On the Trail of Rebel and Conspirator
A rebellion is always interesting. It is generally led by a man of unusual character and courage; it is much concerned with fighting - the most interesting of human activities - and it has the appeal of the lost cause. If it has not this last appeal, it is not a rebellion.
Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason?
One does not apply the word rebellion to the "extra-constitutional proceedings" which led up to the accession of King William III, the Declaration of American Independence, or the establishment of Saorstat Eireann.
In not a few districts in England a local rebellion, forgotten by the nation at large, has left a memory and a legend.
The Peasant Revolt under Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, in the reign of Richard II, is the most serious local rising in English history. The Statute of Labourers and the other reactionary measures which followed the Black Death, heavy taxation, the ill-managed French war, and the oppressive exactions of the feudal nobility, had provoked deep and widespread discontent, which found expression in the preaching of John Ball, the Kentish priest, whose doctrine was expressed in the rhyme:
When Adam delved and Eve span
The explosion came in 1381. The men of Essex and Kent, 100,000 in number, marched on London. The young king met them at Mile End and assured them that he would remedy their grievances. They consented to return home. The men of Kent destroyed the Savoy, the palace of John of Gaunt, opened the prisons, broke into the Tower, and murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The king met them at Smithfield. A threat from Wat Tyler brought on a struggle, and Tyler was struck down by William Walworth, the Mayor of London. "Kill, kill," shouted the mob. "They have slain our captain." "I am your captain," said the young king, and again promised redress of their grievances.
Risings in other counties collapsed, but not without severe fighting and many executions.
In 1450, under Henry VI, came the rebellion of Jack Cade. The disastrous close of the long war with France and the economic trouble which generally follows war had caused deep discontent, especially in the southern counties. In Kent it broke into open revolt. Cade, an Irishman by birth, who had settled in Kent and married a squire's daughter, assumed the name of Mortimer and headed the rising. He marched on London with 15,000 men, encamped at Blackheath, and presented two formal complaints calling for redress of grievances and a change of the king's counsellors.
Fighting followed, and at Sevenoaks the royal troops were defeated by the rebels, who entered London. Lord Saye, the, most unpopular of the sir ministers, was beheaded in Cheapside, and houses were plundered. The citizens of London defended London Bridge against the rebels. In the end Cade's men quarrelled amongst themselves and dispersed.
Cade, with a price on his head, tried to reach the coast; he was killed by the Sheriff of Kent in a garden near Heathfield in Sussex. Shakespeare has put into his mouth the classic passage of demagogic oratory: "There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny; the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops; and I will make it felony to drink small beer."
Perkin Warbeck, who in the time of Henry VII was a pretender to the Crown, was a rebel of a different stamp. By his own confession he was a native of Tournay, the son of one John Osbeck. In 1490 he appeared at the court of the Duchess of Burgundy, sister of Edward IV, and professed to be Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the two princes murdered in the Tower, Edward's sons. In 1491 he landed in Ireland.
Next year he was received as Duke of York by Charles VIII of France, and in 1495 he made an unsuccessful descent on Kent. He returned to Ireland, and then went to Scotland, where he married Lady Katherine Gordon, "The White Rose," a kinswoman of King James IV, and accompanied the king in an invasion of England.
There had been a rising in Cornwall against the subsidy for the Scottish war. Warbeck, hoping to exploit the disaffection there, landed in Cornwall and attempted to besiege Exeter. He afterwards took sanctuary at Beaulieu, surrendered, was imprisoned, escaped, was recaptured, confined in the Tower, and was executed in 1499.
In 1536, in the reign of Henry VIII, the dissolution of the monasteries caused a rising in the northern counties which was known as the "Pilgrimage of Grace," which was sternly repressed. A more serious matter was the rising in East Anglia in 1549.
