Post-classical history


St Albans and Bury St Edmunds

The London uprising collapsed as quickly as it had started but many of the rebels from outside the city would literally take the standard of rebellion back out to their shires, convinced that they had the king’s approval and commission to act against traitors and secure in the knowledge that they had his letters patent granting them their freedoms from local lordship. One of those people was William Grindecobbe, who had travelled to London with the party from St Albans on the morning of 14 June. He had been present at Mile End and there ‘had knelt to the king six times’ to obtain letters patent for his fellow townsmen.1 Everything we know about Grindecobbe and the revolt at St Albans comes from the pen of Thomas Walsingham, a monk at the abbey who made no secret of his loathing of the ‘fools’ who had sought to overturn his house’s privileges.

For Grindecobbe to have successfully sued and obtained the very moderate requests he asked of the king was anathema to Walsingham, not least because it undermined his abbot’s right to deny those same freedoms: the right to borough status; to pasture their animals freely within the town boundary; to enjoy undisputed fishing, hunting and fowling rights in certain places; and to be able to use their own hand-mills instead of being compelled to use the abbot’s mills. These were rights which the townsmen had claimed in vain from the monastery for over a century. The issue of the hand-mills in particular had become a potent emblem of their struggle against the abbot’s assertion that they were his villeins. The townsmen had collectively refused to use the abbot’s mills in 1274, 1314 and 1326–7 and, on the last occasion, had won a major victory when they appealed to Domesday Book and it was confirmed that St Albans had indeed been a borough in 1086. It was a short-lived triumph. By 1331 the abbot had successfully lobbied the king to get the decision overturned, and restated his authority over the townsmen in a symbolic gesture of humiliation: he seized all their hand-mills, dismantled them and used the stones to pave the floor of the parlour next to the cloisters so that he and his monks could walk over them every day.2

It was against this background that Grindecobbe went to Mile End to reassert his town’s claim to freedom from the monastery’s ownership. In the face of Richard’s approval, Walsingham could only lash out by attacking Grindecobbe’s character, accusing him of betraying the abbey where he had been brought up and educated, and still had relatives; he did not mention the fact that the abbey had deprived him of an acre of land he had bought by charter in 1377, but attributed his campaign for freedom to a desire for revenge for being excommunicated and made to do penance naked before the brethren as punishment for laying violent hands on two monks who were measuring a tenement in the town. Now, to cap it all, Walsingham made the nonsensical assertion that Grindecobbe had also obtained a promise from Wat Tyler that, if sent for, the rebel leader would come with twenty thousand men to behead the monks, but only on condition that the townsmen would ‘absolutely’ obey all his commands.3

Having achieved what they set out to do without requiring Tyler’s aid, Grindecobbe and his lieutenant William Cadyndon (yet another rebel baker) returned from Mile End on the evening of 14 June, leaving Richard Wallingford, ‘the greatest of the villeins of St Albans’, as their delegate to collect their royal letters. An abbey servant had got there before them, however, and told the monks what had happened to Sudbury and Hales, so the prior, four monks, the steward and some of the other abbey officials had already fled, embarking on a long and arduous journey to the safety of the abbey’s daughter-house in Northumberland. On their return from London Grindecobbe and his fellow townsmen immediately set about dismantling the gates and enclosures the abbot had erected around woodland in the vicinity of St Albans and also demolished the ‘Thwethonerhous’ in the town, which belonged to the sub-cellarer, who was responsible for victualling the abbey and therefore for collecting the dues required as payment for using the abbot’s mills. At some point also they attacked the houses of four abbey servants: John Clerk and Richard Scryveyn, who were both probably lawyers or clerks, the forester Robert atte Chambre and Simon Lymbrennere, who, if his name reflects his occupation, was a lime-burner who would have used the abbey woods to collect fuel for his kilns.4

The following morning, the day of the Smithfield meeting, the men from St Albans and its rural estates gathered in response to a summons which bore all the hallmarks of the calling out of the county levies. Walsingham says they all joined their right hands in an oath to be faithful to one another before formally reclaiming their ownership of the warrens and common woods and fields, and after catching a live rabbit there they fastened it to the town pillory as a public demonstration of their right to hunt on the abbot’s lands. They then returned to the abbey and ordered the porter to throw open the prison, allowing the prisoners to go free ‘solely on condition that they owed faith and loyalty to the community and adhered inseparably to them’. John Baron, however, publicly executed one prisoner before the abbey gates for an unspecified crime and stuck his head on the pillory, to the acclamation of the crowd, or as Walsingham put it in a transparent attempt to link the St Albans rebels with the unpardonable offences of the London revolt, ‘with a devilish shouting which they had learned in London at the archbishop’s execution’. At about nine o’clock that morning, in the wake of a contingent of the abbey’s villeins from Barnet, Richard Wallingford arrived bearing a banner of St George, which he fixed in the square before the abbey as a meeting point for the rebels, then went into the church to present the king’s letters to the abbot.5

Walsingham gives the text of the letters ‘extorted rather than obtained’ from Richard. They seem innocuous enough, simply ordering the abbot to hand over to the ‘burgesses and good men of the town certain charters in your custody made by our ancestor King Henry to the said burgesses and good men concerning common, pasture, fishing rights and several other commodities … as law and reason requires: so that they may have no reason to complain hereafter to us on this score’.6 There are two oddities here: the letters are issued under the privy seal, rather than the Great Seal Richard had used for his letters patent, which may be explained by the fact that they were addressed privately to Thomas de la Mare rather than being public documents or charters. They are also dated 15 June, the day after Mile End, which would mean that the king would have had to have issued the letters at dawn for Wallingford to have delivered them at nine. Letters patent and close were usually back-dated by the chancery clerks to the date the king issued the warrant but in the chaos after the chancellor’s murder and snowed under by rebel demands, it is possible that this practice was temporarily abandoned. Presumably that is why the king’s letters patent conferring freedom on the bondsmen of Hertfordshire, which Wallingford also brought back with him, and Walsingham later copied into his chronicles, were also dated 15 June.

