in Belize, for opposing wealthy planters and slave owners and supporting black and mixed race and lower classes. Marrying an African-american woman in the Caribbean, they arrived in London to appeal for his re-instatement, in time to be drawn into struggles for liberty here.

After ending up in jail for debt, he mixed in Jacobin and democratic circles in London in the 1790s, joining the London Corresponding Society (LCS). As Britain’s war with revolutionary France hotted up, the democratic movement in Britain, which had celebrated the French Revolution and embraced its ideals, was repressed by a government which saw it is a potential fifth column and its ideas as dangerous to the rule of the established ruling classes. The LCS and other reforming groups were driven underground; elements among them made links to the United Irishmen, planning uprising against England’s colonial rule in Ireland.

Some of these former radical agitators planned an insurrection of their own in 1798 to coincide with the Irish rebellion, and Irish, English and Scottish radicals alike sought support from France, in the form of an invasion that would support their efforts to overthrow ‘Old Corruption’.

Colonel Despard was mixed up in these events, though it is uncertain to what extent. He became closely associated with a prominent member of the United Irishmen, William Duckett, who was also a French spy. Through Duckett, Despard became aware of the unfolding plans for an uprising in 1798 in Ireland and the involvement of Wolfe Tone and a potential French fleet of ships. Despard was keen to extend the rebellion to Britain and he negotiated with the United Englishmen, a small secret society with similar ideals to the United Irishmen, to organise an uprising on English soil to coincide with the landing of the French fleet in Ireland.

However, two United Englishmen were captured at the late stages of planning. The large-scale French invasion didn’t happen, the Irish rebellion of 1798 was repressed with thousands of deaths and the English uprising never got off the ground. Both Irish and English movements were hampered by being shot through with government spies; the mass support they were relying on didn’t materialise in Ireland, and just didn’t exist in England.

Despard was jailed with other insurgents, spending time in various prisons until March 1801, when a public campaign for his release organised by his wife Catherine and supported by prominent reformers won his freedom. Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh identify his spell inside as being the germination of the 1802 conspiracy; in Coldbath Fields Prison he met navy mutineers from the 1797 Nore events, Spencean communists, artisans, Irish rebels…

If on his release he had initially intended to give up his involvement with radical politics (as some assert), his resolve lasted less than a year. Following the rebellion the United Irishmen were reduced to a small centralised military body who had been pushed even further underground than before. One of the most senior members of the depleted Society was William Dowdall. It was Dowdall who convinced Despard to return to London to see if another attempt to ferment a popular uprising in England could be achieved.

When Despard returned to London he found conditions he thought ideal for a revolution; food shortages were common and there were huge levels of industrial unrest, not to mention huge numbers of disaffected Irish labourers who were bearing the brunt of both of these problems.  Despard met with Irish soldiers stationed in Windsor and London, with Irish and French emissaries as he formed his plot.

The conspirators met in working class pubs around the poor districts of the capital – the ‘Ham and Windmill’ in the Haymarket, the ‘Brown Bear’ and the ‘Black Horse’, in St Giles’s, the ‘Bleeding Heart’ in Hatton Garden, and the ‘Flying Horse’ in Newington. The core of the movement they expected to rise up in revolt in London lay in the East End, in the almost lawless poor rookeries of St Giles, and in Southwark. Other plotters besides Despard had been involved in the LCS and the abortive plans for an English rising in that year. Involved in the plan, or mentioned as being supportive, were labourers, carpenters, shoemakers, hatters, builders. There were a high proportion of Irish, some of them veterans of the 1798 rebellion. Five thousand workers recently discharged from the wet docks were expected to join the cause: despite a period of intense shipping, they had been rendered either unemployed, as a direct result of hydraulic civil engineering, or homeless, by neighbourhood clearances.

Notably though there were a number of soldiers and sailors – especially soldiers stationed at the Tower and Irishmen “who had served on board the Kings Ships & had been used to Cannon.”

It was alleged that Jacobin guardsmen at both the Chatham and London barracks had enrolled a considerable number of followers, bound to the conspiracy by secret oaths. Papers found on the prisoners gave the ‘constitution’ of their society:

  • “The independence of Great Britain and Ireland
  • An equalization of civil, political, and religious rights
  • An ample provision for the families of the heroes who shall fall in the contest.
  • A liberal reward for distinguished merit.

