The search for Robin Hood

Almost everyone in the English-speaking world (she asserted on the basis of no evidence whatsoever) grew up on stories about Robin Hood, that dashing outlaw of Sherwood Forest who fought the Sheriff of Nottingham and assorted other medieval baddies, who stole from the rich to give to the poor, and who did it all while looking fabulous in green tights and a nifty little hat with a feather. 

Yeah, that Robin. You’ve met him in movies, in comic books, in novels. His arrow never missed its target, his tights never bagged at the knee, and his merry men never got cold or hungry or even wet, living out there in the forest. 

Was he a real person?

Hmm. Probably not–or at least there’s no evidence that he was. The giveaway is those tights that never bagged or sagged. Who thought that was possible? 

But let’s take a quick run through the legends and see what we’ve got. 

Irrelevant photo: no idea what this is called, but it adds some color to the winter.

The first mention that’s come down to us is in a 1377 manuscript that’s now in the British Museum, In this version he was born around 1160 in South Yorkshire, in Lockersley, which might well be modern-day Loxley. 

But don’t get too attached to that. In another manuscript, he’s from Wakefield and fought in Thomas of Lancaster’s 1322 rebellion. The manuscripts do at least agree that he’s a northerner.

When you go into documents from the period, you’ll find an assortment of outlaws called Robin Hood, or called variations on the name. There’s one to be had in 1226 and another in 1354, and that seems to be a fairly random selection. It may have been a name many outlaws called themselves. Probably after watching too many movies, or possibly listening to too many ballads, because Robin may have been someone troubadours sang about. In Piers Ploughman (written in the late fourteenth century, a bit before The Canterbury Tales), a character says he knows the rhymes of Robin Hood.

We, unfortunately, don’t.

In the fifteenth (or sixteenth; I’ve seen both cited) century–and for all we know, earlier (or later; don’t ask me)–a Robin Hood-like figure showed up in May Day celebrations and took on an almost religious cast. Whatever that may mean. I couldn’t find anything more than a passing reference to that, and an assertion that it was the May Day games that kept the legend alive so that it came down to us. 

In his earliest form, Robin wasn’t a disaffected aristocrat but a commoner–a yeoman, which meant he was higher than a peasant but lower than a knight–and he treated the rich and powerful the way they treated the poor and powerless, which is to say he beat them, robbed them, and killed them. This wasn’t a sentimental era. Doing that would’ve made him an attractive figure.

It’s also in the fifteenth century that Robin starts to rob from the rich and give to the poor. In the Geste of Robin Hood, he says, “If he be a pore man, / Of my good he shall have some.” He makes rules about who can be beaten, robbed, and killed (bishops, archbishops, the Sheriff of Nottingham) and who can’t (peasants, yeomen, virtuous squires).

In this century, Robin not only kills the Sheriff of Nottingham, he: 

  • Version A: shoots him with an arrow, then cuts his throat.
  • Version B: kills him, then mutilates his corpse, using a knife–an act which, I’m sorry, would have spattered his clothes and mussed his tights.

Like I said, it wasn’t a sentimental time.

Why was Robin an outlaw? In early versions of the tale, he just was. It may have been so easy to transgress the law that no explanation was necessary. It’s only later that explanations start to turn up. For what it’s worth, just by living in Sherwood Forest, he would have been breaking the Law of the Forest, which kept people from putting the woodland to any productive use so the nobility could hunt in it. Acts forbidden to commoners included (but weren’t limited to) hunting, carrying a bow or spear (gotcha there, Robin), and cutting wood. 

Scholars can have all kinds of fun aligning Robin with assorted breakdowns of order and conflicts in English history: the conflict between the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans; the twelfth-century civil war later known as the Anarchy; or the fourteenth-century Black Death, Hundred Years War, and Peasants’ Revolt (it was a tough century). Not being scholars and not having to convince anyone that we know what we’re talking about, we can nod sagely at all of that and go on our merry way. Or we can write novels setting Robin in the middle of any of it and still sit safely at home eating ice cream.

In early versions of the tale, Robin grew old enough to become ill and went to Kirklees Priory, where his aunt was the prioress, to be treated, but Sir Roger of Doncaster–whoever he may have been–convinced her to kill him and instead of just bleeding him (which was a respectable way to treat the sick) she bled him to death. As loving aunties sometimes will with inconvenient nephews. 

You have  been warned.

By the sixteenth century, Robin had been domesticated by the nobility, although they weren’t in a position to offer him ice cream, so you should be able to outbid them if you want him in your novel. All they could offer was a promotion from yeoman to noble–something they must’ve felt they had to do if they were going to keep company with him.

And keep company with him they did. In 1516, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon’s May Day festivities featured a couple of hundred men dressed in green and one dressed as Robin Hood to lead them to the feast. 

This is when other characters start to appear: Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, all those folks. One article speculates that Maid Marian was introduced after the Reformation to make up for Robin’s devotion to the Virgin Mary having been edited out.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense but that’s not to say it’s impossible.

What does it all mean? An outlaw hiding in the wilds (Robin in the forest, Hereward the Wake in the fens) and wreaking vengeance on the arrogant and powerful is a powerful part of English lore. It’s natural enough that it would resonate commoners, especially peasants, who had little enough outlet for their frustrations. They couldn’t take vengeance themselves, so bring on the lurid tales.

Why it was taken up by the nobility is anyone’s guess. This is pure speculation, but I wonder if by Henry’s time they hadn’t tied themselves up with so much protocol and good manners that pretending to be an outlaw living wild and unwrinkled in the forest, answering to no one, bound by no one’s rules, and never missing a shot would have appealed to them.  

In recent times, Robin’s been played by everyone from Errol Flynn to Daffy Duck and Kermit the Frog.  That at least needs no explanation.

Hereward the Wake fights the big bad Normans

We’ll get to Hereward toward in the end. We need some background first, so let’s start at a key point in English history: 1066, host year for the Battle of Hastings. It cost less than London’s 2012 Olympics and had a more significant impact, even once you allow for the Olympics’ legacy of gentrification.

What happened? The Normans–descendants of the Vikings who’d settled in Normandy, which shared a name with them, however reluctantly–invaded and defeated the English king, and along with him all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. 

Anglo-Saxon England (which for our purposes, however illogically, includes the heavily Scandinavian parts of England; I want us to remember that they’re there) now had a new proto-king (he hadn’t been crowned yet), William, who hung around Hastings for a while, picking bits of eggshell off the beach where King Humpty had shattered while waiting for the English nobility to come bow before him.

Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: A red hot poker. Not an actual one, you understand. A flower called that.

So far, so familiar to anyone who read a history textbook as a kid–or at least one that covered British history. The ones in my school never got around to 1066. It all happened so long ago and on the other side of a big damn ocean. They figured they could skip it and devote more space to–.

Um.

I’ve forgotten what they gave the space to. Something memorable. But never mind. What I want to talk about is what happened next, which wasn’t the Domesday (pronounced Doomsday) Book–that inch by inch and cow by sheep record of everything William was now the king of–but a series of rebellions. Which you’re  not likely to hear about unless you get interested enough to do some reading on your own.

I’m working here largely from David Horspool’s The English Rebel, which opens with English resistance to the Norman conquest, and also from a small but unwieldy stack of other books on English and British history. That means we’ll go linkless today. It’s the blogger equivalent of dreaming you’re on the bus naked: No harm’s done but it is disturbing.

What Horspool argues is that the rebellions shaped the conquest. It’s an interesting way to think about it. The rebels didn’t manage to get rid of William, but that doesn’t mean they had no impact. Even if it wasn’t the impact they wanted.

The first rebellion came together before William got to the capital. Its plan was to put Edgar the Aetheling on the throne, edging William out. Planting yourself on the throne and going through the ceremonies of being crowned were nothing more than symbolism, but that didn’t make they any less powerful. People believed in them.

Edgar the Aeth was the nephew of Edward the Confessor (that’s the king whose death set this mess in motion). He hadn’t been considered as a successor because of his age. He was born in 1051 or thereabouts, making him fifteenish in 1066. Or in John O’Farrell’s version (An Utterly Impartial History of Britain: or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge), he was thirteen. You noticed the “thereabouts” when I gave the year he was born, right?

Either way, he was young. On the other hand, it was strongly in his favor that he was still alive. And not a Norman.

The rebels gathered in London and waited for William. They included the archbishops and York and Canterbury; a couple of earls named Morcar and Edwin, and if that sounds like a BBC sitcom, it isn’t; “the citizens of London”; and a crowd of warriors so large that London couldn’t accommodate them.

