From Black Death to Tudor Times
As with all of England, the Black Death must have come upon the county of Surrey like the approach of a storm. Firstly, with the increasing of the wind, came rumours of terrible death in somewhere far away. Then, there arrived the black clouds of terror, when those fleeing from the next village told of the strange pestilence which was carrying off their people. When the storm broke it was usually very sudden. The victim might be in perfect health at the start of a new day but, by evening, dead.
It is impossible to gauge how many in Surrey fell to the first visitation of the dread disease, which reached England from the Continent in 1348. The common assessment is for anything between a third and a half of the entire population of England, perhaps one to two million people out of a population of little over four million. There is no reason to suggest that in Surrey the proportion was any less. The plague was to come several times more before the century was out, but the first epidemic was undoubtedly the worst. The scant surviving records are usually of the religious houses all the brethren of the hospital at Sandon, now Sandown near Esher, perished, as did the Prior of Reigate and the Abbot of Waverley. The records also show rapid and frequent changes in the local clergy at this time, certainly caused by the deaths of those who worked closest to the people.
The Black Death encouraged the break-up of the feudal system. The shortage of labour led to a scarcity of food and consequently to the offer of wages rather than service as a means of getting the farmwork done. Many villeins were freed from the obligation to work on the lord’s land and paid a rent instead for their smallholdings. The government introduced the Statute of Labourers to control the situation and retain the status quo. It was an attempt to force labourers to remain working on their lord’s land and for the same wages as before the plague. They were also forbidden from moving on in search of better wages elsewhere.
A later statute called for all apprehended labourers to be branded on the forehead with letter ‘F’ for falsity. These statutes proved unworkable.
In addition, whilst the country’s fiscal requirements remained high during the Hundred Years War with France, the individual liability for tax, with the drastic drop in population, had considerably increased. The government dreamt up new taxes to raise its revenue. The Poll Tax was no more popular when reintroduced in the 1980s than it had been 600 years before. However, the consequences were somewhat more violent in 1381, when a third Poll Tax in four years raised the levy to one shilling for everyone over the age of 15.
The uprisings began, first in Kent and Essex, but they soon spread throughout much of the country, including Surrey. Particular targets were the manorial records and muniments which were the lord’s evidence for the peasants’ continuing bondage. The tenants of Chertsey stormed the Abbey and burnt some of its manorial rolls. A mob entered Guildford and destroyed the town’s charter. A new charter was granted in 1384 because the originals had been ‘lost’ in 1381. As Surrey historian H.E. Maiden wrote, ‘The whole countryside was full of rapine, murder, and burnings, the outrages of an outraged peasantry, and the insurgents swarmed up towards London, where the Kentish men were already encamped upon Blackheath.’
On 12th June 1381 the rebels entered Southwark, where many of the local population joined forces with them. Marshalsea Prison was broken open and the prisoners liberated. The houses of ‘obnoxious citizens’ were destroyed along with the brothels, said to have been leased by the Bishop of Winchester to the Lord Mayor of London who made great profit from the women of Flanders who conducted their trade therein.
The following day the rebels were at the drawbridge of London Bridge where, according to John Stowe, the Surrey men ‘cried to the warders of the bridge to let it down, whereby they might pass, or else they would destroy them all.’ The warders duly let down the bridge to leave the city to its fate. Here the 14 year old King Richard II showed his mettle, riding out to face the rebels. At this meeting, Wat Tyler, the Kentish leader, insulted the King and was struck down by one of the noblemen. However, as H.E. Maiden wrote so succinctly, ‘the death of Wat Tyler, the courage of the young King and the strange melting away of the leaderless mob – belong to other history.’
Once matters had quietened down a little the aristocracy fell upon the peasants with the full force of their laws. Armies marched into Kent and Essex, where support for the revolt had been particularly strong. A commission was appointed for every county to deal heavily with offenders. A single commission for Surrey and Sussex was headed by the Earl of Arundel and Sir William Percy of Esher, the sheriff jointly for the two counties, plus five other ‘gentlemen’ from the two counties. So efficient was their work that it was not long before the county gaol at Guildford Castle, where the sheriff was based, was full and prisoners were taken to Arundel and Lewes.
