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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1388: Robert Tresilian, former Chief Justice

2 comments February 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1388, England’s former Chief Justice was executed for his executive-friendly jurisprudence.

For some reason, this illustration of Tresilian’s execution from Froissart‘s chronicles shows him receiving a dignified beheading, rather than a nude hanging.

The ambitious Robert Tresilian (or Tresillian) had shimmied his way up the 14th century legal ranks for his dutiful service to the monarch, including presiding over a “bloody assize” after Wat Tyler’s revolt.

Despite stringing up 500 rebels, Tresilian couldn’t have been too upset about the disturbance: it also killed off the sitting Chief Justice and opened the seat for a man of Tresilian’s talents and loyalty.

A few years later, Richard would require of this position a legal opinion vindicating his personal authority as against the council his rivals had foisted upon him. Tresilian duly produced a writ affirming the unitary executive authority.

The upshot of this opinion was to put that council at risk of life and limb. It turned out to be more dangerous to its author.

When the Lords Appellant defeated the Ricardian party, Tresilian was among the royal retainers attainted for treason by the vengeful “Merciless Parliament”.

The lords thereupon announced that in matters of such high concern the rules of civil law oculd not be observed; the parliament was itself the supreme judge; it was not to be bound by the forms which guided inferior courts, that were merely the executors of the ancient laws and customs of the realm, and of the ordinances and establishments of parliament.

In a characteristically judge-like juxtaposition of wit, naivete and arrogance, Tresilian was somehow smart enough to go into hiding but dumb enough to hide by disguising himself and hanging around the parliament where his associate, London Mayor Nicholas Brembre, was putting on a theatrically futile defense. Since Tresilian had absconded, he was already judged guilty in absentia and liable to suffer execution immediately upon capture.

This date in 1388, that’s exactly what happened: capture, and summary hanging.

Before they had argued to the finish the end of the trial against Nicholas Brembre, the hapless Tresilian occupied their attention. He had been located above the gutter of a certain house annexed to the wall of the palace, hiding among the roofs the sake of watching the lords coming and going from parliament. However, when resolute soldiers had entered that house and looking around found no one, a certain knight with intent expression strode to the father of the house and pulled his head up by the hair, drawing his dagger, saying, “Show us where Tresilian is or your days are numbered.” Immediately, the terrified father of the household said, “Behold the place where that man is positioned at this moment,” and under a certain round table which was covered for deception with a tablecloth, the unfortunate Tresilian, disguised as usual, was miraculously discovered. His tunic was made out of old russet, extending down to mid-shin, as if he were an old man, and he had a wiry and thick beard, and wore red boots with the soles of Joseph, looking more like a pilgrim or beggar than a king’s justice. This event was immediately made clear to the lords’ ears, and when, quicker than a word, the aforesaid five appellants under a hasty pretext left the parliament without explaining the reason for their departure, all who remain in parliament were stunned, and many others followed them with passionate zeal. And when at the palace gate they had seized Tresilian, leading him toward the parliament, they proclaimed in a universal voice, “We havet hym! We havet hym!” Meanwhile, interrogated in the parliament how he would excuse himself concerning the false treachery of this kind and other things done by him, he remained nonetheless stock-still and mute, his heart hardened even in the face of death, and he would not confess to the things committed. Immediately parliament was broken for the sake of this matter, and on the grounds of dealing with Tresilian they sent away for the day Brembre, who had remained present. And at once Tresilian was led to the Tower of London so that execution of his sentence might be carried out on his person. His wife and daughters, moaning and imploring weepingly, were present at hand there in that place, and with voiceless requests, kissing him first from one side then the other, they forgave him for one or another of the crimes he had committed. But she, overwhelmed with sorrow in her heart, fell to the ground as if dead. At length Tresilian was bound hand and foot to a hurdle, and along with a vast multitude of lords and commoners, horsemen and pedestrians, he was dragged from the back of horses through the city squares, resting at intervals of about the length of a furlong out of considerations of charity, to see if he wanted to repent anything. But alas, he did not publicly confess, and indeed it is not known what he would say to his friar confessor, nor has it been ours to discover: the friars well treated Tresilian, preserving him from his transgression. And when he had come to the place of Calvary that he might be made defunct, he did not want to climb the stairs but goaded by sticks and whips that he might ascend, he said, “While I carry a certain something around me, I am not able to die.” Immediately they stripped him and found particular instructions with particular signs depicted in them, in the manner of astronomical characters; and one depicted a demon’s head, many others were inscribed with demons’ names. With these taken away, he was hanged nude, and for greater certainty of his death his throat was cut.

“His fate,” wrote Baron John Campbell, “seems to have excited little compassion, for he had shown himself ready to mete out like injustice to others, and he had extra-judicially pronounced opinions which, if acted upon, would have been for ever fatal to public liberty.”

Part of the Daily Double: The Merciless Parliament.

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