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An Analysis of the causes of the Wars and the course which they took.

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 39: Jack Cade's rebellion 1450

 

Who was Jack Cade?

Whoever Jack Cade was remains a mystery. There were Cades to be found in 15th-century Kent, and it is quite possible that Cade was his real name. It is of course equally possible that a man anxious to conceal his true identity might chose a common enough name and pass it off as his real one. There is even a possibility that he was a physician by profession, John Aylmer, who had been obliged to leave the country for a while after the death of a woman in strange circumstances. From the competent way in which he managed the forces which he led, he must have had military experience in France, and may even have been a 'Captain' placed in command of a considerable number of men. [A description of a 'Captain' is given on page ] He showed in the movements of his force a high degree of military skill, and his following included a number of squires and even knights. It is difficult to believe that such people would have followed him in so desperate an enterprise, or refereed to him as the 'Captain of Kent, ' unless they had confidence in his military abilities. He had a strong and dominating personality and considerable intelligence, but these on their own would not have been enough.

The troubled state of England in 1450

The rebellion itself was a manifestation of the disorderly state of England at the time, and of the failure of the rule of law to make itself effectively felt. In several places reference has been made to disorder in various parts of the Kingdom. This ranged from rebellions such as Perkyn's uprising at Abingdon 1431 [page ], the virtual civil war between the Earl of Devon and Lord Bonville in the West Country which began in 1441 and had continued intermittently ever since,  [page ] the military style of attack by Sir Thomas Fulford upon John Staplehill 1464 [page ] down to the all too many cases of murder, aggravated burglary and highway robbery. John Kemp, Archbishop of York, had begged Parliament in 1429 to provide the Crown with the necessary funds to suppress disorder, a necessarily expensive business, and his plea had been heard by sympathetic ears, but also by closed purses. [page ] Even without these funds, which Parliament probably regarded as yet another novel way to wheedle money out of the taxpayer, the Crown could have done a lot more than it did to quell disorder and bring offenders to book. Only the government of King Henry V [page ] had taken firm and resolute steps to deal with troublemakers, and with his death all too many people had lapsed back into their previous habits of disorderly and unlawful behaviour.

Things were even worse than this. A valid deed of title did not guarantee undisturbed possession of property.

Margaret Paston found herself summarily ejected from Gresham by Lord de Moleyns, one of Suffolk's henchmen. [Paston letters i xxx 106] Richard 'the Kingmaker' Earl of Warwick had taken up arms against his Neville relatives for the Lordship of Abergavenny, and there had even been fighting with the Berkeleys for the Berkeley and de Lisle estates. All these were matters which should have been decided by the Courts, but there was no confidence in the impartiality of the Courts as arbiters, and all too often they failed to champion the lesser man or woman who had much right on their side against the stronger adversary who had little or none on his. Owen Glendower and John Staplehill [pages ]had both found that going to law had given them no satisfaction, and that a violent resort to arms was the only means of protecting what they perceived to be their rights.

It would appear that the loss of Normandy was a lesser grievance, even though the whole country felt the disgrace of defeat in battle most keenly: this in turn seems to argue that there was so much wrong at home that men found enough to justify taking up arms on issues which touched directly upon their daily lives rather than making a big issue out of the loss of a foreign province. It nonetheless provided an effective rallying call for the discontented,  even though the main cause of the rebellion was the desire for a better government which gave better value for the heavy taxes the people had to pay.

Jack Cade claims he is 'Mortimer'

To lend authenticity to his rebellion, Jack Cade gave out that he was 'Mortimer'. It is not clear what he meant by this, or why he took such a risk when it was scarcely necessary, and it is worthwhile examining this assertion in some detail.

The Mortimers were the descendants of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, the second son of King Edward 111, who had died before his father. As such, it could be said that, by the rules of primogeniture, they had a superior claim to the Throne than King Henry VI himself, the descendant of the third son, John of Gaunt. Richard, Duke of York's, own claim to the Throne, although he had so far refrained from pursuing it, depended on his descent from his Grandfather, Roger Mortimer. [Appendix ]

For Jack Cade to have claimed he was Roger Mortimer would have been absurd. Roger was born in 1374 and by 1450 would have been 76 years old, whereas it was patently apparent that Jack Cade was a very much younger man who was still in the prime of life. It was a matter of record that Roger had died on 15th August 1398, and to have alleged that he was still alive ran the risk of alienating Richard, Duke of York, who was very much alive and currently governing Ireland; the rights of the Grandfather would have been infinitely superior to those of the grandson. Roger's brother Edmund, having married one of Owen Glendower's daughters, had perished at the siege of Harlech 1409, it is thought without issue. He was well known to have died in the siege, and to have attempted to impersonate him would have invited ridicule, and a similar risk of alienating the current Duke of York would also have arisen. Roger's sister Phillipa had also died without issue, but his other sister had married Harry Hotspur of the Percy clan. Their issue were Percies, and so proud were the Percies of their name that it is unthinkable that one of them would have passed himself off as a mere Mortimer.