Throughout these years of turmoil there were certain places in Surrey where a life of peace and relative tranquillity went on regardless. These places were, of course, the abbeys, priories and other religious establishments of the county. The chief amongst them was the Benedictine Abbey at Chertsey, founded, in AD 666. The abbey had suffered badly at the hands of the Danes during the 9th and 10th centuries but by the time of William’s Conquest it had greatly recovered. In Domesday it is listed as the holder of extensive lands in the county. In 1110 a major programme of rebuilding was begun by Abbot Hugh and this work probably continued for most of that century. A serious fire damaged the monastic buildings in 1235, requiring further rebuilding under Abbot Alan who died in 1261. In July 1370 a calamity befell the abbey church when ‘the central part of the bell tower fell to the ground to the irrecoverable damage of the house’ – a matter recorded in the Chertsey Abbey cartularies. In 1471 King Henry VI was buried at the abbey and, until his body was removed to Windsor in 1484, the abbey became a place of pilgrimage.
The Cistercian Abbey of Waverley, the first of its order in England, was founded near Tilford by William Giffard, Bishop of Winchester, in 1128. The Cistercians took their name from their chief abbey at Citeaux (Cistercium in Latin) in Burgundy, but the monks who established Waverley came from Aumone in Normandy. The order was founded by an Englishman, Stephen Harding, who led a movement away from what he considered to be the worldliness of the Benedictines or Black Monks. The rules of Harding’s ‘White Monks’ were severe and included a rule stating that ‘none of our houses are to be built in cities, in castles, or villages, but in places remote from the conversation of men, and let all churches of our order be dedicated and founded in honour of the Blessed Mary.’ Thus their houses, like Fountains Abbey or Tintern, were usually built in quiet riverside locations.
The original buildings at Waverley were very small but, during the late 12th and throughout much of the 13th century, the abbey was gradually rebuilt on a much grander scale. By 1187 it had a number of daughter houses, including Thame in Oxfordshire and Garendon in Leicestershire. There were 70 monks and 120 lay brothers in the monastery at this time. Waverley’s chief contribution to the local communities of west Surrey was the introduction of the wool trade. The abbey possessed several thousand sheep producing fleeces of the finest quality which attracted buyers from the Low Countries, France and Italy. It is known to have supplied the Florentines with wool in 1315. On several occasions the more entrepreneurial of the monks landed the abbey in debt when they over-estimated the future price of wool.
The monks of Waverley are also thought to have been responsible for the building of a series of bridges over the river Wey downstream of their abbey in the late 13th century. Remarkably, several of these bridges have survived, including two at Tilford, where the two branches of the river meet, and, perhaps the best example, at Eashing, upstream of Godalming, which is in effect also two bridges crossing the main river and the millstream.
Today, the ruins of Waverley Abbey still stand in a tranquil setting beside the clear waters of the river Wey against a backdrop of wooded hills. We can still appreciate the beauty of the place just as the first monks must have done when they arrived here from Normandy nearly 900 years ago.
There were several monastic houses in Surrey belonging to the Canons Regular of St Augustine or Austin Canons as they were more usually known. The most important of these was at Merton, but there were others at Reigate, Tandridge and near Ripley. The canons were ordained priests who lived strictly by the rules of St Augustine of Hippo. Theirs were not, however, closed houses built for peaceful seclusion like those of the Cistercians, but places which provided many benefits to the lay people beyond their walls. In particular, they gave lodging, food and care to the aged sick and also offered schooling for the boys of the area.
