This article was first published in the November 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
Richard II stood in a turret of the Tower of London and anxiously surveyed the scenes of chaos unfolding below him. It was Thursday 13 June, the feast of Corpus Christi, 1381, and his capital city was in the grip of the greatest popular revolt that England had ever seen. Rebels from the Home Counties, led by the people of Kent and Essex where the rebellion had begun, had joined forces with a volatile London mob and now smoke and flames arose on every side.
John of Gaunt (Richard’s influential uncle)’s magnificent Savoy Palace on the Strand, one of the wonders of medieval London, had been thoroughly sacked and was burning out of control. The great preceptory of the Knights Hospitaller at Clerkenwell – headquarters of the order throughout England, Wales and Scotland – had been looted and torched. The same fate befell the archbishop of Canterbury’s manor of Lambeth. All around the Temple, home to the city’s lawyers, archives had been ransacked and legal documents, books and records thrown into bonfires in the streets.
Houses and offices belonging to lawyers and royal officials were being set on fire, demolished or stripped of their roofs and exposed to the elements. Royal jails had been broken open and prisoners set free, their numbers swelling the hordes that surged through the streets and were now gathering beneath the walls of the Tower to demand that their king should come out to meet them and grant them redress for their grievances.
It was a terrifying situation for any monarch to face, let alone a boy of just 14, but Richard lacked neither courage nor a sense of his own regality. Earlier that day, in an attempt to defuse the situation and prevent the rebels entering the city, he had sailed from the Tower to Rotherhithe on the south bank of the Thames to speak to them in person. But, at the last minute, Richard’s councillors had taken fright at the size of the crowds gathered on the riverbank, turned their boats around and fled back to the safety of the Tower, carrying Richard with them.
In their determination to secure their interview with the king, the rebels had therefore taken matters into their own hands, storming their way through Southwark, across London Bridge and into the city itself, wreaking destruction as they went.
As the violence escalated, the royal council decided that there was no other option but to conciliate the rebels by offering them the face-to-face meeting they demanded. It was agreed that if they would withdraw to Mile End, just outside the city walls, Richard would come to them the next morning to answer their petitions in person. This was a risky strategy given the council’s reluctance to allow Richard to disembark at Rotherhithe. Now he would have to ride through the turbulent streets of the city into the heart of the rebel encampment. From the outset, however, the rebels had consistently proclaimed their loyalty to Richard personally: even their rallying cry was “for King Richard and the true commons”.
The object of their ire was not the king himself but those who they felt had abused his authority: John of Gaunt, who was believed to have designs on his nephew’s throne and whose military failures had allowed the French to make frequent attacks on English coastal towns and shipping; royal councillors such as Simon Sudbury (the chancellor and archbishop) and Robert Hales (the treasurer and prior of the Knights Hospitaller), who were responsible for unprecedented levels of taxation and the heavy-handed enforcement of the poll-tax collection; corrupt sheriffs, justices of the peace and lawyers who manipulated the administration of manor and shire for their own personal gain.
Even so, it is a measure of how fast and sharply the situation had deteriorated since the abortive Rotherhithe meeting that the king’s councillors were now prepared to put his person at the mercy of a volatile and possibly angry crowd.
The conventional view of the Mile End conference is that it was a cynical ploy conceived to remove the country rebels from the streets of the capital and buy the government time to restore order. Any promises the king might be forced to make to persuade his rebellious subjects to return quietly to their homes could be retracted later on the grounds that they had been extorted under duress and therefore could not be legally binding.
What makes this explanation even more plausible is the astonishingly radical and far-reaching nature of the concessions Richard made to the rebels that day. These went far beyond sanctioning the punishment of corrupt royal officials and pardoning the rebels for any offences they had committed. They envisaged no less than the transformation of the very structures upon which medieval English society was built.
