Gateway to the Classics: Richard II by Jacob Abbott
Richard II by  Jacob Abbott

The End of the Insurrection

In the mean time, within the Tower, where the king and his courtiers now found themselves almost in a state of siege, there were continual consultations held, and much perplexity and alarm prevailed. Some of Richard's advisers recommended that the most decisive measures should be adopted at once. The king had in the Tower with him a considerable body of armed men. There were also in other parts of London and vicinity many more, amounting in all to about four thousand. It was recommended by some of the king's counselors that these men should all be ordered to attack the insurgents the next morning, and kill them without mercy. It is true that there were between fifty and one hundred thousand of the insurgents; but they had no arms, and no organization, and it was not to be expected, therefore, that they could stand a moment, numerous as they were, against the king's regular troops. They would be slaughtered, it was said, like sheep, and the insurrection would be at once put down.

Others thought that this would be a very hazardous mode of proceeding, and very uncertain as to its results.

"It is much better," said they, "that your majesty should appease them, if possible, by fair words, and by a show of granting what they ask; for if we once attempt to put them down by force, and should not be able to go through with it, we shall only make matters a great deal worse. The commonalty of London and of all England would then join them, and the nobles and the government will be swept away entirely from the land."

These counsels prevailed. It was decided not to attack the rioters immediately, but to wait a little, and see what turn things would take.

The next morning, as soon as the insurgents were in motion in the great square, they began to be very turbulent and noisy, and to threaten that they would attack the Tower itself if the king did not open the gates to them. It was finally determined to yield in part to their requests.

There was a certain place in the suburbs of London known by the name of Mile-End—so called, perhaps, because it was at the end of a mile from some place or other. At this place was an extended meadow, to which the people of London were accustomed to resort on gala days for parades and public amusements. The king sent out a messenger from the Tower to the leaders of the insurgents with directions to say to them that if they would all go to Mile-End, he would come out and meet them there.

They took him at his word, and the whole immense mass began to set itself in motion toward Mile-End.

They did not all go there, however. Those who really desired to have an interview with the king, with a view to a redress of their grievances, repaired to the appointed place of rendezvous. But of the rest, a large party turned toward London, in hopes of pillage and plunder. Others remained near the Tower. This last party, as soon as the king and his attendants had gone to Mile-End, succeeded in forcing their way in through the gates, which, it seems, had not been left properly guarded, and thus gained possession of the Tower. They ransacked the various apartments, and destroyed every thing which came in their way that was at all obnoxious to them. They broke into the chamber of the Princess of Wales, Richard's mother, and, though they did not do the princess any personal injury, they terrified her so much by their violence and noise that she fainted, and was borne away apparently lifeless. Her attendants carried her down the landing-stairs on the river side, and there put her into a covered boat, and rowed her away to a place of safety.

The people in the Tower did not all get off so easily. The Archbishop of Canterbury was there, and three other prelates of high rank. These men were particularly obnoxious to the rioters, so they seized them, and without any mercy dragged them into the court and cut off their heads. The heads they put upon the ends of poles, and paraded them in this way through the streets of London.

In the mean time, the king, followed by a numerous train of attendants, had proceeded to Mile-End, and there met the insurgents, who had assembled in a vast concourse to receive him. Several of the attendants of the king were afraid to follow him into the danger to which they thought he was exposing himself by going among such an immense number of lawless and desperate men. Some of them deserted him on the way to the place of meeting, and rode off in different directions to places of safety. The king himself, however, though so young—for he was now only about sixteen years of age—had no fear. As soon as he came to the meadow at Mile-End, where the insurgents had now assembled to the number of sixteen thousand, he rode forward boldly into the midst of them, and opened the conference at once by asking them what they desired.

The spokesman whom they had appointed for the occasion stated their demands, which were that they should be made free. They had hitherto been held as serfs, in a bondage which exposed them to all sorts of cruelties and oppressions, since they were amenable, not to law, but wholly to the caprice and arbitrary will of individual masters. They demanded, therefore, that Richard should emancipate them from this bondage, and make them free.