Or so said a contemporary source, the Gesta Guillelmi. Detail and fussbudgetty stuff like accurate numbers weren’t the strong points of of medieval writers. Take it for what it’s worth. 

William encircled London and sat there till the rebels gave up and swore their loyalty to him. End of the first rebellion.

Two months after the Battle of Hastings, William was in firm enough control to have himself crowned in Westminster Abbey, and he just happened to surround it with his men. In a break with tradition, the crowd inside was asked, in English and French, if they acknowledged his right to be king. Everyone shouted their approval (it wouldn’t have been wise not to), and the shouting convinced the men outside that a rebellion had broken out. They did the only reasonable thing they could think of and set fire to the surrounding buildings. 

Who wouldn’t?

The fire spread and pretty much everyone fled the ceremony except for the terrified handful of people who had to finish consecrating and crowning. William stayed–no ceremony, no kingship–but was said to be shaking badly. A contemporary chronicle cites the event as the reason the English never again trusted the Normans.

Let’s assume from this that William and his men had reason to be on edge. As they spread their rule across their new country, they built castles, which worked as pegs to hold down the tarp they’d spread over the land. When Will went back to Normandy in 1067, he took the primary former rebels with him to make sure they didn’t get up to anything while he was gone. 

Will’s initial strategy was to rule the north of England–which he hadn’t conquered yet–through English appointees, but they tried raising taxes for him and that set off rebellions. In Northumbria alone, two of Will’s English proxies were killed and one changed sides. 

End of strategy. 

In his first five years, rebellions broke out in Dover, Essex, Hereford, Nottingham, York, Peterborough, and Essex, and most of them had the Aetheling (it means prince) as their focus, although a few focused on Danish royals or Eustace of Boulogne. 

No, I never heard of him either. 

Interestingly enough, Will didn’t have the Aetheling killed. He seems to have been far more forgiving of rebels from the nobility than from the everybody-else class. Take the Edwin of Edwin and Morcar. After his first rebellion, he was given “authority over his brother and almost a third of England.” But he was also promised a marriage to Will’s daughter and it didn’t materialize, which led him and Morcar to rebel again.

Horspool argues that a lot of the rebellions were a result of private discontents rather than what he calls patriotic ones, by which (I think, and I could easily be wrong here) he means more widespread discontents that might have united the rebels. He figures that the lack of unity cost the rebels their fight. O’Farrell, on the other hand, argues that England was still a fragmented place, with divided loyalties, which would have made a united resistance impossible.

That leads me to say that I have no idea what Morcar’s motives might have been and that I don’t know if his involvement in the next rebellion was a case of a couple of earls rallying people to rise up or a couple of earls riding on an uprising they did nothing to create. When Ed and Morcar gave up, though, Will accepted back into the fold again.

Having given up on sending English proxies into the north, he sent a Norman into Northumbria. On his first night in Durham, he and his retinue (somewhere between 500 and 900 men, according to contemporary sources, but I’d treat the numbers with caution) were killed. Then the rebels besieged the castle at York and killed Norman who’d been put in charge of it, along with many of his men. 

This was the turning point. 

“Swift was the king’s coming; he fell on the besiegers and spared no man,” according to the English monk Orderic Vitalis. 

At this point, the Danish king sent his sons, with a fleet made up of Danes, English, Poles, Frisians, Saxons (the kind from Saxony, not the English kind), and Lithuanians. They worked their way up the eastern coastline, eventually joining forces with some of the rebel groups, but after some initial success they retreated when William showed up in person. 

Horspool attributes that to a fear of facing down an annointed king. Annointing was the ceremony in which the church gave its oil-based blessing to a king, and people took it seriously. A king wasn’t just a pawn who’d gotten to the far side of the board and said, “King me.” He was church-approved and -tested. That’s where he got his divine right.

On the other hand, kings had been overthrown before and had slaughtered each other cheerily. Why that should have been an issue now I don’t know.

I can’t help wondering if the rebels were simply refusing to meet William on his ground, but that’s speculation. Don’t take it too seriously. It’s not like I have some hidden stash of information about this. 

Whatever the reason, they retreated, and when Will couldn’t find any Danes to fight in York, he lost it and “utterly laid waste and ravaged the shire,” according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He burned crops, killed livestock, destroyed villages and farms, and broke farm implements. Basically, he destroyed everything people needed to farm the land. Some sources reported that starvation drove people to cannibalism or to sell themselves into slavery just so they could eat. There was death on a massive scale. It was ten years before the north even began to recover.

It’s known as the harrying of the north.

And William again pardoned some of the leading rebels. You know–the ones with titles. 

That brings us to 1071, when Edwin and Morcar, the earls who never got a BBC sitcom named after them, joined a minor Anglo-Saxon noble (or gentleman in some versions), Hereward, in one of the last rebellions against Will. 

At roughly this same time, Will was reading through a printout of senior clergymen, crossing out the Anglo-Saxon names and penciling in Norman ones. It didn’t matter that printouts hadn’t been invented yet, or pencils: Will couldn’t read. You could hand him a piece of blank vellum and he’d get just as much out of it.

The point is that he sent a Norman to replace the Anglo-Saxon abbot of Peterborough, and we can safely guess that the new abbot came expecting trouble, because he brought 160 of his closest friends with him, and all of them were armed. Presumably he brought a prayer or two, but maybe I’m falling for a stereotype there.

Before he got there, though, Hereward joined forces with the Danes to sack Peterborough Abbey (probably–contemporary sources are hazy, remember). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says the rebels claimed they were doing out of loyalty to the minster, to deny it to the Normans.

Hereward used the fens–boggy, nearly impenetrable marshland–as his base and fought a guerrilla war. Then William paid off the Danes and they dropped out of the story, leaving Hereward on his own. He fought for over a year. 

Will eventually bribed some monks to betray (according to O’Farrell’s version of the tale) the route through the fens to Hereward’s stronghold, leaving us with one defeat and conflicting versions of what happened to Edwin and Morcar, although all the versions end with one betrayed and killed by his men and the other imprisoned for the rest of this life. 

Hereward disappeared, as any good legend should. Get slaughtered and you can become a saint. Disappear and you get a shot at legendhood.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says next to nothing about Hereward’s rebellion and doesn’t mention him by name at all. We could argue about how significant the rebellion was or wasn’t, but let’s not. We weren’t there. We can agree (see how neatly I slip you the opinion you’re supposed to take?) that it took on importance as legend–the bold Anglo-Saxon holdouts, using the land itself as a weapon against the invaders.

Hereward became known as the Wake only later, in one version because a family of that name wanted to claim him as an ancestor and in another version because it means the watchful

Hereward wasn’t, in Horspool’s telling, William’s most powerful opponent, but his legend is the one that took hold, and it cycles through English literature from the twelfth century on. He wrestles bears. He sacks abbeys. (Okay, one abbey, and hey, we all have our faults.) He disappears instead of dying. He doesn’t have a happy ending, but he has a habit of embodying whatever qualities the country wants to believe in at the moment.

Horspool’s interpretation of all those rebellions is that they broke any trust Will might have put put in the existing English aristocracy, leaving him no choice but to replace them with Normans. He doesn’t explain–or ask, if the information that’s available doesn’t allow for an answer–what drove this cycle of rebellion, so I’ll raise the question. When you get a pattern like this, selfish motives and bad temper don’t cut it as an explanation. Something was going on that didn’t allow everyone to settle down, plow the land, gather the rents, and do whatever it was people had been doing  before William landed. Because most people, given the chance to stay home and do what they’re used to, will do that.

Horspool considers it a legend that pre-Norman England was a land of freedom, but that belief fueled many a rebellion in the coming centuries. The shorthand for it is “the Norman yoke,” and if he’s not impressed with it as fact, he does pay tribute to its power as legend. 

The other historians in my small stack of books are more convinced. Women were freer, they say. Local courts were made up of small landowners, creating a grass-roots kind of justice. You didn’t end up bringing a dispute with the local lord to that same local lord, hoping for justice, as people would have had to under the Normans if they’d been silly enough to try.

On the Horspool side of the scales, however, the Anglo-Saxons did have slavery, and tenant farmers don’t sound, at least as I read it, like they were entirely free. Compared to the feudalism the Normans imposed, though, it might have looked like heaven, and not just to those who were higher up the social ladder. 

*

My thanks to John Russell for suggesting Hereward as a topic. Sorry I went on so long. I couldn’t find a place to split it in two.

