There was no need to carry the bridge gates by storm. The friends of the rebels within, estimated at 30,000, urged the guards to open the gates. ‘These honest men are our friends and yours,’ said they to the soldiers. ‘What they do is for our good.’ In no long time the gates were opened, and Tyler and Ball, with 20,000 of a following, then entered the city. The rebels set fire to the palace of John of Gaunt in the Savoy, the Duke himself being absent in Scotland; they burned the new house of the Knights Templars of St. John; and they co-operated with the townspeople in similar reprisals upon the hated Flemish merchants. On the way in they had thrown open the gates of the Marshalsea Prison. It was probably one of the liberated prisoners who was found making off with a piece of silver plate from the Duke of Lancaster’s house. Declaring that they were ‘seekers of truth and justice, not thieves and robbers,’ the insurgents threw the plunderer and his booty back into the flames - a circumstance which contrasts oddly with the alleged pillaging of the Archbishop’s palace at Canterbury. There would doubtless be more than one set of opinions represented among the revolutionists.
With his training in the French wars, Wat Tyler would have a soldier’s manners, and this would account for his taking the life of Richard Lyon, a rich citizen to whom Tyler had been servant in France. ‘Having once beaten him,’ says Froissart, ‘the varlet had never forgotten it.’
That night the insurgents encamped in front of the Tower, which, slenderly garrisoned, contained the king and the court party. During the night a council of war was held within the Tower, at which William Walworth and others proposed to fall upon the rebels while they slept, co-operating in this with a number of men skilled in arms who were guarding their houses in the city. It was reported at the council that the services of 8000 fighting men could be counted upon.
But panic had seized the courtiers, and Lord Salisbury’s advice to the king was taken. The Earl advised Richard to go and temporise with the insurgents; ‘for,’ said he, ‘should we begin what we cannot go through, it will be all over with us and our heirs, and England will be a desert.’
Horse-Play with a Grave Sequel.
In the morning the rebels threatened to attack the Tower if the king did not come forth to them. Alarmed by the threat of utter extermination to all within, the king asked the besiegers to withdraw to Mile-End, promising to meet them there and grant their demands.
Tyler and Ball, however, feeling, doubtless, that they could learn the nature of the king’s promises without being present at the interview, not caring to abandon the ground they had won, and probably caring as little for any promises Richard might make, remained with a strong force after the king had left. The gates of the Tower had not closed behind the outgoing king when a party of the insurgents forced their way in, tugged the beards of the knights in the garrison in ‘upland’ horse-play, cut the bedding of the Princess and greatly frightened her, though she was allowed to go unmolested to a house called the Wardrobe, where she remained till the following day. But the proceedings in the Tower were not confined to horse-play. When the Treasurer and the Chief Commissioner in connection with the poll-tax were found in the chapel, the insurgents dragged them from their sanctuary, and beheaded them on Tower Hill, along with the hated Chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Broken Pledge.
The young king, meanwhile, rode to Mile-End. ‘I am your king and lord, good people,’ said he to the assembled peasants. ‘What will ye?’ ‘We will that ye free us for ever,’ was the answer, ‘us and our lands, and that we be never named nor held for serfs.’ ‘I grant it,’ said Richard, at the same time bidding them go home, and pledging his word to issue charters of freedom and amnesty. Richard advised that two or three representatives from each parish be left behind to receive and carry home these letters, and he further promised to give one of his banners each to Kent, Essex, Sussex, Bedford, Suffolk, Cambridge, Stafford, and Lincoln. The meadow rang with shouts of joy at these concessions made in pleasing tones by the diplomatic youth, and the great gathering proceeded to break up.
Thirty clerks were set to the writing out of charters and pardons, and Richard rode off well pleased, we may assume, with his morning’s work.
But Tyler and Ball, having, doubtless, their well-founded misgivings as to the efficacy of the king’s redress of grievances, remained in the city with 30,000 followers. According to Green, they stayed ‘to watch over the fulfilment of the royal pledges.’ There are several good reasons for believing the leaders had much more in view. The chronicler says: ‘These all continued in the city without any wish to receive the letters or the king’s seal.’ And he adds that they declared the king’s letters would be of no use to them. Their case, the case of the Kentish men as a whole, was different from that of the men of other counties, who had revolted against villeinage among other grievances, whereas the men of Kent were not villeins.
The rising could in no sense be said to be at an end. Those who had gone home were chiefly the men of Essex. The bands from the more northerly counties had been summoned by the Kentish leaders, and were still only on the road to London. Among those expected to put in an appearance were Vaquier and Litster, with their contingents; and some of the Kentish men are alleged to have spoken of not leaving the city to be pillaged by the newcomers.
In the Provinces.