The abbot had little choice but to obey the king’s direct orders and hand over the abbey’s deeds and charters. What is interesting about the revolt in St Albans, however, is that the rebels were highly selective in what they wanted. They burned in the market-place various bonds, ranging in value from one to three thousand marks, which their predecessors had been forced to give the abbot as security for their good behaviour; they also burned the archdeacon’s muniments, rolls and books concerning his civil and canonical jurisdictions. But what they were actively looking for was a specific document, an ancient charter that had two illuminated capital letters, one in gold and one in blue. This very precise description suggests that the townsmen had seen the document before, though the abbot denied all knowledge of its existence and was even prepared to swear on the sacrament that it did not exist.7

Yet Walsingham for one thought he knew what they were talking about: a charter of liberties and privileges granted to the townsmen by King Offa, which according to malicious gossip had been withdrawn and suppressed by the abbey. Walsingham denounced the old men who had spread rumours of its existence and proved to his own satisfaction that the charter was a myth because the town of St Albans did not exist until after Offa’s death. However, the townsmen may have had a point because Offa, who had founded the abbey in 793, had also established a borough close by called Kingsbury. The growth of an abbey town round the monastery and its frequent clashes with its neighbour eventually led to a later abbot purchasing Kingsbury from King Ethelred and levelling it. The last remaining vestiges of the borough were destroyed by the abbey with King Stephen’s permission and the site ploughed, sown and generally absorbed into the suburbs of St Albans, which was unwalled.

The ‘lost’ charter of King Offa has generally been accepted by historians to be the object of the townsmen’s search, and has even been hailed as an important and striking piece of local political folklore,8 but the specific reference to charters of ‘our ancestor King Henry’ in the king’s letters to the abbot suggests an alternative explanation. In 1253 Henry III had granted legal freedoms to the ‘worthy men’ of St Albans in a charter which effectively recognised their borough status: this, too, the then abbot had managed to get around by changing the constitution of the town, but as recently as 1353 – well within living memory – the townsmen had succeeded in having it confirmed again by the crown. Five years later the abbot Thomas de la Mare, who was still in post in 1381, won the latest round in the long battle against the town by having the charter and its two confirmations revoked, annulled and cancelled by the Court of Chancery on the grounds that it was expressly contrary to the common law of the land.9 This, surely, was the charter with the gold and blue initials for which the rebels asked in vain.

The abbot may have been disingenuous in his claim that the charter did not exist but he was determined to prevaricate for as long as possible before making any concessions. In this he was helped by the arrival of the news of Wat Tyler’s assassination, the departure of the Kentishmen and the launching of attempts to restore order. No doubt he already had his delegates at court because the same day, 15 June, Richard granted letters of protection to the abbey, prohibiting any ‘grievance, damage or molestation’ of the monks and their property, though with the corollary that if anyone had a complaint against the abbot or his people ‘we ourselves will make him give redress for the same, and make amends, as right shall demand’. As Walsingham gleefully noted, they were issued under the Great Seal, which trumped the men of St Albans’s letters under the privy seal. The townsmen, in the meantime, had already demonstrated their new-found freedom in another act of great symbolism: they had dug up and taken away the mill-stones which had been confiscated from their forebears and used to create the monastery’s parlour floor. Walsingham adds that they broke them into pieces and passed them round ‘as the Holy Bread is accustomed to be broken up and given on Sundays in parish churches’, but this was probably a malicious invention intended to taint the rebels with the sin of blasphemy as the stones were later restored to the abbey. He also alleges that the rebels proclaimed that anyone who was owed money by the abbey should come the next morning to claim it and they would receive satisfaction from the burgesses out of the goods of the monastery.10

By Monday 16 June the abbot could no longer stave off demands to find the missing charter by claiming fruitless searches and was forced instead to make concessions of his own. The previous day he had confirmed Richard’s abolition of villein tenure in a charter relating only to abbey tenants in Barnet and South Mimms, adding that they could buy and sell land by charter unimpeded; his tenants in Rickmansworth had secured a similar concession for a carefully defined piece of land, where in return for specified rents they were given rights of common pasture, except for pigs and geese, and free fishing.11 Such were the suspicions of the abbot’s slippery character that even now the townsmen insisted on dictating their own charter of liberties which granted them rights of common pasture, bridleways through the abbey woods, common fishing and hunting with dogs and hawks, all within strictly defined bounds; they were also permitted to have hand-mills in their own homes and the bailiff of the abbey’s liberty was excluded from St Albans unless he had the king’s writ. It was hardly the most radical of charters, merely a reiteration of all the privileges that the town had claimed in the past, though the rebels, taking a leaf out of the abbey’s own book, also made the abbot sign a bond to them for one thousand marks. Again, the terms were entirely reasonable. The rebels legally bound themselves to return the money if the lost charter was restored to them before 25 March 1382 or if, on that day, the abbot and twelve of the most senior monks swore on the sacrament that it was not in their possession. In a final formal ceremony the townsmen then went in procession to beat the bounds of the borough, marking out the extent of their jurisdiction, just as their forebears had won the right to do in 1327.12

