The Kentish Rebels

PUBLISHED: 17:34 13 December 2020 | UPDATED: 15:36 15 December 2020

Rochester Castle

Rochester Castle

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

Kent has always been noted for its rebellions, its involvement in the Peasants’ Revolt 635 years ago its most famous manifestation. But what were those other Kent rebellions?

“Tonight’s main headline: widespread risings have occurred in the south of England. The revolt is most serious in Kent, which this evening is a ‘no-go’ zone, as disturbances continue to spread.”

This is how the News might have reported the big story of late May and June 1381, as the Peasants’ Revolt seared through the countryside.

This year is the 635th anniversary of the rebellion that threatened to topple Richard II’s government. In Kent, the revolt was triggered by a dispute concerning one individual and whether he was ‘free’ or ‘bonded.’ Robert Belling, from Gravesend, claimed he was ‘free’ but the local bigwig’s retainers said he was a ‘serf’. He ended up incarcerated in Rochester Castle, which was attacked, along with Maidstone, where a local burgess was murdered, houses ransacked and rebel leader John Ball sprung from prison.

Lesnes Abbey, near Erith, was also attacked, the abbot intimidated into declaring for the rebels.

These risings among peasantry and artisans were provoked by social and economic grievances, including a series of hated poll taxes. While the king and nobles were often at loggerheads, the suggestion that the ‘commons’ could rise up, brought them together in self-defence.

This revolt was serious, as Kent’s rebels, led by Wat Tyler, oft identified as a Maidstone man, and supported by local townsfolk, seized Rochester Castle, releasing Belling.

In Canterbury rebels demanded the monks elect a new archbishop the present incumbent was doomed) and executed a number of ‘traitors’ handed over by the citizens.

On 13 June Kent and Essex mobs joined forces, entering London in what was a full-blown crisis. That small-scale contretemps in Kent had exploded into something more radical, that ‘all men in the realm of England should be free and of free condition.’

The king’s uncle, John of Gaunt, had his London home torched and rebels occupied the Tower, executing the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury, and treasurer, Sir Robert Hales. The rebellion’s denouement came two days later, on 15 June, when the King met the Kentish men at Smithfield, a fracas resulting in Tyler’s death and the end of a ‘new order’.

Kent has always been noted for its rebellions, its involvement in the Peasants’ Revolt its most famous example, but there was more to come. Jack Cade’s Rebellion (1450) occurred during the reign of one of our more incompetent monarchs, Henry VI, his ineptitude the catalyst for civil war.

Five years before the Wars of the Roses began, however, there was rebellion in Kent. Ineffective government, and ruinous taxes to pay for failed foreign ventures; enter Cade.

One of the king’s henchmen, the Duke of Suffolk, was banished for his shortcomings, but received swifter justice at the hands of ‘the people’, his corpse dumped on the Dover shingle. Kentishmen feared reprisals (Lord Saye said Kent should be turned into ‘wild forest’) and armed themselves.

By 11 June Cade had arrived at Blackheath with demands, a mix of both local and national grievances. Parley attempts failed and Cade & Co were pursued back to Kent. At Sevenoaks the royal force was vanquished, with leaders Sir Humphrey and William Stafford, slain. A plaque in Sevenoaks records that “Hereabouts took place on Thursday the 18th of June AD 1450 The Battle of Solefields fought between royalist troops under Sir Humphrey Stafford – and men from Kent led by Jack Cade.”

As in 1381, this was a close-run thing, the king abandoning London for the safety of Warwickshire. The rebels held London briefly, made their point, including exacting revenge on Saye, were bought off with pardons, then had these withdrawn. Cade, dubbed the ‘Captain of Kent’, died from wounds sustained when the county’s Sheriff tried to capture him. Memories of rebellion fanned the flames thereafter, and in 1452, just two years later, a group of Kentish labourers planned a new rising, drawing up hit lists of ‘gentlemen’ they intended to slaughter.

The Wars of the Roses saw the Kentish ‘commons’ aflame again. In June 1460 the Earl of Warwick landed at Sandwich, intent on toppling that same Lancastrian Henry VI. Marching north, he gathered Kentish support.

Nine years later, the ‘Kingmaker’ switched sides, having Yorkist Edward IV in his sights. A rebel manifesto was issued from Warwick’s base of Calais, which, among other instructions, summoned the commons of Kent to rise. Warwick was popular in Kent, where his sponsored acts of piracy benefited many, with Sandwich enjoying a lucrative supply line with Calais. Warwick died in the battles of 1471 that finally secured the Yorkist supremacy of Edward IV. Again, there was a Kentish Rising.

While Edward was defeating his rivals on the battlefield, the pirate ‘Bastard of Fauconberg’ (an illegitimate son of Warwick’s uncle) marched with his Kentishmen on London, terrorising its citizens in Edward’s absence.

The city ‘government’ just about ejected the rebels, who left us without any manifesto. It was a last throw of the Warwick ‘sympathy-dice’ by men of the south-east. There was another Kentish Rebellion during the reign of Edward VI (1549), the brief reign of Henry VIII’s only son marked by disturbances as common folk railed against religious changes taking England further away from the old religion (Catholicism). There were Kentish commotions once more, with the same villages ‘coming out’ as in 1450.

Come 1554, it was Mary I’s turn to face the rebels. Wyatt’s Rebellion was a popular rising against Bloody Mary’s plans to marry Philip of Spain and one of its hotbeds was, once more, Kent. Thomas Wyatt seized Rochester and issued his proclamation, urging folk to support him. A rebel force was routed in a skirmish at Hartley Wood, near Sevenoaks, but the rebels still gained in strength, getting to London, before the rising fell apart, Wyatt himself being executed.

The Kent Riots of 1630 occurred during Charles I’s reign. A disastrous harvest saw the grain price rise from 4s to 14s a bushel; the prospect of starvation prompted food riots in the county. Later in Charles’ reign, with the English Civil War raging, in June 1648 the Maidstone Rebellion broke out. The King’s incarceration incensed his supporters, plus it had been a tense winter, not helped by Parliament’s attempts to ban Christmas, as part of its Puritanical drive.

Riots occurred in Canterbury and petitioners, seeking a king’s rule again, flocked to London from Kent, where scattered risings occurred. A section of the fleet off the Downs, also declared for Charles, and joined with the Kentishmen.

There was no attempt to co-ordinate and without a coherent strategy the rebels were no match for Parliament’s New Model Army. The most serious outbreak was at Maidstone, where a force of Royalist sympathisers held out against a larger Parliamentarian army, but as the besieging force captured key objectives around the town, the defenders melted away.

Does the fact Kent has always been associated with rebellion tell us something of the intrinsic Kent character and are ‘revolting Kentishmen’ a thing of the past, or do they just lay dormant, awaiting their moment?

THE REBELLIONS

1381: Peasants’ Revolt

1450: Jack Cade’s Rebellion

1460: Warwick’s Rising against Henry VI

1469: Warwick’s Rising against Edward IV

1471: Fauconberg

1549: Rebellion during reign of Edward VI

1554: Wyatt’s Rebellion

1630: Kent Bread Riots

1648: Maidstone Rebellion

References

Civil War (P Ackroyd, 2014)

A Dictionary of British History (Ed. JP Kenyon, 1981)

The English Rebel (D Horspool, 2009)

The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England (A Wood, 2007)

The Great Revolt of 1381 (Sir C Oman, 1906)

Discovering Castles in England and Wales (J Kinross, 1973)

Historic Kent (www.historic-kent.co.uk)

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