It was determined by Richard and his counselors that this demand should be complied with, or, at least, that they should pretend to comply with it, and that decrees of emancipation for the different counties and districts which the various parties of insurgents had come from should be immediately issued. This decision seemed to satisfy them. The leaders, or at least a large portion of them, said that it was all they wanted, and several parties immediately began to set out on their return to their several homes.

But there were a great many who were not satisfied. An insurrection like this, whatever may be the object and design of the original movers in it, always brings out into prominence, and invests with temporary power, vast numbers of desperate and violent men, whose passions become inflamed by the excitement of movement and action, and by sympathy with each other, and who are never satisfied to stop with the attainment of the objects originally desired. Thus, in the present instance, although a great number of the rebels were satisfied with the promises made by the king at Mile-End, and so went home, multitudes still remained. Large parties went to London to join those who had already gone there in hopes of opportunities for pillage. Others remained at their encampments, doubting whether the king would really keep the promises which he had made them, and send the decrees. Then, besides, fresh parties of insurgents were continually arriving at London and its neighborhood, so that the danger seemed by no means to have passed away.

The king immediately caused the decree to be prepared. Thirty secretaries were employed at once to write the several copies required. They were all of the same form. They were written, as was customary with royal decrees in those times, in the Latin language, were engrossed carefully upon parchment, signed by the king, and sealed by his seal. The announcement that the secretaries were preparing these decrees, when the work had been commenced, tended greatly to satisfy the insurgents, and many more of them went home. Still, vast numbers remained, and the excitement among them, and their disposition for mischief, was evidently on the increase.

Such was the state of things during the night of Friday. The various parties of the insurgents were encamped in and around London, the glare of their fires flashing on the buildings and lighting up the sky, and their shouts, sometimes of merriment and sometimes of anger, filling the air. The peaceable inhabitants passed the night in great alarm. Some of them, endeavored to conciliate the good-will of the insurgents by offering them food and wine. The wine, of course, excited them, and made them more noisy than ever. Their numbers, too, were all the time increasing, and no one could foresee how or when the trouble would end.

The next morning, a grand consultation among the rebels was determined upon. It was to be held in a great open space called Smithfield—a space set apart as a cattle-market, at the outskirts of London, toward the north. All the leaders who had not returned to their homes were present at the consultation. Among them, and at the head of them, indeed, was Wat Tyler.

The king that morning, it happened, having spent the night at the private house down the river where his mother had sought refuge after making her escape from the Tower, concluded to go to Westminster to attend mass. His real motive for making this excursion was probably to show the insurgents that he did not fear them, and also, perhaps, to make observations in respect to their condition and movements, without appearing to watch them.

He accordingly went to Westminster, accompanied and escorted by a suitable cortége and guard. The mayor of the city of London was with the party. After hearing mass at Westminster, the king set out on his return home; but, instead of going back through the heart of London, as he had come, he took a circuit to the northward by a road which, as it happened, led through Smithfield, where a great body of the insurgents had assembled, as has already been said. Thus the king came upon them quite unexpectedly both to himself and to them. When he saw them, he halted, and the horsemen who were with him halted too. There were about sixty horsemen in his train.

Some of his officers thought it would be better to avoid a rencounter with so large a body of the insurgents for there were about twenty thousand on the field—and recommended that the king's party should turn aside, and go home another way; but the king said "No; he preferred to speak to them."

He would go, he said, and ascertain what it was that they wanted more. He thought that by a friendly colloquy with them he could appease them.

While the king and his party thus halted to consider what to do, the attention of the leaders of the insurgents had been directed toward them. They knew at once that it was the king.

"It is the king," said Walter. "I am going to meet him and speak with him. All the rest of you are to remain here. You must not move from this spot until I come back, unless you see me make this signal."

So saying, Walter made a certain gesture with his hand, which was to be the signal for his men.