Over the course of the next four days the abbot was inundated by tenants from his estates clamouring for their freedoms and was forced to concede twenty more charters in which he recited and confirmed Richard’s letters of manumission. Tenants of certain manors also received specific liberties; Watford and Cashio, for instance, not only acquired fishing and hunting rights in their locality but also freedom from all works and tolls connected with the abbot’s bridge and park, from having to attend the abbot’s manorial court, pay alepenny or use his windmill; they too were now allowed to have hand-mills for their own domestic use.13 What is striking about the entire ‘revolt’ at St Albans is not just the absence of violence (not a single person was killed or injured, though several properties belonging to abbey officials were attacked)14 but the emphasis on legal documentation and due form: this was a quiet revolution by men who knew their rights and were determined to get them legally acknowledged and preserved in written evidence so that they could not be overturned again.

Unfortunately for them, the abbot had friends in high places. On 29 June Sir Walter atte Lee rode into town at the head of fifty men-at-arms and a great number of archers. Atte Lee was a major local landowner who had sat as an MP in the four most recent parliaments and was an experienced soldier, regular commissioner of array and justice of the peace. He was also a knight of the body to King Richard, despite his father having been disgraced and imprisoned in 1368 for abusing his powers as Edward III’s steward of the household. Atte Lee used his influence with the king to secure a commission for himself, his fellow justice of the peace and John Sewale’s predecessor as sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire Edward Benstede, and Geoffrey Stukeley ‘to make a good peace’ between the abbey and its tenants. Though Walsingham says that atte Lee came to save the day because St Albans was in a state of terror and rebellion, technically it was only in ‘revolt’ because the townsmen were enjoying the concessions they had received from the king and the abbot. By 29 June all was peaceful: the uprisings were over not only in St Albans but throughout most of the country. Atte Lee’s interpretation of his commission, if he had one, for there is no evidence of it in the patent or close rolls, was not that he should adjudicate over disputed rights but that he should restore the abbot’s supremacy. He therefore ordered the townsmen to surrender their charters and that William Grindecobbe, William Cadyndon and John Barbour (who had also been involved in removing the mill-stones from the abbey parlour floor) be arrested and put in Hertford jail.15

What atte Lee had not counted on was the passive resistance he would encounter from the townsmen. A jury he brought together refused to indict anyone; Grindecobbe was released when his neighbours put up three hundred pounds as bail for him; the charters were not handed over. They even spent a small fortune employing the lawyer Sir William Croyser, who was steward of John of Gaunt’s household and a member of his council, to plead on their behalf.16 It was all in vain. Grindecobbe was returned to prison on 6 July to await trial before the king and Chief Justice Tresilian and, as royal justice incarnate approached St Albans, all that Croyser could do was negotiate a settlement between the abbot and his townsmen: the parlour-floor mill-stones would be returned, the house in the town would be rebuilt, the abbey would receive two hundred pounds in compensation for the damage done, and all the charters and bonds the abbot had granted would be handed back to him. Even at this moment, when everything they had achieved was being taken from them, the townsmen took care to make copies of their charters before they surrendered them so that they could be used in the next round of their fight for their freedom.17

In the end, all that Grindecobbe and his fellow townsmen had done was what so many other burgesses and would-be burgesses up and down the country had done for centuries. But they had the king’s authority for what they did, had avoided violence against individuals and the damage to property had been minimal compared with other regions. There was no suggestion that they had been involved in the sack of the Savoy Palace or the priory at Clerkenwell, nor in the murders of Sudbury and Hales. Yet they were treated with greater severity than many charged with these offences. Even as harsh a critic as Walsingham, who felt personally slighted by their assaults on his abbey’s privileges, was evidently shocked and moved by their fate.

Tresilian chose to assert his authority over the townsmen from the start by setting up his court in their moot hall rather than the abbey; the jurors again refused to indict but Tresilian, ‘a most experienced judge, a man of great boldness and the cunning of a snake’, persuaded them to give him a list of names by offering them the king’s pardon for their own misdeeds. When it came to trial, however, the jurors withdrew their indictments, saying that their fellow townsmen were all good and loyal subjects and had always been so. That might have worked before any other judge, but not before Tresilian, who told them that if they did not proceed with their indictments then they would themselves suffer the penalty of those named in them. According to Walsingham, he even empanelled two more juries to confirm the indictments of the first, so that no man was condemned in St Albans except by the witness of thirty-six men, though this might have been one of the chronicler’s many attempts to excuse the abbey’s liability for what befell those who had opposed it. When some of the jurors charged the abbot with duplicity and having fomented the revolt himself, Tresilian compelled them to tear up their accusation and had it proclaimed that anyone who repeated rumours that the abbot had treated freemen as bondsmen would be hanged.18 In the circumstances, the moving speech Walsingham had earlier attributed to Grindecobbe when he was bailed from prison seems entirely justified:

Fellow citizens, for whom a little liberty has now relieved the long years of oppression, stand firm while you can, and do not be afraid because of my persecution. For if it should fall to me to die in the cause of acquiring liberty, I will count myself happy to end my life as such a martyr. Act now as you would have acted if I had been beheaded at Hertford yesterday, for nothing could have saved my life … they had accused me of many things and had a judge partial to themselves and eager to shed my blood.19

If even Walsingham could sympathise with Grindecobbe’s cruel end, then how much more must his cowed fellow tenants who had dared to challenge one of the most powerful abbeys in the kingdom?

