Reign of Richard II. Part 1 page 3
But the great stream appears to have come from Kent and the south. One of their first visits was to Sir Simon Burley, the guardian of the king, at Gravesend. Sir Simon had claimed a man living in that town as his bondman, in spite of the legal plea set up that he had resided there more than a year and a day. He demanded 300 pounds of silver for the man's freedom; but this was refused, and Sir Simon sent his prisoner to Rochester Castle. The men of Kent, now joined by a strong body from Essex, marched on Rochester, took the castle by surprise, and not only liberated this man, but other prisoners.
At Maidstone Wat Tyler was elected captain of the insurgent host, and the democratic preacher, John Ball, as its chaplain, who took for the text of his first sermon the good old rhyme -
"When Adam dolve, and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?"
Wat Tyler and his host entered Canterbury on the Monday after Trinity Sunday, 1381, where John Ball denounced death to the archbishop, who had often imprisoned him, who, however, luckily was absent. But they broke open the archbishop's house; and, as they carried out the wealthy pillage, they said, "Ah! This Chancellor of England hath had a good market to get together all this riches. He shall now give an account of the revenues of England, and the groat profits he hat-gathered since the king's coronation."
They struck terror into the monks and clergy of the cathedral; did much damage to it and the church of St. Vincent, as is said; compelled the mayor and aldermen to swear fidelity to King Richard and the Commons of England; cut off the heads of three wealthy men of the city; and, followed by 500 of the poor inhabitants, advanced towards London. By the time they reached Blackheath, joined by the streaming thousands from all quarters, the insurgents are said to hayŠ amounted to 100,000 men.
Into the midst of this strange, rude, and tumultuous host, suddenly, to her astonishment and terror, came the king's mother, on her return from a pilgrimage to Canterbury. "She was," says Froissart, "in great jeopardy to have been lost, for the people came to her chaise and did rudely use her, whereof the good lady was in great dread lest they should have dealt rudely with her damsels. Howbeit, God kept her," and being excused with a few kisses, and with offers of protection, she got to London as fast as she could, and to her son in the Tower, with whom there were the Earl of Salisbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Earl of Hereford, Sir Robert of Namur, and other noblemen and gentlemen.
At Blackheath John Ball frequently addressed the assembled multitudes on his old and favourite topics of the rights and equality of men. We must bear in mind that this man and his doctrines have been described by his enemies. He appears to have been a thorough democrat or Chartist of his day, drawing his opinions from the literal declarations of the gospel that God is no respecter of persons; and, addressing these new and startling ideas to the inflamed minds of ignorant and oppressed people, they immediately applied them in their own way, and not only declared that they would have no more lords, barons, and archbishops, but simply the king and the Commons of England. They are said to have committed great atrocities on their way from different counties, pillaging the manors of their lords, demolishing the towns, and burning the court rolls. They swore to be true to the king, and to have no king of the name of John, this being aimed at John of Gaunt, their standing aversion, and who was regarded as the author of this tax, because he exercised authority over his nephew. They also swore to oppose all taxes but fifteenths, the ancient tallage paid by their fathers.
That many outrages were committed is most probable: such must be inevitable from so general a rising of an uneducated and oppressed populace smarting under generations of wrongs. But we shall most fairly judge them by their own public demands presented to the king, which we shall presently see were most wonderfully simple, reasonable, and enlightened for such a people, under such exasperating circumstances.
The harangues of John Ball are described as working the insurgent army into the wildest excitement, and the admiring people are said to have declared that he should be the Primate and Chancellor of England, this officer at that time being almost always a prelate.
At the taking of the castle of Rochester, the mob had compelled the governor, Sir John Newton, to go along with them; and now they sent him up the river in a boat to go to the king at the Tower as their messenger, He was to inform the king of all that they had done or meant to do for his honour; to say that his kingdom had for a long time been ill-governed by his uncles and the clergy, especially by the Archbishop of Canterbury, his chancellor, from whom they would have an account of his administration of the revenue.
