A King Under Siege
Ten thousand or more crowded the banks of the Thames
He waited for the frenzy to exhaust
itself. "Why are you here and what do you want?" The
young voice, clear and shrill, reached its listeners who
broke out once again into a clamor, shaking their farm
tools and rusty old blades. "Come to the shore!" One voice
carried over the din. "Speak with us in person!"
Standing under a large red canopy with his counsellors, Richard glanced upriver at the four smaller barges serving as his escort. The boats had hung back, not daring to come any closer. This was a sorry plight his advisors had led them into! Sighing, Richard turned to Archbishop Sudbury; he could see the terror in the prelate's face. This wasn't helping.
"I p-promised I would speak with them," the King said uncertainly. "I must at least try."
Bristling under two great banners with St. George's cross and forty pennons, the mob continued its uproar while the King turned to his other advisors. Sir Robert Hales, England's treasurer, stepped up beside the archbishop. "We can't expect any mercy from them. They are out for blood." Richard frowned, dissatisfied. Hales might be Lord Grand Prior of the Knights Hospitaller, but today his courage seemed to have fled. The man's eyes were almost bulging from his head.
Richard then turned to the Earl of Salisbury, the most experienced soldier on the barge. "And what is your advice?" he asked, trying to keep a brave face.
"You cannot go ashore. They might restrain you—hold you hostage, or worse. This is an undisciplined rabble."
This was the best counsel they could give him? He had to do something, though his advisors would probably criticize him for making the wrong choice— with the utmost courtesy, of course, and polite language. Taking a deep breath, Richard turned back to the crowd. He hoped he could control his stutter. "What is it you want from me?" he shouted. "Tell me, now that I have come this far."
He stood, arms crossed, while the men closest to the river conferred with each other. Finally, coming to a decision, the apparent leader got into a boat with a couple of rowers. They brought their craft as close as they dared. "Here is what we want," the man called. "We demand the heads of John of Gaunt, Archbishop Sudbury, Treasurer Hales, Chief Justice Robert Belknap, Robert Plesington Baron of the Exchequer, John Legge and Thomas Brampton."
"Why, you seek to deprive me of my chief ministers," Richard cried. Behind him, he could hear Sudbury calling down God's curses on their heads.
"We seek to save you from corrupt officials," the rebel shouted back.
"By killing them all? How would that help me?"
"They are destroying the country with their dishonest administration."
"This is too dangerous," Salisbury spoke in Richard's ear. "We must leave."
Nodding in agreement, the King tried one last time. "If you wish to continue negotiations," he called, less sure of himself, "you may do so at Windsor on Monday next." While he was speaking, the barge was already turning around. Stunned at losing their advantage, the crowd howled in anger and the rebel boat fell back in confusion. But Richard no longer cared. He was headed for the safety of the Tower, though for the first few minutes they were at the mercy of any archer who might choose to draw his bow. Fortunately, nothing happened aside from the shouts of "Treason! Treason!" that diminished as they gained speed.
The King stared at the receding mob, biting his lip, until they were out of range. He had never felt so alone. This debacle was not of his making, yet everyone was looking to him for a solution. It just wasn't fair. Even though he had been king for four years, he was in leading reins just as assuredly as any young horse. He sat in council meetings—even presided at Parliament—but his opinions were politely dismissed. They said he was too young, too inexperienced to make decisions. He was expected to watch and learn while his chief ministers made a mess of things. Well, they certainly taught him what not to do! And now, with half the country in an uproar, all they could do was dither. No one had taken the rising seriously enough to gather a force to confront the rebels, and now that the angry multitude was at the gates of London, no one had a suggestion what to do about it. Obviously, this attempt had failed disastrously. But at least he had tried.
How could all this have happened? We need to step back a couple of weeks, though I suspect this had been building ever since the Black Death created a labor shortage. First, the government imposed laws to hold the workers down. That was bad enough, but lately they started experimenting with a poll tax—in other words, a price per head—to raise money for the French war. Every person over the age of fourteen was taxed, though the rich man's portion was a pittance while the poor man was bled dry—especially if he had a big family. It just wasn't fair. And by the third poll tax, the government demanded even more money per head. It was too much, and who could blame the King's overburdened subjects for falsifying the tax returns? As a result, when they did the reckoning the head count came in suspiciously low and officials were dismayed by the shortfall. So what did they do? The fools sent out commissioners to collect the difference—probably the worst decision they could have made, considering the widespread resentment.
It all started in Essex—more specifically, in Brentwood—a town on an old Roman road between London and Colchester. By then, the townsfolk were already disquieted by the rumors of the commissioners, for bad news always traveled fast.
