Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir

  So evil beloved, in fact, was he that as Ayscough turned to the altar, his congregation rose in fury and dragged him out of the church to a nearby hill. Here, in a frenzy of violence, they hacked him to death. His murderers then stripped the corpse naked and tore his bloody shirt to pieces. Later, they ‘made boast of their wickedness’, and took away as many of the Bishop’s belongings as they could carry.

  The murder was almost certainly the result of a whispering campaign by rebel agents sent to fan the flames of discontent among the people of the south-western counties. Judge Gascoigne was of the opinion that Ayscough was killed ‘because he was the confessor of Henry VI and did not remedy the defects around the King nor depart from the King because these were not remedied’. His murder was chilling evidence of the mood of the people, and the bishops of Lichfield and Norwich were also threatened with violence by angry mobs at this time.

  On 1 July the rebel army reached the Surrey shore of the Thames and Cade, still calling himself John Mortimer, took up residence at the White Hart Inn in Southwark, which became his headquarters. At the same time the Essex rebels were grouping outside Aldgate. Many Londoners, poorer people as well as some aldermen and several wealthy merchants, some of whom had financed Cade, supported the rebels’ demands and were in favour of opening the city gates to them. The Lord Mayor hastily consulted his aldermen as to whether he should do so, and only one, Robert Home, demurred, which made him so unpopular that the mayor cast him into prison for his own safety.

  In the late afternoon of the 2nd, the drawbridge at the far end of London Bridge was lowered and Jack Cade led a band of his followers through it, pausing to cut the ropes of the drawbridge with his sword as he passed. He came like a conqueror, wearing a gown of blue velvet beneath his brigandine, and sporting the helmet and gilded spurs of a knight, to which he had no entitlement. He carried a shield studded with gold nails and an unsheathed sword and his squire walked before him carrying a sword as if it were the King’s sword of State.

  As he entered London Cade was presented with the keys of the city and many broke from the watching crowds and ran to join him. He then led his company along Cannon Street and so to the London Stone in Candlewick Street.*6 Tapping it lightly with his sword, he cried: ‘Now is Mortimer lord of this city!’ Later he dined with the civic authorities, having his meat carved by a gentleman, as a lord would. At night he returned to Southwark, where the bulk of his army was encamped, but some of his men stayed in London and terrorised the citizens by their threatening behaviour.

  At eleven o’clock the next morning, says Benet, ‘Cade came to London again and rode through the city brandishing his drawn sword.’ He was clad in the same blue velvet gown, embellished with sable furs, and a straw hat. This time he was accompanied by a larger force of his men and their mood was ugly. They were determined upon vengeance and their quarry was Lord Say and Sheriff Crowmer. Cade went to the Fleet Prison to take Crowmer, while a detachment of his men marched to the Tower, where Lord Scales gave in to their demand and surrendered Lord Say, who was hustled off in no very gentle manner to the Guildhall. Here, he and twenty others who had been rounded up by Cade’s men were brought before the justices to be indicted for treason and extortion. Lord Say haughtily demanded the privilege of trial by his peers, as was his right as a nobleman, but, says Benet, ‘when they heard this the common people wished to have him killed at once in front of the justices’. A priest was hastily summoned, ‘and so he made his confession and was afterwards led by the junior officers and the men of Kent to the Standard in Cheapside, where he was beheaded forthwith’. Crowmer, meanwhile, had been taken out of the city via Aldgate, to Mile End, where he met a similar fate.

  Cade had the two heads impaled on spears and ordered that Say’s body be stripped naked; the ankles were then bound and tied to a horse, which dragged the bleeding torso, its arms outstretched, through the streets of the city, the rebels following bearing their grisly trophies. At Aldgate they were greeted enthusiastically by the men of Essex, and those carrying the severed heads made them ‘kiss’ to roars of coarse laughter. Cade then ordered that the heads be displayed on London Bridge, as was customary with traitors, and that Say’s body be taken to the Hospital of St Thomas in Southwark for burial.

