1381: Simon of Sudbury and Robert Hales during Wat Tyler’s peasant rebellion

4 comments June 14th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1381, a mob’s summary execution on Tower Hill of some nobby English lords marked the acme of that country’s most noteworthy peasant revolt.

The trigger for the revolt was an onerous poll tax levied to finance the realm’s escapades in the Hundred Years’ War, but as Barbara Tuchman notes,

the fundamental grievance was the bonds of villeinage and the lack of legal and political rights. Villeins could not plead in court against their lord, no one spoke for them in Parliament, they were bound by duties of servitude which they had no way to break except by forcibly obtaining a change of the rules. That was the object of the insurrection, and of the march on the capital that began from Canterbury.

Late medieval England was in the throes of economic, and therefore social transformation.

Manorial lords’ traditional power over their peasants had become untenable for a labor pool depleted by the Black Death, survivors of which found themselves consequently in-demand and suddenly blessed with leverage. As one chronicler recorded,

There was so marked a shortage of labourers and workmen of every kind in that period that more than a third of the land in the whole realm was left idle. All the labourers, skilled or unskilled, were so carried away by the spirit of revolt that neither King, nor law, nor justice, could restrain them. … The entire population, or the greater part of it, has become even more depraved… more ready to indulge in evil and sinfulness.

Rentiers put a forceful kibosh on “sinfulness” like rising wages and labor mobility, legislating backwards feudal rights and pre-plague wage levels.

Who Then Was The Gentleman?

It was a ground fertile for insurrectionary sentiment, like the class-warfare sermon of subversive Lollard preacher John Ball:

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

This cry for justice anticipated the Levellers by almost three centuries.

Poll Position

But these 14th century downtrodden had some rough levelling of their own in mind, and when the poll tax set spark to tinder, the conflagration spread with terrifying rapidity.

[T]here were some that desired nothing but riches and the utter destruction of the noblemen and to have London robbed and pilled; that was the principal matter of their beginning, the which they well shewed; for as soon as the Tower gate opened and that the king was issued out with his two brethren and the earl of Salisbury, the earl of Warwick, the earl of Oxford, sir Robert of Namur, the lord of Vertaing, the lord Gommegnies and divers other, then Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball and more than four hundred entered into the Tower and brake up chamber after chamber …

These guys were after, above all, John of Gaunt,* the Dick Cheney of 14th century England right down to the malevolent name and underwhelming military achievements: the throne at this time held the posterior of 14-year-old (in 1381) Richard II, and the widely reviled uncle John ran (and freely looted) the realm with a council of loathsome optimates.

London Calling

Luckily for John, he happened to be off at the Scottish frontier when the Peasants’ Revolt rolled into London; the mob settled for destroying his opulent Savoy Palace on June 13.

The next day, it rampaged through the Tower of London

… and at last found the archbishop of Canterbury, called Simon, a valiant man and a wise, and chief chancellor of England, and a little before he had said mass before the king. These gluttons took him and strake off his head, and also they beheaded the lord of Saint John’s and a friar minor, master in medicine, pertaining to the duke of Lancaster, they slew him in despite of his master, and a sergeant at arms called John Leg; and these four heads were set on four long spears and they made them to be borne before them through the streets of London and at last set them a-high on London bridge, as though they had been traitors to the king and to the realm.

Simon’s severed, and incredibly well-preserved, skull has been resident in a cubby at St. Gregory’s Church of Sudbury for lo these six hundred years. It made news recently when it was retrieved for a CT scan to (among other things) reconstruct Simon’s real-life appearance.

Right, these executed-today guys.

Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England, and Robert Hailes, Lord High Treasurer, neatly concentrated in their persons the political, financial, and religious power exercised by “the unjust oppression of naughty men.”

Still better, they were the advisors most directly connected to the poll tax. As a reward, they got their polls axed.

This was no mere provincial riot. A lower-class revolt had massed an overwhelming force in the very capital of the kingdom, with most of the main government ministers trapped therein — holed up and inconclusively debating one another about how to get out of this jam. And the movement aimed itself at the conquest of power: Tuchman (citing Benedictine chronicler Thomas Walsingham) says that rebel leader Wat Tyler was anticipated that “in four days’ time all the laws of England would be issuing from his mouth.”


Hey, it’s Baldrick!

In the end, the last thing between history and King Wat — and, if you’re willing to dream an anachronistic dream, a Commune of London — was the peasantry’s foolhardy reverence for the person of the pimply king.

Foreshadowing a later era’s “if only the tsar knew” naivete, the rebels who thirsted for the blood of Richard’s advisors fancied the king their champion. Young and handsome; regal; charismatic; and plausibly not implicated in the villeins’ grievances … you can understand why they thought that. But disarmed thereby of the ruthlessness necessary to strike him, Wat Tyler’s band instead went the way of the typical peasant rising.

Richard the Lionheart

The king’s own nerves were steel in this moment, when a lesser adolescent would have quailed from the perilous task of safeguarding the divinely ordained oligarchy with his own person. Richard was, at this point, still in his minority: other men took the country’s decisions in their own hands. Richard would one day have to fight them for his own kingly rights; but, on the evidence of this crisis, he had already grown up, and fast.

