A history of Halesworth, Suffolk, UK, through the ages.


Volume 2


Peasant's Revolt 1381

The Black Death had affected people's attitude to life, and created a discontent due to the famine and deaths. This grew and festered to boil over in a violent rebellion of the people. The peasants had lost respect for the wealthy, pleasure-loving church lords, and so had the poorer priests who were firmly on 'the side of the peasants'. As early as the 1320s and 1340s, the Suffolk peasants were already objecting to the claims of their landlords. At Bury St. Edmunds, in January 1327, some 3000 townsmen broke down the gates of the Abbey, destroying and looting as they went... and in October, the monks made an armed attack on the townspeople. The townspeople retaliated, almost destroying the Abbey. Many of the leaders were hanged and 30 cartloads of prisoners were sent to Norwich for trial.

The Black Death was severe in Bury, and following it, the townspeople were ready to take advantage of the unrest in the county to revolt once more with the imposition of the hated Poll Tax in 1381. In order to pay for the crippling cost of the French Wars, Richard ll sanctioned a Poll Tax of three groats or one shilling (5p) per head, for every male over the age of fifteen years. The main complaint was that both rich and poor paid the same tax, and feelings ran so high that tax collectors were beaten up in Essex and Kent. We have seen in recent years the back lash which can occur when such a tax was imposed in our own time, but unlike the 20th century, the anger turned to bloodshed.

In the countryside around London, a travelling priest by the name of John Ball stirred the people against the lords with the slogan ...

                        When Adam delf (dug the ground) and Eve span (spun)
                        Who was thanne the Gentilman?

When he was banned from preaching in churches, John Ball went into the streets saying 'We are all formed in Christ's likeness, and they (the lords) treat us like beasts'. Another leader by the name of Jack Straw moved around East Anglia, recruiting members and leaders, with a Suffolk man, John Wrawe, a dissident priest terrorising the area around Bury St. Edmunds. It would be wrong to assume that the rebels were only peasants, - hence a rabble with little educated leadership. Thomas Samson was a Suffolk rebel, who assembled, supported and linked up the rebel bands in several of the Suffolk Hundreds. He farmed 137 acres in crops in the Kersey area, with some 300 sheep and 100 head of stock. In fact John Wrawe claimed to have had the support of several county families such as the Tollemaches, the Bedingfields and the Woolverstones.

Back in London, the main army of rebels met the young King, Richard ll at Mile End, under their leader Wat Tyler. There were about 60,000 supporters on each side of the River Thames when he put forward the peasants' demands. These were granted by the King, who also arranged for thirty clerks to start writing charters of freedom. Whilst this was going on, some of the rebels burst into the Tower of London, where they found Simon Tybald, Archbishop of Canterbury and also Chancellor of England. He was from Sudbury in Suffolk, and was hated for enforcing the Poll Tax, and was remembered for excommunicating John Ball, one of the main leaders of the Revolt. Simon of Sudbury, as he was called, was dragged to Tower Hill and beheaded and his skull put on a spike on London Bridge. In time his skull ended up in St. Gregory's Church in Sudbury, and it is still there, displayed behind a glass panel.

Also in Suffolk, at Leiston, there was a gathering of people from Hertfordshire, Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, where John Wrawe, the parson of Ringsfield near Beccles, raised a force from them and marched inland, intent on attacking the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds. John Wrawe acted as leader in that area, but because of his priesthood, delegated his deputy Robert Westbrom of Bury to be the rebels' 'King of Suffolk' in his stead, and Bury was to be their first target. Knowing that the townsmen and peasants were after his blood, that abbot fled, but was hunted down and killed and his head paraded round the town. With him at the time was the King's Chief Justice, John de Cavendish, who was one of the targets of the Suffolk mob, as he had enforced with all his power the hated Statute of Labourers which was passed to keep wages low. He nearly escaped when he fled to Lakenheath, near Mildenhall in Suffolk, by reaching for a rowing boat which was tethered nearby, but before he managed to get in it, a local woman called Katherine Gamen pushed it away from the shore with her foot, so he was captured and executed with John de Lakenheath, who was the Collector of Taxes for the area.

The rebels continued in Suffolk, attacking the property of 'traitors' of the people, and these included the de Norwich family who lived in Mettingham Castle, near Bungay. They had become embroiled in the Peasants' Revolt and incurred the anger of Jack Straw, who led 500 rebels in an attack upon the castle. The defences gave way and the house was ransacked, with the attackers making off with goods to the value of 1,000. The rebels were intending to create an alternative county government, and James of Bedingfield (near Stradbroke), a leading rebel, put pressure on the Constable of Hoxne Hundred in Suffolk, to muster 10 archers from the area to join the rebels at the usual rate of six pence a day. Court rolls were taken from manor houses and burnt, in order to attempt to establish a free new social order. Moving to Norwich, the gates of the city were opened to a large rebel band. Peasants and tradesmen manned the defences of the castle and awaited the next move. They did not have long to wait, for the rebels were counter-attacked by the soldier/priest, Henry le Despencer, the Bishop of Norwich and driven from the city. One of the leaders, Geoffrey Lister, fled for sanctuary to North Walsham Church, but the Bishop had him dragged from the altar and drawn and quartered.

In London, a second meeting of the rebels with King Richard resulted in the peasants' demands being rejected, the King saying 'Villeins you were, and villeins you shall remain', and in the confusion, their leader, Wat Tyler was killed. By autumn the revolt had been completely crushed, and within ten years, all attempts by Parliament to keep wages low were abandoned, and the move to release peasants from labour services was started. Initially there were no royal troops in force in Suffolk, then 600 came and hung rebels in large numbers. Not all the rebels could be punished, as too many were involved, and locally, among those who obtained pardons in the following year of 1382 were Rombert Brightwold, John Brown and William and Thomas Draper, all of South Elmham. When the Suffolk leader, John Wrawe, was brought to justice, he immediately accused one of the servants of the Monastery of Bury St. Edmunds of inciting him in the murder of the Prior, he is named in the indictment as Thomas Halesworth esquire. Could he have been a member of the de Halesworth family who once were lords of Halesworth Manor?


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