The middle classes are revolting, 1450

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And they lay at Mile End without Aldgate, and so they besieged the city, and then was London Bridge drawn and the gates of the city kept with men of arms.

When we start to look for primary, first-hand sources beyond about 500 years ago, it becomes harder – naturally fewer documents survive from earlier eras, but also there was less of a sense of personal narrative. In Western culture at least, the ‘diary’ is largely an invention of the Renaissance, and when we go back to the 15th century or earlier in Britain at least, often the closest documents we have to such a thing are in the form of chronicles of events – and these were often written long after the events they describe. But sometimes they can have an immediacy which does suggest they come from real familiarity – and that’s what we seem to have this time; if not as a direct eyewitness, then at least close to the events described.

In the spring and early summer of 1450, there was a revolt against corruption in Henry VI’s court in the form of what became known as Jack Cade’s rebellion. A group of rebels, mostly from Kent and Sussex, were disaffected with the behaviour of national and local officials, and the king’s failure to bring them to account, as well as the losses their communities had suffered in the wars against France now known as the Hundred Years’ War. Many of the rebels were merchants and from the middle classes of society, even if the peasantry joined their call to arms. A shadowy figure by the name of Jack Cade (he also used the alias John Mortimer, in a reference to the ancestry of Henry’s rival, Richard, Duke of York)1 put together a manifesto, ‘The Complaint of the Poor Commons of Kent’, a proclamation of these grievances. You can read the whole list here, but here’s a small sample:

Item. The law serves of nought else in these days but for to do wrong, for nothing is spread almost but false matters by color of the law for reward, dread and favor and so no remedy is had in the Court of Equity in any way.

Item. We say our sovereign lord may understand that his false council has lost his law, his merchandise is lost, his common people is destroyed, the sea is lost, France is lost, the king himself is so set that he may not pay for his meat nor drink, and he owes more than ever any King of England ought, for daily his traitors about him where anything should come to him by his laws, anon they take it from him. 

The king remained deaf to these entreaties, however, and in May and June several thousand rebels began to march towards London, mustering at Blackheath in early June and then heading for London Bridge. I was curious to learn whether there were any eyewitness accounts of these events. There are indeed several accounts in chronicles of the era, but one that stands out was compiled by a man believed to be called Robert Bale, apparently either a notary or a scrivener (a form of legal secretary) who possibly died in 1473. Bale’s Chronicle spans the period from 1189 to 1461, but is notably more detailed after 1440. Here, then, is his account (with modernised spellings).2

The 12th day of June assembled at Blackheath beside London of men of Kent came a great people well arrayed… the same day came the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Rivers into the city with great power of people in liveries with viands and arrayed for war.

The Monday 15th day of June, the king, lying at Saint John’s beside Smithfield with great people sent heralds and knights to the said Blackheath and to bid the captain of Kent [i.e. Cade] with his people there gathered to withdraw them. And they sent answer again that they were there for the king’s right and the land. And they had marvellously staked all the field about them that no power of horsemen should come and override them.

The same day against even[ing] rode toward the same field by the king’s commandment the Earl of Northum­berland, the Lord Scales and the Lord Lisle with a great fellowship of spears and bows and there was numbered by a herald of people in the said captain’s fellowship 40,000 and more. [Modern estimates suggest it was more likely 10% of this figure.]

And on the morn, the king, having with him the Duke of Exeter and the Duke of Buckingham, and many earls, lords and knights in substance of all this land with a mighty army of people was proposed toward the said heath to have met with the said cap­tain… And the captain demeaned him[self] to the lords in such wise and called himself and his people petitioners, answering to them that his coming to the heath was not to do any harm but to have the desires of the commons in the parliament fulfilled. And the lords appointed [i.e. agreed] with him that all things should be redressed, and so the lords came again to the king and should by promise bring or send to the same captain by a certain hour assigned from the king a conclusion of the same appointment. Howbeit, because the lords neither came nor sent word from the king to the captain again of the king’s will to his intent and desire, there­fore the said captain refused the king’s appointment sent to him and ordained and disposed him[self] to keep the field against the king. And then the king, with a mighty army, [went] toward the said heath and the said captain, having thereof witing [knowledge] withdrew him[self] and all his people in the night and fled and took with them their stakes and ordinance.

On the morn Thursday rode for to pursue after the said captain Sir Thomas Stanley and one Daniel, which had great rule about the king, and led with them a great people, well arrayed for defence… with great puissance [power/force] to take the said captain. Howbeit, the said captain and his people, laying in an bushment [ambush], met and countered with these lords and… hurt much of their people.