That impudent, loutish Thomas Bampton rode into town and made himself at home in the guildhall, accompanied by three clerks and two of the King's sergeant-at-arms. Brentwood's bailiff, Jack Straw, met them at the door of the building but they pushed past him, demanding tables and chairs to do their business. Grudgingly, the Straw ordered his clerks to oblige.
"We need to reexamine your accounts," Bampton growled. "I don't believe your numbers are correct. Bring out your tax assessments and lay them before me."
The bailiff shrugged. "It's all there," he muttered. "You can gauge for yourself."
"Oh, I intend to," the commissioner said, pushing him aside as he went back outside to his horse. Retrieving a bulky pack, he passed it on to a scrivener. "Meanwhile I intend to visit every one of your townsmen."
While Jack watched helplessly, he proceeded to do just that. The tax commissioner bid one of his men to follow and strode down the street, throwing open the door to the first building he came upon, which happened to be the blacksmith's shop.
Bent over an anvil, a burly man with a leather apron pounded a glowing bar of iron. Sparks flew across the room as the rhythmic bang, bang, bang shaped the metal under his sure hand. Noting movement at the door, the blacksmith stopped mid-stroke and stared at the intruder. "What can I do for you?" he asked, looking from the commissioner to his assistant.
"We have a shortfall on the King's taxes," the man said, "and need to make up the difference. How many in your household?"
The smith put down his hammer. "There is my wife and myself and my mother," he said, annoyed at the interruption. "We paid your levy."
"So you say. What is your name?"
"Write that down," the tax collector said to his clerk. "Smith, let me see your family."
The blacksmith glared at the bailiff, who was grasping the hilt of his sword. Straw nodded briefly, and the other opened the rear door to his shop. "They are inside."
Slapping his hand against the door and forcing it all the way open, the stranger stared at the inhabitants of the room then came back into the shop. "Where is the rest of your family?"
"There are no others."
"You have no children?"
"None. I had a son and he died of a fever."
"August last," the tax collector snorted. "If I find he has come back to life, I will take it from your hide." He jerked his head and left the building. Frowning, Jack Straw followed him to the porch and watched as the man pounded at the door of the next house.
The owner was forced back as the commissioner pushed his way in. People were beginning to notice and a small crowd was gathering in the street. A few minutes later, the unfortunate victim was hauled outside, arms bound. Bampton faced the witnesses.
"I will arrest any of you caught trying to evade your taxes. This man will remain in prison until the money is found." He glared at the townsfolk, daring them to object. "Tomorrow, I expect every one of you to appear before me with the reckoning of this year's taxes. Pass the word."
The villagers watched him quietly as the poll tax collector went back to the guildhall. Then they started talking amongst themselves.
On the morrow they were ready.
Bampton sat behind the table, waiting; he was flanked by clerks, and the King's sergeants stood against the wall, obviously bored. As the door opened, a score of men crowded inside. They were not poor, shabby serfs; these men were craftsmen, merchants, priests, and idle soldiers, by the look of them. Their demeanor was more surly than intimidated.
"One at a time," Bampton said, pointing at a bench before him. "I want to see what you have declared."
The men crossed their arms and stood still while more filed in. Soon, the room was filled to capacity and others waited outside. Bampton stood up.
"What is the meaning of this?"
"Can you not see?" said their spokesman. "We will not deal with you. Nor will we give you any money."
For a moment the commissioner was shocked. But his natural bluster soon took over. "I am here on the King's business—".
"You are here on your own business! The King is badly served and you seek to fatten your own pouch."
Bampton pointed to the sergeants. "Arrest these troublemakers," he ordered. "Detain them all!"
The townspeople moved forward as one, pushing the table out of the way. The planks fell off the trestles. Bampton and his followers backed against the wall.
"You had best be on your way," the spokesman snarled as the men parted, presenting an escape route to the door. Bampton decided not to argue and trod on top of the planks as he made his way forward. He turned before he left the room.
"Don't think this is the last you've heard from me," he started, when all at once the company let out a growl, as ferocious as it was spontaneous. Bampton's sergeants shoved him out the door but they suddenly stopped, holding each other back. In the street before them, a hundred angry men shouted and waved makeshift weapons. As one, the mob rushed toward the intruders.
"This way," shouted one of the sergeants, pulling Bampton by the arm and dashing to the side. They almost broke free before a shower of sticks and rocks nearly drove them to the ground. Even a couple of arrows hurried them on their course. They helped each other forward and ran as fast as they could, followed by the vengeful throng, howling with glee.
At the edge of town everyone stopped, watching the fleeing officials. The crowd fell strangely silent, looking at each other.
"There's no stopping it now," said Jack Straw, who had been watching from the steps. "We've started something big and now we'll have to finish it." His companions grumbled in agreement. "You have a day or so," he added. "Those who can, ride out and send the message to the other towns. The King's men will return, and we'll need all the help we can get if we are to stop their reprisals."
