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Jack Cade and the Kentish Rebellion in 1450
John A. F. Thomson

More on Jack Cade and the 1450 rebellion

From The Transformation of Medieval England 1370-1529 by John A. F. Thomson. First published by Longman, Harlow, Essex, England, 1983

Such popular movements as occurred between 1381 and the early sixteenth century must be seen against this background, which goes far to explain their character. The grievances which prompted them tended not to be social, but political, fiscal, or even religious. The Lollard rising of Sir John Oldcastle in 1414 had no social aims; indeed the rebels do not appear to have had any programme at all, beyond a vague idea of seizing the King (without any very clear idea of what they would then do with him). The revolt was essentially Oldcastle's attempted revenge for his arrest in the previous year, and the only economic motive which can be discerned among some of the rebels was a possible hope of seizing some ecclesiastical property. The rising at Abingdon in 1431 (with offshoots in the Midlands and London), which contemporaries associated with Lollardy, although on somewhat tenuous grounds, was undoubtedly anti-clerical, and some rebels seem to have put forward plans for ecclesiastical disestablishment.

They do not, however, seem to have possessed any programme for the betterment of lay society. Although both these revolts secured some support from fairly widespread areas, this was not strong, and they were easily suppressed.

Jack Cade's rising in 1450, which affected mainly Kent and various neighbouring counties, was a far more serious affair, and had repercussions over a much wider area. It marked the culmination of a series of political disorders, directed primarily against Henry Vl's chief adviser, William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk. One of his associates, Adam Moleyns, bishop of Chichester, was murdered on 9 January, he himself was committed to the Tower on the demand of the Commons on 28 January and two sets of articles of impeachment were laid against him. Although he was pardoned by the King and sent into exile (presumably for his own protection), there were riots against him after his release from the Tower, and when he sailed from England he was intercepted and murdered on 2 May. De la Pole's unpopularity was essentially political and personal; he was associated with the failure of the war in France and was rightly suspected of exploiting royal favour in the interest of himself and his friends (Ch.22; 147, pp.44, 62). Popular unrest had begun to develop even before his death - commissions were appointed to investigate insurrections in Kent on 2 February and in Surrey on 11 April, and a London chronicle tells of the arrest and execution, at an unspecified date, of a rebel leader known as Bluebeard. (7; 22, p.158) By the end of May the Kentishmen were marching on London, in June there was a skirmish with royal forces, and they presented a formal complaint of their grievances. On 4 July they entered London, although the authorities there were able to reassert themselves more rapidly than in 1381. On the next day a pardon was offered to the rebels, who withdrew from the city, although their leader Cade remained under arms, putting himself outside the scope of the pardon, and was killed on 12 July. Another prominent man at court, the King's confessor, Bishop Ayscough of Salisbury, was murdered at Edington in Wiltshire on 29 June. The troubles in Kent dragged on sporadically for some two years; in August 1450 a certain William Parmenter virtually proclaimed himself Cade's successor by calling himself the second captain of Kent, in April 1451 there were troubles fomented by Henry Hasilden, and in May 1452 there was yet further disorder (42).

What was the cause of these disorders? The Kentishmen's statement of grievances, comprising fifteen articles and five requests to the King, throws some light on this (7; 11, pp.338-42) The first article stated that there were rumours that Kent was to be turned into a forest as a punishment for Suffolk's death. This rumour may have done what the poll tax did in 1381, set fire to a potentially explosive situation, indeed one which had already shown signs of bursting into flame. But it is clear that there were more fundamental problems. Complaints were then made about the exclusion of the lords of the King's blood from his Council, obviously an allusion to the duke of York, about purveyance of goods for the King's household, and about extortion by sheriffs and their officers. Allegations of treason were made concerning the loss of lands in France, a matter which may have particularly concerned the Kentishmen, whose vulnerability to raids was obvious, and who may well have been alarmed by the issue of a commission of array, and a command to set up warning beacons, on 14 April. Complaint was made that there was no free election of knights of the shire, and that those elected knights had taken bribes for appointing tax-collectors in it. The King was asked to take the duke of York into his counsel, to punish those responsible for the death of the duke of Gloucester and to end extortions, particularly those by four named persons.