Grindecobbe, Cadyndon and Barbour were just three of the fifteen ‘rebels’ whom Tresilian hanged at St Albans in July 1381.20 We do not even know the names of most of them but at least two had substantial properties: John Wylkyn had a dwelling-house, three farms, 164 acres of arable land, seven of wood, three of meadow and rents which brought him 27s. 6½d. and 2lb of cumin every year; Thomas Skot had a farm and garden, fifty acres of land, four of meadow, eight of pasture and two of wood in Little Hadham, twenty-four miles from St Albans, which he had purchased in its entirety eight years earlier.21 Tresilian and the abbot obviously intended to make an example of the wealthiest men in the town. After rapid convictions the fifteen were drawn through the fields which they had so lately claimed as common pasture to the wood where they had asserted their right to hunt, and there were hanged, with orders that their bodies should remain suspended from the trees for ‘as long as they lasted’. Even now some spirit of defiance remained, for Thomas de Wycresley came secretly and cut the cords by which they hung so that the corpses could be spirited away for decent burial. On 3 August the king ordered the bailiffs of St Albans to find the bodies and make iron chains by which they could be re-suspended and the sentence fully implemented. Walsingham delights in telling us that the townsmen were obliged to rehang the putrefying corpses ‘with their own hands’. Wycresley’s act of charity landed him in Newgate prison, though on 10 October he, or someone acting on his behalf, paid the large sum of eighteen shillings to purchase a royal pardon and obtain his release. Almost a year later, on 3 September 1382, Richard finally relented ‘at the supplication of queen Anne’ and gave licence that the bailiff and constable of St Albans, ‘and any others who may wish to do so’, could bury the bones without hindrance.22

Eighty other ‘rebels’ were convicted and sent to prison, among them Richard Wallingford, who had brought the king’s letters from Mile End to St Albans, Thomas Peyntor, who had painted a standard of the king’s arms for the rebels to carry in St Albans and John Dene who had carried it. The petty nature of some of the alleged crimes reveal the vindictiveness of both Tresilian and Thomas de la Mare (much as Walsingham tried to excuse his abbot by claiming he had interceded for the rebels): Gilbert Taillour was accused of threatening that if any man should die because of the uprising then the abbot’s manors would be burned and the abbey itself cast down; John Wayt was similarly indicted for saying that the rebels would not get what they wanted until they had prostrated all the abbot’s manors and the abbey too. If men could be punished just for saying such things it was hardly surprising that in August the tenants of the abbey’s manors at Watford and Rickmansworth fled in such numbers that the harvest could not be brought in and the abbey faced serious losses: Thomas de la Mare’s response was to secure the king’s writ ordering the sheriff to round them all up and bring them back. Conciliation was not a word in his vocabulary.23

The most important rebel to be tried before Tresilian at St Albans was John Balle. When or where he had been captured remains as much a mystery as his whereabouts during the uprising. He may have been at Mile End or Smithfield, or both, but his presence is not noted by anyone, other than in the chroniclers’ general lumping together of the three rebel captains’ names wherever there was trouble. Walsingham and Knighton say that Balle was captured in Coventry. This is possible because on 3 August the town received a commission to investigate abuses committed by tax-collectors there, which may have been its reward. He was sent to St Albans so that he could be tried by the most senior judge in the country and before the king himself. They had spent the first seven days of July trying Essex rebels in Chelmsford and reached St Albans on 12 July.24 Balle was tried the following day. Given that a chronicler of Walsingham’s calibre was sitting right there in the abbey when the trial took place, we might have expected a great set piece, a real-life equivalent of his fictional account of Jack Straw’s execution. Walsingham does indeed quote a letter allegedly written by Balle ‘found in the tunic of a man who was to be hanged for his share in the disturbances’, but his description of Balle’s appearance before Tresilian could not have been more perfunctory or less informative. ‘John Balle confessed that he had written this letter, and sent it to the commons, and he said that he had written many more beside; for this reason, as we have said, he was dragged, hanged and beheaded at St Albans on 15 July, in the presence of the king, and his quartered corpse was sent to four cities in the realm’.25 And that was all. It is a myth that his execution was delayed at the request of William Courtenay, bishop of London, so that Balle could have time to repent of his sins: it was simply to avoid carrying out such a bloody act on a Sunday.

So John Balle, the fiery radical, excommunicate priest, charismatic torch-bearer for generations of religious and political dissidents, whose ardent words were said to have inspired England’s first great popular uprising, went speechless to his brutal end. Did he deserve a traitor’s death? What influence he actually had in inspiring the revolt or guiding its course is at best debatable. He cannot be placed with any certainty at any of the key events and his sermon on the mount at Blackheath is a fiction. The letters he confessed to having written were not treasonable in themselves, even if they were found on a rebel. Tresilian’s elastic concept of treason and his determination to impose the ultimate sanction on all those tainted by association with the rebellion meant that Balle would be condemned, whether or not he was guilty of that particular crime. This injustice was compounded afterwards by the way that the chroniclers, and Walsingham in particular, built up a simple wandering critic of privilege and abuse of power into a demonic figure who could be blamed for conjuring up a revolutionary whirlwind which they had feared would sweep them all away. Perhaps, after all, he was not the harbinger of doom but just a convenient scapegoat.