"When you see me make this signal," said he, "do you all rush forward and kill every man in the troop except the king. You must not hurt the king. We will take him and keep him. He is young, and we can make him do whatever we say. We will put him at the head of our company, as if he were our commander, and we were obeying his orders, and we will do every thing in his name. In this way we can go wherever we please, all over England, and do what we think best, and there will be no opposition to us."

When I say that Walter gave these orders to his men, I mean that these words were attributed to him by one of the historians of the time. As, however, all the accounts which we have of these transactions were written by persons who hated the insurgents, and wished to present their case in the most unfavorable light possible, we can not depend absolutely on the truth of their accounts, especially in cases like this, when they could not have been present to hear or see.

At any rate, Walter rode up alone to meet the king. He advanced so near to him that his horse's head touched the king's horse. While in this position, a conversation ensued between him and the king. Walter pointed to the vast concourse of men who were assembled in the field, and told the king that they were all under his orders, and that what he commanded them to do they would do. The king told him that if that were the case, he would do well to recommend them all to go to their respective homes. He had granted the petition, he said, which they had offered the day before, and had ordered decrees to be prepared emancipating them from their bondage. He asked Walter what more they required.

Walter replied that they wanted the decrees to be delivered to them.

"We are not willing to depart till we get all the decrees," said he. "There are all these men, and as many more besides in the city, and we wish you to give us all the decrees, that we may take them home ourselves to our several villages and towns."

The king said that the secretaries were preparing the decrees as fast as they could, and the men might depend that those which had not yet been delivered would be sent as soon as they were ready to the villages and towns.

"Go back to your men," he added, "and tell them that they had better return peaceably to their homes. The decrees will all arrive there in due time."

But Walter did not seem at all inclined to go. He looked around upon the king's attendants, and seeing one that he had known before, a squire, who was in immediate attendance on the king's person, he said to him,

"What! You here?"

This squire was the king's sword-bearer. In addition to the king's sword, which it was his duty to carry, he was armed with a dagger of his own.

Walter turned his horse toward the squire and said,

"Let me see that dagger that you have got."

"No," said the squire, drawing back.

"Yes," said the king, "let him take the dagger."

The king was not at all afraid of the rebel, and wished to let him see that he was not afraid of him.

So the squire gave Walter the dagger. Walter took it and examined it in all its parts very carefully, turning it over and over in his hands as he sat upon his horse. It was very richly ornamented, and Walter had probably never had the opportunity to examine closely any thing so beautifully finished before.

After having satisfied himself with examining the dagger, he turned again to the squire:

"And now," said he, "let me see your sword."

"No," said the squire, "this is the king's sword, and it is not going into the hands of such a lowborn fellow as you. And, moreover," he added, after pausing a moment and looking at Walter with an expression of defiance, "if you and I had met somewhere alone, you would not have dared to talk as you have done, not for a heap of gold as high as this church."

There was a famous church, called the Church of St. Bartholomew, near the place where the king and his party had halted.

"By the powers," said Walter, "I will not eat this day before I have your head."

Seeing that a quarrel was impending, the mayor of London and a dozen horsemen rode up and surrounded Walter and the squire.

"Scoundrel!" said the mayor, "how dare you utter such threats as those?"

"What business is that of yours?" said Walter, turning fiercely toward the mayor. "What have you to do with it?"

"Seize him!" said the king; for the king himself was now beginning to lose his patience.

The mayor, encouraged by these words, and being already in a state of boiling indignation and rage, immediately struck a tremendous blow upon Walter's head with a cimeter which he had in his hand. The blow stunned him, and he fell heavily from his horse to the ground. One of the horsemen who had come up with the mayor—a man named John Standwich—immediately dismounted, and thrust the body of Walter through with his sword, killing him on the spot.

In the mean time, the crowd of the insurgents had remained where Walter had left them, watching the proceedings. They had received orders not to move from their position until Walter should make the signal; but when they saw Walter struck down from his horse, and stabbed as he lay on the ground, they cried out, "They have killed our captain. Form the lines! form the lines! We will go and kill every one of them."