Early British consumer co-ops

The British co-operative movement is usually traced back to the Rochdale Pioneers, a group of textile mill workers who set up a consumer co-op in 1844, but let’s go back to 1761, when sixteen (or fifteen–it depends who’s counting) Scottish weavers and apprentices “manhandled a sack of oatmeal into John Walker’s whitewashed front room and began selling the contents at a discount, forming the Fenwick Weavers’ Society.”

Weavers worked at home–this was before weaving was industrialized–and the co-op they formed wasn’t just, or even mainly, about oatmeal. They bought food in bulk and sold it affordably, plowing whatever profits they made back into the society, but the society was also, or maybe primarily, about setting the price they’d pay for their yarn and accept for their cloth. Its members pledged to be “honest and faithfull to one another . . . and to make good & sufficient work and exact neither higher nor lower prices than are accustomed.”

Irrelevant photo: Davidstow Moor, near the ruins of a prehistoric village (notice the line of stones)

They set up a fund to lend money to members and to give money to the poor–and they kept records, which means their history has come down to us in a way that the stories of earlier co-ops haven’t.

They also set up a library and in 1812, along with the Freemasons and a friendly society, built a school. Schools and libraries weren’t free yet, and schooling was anything but universal. Creating them so working people could educate themselves and their children was radical.

In the early 1800s, they created the Fenwick parliament–open meetings to debate local issues. The meetings were held at the village water pump, and someone would keep watch, because local landowners were hostile to–well, whatever it was the local working class might be getting up to. The meetings weren’t exactly secret, but they weren’t exactly not secret either.

In 1839, they set up an emigration society, which speaks to the limits of what any co-op can fix, and in 1846, “as members of the Secession Church” (in a small village, everybody who fills any role at all fills more than one) they brought the anti-slavery campaigner and escaped slave Frederick Douglass to Fenwick to speak. 

Fenwick’s population these days is a bit over 1,000. At some earlier point, it had 2,000 residents, then it dipped to 500, but at any of those sizes they were bringing an internationally recognized figure to a village at, roughly, the end of the earth, to speak about an issue that, however important, affected the town only indirectly. Or directly, but only if you had the vision to see how. It speaks to the organization’s connections and breadth of vision, not to mention Douglass’s generosity in speaking someplace so small and out of the way.

That the co-op survived as long as it did marks it as a surprisingly stable organization. It was killed not by internal problems but by the collapse of hand weaving in the face of industrialization. In 1873, it had only three members and they wound up the society, but its emigration policy had planted co-operators in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa, and at least some of them would have carried its ideals with them.

I’ve focused on Fenwick, but other co-ops and friendly societies came and went. See all those little dots flickering at the edge of your vision? There’s nothing wrong with your eyes. What you’re seeing is the spirit of an age: the co-op model answered a need, even if not many of the coo-ops lasted. It strikes me as important to remember the ones that didn’t last as well as the ones that did. 

Now let’s pick up the tale of the Rochdale co-op. It started in 1844. The industrial revolution was chewing up all those skilled, small-scale crafts, pushing their practitioners first out of work and then into factories. Working conditions were somewhere between abysmal and worse than that–child labor, inhuman hours, early death, industrial scale poverty–and a year before the Rochdale co-op was founded (that would be 1843; I’m unreliable with numbers, but I can subtract 1 from any number you throw at me and be reasonably sure of getting the right answer)–

Where were we? In 1843 a strike failed and mill workers were looking for some other way to improve living standards. Enter the 28 Rochdale Pioneers. (Trumpet fanfare here, if you please.) What they settled on was creating an alternative to the company store. 

I haven’t found any information specifically on Rochdale’s company store–or stores: I don’t even know how many we’re talking about. What I can tell you is that company stores in general were known for high prices and bad–often adulterated–merchandise. They were run by the same companies that their customers worked for, making a secondary source of income for the owners and a secondary point of exploitation for the workers. They stayed in business because their customers had nowhere else to go. Often no other store was within reach, and workers could often buy on credit (that’s the thing about working for lousy wages–you’re always broke) or were paid in company scrip (or chits–same thing, different word), a form of money issued by the company instead of actual cash and accepted in no other place else on the planet.

This was a time when store owners in general were known for adulterating their goods. We can’t blame company stores alone for that. But gee, everybody was free of all that pesky regulation and red tape that annoys us so today. And if people ended up buying tea that included recycled tea leaves from someone else’s brew along with a bit of new tea and some leaves picked from the hedge and colored in imaginative and occasionally poisonous ways? What the hell, it’s the price of freedom, right?

The Rochdale co-operative store (which opened, memorably, on Toad Lane) started out with about £16 worth of goods: flour (6 sacks), oatmeal (1 sack), sugar (44 pounds), and butter (22 pounds), plus 24 tallow candles because the gas company refused to supply them, so they lit the place with candles and sold whatever was left to their customers. 

The store was only open two nights a week, but within months it was keeping a five-day week. Before long they’d added the luxuries of working-class life, tea and tobacco.

The founders were conscious of the problems other co-ops had run into and set out some founding principles, which went on to form the basis of the co-operative movement in Britain and elsewhere. The business would be owned by its members, who would control it democratically. It wouldn’t sell on credit. Profits would be first plowed back into the business and then, when possible, returned to the members. It would be politically and religiously neutral. It would promote education.

This was radical stuff. No woman had the vote yet and neither did 6 out of 7 men–and mill workers would have been among the 6, not the 1. But here was an organization opening its membership up to everyone and giving them a say in how the thing would work. And religious neutrality signaled an openness to everyone, because religion was still an important dividing line. 

By 1854, over 1,000 co-operative stores were basing themselves on those principles. Ten years later, the North of England Co-operative Society had formed. 

In 1872, the society formed a division for loans and deposits. This eventually became the Co-operative Bank, which–well, it’s still going but during the years that led up to the credit crunch it decided to stop being so boring and it got crunched when the markets crashed. In 2013, only 30% of it was still customer owned. The rest was owned by private investors and–ouch–hedge funds. So yeah, there’ve been a few hiccups here and there.

But long before all that happened, the co-ops branched out in other directions as well. In many towns and cities, you can still get yourself co-operatively funeraled, pharmacied, or (regardless of your town) insured. 

In 1917, the Co-op formed a political arm, the Co-operative Party, which became a sister party to the Labour Party. How that sits with political neutrality I can’t begin to explain. What I can say is that you’ll find a Co-op store in just about every town near where I live, even though Cornwall wasn’t the heart of the co-op movement. They’re still governed by members, who elect area boards, which in turn elect regional ones and so on up the ladder. 

The stores maintain some of their community spirit and are known as good places for local organizations to turn if they need a donation or a stack of mince pies for a Christmas event. 

The first London coffee houses

Coffee became a political issue in England for a second or three–or the places where people drank it did. We’re talking about the seventeenth century, when people–men especially–wore clothes that were even sillier than whatever clothing you disapprove of most today. 

Think I’m exaggerating? This was the age of the three-cornered hat. Where, I ask you, did the runoff land when you wore one in the rain? My best guess is that it divided, without fear or favor, onto the shoulders. Unfortunately, I haven’t experimented. I should. We have no shortage of rain lately. All I’m missing is the hat.

I focus on the men’s clothes not because the women dressed more sensibly but because not many of them set foot or floor-length skirt inside coffee house doors. The only way in, if you were of the female persuasion, was to work there or own the place. Or to be disreputable enough, but even then most of them would be closed to you. 

Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: pears on our tree this fall.

So coffee houses were overwhelmingly male establishments, places they gathered to read; to talk business, religion, politics, and philosophy; and above all to caffeinate themselves so they could do more of the above without nodding off. 

The coffee, according to contemporary sources, was awful. One man described it as a “syrup of soot and the essence of old shoes,” which may help explain why the British took to tea. The point, however, wasn’t the taste but the caffeine–which is lucky, because once you get into the habit you want more, even if it tastes of old shoes.

And of course the company. 

Coffee made its first public appearance in England in 1637, in Oxford, where it was sold in a coffee house. It reached London in 1652, and by the 1660s coffee houses were multiplying like humans in the age before birth control. By 1675, 3,000 were in business around England. 

It was decades before any male slept a wink. 

That last information dump was from Wikiwhatsia, which I try not to rely on heavily, but part of what I’m telling you is drawn from a BBC radio show, In Our Time, which gave three experts half an hour to talk about coffee (it was fascinating), and the show’s website links to Wikiwhoosits, so I’m going to bend my already-too-flexible rules. (You’ll notice the word try at the beginning of the paragraph.) Screw it. If it’s good enough for the experts, it’s good enough for me.