First and foremost was the abolition of serfdom, both personal and tenurial. Henceforth every man, woman and child would be free to live, travel and work where they chose and own what they earned or acquired outright without being subject to their lords’ dues and demands. Even more important, since it affected a much larger proportion of the population, was the abolition of the very concept of customary land. In future, landlords could only charge rents of 4d an acre, or less if less had been paid in the past. No personal services such as harvesting or carrying could be required.
Equally radical was Richard’s concession that all his subjects were to be free to buy and sell within every city, borough, market town or other place within the realm. This swept away all the closely guarded monopolies and privileges upon which the economies of those places depended, making it impossible for them to charge tolls and fines on outsiders.
Personal freedom, free land and free trade: in granting these rebel demands Richard endorsed a revolution so profound that it is impossible to believe he was sincere – after all, serfdom was so entrenched that it would linger on in England well into the 16th century. Surely, then, Richard had no intention of being held to his promises and the Mile End meeting was simply a charade to gain time to suppress the revolt?
The king’s attitude towards the rebels is well known. “Rustics you were and rustics you are still,” the chronicler Thomas Walsingham reports him saying later to an Essex deputation seeking confirmation of their liberties. “You will remain in bondage, not as before but incomparably harsher. For as long as we live… we will strive with mind, strength and goods to suppress you so that the rigour of your servitude will be an example to posterity.”
It therefore seems to fly in the face of common sense to argue that Richard genuinely sympathised with the rebels and willingly granted their petitions but I believe there is a strong case to be made for this view.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that the obvious time to cancel all Richard’s concessions was the next day, Saturday 15 June, immediately after the meeting at Smithfield between the king and those rebels, mainly from Kent, who had refused to leave London until their more radical demands had been met.
The assassination at Smithfield of the captain and spokesman of the rebellion in Kent, Wat Tyler (by the mayor of London together with one of the king’s esquires), and Richard’s remarkably courageous actions in claiming the leadership of the rebels, guiding them away from the field and successfully urging them to go back to their homes, removed any need to maintain a pretence that their demands would be met.
Yet not only did Richard fail to cancel the grants he had already made but his clerks continued to issue new charters granting them their freedom, sealed with the Great Seal of England, to those communities and counties that asked for them. What’s more, it wasn’t until 2 July – a full 18 days later – that Richard finally revoked the liberties he had granted at Mile End.
The most likely reason for this delay is that the king himself was reluctant to reverse his decision. Richard was very young. At Mile End he had had his first opportunity to talk directly with his subjects and hear their complaints about the corruption and oppression of the regime over which he presided – and it should not be forgotten that these plaintiffs were not all inarticulate, illiterate, poverty-stricken ‘peasants’, but included educated, sometimes wealthy, village officials, artisans, burgesses, members of the gentry and even members of parliament.
In granting them their liberties Richard acted solely on his own royal authority (a moment of empowerment for him as much as it was for them) only to have his councillors round on him and tell him that he must go back on his word. It is significant that the revocation was finally issued under the watchful eye of the new hard-line chief justice, Robert Tresilian, who had escorted the young king to Essex to watch him preside over the trials of the rebels.
The delay in revoking the charters is not, on its own, sufficient to demonstrate that Richard genuinely sympathised with the rebels’ desire for liberty, but there is further compelling evidence. In November 1381 the treasurer explained in his opening speech at the first parliament to meet after the revolt that Richard had been “constrained” to abolish serfdom “knowing full well that he should not do so… but that he did for the best, to stop and put an end to the [rebels’] clamour and malice”. His councillors had then persuaded him to repeal his grants as being made “under compulsion, contrary to reason, law, and good faith”.
But what came next was extraordinary. Through his treasurer Richard appealed to parliament over the heads of his councillors, asking them the direct question: “Whether it seems to you that he acted well in that repeal and pleased you or not. For he says that if you wish to enfranchise and make free the said villeins by your common agreement, as he has been informed some of you wish to do, he will assent to your request.”
This, surely, was a clear statement of Richard’s own view that serfdom should be abolished and an attempt to override the royal council’s advice. It was a highly unusual and deeply personal appeal – not the sort of thing normally to be found in an opening speech – but unfortunately for the boy-king parliament fully agreed with his council.