All over England the development of sheep-farming and the enclosing of common lands had caused discontent among the peasantry. In Norfolk there was a formidable rising under Robert Kett, a tanner of Wymondham. The trouble began at a country festival at Wymondham. Nearly 20,000 men, under Kett's leadership, assembled on Mouse-hold Heath. Under a tree, called the Oak of Reformation, Kett sat daily and administered justice. All over the district enclosure fences were broken down. A petition against enclosure and other grievances was sent to the young king, Edward VI. In reply a herald was sent to proclaim a free pardon to the rebels who would return to their homes. Kett answered that they had done nothing to deserve pardon, and had been guilty of no crime. Norwich was assaulted and occupied by the insurgents. A small body of troops, under the Earl of Northampton, was sent into Norfolk.
Finding that the rebels had withdrawn they occupied Norwich, but Kett's men again stormed the town and Northampton had to flee for his life. A more formidable force under the Earl of Warwick was sent by the Protector Somerset, and was quickly reinforced. Ultimately, after heavy fighting, the rebels were defeated and scattered with great slaughter. Robert Kett, the ringleader, was hanged from the walls of Norwich Castle.
After the Civil War there was only one rebellion in England, Monmouth's rising in 1685. The story of the landing at Lyme Regis, the triumphant entry into Taunton and Bridgwater, the crushing defeat at Sedgemoor, Monmouth's own tragic fate, the atrocities of "Kirke's Lambs," the Bloody Assize - all this is one of the most familiar chapters of the history of England. Sedgemoor was the last battle fought on English soil, except the fighting at Preston and Clifton in the Jacobite affairs of 1715 and 1745. Prince Charles Edward's ill-fated enterprise has already been dealt with (see Chapter CIV). The "No Popery" outbreak in London in 1780, associated with the name of Lord George Gordon, caused terrible loss of life and property and the most formidable street fighting which London has ever known, but it was mere criminal rioting. It is best known from the pages of "Barnaby Rudge."
The "Radical War" in Scotland in 1820, the Reform Bill riots, and the Chartist troubles of 1848 never amounted to serious insurrection.
Of the many treasonable conspiracies which have not reached the stage of open rebellion the most famous is the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the attempt by a group of Roman Catholic fanatics to blow up King James I and the Houses of Parliament. The plot originated with Robert Catesby, a Catholic gentleman of Northamptonshire, who with his co-religionists had been bitterly disappointed by James's enforcement of the penal laws against Popery instead of the toleration which they had expected. The scheme was that at the opening of Parliament the House of Lords should be blown up with gunpowder, and king, Lords and Commons overwhelmed in one common destruction.
A simultaneous rising in the country was organized, and the king's daughter, the young Princess Elizabeth, was to be placed on the throne, after having been brought up as a Catholic. Guy Fawkes, a soldier then serving in the Spanish army in the Netherlands, was brought over to manage the scheme. The plotters took a house adjoining the House of Lords, and began to dig through the wall to enable them to place the powder in the basement. The wall was nine feet thick, and they made little progress. It was found that a coal cellar under the House was to let. One of the conspirators hired it, and the cellar was stored with casks of powder covered with faggots.
Parliament was to open on November 5. On October 26 Lord Monteagle received a mysterious anonymous letter, now believed to have been written by his kinsman, Francis Tresham, one of the conspirators, warning him not to attend the Parliament: "They shall receave a terrible bio we this parliament, and yet they shall not see who hurts them." Monteagle showed the letter to Lord Salisbury; investigation followed; the plot was discovered and frustrated. Guy Fawkes was seized in the cellar the night before the meeting of Parliament. The other conspirators were hunted down in the country; Catesby was killed at Holbeach House. Guy Fawkes, the arch-conspirator, after examination and torture in the Tower, was hanged.
In the museum of the Public Record Office may be seen the anonymous warning letter to Lord Monteagle and Fawkes's declarations, one with a shaking signature, supposed to have been written after torture. No historical event has been kept in the public mind more vividly than the plot. Until within living memory it had a service to itself in the Prayer Book, and the custom of the annual cremation of Guy, although dying, is not yet dead.