The show’s available via the website if you want to listen. I recommend it. And even though one of the experts has the same last name as I do, she’s not a relative. Very few people who share my name are. Long story, which we’ll skip.

Like most substances that have just come on the market, coffee was promoted as the cure for pretty much everything. Think of it as the newly legalized cannabis of its day. As one of the experts put it, “It cured anything you wanted it to.”

It was also something you could drink that didn’t get you drunk. Water, remember, was polluted. Most people drank ale or beer and–we can assume–were at least slightly drunk most of the time. Small beer was less alcoholic than strong beer and ale, but alcoholic it was. In coffee, finally, Londoners had a drink that kept them sober. In “The Lost World of the London Coffee House” (the link’s above, turning the words “contemporary sources” blue, and doing it without a swear word in sight), Matthew Green credits coffee with laying the foundations of England’s economic growth in the decades after its introduction. I have no idea if he’s right, but it’s an interesting thought. 

To get into a coffee house, people paid a penny. For that they got not just coffee (for all I know, that cost extra) but conversation, the latest newspapers, which were just starting to appear, and whatever pamphlets were making the rounds. Each place had its own tone, clientele, politics, and leanings. Some were intellectual hotbeds, gathering writers, philosophers, thinkers. In others, workingmen gathered to read and talk politics. They were called penny universities. The entrance fee would have put coffee houses out of reach of the poorest workers, but even so I’ve found a quote from one writer who describes shoe-blacks and assorted riff-raff gathering to talk about topics that I imagine the writer thinking were far above them. You can hear his disapproval leaking into the spaces between the words and I can’t swear that a bit of exaggeration about the men’s occupations didn’t sneak in with it. Make what you will of the contradictory information. 

Other coffee houses gathered businessmen from one field or another, making them places to do deals and exchange the gossip of their trade. The London Stock Exchange began in a coffee house. So did the insurance group Lloyd’s of London as well as Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses.

Some high-brow coffee houses became private clubs. They gave way to the gentlemen’s clubs of the eighteenth century–and no, gentlemen’s clubs didn’t have anything to do with lap dances, although they were probably just as despicable, in their staid way.

And to make sure we don’t leave anyone out, some coffee houses attracted criminals. Not the kind who did respectable business. We’re talking about acknowledged criminals here. In some you could gamble. In others you could get a haircut and listen to a lecture on abolishing slavery, or so one source swears.

Don’t like the hair in your coffee, sir? Most customers feel it improves the taste.

One coffee house was the conduit to a nearby whorehouse. In another–which didn’t last long–you could only speak Latin. The Folly of the Thames was moored on the river and you could dance on deck. Which leads me to repeat that it wasn’t that no women could enter any of them, only that no respectable ones could–although in some no woman could at all.

Yeah, the good old days.

Having said that customers sorted themselves out according to interest, trade, and so forth, I’ll dance right on and contradict myself, since the sources I found do: Some talk about people mixing and debating without respect to title or class. Customers were expected to take whatever seat was available, which meant sitting next to whoever was already there. Tables were shared, not private. Whether you were sitting with people like yourself or people from a class that made you break out in hives, the coffee house ethos was that you talked to both acquaintances and strangers. 

It was because coffee houses were places to talk that they became a political issue. If you went to the right ones, you could hear the latest court gossip, even if you weren’t a courtier. And court gossip was inherently political. This made coffee houses a force of democratization–or sedition, depending on your point of view, and that’s where they got into trouble with Charles II, who in 1675 tried to ban the selling of coffee (also tea and sherbet) by royal proclamation. The punishment was to be £5 for every month a shop defied the ban, and if it continued “the severest of punishments that may by law be inflicted.” 

The ban never came into effect, though. Charles was pressured by his ministers–coffee drinkers, the lot of them, for all I know–to withdraw it.

But before we start cheering this force for democratization, let’s mention that coffee also drove the spread of slavery (the Caribbean and Brazil) and colonialism (Java and Ceylon). As far as I’ve been able to find out, that didn’t become a political issue in England. Maybe the news about what it took to grow the stuff didn’t leak into public consciousness. Maybe people looked the other way. It’s surprisingly–and horrifyingly–easy to do.

Have I mentioned how fond history is of irony?

A quick history of debtors prisons

In England, the enlightened tradition of tossing people in jail for their debts goes back to the fourteenth century. In extreme cases, if you didn’t pay your debts you could be outlawed–set outside the protection of the law. Given that if you stayed inside the law it would jail you, that might have been a mix of punishment and blessing.

If you were a merchant or a trader and owed less than a hundred pounds, you could escape all that by declaring bankruptcy, although it would cost you ten pounds–a big chunk of money at the time. But if you weren’t a merchant or trader, even if you had ten pounds in your pocket, you were shit outta luck. 

Irrelevantly, a pocket wasn’t one of those nifty little sewn-in things we know about. They hadn’t been invented yet. It was something you tied on and wore inside your clothes.

Don’t you feel better for knowing that?

Irrelevant photo. A plant. Which is not in debt, blooms all summer, and can be replanted from cuttings come spring. But I don’t remember what it’s called. In person, it’s a bit darker than this.

I never thought of the Middle Ages as a debt-prone period, and of course your mind works the way mine does, so you made the same assumption. It turns out we’re both wrong. There was enough debt around that the country set up laws to manage it.

But before I tell you about that, we should figure out just exactly what we mean when we say the Middle Ages. They ended in 1492. On the dot. 

Why then? 

Because that’s what Lord Google says, and (at least until you dig deeper) he’s unequivocal about it. One age ended, everyone turned the page, and the whole class started a new chapter.

The economy of the early Middle Ages wasn’t primarily a money economy, and that’s where you and I got our impression that debt and lending weren’t a big thing. By the end of the Middle Ages, though, England’s economy was increasingly being powered by trade and business, and that involved money and–yes in deedy, folks–loans. And you can’t have loans without debt, because if one person lends, another one has to borrow. 

So what happened was that all of that economic pushing and shoving crashed into the brittle shell of the feudal system, which is why the Middle Ages shattered and no one wanted to play with it anymore. They shoved it aside and invented a new game.

But that’s a different story. We’re talking about tossing people in jail for not paying their debts, not about why they took them on. 

Would you pay attention, please? 

In the fourteenth century, not paying a debt could also lead to the sheriff to turning up at your door to see what you had inside so the person you hadn’t paid could claim it. Or claim some of it, because according to the Debt Advocate (which is about modern debt collection, and very much in favor of it, thanks; tell them about a debt someone owes you and they’ll lick their lips and get back to you in five minutes, drooling onto the keyboard, although they’ll keep the drool professionally out of sight)–. 

Let’s start that over. In the fourteenth century (give or take some unknown number of decades), bailiffs commonly took more than you owed, sometimes even demanding that you sign over your land. They also commonly slipped enough into their own pockets (remember pockets?) that your creditor didn’t do particularly well out of the deal. The Debt Advocate, I’m sure, mentions that by way of contrasting it with their own highly professional services.

Who got into debt back then? Kings. Merchants and other businesspeople. Peasants. Churches. Monasteries. Geoffrey Chaucer. In other words, lots of people from all the available classes as long as they weren’t too poor or too visibly in debt to convince someone that they were a reasonable risk. Credit and debt kept the medieval economy rolling, although the aristocracy’s borrowing may have been less useful. Some of them borrowed to finance the show of wealth that they needed to put on (or thought they they did) and some borrowed  so they could go crusading.

Who lent money? I was under the impression that since the Catholic Church had outlawed lending money for interest–called usury, whether the interest was high or low–only Jews could lend money, but it’s not that simple. 

That’s true of most of the history I was taught, for which I’m grateful. If it was simple, these history posts would be no fun at all.

The ban on lending money at interest grew out of a bit in the Bible (sorry–I’m not sure which bit) that forbid people to charge or pay interest on money transactions between bothers. (That applied to any kind of lending, not just money.) In Jewish law, brother came to mean a fellow Jew. 

In a neat parallel, the Christian interpretation allowed Christians to lend money to Jews. Only Christians were brothers. Or More generally, they could lend to non-Christians, although there wouldn’t have been masses of non-Jewish non-Christians in England yet.

Not that there were masses of Jews. Before the Norman conquest, there weren’t enough in England for anyone to bother counting, and when they were expelled in 1290 there were only an estimated 3,000. 

Or 2,000. As usual, it depends on your source and doesn’t much matter. If we say not many, that’s close enough.

