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.


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.


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.


Eustace the Monk-   Sorcerer, Monk, Pirate, Admiral and Legend

Eustace's death at the Battle of Sandwich By Matthew Paris - Photo Credit- Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, II, fol. 52r
Eustace’s death at the Battle of Sandwich By Matthew Paris – Photo Credit- Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, II, fol. 52r

Born in 1170 near Boulogne, France, Eustace was the younger son of Baudoin Busket, a lord of the county of Boulogne.  His upbringing was typical until he traveled to Toledo, Spain as a youth where he is rumored to have studied black magic.  According to the contemporary work, Histoire des Ducs de Normandie, “No one would believe the marvels he accomplished, nor those which happened to him many times.”  Returning home to France, Eustace gave up his magic and joined a Benedictine monastery at St. Samer Abbey near Calais.  However, history was not done with this young man yet.

According to a romance biography written about Eustace in 1225 by an unknown poet from Picardy, Eustace left the monastery in 1190 to avenge his father, who was murdered by Hainfrois de Heresinghen.  The two agreed to duel through surrogates, and Eustace’s champion lost.  By the rules of trial by combat, Heresinghen was acquitted of all charges.  It is not known whether this was a based on truth, but other evidence does show that his father did die some time around 1190.  After his father’s death, Eustace decided not to go back to the monastery and became the seneschal and bailiff of the count of Boulogne, Renaud de Dammartin.  There was a quarrel between the two some time in 1204 as Eustace fled to the Forest of Boulonnais.  The biography states Heresighen stirred up a plot to discredit Eustace by accusing him of embezzling funds from the Count.  The Count seized Eustace’s property and burned his land and declared him an outlaw.  Eustace retaliated by raiding the Count’s property, including burning down two newly built mills.  This war of revenge waged against the Count from the Forest of Boulonnais is thought to be one of the inspirations for the legend of Robin Hood.

Now officially an outlaw, Eustace found this sort of life suited him.  He and his brothers established bases on several of the Channel Islands, including the Castle Cornet in Guernsey, and began a career of piracy.  From 1205 and 1212, Eustace lived off the rich pickings of French ships in the English Channel and the Straits of Dover as well as selling his sword to the highest bidder.  At one point, Eustace commanded as many as 30 ships under the flag of King John of England.  He was said to have built a great palace in London and sent his daughter to keep company with the daughters of the nobles of England.

In 1212, something changed.  The biography points to Eustace’s mortal enemy of the Count of Boulogne, Renaud de Dammartin, changing his allegiance to King John and poisoning the King’s mind against Eustace.  The Annals of Dunstable reports, “… There came… the count of Bloulogne. And the king Of France took all the ships of England which came to his land; and therefore the king of England took many towns of the of the Cinque Ports. And then Eustace, the pirate, called the Monk, fled from us to the king of France with five galleys because the count of Boulogne laid snares for him.”   No matter the reason, Eustace changed his coat and began working for King Philip II of France against King John.  He was described as “endowed with a diabolical ingenuity in working havoc among his former friends the English.”

Civil war was raging in England and Prince Louis had been invited by some of the barons to come over and be king instead of John.  Eustace threw his support to the rebel barons and provided transport to Prince Louis in 1216.  He also lent his fleet to bringing much needed reinforcements to Louis in England.  This is where he met his defeat.  King John had died in October 1216, and the rebel barons were losing much of their support as John’s nine year old son, Henry, took the crown.   Prince Louis and the rebels lost an important battle forcing them to retreat to London.  Eustace and Robert de Courtenai sailed from Calais on August 24, 1217 with 70 ships loaded with knights and treasure to reprovision them.  Eustace was an admiral, but de Courtenai was in command of the fleet over him.  This proved to be their undoing.  The English assembled a fleet of forty ships under the command of Hubert de Burgh.  The ships met off the coast of Sandwich in what should have been a victory.  The English ships were smaller than the French as well as outnumbered.  De Burgh feinted and de Courtenai took the bait despite urging from Eustace.  De Courtenai ordered the French fleet to attack and lost the wind, leaving them vulnerable to the English counterattack.  To keep the French from boarding the English ships, they covered the decks in powdered lime.  The wind picked up the lime and blinded the French troops.