Perhaps reasoning that royalty is the best shroud, Richard invited the rebels out to Smithfield the very next day, June 15. When the royal teenager was in personal parley with Tyler, the king’s buddy William Walworth got into a scrape with the peasant and

gave him a deep cut on the neck, and then a great cut on the head. And during this scuffle one of the King’s household drew his sword, and ran Watt two or three times through the body, mortally wounding him. And he spurred his horse, crying to the commons to avenge him, and the horse carried him some four score paces, and then he fell to the ground half dead. …

when the commons saw that their chieftain, Watt Tyler, was dead in such a manner, they fell to the ground there among the wheat, like beaten men, imploring the King for mercy for their misdeeds.

(This source says that Tyler was retrieved from hospital for a summary execution of his own that same day. Others, such as Froissart, indicate that he died straightway from the wounds he suffered in the fray.)

Brazenly wielding the dread sovereign power over the minds of his subjects, Richard braved death by riding unprotected towards their lines, styling himself their “captain,” commanding their obedience. Peasant archers and pikemen who on that day might have turned English history on its head instead lowered their weapons and submitted themselves.

Though the ensuing bloodbath was a bit less wholesale than the one attending France’s recent Jacquerie, it went rough for the leaders, and concessions the king had made the rank and file vanished along with the danger to his crown. “Villeins ye are,” he would later tell a delegation of petitioners imploring him to effect his pledge to abolish serfdom, “and villeins ye shall remain.”

* John of Gaunt also kind of got the last laugh out of those tumultuous years: though John brokered compromises between the king and his rival nobles, John’s son was one of those rival nobles. After dad’s death, that young man overthrew Richard and established the Lancastrian dynasty as King Henry IV.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,England,Execution,History,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Summary Executions

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1381: Eppelein von Gailingen

2 comments May 15th, 2009 dogboy

On this day in 1381, probably the most infamous robber baron in Germany was flogged, done in on the breaking wheel, and beheaded in Postbauer, near Nürnberg.

Eppelein von Gailingen (or Egkelein Geyling, or some variation thereof) has been dramatized across the ages, but little is known of the man’s life. His death, certainly, but his life is clouded in myth and folklore. What’s clear is that von Gailingen met his grisly end for robbery and a subsequent escape from incarceration. The rest is a tad murky (German link).

Von Gailingen belonged to the class of original robber barons, who supplemented their income with unauthorized tolls and, sometimes, flat-out theft. While the term is more popularly known for its application to the so-called industrial robber barons, it derived from a literal description from centuries past — Raubritter, in German, “men of birth who elected to live, in a lawless age, by saddle and by sword; who sought gain by masterful spoliation, and strove for glory by despiteful deeds of arms.” (Source)

A combination of factors led to the slow and steady dissolution of the former feudal system in favor of a money-based economy during the Middle Ages, and after the Plague swept through Europe around 1350, the accumulated changes and decimated population left much of the continent short on labor and, as a result, short on production. This really was a spot of bother for barons who, unlike their monarchical brethren, had no way to draft extra manpower. With resources thinning and a social lifestyle to keep up, many of these former lords turned to theft and exploitation. Although Rome established the rules governing tolls and trade, many local lords, now charged with obeying distant regulations, opted for a more convenient route: they stopped ships at unauthorized points, shook down the merchants, and sometimes seized wares to stock their own shelves.

Eppelein von Gailingen (German link), a lord in the castle at Gunzenhausen, near Illesheim, was of this group, but apparently one of its more bold and populist members.

He was often felt to be a kind of Robin Hood, and the earliest celebrations of the man were largely in this vein: a knight’s knight, fighting against an out-of-control state disregarding its people. Eppelein got away with his skulduggery until 1369, when he was captured by a political rival and imprisoned in Nürnberg. Von Gailingen was sentenced to death, but shortly before his hanging, an accomplice managed to sneak him a horse, on which he rode out the tower gates and hurdled the enclosing wall and moat.

Now the leader of a loyal band of brigands flouting the Roman Catholic Church, Eppelein went on the run for six years, eventually making his way back near his home. It was there that, after six more years, his minimal forces finally yielded to the Count of Nürnberg, who carried out a much more unpleasant version of the death sentence.

Eppelein’s rise to prominence began in the 16th century, when he was immortalized by a folk song, a medium that continues to be kind to him. Locals still tell a variety of tales of his exploits, and a rendition of these classics is vaguely effected through the film Ekkelins Knecht.

Others have simply waxed poetic on the topic.

As if all that attention weren’t enough, von Gailingen’s run from the law lives on through the legend of Nürnberg: locals pushing the town on tourists claim that two hoofprints from his daring escape are imprinted in the stonework near the the castle’s five-pointed tower.* And perhaps most indicative of his endurance as a cultural icon, a neighboring town has devoted a festival to him, which is more than most robber barons of any day can claim.

* Not surprisingly, the tower was destroyed and rebuilt at least once — just five decades after Eppelein’s alleged leap. But the new sandstone structure does bear the marks of what could conceivably be a horse’s hooves.

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