Risings in Kent
Discontents in the generation following the Black Death finally culminated in the Rising of 1381. The Rising began in the south-east of England, and amongst the ring-leaders men from Kent were numerous. Its causes were various and to some extent are likely to remain obscure. The 1380s were not a time of great hardship; wages, as we have already seen, had risen; in spite of attempts by Parliament in the Statute of Labourers of 1351 to keep them stationary. Because wages had risen and labour was scarce, there was a tendency for landlords to require their tenants to perform labour-services, instead of commuting them for money payments, and no doubt this was unpopular. Serfs, increasingly, were becoming dissatisfied with their status, and an Act of Parliament in 1377 provided for commissions to be set up to inquire into the misbehaviour of villeins and land-tenants towards their lords, a clear indication that there had been trouble. However, serfdom was rare in Kent, and labour-services were always light, so discontent on these two scores is not likely to have been a salient factor in the county. Certainly the king’s long-drawn-out war against France was unpopular, partly because the war was costly, and partly because it was not going well, the French on several occasions raiding and pillaging towns and villages on the Kent and Sussex coasts and even along the Thames estuary as far up as Gravesend. To pay for the war the government resorted to a poll-tax, payable by every man and woman over the age of 15, genuine beggars alone excepted. The poll-tax, which was levied on several occasions, does not seem to have been unfair; it was carefully graduated, so that the great and wealthy John of Gaunt paid 520 times as much as a labourer, but like all new taxes it was detested. Finally, there was a feeling of unrest, of refusal to accept the existing state of things, which was perhaps the natural aftermath of such a catastrophe as the Black Death. It was in this spirit that John Ball, known as the mad priest of Kent, went round the county preaching on the theme:
When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?
until the archbishop of Canterbury put him under lock and key in his gaol at Maidstone.
The rising in Kent began in the early summer of 1381 at Dartford where, according to an unsubstantiated legend, a tax-collector insulted the daughter of a worthy townsman, who promptly knocked out his brains. Walter Tyler, who was possibly born in Kent and who may at one time have been a soldier, crossed to Kent from Essex, where he had already been involved in an insurrection, and put himself at the head of those Kentish men who rose in support of the townsman of Dartford. Rochester Castle was attacked, and the garrison was compelled to release a number of prisoners lodged there. Tyler then advanced to Maidstone, and there freed John Ball from the archbishop’s prison. The next we hear of him is at Canterbury, which was at the mercy of the mob for the greater part of June. Sir William Septvans, the high sheriff of the county, was seized, and he was compelled to deliver up all his official records, which were at once burnt. Without them the sheriff could not organise the tax-collection. Elsewhere also, at Manston, at Gillingham, at Petham and at Wye, the rioters destroyed records, probably manorial documents which recorded the labour services and rents which each tenant owed to his lord. This is some evidence as to the nature of the discontents which, in part, gave rise to the revolt. To the same effect is the record of a riot at Margate on 24 June, when the rioters (almost certainly they were tenants of St Augustine’s, Canterbury) determined that they would no longer perform their customs and services and threatened to cut off the heads of any of their fellow-tenants who did so.
The story of the meeting, at London, between Walter Tyler with, it is said, 100,000 rebels at his back, and the young King Richard II is well known. On the faith of the king’s promise the rioters returned home, but when the king afterwards went back on his word, there were further risings in Kent, especially in the Weald during the month of September.
Many of the rioters were subsequently prosecuted, and the official records show that the summer risings were widespread. At each of the following towns and villages it was alleged that people were slain, houses pulled down, property stolen or men compelled to hand over their money: Margate, Manston, Monkton, Ickham, Canterbury, Petham, Waltham, Chillenden, Wootton, Boughton Aluph, Wye, Kennington, Willesborough, Mersham, Stalisfield, Throwley, Boughtonunder-Blean, Preston-next-Faversham, Ospringe, Teynham, Borden, Gillingham, Chatham, Rochester, Maidstone, Staplehurst, Tenterden and Appledore. The September revolt seems to have been limited to the country south of Maidstone—Loose, Linton, Farleigh, Hunton, Stapiehurst, Cranbrook, Biddenden and Frittenden. It is noticeable that the riots were often caused by men who are recorded as coming from another parish, and as having no lands or goods.
The places named in the records as being the scene of enormities committed by the insurrectionists during the summer all lie to the east of the Medway, although two of the malefactors are described as of Erith and Malling respectively. It seems improbable that the insurrection, which is supposed to have begun at Dartford, did not affect the area west of the Medway and the apparent passivity of west Kent is more likely due to the loss of official records than to any natural inclination towards decorous behaviour on the part of Kentishmen compared with Men of Kent.
