The Peasants Revolt

Richard II meeting with the rebels of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

The Black Death had swept through England taking out great swaths of the population with terrifying efficiency.  The only silver lining to be found in this great expanse of death is that it left the survivors in the possession of more wealth and power than their forebearers.  Men who had been scratching a living, suddenly became village elites with a bit of money and property as all the other heirs were carried off with plague.  Labor for the harvests was scarce and food was scarcer, so those willing to toil were able to charge a wage and not be tied to land as defined by feudal law.  However, the lords were not on board with that as you can imagine, dear reader.  The Statute of Labor was passed in 1351, which attempted to put wages back to 1346 levels and keep the peasants on their land where they belonged.  The landlords then took the opportunity to start raising the rents on the lands the peasants were once again tied to.  To make matters worse, many peasants were required to work for free on church land, sometimes up to two days a week.  There was a rumbling of discontent.

In the years following the Black Death, both King Edward III and his heir, the Black Prince, died leaving Edward’s grandson, Richard to take the throne.  He was only ten years old when he was crowned.  Because of his young age, most decisions were made by the barons, in particular Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.  (For more on John of Gaunt, please see this post: ).  More taxes were raised ostensibly for the Hundred Years War in France.  However, those in the villages of England feared the third Poll Tax passed in 1380 was really to line the pockets of John of Gaunt and the ruling party in Westminster.  The grumbling grew louder until it boiled over into rebellion.  

In the village of Fobbing in Essex, a tax collector arrived to see why no one had paid their poll tax.  He was thrown out on his ear.  The next month, soldiers appeared to enforce law and order and they were thrown out.  The villagers of Fobbing were joined by those in neighboring villages and they began to form a movement.  At Maidstone, they freed a radical priest there named John Ball, who had been imprisoned in Maidstone Castle by the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Ball preached the radical sermon which carried the catchphrase of the revolution:  “While Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?”  They marched on Canterbury, and after relieving the rich pilgrims of their wealth elected a new Archbishop, a humble monk.  At this point a new name comes to the fore- Wat Tyler.  We don’t know much about him, except that he was able to give the rebels new purpose and hold their cause together. He and Ball suggested they take their case to the king and bypass the thieving nobles. And if the king did not listen…well, they would have to do what they must.  With that, the peasant army turned and marched on London leaving a path of burning tax records, labor duties and manor houses in their wake.

An army of between 5,000 and 10,000 peasants camped on the hills of Blackheath within sight of the spires of London on June 12, 1381.  They were convinced they had justice on their side and the king would see reason once he was free of his evil counselors.  Unfortunately, they lost the moralistic high ground when they marched into London the next day.  They invaded Southwark and freed the prisoners at Marshalsea prison.  From there they crossed London Bridge and torched John of Gaunt’s London home, Savoy Palace.  Everything of value was destroyed or looted.  The king and his counselors retreated to the Tower, the strongest fortress in London, and watched the destruction.  Soon the Tower was under siege from the Peasant Army.  Simon of Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor was not so lucky.  He was seized and executed.  One historian describes the scene:

“In the Chapel of St John the shouting rabble came upon the Archbishop, Sir Robert Hales, the Lord Treasurer, John of Gaunt’s physician, and John Legge who had devised the poll tax. They were all at prayer before the altar. Dragged away from the chapel, down the steps and out of the gates onto Tower Hill, where traitors were executed, they were beheaded one after the other. Their heads were stuck on pikes and carried in triumph around the city.”

Fleet prison was opened and the prisoners there were freed as well.  Foreigners were murdered with thirty-five Flemish merchants were beheaded one after another on the same block.  It was bedlam.

