The Kentishmen revolt against Henry VI
By the year 1450, people had started to get pretty fed up. The seemingly endless Hundred Years War with France had drained the royal coffers and Henry VI was pursuing a none-too-popular taxation policy. But in addition to this, his own officials’ greed was also taking its toll, whilst they lined their pockets at the expense of the tax administration system. And then, to add insult to injury, Henry’s by now poorly equipped troops had taken to raiding the English villages they passed through on their way to France. It’s no surprise that Kent and Sussex bore the brunt of this and the result wasn’t pretty. So, as is always the case in times of unrest, the pressure had started to be applied to the man at the bottom of the food chain. One of those men being Jack Cade.
Interestingly, for someone who has had a whole rebellion named after him… and its stuck through the ages… very little is known of the man. Some say that not even his name is a surety, but during his swift rise to notoriety he came to be associated with Richard, Duke of York; a rival for the throne. How was this so? Because the surname ‘Mortimer’ was part of Richard’s ancestry, and Cade apparently adopted the alias ‘John Mortimer’ during the unrest. Such a name being very much reviled by Henry VI, anyone sporting such a persona was bound to capture the attention of the king at some point. So if it had been a planned strategy on Cade’s part… it worked.
Who got involved?
Besides the main characters already mentioned above, though the term ‘rebellion’ suggests a peasant-style revolt that actually wasn’t the case. Yes, peasants did chuck their pitchforks in, but the main protagonists were men of property and local (as in Kent and Sussex) substance. The political climate was grating on their nerves more than the taxation. With tax administrators wantonly embezzling, and troops misbehaving on home soil, control of the system was clearly missing. What they were calling for, therefore, was change to the appalling management of the set up. In essence, this meant the removal of certain administrators, the end to rigged elections, the return of royal estates that had been granted out, and sweeping improvement of the whole system of taxation.
Cade’s method of tackling this, though, was to draft and distribute a manifesto entitled “The Complaint of the Poor Commons of Kent.” This document set out the grievances of the people he was representing, and listed fifteen complaints and five demands that he wished the king to tackle.
Cade’s rallying cry
Cade’s call for change captured the zeitgeist, really. When a mob gathered in Kent in protest to what was going on in May, 1450, he donned the title of ‘Captain of Kent’, rallied the rabble, and began to lead them to London. Henry got wind of what was going on and sent government troops to break things up. They met Cade and his merry men at Sevenoaks, but the fervour of the infuriated was too much for the troops to bear and they were swiftly overcome. Surprised by the strength of the rebels, Henry went and hid in Warwickshire, and the rabble headed to the capital.
Initially, they were well received, for those in the city had sympathy with Cade’s complaints. The rebels stormed the Tower of London with gusto, and only just failed to take control. A series of sham court hearings was then set up, with Cade and his tribe ‘hearing’ cases of corruption. One such person was Henry’s treasurer, Sir James Fiennes. He was, unsurprisingly, found guilty and beheaded. His son-in-law, William Crowmer, also lost his noggin. And the rebels then hoisted both their heads on poles, paraded them around, and intermittently joined them together as though they were kissing. They then next turned their attention to the Sheriff of Kent, who also swiftly found himself ‘dispatched’, and it was clear the anger was turning sarcastically brutal.
Royal troops focused their discipline
Having lost the sympathy of the locals by this point, and having found London Bridge locked and blocking them from re-entering the city, the tide of the rebellion changed. 8th July, with little focused control, Cade’s collection of followers soon found that the discipline of trained troops had the endurance they lacked. Fighting broke out on London Bridge, which raged over night and into the morning but was eventually brought to a standstill. A truce was called, offering the sweetener to Cade to back down in return for pardons to all involved. Cade must have been persuaded, for he then presented his list of demands to the royal officials to hand. The king initially issued the said pardons, but it appears that once he realised Cade was not a Mortimer (his pardon had been made out in that name), Henry revoked them all under the precept that they’d not actually been approved by parliament. And instead, he then issued his “Writ and Proclamation by the King for the Taking of Cade” calling for Cade’s arrest! The rebel leader had to flee London immediately.
The replacement-in-waiting Sheriff of Kent, Alexander Iden, clearly felt he needed to avenge his predecessor and prove his authority swiftly. He chased Cade and caught up with him on 11th July near Heathfield in Sussex. During the fracas that ensued, Cade was mortally injured, captured, and died on his way back to London. Unsurprisingly, Henry took the opportunity to make an example of him and he had a mock trial enacted out with Cade then being posthumously hung, drawn, and quartered. His limbs were sent back to various parts of Kent, and his head was displayed on a pole on London Bridge.
Many ringleaders were chased down and executed, but it has to be said that otherwise the promise of a pardon to others involved was honoured. And though Jack Cade’s Rebellion was quickly quashed and itself achieved very little, rebellious sentiment elsewhere in the country flared and many other counties then revolted as a result. The rebellion has been considered by historians, therefore, to be mainly a reflection of the economic, social and political challenges of the time. And bearing in mind it was a significant event – or precursor – to the Wars of the Roses, perhaps one could actually pronounce it to be the writing that appeared on the wall for Henry VI.