Both houses responded “with one voice” in a robustly worded rebuke, informing Richard that the repeal was “well made” and he had no authority to free any serfs “without the assent of those who had the chief interest in the matter; and they had never agreed to it, either voluntarily or otherwise, nor would they ever do so, even if it were their dying day”.
The irony was that Richard’s readiness to accept the rebels’ demands actually made a bad situation worse. Although his concessions at Mile End successfully persuaded large numbers of rebels to return home, they did so proclaiming their newly won freedoms and telling everyone they met along the way that they had the king’s sympathy and, more importantly, his authority for what they had done. This encouraged others to attack their oppressors and destroy the records that perpetuated their servitude.
Worse still, as a direct result of the 18‑day delay in revoking the liberties granted at Mile End, many more people and places were drawn into the revolt, believing that they had the king’s personal mandate. Many unlikely ‘rebels’ therefore committed acts that would later be defined as crimes or even treason once the king changed his mind, or had it changed for him. Geoffrey Cobbe, for instance, a Cambridgeshire gentleman, proclaimed that he was acting on the king’s commission when he supervised a two-day auction of the goods and property of a corrupt local official.
Richard de Leycester, a prosperous shop-owner in Ely, took over the abbey pulpit after learning of the Mile End concessions so that he could tell his fellow townsmen “the things to be performed on the part of the king and the commonalty against traitors and other unfaithful”. He even had chancery letters of protection for his person and property, perhaps issued at Mile End – but these were not enough to save him from execution.
William Grindecobbe indisputably had royal letters, granted at Mile End on 15 June, ordering the abbot of St Albans to hand over the abbey’s charters to Grindecobbe’s fellow townsmen. Their ‘revolt’ was entirely peaceable: not a single monk or abbey employee was harmed, though some properties were demolished. Nevertheless, Chief Justice Tresilian hanged 15 of them, including Grindecobbe, and condemned a further 80 townsmen to imprisonment.
If we accept that Richard was not duplicitous in his dealings with the rebels and that he genuinely sympathised with their desire for freedom, then our interpretation of the great revolt needs some adjustment.
Such a scenario would explain why so many people who would never otherwise have considered joining a ‘rebellion’ – by its very definition an act of defiance against royal authority – were prepared to assist in building this brave new world and were shocked to find themselves labelled rebels.
Part of the problem in suppressing the revolt was that, until Richard actually revoked his concessions, none of those who would normally have organised resistance to the uprising could be certain that they had the authority to act. Their failure to make their move sooner was a major factor in allowing the rebellion to spread unchallenged across the country. It was not until the end of June, a full two weeks after the events at Mile End and Smithfield, that detachments of soldiers were finally mobilised to restore order in the shires. And it was early July – after Richard’s revocation of his concessions – before commissioners with sweeping powers to crush the revolt began to arrest, imprison and try those accused of taking part in it.
As for Richard himself, we can perhaps see that the seeds of his later downfall were sown during the great revolt. He never forgave those on his council and in parliament who had forced him to renege on his commitments at Mile End. As soon as he came of age he determined to rule alone, surrounding himself with new-made men who owed their position to him, rather than those whom he held responsible for mismanaging his realm during his minority.
By asserting his royal prerogative to rule alone Richard set himself on a collision course with his peers which would end in 1399 with a military coup by his own cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who seized the throne for himself. The following year Richard would die in prison, almost certainly murdered in the wake of a failed rebellion by his supporters.
Richard may have alienated the aristocracy whom he had excluded from his councils but he continued to enjoy the loyalty of his ‘true commons’. Years after his death, the idea that he had sympathised with their plight was still powerful enough to make his name once more a rallying cry for opponents of both Henry IV and Henry V. It was yet another legacy of the unlikely bond between the boy-king and the rebels of 1381.
Juliet Barker is an internationally recognised authority on medieval history. A new and expanded edition of her bestselling Agincourt: The King, The Campaign, The Battle is published this year to mark the 600th anniversary of the battle.