  Many of Cade’s men were by this time out of control and causing havoc in the city. He himself, puffed up with triumph, was no longer interested in disciplining them; indeed, he allowed his Kentishmen to ransack and loot the house of Philip Malpas, a wealthy alderman, though Malpas was warned beforehand and managed to remove himself and most of his valuables to a place of safety. Cade himself, joining the looters, seized some jewels that York had left in pawn with Malpas; these he later abandoned, and they were recovered and returned to the alderman.

  Many of Cade’s followers – respectable, honest men who had taken no part in the killing or looting – were appalled to see their leader stoop to theft. In that moment much of Cade’s credibility melted away; he could no longer pose as the champion of justice. Says Benet, ‘When the people of London realised that Cade was breaking the promises he made in his proclamation they turned against him.’

  Cade was now desperate for money, having none left with which to pay his men. He had asked foreign merchants in London for arms and cash, but they had refused him. Now, having broken his own code of conduct, he could not prevent his men from stealing and pillaging. In desperation, he forced Master Curtis, a city merchant in whose home he dined that day, to give him some money, but it came too late. As soon as his army had returned to their camp at Southwark the Lord Mayor and aldermen met with Lord Scales to discuss how best to prevent Cade and his rabble from returning to the city.

  The next evening, towards ten o’clock, soldiers from the Tower garrison, led by Captain Matthew Gough, made their way furtively to London Bridge. When Cade’s men tried to enter the city they were strongly resisted. A furious battle then broke out, which lasted until eight the next morning.

  London Bridge had not been built to serve as a battleground. Shops, houses and a chapel were crowded along its sides, and the central thoroughfare was only eight feet wide. Here, the press of fighting men was having truly horrific consequences. Citizens were screaming in terror, houses literally shook to their foundations, and panicking mothers, their babies in their arms, leapt into the river. Gough was killed, but even so, Cade realised that the rebels were losing ground, and gave orders to fire the drawbridge. This cut off the Tower force from his own, and he withdrew at last to the Surrey shore. Forty-two Londoners and two hundred Kentishmen had been slain, some by having been pushed into the Thames.

  Scales, having ordered that the gates of London be locked, still feared what Cade might do next, so, acting on the advice of the Queen and several bishops, he sent Cardinal Kempe to parley with him. The Cardinal was empowered, on behalf of the government, to promise Cade and his men ‘charters of pardon’ if they would lay down their arms and go home. Cade agreed, on condition that the demands in his manifesto be met. Kempe assured him they would be, promising that the King’s commission would investigate all grievances.

  Government clerks set to work, hastily drawing up the promised pardons; Cade’s was made out to ‘John Mortimer’. Most of the rebels then dispersed and went home, but Cade told his remaining men that their cause could not be considered as won until Parliament had agreed to their demands. On 8 July, he retreated with his small force to Rochester by river, sailing along the Thames in barges full of stolen goods. The next day he made an unsuccessful attempt to besiege Queenborough Castle on the Isle of Sheppey. The Sheriff of Essex and many others were now hunting him down, and on 10 July he was publicly proclaimed a traitor and 1000 marks were offered for his capture. The free pardon granted at Southwark was revoked on a technicality as it had been issued to John Mortimer, not Jack Cade.

  Many of Cade’s followers had deserted him, and the authorities were hot on his trail. He fled into Sussex, south to Lewes, where he hid in the surrounding woods, and
thence to Heathfield, where he concealed himself in a garden. Here, however, he found himself cornered by armed men led by Alexander Iden, Sheriff of Kent. He defended himself bravely but was quickly overcome and mortally wounded by the Sheriff himself. Broken and bleeding, he was dragged off towards London, but died on the way, cheating the executioner. His body was stripped naked and taken to the capital in a cart, but the Council were apparently in some doubt as to whether the right man had been arrested and would only accept that it was Cade when the corpse had been identified by the innkeeper’s wife at the White Hart in Southwark. Then the head was smitten off and boiled and the skull was placed on a spike above the drawbridge on London Bridge, facing towards Kent as a warning to any future rebels. The torso was quartered and the quarters displayed in towns in the disaffected areas. Sheriff Iden was rewarded with a substantial pension for life and appointed Keeper of Rochester Castle. Benet says that Cade had been condemned ‘not according to the law, but according to the King’s wish’.