Coming now to the next generation, Roger had two sons and two daughters. One son, also Roger, died young. The other son, Edmund, was the Earl of March who had so faithfully served King Henry V in his French wars. He died on 10th January 1425 without issue, and it was again a matter of record that his Countess had petitioned Parliament for her dower. To have attempted to impersonate Edmund would have been almost as hazardous as impersonating Roger. Edmund, born in 1391, would have been 59 years old in 1450, and would have been markedly older than Jack Cade. There would still have been the risk of alienating Richard, Duke of York, because Edmund was the elder brother of Anne, who was Richard's mother. [Richard's father was the Duke of Cambridge who had been executed for treason by King Henry V in 1415 on the eve of sailing for the Agincourt campaign. see page ] The other daughter, Eleanor, although married to Henry Courtenay, the 11th Earl of Devon, died without issue in 1418.

The choice for impersonating any of the Mortimers was thus somewhat narrow. Jack Cade had every reason to avoid giving offence to Richard, Duke of York, whom he obviously hoped to tempt from his Irish governorship to give him military support, without which the rebellion would probably fail. There was thus no purpose, on this ground alone, in impersonating Roger or either of the two Edmunds quite apart from the difficulties in doing so. He had equal reason not to raise suspicions among the better informed of his followers, or those whom he hoped would join his cause, by identifying himself too closely with a named Mortimer with whom they might believe, and indeed prove, he had no affinity.

It is thus far more likely that he claimed that he was an 'obscure cousin', possibly an illegitimate one, who posed no threat to Richard. Extra-marital affairs were very common, and so was the resulting illegitimacy. Such a claim would have been accepted without too close an examination in the early stages of the rebellion, and it might not have been necessary even to give a Christian name to his following. When on 8th July 1450, the Bishop of Winchester was issuing his pardons, [page ]a Christian name became a necessity.

Face to face with the Bishop, whose full pen hovered over a blank form of pardon on the desk before him, and who would have been impatient and pressing, Jack Cade gave the name of John Mortimer, and this the Bishop duly filled in. This did pose another problem for Jack Cade: nobody could have more than one pardon, and John Mortimer was pardoned whereas Jack Cade was not.

It was still a very unwise thing to do. If the record keeping of the time was haphazard so that very often we do not know just where individuals fitted in, contemporary people had a very extensive knowledge of their families and who their relatives were, even illegitimate ones. Richard, Duke of York, would certainly have known whether Jack Cade was a charlatan or not.

There has been much speculation whether Richard incited Jack Cade's rebellion, and even some assertions that he actually did so. It seems much more likely that Richard had no prior knowledge that Jack Cade would raise his standard of rebellion, and was as genuinely surprised as everyone else when it happened. He made no effort to give him support, even though he must have appreciated that without his help the rebellion would probably fail. Certainly there was no suspicion in the minds of the Court circles that he was in any way implicated. He was dispatched in January 1451 to Kent on a commission of oyer et terminer [a special commission to hear and determine criminal offences which could not wait for the regular visitation of the Judges of Assize] to try the participants in the late rebellion. He showed such severity that his visitation became known as the 'harvest of heads'. King Henry VI had to make a special Royal Progress through Kent to re-assure the people that, in spite of Richard's doings, he still held them in high regard. [page ]

The probability is that Jack Cade, whether or not this was his true name,  was just a swash-buckling adventurer who saw his chance to exploit the collapse of the government after the disgrace and death of William de La Pole, Duke of Suffolk in May 1450.[page ] He undoubtedly had some military experience, and also a magnetic and compelling personality which he combined with a considerable degree of intelligence. When he raised his standard of revolt in late May or early June 1450, a large and discontented number of people flocked to join him from Kent and East Sussex. This was no mere Peasants Revolt. He attracted many people of standing, including some of great ability, as is shown by the careful drafting of his demands to the King when he was at Blackheath. Knights and squires joined him, and his troops were raised by the same careful procedures that would have been used to assemble soldiers to repel a foreign invasion.

The rebellion starts

King Henry VI and Queen Margaret were still at Leicester dealing with the remaining business of the Parliament which had impeached Suffolk when the dreadful news of Suffolk's death and the even more ominous tidings of Jack Cade's rebellion reached them. Cade had moved with remarkable speed, because by the second week in June he was encamped on Blackheath with his host arrayed in a proper military fashion. He was able to threaten the City, and it was known that he was in communication with some elements within it who were sympathetic to his cause. Thomas, Lord Scales was authorised to raise troops from those returning from Normandy, and he secured, amongst others, the services of that battle-hardened veteran Matthew Gough. An embassy was dispatched to discover what were Jack Cade's grievances, although some of these had already been revealed by proclamation.

