Post-classical history


Jack Straw

Some commentators have argued that Jack Straw was a pseudonym adopted by Wat Tyler, and not a separate individual. Henry Knighton, a monastic chronicler writing in Leicester in the 1380s, was the first to suggest this, telling us that the king was approached at Smithfield on 15 June ‘by the rebels’ leader, properly called Watte Tyler but now known by the different name of Jakke Strawe’. Fifteenth-century London chroniclers and a couple of contemporary political poems also assume that it was Straw who was killed at Smithfield, but they do not make any reference to Tyler who has no role at all in the revolt in their accounts.1

Folklore historians have added weight to this elision of the two captains by drawing attention to the fact that ‘Jack Straw’ is a name traditionally associated with seasonal revelries and therefore an appropriate pseudonym for a rebel captain to adopt. In 1517, for instance, after the damage caused during the Christmas revels at Lincoln’s Inn, the authorities declared that ‘Jack Straw and all his adherents be from henceforth utterly banyshed and no more to be used in Lincolles Inne’. Mummers and revellers with straw-stuffed or straw-clad figures are not uncommon features in folk custom, from the mischievous Strawboys of All Hallows Eve in Ireland to the Plough Boys’ plays of Lincolnshire.2 Yet the point that seems to be missed here is that all these verified examples post-date the great revolt and it cannot be proved that they belonged to an earlier tradition, pre-dating 1381. Is it not more likely that later revellers adopted the troublesome leader of the rebellion as an iconic figure of mischief, just as the real Guy Fawkes who tried to blow up parliament in 1605 became the guy for whom pennies are begged on Mischief Night? Straw’s name was certainly remembered in connection with the great revolt and to such powerful effect that rebel leaders of even very minor uprisings in Warwickshire in 1407 and North Yorkshire in 1485 chose to call themselves ‘Jack Straw’.3

It is true that ‘Jack Straw’ chimes well with other generic names from popular culture, such as Hobbe the Robber, Jack Carter and, most famously of all, Piers Plowman, all of which were circulating at the time of the revolt. It may even have been a pseudonym adopted by one of the rebel captains who wished to conceal his true identity. But it was not an alias of Wat Tyler who, as we shall see, was an entirely different man. So who was Straw, or ‘Rakestraw’, as he sometimes appears in the records? The simple answer is that we do not know. He first comes to public notice on 13 June when a group of rebels including the chaplain, clerk and sacristan of St John’s Church at Margate on the Isle of Thanet, Kent, made a proclamation in the church ‘by commission of John Rakestraw and Watte Tegheler, of Essex’ that an attack should be made on the house of William Medmenham, the coroner of Kent; a similar proclamation was made on the same day, four miles away, in St Laurence’s church on the outskirts of Ramsgate.4 The suggestion here that Straw, like Tyler, was ‘of Essex’ is noteworthy and is confirmed by Walsingham, who notes that men from his abbey saw Jack Straw commanding the Essex rebels who burned down the Hospitallers’ manor at Highbury on 14 June.5

Another reference, this time to Rakestraw’s ‘meynee’, or company, occurs in the records of Battle Abbey’s manor of Wye, site of the tile factory and at the heart of the rebellion in Kent: at least five of the manor’s demesne servants had been ‘ensnared by Rakestrawesmayne’ and abandoned their haymaking to join the rebels, so that others had to be paid to take their place.6 A further source again links Straw and Tyler personally but as separate individuals. In 1384 Nicholas Est of Heston, Middlesex, accused a group of men of having broken into his house during the revolt, carried away his chests, goods and chattels, beaten him with swords and staves and finally imprisoned him until he paid a ransom of forty shillings. The accused admitted the offences but justified themselves by saying that they had no evil intent and that they had only acted under duress from ‘Jack Straw, Wat Tyler, and other rebels’, an excuse which entitled them to a pardon under the general amnesty.7 Though their claim is dubious at best, it shows that the names of the two leaders were common currency and endorses their different identities.

The final piece of evidence is perhaps the most convincing. The parliamentary petition of 1383–4 concerning four rebel captains who were put to death without due process of law to prevent their being rescued and for the swifter suppression of the revolt lists ‘Jakke Strawe’ as captain, leader and chief ‘in Essex’ after Wat Tyler ‘of the county of Kent’. The inclusion of Straw’s name among those of other verifiable individuals (the other two were John Hauchach in Cambridgeshire and Robert Ffyppe in Huntingdonshire) not only confirms his separate existence but also discredits Walsingham’s fanciful account of Straw’s public confession at the gallows after his alleged capture and trial by the mayor of London. It reiterates the Essex connection which seems to bind all three of the main rebel leaders and makes it clear that Straw was not John Wrawe, the rebel chaplain from Sudbury, despite the similarity of their names. Wrawe’s activities are well documented and were all confined to Suffolk; the legal record concerning his trial and execution, which includes his lengthy confession, is one of the most detailed to have survived.8

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