The knights were slaughtered and de Courtenai was taken for ransom.  Eustace knew he was in trouble because he was hated in the crews of the English ships, his former allies.  He hid in the ship’s bilge, and when found offered exorbitant sums of money for his freedom.  Some stories take this as high 10,000 marks.  Eustace was given the choice of his execution site- the ship’s rail or the side of the trebuchet.  History does not say which he chose.  However, it is recorded a man named Stephan Crabbe did the honors of relieving Eustace of his head.  His biography ends with the words, “No man can live long who spends his days doing ill.”

The Battle of Sandwich was lost by the French and eventually Prince Louis had to return to France renouncing the throne of England.  Eustace’s brother’s kept their Channel Island bases for a time, but then disappeared into the mists of history.

Sources available on request

The Saintonge War


The Battle of Taillebourg, 21st July 1242 by Eugène Delacroix
The Battle of Taillebourg, 21st July 1242 by Eugène Delacroix

In previous posts, we have discussed the throne of England was intertwine with the family of the Lusignans, mainly through the link of Isabella of Angouleme.  For more information please see posts:  




In 1241, the Dowager Queen of England and the mother of the present king, Isabella of Angouleme, encouraged her new husband, Hugh de Lusignan, to rebel against King Louis of France.  The whole rebellion was kicked off by Isabella being angry about several things.  The king’s brother, Alphonse, was installed as the Count of Poitou.  This was traditionally a Plantagenet domain through Isabella’s mother in law, Eleanor of Aquitaine.  However, Isabella’s late husband, John, lost the battle of Bouvines in 1214 and lost the rights to most of his French lands.  Isabella felt her son, the earl of Cornwall, should have been made Count of Poitou.  She was also angry at having to give deference to the ladies of the French court, especially Louis’ wife Blanche.  It was a messy gathering all the way around and ended in Isabella and Hugh refusing to give allegiance to the new Count of Poitou.  It was a declaration of war.  

Hugh and Isabella were joined by Raymond of Toulouse, who had lost most of his lands in the Albigensian Crusade.  The French rebels counted on support from Isabella’s son, Henry III of England, and he provided, however slowly.  Henry and his brother Richard, earl of Cornwall, assembled a force of 30,000 at Royan and brought “30 tons of gold” in May 1242.  This was to oppose Louis’ army of about 50,000.  Henry sent letters to Louis stating he had come “to defend” his stepfather’s position.  His words fell on deaf ears.  Henry advanced his army to Tonnay-Charente in mid July.  Louis marched to meet him.  They were both after control of the only bridge over the Charente river, located at Taillebourg.  There was a small skirmish between Henry’s advance scouts and some French forces, and Louis followed it up immediately.  Creating a pontoon bridge across the Charente and using boats, Louis moved his entire army to the English side and attacked.  The Battle of Taillebourg ended in a massive charge of French knights, which forced the English to retreat to the city of Saintes.  The French lay siege to Saintes, but through negotiations with Richard, earl of Cornwall, persuaded them to wait until King Henry had escaped to Bordeaux.  The English lost the town, however, Simon de Montfort fought a successful rearguard action as they escaped.  Hug surrendered to Louis on July 24, 1242.  After this disaster, Henry and Louis signed a five year truce.  However, the unsuccessful war cost over 88,000 pounds.  Simon de Montfort was so disgusted with King Henry’s incompetence, according to historians he made the statement Henry should be locked up like Charles the Simple.


After the war, French influence spread through Hugh’s domains and his and Isabella’s children were less welcome there.  Henry encouraged his half siblings and relatives to travel to England and live with him at court.  Once there, Henry rewarded them with large grants of land and manors, which were taken from English lords.  This did not go over well.  By the end of the Poitevin migration, over 100 had made their way to England and had been awarded substantial incomes and lands.  The chronicles at the time, written by Matthew Paris and Roger de Wendover, took on a distinctly xenophobic tone and the term “Poitevin” took on a negative meaning.  Henry’s half siblings pursued personal grievances and feuds, and Henry did little to check them.  They were a visible reminder of his hope that he would someday regain the county of Poitou and his other lost French lands.   The other English lords did not like this at all.  The king and his half siblings were actively breaking Magna Carta.  Particularly critical of the Poitevins was Simon de Montfort.
And the seeds of the 2nd Barons War were sown.


Sources available on request