Jack Cade presented to the embassy 15 Articles of Complaint and 5 of Request, and from these can be seen the rebels' ostensible, and probably genuine, list of grievances. They were an eloquent and detailed description of the people's feelings at the time, and showed a great ability of expression. Alienation of the Crown's property and the half-hearted enforcement of Resumption Statutes lead to the natural corollaries that the Crown could not pay its debts, and the enrichment of the undeserving had made them arrogant and tyrannical. [The effective Resumption Statute of 1451 had yet to be passed see pages ] The overbearing attitude of the King's favourites, and their corrupt ways, was insufferable. The Great Lords interfered with the elections to Parliament regardless of the wishes of the true electors.

[This was indeed so, see Chapter ] Normandy had been lost through 'treason', and the traitors, instead of being punished, were lording it at Court. Suffolk's "false progeny and affinity" should be dismissed and where necessary punished; this presumably was a reference to his following rather than to his Duchess and young family. Some unlawful extortion's had taken place, and these must be corrected and the guilty punished. This seems to have been a reference to the Crown's method of enforcing debts by issuing Writs of Estreat sealed with a special green wax; there was ample opportunity for abuse which was readily taken. The Statutes of Labourers, which fixed the wages of workmen must be repealed. Some obscure local 'traitors' needed to be brought to book.Richard, Duke of York, who had been virtually exiled to Ireland, must be brought back to head the government.

A note of anxiety is also noticeable. Although Suffolk's death had taken place at sea, [page ] his headless corpse had been unceremoniously dumped onto Kentish sand at Dover. There was nothing whatever to connect the people of Kent with his murder, but they still felt that they might suffer for it.

To many of the Crown's subjects, even those close to the King, these demands were reasonable in the extreme. To Queen Margaret however, they were quite impossible, and most especially of all, the demand that Richard, Duke of York, should head the government, was totally unacceptable. What sort of country was this, where such rough bucolic wretches could face their King with demands of this nature? In France, they would have been whipped back to their kennels in double-quick time, and scores of gallows would have warned them not to repeat such an affront. Who did they think they were, to demand that her arch-enemy should head a government which would certainly destroy her by shutting her up in a nunnery and her husband in a monastery? The monastic life might have some appeal to the King, but the convent had none for her. The dynasty must be protected and reign for ever.

These curs must know this, or else be taught it.

By superhuman efforts, Lord Scales had raised a force, and in mid June 1450 the King and his Lords rode through the City, clad in full armour, to meet the rebels at Blackheath.

Forewarned, Jack Cade and his army had slipped away into the impenetrable forests of the Weald of Kent. Unwisely, the Royal army followed. Cade lured it into an ambush and defeated it. The losses were trifling, some 25 killed in all, although they included the two Royal commanders, the cousins Sir William Stafford of Grafton and Sir William Stafford of Somerset. Having scored this success, Cade returned to his camp at Blackheath.

Although this was no more than a slight reverse, this defeat caused consternation in the Royal camp, where many openly spoke with approval of Jack Cade's demands. The soldiers turned mutinous, and demanded the heads of Lord Say, the former Treasurer, Lord Dudley and some of their subordinate Captains. Lord Say, whose principal seat was at Knowle, was extremely unpopular in Kent, as was his son-in-law, William Crowmer, the Under-sheriff of the county. To protect their lives, the King sent them both to the Tower, giving out that they were to be tried for their crimes. This did not assuage the wrath of the soldiers who began to ransack the City. Their commanders, fearful of where this might lead, and mindful of what their men were used to doing in France, disbanded them. King Henry VI, ignoring the offers of the Lord Mayor and Aldermen to resist Cade, retired to the safety of Kenilworth castle. London was left to its fate.

The government having thrown in its hand, Jack Cade now advanced on the City. He arrived in Southwark on 2nd July 1450, and forced his way over London Bridge the next day, cutting the ropes of the drawbridge with his own sword to signify that he had come to stay. The Lord Mayor and the Aldermen met, but with so many in sympathy with Cade, they were quite unable to resolve to resist him. Cade, clad in full armour supposedly taken from one of the Stafford cousins, struck London Stone with his sword, declaring "Now is Mortimer lord of this City".