The records suggest that the revolt in Hertfordshire was almost entirely an uprising against the abbey of St Albans by its townsmen and rural tenants, though Walsingham’s focus was naturally on events affecting his own monastery, and Thomas de la Mare’s determination to crush those who had challenged his authority meant that actions against them are predominant in the legal archives. There are indications, however, that just as in Essex and Kent certain royal officials were also targeted. Hertfordshire shared its sheriff and escheator with Essex: they had already been assaulted on 10 June but now, after the Mile End concessions, three justices of the peace were also attacked. Thomas Longe of Watford, for instance, broke into John Lodewyk’s house at Digswell on 15 June and carried off all the ‘legal record, processes and indictments’ he found there; the next day he did the same to John Kymperle’s house but, finding the justice of the peace at home, compelled him to hand over the documents for burning together with ‘three books of the lord king he had sought at John Lodewyk’s house’. Another group, led by the delightfully named ‘Hugo the personesprest of Puttenham’, who must have been a stipendiary priest looking after the parish on behalf of the parson, burned the ‘charters, letters, rentals and other muniments’ of Edmund Stonor ‘and other faithful subjects’ and threatened to kill anyone who stood in their way or prosecuted them. Stonor, the son of a former chief justice, had little to do with Hertfordshire because his main estates lay in Oxfordshire, but he had served in the latter county as sheriff, MP and justice of the peace, as well as commissioner for the poll-taxes of both 1379 and 1380–1.26

The parson’s priest of Puttenham was just one of many from the lower ranks of clergy who joined and even led the revolt. Stipendiary priests and chaplains who had no benefice of their own and acted in place of absentee (often pluralist) rectors, or as curates or chantry chaplains, were not above feeling aggrieved at the fact that they had to carry out all the duties of a parish priest without receiving any of the perks: they were paid a small wage but the tithes collected from their parishioners all went to the absentee parson, or to the bishop or religious house which owned the parish church. They were supposed to receive the fees for baptism, churching and burial, but even this was not always the case, and they were often required to teach in grammar schools as well as fulfil their employer’s pastoral and spiritual duties. To add insult to injury, the wages of stipendiary chaplains were limited by their archbishop’s decrees (most recently by Sudbury in 1378) and, uniquely among clerics, subject to the Statute of Labourers. They had suffered years of heavy taxation, convocation matching parliament’s poll-tax grants for the laity and sometimes exceeding them. The notorious third poll-tax had been set at a flat rate of 6s. 8d. for beneficed clergy; the rich were urged to help the poor, as with the lay tax, but 3s. 4d. was still the lowest rate even a poor chantry chaplain or stipendiary priest had to pay.27 This was not only more than three times the rate for the laity, but also a substantially higher proportion of their income than was paid by wealthier clergy. They shared many of the grievances of their parishioners, including the fact that their money was being taken to pay for an unsuccessful, ill-managed war in which good money was being thrown after bad to no purpose. Literate, numerate, accustomed to leadership but accessible in a way that their superiors were not, these disaffected clergy were naturally the men whom their parishioners would follow into revolt.

It was one such priest, the chaplain John Wrawe, who played a large part in drawing the county of Suffolk into rebellion. According to his own confession, on 12 June he had been present at a gathering of rebel contingents from Essex, Hertfordshire, Suffolk and Norfolk at the village of Liston on the Essex–Suffolk border: he had then sent a message back to his home town of Sudbury, just under four miles away, for reinforcements to join him in sacking Richard Lyons’s manor of Overhall at Liston. It is possible that the gathering before the attack was a planning meeting, because the following day Wrawe and his recruits began a concerted attack on the abbey of Bury St Edmunds, one of the wealthiest and most privileged houses in England with vast estates across eastern England from Yorkshire to Kent.28 The abbey also controlled the liberty of St Edmund, which covered most of west Suffolk. Granted to it by the king in the eleventh century, the liberty was to all intents and purposes run as a separate county by the abbot, who enjoyed not only the exercise of administrative and jurisdictional rights and privileges within the liberty, including the right to appoint officials who elsewhere were responsible to the crown, but also all the profits of government, from court fines down to fees for registering wills. After the rental income from the abbey’s rural estates and market tolls, these fees formed the third-largest source of its income. The second-largest revenue stream, market tolls, was growing rapidly. Suffolk was becoming one of the most industrial and urbanised areas of England and, at eighty per cent, had one of the highest proportions of free tenantry – though, significantly, most of the villeins and villein holdings were still to be found on the abbey’s manors.29

Bury St Edmunds was the administrative centre of the liberty and it too was thriving commercially. It was ideally situated as the hub of East Anglia, with Norwich and King’s Lynn less than forty miles away and Ipswich and Cambridge under thirty. It was connected not just by roads but by a hugely important network of navigable rivers, providing power for the fulling mills and cheap bulk transport for goods which could be taken by barges, poled by men or pulled by mules or oxen, through the shallows of the Fens out to the North Sea. The town itself was unusual in having been laid out in a grid pattern before the Conquest with two great squares, one in front of the west door of the abbey and the other, the Great Market, near the Risbygate, where there were permanent shops and stalls as well as a tri-weekly market for the liberty. One of the largest stone buildings on the western side of the Great Market, with a bell tower that was a prominent feature of the townscape, was the abbey’s toll house, where the abbot’s bailiffs held courts and collected all the tithings, rents and other revenues due from the town. The abbey benefited from all this commercial activity by imposing a second rent above and beyond the lease for water-powered mills, and taking a tithing for all ordinary business transactions and a highly lucrative share of all fish caught in its rivers. Unlike St Albans, it did allow its tenants to use hand-mills for their personal use, but they were forced to pay to use its mills for larger-scale flour production. It had a finger in every money-making pie, from the supervision of a profitable royal mint down to renting out the right to collect all the manure from the streets to interested farmers. A steady stream of pilgrims making their way to the shrine of St Edmund, king of the East Angles, who was martyred fighting the Viking invaders in 869, added to the prosperity of the town and greatly enriched the abbey with its offerings.30