15th-century representation of the cleric John Ball encouraging the rebels; Wat Tyler is shown in red, front left

Although Richard was only 14, he was unafraid to deal with the rebels.  He agreed to meet with the leaders at Smithfield, an open space within the city walls.  The meeting was extraordinary.  Tyler rode over to the king with in the royal party and bowed after getting off his horse.  Then shook the king’s hand and called him “brother”.  The king asked him why they did not go home, and Tyler gave a loud curse and began listing off demands.  The demands were nothing short of revolutionary.  The abolishment of serfdom, liquidation of the lands of the Church and all men equal except under the king and a general pardon for all the peasants.  Surprisingly, Richard agreed and Tyler was taken aback.  Maybe Richard was bluffing, maybe Tyler didn’t think it would be that easy, but it was certainly unexpected.  Tyler called for ale, quaffed it then got back on his horse.  A young squire shouted at Tyler he was a thief, and that was the cue for everything to break down.  The mayor of London attempted to arrest Tyler and they came to blows, and Tyler went down.  He was killed by the king’s men out of view of the rebels.  Now what?

Richard took control and saved a terrible situation.  He rode straight at the rebels, declaring, “You shall have no captain but me.”  This played on the rebels loyalty to the crown and saved their skins after the killing of Tyler.  However, the words were deliberately ambiguous.  The rebels took it as Richard taking their side, but what it ended up being was the beginning of the reassertion of royal authority.  They all followed Richard into London thinking they would get their pardons, while Mayor Woolworth high tailed it back to London and raised troops to quash the rebellion.  A week later when Richard met with another group of rebels in Essex and his tone was decidedly different.  He berated them for their pretension to be equal with lords and told them “you will not remain in bondage as you were before, but incomparably harsher.”

Soon anyone in possession of such a pardon was marked for death as a traitor.  In Kent, 1500 peasants were sent to the gallows and in Hertfordshire and Essex 500 were killed.  However, despite the nominal victory of the land owners, the lords were running scared. The attempts to move the wage levels backward and raise poll taxes ended.  Serfdom died out, and the Peasant’s Revolt marks the breakdown of the feudal system.


Prester John


Prester John from Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

In the time of the crusades, Europeans were looking for any allies in their battles against the Muslims for the Holy Land.  Medieval writings often feature a fabulously wealthy Christian king in the East.  This was Prester John.  He was believed to be a member of the Nestorian Church, which was an independent Eastern Christian church that did not fall under the purview of the patriarch in Constantinople.  He was supposed to be an ally against the Muslims for the crusaders to take advantage of.

The story of Prester John was first recorded by Bishop Otto of Freisling Germany in his Chronicon published in 1145.  It was based on a report from Bishop Hugh of Gerbal in Syria to the papal court at Viterbo, Italy.  According to the story recorded in the Chronicon, Prester John was a powerful Christian king who was the descendant of the Magi who visited the Christ Child.  He was also said to be a formidable fighter who defeated the Muslim kings of Persia in battle taking their capital of Ecbatana.  The only reason he did not recapture Jerusalem was because he could not cross the Tigris River.  There was no more on the story until a letter appeared in 1165.  Copies of a letter from Prester John to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos began circulating.  In this letter, Prester John’s kingdom is described as having crystal clear rivers of emeralds, massive amounts of gold, majestic animals and the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.  This myth also morphed into having Prester John’s kingdom being next door to the Garden of Paradise.  A good ally to have.  This letter were so persuasive that Pope Alexander III sent a return letter addressed to Prester John in 1177.  It was being taken east by Alexander’s personal physician Philip.  It is addressed to “the illustrious and magnificent king of the Indies and a beloved son of Christ.”  Nothing more is mentioned of Philip or what happened to him and the letter.

However, all of this was fictional.  It is thought that the battle being referred to was fought between the Mongol khan Yelu Dashi and the Seljuk sultan Sanjar in 1141.  The Mongol khans who fought in this battle were not Christians, but Buddhists.  However, many of their followers were Nestorian Christians.  It’s also possible that Europeans that were unfamiliar with Buddhists may have assumed they were another sect of Christianity.  The letter published in 1165 was fiction, however, it was translated from its original Latin into a variety of languages and distributed throughout Europe.  Then word returned from the Fifth Crusade that Prester John’s grandson, King David, was fighting the Saracens.  The problem?  It wasn’t King David conquering all these lands.  It was the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan.  They tried to bend this new development around the legend by saying one of his favorite wives was a Nestorian Christian and that he was tolerant of other religious faiths as long as they didn’t make trouble.  However, this didn’t really fit the narrative and the legends moved away from Prester John being a central Asian king.