  Indeed, Henry was bent on having his revenge. The King and Queen had returned to London on 10 July, but only after order had been restored by the Council. Henry then presided over the trials of other rebels captured by the authorities in Kent and himself passed sentence of death upon every one. Eight were executed at Canterbury, twenty-six at Rochester, the King being present on each occasion of what was referred to as ‘the harvest of heads’.

  The rebellion had achieved nothing. The King’s commission was dismissed and no changes were made; the court party remained supreme. However, what had been made strikingly manifest by Cade’s uprising was the inability of King and Council to cope successfully with such a crisis. A king was supposed to lead his armies, protect his people and enforce justice, but this king had fled, and in his absence the government of the realm had all but broken down. What had also been made alarmingly clear was how easy it had been for the insurgents to occupy the capital.

  Cade’s rebellion did not signal the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, nor was it a part of those wars, but the frustrations engendered by its failure were undoubtedly a contributory factor. The grievances and demands published by Jack Cade were the same grievances and demands that Richard, Duke of York, would voice not so long afterwards. Hence the rebellion may be seen as a prelude to war; certainly it had been the most serious crisis of Henry’s reign so far.


  ‘A Great Division Between

  York and Lancaster’

  In France, the situation was grave. In July 1450 Somerset formally surrendered the city of Caen to the French, along with all his artillery. Most people in England considered this an unnecessary and dishonourable act, but Somerset was aware of the hopelessness of the English cause and knew very well that he would have no further use for cannon in France. On 1 August, he rode into London, ‘many poor soldiers with him’.

  York, learning of Somerset’s surrender, concluded – as did many others – that the Duke’s incompetence had led to the loss of so much of Normandy, and wrote to the King demanding that his rival be apprehended as a traitor. Henry reluctantly acceded to his ‘dear cousin’s’ request, and summoned Parliament, but Somerset, informed of what was afoot, pleaded his case with the Queen, who was sympathetic and promised she would not permit any charges to be laid against him. Henry bowed to his wife’s wishes and even went so far as to reward Somerset for his services in France: instead of finding himself in the Tower, the Duke was appointed Constable of England and readmitted to the Council. Margaret’s enemies promptly spread rumours that she was cuckolding the King with Somerset.

  News from France did not improve matters. On 15 August a small English army led by Sir Thomas Kyriell had been soundly defeated by the French at Formigny; it was now only a matter of time before all Normandy was in the hands of Charles VII. By the end of August the last English garrisons had surrendered to the invader and the French had reconquered the duchy. England’s only remaining possessions in France were Calais, captured by Edward III in 1347, and the duchy of Aquitaine, which had been annexed to the Crown on the marriage of Henry II to Eleanor of Aquitaine in the twelfth century. Aquitaine was of prime economic importance to England because of the wine trade centred on Bordeaux, which had made many London merchants wealthy over the centuries.

  ‘Cherbourg is gone,’ lamented a Paston correspondent, ‘and we have not a foot of land left in Normandy.’ The loss of Normandy signalled the end of English dominion in France and of the dual monarchy, although English sovereigns would continue to style themselves as King or Queen of France until the reign of George III. It was regarded as an ignominious and humiliating defeat which should never have happened, and which had irredeemably tarnished the honour of England; moreover, it had fatally undermined the credibility of a government whose policies had led to defeat.

