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The History of Kent

Copyright Kent Past 2010

Jack Cades' Rebellion

For a long time, dissatisfaction with the leadership of Henry VI had been growing. The powerbrokers of his government had been lining their own pockets, to the detriment of his people. Lands in France had been sold off, and rumours were spreading that after the loss of Normandy, French armies and even rootless English soldiers were on the verge of attacking the coastal areas. While the King, stood by and did nothing to offer any protection.

Enter Jack Cade, alias John Mortimer, alias John Aylmer, a man, capable of channelling the anger and fear of a growing number of men who included those of social standing, as well as disgruntled labourers and peasants, into an organised army.

Cade raised his troops into a well organised power with a carefully prepared list of complaints ready to confront on equal terms the highest authority in the land. They believed they had right on their side, and with Cade at the helm, the Kentish men went into revolt with heads held high and spirits rising.

In early June 1450, Jack Cade took the rebel force of about 5,000 on to Blackheath, well placed to threaten the city. The King sent Lord Scales with an armoured clad force to engage the rebels. However, Cade shifted his men into the woods of the Weald of Kent, where a trap was set. The royal contingent made pursuit and quickly fell into an ambush; two of the leaders, the cousins Sir William Stafford of Grafton and Sir William Stafford of Somerset, were killed. The remaining opponents were allowed to return to London where news of the defeat soon spread. Cade then moved his force back onto Blackheath.

As fear spread through the ruling class the king, in an attempt to appease the rebels and quieten the unrest in his own camp, sent two high profile names on Cades hit list to the Tower. However, Lord Saye, the former treasurer, and the equally unpopular William of Crowner, the Under-Sheriff of Kent were not sufficient scapegoats. Cades army was advancing, and many royal soldiers were wavering in their loyalty, so much so that they were disbanded by their demoralised commanders. Henry VI left London, seeking refuge at Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire.

Moving forward from Southwark on 3rd July, Cade crossed London Bridge, struck his sword on the London Stone, and proclaimed himself Lord Mayor. The rebels were buoyed with success and confidence as they were joined by many from the City.

The idea of the Tower being attacked forced Lord Scales and the Aldermen to hand over Lord Saye and William Crowmer to the rebels. The pair were taken to the Guildhall and quickly given token trials, which ended in their execution, and their heads stuck on high poles and carried triumphantly through the streets by the exultant mob.

At first Cade was able to maintain a level of discipline among his men, although, it was perhaps inevitable that order would give way to chaos. Looting and brawling soon heightened the tension; goodwill from many Londoners began to turn into resentment.

Within days, the insurgents had outstayed their welcome. Lord Scales, making what, to him, must have felt like a one-man stand, managed to instil some resolve into the Tower garrison, while the people of the city were rallied to fall into line by their own councillors. In the dead of a July night, a mix of soldiers and citizens cleared the streets and forced Cade’s men back onto London Bridge for a ferocious showdown. Fighting raged all night. When dawn broke, the northern half of the bridge was back in royal hands. While, the rebels huddled together at the southern end. However, before Scales could mount a further assault to regain the rest of the bridge, Archbishop John Kemp, Lord Chancellor, intervened. It was time for political negotiation.

The Lord Chancellor sent William Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester, to talk to the rebels. The Bishop produced official pardons, ready to be offered to anyone willing to lay down their arms and give up the rebel cause. Probably sensing that his followers were ready to drop, Cade presented his set of demands to the Bishop and obtained a promise that they would be met in full. Cade then watched most of his men accept a pardon.

However, Cade had been outmanoeuvred, and his own pardon was made out to John Mortimer, and as only one pardon was issued per person, the individual known as Jack Cade, remained unpardoned.

Cade and his remaining followers left and headed for Rochester, where he demanded parliamentary confirmation of the deal struck on London Bridge. He did not get it and was soon on the run with little support. Henry VI revoked the pardons, claiming they were invalid without Parliament’s approval. With a ransom of 1,000 marks on his head, Cade was a wanted man, dead or alive. A vindictive search for him and the other rebel leaders swept through Kent until the man himself was finally cornered near Hayward Heath in Sussex on 12 July 1450.

The rebellion was over. Cade’s Articles of Complaint went the way of his body, which was taken to London to be quartered in the time-honoured fashion. The body parts were displayed in various cities, while his head was put on a pike and stuck on London Bridge. The heads of other leaders of his cause were put alongside to keep him company. The wheel had come full circle, but its barbed axle had gored into a weak and unstable government and tore open a wound that would never heal.

The rebellion had exposed the king as weak and vulnerable, although were it not for the resolve of his determined wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s demise would have come sooner than it eventually did. It was left for her to save the Lancastrian dynasty, the first task being to repel a greater challenge than that of Jack Cade, as Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, now stepped forward to claim the throne, and the War of the Roses was about to begin.


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