So Jews did lend money to Christians at interest, but after a time Christians found themselves a loophole and also lent money to Christians. I’m not sure what the loophole was; if you’d like to [a] credit it to a miracle or [b] tell me what it was, please do. 

The best known Christian moneylenders were Italian merchants, but churches, monasteries, bishops, and yea, even popes lent money at interest.

When England expelled the Jews, if you owed money to one of them you now owed to the crown.

Whee. Free money. Or free money if you were the king. Which was handy since he was heavily in debt himself. I read somewhere that he was in debt to Jewish lenders and by expelling the Jews he canceled his own debt, but I haven’t been able to find that again to confirm it, so we’ll pretend I never said it, okay? 

I can confirm the business about Italian moneylenders, though. 

Now let’s jump to the eighteenth century. What’s the passage of a few centuries between friends? Lots of people were now buying on credit. The supply of coins was smaller than the country needed. Wages were slow to be paid. And buying on credit was a style–a habit–however dangerous. If you got in over your head, your creditor(s) could toss you into prison without a trial and you’d sit there till you paid your debt, renegotiated your debt, or died. 

In our enlightened times, we shake our heads at how crazy the system was, but Alex Wakelam argues that it worked well for creditors, and he’s someone legitimate, not, like me, just some nut job with a blog. In one London debtors prison, 91% of the prisoners were released in less than a year and almost 33% in less than a hundred days. In other words, most of the debts were recovered relatively quickly. He’s not saying it was a good system. He acknowledges that it could ruin the lives of debtors. All he’s saying is that it did work for creditors.

Most prisoners were middle class people with small debts. About 20% of them were shopkeepers, although the list included gentlemen, cheesemongers, lawyers, wigmakers, and professors. And women, although fewer of them since men were held to be responsible for a family’s finances. 

Women and children were often in debtors prisons as the adjuncts of the men. They would have been free to come and go.

Debtors who had anything to sell sold it to pay off their debts, or called in debts that were owed to them, which could, at least in theory, mean someone in prison for debt having someone else imprisoned for debt. Others borrowed from family and friends. Those who could worked from inside prison. A trumpeter who worked for Handel was able to give music lessons inside the prison. Some sold food or alcohol to other prisoners. 

What if you had nothing to sell, no trade you could carry on from prison, and no family? Or if you were rich in family but your family was poor in money? You sat in prison and watched your debt get bigger as interest raised it from horrifying to incomprehensible. And if that wasn’t bad enough, you were being charged for your food (such as it was) and lodging while you were in prison, and that added to your debt. There are records of prisoners paying off their debts and then being held because they hadn’t paid off the bills for being imprisoned and fed.

You could also be charged for keys being turned or for having irons removed. And no, those weren’t irons as in pressing your clothes or curling your hair. They were the kind of irons that kept your legs from running off. 

In Marshalsea prison–and it seems to have been typical–prisoners were divided according to whether they could pay for their keep. On the Common side–the side whose inmates couldn’t pay–conditions were horrendous. We’re not just talking about lack of food but also deliberate brutality. I’ll leave you to look up the details and say only that the fear of being moved there kept the money coming in from those who could afford to pay. 

On the Master’s side–the paid side–you could rent a shared room, a private room, or a whole set of rooms. You could pay for good food. You could set up a business. The place had a whole economy behind its walls. History Revealed mentions bars, cafes, and restaurants within the prisons. Some prisoners paid for the privilege of living off site. Some were able to leave during the day–presumably to earn money and pay off their debts. 

These prisons were licensed by the crown but run privately, for a profit. Sound familiar? I’m old enough (and then some) to remember when privatization was going to be more efficient than frowzy old government-run institutions. If you couldn’t pay for your keep, the prison had no incentive to feed you any more than the absolute minimum–and sometimes less. The brokest of the broke begged passers-by for alms, and there were instances of prisoners starving to death. 

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, over half of England’s prisoners were in jail for debt. 

This wondrous system was ended by the 1869 Debtors Act. But–.

A but always gets involved somewhere, doesn’t it?

In England and Wales, you can still be tossed in jail for up to three months if you don’t pay your council tax (the council being the local government). In 2016-2017, just under five thousand people were jailed for that–and going to jail doesn’t clear the debt. When you get out, you still owe it.  

In the U.S., debtors prisons were banned under federal (not state) law in 1833, but in recent years you can once again find people in prison for not paying fines and debts.Some of them have been convicted for various crimes but then can’t pay what private companies charge them for drug rehab, electronic monitoring, parole, and so forth. That lands them back in jail after they’ve been released. Others are people who owe court fees and fines they can’t pay. 

In theory, you can’t be jailed for a civil debt–a debt owed to anyone but the government (or a company charging for government services)–but in some states debt collectors can ask a court to order you to appear and answer questions about your finances, and if you don’t show up (you didn’t get the notice; you couldn’t read the notice; the dog ate your notice), you’re in contempt of court, and you’re also in jail. By the purest coincidence, you can pay a bond, which is usually the exact amount the collection agency’s claiming, although if you had the money you’d probably have paid it to begin with.

It’s good to live in our enlightened age. It reminds us not to look down our noses at our ancestors.

*

Thanks to Cat9984, who asked about debtors prisons in Britain. Sorry about the long digression into debt itself, and into lending. I couldn’t see a way to separate them sensibly and–oh, hell, I got interested. Anyway, here it is, right in time for Christmas. Do I know how to celebrate or what?

The Peasants’ Revolt: England, 1381

Last week, we scrambled through the mud of medieval England meeting the serfs. Or as they were also called, the villeins. You will, of course, remember every word I wrote, which is good because I don’t and someone should take the trouble. 

We ended, as any good miniseries does, on a cliffhanger: Individual serfs–by no means all of them, but some–were challenging their place in the system, trying to prove in court that they weren’t serfs.  When that starts to happen with any consistency, I claimed (and, of course, I know these things), it’s a sign that the system’s starting to crack. An increasing number of people didn’t fit into the old slots, but society was doing its damnedest to keep them stuffed in there. 

Obviously relevant photo. This is Fast Eddie, free cat of this village. He is relevant to everything that matters.

In The English Rebel, David Horspool says that before democracy (or anything that passed for it) wandered onto the scene, popular rebellions seemed to pop out of nowhere. The country’s rulers knew next to nothing about the people they ruled, and the ruled had no way to make their voices heard. Self-preservation advised them to keep their opinions to their unworthy and unwashed selves. So basically there were no tea leaves for the experts to read. Tea hadn’t been imported from Asia yet anyway.

Still, there were hints for anyone who knew how to read them. One of them was those scattered people going to court to prove they weren’t villeins. 

Another was—. Well, let’s back up a second. The Black Death had swept through the country, leaving a labor shortage. That happens when, oh, maybe a third of a country’s population dies. And farm laborers and artisans noticed that friends and co-workers were missing. How could they not? 

So what did they do? They took off, looking for better pay, better work, a breath or two of free air. Or they stayed put and tried to get a better deal where they were.

If you ruled the country, you could take those as hints or you could follow the example of those wise those caring people who actually did rule the place and pass the 1351 Statute of Labourers, freezing wages, restricting movement, and punishing offenders by, variously, putting them in the stocks, fining them, and tossing them in jail. And doing twice as much of it if they broke the law again.

It’s worth mentioning that while wages were frozen, prices were rising.

The statute’s goal was to contain the “malice of servants,” which was doing “great damage of the great men, and impoverishing of all the said commonalty.” All you laborers, back in your uncomfortable little slots. The stability of the entire society depends on you shutting up and acting like you’re making that space work for you.

Interestingly enough, the statute also covered unbeneficed priests–priests who didn’t have a church appointment, which meant they didn’t get the income a church appointment brought with it. I haven’t found any information on why the statute applied to them or how it affected them. Maybe unbeneficed priests were considered the laborers of the church and had their pay fixed along with everyone else’s. I might as well confess that I didn’t read the full text of the statute. It listed so many job categories–hostelers, harbergers, workmen, servants, dairymaids,tailors, tawers of leather, and assorted others–that I got too dizzy to read on. 

But never mind that. Can I offer you a warning instead, just in case you wake up some morning and find you’re the ruler of a wildly unequal society (and aren’t we lucky not to live in a world where they’re easy to find)? Be careful about letting the everyday poor make common cause with people whose education has set them up to nurture an expectation or three. Because when those two get together, they make an explosive combination, and unbeneficed priests (along with artisans) were strongly represented in the Peasants’ Revolt, even though it’s still called the Peasants’ Revolt, not the Peasants’, Artisans’, and Unbeneficed Priests’ Revolt. 