  News of Somerset’s reception in England had made York extremely angry, and when he learned of the ugly mood of the English people, he quickly made up his mind to return from Dublin to consolidate his own position and secure for himself at last the power and influence he had been denied for so long. He received disturbing reports that the court party were plotting to indict him for treason, and without requesting the King for permission to leave his post, took ship for the Welsh coast and from there rode to Ludlow. Here he was joined by Lord Dudley and the Abbot of Gloucester, speedily raised an armed force of 4000 men and marched towards London. His return created a sensation. Many people welcomed him, and his ranks swelled with supporters, so much so that Benet says that by the time he reached London his army was 50,000 strong, a figure which must be an exaggeration but gives some idea of the strength of public feeling.

  One man who received a summons from York to join him was Sir Thomas Tresham, Speaker in the recent Parliament. Tresham rode out at once from his manor of Sywell, Northamptonshire, but was ambushed and murdered on the road by a gang of ruffians. At an inquest into the murder, the coroner’s jury was intimidated by those same ruffians, who threatened to kill them unless they returned a verdict of suicide. Such was the fear they inspired that no one dared arrest them.

  It was from subversions of justice such as this that the common people hoped York would deliver them. Despite Somerset’s political pre-eminence, York was the magnate with the greater territorial power, and should have the means to prevail over his enemies. All those who had suffered from the rapaciousness and corruption of the court party welcomed the Duke as a saviour come to deliver England from political anarchy, while the court faction and the Queen viewed York’s return as a greater threat to their power than the loss of Normandy.

  When the Council learned that York was making for London it sent an armed force to arrest him which he successfully evaded. On 29 September 1450 he arrived at Westminster and entered the palace, demanding an audience of the King. Henry had shut himself in his apartments, but York hammered at the door of the King’s privy chamber and insisted on being admitted, whereupon a petrified Henry agreed to let him in and ‘graciously’ received him. York assured him of his loyalty but then swung to the attack, urging the King to implement certain reforms and complaining that justice was being subverted. He also insisted that Henry dismiss his corrupt advisers and summon Parliament to deal with the abuses in government, and that he also make himself available to York for consultations on matters of state. Henry answered that he would appoint a committee to consider York’s suggestions, although he had no intention of doing any such thing.

  York’s interview with the King had been conducted in such a manner that, according to the Paston Letters, ‘all the King’s household was and is afraid right sore; and my lord has desired many things which are much after the desire of the common people, and all is upon justice and to put all those who are indicted under arrest under surety or bail, and to be tried by law’.

  York was hailed, as he had intended he should be, as the champion of good government, the man who would restore England’s honour and rid the King of his corrupt advisers. Among the common
people he already enjoyed considerable support, and he also found himself joined in opposition by all those of noble or gentle birth who had suffered under, or fallen out of favour with, the present régime; one was the Duke of Norfolk, who remained a staunch supporter and friend. Some came to York complaining about the intimidating behaviour of Suffolk’s old retainers, Tuddenham and Heydon, in East Anglia, ‘and cry out upon them and call them extortioners, and pray my lord that he will do sharp execution on them’.

  It is significant that York made no attempt at this time to press his claim to the throne. He came instead with the purpose of leading an opposition party and thereby reforming the government and gaining conciliar power for himself, though the Queen and many of the magnates believed there was a more sinister reason, and acted accordingly in a hostile manner. Yet the most York wanted at this time was to be formally recognised as heir presumptive, for undoubtedly he was concerned about Somerset being named heir in his place.

  On 30 September, York submitted to the King two bills of complaint. One listed personal grievances, and was obviously an attempt to forestall an attainder. It set forth York’s claim to be heir presumptive, his request to be paid the £30,000 still owed him by the Crown (£8000 had in fact been repaid already of the original £38,000) and a complaint about having been excluded from the King’s counsels. The other bill was a catalogue of grievances that reflected the concerns of the people of England at large. By reiterating abuses that had been highlighted in Cade’s manifesto and identifying himself with the miseries suffered by the King’s subjects, York was making an overt and successful bid for popular support and public sympathy. Now, the gauntlet thrown down, he retired to Fotheringhay to await Henry’s response.

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