Some additional legends, linked Prester John to kingdoms in Africa even though the original story placed him in Asia.  Marco Polo had discussed Ethiopia as a Christian land fueling the rumors.  In the 15th century, Italian and Portuguese explorers began searching for Prester John in Africa.  Portuguese explorers began connecting a kingdom in present-day Ethiopia with Prester John’s realm.  They made contact with the kingdom of Zara Yaqob, and decided this kingdom was the source of the wealth of Solomon.  Prester John was identified with the negus, or emperor, of the kingdom.  In fact, ambassadors from Zara Yaqob attended the Council of Florence and identified as representatives of Prester John.  They were extremely confused.

By this time, the legend was dying out as exploration of Africa and Asia by the Europeans were not finding this fabled kingdom.  However, the legend did inspire generations of explorers, soldiers and dreamers


The Eleanor Crosses

Waltham Cross Photo Credit- Nigel Cox

Edward I of England and his queen, Eleanor of Castile, were deeply devoted to one another.  Their marriage, like most marriages at the time, was pure rooted in pragmatic politics.  Henry III, Edward’s father, was having a dispute with Eleanor’s half brother Alphonso over claims to the duchy of Gascony.  A deal was struck that Alphonso would cede his claims to his half-sister’s new husband after the marriage.  They were married at Burgos in Castile in August 1254 in a lavish ceremony.  Although the two had not known each other previously, there seems to be a real affection that grew up between them.  From the time of the marriage, they were inseparable often traveling together.  Eleanor even accompanied Edward on crusade to the Holy Land instead of staying in comfort at home.  Legend tells that she sucked the poison from a dagger wound at Haifa saving Edward’s life.  This is dismissed as a story as it came out after the couple were both dead, but the fact that it was seen as plausible shows their devotion to one another.  It’s also thought her gentleness tempered her husband’s impetuousness and nasty temper.  Together they had sixteen children, only six of whom survived to adulthood.

The Hardingstone or Northampton Cross Photo Credit- Brookie at the English language Wikipedia,

In 1290, Edward was on his way to Scotland and, as was her custom, Eleanor was accompanying him.  Some sources suggest the two were travelling separately, but other historians believe they were together at the Palace of Clipstone in Sherwood Forest where Eleanor fell ill.  She attempted to make a pilgrimage to the tomb of Hugh of Lincoln, but did not make it and died at Harby on November 29, 1290.  Edward was devastated and shut himself away to mourn his wife.  He wrote, “Living I loved her dearly and I shall never cease to love her in death.”  Eleanor’s body was embalmed at St. Catherine’s Priory in Lincoln, where her heart was removed to be taken to Blackfriars in London.  Her other organs were buried in Lincoln Cathedral.  Then the funeral cortege began its slow trip back to Westminster Abbey for her final resting place.  

Every place Eleanor’s body stopped overnight, Edward ordered a cross erected in stone to remind the passers by to pray for the soul of the queen.  Although fifteen were planned, there were ultimately twelve crosses designed by Edward’s Master Mason, each with steps leading to three levels.  The first level had shields representing Eleanor’s heraldry, the second had statues of the queen and the third would continue the column and the whole thing would be topped with a cross.  These twelve crosses were built in Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone near Northampton, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Waltham, Westcheap, and Charing.  In fact, some people believe Charing got its name from a corruption of the phrase “Chere Reine” or beloved queen.  Other scholars believe Charing really comes from the Saxon word “Cyring” or “at the bend of the river”.

Geddington Cross Photo Credit-

The first cross was built at St. Catherine’s Priory, the start of the procession, and was destroyed in the English Civil War.  Only a fragment was preserved, which is on display on the grounds of Lincoln Castle.  The Grantham, Stamford, Stony Stratford, and St. Albans crosses were also destroyed in the Civil War.   The Woburn and Dunstable crosses vanished without a trace.  The Westcheap cross was counted as being filled with “Popish images” and was repeatedly attacked and finally pulled down in 1647.  Parts of it were burned by zealous Puritans.  The Charing Cross was pulled down in the same year.  However, an elaborate replica was built in 1863.  It was designed by architect E. M. Barry and was loosely based on images of the original cross.  Sculptor Thomas Earp did the work.