While London is in the hands of ‘the true commons of England,’ there is rioting at St. Albans, at Bury St. Edmunds, at Winchester, Cambridge and York, at Beverley and Scarborough, in Surrey, Sussex, and even as far west as Devonshire.
At Bury St. Edmunds the villeins killed the Prior and Chief-Justice Cavendish, ‘the biggest of all the furred cats of the law.’
At Norwich the rebels, headed by William Litster, and numbering forty thousand of the men of three surrounding shires, sought to induce Sir Robert Salle to be their leader. Salle was the son of a mason, but had been made a knight for his ability and courage in the wars. He ‘was one of the handsomest and strongest men in England,’ and the men of the east strove to persuade him that a man of his birth ought to be on the popular side. ‘Begone, false traitors,’ said the mason’s son. ‘Would you have me desert my natural lord for such a company of knaves as you are. I would rather have you all hanged; for that must be your end.’ So saying, Sir Robert would have mounted and ridden off; but, missing his stirrup and his horse taking fright, he was surrounded and cut to pieces, though not without scaith to the men whose rage he had roused by his spurning of them and their cause.
To St. Albans William Grindecobbe returned with one of the king’s letters absolving the villeins from the oppressive privileges exercised over them by the abbot. Forcing their way into the abbey precincts, the men of St. Albans commanded the abbot to surrender the charters that bound them as serfs to his house. A badge of their servitude consisted of the millstones, retained in the abbey after a law-suit in which the monks make good their claim to be the sole possessors of milling rights in the town. These millstones were wrenched from the floor, and broken into small pieces, ‘like blessed bread in church,’ that each man ‘might have something to show of the day when their freedom was won again.’
After leaving Mile-End, Richard rode to the Wardrobe, in Carter Lane, to which his mother had flown early in the day, and we can well imagine that the meeting between them would be anxious enough.
On the Saturday morning the boy king went to Westminster, heard mass, and paid his devotions at the shrine of Our Lady there – ‘a statue . . . in which the kings of England have much faith,’ says the French chronicler, innocent of sarcasm.
The King, attended by some sixty horsemen, returned across Smithfield, where 20,000 of the insurgents were encamped. It is said he meant to fly into the country; but, apart from the fact that there does not seem to have been any place to which he could have escaped, the course of the morning’s ride does not warrant the view that he sought to avoid the rebels. It might very well seem to him that he had got over the most critical stage.
Murder of Tyler.
Seeing the royal cavalcade approach, Tyler rode forward to confer with the King. Froissart, willing to put the rebel leader as much in the wrong as possible, represents him as advancing so rudely that his charger’s head touched the crupper of the king’s horse. It is, indeed, not improbable that Tyler sought to provoke an altercation, in order to give his followers a pretext for seizing the king’s person: with Richard in the rebel camp, the ‘true commons’ would have had a show of legality for all their acts. The mistake he made, from his point of view, was in leaving his followers too far in the rear. After a good deal of provocative talk, and a quarrel fastened at length upon a squire in the king’s following, Tyler ended with a threat. Addressing the squire, he said, as reported, ‘By my troth, I will not eat this day before I have thy head.’* At this, William Walworth, closely accompanied by a dozen men armed beneath their robes, rode forward, and Walworth cut the rebel down with his dagger, a weapon still, perhaps appropriately, preserved among the valuables of the London Fishmongers’ Company. The other horsemen, surrounding the fallen rebel to conceal what was going on from his followers, a squire, John Standwich, thrust his sword through Tyler’s belly, ‘so that he died.’
When the rebels found their leader slain, they drew their bows upon the king and his company. Richard boldly rode forward to the menacing ranks, and at the cry, ‘They have killed our captain,’ he said: ‘I am your king and captain. Remain peaceable.’ Demoralised by the death of their leader, the rebels allowed the king to ride back to his friends without effort to detain him. Some of the lords present advised taking to the fields; but Walworth again proved the strong man. Declaring that they had done what was right, he advised the king and his followers to remain where they were, and assured them that speedy assistance was likely to arrive from the city.
Another account represents Tyler as having called for a pitcher of ale, which he proceeded to drink in the presence of royalty - a breach of etiquette which aroused the loyal ire of Walworth.
Demoralization of the Insurgents.
Alarmist messengers ran towards the city crying, with a not uncommon faculty for reversing the order of things, ‘They are killing our king and mayor.’ Presently there arrived, one after the other, various contingents of the king’s supporters, among them Sir Robert Knolles and Sir Perducas d’Albret, ‘well attended’; Nicholas Bamber, the king’s draper, ‘with a large force of foot’; and several aldermen at the head of 600 men-at-arms, the entire muster being put at seven to eight thousand. With amazing helplessness, the rebels allowed this rally of the king’s party to assemble on the ground, apparently without any attempt at resistance.