The townsmen of Bury St Edmunds had created much of this wealth but, like their peers in St Albans, resented the abbey’s milking of their profits and refusal to allow them their independence. Though the townsmen had won the right in 1292 to have an alderman, who was mayor in all but name, they were still obliged to present three candidates to the abbot for him to make the final selection. And just like St Albans there had been disputes between abbey and town for generations. In 1327 these had flared into serious riots in which abbey servants were assaulted, its rural manor houses, barns and town houses were plundered and burned, and the abbey itself was besieged, broken into and looted and the monks seized. The abbot had been forcibly deported to Brabant and the prior and twelve monks held hostage in the guildhall and forced to sign bonds to the townsmen for ten thousand pounds. The abbot later cited around three hundred named individuals for these crimes, including three rectors and nineteen chaplains or assistant parochial clergy: the Franciscan friars, whom the abbey had doggedly refused permission to build a house within the town, paraded through the streets in support of the rebels and were later accused of helping the ringleaders to escape.31

The uprising of 1381 bore all the hallmarks of the great riot of 1327 but a more recent dispute had further soured relations between town and abbey. In 1379 the monks, led by their prior John de Cambridge, had elected the sub-prior John Tymworth as their new abbot; before he could be installed, news came from Rome that the pope had already appointed another Bury monk, Edmund Brounfeld, instead. The monks were divided in their support and, after the chapter meeting to discuss the issue degenerated into a brawl, Brounfeld’s party enlisted the townsmen to their cause. They responded enthusiastically, not least because they did not wish to see the prior’s nominee promoted to an even more powerful position, but partly because Brounfeld was considered likely to be more favourable to them as his brother was a burgess and his cousin Thomas Halesworth was then alderman of Bury. A large party of townsmen, including Halesworth, Robert Westbron, John Clakke and the parsons of Stansfield and Ixworth, forced their way into the abbey church, read the papal bull appointing Brounfeld from the high altar steps and returned a couple of days later formally to install their candidate. At which point, because the installation of a papal appointee was against the Statute of Provisors, Brounfeld and his supporters were arrested and imprisoned, the latter obtaining their release only on being bound over in large sums not to enter the abbey precincts or in any way harass the prior and his monks. This was not an issue that could be forgotten: as recently as 28 May 1381 the king had granted that half the sureties taken from Halesworth and Westbroun, if forfeited, should be given to the prior. And, since the pope did not give way and recognise Tymworth as abbot until 1384, Prior Cambridge was still legally the head of the abbey at the time of the revolt.32

The stage was therefore set for further confrontation when John Wrawe and his rebel band arrived in Bury on Thursday 13 June. They had made a detour on their journey to the village of Cavendish, five miles north-west of Sudbury, where Sir John Cavendish owned the manor of Overhall. Cavendish was one of the most hated men in Suffolk: a lawyer who had sat on every kind of royal commission, including those enforcing the Statute of Labourers, he had worked his way up to become chief justice of the King’s Bench in 1372. Remembered by the legaI profession for his refusal to estimate the age of a lady before him in court on the grounds that ‘there is no man in England who can with certainty say whether a woman is of full age or not, for there are women of thirty who try to pass themselves off as eighteen’, he was infamous among his contemporaries for being hand in glove with the abbey, which had regularly called on his services since at least 1357.33 On the day the rebels came calling Cavendish was sitting in Bury St Edmunds, carrying out routine sessions of assize. Whether they looked for him at his manor, or indeed attacked his manor, is not known, though it seems likely as John Peek, keeper of the rolls of the King’s Bench, had property in Cavendish stolen that day. All that Wrawe eventually admitted was that they had gone to the parish church and Ralph Somerton of Sudbury, who had stolen the keys, let them in and showed them where Cavendish had hidden his valuables in the tower. Cavendish had obviously taken this precaution because of the unrest already evident just over the border in Essex: only the previous day Richard Lyons’s manor at Liston, just four miles away, had been sacked. Cavendish owned the right of presentation to the church, so he would have had no difficulty in persuading the parson to hide his possessions there, though he had not counted on someone betraying their whereabouts. The rebels carried off his silver, including a candlestick worth seven pounds, and a velvet tunic worth 26s. 8d., and went to celebrate at the tavern in Long Melford where they allegedly drank a whole pipe (105 gallons) of red wine and had to leave their haul in pledge until Wrawe returned to pay the bill out of his own money.34