Most of their establishments contained only a small number of canons, who worked closely with their local communities. They would often be seen in the town or village, always clad in their characteristic long black cassock, with a shorter white surplice over the top of the cassock. They also wore a long, black cloak fastened at the neck. Most distinctive of all was the four sided black cap, often set on the head at a rather jaunty angle. This was despite the fact that one of the rules stipulated that members of the order should ‘. . . not be remarked by their habit, not endeavour to please by their clothing, but by their behaviour. The head and hair be covered and carefully arranged.’ Prayers every three hours, day and night, were an obvious burden to the canons as were the periods of fasting. In between times their ‘frugal’ diet, which, according to Alfred Heales writing in the 19th century, consisted of ‘herbs, eggs, fish, bread, cheese, butter and ale or beer’, would, perhaps, have been the envy of the average Surrey peasant.
The ruins of Newark Priory, founded during the reign of Richard I in the late 12th century, still stand in a beautiful setting on the banks of the river Wey near Ripley. Tandridge was a small priory with perhaps no more than five canons. Originally established in the second half of the 13th century as the Hospital of St James, it had become an Augustinian priory by the early years of the following century.
Reigate Priory was founded by William de Warrenne, sixth Earl of Surrey, in about 1235, close to the de Warrenne ‘new town’. The arrangement of its buildings was typical of many such establishments. At the heart of the priory was the church, which was also open to the townspeople, who were separated from the prior and canons by the rood screen between the nave and the choir. The priory church became SO popular as a place of worship for the people of Reigate that they neglected their parish church. The priory church was obviously more convenient, being closer to the town. In 1374, the Bishop of Winchester forbade parishoners from attending services such as mass at the priory church to the detriment of their own church. The penalty for disobeying the bishop, that of excommunication, was never a matter to be taken lightly in those days.
To one side of the church was the outer court with its offices, stables and stores and the hospitium or guest house for the boarding of visitors. These buildings were usually on the north side, whilst to the south of the church were the cloisters surrounding the garden, and the chapter house, kitchens, dormitories and infirmary. Reigate Priory, like most monastic sites, was situated adjacent to a stream to provide a good supply of clean water. The stream could also be dammed to provide lakes and ponds for the fish which were an important part of the monks’ diet.
The important priory at Merton was rather older than Reigate, having been founded in 1114. St Thomas a Becket was educated there and also Walter de Merton, Chancellor of England, who founded Merton College, Oxford. The canons at Merton certainly knew how to enjoy life, particularly hunting, a pursuit specifically forbidden to them. In 1387 the Bishop of Winchester had to write to the canons to remind them that the keeping of hunting dogs within the precincts of the priory was strictly prohibited. Any canon caught ignoring this rule was liable to be restricted to merely bread and ale for six feast days.
Hunting was, of course, the first love of most of the medieval kings of England, who were constantly seeking ways to extend their forest rights. Surrey, situated on London’s doorstep, with the Royal Forest of Windsor to the north-west, was particularly popular, especially with Henry II. He afforested his own lands in Surrey, including Guildford and Woking, linking them to Windsor. Finally, he attempted to include the whole of the county under Forest Law. There were reasons for this other than the pure love of the chase. Forest Law, through its courts, increased royal power over and above that of the barons and clergy. Only the king could own the forest and within it all rights were subservient to those of the monarch. Apart from the stringent protection of game, a royal licence was needed to cut wood and tolls might be charged for the right of passage through the forest. Most significant for the peasant was that Forest Law made it a grave offence to grub up trees, or ‘assart’, to make land fit for the cultivation of crops. All fines, rents and tolls collected at these courts went straight to the king.
Thus, the extension of the royal forests was a constant source of friction between the barons and their king. Amongst the many demands pressed on King John at Runnymede was that he deforest large areas of the country afforested by him and his predecessors. In 1226 Henry III gave up his forest rights in Surrey in return for a large subsidy. This in effect removed Forest Law from the county, except for the king’s own park at Guildford, and restricted Windsor Forest to the Berkshire side of the county boundary.
The intermittent turmoil of the Wars of the Roses, as Yorkists and Lancastrians fought for the supremacy of England, seems hardly to have touched the county of Surrey. Ironically, it was the Tudor king, Henry VII, who in the last years of the 15th century emerged as the unopposed ruler of a united country. Unopposed, that is, except in a distant and almost forgotten corner of his domain, Cornwall. Here, rebellion was aroused in 1497 by the swingeing taxes imposed by Henry to finance his wars with the Scots – a remarkable tale that links the Cornish rebels to Guildford, the county town of Surrey.