Of the original crosses, only three remain.  The cross at Geddington was only damaged by the Civil War.  The remains are on display in the heart of the village of Geddington.  The Hardingstone Cross also still exists, but is badly damaged.  It has undergone renovations, but is missing its third level and cross.  The final surviving cross is at Waltham.

When the funeral cortege reached Westminster Abbey, Eleanor’s body was interred there and a effigy was made of either copper, bronze or brass.  It has been described as all three in various sources.  This was the final resting place of Eleanor, known as the “Queen of Good Memory”, beloved of Edward.


Enrico Dandolo’s Revenge or The Fourth Crusade

Conquest Of Constantinople By The Crusaders In 1204

Enrico Dandolo had an ax to grind.  At first, it seemed like he had a pretty good life.  He was born in the early 12th century to an influential Venetian noble family.  His father was Vitale Dandolo, who was a famous jurist and diplomat.  His uncle, another Enrico Dandolo, was the patriarch of Grado, the highest ranking churchman in Venice.  Young Enrico followed in his father’s footsteps and went on many diplomatic for the Republic.  He was a shrewd politician and survived a disastrous mission Constantinople in 1171.  The Byzantine Empire was the biggest kid on the block, and had seized the goods of thousands of Venetians living in the Empire and threw the people in prison.  The initial mission was a complete mess, and ended up with the Doge being killed by a mob.  Dandolo survived and made many diplomatic trips to Constantinople, Ferrara and Sicily.  It is said one trip to Constantinople, Enrico lost his sight.  One story says that he so vigorously defended the rights of the Venetians living in Constantinople, the Byzantine emperor had him blinded.  However, Groffroi de Villehardouin, a chronicler of the fourth Crusade, reports Dandolo lost his sight from a blow to the head.  However, he lost his sight, it did not quench his ambition or his ability, and stoked a growing hatred for the Byzantine Empire.

At a time when most men were settling down, Dandolo began his rise to power.  He became the forty-first Doge of Venice on June 1, 1192.  He was 84 years old and blind to boot.  However, he wasn’t about to rest on his laurels.  He had a score to settle with Byzantium.  By the end of the 12th century, there had been three crusades to retake the holy land with varying degrees of success.  The Third Crusade had just ended with the Treaty of Jaffa, which left the city of Jerusalem under Muslim control.  No one much liked that.  The Saladin died, and his successors looked easier to beat.  So in 1198, Pope Innocent III immediately began calling for a new crusade to free Jerusalem.  Unfortunately, no one was much interested as literally everyone in Europe was busy with something else.  

Finally in 1202, the  army of mostly French recruits, marched to Venice, who had agreed to provide them with transport to Cairo.  Slight problem, no one had any money to pay the Venetians.  This turned into a huge problem for Venice as they had sunk all their ready cash in building a fleet for the crusaders, which put their shipbuilding economy on hold.  Plus there were 12,000 soldiers wandering around with no money and bored out of their minds.  That wasn’t going to end well.  A deal was struck.  The crusaders could go to Cairo, if they captured the port of Zara on the Dalmatian coast for Venice on the way.  Zara was a Christian city, but no matter.  They would get some cash plus revenge for the Dalmatians not aligning themselves with Venice, the crusaders would get where they needed to go.  Win win.   Not exactly in the eyes of Pope Innocent III, who put tried to put the kibosh on the plan by threatening to excommunicate everyone if they went through with it.  Everyone kind of forgot to tell the rank and file that, and they took Zara anyway.