Sir Robert Knolles suggested an immediate attack on the insurgents; but Richard forbade this, saying he would have his revenge later in the day. He, however, demanded the return of the banner which he had given the Kentishmen the previous day, as well as the letters of exemption and indemnity. The letters were at once torn up before the faces of the insurgents, who now rapidly dispersed, many leaving their arms on the field.
Overjoyed at the fortunate turn affairs had unexpectedly taken for him, the king knighted Walworth, Standwich, and Bamber for their share in the day’s proceedings.
Returning to the Wardrobe, Richard was received with tears of joy by his mother. ‘Ah, ah, fair son, what pain and anguish have I not suffered for you this day,’ said the Princess. ‘Rejoice and thank God, madam,’ replied the king; ‘I have this day regained my inheritance - the kingdom of England, which I had lost.’
The same night proclamation was made that all who had not been resident in the city for a year must leave it; and reprisals set in generally. With an army of forty thousand men, Richard marched through Essex and Kent, doing summary execution. The bands on the march to London, hearing of the collapse of the movement, returned to their homes.
But the revolt was not yet suppressed. The Norwich dyer Litster was still surrounded by a large army, and, under the title of King of the Commons, had been compelling captured noblemen to act as his meat-tasters and to serve him at table on their knees, as their own servitors had been expected to serve them.
At Billericay the villagers sought the same rights as had been granted to the rebels at Mile-End, and, on being refused, betook themselves to the woods, and fought two stubborn engagements with the royal troops.
In Essex if was difficult to get juries to convict rebels brought before them. Even bourgeois sympathy was with the rebels. All they wanted was political intelligence and a leader, but lacking this how great was their lack. Ball, taken to prison in Coventry, was tried and sentenced to be hanged. Jack Straw is said to have been beheaded in London, where his hiding-place was betrayed by the men whom he had sought to serve.
Richard’s Breach of Faith.
The Essex men, who had gone home from Mile-End in good faith, sent a deputation to Richard to plead that their charters of manumission might be confirmed. But Richard had been alarmed, and his anger now was in proportion. ‘Villeins you were and villeins you are,’ he replied; ‘in bondage you shall abide, and that, not your old bondage, but a worse.’
A Noble Miller.
William Grindecobbe, the noble miller of St. Albans, was promised pardon if he would persuade his townsmen to restore the charters they had taken from the monks. Turning, on the day of his trial, to his late followers, he exhorted them to make no sacrifice for his sake. ‘If I die,’ he said, ‘I shall die in the cause of the freedom we have won, counting myself happy to end my life by such a martyrdom, Do, then, to-day as ye would have done had I been killed yesterday.’
Parliament and the People’s Demands.
Impressed by the stubbornness of the rebels, and fearing to press matters to the uttermost extreme, the Royal Council submitted the question of enfranchisement to Parliament, which met on the 16th of September. The Treasurer, Sir Hugh Segrave, informed the Commons that ‘the king had been forced to grant the insurgents letters patent under the Great Seal, enfranchising to a considerable extent those who were only bond servants and villeins of the realm, for which the King, knowing it to be against law, directs them to seek remedy and provide for the confirmation or revocation thereof. If they desire to enfranchise and manumit their villeins by common consent he will assent to it.’
But the landlord Parliament unanimously answered ‘That all grants of liberties and manumissions to the said villeins and bond tenants, obtained by force, are in disherison of them the Lords and Commons, and to the destruction of the realm, and therefore null and void, and this consent,’ they ended, ‘we shall never give to save ourselves from perishing all together on one day.’
In this mood they passed statutes providing that all releases made during the late tumult should be void, and that a remedy should be provided for all who made complaints regarding ‘charters, releases, obligations, and other deeds and muniments burnt, destroyed, or otherwise eloined [made away with] on their furnishing sufficient proof of the muniments so lost and of the form and tenor of the same.’
(In proof of the continued scarcity of labour and the arrogant vindictiveness of the landlords, Parliament in 1387 enacted - though their enactment came to little in the result - that any boy or girl who had served at the plough or cart till the age of twelve should thenceforth abide at the same labour; that it should be illegal for them to be taught any other mystery or handicraft.)
Not wholly abortive.
Thus ended the great movement of ‘the true commons of England’ - a movement which put the landholders of England in the sorest strait in their history. And yet not altogether thus. The process of enfranchisement did go on. Cruel tyrant as he was, Richard came to favour manumission of the serfs, and the Church, which maintained its hold on its own serfs, did its best to induce deathbed penitents to free theirs. By 1391 the king allows the sons of serfs to be admitted at the Universities - a proof that not only their social but also their economic status was no longer what it had been.
Still, it is impossible to agree with those writers who claim that all the demands of the insurgents realised within fifty years. Actual manorial records testify to the continuance of forced labour till far into the sixteenth century, Elizabeth found serfs to emancipate on the royal manors as late as 1574; and this is no isolated instance.
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