Sir John, coming to the Tower, was received by Richard graciously; and he then told the people's desire, assuring the king that all he said was true, and that he dared do no other than bring the message, for they had his children as hostages, and would kill them if he did not return. "With the king were his mother, the archbishop, Sir John Holland, the Earls of Warwick, Berwick, and Salisbury, the Grand Prior of the Knights of St. John, and many others who had flocked thither for safety. The king's brothers, the Dukes of Lancaster, York, and Gloucester, were absent, the unpopular Lancaster being in Scotland.
After some consultation, the king informed Sir John that in the morning he would come and speak to the people. With this message Sir John joyfully departed, and the vast crowd are said to have received the message of the king's coming with great satisfaction.
The next morning, being the 12th of June, the king, attended by a considerable number of the lords of the court, descended the river in his barge. At Eotherhithe he found 10,000 men on the river banks awaiting hia coming, with two banners of St. George and sixty pennons. So soon as they saw the king they set up one universal cheer. This was no doubt meant as a hearty welcome; but the king and his courtiers being all in a state of panic - for the council, it is stated, were perfectly paralysed by their fears - the boisterous acclamation struck the royal party as frightful yells. "The people," says Froissart, "made such a shout and cry as if all the devils in hell had been among them." No doubt the terrors of the democrats of Flanders, now again in full action, of the horrible Jacquerie and the ruthless Malleteers, at this time paralysing Paris, were all present to the minds of the royal party, and, with the uncouth appearance of the mob, operated awfully upon them. Instead of landing, the courtiers advised the king to draw off. The people cried to the king that, if he would come on shore, they would show him what they wanted; but the Earl of Salisbury replied, saying, "Sirs, ye be not in such order or array that the king ought to speak to you;" and with that the royal barge bore away up the river again.
At this sight the crowd were filled with indignation. They had hoped that now they should bring to the royal ear all their grievances; and there can be little doubt that if the king had shown the spirit which he afterwards did, and boldly and courteously put his barge within good hearing, and listened to and answered their complaints, all that followed might have been prevented. But being now persuaded that the great lords about him would not allow the king to hold fair and open audience with them, "they returned," says Froissart, "to the hill where the main body lay" - for this was only a deputation, the hill being most likely Greenwich Park - and there informed the multitude what had taken place.
On hearing this the enraged host cried out with one voice, "Let us go to London!" "And so," continues Froisaart, "they took their way thither; and on their going they beat down abbeys and houses of advocates and men of the court, and so came into the suburbs of London, which were great and fair, and beat down divers fair houses, and especially the king's prisons, as the Marshalsea and others, and delivered out the prisoners that were therein." They broke into the palace of the archbishop at Lambeth, regarding him as the great enemy of the nation, and burnt the furniture and the records belonging to the chancery.
As the men of Kent advanced through Southwark, the men of Essex advanced along the left bank of the river, destroyed the house of the lord treasurer at Highbury, and menaced the north of London.
When the men of Kent arrived at London Bridge they found it closed against them, and they declared that if they were not admitted they would burn all the suburbs, and, taking London by force, would put every one to death. The people within said, "Why do we not let these good people in? What they do they do for us all!" and thereupon they let down the centre of the bridge, which Walworth, the mayor, had had drawn up. "Then these people entered into the city, and went into houses, and sat down to eat and drink. They desired nothing but it was incontinently brought to them, for every man was ready to make them good cheer, and to give them meat and drink to please them. Then the captains, as John Ball, Jack Straw, and Wat Tyler, went throughout London, and 20,000 men with them, and so came to the Savoy in the way to Westminster, which was a goodly house, which appertained to the Duke of Lancaster; and when they entered they slew the keepers thereof, and robbed and pillaged the house, and then set fire to it, and clean burnt and destroyed it."
This palace of John of Gaunt's was the most magnificent house in London. The mob having thus shown their hatred of him, went to the house of the Knights Hospitallers in Clerkenwell, which had been lately built by Sir Robert Hales, the grand prior and treasurer of the kingdom, whose house they destroyed at Highbury. In destroying these noble houses, the people disclaimed any idea of plunder. Their objects were, as they asserted, to punish the great traitors to the nation, and obtain their freedom from bondage. They published a proclamation forbidding any one to secrete any booty. They hammered out the plate, and cut it into small pieces. They beat the precious stones to powder, and one of the rioters having concealed in his bosom a silver cup, was thrown with his prize into the river.