The people in charge of England at the time not only didn’t have the advantage of my advice, they didn’t see people going in search of higher pay as a hint of trouble to come. So they followed up on the Statute of Labourers by introducing poll taxes, which were taxes on “each person in the land, both male and female.” 

Isn’t it nice to see women mentioned for a change? 

The phrase poll tax comes from middle English. Poll meant head. If you had a head, it was taxed. Or it was if you’d had it long enough, because the tax did have a minimum age limit. It’s unseemly to tax newborns.

Poll taxes were imposed in 1377, 1379, and 1380, and the last one triggered the rebellion–or it helped to, in a last-straw kind of way. It was a flat tax–the richest and the poorest had to pay the same amount: a shilling from everyone above the age of fifteen. That was three times the amount of the poll tax that came before it.

To translate that, with complete accuracy, into modern terms, a shilling was a shitload of money. Or it was if you were poor. So if you couldn’t scratch up a shilling, you could pay by handing over your tools, your seeds, your cow. And if it left you unable to feed your family, maybe you should have thought it through before you grew such an expensive head.

Why all the taxes? Because England was in the middle of the Hundred Years War with France. (How do you respond to a disaster like the Black Death? Why, you keep right on fighting an endless war.) England was more or less always at war with France. Let’s not go into the reasons. It was like smoking: one of those habits that’s hard to give up. And like smoking, it was an expensive habit. That’s why all the taxes.

In response to the third tax, 450,000 people magically disappeared from the record books and the government appointed a commission to find them and collect all those missing shillings, one by one by one. In three Essex villages, Fobbing, Cottingham, and Stanford-le-Hope, a royal commissioner ran into trouble. A hundred or so people gathered, refused to pay, and when he tried to have them arrested ran him out of town.

Then they “went to the woods for fear of his malice,” according to a contemporary chronicler. By the time another commission came to arrest them, they’d gone from town to town, gathering support. The commission thought better of the job and left the rebels in control of the county–some 50,000 of them according to a contemporary estimate, although you might want to think twice before you take medieval numbers seriously. It’s better to think of that as a poetic way to say “a lot of people.”

The rebels sent letters to Kent, Suffolk, and Norfolk, calling on people to rise with them, and they may have been written by John Ball, so let’s take a minute to talk about him. He was a priest who for some time had been preaching the coming of a classless society and backing up his argument by drawing on the same religion that normally backed up the existing class hierarchy. 

“When Adam dalf and Eve span,” he preached, “who was then a gentleman?” 

Dalf? That’s means  dug, although I’ve usually seen it as delved. Span means spun

Ball was excommunicated in 1366 but went right on preaching, although not in churches anymore. He preached in churchyards and open marketplaces, and every so often he was thrown in jail for it.

Even though being excommunicated meant people weren’t supposed to listen to him, it didn’t seem to have dented his popularity. When the Peasants’ Revolt broke out, he had enough of a reputation that the rebels broke him out of Maidstone Prison and he joined them.

And now, instead of going backward let’s take a stop to one side:

In Kent, the rebellion was sparked not by the tax but by a dispute over whether or not a local man was a villein. It was one of those court cases I mentioned earlier, although I can’t tell you why this particular one sparked the rebellion instead of half a dozen others. But it did and local rebels seized the local castle. After that, some half of the rebels said, “Job done,” and went home, but the other half stuck around to burn records “so that once the memory of ancient customs had been wiped out their lords would be completely unable to vindicate their rights over them.” 

Burning the records seems to have marked a turning point in the rebellion. It took on a larger aim, and it’s at this point that Wat Tyler emerged as a leader. Not much is known about him. He might have fought in France–which also says he might not have. We’re doing well to have his name.

It’s hard to put all this together in any sort of coherent narrative. The chroniclers of the time were universally hostile to the uprising, and the rebels didn’t leave much in the way of documents. Their letters calling for risings are an exception, and they’re rich in imagery but light on concrete detail. In modern English, part of one says, “John the Miller hath ground small, small, small / The King’s son of heaven shall pay for all.”

If you’re going to invite me to a local uprising, could you please be more specific? I appreciate the poetry and all, but I’m a who-what-when-where-how-and-why kind of person. But the people who received the letters must have understood, because rebels gathered from across the southeast. One strand of rebels headed to Canterbury, where they demanded that the monks elect a new archbishop. They also executed a few folks, who were handed over to them by “the people.”

Which people? Dunno. How enthusiastically or unwillingly did they hand them over? Dunno that either.

Eventually the various groups of rebels gathered outside London, although other parts of the country also saw uprisings. Chroniclers of the time estimate the London group at 100,000. Modern historians, who are more accurate but nowhere near as much fun, guess the number at 10,000, but that was still bigger than most armies of the time and way the hell more than the government could call up at short notice.

England had no standing army at this point, remember. Or–well, why should you remember? They didn’t. New information. If they wanted an army, they called up aristocratic warriors, and they called up the armed free men under them and little by little an army gathered itself. 

Unless, as occasionally happened, it didn’t. But even at its best, it took time, so the rebels had the advantage.

The rebels included free and unfree peasants, tradesmen, laborers, unbeneficed priests, artisans, and some minor gentry, including a knight or two. Their enemy–as they saw it–was the king’s government and advisers, not the king himself. They were loyal to the king. 

Across the Thames from London, they attacked the Marshalsea prison, setting debtors and felons loose. They attacked the archbishop’s manor, where they burned more records. Then guards opened both London Bridge and the city walls to them, either out of fear or sympathy–we’ll never know. 

Inside the city, the rebels were violent but well focused, and they were joined by “the commons of London.” They opened more prisons and burned the much-hated John of Guant’s Savoy Palace without looting it. In the lawyers’ section of the city, the Temple, they destroyed both property and records, beheading eighteen individuals who were targeted for reasons that, as far as I’ve been able to find out, are lost to history. 

Some sources say the violence was more widespread and included slaughter of Flemish residents. When in doubt or anger, blame the immigrants. The point Horspool makes, though, isn’t that the rebels were saints but that they had effective leadership. This wasn’t simple rioting, it kept a political focus. 

The King–Richard, in case you care, who was all of fourteen–and his advisers hied their asses to the Tower of London, which had (and still has) its own set of walls. There his advisers went into a collective meltdown and couldn’t come up with any advice to offer their kinglet. It was the kid who decided to talk with the rebels. 

Which he did, at Mile End, while a few rebels somehow got into the Tower and executed a handful men they particularly hated, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

Well, they had called for him to be replaced.

Meanwhile, out at Mile End, the rebels presented their demands to the king: “that henceforward no man should be a serf nor make homage nor any type of service to any lord, but should give four pense for an acre of land. They also asked that no one should serve any man except at his own will and by means of regular covenant.” 

The king said, “Yup, sounds fine to me,” and the meeting broke up. The killing in London continued that day and the next. 

Richard called the rebels to meet again and spoke with Wat Tyler, who (apparently; remember, we’re getting the story from a limited range of chroniclers who weren’t journalists) again presented their demands, expanding them to include an end to outlawing, the dividing up of Church goods, allowing provision for the clergy, and no lordship except for the king’s. 

Again the king agreed and issued pardons and charters of manumission–a way of releasing people from serfdom. 

Then the mayor of London tried to arrest Tyler, who stabbed him through his armor. The mayor stabber Tyler in the neck, someone else in the king’s entourage ran him through, and Tyler fell off his horse and called on his followers to avenge him.

How did everybody stab everybody when they were on horseback? No idea. Maybe we’re talking about swords, not knives. Maybe they were closer than I imagine them. Again, we’re getting the story from medieval chroniclers and they weren’t journalists. For all I know it’s not hard to stab someone when everyone’s on horseback. I have a shocking lack of experience with this.

The rebels, in spite of their overwhelming numbers, hesitated. This was the king–the person they’d pledged their loyalty to. The good guy who was surrounded by bad counselors.

Or they didn’t hesitate but drew their bows. As usual, accounts differ. The most common one is that Richard rode toward the rebels, calling that he would be their captain and leader, renewing his promise of freedom and pardons.

Whatever the exact events were, the rebellion was effectively over.

The charters of freedom were promptly forgotten. Rebel leaders were executed. John Ball was hung, drawn, and quartered, and his assorted body parts set outside London’s walls. I mention that in case you’re inclined to focus on the rebels’ violence. It was far from one sided. When the government finally gathered up an army, it marched into Essex, where there was still some resistance, and slaughtered five hundred rebels and killed a hundred more later on. Or some other large numbers, since we’ve agreed that any number over one is unreliable.

