Tower-of-London1OK, so not really a battle although it must have felt something like that to those involved (and the ‘battlefield’ turned out to be much of the City itself), the uprising known as Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 saw two great armies march upon London – one from Kent led by Wat Tyler and another from Essex which is said to have been under the command of Jack Straw.

The armies had risen in response to a series of events which they saw as unjust and which trace their origins back to the Black Death. Killing about a third of the population when it struck some 30 years earlier, this had resulted in a growing demand for labourers to work the fields raising, as one might expect, hopes of increased wages and greater freedom of movement among the peasant class.

But to ensure the social order was maintained, authorities had not only put limits on how much farm workers could be paid but ensured long-standing but increasingly unpopular practices – such as serfs being forced to work some time for free for their landlords – were maintained. On top of this came the imposition and enforcement of a series of poll taxes to fund England’s wars with France.

The poll taxes – and the harsh way in which they were enforced – were a step too far and when a tax collector visited the village of Fobbing in Essex in May, 1381, he was shown short shrift and thrown out. The unrest soon spread and by June, the rebels, having rampaged through the countryside were marching on London.

By 12th June, the men from Essex were camped at Mile End while Tyler and his army from Kent were at Blackheath. The next day, after being denied a meeting with the king, the rebels headed into the City where sympathetic Londoners opened the gates. Once inside, they targeted the property of those they deemed responsible for their misfortune, opening prisons and destroying any legal records they could find.

Foremost among the sites attacked and looted was the Palace of Savoy (see our earlier post here), home of the King’s uncle John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and, as the power behind the throne, the man many deemed as the ultimate source of the ills besetting them (John himself had a lucky escape – he was away from the city when the palace was attacked.).

King Richard met with the leaders of the men from Essex on 14th June at their camp at Mile End and, after they pledged their allegiance, agreed to their petitions to abolish serfdom and allow them to sell their labour. But the attacks, meanwhile, were continuing in the City with a group of rebels led by Tyler storming the Tower of London (pictured above) the same day and seizing and beheading the Simon of Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor, along with the Robert Hales, Lord High Treasurer and Prior of St John’s in Clerkenwell – both key figures in the government of the king (you can read more about Simon of Sudbury here).

The following day – 15th June – King Richard again met with the rebel leaders – this time with Wat Tyler, leader of the Kentish band, at Smithfield. It was then that things went awry for the rebels. Apparently enraged by Tyler’s insolence (already stories differ as to exactly why he did so), the Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Walworth (see our earlier post here), stabbed Tyler in the neck. King Richard managed to keep the situation under control until armed troops arrived and after the king declared a general pardon, the rebels dispersed.

Tyler, meanwhile, was taken to St Bartholomew’s Hospital but on the orders of the Lord Mayor was dragged from his bed and beheaded (his head was displayed atop a pole positioned in a field). He was among dozens of the rebels who were subsequently executed for their role in the uprising (leaders Jack Straw and another, John Ball, were among them).

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Recently making news headlines thanks to the work of Adrienne Barker of the University of Dundee in reconstructing his face, Simon of Sudbury wasn’t born in London and, in fact, spent much of his early life elsewhere. But, as Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury, he was a key figure in the 14th century city and it was in London that he eventually met his grisly death during the Peasant’s Revolt.

Simon Theobold was born around 1316 – the son of a wealthy Norfolk merchant – and, while details of his early life are scant, it has been suggested he studied at Cambridge before eventually entering the service of William Bateman, the Bishop of Norwich. He apparently became caught in the middle of a dispute between the bishop and the Abbot of Bury St Edmunds (the details of which we don’t have time to get into here) and it was this which is said to have led to the issuing of a royal order for his arrest, a move which forced him to flee England for the papal court at Avignon.

He quickly came to the attention of the popes and took on an official role, the reward for which was the income from various positions in the English church including Chancellor of Salisbury. In 1356, Pope Innocent VI sent him on a peace mission to King Edward III and it was during this mission that he came to the attention of the king. Having never been formally outlawed, he was apparently forgiven his earlier crimes and was soon acting on behalf of the king including at the Papal court.

In 1361, Simon was made Bishop of London and spent the next 10 years in the role, as well as continuing to act for the king, notably as a diplomat.

In 1375 following the death of incumbent William Whittelsey, he was elevated to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. His time as archbishop was somewhat troubled – as well as facing accusations of being too close to the king, he also faced criticism over his treatment of Bible translator John Wycliffe – but it was his role in secular politics which led to his demise.

Following the accession of King Richard II in 1377, in 1380 Simon was appointed chancellor, a position which meant he bore the ultimate responsibility for the imposition of an extremely unpopular new poll tax. In 1381, there were calls for his death at the outbreak of rebellion in Kent, notably when the rebels entered Canterbury Cathedral. But as the crisis now known as the Peasant’s Revolt gained momentum, Sudbury remained with the king in the Tower of London where he apparently counselled a hard line.

King Richard II when to parley with the traitors at Mile End on 14th June and there apparently indicated that action would be taken against traitors around him (Wat Tyler was killed when the king again met the rebels, this time at Smithfield, the following day). A group of rebels subsequently stormed the tower and dragged out Sudbury and the treasurer, Sir Robert Hales. Taken to Tower Hill, they were there beheaded. Sudbury’s head, which apparently had a skullcap nailed to his skull, was impaled on a lance and put on display over London Bridge. His body was buried in Canterbury Cathedral.

The skull, meanwhile, was apparently taken down by a Sudbury man and taken back to his home town where it was kept at St Gregory’s Church. Some 630 years later, following an approach by Sudbury locals, forensic artist Adrienne Barker from the University of Dundee was asked to recontruct Simon’s head.

Following some CT scans of the skull, Barker – who carried out the work as part of her MSc Forensic Art studies under the tutelage of renowned facial reconstruction expert Professor Caroline Wilkinson – used state-of-the-art reconstruction techniques to recreate Sudbury’s facial features and complete a series of 3-D bronze-resin casts of his head. The models, one of which will be on permanent display at St Gregory’s Church in Sudbury alongside Simon’s skull, were unveiled in September.

PICTURE: University of Dundee

Nestled on Tower Hill, somewhat overshadowed by the monumental memorial to the merchant naval casualities of World War I and II nearby, lay a series of plaques commemorating more than 125 people who were executed there.

The plaques, which stand on the site of the former scaffold, list the names of some of the most prominent who died there including Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was beheaded by an angry mob during the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, and former chancellor Sir Thomas More – both of whom were executed in 1535 on the orders of King Henry VIII, and Thomas Cromwell, another chancellor who fell foul of King Henry VIII and was executed in 1540.

Later executions include William Laud, another Archbishop of Canterbury who was executed in 1645, James, Duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate son of King Charles II who was executed in 1685, and Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, who became the last man to be executed there in 1747 (and the last man in England to be beheaded) after his capture following the Battle of Culloden in Scotland.

An inscription at the site reads that the memorial was created to “commemorate the tragic history and in many cases the martyrdom of those who for the sake of their faith, country or ideals staked their lives and lost”.

It’s worth noting that contrary to popular belief only 10 people were ever executed on Tower Green inside the Tower of London including two of King Henry VIII’s queens – Anne Boelyn (1536) and Catherine Howard (1542) – as well as the tragically young Lady Jane Grey, queen for only nine days before she was beheaded in 1554, and three Black Watch soldiers who were shot in 1743 after being charged with mutiny.