Another memorable conspiracy is the Rye House Plot. In 1683 there was in the air a Whig scheme for a general rising against Charles II. A few extremists, one of whom was Richard Rumbold, an old Cromwellian officer who had guarded the scaffold at the execution of Charles I, formed a plot within the plot, to waylay and murder the king on his way from Newmarket to London. The murder was to be done at the Rye House, a farm near Hertford belonging to Rum-bold. The failure of the scheme was due to a fire which took place in the house occupied by Charles at Newmarket, which caused him to return to London a week earlier than he had intended.
The murder plot was discovered. It had been kept secret from the Whig leaders, but the whole party suffered from the outburst of public indignation which the discovery produced. Algernon Sidney and Lord Russell were brought to the block for treason. John Hampden, grandson of the famous Hampden of Charles Fs time, was fined £40,000. Rumbold took part in Argyll's expedition to Scotland in 1685 and was captured and hanged in Edinburgh.
Scotland under the Stuarts was a land of civil turbulence and treasonable scheming. The Cowrie Conspiracy has created a literature of its own, and has left one of the unsolved enigmas of history.
During the minority of James VI, William Ruthven, Earl of Gowrie, was executed for high treason. His son John succeeded to the earldom. John had a younger brother, Alexander Ruthven. In August 1600 King James was staying at Falkland Palace. One morning, when he was going out to hunt, Alexander Ruthven came to him with a story of having seized a suspicious-looking stranger carrying a pot of gold, in foreign coinage, whom he said he had kept a prisoner at his brother's house in Perth till the king should see him and take possession of the treasure. With this story he induced James to ride to Perth, with a small party of attendants.
Gowrie House was a large building with gardens reaching down to the Tay, the site of which is now covered by the Perthshire County Buildings and Jail. The former were built in 1808-20.
arrival there the king was received by Lord Gowrie. A dinner was prepared for James, "a shoulder of mutton and a hen . . . and some strawberries." After dinner Alexander Ruthven asked the king to come with him to see the prisoner. James followed him, unaccompanied, through several rooms to a turret chamber, where he found not a prisoner but an armed man. Ruthven seized the man's dagger, turned on the king, and said, "Sir; you must be my prisoner.; remember on my father's death." The king began to speak. Ruthven answered.
"Hold your tongue, Sir, or by Christ ye shall die." The king said that he was only a boy when the Earl of Gowrie was executed. Ruthven assured him that his life should be safe, and left him in the tower.
In the meantime the king's attendants, waiting in the garden below, had begun to wonder at his absence. They were informed by a servant of Lord Gowrie that the king had set out on his return to Falkland. They called for their horses and were preparing to leave, when the porter said that the king could not have left the house, as he had not passed the gate. While they hesitated a voice was heard shouting from the window above: "Help! my Lord Mar. Treason! Treason! They are murdering me!" They looked up and saw James's face, with a hand at his throat.
The story told at the time was that the king, when left alone with the armed man, had induced him to open the window. This was just done when Alexander Ruthven returned, and swearing that the king must needs die, endeavoured to tie his hands. James resisted, dragged Ruthven to the window and called out to his attendants. They hastened to his help, but found the door of the main staircase closed. A page, Sir John Ramsay, ran up a back stair, entered the room where Ruthven and the king were struggling and stabbed Ruthven. Other members of the royal suite followed; two of them despatched Ruthven with their swords, his last words being, "Alas, I had na wyte of it" - that he was not to blame.
Presently the Earl of Gowrie appeared, followed by seven attendants, demanding vengeance for the death of his brother. A fight ensued; Gowrie was killed, and his attendants fled. Gowrie was Provost of Perth and popular among the citizens. A crowd gathered, threatening vengeance, but dispersed after an explanation by the king of what had happened. The king returned to Falkland. Gowrie and Ruthven were declared guilty of treason and three of their servants were hanged, while all who had come to the king's help were amply rewarded.
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