Battle of Southwark
Henry VI is surely one of the least able kings in English history. His long reign (or reigns, as having lost the throne in 1461 he regained it briefly in 1471) saw at one end of the social spectrum the nobility of the country descend into the bloodbath of the Wars of the Roses , and at the other a serious and for a time well-organised peasant rebellion that drove the king from his capital.
England by 1450 had been humiliated in France, and swingeing taxes raised to pay for the unsuccessful wars there had been frittered away in corruption and mismanagement. The people of Kent rebelled, damaged economically by the loss of most of England’s French possessions, and no doubt driven to anger by the tales of soldiers returning through their county. That spring they issued The Complaint of the Poor Commons of Kent, a list of grievances against the weak, ineffectual and corrupt government.
In June 1450 a huge force of commoners, joined by some of higher status, marched to London, gathering at Blackheath . A leader had arisen among them who managed to organise them well, promising not to loot the city.
Little is certain about Jack Cade: he may have been of Irish birth, and is thought to have murdered a woman before fleeing to fight in France, returning to marry in Kent. His very name is uncertain – he may have really been called Mortimer, though that could have been a nom de guerre placing him as an ally of the powerful Mortimer family. In Shakespeare ’s Henry VI Part Two he is a buffoon, promising the impossible: “There shall be in England seven half-penny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops: and I will make it felony to drink small beer.” His sardonic follower Dick the Butcher had more practical ideas: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
Between July 3rd when the rebels entered London, and the 5th when they fled, events spiralled out of control. Typically the king had fled, seeking safety in Warwickshire . The Tower was taken and the Treasurer beheaded, along with some others of the king’s clique, their heads displayed on spikes symbolically kissing one another. Contrary to his promises Cade and his men began looting. Having rested beyond the city, on returning Cade’s force was driven back from London after a long and bloody fight on London Bridge .
Archbishop of York John Kemp, the Lord Chancellor, secured the end of the revolt by acceding to the rebel demands and issuing pardons for the leaders, but once the peasant army had dissolved the leaders were pursued. They may have brought retribution on their own heads by continuing their lawlessness, freeing prisoners from Southwark gaol, attacking Rochester in Kent, and robbing as they progressed through the county.
Cade died on the 12th July after a fight with those seeking to capture him, his body later beheaded and quartered. A further 34 leaders of the revolt were executed shortly after Cade’s death, their pardons counting for nought.
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