Continued from Part I
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.
On Blackheath, a high point overlooking Greenwich, the River Thames and central London, the rebels gathered.
As they waited, camped on the heath, the rebels were reminded of the collective injustices they had suffered by sermons from John Ball.
Meanwhile on the banks of the river negotiations between rebels leaders and King Richard II’s party took place. The king remained aboard the Royal Barge anchored a little way from the water’s edge.
The negotiations came to nothing. Egged on by Wat Tyler the rebels moved on the capital. Initially their path was blocked, but sympathisers opened the gates of London Bridge and the rebels swarmed into the city. Mayhem ensued and the government of Richard II was nearly toppled after the Tower of London was captured and the Savoy palace, the home of the hated John of Gaunt, was burnt down.
Two weeks of looting and burning followed. As always, criminals and other malcontents used the opportunity to join in an orgy of destruction and settle scores, especially when prisoners facing the gallows in London were freed. Summary justice was meted out, foreigners were randomly murdered and two top government officers, Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Robert Hales, the Treasurer, were beheaded in front of the Tower of London.
In a risky move, on the 14th June, Richard II agreed to speak again with the rebels, this time at Smithfield in London. Wat Tyler, who was allegedly the worse for wear through drink, made an attempt to grab hold of the king but in the ensuing melee he was he fatally stabbed by William Walworth, the Mayor of London.
The young King Richard, only 14 years old, then faced the leaderless crowd and won them over with promises of fair treatment in return for promises of loyalty. The king’s promises and the death of Wat Tyler had the effect of taking the heat out the revolt, although the following day, June the 15th, another high profile figure became a victim when the Chief Justice, Sir John Cavendish, was beheaded by rebels in Bury St Edmunds.
Essex was where ‘The whole madness first sprang’
So it was only natural the ringleaders would hang.
The King lodged at Writtle where his edicts flowed
For seven days, in a torrent that never slowed.
Following the death of Wat Tyler and the peaceful dispersal of his followers at Smithfield, King Richard II moved swiftly to impose his authority. Elements of the rebellion were still active in the country. In Essex a sizeable rebel group massed near Billericay. The rebels vowed to fight on but were sought out and comprehensively defeated by forces loyal to the king. The stragglers fled further north into Essex and then into Suffolk but everywhere the king’s men were waiting.
With the countryside considered secure, the royal court first moved from London to the Royal Palace at Havering and then on to Chelmsford. From 1st July until 6th July 1381 the king and his court took up residence at King John’s former hunting lodge* at Writtle.
For seven days Writtle became the seat of Government. Edicts and proclamations were produced almost non-stop and messengers carried them to all corners of the kingdom. Their substance was that the rebellion was over and the only lawful authority was the king or his appointees. Furthermore, any promises made to the rebels earlier were withdrawn as they had been made ‘under duress’. King Richard then quashed any hopes that lingered of newfound freedoms for the rebels by saying of them, Villeins ye are still and villeins ye shall remain. **
Following the death of the Chief Justice, Sir John Cavendish, the king appointed Sir Robert Tresilian. He set up court in Chelmsford with the purpose of bringing the instigators of the revolt to justice. Delegations of rebels came to Chelmsford begging for mercy.
Tresilian promised to spare their lives if the ringleaders were named. Over 145 rebel leaders were identified. No mercy was shown to those who were caught. After a short trial they were executed and their property confiscated. Included in these was Thomas Baker from Fobbing. John Ball the Colchester priest was caught a month later and hung, drawn and quartered at St Albans.
Although the status quo returned, there was no doubt the rebellion had rocked the establishment to its core. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Justice and the Treasurer had been killed. Several Royal lodges and ‘Official’ buildings had been looted then burned and most of the local records had been destroyed along with them.
Yet in a final twist, six months later, on 14th December 1381, Parliament declared a general amnesty to all rebels still at large.
Wat Tyler is remembered today as a hero of the people and is commemorated in Pitsea by the ‘Wat Tyler Country Park’
* Formerly King John’s Palace and now the site of Writtle College.
**The word Villien is derived from the French or Latin villanus, meaning serf or peasant, someone who is tied to the land and manor.
Video Short. The Peasants Revolt Explained In Less Than Five Minutes
©Extracted from Battlefield Essex
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