And the king’s promise? It disappeared without leaving so much as a puff of smoke behind. He now told rebel envoys, “You will remain in bondage, not as before but incomparably harsher. For as long as we live and, by God’s grace, rule over the realm, we will strive . . . to suppress you so that the rigour of your servitude will be an example to posterity.” 

The Statute of Labourers was reinforced in the next few decades. England never formally abolished serfdom. It died out, but slowly.

On the other hand, no one tried to impose any more poll taxes. And, as these things tend to do, the legend of the rebellion lingers on, often in romanticized form.

Life at the bottom of the heap in medieval England

Let’s visit the England of the middle ages. 

Why should we do that? Because making the occasional visit to the past is good for us. Finish your spinach and we’ll be ready to go. 

Medieval England was shamelessly hierarchical and society was generally thought of as being divided into three parts. We’ll start at the top, since they would have: The clergy were in charge of people’s spiritual wellbeing. This probably meant telling them all the ways and reasons they could end up in hell, but I don’t have a source for that, I’m just guessing. The clergy also prayed, which was considered a contribution to society.

Irrelevant photo: a rose

The warriors–for which you can read the aristocracy, upper and lower–fought when they were called on. Or at least they were expected to. If you rummage around in all the loose bits of history that no one bothered to file, you’ll find times when they were called on and said, “Sorry, I’m washing my hair right now.” That belongs in a different tale, but it explains why “at least they were expected to” snuck in at the top of the paragraph. 

Finally, at the bottom of society, the peasants, the laborers, and the and-so-forths kept everyone fed and housed to and and-so-forth’d, and they did whatever the other two groups told them to, because who were they to ask questions or have ideas of their own? 

And these divisions were sanctified by religion, which permeated every aspect of life. They would have been almost as self-evident as the knowledge that if you drop things they fall.

Hang onto the almost from that last sentence. This is a two-post visit and we’ll need it when we get to next week’s section.

In English Society in the Later Middle Ages, Maurice Keen—. 

But I need to interrupt myself here so I can apologize. We’ll be short on links today; I’m working largely from books. You remember books? They’re what came before pixels. 

Keen quotes the fifteenth-century Order of Chivalry, which said, “To the knight it sufficeth not that he be given the best arms and the best beast, but also that he be given seignory,” which Keen translates as lordship over lesser men. 

That includes women, of course. Look inside any medieval man and you’ll notice flocks of tiny, unacknowledged, and unquestioning women, cooking the food and washing someone else’s dirty linen. Not to mention sewing, spinning, planting, winnowing, weeding, brewing the ale, and looking after the chickens and cows. And if the family was high enough up on the social scale, embroidering.

Funny how they could do all that and still not be noticeable. I’m delighted that in our happy time we’ve left injustice, hierarchy, and inequality in the past. 

Giving us a wider glimpse of society, Master Ralph Acton wrote, “When God could have made all men strong, wise and rich, he was unwilling to do so. . . . He willed these men to be strong and healthy, wise or rich, that they might save their own souls by helping others through love of them: those others he willed to be weak or foolish or in want, that they might save their souls by enduring hardship in patience. Hence God says, the poor ye shall always have with you.”

Who was Master Ralph Acton? Possibly a fourteenth-century scribe. Also possibly somebody who didn’t exist, in which case we don’t know who wrote that. But the writings themselves do exist, and for our purposes that’s good enough. They reminded the reader that society’s divisions were created by god, so all its inequalities were for the best. 

Occasionally somebody would notice that the three-part division was a little rough and would work out a more detailed picture. The twelfth-century John of Salisbury structured society as a human body. The priesthood was the soul, the king was the head, the warriors were the hands, the laborers and craftspeople were the feet.

And the people who collected taxes? They were the intestines. 

Did he notice the implications of that? Your guess is as good as mine, and mine is that he did. Throughout history, tax collectors haven’t managed to collect much love.

John’s system included a few more body parts, but by now we have enough.

In the countryside, most people were villeins–peasants bound to the lord. And now that we’ve introduced them, to hell with the hierarchy, they’re the people we’re going to spend our time with. In 1290, they made up 60% of the rural population–or to be more accurate, of the rural population living on arable land. They weren’t just bonded to a lord, they were also bound to the land itself. Some definitions draw a line between a serf and a villein. Others count them as the same thing. Let’s not split hairs. We’re using the terms interchangeably here.

And by we, of course, I mean I

Villein, for all you word hounds out there, is the origin of the modern word villain. Not because the villeins were evil but because they were thought of (not by themselves, of course, but by the people who counted themselves as their betters) as uncouth in “mind and manners.” From there, it’s a short distance to being no good at all–a complete villain. 

The key to villeinage was the land. If the lord sold the land, the villeins went with it. But from about 1200 on, he (and lords had a habit of being he’s, although they could also be churches, monasteries, convents, or the very occasional she)–. Let’s start that over: After roughly 1200, he couldn’t just pick them up and sell them separately from the land. The kind of slavery that saw people bought and sold outright was common in Anglo-Saxon England–that’s before 1066, when the Normans stomped in and conquered the place–but became less common afterward. You can mark the shift as starting when William the Conqueror (the big, bad Head Norman himself) imposed a ban on selling slaves to other countries. 

It’s not clear why the shift took place. Morality might have driven it, but it wouldn’t have hurt that serfdom accomplished pretty much the same thing as slavery. And riding herd on villeins might have been easier than riding herd on slaves. 

So villeins weren’t free, but they weren’t exactly slaves either.

At the heart of the feudal system was the manor, which was run by the lord. Each manor had its own rules governing the relationship between lord and villein, and some were harsher than others. The tenants knew the rules as well as the lords did, since although the rules favored the lords heavily, they kept him from having complete, arbitrary control over their lives, leaving him only partial, semi-arbitrary control. 

Now let’s toss in another source, A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages, by Martyn Whittock. 

The manor was made up of (1) desmesne land, which was farmed for the lord’s benefit; (2) land farmed by villeins, who paid for it by, among other things, farming the demesne; (3) land farmed by free tenants, who paid their rent in cash; and (4) common land, used by tenants in carefully defined ways. 

Villeins owed the lord a set amount of service, and the lord had the right to decide what services he wanted from them during that time. On one estate in the twelfth century, villeins owed five days a week. They might also owe a portion of their crops and animals, and they might owe cash on top of that. 

Villeins couldn’t marry or sell their property without the lord’s permission. They might owe tallages (unpredictable amounts of money that the lord could claim), wood silver (a fee for access to the lord’s woods), boon work (extra services at plowing and harvest times, just when the tenant’s own land needed the most work but who cared about that?), and heriot (the family’s best animal being owed to the lord when the tenant died). They might have to grind their grain at the lord’s mill, at the lord’s price. They might have to pay a fine for having taken part in some forbidden sexual activity–and any imaginative sexual activity was forbidden, along with a lot of activities that didn’t take much imagination. (The link there is to an earlier post on the subject.)

Surprise, surprise, this particular fine fell on women more often than on men. Suddenly they were noticeable.

The list goes on, but you get the picture. 

Villeins could and often did pay a cash rent as a substitute for service. Basically, they were buying back their time. But that didn’t make them free. They were still villeins.

Most serfs could also make wills and buy and sell land if they paid for the privilege. They could be evicted, but until the enclosure movement came along that was rare. (Again, the link’s to an earlier post. The enclosure movement wanders in about halfway down.) The tendency was for tenancies to be passed from one generation to the next–for a fee. If you think of anything a villein might want to do as involving the lord’s permission and a fee, you won’t go far wrong. 

I said serfs couldn’t leave the land. I should have said they couldn’t leave it legally. If they ran away and managed to live in a town for a year and a day, they became free. It’s an odd loophole in the system, and I don’t know its origin. But if they were caught and returned, they were subject to the lord’s justice. There are records of serfs bound in chains to keep them from taking off again. 

The lord ran the manor court, which had the right to impose physical punishments or fines for any act that broke the rules of the manor. And, conveniently enough, any fines the court imposed went to the lord.

Yes, of course the manor courts were impartial and justice was served. I hate it when you get cynical.