In spite of John Ball’s association with the Rising, it does not seem that religious discontents were among the causes of it. Nevertheless, dissatisfaction with the Church was fairly widespread in the second half of the 14th century, and Wycliffe became the leader of a movement for reform. His followers were known as ‘Lollards’, one of the most prominent of whom was Sir John Oldcastle. The Lollard rising of 1414 was a small affair and easily put down; the reason for mentioning it is that Oldcastle lived at Cooling Castle, a fortified manor-house built by Lord Cobham towards the end of the 14th century. It is likely that Cobham was granted royal permission to fortify his manor-house because Cooling lies in the Thames-side marshes where the danger of raids by the French had to be guarded against. Indeed, in 1380 Gravesend had been plundered by the French and many of the townspeople carried off, it was said, into slavery.
Cade’s Rebellion in 1450 was a more serious rising, with national as well as local features. It occurred against the background of rivalry and strife which five years later were to erupt into the Wars of the Roses. Cade himself (that may or may not have been his name; at other times he called himself John Mortimer, suggestive of a connection with the family of the great earls of March) claimed that he had been born in Ireland, and had served as a soldier under the duke of York.
The rebellion began in late May, when Cade encamped with his followers at Blackheath. They were not an undisciplined rabble but an organised military force. On the approach of the king’s forces they withdrew through Bromley towards Sevenoaks, probably intending to attack Knole, the seat of Lord Say, Constable of Dover Castle, who was hated in Kent as a severe and notorious extortioner. The royal forces followed the rebels and at Solefields, near Sevenoaks, they clashed, Sir Humphrey Stafford, the royalist leader, and 24 of his men being killed. When the defeat and the unreliability of the army became known, the king fled to Kenilworth, leaving London at the mercy of the rebels. For three days they were masters of the City, taking Say out of the Tower and executing him along with his son-in-law who had been sheriff of Kent. Then the citizens drove the rebels across the river to Southwark where they lay encamped, the bridge closed against them. Though no longer in control of the City they remained a formidable force, and the King’s Council now expressed its readiness to receive the Kentish ‘Complaint’ and to secure a pardon for all those who would peaceably go to their homes. The Complaint listed a number of discontents, such as the misgovernment of the country, the maladministration of justice, and the losses in Normandy, which affected the whole of the kingdom, but others were peculiar to Kent. The people of Kent, for example, feared, or said they feared, that they were to be punished because when the impeached and exiled earl of Suffolk was in flight from Ipswich to the Continent in the preceding April, he had been taken off his ship by some Kentishmen, beheaded at sea, and his body cast on the shore at Dover. They also complained that Lord Say and others had acted oppressively, and that elections of the Knights of the Shire were accompanied by intimidation and bribery. Another complaint casts an interesting sidelight on travelling conditions in the county at that time; the men of west Kent said that they had to attend the Sessions at Canterbury which causeth to some men five days’ journey’.
The offer of a free pardon was accepted, and the rebellion collapsed. Cade himself did not give up the struggle, perhaps because the pardon granted to him was made out in the name of John Mortimer, and was therefore of no force. With a few followers he fled first to Dartford, then to Rochester. He tried, unsuccessfully, to capture Queenborough Castle. From there he escaped into the Weald, crossed the Sussex border, and two or three days later was killed at Heathfield. William Parmynter, a smith of Faversham, tried to take over the leadership of the few remaining rebels and he was not caught until the winter. He lacked Cade’s ability, and there was never again any serious danger after the middle of July. The Rebellion, in fact, lasted just about one month.
The list of those to whom pardons were granted is still extant. It shows that Cade had some hundreds of followers in Kent, that they came predominantly from west Kent and the Weald, and that they belonged to the middle and upper ranks of society, including one knight, 18 esquires, 74 gentlemen and numerous yeomen. In this respect Cade’s Rebellion differed from the Rising of 1381, which was the work of the peasantry, artisans and labourers.
By Letters Patent dated 1 August 1450 a commission was appointed to investigate divers trespasses and extortions committed in the county. The Commission, which included amongst others the two archbishops and the duke of Buckingham, quickly got to work. It was not concerned with the events of Cade’s rising but with the illegalities and extortions committed earlier, to which the Kentishmen referred in their Complaint. It seems that the rebels were not without their sympathisers amongst the factions that surrounded the king. A minor and unsuccessful revolt in 1452 under the leadership of John Wilkins, about whom practically nothing is known was almost certainly a local manifestation of the rivalry of the dukes of York and Somerset. According to the subsequent indictment of the rebels, they claimed that Cade was still alive and that he was their chief captain, an example of the notorious reluctance of insurgents to believe in the death of their leader. But in a time of such confusion almost any rumour was likely to find acceptance somewhere.