There are times when action—even desperate action—invigorates a man. You couldn't find a soul who regretted his resistance to the hated tax collectors. Over the next three days, Brentwood's hundred disgruntled rebels swelled to two hundred, and more were coming all the time. Finally, as expected, on June 2 Robert Belkmap, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, rode into town to put things back in order. He brought with him three jurors who were supposed to identify the original rioters, and three clerks. They didn't get very far. As soon as the little party rode down the main street, from out of nowhere a shrieking crowd charged at them, pulling his assistants from their horses, kicking and punching and knocking them across the ground.
Jack Straw seized the reins of Belkmap's mount. "Take his papers. Burn them!" he shouted. As the bewildered Justice twisted around in his saddle, somebody grabbed his saddlebags and threw the contents into the street. Belkmap was the lucky one; while this was going on, angry men dragged the three screaming jurors into the center of town where the rioters had set up a makeshift executioner's block. The first victim struggled and kicked at his tormenters, until they forced his head sideways onto the stump.
"Here, John Blackhand," the strongest agitator shouted. "You are good with an axe. Finish this man off." A stocky yeoman, well-known for bragging about his battlefield exploits in France, stepped forward and rolled up his sleeves.
"Any last words?" he quipped, laughing.
"I've done nothing to you," the juror screamed. "Let me go!"
"You would have if we gave you the chance," his captor growled. He struck quickly and a spray of blood showered his face, though it took two blows to sever the man's head. "Bring the next one," he shouted, shoving the juror's corpse aside. Willing hands hauled the next wailing victim to the block, then the third. "A spear, a spear!" cried the mob, and the severed heads were soon shoved onto poles, bobbing over the crowd like gruesome pennons. The clerks fared no better; they were beaten to death before their heads, too, joined the raucous procession. Only Belkmap was allowed to live.
"Swear!" shouted Jack, pulling the commissioner off his horse. "Send for a priest! Tell him to bring a crucifix!" Belkmap struggled to get away but someone hit him on the side of the head with a stick. He fell against Jack, who pushed him to the ground. "You are a traitor to the King!" Jack shouted, then hauled the justice back to his feet. "You would hold court against us out of greed and malice!" Finally a cleric ran up with a crucifix and Straw took it, holding it out flat. "Swear on this cross that you will never again hold a trailbaston commission! Swear that you will never again act as a judge in a poll-tax inquisition!"
Belkmap spit out a tooth. Someone thrust a cudgel into his back, knocking him forward. Turning, he watched as the rioting townspeople added his papers to a growing bonfire. He grimaced, putting his hand on the crucifix. "I swear," he grumbled.
"Then let him go," Jack directed the others. They had already taken the horse away, but Belkmap was glad to get out of there alive. He started walking, not looking back.
Standing in a group, the villagers shouted curses and brandished their weapons as he stumbled down the road. Satisfied, Jack turned to his followers. "You have done well," he said in a loud voice. "We must gather more support and march to London, where we will lay our grievances before the King!"
The mob had already lost interest in Belkmap; they surrounded Jack and listened to his instructions. "Edward, John, and Robert," Jack called. "Go to the hackney stables and take three horses. Make your way to London and spread the word." He worked his way through the gathering, slapping men on the shoulders. "Come. Gather whatever food and drink you may find. Let us ferry across the Thames at Tilbury so we can share the good news with our friends in Kent." He raised his voice again: "Sound the Bell! Now is the time to make ourselves heard!"
They all knew what he was talking about. For the last twenty years, itinerant preachers had been spreading words of hope and defiance. Their leader, John Ball, had wandered across the land, sleeping under hedges, preaching in the woods by moonlight, avoiding the authorities whenever possible. The friar swore that all people were equal in the eyes of God and one day they would rise up and shake off the yolk of servitude. Well, the day had finally come. The people's rising had begun.
It made sense to strike boldly at the nearest symbol of oppression: Rochester Castle stood only eight miles away along the Roman road to Canterbury. As they passed through villages, the clamorous rebels gathered more enthusiastic supporters. The unfortunate jurors' heads on poles led the way as the organized mob cried out their support of King Richard and death to all lawyers and corrupt ministers. They sang their songs of rebellion, pushed too far by the poll tax:
With spades and hoes and
ploughs, stand up now, stand up now.
With spades and hoes and ploughs, stand up now.
Your houses they pull down, to fright poor men in town,
The gentry must come down and the poor shall wear the crown.
Stand up now, poor soldiers, stand up now.
The lawyers sit on high, stand up now, stand up now.
The lawyers sit on high, stand up now.
Arrest you they advise, such fury they devise,
But the devil in them lies, and hath blinded both their eyes.
Stand up now, poor soldiers, stand up now.