Apart from one passing reference to the Statute of Labourers, social grievances do not appear in the petition. More important are the political demands, but most significant of all was local discontent at the action of royal officials in the shire. This was directed particularly at the sheriff, William Crowmer, and his father-in-law, Lord Say, who as Sir James Fiennes had been sheriff in 1442. Say had been Treasurer since 1449, so the attacks on him link local grievances with general hostility to the court. There is good reason to believe that these attacks were well justified, because after the defeat of the rising and Cade's death, a commission, sent into Kent to investigate extortions there, held inquests in various parts of the shire between late August and late October 1450. At these the jurors accused various officials, particularly those named in the complaint, of extortion, disseisin, forcible detention of goods and fabrication of warrants of arrest for the purpose of extorting money (42). ln June too, after an attempt to repel the rebels had failed, and the leaders of the royal force, Sir Humphrey Stafford and William Stafford, had been killed at Sevenoaks, the government had tried to placate the Kentishmen by arresting Crowmer and Say and sending them to the Tower, and when Cade's men entered London in July, those two were among their. earliest victims (16, p.l92). The rebels also secured support in London from opponents of the court party. The courtiers' most prominent associate there was a draper, Philip Malpas, who had been chosen alderman of Lime Street ward in 1448 only through royal influence. His house was sacked during the revolt, and he himself was discharged from office; although he lived for almost twenty years more, he was not reappointed. Some of Cade's allies in the city were men of position, although the bulk of his support came from the poorer classes (128, pp.l11, 115).

The evidence suggests that Cade's support was fairly widely based, and that the strength of his leadership lay in his ability to act as spokesmen for all the social groups which supported him. The revolt was not purely one of the agricultural classes, although a substantial number of those pardoned for participation in it are described as 'husbandman' or 'labourer'. A number of those involved were artisans from the Kentish towns, some of whom, particularly those connected with the cloth trade, may have had a special grievance, as a sharp decline in cloth exports after 1448 could well have caused local unemployment (66, pp.96-7). Even more striking as a pointer to the greater importance of political rather than social factors in the rebellion was the participation of men from higher up the social scale; over ninety participants are described as 'gentleman' or 'esquire', and there was even one knight in the list of those pardoned, Sir William Trussel of Aylmesthorpe, Leicestershire. It is not clear how far there were similar local grievances to those of the Kentishmen in some of the other shires which were involved in the revolt, notably Sussex and Surrey, although it is probable that the resentment of the citizens of Salisbury at the powers which the bishop exercised there may have been one factor behind the murder of Ayscough (7; 147, pp.63, 66-8).

As a leader, Cade was able to maintain discipline among his men, at least until they reached London, and his success in defeating the force sent against him argues that he possessed some military capacity. Possibly there was some breakdown of control when he entered London, which may well have contributed to a reaction against him on the part of the citizens. The attack on Malpas's house certainly seems to have alarmed them and led them to co-operate with the authorities against the rebels (22, p.161).

As in 1381 there was no specific disloyalty to the King - hatred was concentrated on his advisers. This raises a further problem, whether or not there was, as some Tudor writers believed, Yorkist influence behind the rising. Certainly Cade's assumption of the name Mortimer, by which he was known in the earlier stages of the revolt, hints at Yorkist connections. (Indeed he was pardoned under that name, and the discovery that it was a false one provided an additional pretext for its revocation.) But Richard of York himself made no attempt to co-ordinate his movements with Cade's, and the demands for his inclusion among the King's advisers probably do no more than reflect dislike of the existing court faction.

It is worth spending considerable time in examining the causes of the 1450 rebellion, because they contrast markedly with those of the 1381 revolt. Cade and his supporters had no constructive programme for social reform, and appeared to be unconcerned about questions of servile status or land rents. Such economic grievances as existed were probably prompted by such immediate issues as the slump in the cloth industry rather than by long-term agrarian questions. The major grievances were political, although not necessarily dynastic, and reflected discontent at the abuse of power by the men who controlled the government. The rising, the most extensive popular movement between 1381 and the sixteenth century, was relatively limited in its aims and was certainly not directed at the overthrow of the social order.

During the Yorkist period there were undoubtedly some movements of popular discontent; in 1471 the Essex men seem to have joined Fauconberg's attack on London because they felt that the citizens were paying insufficient prices for dairy supplies. A late and rather unreliable source also explained some of the northern discontent in 1469 as the result of the demands of the Hospital of St Leonard at York for payments of sheaves from the northern counties (13, p.121; 4O, p.218). But neither of these cases really proves the existence of strong agrarian unrest; both show that local discontent could be drawn into the political struggles of contending dynasties and their magnate supporters. '

In the early Tudor period, the main occasions for insurrections seem to have been fiscal. Two risings under Henry Vll followed attempts to levy taxes; in 1489 the earl of Northumberland lost his life at the hands of a force of rebellious Yorkshiremen when he was trying to collect the subsidy granted that year, and in 1497 the levying of a tax for a war with Scotland led to a more serious revolt in Cornwall. According to one account, the Cornishmen felt that the affairs of the North were too remote to interest them. A substantial army marched on London, and although it was defeated, and their leaders put to death, to do so the King had to divert the force which was being prepared for the campaign in Scotland (73, pp14-16).