So, now that Dandolo was officially excommunicated he was now free to do exactly what he wanted, and he smelled profit and revenge.  While all this was going on,

Tomb of Enrico Dandolo in Hagia Sofia in Istanbul Photo Credit-

there was a power struggle in Constantinople.  Isaac II lost the throne and his brother was crowned as Alexios III.  Isaac’s son, another Alexios, was not keen on losing his inheritance, and cast about for allies and found one Enrico Dandolo.  Dandolo had the crusader army sale not for Cairo, but for Constantinople with Isaac’s son in tow.  He was to be proclaimed basileus for the tidy sum of 236,000 silver marks.  Yet another problem-  Isaac’s son did not have that kind of money.  Alexios decided to keep that to himself as the crusader army and Venetian ships attacked Constantinople.  They almost lost, but eventually Alexios III lost his nerve and fled.  Young Alexios was crowned Alexios IV as co-emperor with his old father, Isaac II.  It was time to pay up, but Alexios decided to try to to skip out on the debt.

When the Venetians found out they were pissed.  They refused to leave the city until they got every cent, and eventually the crusader army and the citizens of Constantinople were brawling in the city streets.  The citizens were fed up and brought in a new basileus, yet another Alexios who became Alexios V.  This Alexios was very anti-Latin, as the crusaders and Venetians were called.  Dandolo knew they weren’t going to get any money from him, so they declared him a usurper and let the crusader army loose on the great city of Constantinople.  Not exactly what Pope Innocent had in mind, but he eventually got his cut so he let it slide.

The city fell to the crusader army on April 13, 1204 and it is estimated that 900,000 silver marks was looted out of Constantinople.  Jerusalem wasn’t conquered and the Muslims were never engaged in one battle.  The only people who fought were Christians against Christians, which greatly belittled the worth of the Pope’s word.  Innocent fought that battle for years after.  However, everyone made their money and Dandolo got his revenge.  However, the price for his revenge was quite high.  The Byzantine Empire had been the bulwark against the Muslims for years and this little escapade had weakened it significantly.  There was a series of “Latin” rulers, but within sixty years the Greeks were back in charge.  However, it never recovered and became an easy mark for the Ottoman Empire.  


The White Ship Disaster

On November 25, 1120 the newly refitted vessel the White Ship captained by Thomas FitzStephen White Ship sank in the English Channel near the Normandy coast off Barfleur. Only one of those aboard survived. William Adelin, the only legitimate son and heir of King Henry I of England, his half-sister Matilda, and his half-brother Richard would be one of many to drown. Adelin’s death would lead to a succession crisis and a period of civil war in England known as the Anarchy.

FitzStephen offered his ship to Henry I of England to use to return to England from Barfleur in Normandy. Henry had already made other arrangements, but allowed many in his party to take the White Ship, including his heir, William Adelin; his illegitimate son Richard of Lincoln; his illegitimate daughter Matilda FitzRoy, Countess of Perche; and many other nobles. According to chronicler Orderic Vitalis, the crew asked William Adelin for wine and he supplied it to them in great abundance. By the time the ship was ready to leave there were about 300 people on board although some had disembarked due to the excessive drinking before the ship sailed.

FitzStephen, was ordered by the revellers to overtake the king’s ship, which had already sailed. The White Ship was fast, of the best construction and had recently been fitted with new materials, which made the captain and crew confident they could reach England first. But when it set off in the dark, its port side struck a submerged rock called Quillebœuf, and the ship quickly capsized. William Adelin got into a small boat and could have escaped but turned back to try to rescue his half-sister, Matilda, when he heard her cries for help. His boat was swamped by others trying to save themselves, and William drowned along with them. According to Orderic Vitalis, only two survived by clinging to the rock that night. One was Berold (Beroldus or Berout), a butcher from Rouen; the second eventually drowned, Geoffrey, the son of Gilbert of Laigle. The chronicler further wrote that when Thomas FitzStephen came to the surface after the sinking and learned that William Adelin had not survived, he let himself drown rather than face the King. One legend holds that the ship was doomed because priests were not allowed to board it in the customary manner.

Approximately 250, including servants and marines. Of these, 140 were knights or noblemen and 18 were noblewomen. Over the next few days a few bodies found there way ashore, but William’s body was never found.