Initially, Jack Cade was able to keep his men in order and prevent them from looting. With so many rich things on display, their good discipline did not last for long. Soon they began to rob, and there were frequent brawls with those determined to defend their property. Lives were lost on both sides. The disorder increased with the arrival of a large and disorderly contingent from Essex who camped before the Tower. To prevent them from mounting an attack upon it, Lord Scales surrendered to them Lord Say and William Crowmer. Glad to get their hands on the hated person of the one-time Treasurer, the rebels arraigned Lord Say in Guildhall. There he boldly demanded trial by his peers. A finding of guilt was a foregone conclusion, and he was beheaded in Cheapside.

Crowmer suffered the same fate at Mile End without any form of trial. A third man, John Bailey, was also beheaded, because it was said, he knew too much of the truth about Jack Cade. All three heads were displayed on London Bridge in place of those of the recently executed felons which had previously graced it.

Meanwhile, there were other disorders in the country-side which displayed the popular animus against Queen Margaret and her deep unpopularity. William Ainscough, Bishop of Salisbury, who had married King Henry VI and Queen Margaret, paid with his life for foisting 'that French woman' upon England. He was dragged from his alter at Edington by the Wiltshire men and stoned to death nearby.

William Booth, Bishop of Lichfield, and Walter Lehart, Bishop of Norwich, respectively the Queen's Chancellor and Confessor, were attacked in their own dioceses, and barely escaped with their lives.

Counter-attack

By the end of the first week in July, the Lord Mayor and the Aldermen in the City, and Lord Scales in the Tower had begun to recover their spirits. Cade and his men may have been greeted by some on entering the City, but they had by now out-stayed their welcome. Acting in concert, Lord Scales and Matthew Gough sallied forth at dead of night at the head of the Tower garrison, whilst the City folk were called to arms by their own authorities. The streets were soon cleared of the rebels, and a ferocious fight began for possession of London Bridge. The battle raged all through the short summer night. Many were killed, and some were thrown over the parapet into the river below. Among those who lost their lives was Matthew Gough, that grizzled old soldier who had fought for so long in France. Dawn saw Lord Scales in possession of the northern half of the bridge, and it was his clear intention to renew the assault on the southern half as soon as he could. This attack was forestalled by the arrival of William of Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester, who had been sent by the Chancellor, Cardinal John Kemp, Archbishop of York to see what soft words and fair promises could achieve.

The Bishop brought with him a satchel full of blank forms of pardon, and he freely offered these to all who would abandon the rebellion and return home. Greatly shaken by the ferocity of Lord Scale's night attack on the bridge, and apprehensive of his further assault, many took the Bishop's pardons, so that he issued nearly 2, 000 in all. The Bishop was perfectly willing to pardon John Mortimer, whoever he might have been, but as no man could have more than one pardon, Jack Cade went unpardoned. The pardons were all dated 8th July 1450. It probably mattered little to the government, since Jack Cade continued in arms after the date of John Mortimer's pardon and committed further crimes, but no pardon was ever given to Jack Cade, and the government was perfectly entitled to proceed against him.

Jack Cade's death - July 1450

With John Mortimer's pardon in his pocket, Jack Cade fled to Rochester with what remained of his forces. There he demanded Parliamentary ratification of the Bishop's pardons.

He was hustled out of Rochester, and made a vain attempt to take Queensborough Castle. By now his force was so small that the government felt that he could be dealt with by force of arms because he had remained under arms after the date of his pardon. The new sheriff of Kent, John Eden, cornered and killed him near Haywards Heath in the second half of July. The troubles in Kent did not end there. The two Archbishops, sent on a commission of oyer et terminer to try the rebels who had not been pardoned or had abused their pardons, sat in Canterbury for this purpose but soon had to abandon their work. Several other 'Captains of Kent' raised the standard of revolt and made the arrest of the accused impossible. It was not until the 'harvest of heads', presided over by Richard, Duke of York in January 1451, and the subsequent Royal Progress by King Henry VI through the County, [page ] could Kent be regarded as pacified. A similar attempt was made to punish the Wiltshire rebels for murdering the Bishop of Salisbury. It had to be abandoned when the whole of Wiltshire rose in arms to prevent such a thing from happening. In the end, the Wiltshire rebels had to be pardoned as well.

For six terrible weeks, such government as did exist after the murder of Suffolk in early May 1450 experienced one major upheaval and several minor ones with which it was utterly unable to cope. King Henry VI and Queen Margaret, still grieving Suffolk's death, were very shaken by the course events had taken. The weakness, indeed pusillanimity, of the government was plain for all to see, and the abandonment of the Capital by the King spoke louder than any words. It was even worse that Jack Cade's rebellion was not put down by anything done by the government, but by the resolution of the citizens of the City of London and the courage of Lord Scales, Matthew Gough and the soldiers of the Tower garrison. Such a state of affairs could not be permitted to continue, and it was high time that something was done to put matters right with the state of the government. There was only one man who could do anything effective. That man was Richard, Duke of York, and he now resolved that he had to make the attempt.

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003