In Henry Vii’s time most of the Cornish people were still Celtic, with a culture and language which could be traced back to before the coming of the Romans. It was natural that they should feel resentment when asked to make heavy contributions to a war being conducted in a foreign country hundreds of miles away. The rebels were led by a blacksmith, Michael Joseph, from St Keverne on the Lizard peninsula. A rebel ‘army’, said to be 15,000 strong, gathered at Bodmin in May 1497, and began the long protest march towards London. They were poorly armed, for bloodshed was not their true intention and a direct battle against the king seemed far from their minds. Prominent amongst them was a Bodmin lawyer, Thomas Flamank, whose criticisms were not directed at the king but at two of Henry’s councillors and closest advisors, Cardinal Morton and Sir Reginald Bray, whose landholdings included the Manor of Shere Vachery in Surrey. It was Flamank’s assertion that the taxes were illegal and that Cornishmen could bring about a just settlement without recourse to destruction and murder. As Francis Bacon put it succinctly, ‘he could tell how to make rebellion and never break the peace.’
Unfortunately, the rebels got only as far as Taunton before a murder was committed, that of a tax commissioner, but this event invoked no retaliation from the men of Somerset, who no doubt had their own views about the worthiness of such men. At Wells the Cornishmen were joined by the only man of rank to show open support for their cause – James Touchet, the seventh Baron Audley, who was the Lord of the main Manor of Shere. We can only guess at his motives but he was to remain true to the cause until the end.
The rebels swept across southern England without meeting any opposition. They had hoped that the men of Kent, whose reputation for open rebellion against injustice went back to the days of Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt, would swell their numbers. In this they were to be disappointed and few, if any, from that county were prepared to throw in their lot with them. London was the rebels’ goal, which brought them into Surrey and on Tuesday, 13th June 1497, they encamped on the outskirts of Guildford, probably on Guilclown.
We have no idea how the people of Guildford greeted this motley band of rebels, who must have outnumbered them by at least fifteen to one. They seem to have kept their distance for there are no records showing Guildford men amongst the rebels’ complement. Equally, there are no records of any confrontation between the rebels and the inhabitants, who may at least have provided the Cornishmen with provisions.
Meanwhile, Henry VII was in no mood to receive a Cornish petition and began to muster his troops for battle. He already had an army of 8,000 men under Lord Daubeney ready for the Scottish war. On Wednesday, 14th June, Daubeney sent out a detachment of 500 mounted spearmen to seek out the enemy. By some accounts they came upon the rebels by accident and, on the hill above Guildford, a brief but bloody battle ensued. Daubeney’s force made a tactical retreat having taken prisoners and determined the mettle of the Cornishmen.
The rebels now finally moved towards London, their resolve perhaps dented by the incident at Guildford. On the afternoon of Friday, 16th June, they arrived within sight of London and made camp on Blackheath. By this time Henry had gathered further forces and now had 25,000 men standing in defence of his capital. He surprised the Cornishmen early the following morning but, by all reports, the rebels initially gave a good account of themselves. Three hundred royal troops were killed by the Cornish archers and Daubeney himself taken prisoner for a short while. However, it was inevitable that Henry’s trained troops would soon prevail and the Cornishmen were routed, fleeing the battlefield in disarray, their leaders captured. Henry crossed London Bridge early that afternoon to be received in triumph by the Mayor and the loyal burghers of the capital.
On 27th June 1497, Michael Joseph and Thomas Flamank were taken from the Tower to Tyburn where they were hanged, drawn and quartered. Audley, as befitted a nobleman, was taken the next day from Newgate to Tower Hill, wearing ‘a cote armour upon hym of papir, all to tome’, and there beheaded. Sir Reginald Bray had been one of the main targets of the rebels’ wrath. It was, perhaps, no coincidence that the unfortunate Audley’s lordship of Shere passed to the Bray family, where it resides to this day.