Skip to main content

From Fobbing to Chelmsford

In May 1381 England was recovering from the ‘Black Death’, a plague that killed between one third and half of the population.

At the same time the nation was embroiled with its ‘100 years’ war with France. The war was not going well and was expensive. The majority of the army overseas had not been paid for months. The decline in population had substantially reduced tax revenues and put a severe strain on the feudal system that effectively obliged labourers to work for a specific manorial Lord in perpetuity. There was now a labour shortage. In many cases, even though this was against laws enacted to control labour, men simply left their manors to find work elsewhere for better wages and conditions.

Parliament was determined to raise money. Five years earlier it had introduced the first poll tax. This head tax had applied to almost everyone over the age of 14. A second poll tax was levied in 1379 and, in 1380, a third, charging one shilling, or 3 groats (5p), on all people over the age of 16.
It was hoped that the richer elements in society would help the poor; piously expressed at the time as ‘the strong might aid the weak’. This was the case in some areas but in many places the tax was a heavy burden.
The latest tax managed to antagonise nearly everyone and led to widespread evasion. Official population figures for Essex in 1381 showed a dramatic decrease of between 35 – 40% from previously recorded figures.
This downward adjustment of the population figures was achieved with the connivance of local civic leaders who simply understated the local population on their returns. Parliament became suspicious and sent commissioners to check on the accuracy of the numbers of people liable to pay the tax.
On 30th May 1381, John Bampton, an Essex JP and the Estate Steward of Barking Abbey, was sent to Brentwood accompanied by Sir John Gilsburgh MP, the Speaker of the House of Commons. Their task was to conduct enquiries into the missing people and revenue in the Barstable Hundred. The Barstable Hundred was an old administrative area of Essex that that stretched from Brentwood, south to Tilbury, then east to Benfleet, including Canvey Island and all the area that is Basildon and Laindon today.
John Bampton was notoriously corrupt. During his career he had acquired several properties in Essex by dubious means. Sir John Gilsburgh also owned many properties in Essex including a large estate and Manor House at Wennington, near Aveley. He was also an unashamed champion of the war with France and had campaigned energetically in Parliament for additional funds to billet the English army in Brittany during the winter.

The remains of Thomas à Becket Chapel in Brentwood High Street. It was a popular stopping point for pilgrims travelling south on their way to Canterbury in the middle ages.

The commissioners set up court close to the Thomas à Becket Chapel in Brentwood. The leader of those summoned, Thomas Baker of Fobbing, stated that not a penny more would be paid, so the commissioners ordered his arrest. This resulted in a riot and the commissioners, with their entourage, fled for their lives back to London.
Three days later, on Whit Sunday, 2nd June, a High Court Judge, Sir Robert Belknap, arrived in Brentwood with the task of restoring order and resuming the enquiry.  He had strict orders to seek out and punish the rioters. However, the Essex men were well prepared. During the intervening three days messengers sent by Thomas Baker had galloped all over Essex and what is now East London, calling for resistance at Brentwood. The mob had now grown to thousands and the Judge’s ‘hard man’ approach only inflamed them further. Riot again ensued. Belknap was manhandled then stripped and made to swear an oath on the bible. He was lucky to escape with his life. Three of his clerks were not so fortunate. They were seized and beheaded, as were some local jurors accused of collaborating. Their heads were put on poles for all to see. All of the court records were then burnt in a huge bonfire.

The incident was a catalyst that sparked the ‘Peasants (or Great) Revolt’. Almost immediately attacks took place all over the south of England, especially on those properties associated with Parliament. Cressing Temple, near Braintree, in Essex, was a target as Sir Robert Hales, the Treasurer (equivalent to today’s Chancellor of the Exchequer) was Master of the Hospitallers that owned Cressing
Inspired by John Ball, a radical preacher from Colchester, the Essex rebels crossed the River Thames and joined with those of Kent, who were led by Wat Tyler.

End of Part 1 Part 2 Follows