The same day at 9 afore noon, the king rode armed through Cheap[side] with his said dukes, earls, lords, and knights with right a notable and royal power toward the said heath… And all that night and on the morn came much people to strength[en] the king at Greenwich, of Lancaster and Cheshire and other shires…

…the king commanded all his host to muster up on the said heath and there was then… a mighty puissance which was assigned by the King’s Council to have risen into Kent and pursue the said captain and his people and so to have destroyed Kent and taken them. But the captain and his fellowship disposed them in such wise and departed his people in several bushments to have recountered with the lords and their puissance. So that the king’s host made then a sudden shout and noise upon the said heath, saying destroy we these traitors about the king which that the said captain hath intended to do or ever we will do it. Whereupon the king granted their desire and commanded the Lord Saye, Chamberlain of England, to be taken, and so he was arrested in the king’s presence… and the said Lord Saye was committed to the Tower…

On the Thursday, the second day of July, the said captain with his people, which were a full rude people, came suddenly at 4 after ­noon into Southwark, and all took up the inns and places.

On the morrow came a great fellowship out of Essex ordained by the said captain. And they lay at Mile End without Aldgate, and so they besieged the city, and then was London Bridge drawn and the gates of the city kept with men of arms. And one Robert Horn, alderman, Philip Malpas, alderman, and John Gest were in the heavy conceit [i.e. on the mind of] of the captain, and he and his people called them traitors and extortioners and would that the governors of the city should have put and sent them out of the city to the intent that they might [have] of them their desire, but they were escaped and could not be found…

The same day at after noon, the said captain with his people entered over London Bridge into the city. And the king and his lords were then to Killingworth [Kenilworth]. And when he was so entered, he despoiled the said Philip Malpas’s place and bore with them from thence great goods and recovered into Southwark again with his people and made his cries in the king’s name that none of his people should do any harm but keep the peace.

On the morrow Saturday came the judges at 9 o’clock unto the Guildhall, and there were diverse and many inquests charged for the king to enquire of extortioners and other evildoers. And in the meantime, afore 11 o’clock, the said captain came riding with his people on foot from Southwark through the city to [St] Paul’s in a blue gown of velvet, with sables furred and a straw hat upon his head3 and a sword drawn in his hand and returned again to London Bridge and into Southwark. And at 4 after­ noon, he and his people came again into Cheap and drank there at a tavern called the Crown and returned to Mile End where the people of Essex lay, there beheaded one Crowmer and another called William Bailey and came again in haste into Cheap and two heads [were] borne before him on high poles. And at the Standard in Cheap he hoved, and there was the Lord Saye brought there from the Guildhall, where he was by diverse inquests indicted of treason and at the same Standard the captain did do the Lord Saye beheaded and despoiled him of his array, bound his legs with a rope to a horse and drew his body on the pavement through a great part of the city.

[The story goes that Cade declared himself Mayor of London by a traditional striking of the London Stone. After Cade’s murderous act, however, the tide turned…]

On the same night and on the Sunday following the same captain and his people appointed to have searched and had diverse worthy men and their goods of the city and the same Sunday the captain beheaded in Southwark a gentleman which the men of Essex delivered to him called Thomas Mayne of Colchester. And then the mayor and the council of the city laboured that Sunday all the service time to make and set a rule and ordinance that the said captain should no more enter into the city. And the same night which was the eve of St Thomas the Martyr all the commons of the city drew to harness. And the same night and on the morrow unto 4 of the bell the people of the city and the captain and his men counted and met together on London Bridge and in Southwark and much people were slain and hurt either party. And then the said captain fled and his men departed and so his power ceased and a noon after he was slain in his defence and then beheaded and his head set on London Bridge and his body brought to the King’s Bench and from thence drawn dead through the city on the pavement unto the Tyburn and quartered and his quarters sent to diverse places of the land and then were diverse Oyez… had in diverse places and especially in Kent and much people hanged and beheaded for the same rising…


Modern estimates suggest around 200 of the rebels were killed in the battle at London Bridge. Bale’s account misses the king and Lord Chancellor granting pardons to Cade and his crew (to encourage them to disperse), which were then revoked. Cade fled to Sussex but was caught by one Alexander Iden near Heathfield, wounded, and died on his way to trial, so his subsequent beheading was just part of the theatre of power.

That was that for Cade, and subsequent lesser rebellions in Sussex failed to get traction – but Cade’s legacy was an undermining of the king which helped to initiate the Wars of the Roses, with Richard, Duke of York’s son deposing him (as Edward IV) between 1461 and 1470 (Henry returned briefly to the throne in 1470–1).

“Be brave, then; for your captain is brave, and vows reformation,” Shakespeare’s version of Cade proclaims in Henry VI Part II – but it wasn’t to be.

1

Shakespeare references this in Henry VI Part II, with York himself allegedly behind it all:

I have seduc’d a headstrong Kentishman,
John Cade of Ashford,
To make commotion, as full well he can,
Under the tide of John Mortimer.

Another account from this era, A Short English Chronicle, reports that the rebel was “a capteyne the whiche namyd hym sylfe John Mortymer, whose very trew name was John Cade, and he was an Iresheman”.

2

Editions of this (and other chronicles covering Cade’s rebellion) can be found here and in The Jack Cade Rebellion of 1450: A Sourcebook by Alexander L. Kaufman (2019).

3

Compare, perhaps, the blue cockades of another rebellion in London, 330 years later, which we encountered a few weeks ago.