But they were not so abstinent of the wine which they found in the cellars, With this, to them, new and delicious liquor, they grew intoxicated and furious, and proceeded to the most bloody tragedies. To every one whom they met they put the question, "With whom holdest thou?" and unless he said, "With King Richard and the Commons," off went his head. The Fleet prison and Newgate were destroyed, the liberated prisoners labouring heartily at the demolition. The Temple, with all its books and ancient works, was burnt. All foreigners they destroyed with the constant antipathy of the uneducated; but against the Lombards and the Flemings, as money dealers and contractors with Government, their rage was deadly. They dragged thirty Flemings out of the churches, whither they had fled for sanctuary, and thirty-two more out of the Vintry, and dispatched them. Having left more than thirty of their number buried in their intoxication under the smoking ruins of the Savoy, and massacred many eminent citizens as they endeavoured to escape, wearied out with drink and slaughter, at night they sat down before the Tower.
In the morning the sight from the Tower was by no means cheering. The immense multitude was clamouring for the heads of the chancellor and treasurer, whom they regarded as main authors of all the exactions and ill-treatment they had received, and excluding the entrance of all provisions till their demand was conceded. Presently a message was brought them from the king that if they would quietly retire to Mile End, then having plenty of open land, "where the people of the city did disport themselves in the summer season," he would meet them there and listen to their requests. Anon the gates were thrown open, the drawbridge lowered, and Richard, attended by a few unarmed followers, rode on amid the throng. Arriving at Mile End, he found himself surrounded by 60,000 petitioners. On the way Richard's half brothers, the Earl of Kent and Sir John Holland, had taken alarm and ridden off, leaving this youth of sixteen in a cowardly manner in such circumstances. But Richard on this occasion displayed a bravery and a discretion which, had they been uniformly exhibited, must have produced a prosperous reign.
According to Froissart, in the night, while they lay asleep on Tower Hill, the king had been advised by Sir William Walworth and others to make a sally and slay them in their sleep; for, as he observes, there were not one in twenty in harness, and as they were drunken, they might be killed like so many flies. These counsellors represented that the citizens of London could easily do this, as they had their friends ready in arms secreted in their houses, and that there were Sir Robert Knowles and Sir Perdiccas d'Albret, the famous Free Companion captains, with 8,000 more that might be mentioned. But the Earl of Salisbury and "the wise men about the king gave better and more humane advice." And now that the king spoke face to face with them, behold, all their demands resolved them into these four: - 1. The abolition of bondage, 2. The reduction of the rent of land to fourpence the acre, 3. The fee liberty of buying and selling in all fairs and markets. 4. A general pardon for the past offences.
The king with a smiling countenance assured them that all this was fully granted them, and that if they would retire every one to his own county and place, ho would give one of his banners to those of each shire, bailiwick, and parish to march home under; and that they should leave two or three from each village to bring unto them copies of the charter he would give them. On hearing this the people said, "We desire no more." They became quite appeased, and began to draw off towards London. That night thirty clerks were employed in making copies of this charter, which were sealed and delivered in the morning.
But while the superior and better-disposed country people had attended the king, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, with the more turbulent and factious portion of the insurgents, had remained behind. No sooner was the king out of sight, than these treacherous fellows made a rush at the Tower, and got possession of it, most probably through the perfidy or perhaps panic of the garrison, for there were in the Tower, according to Holinshed, 600 men-at-arms, and as many archers., while of these commons and husbandmen many were only provided with sticks, and not one in a thousand properly armed. Here the insurgents got possession, as no doubt was their grand object, of their designed victims, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the chancellor, and Sir Robert Hales, the treasurer; of William Appledore, the king's confessor; and Legge, one of the farmers of the obnoxious tax, with three of his accomplices. All these they speedily beheaded. The head of the archbishop was carried through the city on the point of a lance, with the hat he wore nailed to the skull, that he might be better known to the multitude, and it was set on London Bridge.
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