News of this incident was carried so swiftly to Bury St Edmunds that by the time Wrawe and his band reached the town later that same day both Cavendish and the prior had fled. Wrawe had it proclaimed that all the able-bodied men of Bury should go immediately to the south gate to join his forces, on pain of execution, and prepared to seek out the fugitives. The chief justice had probably decided to make his way either to Ely or, more likely, given his choice of route, King’s Lynn, but when he got to the abbey’s manor of Lakenheath on the edge of the Fens, seventeen miles north-west of Bury, he was intercepted. Cavendish was a familiar and deeply unpopular figure in the town because of his suppression of the riots in 1371 and enforcement of the Statute of Labourers which had led to the two constables refusing to cooperate with the King’s Bench in 1379. He was recognised and, with the townsmen in hot pursuit, made for a boat drawn up on the bank of the Little Ouse so that he could cross the river into Norfolk. Realising what he planned to do, a quick-thinking woman called Katherine Gamen pushed the boat out into the river, cutting off his only escape route. Cavendish was thus surrounded, overpowered and beheaded.35 His chamberlain, who may have been with Cavendish at the time, later denounced a fuller, John Potter of Somerton, as one of the murderers; despite protesting his innocence Potter was tried, convicted and himself beheaded. Unless this was a trumped-up charge, Potter’s involvement suggests that it was not just locals who committed the murder. Somerton was some twenty-five miles south of Lakenheath but less than ten from Bury, so Potter may have been one of the rebels who joined Wrawe’s band in that town; a jury later gave evidence that Wrawe, his lieutenant Geoffrey Parfrey and four hundred men were in the vicinity of Mildenhall on 14 June, searching for Cavendish and John de Cambridge. Since this was the day Cavendish met his end, it would appear that they found him.36

According to an account written by John Gosford, the abbey’s almoner, the prior may have had a day’s start on the chief justice. He had fled by night to the house of a faithful servant at the abbey’s manor of Mildenhall, some twelve miles north-west of Bury. There he hid all day before trying again, under cover of darkness, to make his escape by boat across the Fens to Ely, but an angry crowd of locals prevented him from going on board, and he only escaped from them with difficulty. Instead, he decided to chance his arm by going overland to Cambridge with just a single guide to accompany him. Gosford says that two or three times the locals made attempts to detain him as he left Mildenhall, wounding him in the process, but the pair travelled some six miles before reaching a wood outside Newmarket, where the prior hid while his guide went to get provisions in the town. Instead of going into Newmarket, however, the guide doubled back and returned to Mildenhall, where he betrayed the prior’s location to the men from Bury who were searching for him there. They surrounded the wood with cries of ‘Where is the traitor hiding?’, found the unfortunate man, frog-marched him three miles to Newmarket and allegedly spent the night taunting him as the Jews had taunted Christ on the eve of his crucifixion. (Gosford undoubtedly had his eye on the fact that the abbey had another martyr in the making, so was keen to draw the relevant parallels; in the process he managed to add an extra night to the story which is not borne out by other sources.)

On the morning of 15 June John de Cambridge was escorted back to Mildenhall Heath to be greeted by crowds baying ‘Kill the traitor! Kill the traitor!’ and forced to descend from his horse while the men from Bury decided his fate. It was a foregone conclusion, since among those present were men who had fought him and lost in 1379, including Thomas Halesworth and Robert Westbron: John Wrawe, who admitted being there himself, claimed in his accusation against the other two that the prior would not have been killed if they had not been present. Cambridge was allowed to make his confession to a priest from Mildenhall, then beheaded. His corpse was left lying unburied on the heath for several days but his head was stuck on a lance and carried back in triumph to Bury, where it was placed on the pillory next to that of Cavendish. In a gruesome piece of theatre, the rebels put the prior’s head close to Cavendish’s ear ‘as though seeking advice’, then to his mouth, as if giving the kiss of friendship, ‘wishing in this way to taunt them for the friendship and counsel they had shared in life’.37

Having gained their two main objects, the rebels in Bury entered the abbey cloisters looking for further victims. They demanded certain monks involved in the administration of the abbey’s property by name, and when they could not be found they clamoured for John de Lakenheath, the keeper of the abbey’s barony, whom they dragged out to the market-place and beat senseless, then beheaded him too, adding his head to those already on the pillory.38 Such was the terror instilled in the remaining monks that when the rebels demanded that they should bring all their charters and muniments to the guildhall they did so without demur, handing over also a solid golden chalice and a gilded and bejewelled cross worth three hundred marks as pledges that they would accept Brounfeld as their abbot and that he would confirm the townsmen’s ancient liberties and any further concessions they would seek. Brounfeld’s brother also pledged all his possessions that, if reinstated, the abbot would grant them all they demanded. His arrival was imminently expected as the Bury rebels believed that their fellow insurgents from Essex had already petitioned the king for his release. Unusually, though the townsmen were looking for ancient charters setting out their privileges, they did not burn or destroy the rest, since they were later able to hand these back intact.39

In the meantime, Wrawe’s band in Bury had already released the prisoners from the abbey’s prison in the Great Market, looted and demolished a tenement and its adjacent buildings belonging to the prior, and ransacked Cavendish’s house in the town; Wrawe would later accuse John Talmache, esquire, a scion of what would become the Tollemache family of Helmingham Hall, of stealing the prior’s bay horse worth twenty marks and keeping Cavendish’s gilded and bejewelled sword, valued at one hundred marks, which Wrawe’s own servant had presented to Talmache.40 Other people connected to the abbey were also targeted. Edmund Herring, a clerk of the King’s Bench who acted as the abbot’s attorney, had his houses looted, and Thomas atte Ook, whose manor of Barham lay six miles north of Ipswich, was murdered. In 1369 atte Ook had provided sureties for the future good behaviour of the monks after they had secretly buried a monk who had been accidentally killed in a fight in their dormitory. He was not just a friend to the abbey but was also steward of the bishopric of Ely, a regular colleague of John Cavendish on royal commissions throughout East Anglia, a current justice of the peace in Suffolk and, perhaps most tellingly of all, a late addition to the Suffolk commission to assess and collect the third poll-tax.41