So they hastily formed in array, and got their weapons ready, prepared to charge upon the king's party; but Richard, who in all these transactions evinced a degree of bravery and coolness very remarkable for a young man of sixteen, rode forward alone, and boldly, to meet them.

"Gentlemen," said he, "you have no leader but me. I am your king. Remain quiet and peaceable."

The insurgents seemed not to know what to do on hearing these words. Some began to move away, but the more violent and determined kept their ground, and seemed still bent on mischief. The king went back to his party, and asked them what they should do next. Some advised that they should make for the open fields, and try to escape; but the mayor of London advised that they should remain quietly where they were.

"It will be of no use," said he, "for us to try to make our escape, but if we remain here we shall soon have help."

The mayor had already sent horsemen into London to summon help. These messengers spread the cry in the city, "To Smithfield! To Smithfield! They are killing the King!" This cry produced universal excitement and alarm. The bands of armed men quartered in London were immediately turned out, and great numbers of volunteers too, seizing such weapons as they could find, made haste to march to Smithfield; and thus, in a short time, the king found himself supported by a body of seven or eight thousand men.

Some of his advisers then urged that the whole of this force should fall at once upon the insurgents, and slaughter them without mercy. This it was thought that they could easily do, although the insurgents were far more numerous than they; for the king's party consisted, in great measure, of well-armed and well-disciplined soldiers, while the insurgents were comparatively a helpless and defenseless rabble.

The king, however, would not consent to this. Perhaps somebody advised him what to do, or perhaps it was his own prudence and moderation which suggested his course. He sent messengers forward to remonstrate calmly with the men, and demand of them that they should give up their banners. If they would do so, the messengers said that the king would pardon them. So they gave up their banners. This seemed to be the signal of disbanding, and large parties of the men began to separate from the mass, and move away toward their homes.

Next, the king sent to demand that those who had received decrees of emancipation should return them. They did so; and in this way a considerable number of the decrees were given up. The king tore them to pieces on the field, upon the plea that they were forfeited by the men's having continued in rebellion after the decrees were granted.

The whole mass of the insurgents began now rapidly to get into disorder. They had no head, no banners, and the army which was gathering against them was increasing in strength and resolution every moment. The dispersal went on faster and faster, until at last those that remained threw down their weapons and fled to London.

The king then went home to his mother. She was overjoyed to see him safely returning.

"My dear son," said she, "you can not conceive what pain and anguish I have suffered for you this day."

"Yes, mother," said Richard, "I have no doubt you have suffered a great deal. But it is all over now. Now you can rejoice and thank God, for I have regained my inheritance, the kingdom of England, which I had lost."

After this there was no farther serious trouble. The insurgents were disheartened, and most of them were glad to make the best of their way home. After the danger was past, Richard revoked all the decrees of emancipation which he had issued, on the ground that they had been extorted from him by violence and intimidation, and also that the condition on which they had been granted, namely, that the men should retire at once quietly to their homes, had not been complied with on their part. He found it somewhat difficult to recover them all, but he finally succeeded. He also sent commissions to all the towns and villages which had been implicated in the rebellion, and caused great numbers of persons to be tried and condemned to death. Many thousands were thus executed. Indeed, the rebellion had extended far and wide; for, besides the disturbances in and near London, there had been risings in all parts of the kingdom, and great excesses committed every where.

When the rebellion was thus quelled, things returned for a time into substantially the same condition as before, and yet the bondage of the people was never afterward so abject and hopeless as it had been. A considerable general improvement was the result. Indeed, such outbreaks as this against oppression are like the earthquakes of South America, which, though they cause for the time great terror, and often much destruction, still have the effect to raise the general level of the land, and leave it forever afterward in a better condition than before.

The cause of these rebels, moreover, badly as they managed it, was in the main a just cause; and it is to precisely such convulsive struggles as these, that have been made from time to time by the common people of England in the course of their history, that their descendants, the present commons of England and the people of America, are indebted for the personal rights and liberties which they now enjoy.

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