These are the objects for which we contend, and to obtain these objects we swear to be united.”

Soldiers had been invited to join this ‘Constitution Society’ in order ‘to fight, to burst the chain of bondage and slavery’. The organization (it was alleged) had no fewer than seven divisions and eight sub‑divisions in Southwark alone, with further divisions in the Borough, Marylebone, Spitalfields and Blackwall, principally among ‘day‑labourers, journeymen, and common soldiers,’ discharged sailors, and Irish dockers. It was a paramilitary organisation, with ‘ten men in each company, and when they amounted to eleven, the eleventh took the command’ of a new company. Each company was commanded by a ‘captain’, each group of five companies amounted to a ‘deputy division’, commanded by a ‘colonel’.

The 1797 mutinies of the British fleet showed that “a revolutionary organization in the Army was by no means inconceivable. No less than the Navy, the Army seethed with grievances – as to pay, food and accommodation, the care of dependents, discipline and floggings. The soldiers, who included many Irish, were allowed to don mufti in the evenings and ‘to mingle with labourers and artisans in the London taverns. There were few security precautions, and Jacobin emissaries might easily gain access to the soldiers’ quarters in the barracks… It may seem unlikely today that a Grenadier Guardsman should christen his son ‘Bonaparte’; but such is the case with one of Despard’s associates. The Crown’s allegation that no fewer than 300 soldiers in the 3rd Battalion of the Guards, and thirty or forty in the 1st Battalion were involved in the conspiracy may appear far‑fetched; but the six victims who were selected for trial and execution with Despard were all guardsmen, and such an example suggests that the Government was seriously perturbed by the extent of the conspiracy.” (EP Thompson)

While maintaining a regular political organization in London was seen as impossible under the government’s beady eye, Despard mentioned Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham, Manchester, and Chatham as ‘country’ centres where such organisation existed, with which he claimed to be in touch. It has been speculate that the fledgling movement was linked to secret cells of rebellious industrial workers in the north of England (grouped together as the ‘Black Lamp’).

Despard thought that “the people were every where ripe and anxious for the moment of attack.” This is clearly debateable. If Despard was in touch with hungry (and angry) London labourers and craftsmen Irish insurgents, Black Lampers, Jacobins in other cities, the plot was not just the deluded brainchild of an embittered soldier and a few hotheads; but neither was there the mass will to overthrow the power of the aristocracy and emerging capitalism.

Plans for a rebellion on 6 September 1802 were formed, but were postponed. A police spy later claimed that this was because Despard called it off, “he expected some money and news to come from France.” The implication is that this financial support from France (now ruled by an increasingly dictatorial Napoleon, though still the heartland for many radicals at that point) never arrived. Other accounts have Despard holding back those eager to launch the revolution before he thought they were ready; `and urging them to wait for a more spectacular offensive. However, Charles Pendrill, a leading member of the pot, later told another police agent that not enough of the expected forces had shown up on the day: “He admitted that the soldiers were very deeply implicated, and very staunch… the Tower might have been very easily taken at that time, and given up by the soldiers, had they mustered anything like the intention; but the numbers that appeared were too contemptible.” (Narrative of Oliver the Spy).

Instead the conspirators plotted a full scale coup d’état on the day of the opening of parliament in November 1802. The plot involved the assassination of King George III as he travelled to Westminster the seizing of key sites around the city such as the Tower of London and the Bank of England.

But the scheme was foiled. The plan postponed in 6th September was set for November. But on the 16th of November, “in consequence of a search warrant, a numerous body of police officers went to the Oakley Arms, Oakley Street, Lambeth, where they apprehended Colonel Despard, and nearly forty labouring men and soldiers, many of them Irish.”

Fifteen men were indicted for treason, on the grounds that they “did conspire, compass, imagine, and intend” the king’s death. Eleven were found guilty. Although the jury recommended mercy, Despard and six others were executed on February 21st, 1803.

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Some good accounts of the Despard Conspiracy, the social and political context and the scenes that it emerged from, can be found in:

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