Just as we have seen before, particularly in Kent and London, the arrival of Wrawe had encouraged the townsmen to take up arms and carry out their own specific aims. Inevitably, after the revolt was crushed, Wrawe would try to save his own life by shifting the blame for the most serious crimes on to the townsmen and vice versa: in fact, the townsmen went so far as to allege that Wrawe’s band had entered the town ‘in the absence of the people of the said town of Bury’.42 Not all the crimes could by any means be laid at Wrawe’s door. They clearly had some common aims, but Wrawe had a larger picture in mind than just the conflict in Bury. The townsmen had needed little persuasion to join him, but it is worth noting that another agitator had also been at work. In July 1381 the alderman John Osbern accused ‘Georgius de Dounesby of the county of Lincolnshire’ of coming to Bury and claiming ‘that he was the messenger of a great society [who] was sent to the town of St Edmund to make the commons of the town rebel’. Much has been made of this claim. There was indeed a place called Dunsby in Lincolnshire, where the tenants of the Knights Hospitaller were refusing to perform their services, so it has been assumed that Dounseby travelled the seventy-five miles from his home village to make his pronouncement in Bury and that the uprising must already therefore have been in full swing in Lincolnshire. The more prosaic answer is that he probably lived locally, perhaps in Sudbury, and, like so many ‘incomers’, had acquired his surname to distinguish him from other Georges in the town: he could well have been the one making the proclamations to the men of Bury on Wrawe’s behalf. What has caused palpitations among some commentators is the idea that Dounesby was ‘sent by’ and acting on behalf of ‘a great society’, which suggests some large confederacy of political activists with an agreed agenda who had been working underground to bring about the revolution. Other rebels were also accused of speaking on behalf of ‘a great society’ – Thomas Faukoner at Winchester and Adam Clymme in Cambridgeshire, for example – but the phrase was in common parlance and meant no more than a large crowd or gathering. Reading anything further into it than, at most, a group with a common aim such as the ‘great society’ raised at Romsey by the men from Winchester to carry out additional specific acts of rebellion, is a historical solecism.43

What are we to make of John Wrawe’s involvement in the revolt? He has been dismissed as a bandit chief ‘ambitious without ideas and greedy without scruples’, whose confessions confirm that his ‘primary objective was the levying of blackmail and protection money from the surrounding localities’.44 This is unfair. His confession was probably forced from him by torture, and although he had turned king’s evidence in the hope of saving himself he named only four obvious ringleaders among the townsmen of Bury as being involved in the murders of Cavendish, the prior and John Lakenheath. The two oft-cited examples of his ‘extortions’ may not be all they seem. All too often in the course of the revolt, what appears on the surface to be a flagrant example of extracting money by threats of violence turns out to be a private quarrel, usually concerning an unpaid debt or a bond held as security, which the donor wanted cancelled. There is probably more than meets the eye, for example, in the fact that a group of Wrawe’s associates from Sudbury, including Geoffrey Parfeye the vicar of All Saints church, Thomas his chaplain, Adam Bray, a tanner of Sudbury, and Thomas Munchesy the younger, esquire, whose family manor at Edwardstone lay six miles east of Sudbury, all went to Thetford, Norfolk, on 14 June and ‘extorted’ twenty marks from the mayor and corporation to save the town from being burned down. It is more probable, given Wrawe’s influence and activities elsewhere, that they were trying to raise the town in revolt rather than destroy it. An even more unconvincing alleged act of extortion is Wrawe’s accusation that Sir Thomas Cornard had threatened to call in Wrawe’s band to kill John Rookwood and burn down his tenements unless he gave him ten marks. Cornard left with only eight marks, but this was almost certainly a family dispute. Cornard was the brother-inlaw of Sir Robert Swinburne, a former and future MP for Essex, and the two men regularly helped one another in financial transactions; Swinburne was a close friend of the murdered chief justice, and with his son-in-law John Rookwood was executor of Cavendish’s will. Given that Cavendish had been murdered that day, there may be a link to him, but it is inherently improbable that Cornard blackmailed Rookwood in such a way – and for such a small sum.45

Wrawe’s deeds, rather than his words, mark him out as one of the most important leaders of the revolt in East Anglia, though frustratingly, like Wat Tyler, he seems to have sprung fully formed into action without having left a trace on earlier records. He was evidently a leader whose authority was recognised by rebels both in Suffolk and elsewhere, particularly in Norfolk. On 19 June Martin Mannyng, who was then staying in Sudbury, sent letters ‘ex parte Johannis Wraw’ to three men in East Dereham, Norfolk, which was more than fifty miles away, ordering them to return a freehold to Mannyng; the following day John Ikesworth and others broke into the rectory at Wickmere, Norfolk, ‘by the command and warrant of John Wrawe’ and by the same authority took goods valued at ten pounds from Brother Thomas de Hengam, a canon of the Premonstratensian abbey of West Dereham, who was probably an absentee.46 Most significantly of all, on 25 June the Norfolk rebels who had compelled the burgesses of Great Yarmouth to hand over their charter of liberties cut it in two and sent one half to John Wrawe and other named leaders by whose ‘abetting, consent, procuration and maintenance’ they had achieved their aim.47

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