Now let’s complicate the picture. Free tenants lived among villeins, in the same villages. Keen paints a picture of village life in which two hierarchies intertwined and people’s social status depended not just on whether they were free or bonded but also on their prosperity. And the two didn’t necessarily line up neatly. A free cottager could be desperately poor. A villein could be prosperous, although most weren’t. It all depended on how much land a person had. A small minority might have upwards of thirty acres. The poorest free cottagers might have no more than a garden and depend on working for others to keep themselves and their families fed.

Telling a free man (which may also mean a woman; I’m not sure) from one who wasn’t free was a complicated business, and it came up in court cases, since only free men could use the royal courts. Villeins were stuck in the (utterly impartial) manor courts. It also came up because people looked for all possible loopholes to so they could be ruled free.

And here you need a warning about health and safety. Or truth in advertising. Or something along those lines. I’m compressing a long time period into a short space. When you compress time, sometimes you get wine, sometimes you get spontaneous combustion, and sometimes you get inaccuracies. So keep in mind that the royal courts weren’t in existence for the whole medieval period, and that even once they sprouted out of the damp ground of medieval politics, they didn’t sit there unchanged until the country rang a huge bell and the medieval period ended. Like any mushroom or bit of government, the courts grew and changed. As did the conditions of rural life.

Now go have a glass of wine and try not to set anything on fire.

To establish whether a person was free, the courts looked at all the things a villein might owe his lord. Did he have a pay a fee to give his daughter in marriage? Did he have to show up a fixed number of days to work for the lord with no clue what work he was going to be doing? Did he pay tallage? If the answer was yes, a serf he was and a serf he remained.

An assortment of people challenged their status as bondsmen, but what they were challenging was their individual status, not the system of bondage itself. Still, when a fair number of individuals pop up and say, “I don’t belong in this category,” you can take that as a sign that the system’s beginning to crack: The old categories don’t fit the realities of life.

Which is probably a good place to tell you that next week we’ll watch the system sprout a big honkin’ crack. In other words, we’ll look at the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. 

I do love a good revolt.

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Anyone missing Brexit news should check out the Brexit Blog. It’s clearly written and to the point.

The Jacobite Rebellion: Who Was Jacob?

Let’s talk about the Jacobite Rebellion. In 1745, Charles Edward Stuart tried to grab the British throne back for his father, James Francis Edward Stuart. In other words, the Jacobite Rebellion revolved around two men with a whole string of names, but Jacob is nowhere on the list.

Unless, of course, you switch to Latin, in which case you can call James Jacobus. Or Jake if you’re a close enough friend. 

He didn’t have friends who were that close, so you might want to give it some thought before you call him that. 

Irrelevant photo: This is orange. And a flower. You’re welcome.

The Jacobite uproar started when Elizabeth the virgin queen of England died without an heir. Sorry, you don’t get a prize for guessing that business about her not having an heir. The Stuarts–a line of Scottish kings who were vaguely related to her–became the kings of England as well as Scotland, and England being larger and richer than Scotland, they made it their base. That lasted until one of them, James, outed himself as a (gasp) Catholic and was replaced with his Protestant daughter and her husband, an equally Protestant European prince. 

These two were supposed to create a line of reliably Protestant monarchs, but bringing in replacements had set a precedent: If an individual in the new line died childless, Britain could always borrow another vaguely related Protestant from Europe. Think of Europe as a lending library for vaguely related Protestant monarchs. 

If any genuine historians are reading this, you have my deepest apologies. I’ll be happy to dodge anything you want to throw at me,

But the Stuarts didn’t disappear just because they’d been booted off the throne. They sat in Europe like the last, heavily thumbed book on the library shelves–the one nobody wanted to borrow. 

You can see trouble coming, right? 

Starting in 1708, a couple of bungled rebellions tried and failed to bring James back. Sometimes foreign powers were involved. France is the country to keep your eye on here. Britain (or England if we’re talking about an earlier period–it’s confusing and we’ll get to that in a minute) and France hadn’t gotten along for centuries. 

In 1744, France sent ships to launch a Jacobite invasion of England. France didn’t take the Stuarts seriously, but what the hell, if it lobbed them onto British soil, it could hope to tie to government in knots for a while. But winter storms sank some of the French ships and drove the rest back to port, after which France called off the plan. 

Sorry, Stuarts. 

So Charles–remember him? Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Stuart who wasn’t named Jacob and was going to grab the throne for his dad, who also wasn’t called Jacob? Without asking France if it was okay, Charles consulted his Scottish contacts about a landing in Scotland. 

Why Scotland? It had been bundled into a union with England in 1707, and a lot of Scots weren’t happy about it. Before that, Scotland and England had been two countries that shared a king but not a government. Now they were one united country, dominated by England. Scottish landowners got a few nice presents out of the union, but what most people got were heavy taxes along with forts and soldiers planted by a government that they felt had been imposed on them. So the Jacobites could count on the backing of a Scottish clan leader or three, which would give them a good base in a land full of grievance.

In one of history’s nice little ironies, these clans were largely Protestant. 

Sit down and get comfortable for a minute, because we’re going to take a detour into Scottish (and English, not to mention Irish) religious history. 

When the Church of England was formed, the central issue was that the monarch was going to replace the pope as the head of the church, . All members of the clergy had to swear an oath to him or her. So when James became the king, they swore.

Then James was replaced with William and Mary, leaving a number of clergy members wondering what to do next. James was still alive. So what did their oath mean? Some shrugged their shoulders and swore an oath to the replacement parts that had been fitted into the royal machine. Others, out of principle, refused. They felt that their first oath still held. 

In England, this was largely a matter of religious (as opposed to political) principle, but in Scotland refusing to swear an oath to the replacement parts was highly political, a statement that the country was ruled by the Stuart king, even if he was sitting in France (or Rome) and ruling nothing more than what time lunch was on the table. Cue lots of political and churchly infighting that we won’t get into.  

What matters for us is that this strange bit of history, where elements of a Protestant Church held out for a Catholic king, provided a reservoir of Jacobite support and a bit of religious and intellectual backing for the cause.

The Jacobites also had support in Ireland, where the Stuarts’ Catholicism was crucial. England (which had by now become Britain) had confiscated Catholic-owned land on a massive scale there. The Irish Jacobites wanted their land back in an independent, Catholic Ireland. 

Zip over to England and a fair bit of Jacobite support was Protestant again. It came from people who were against Britain’s involvement in European wars. They wanted that money for the navy, which could protect British trade. Many of them were strongly anti-Catholic and pro-Church of England. English Catholics? Some were Jacobite and some supported the Hanoverians–the replacement parts in the royal machine. 

In other words, the only thing Jacobites agreed on was being Jacobites. The Stuarts were a handy basket into which you could toss any disagreement with the existing government. Think of them as populist politicians running against the government. Try that strategy and you’ll find it can work until you become the government. After that, unless you’re a genuine revolutionary–and few of populist politicians are–it’s a tough act to maintain. You’ll need to find a new enemy, and in the time of the Stuarts, Remainers and the liberal elite hadn’t been invented yet. Immigrants had but–.

Never mind. I’m wandering off topic. The point is that if James had managed to seat his butt on the British throne, he’d have had serious trouble keeping his supporters behind him. 

Lucky him, he never had to face that.

What did the Stuarts themselves stand for? They believed in absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings. They were Catholic. Since a fair number of their supporters opposed arbitrary rule, the union, and Catholicism–well, yeah, you can see why they were all drawn together.

Now let’s go back to Bonnie Charlie consulting his Scottish contacts. They said, “Look, guy, nothing personal, but without French support this doesn’t look promising.”

But Charlie, remember, believed in absolute monarchy, and even if he wasn’t an alleged king, only an alleged prince, he still knew best. He set sail, rallied support in the Scottish highlands, and marched on Edinburgh, helped along by the roads and bridges the British government had built after those earlier Jacobite risings in order to make Scotland easier for the military to control. 

History has a bitter sense of humor.

The Jacobites didn’t manage to take Edinburgh castle, just the city, but even so it was all going well. Charlie declared the union of Scotland and England to be over, along with the Act of Settlement, which barred Catholics from the throne. The French–as he’d gambled they would once he’d set himself on Scottish soil–sent money, supplies, and weapons. Everything looked rosy.

Except that Charlie’s autocratic style and Irish advisers had started to worry some of the Scots, and they imposed a council of advisers on him. Everyone argued about whether to invade England or consolidate their position. 

Charlie wanted to invade, though, and invade they did, getting as far as Derby, a couple of hundred miles from the Scottish-English border on the A1, which if it existed wasn’t called that and hadn’t been paved. Then they turned and headed north again for fear of getting cut off by English forces. They had the advantage of speed but that was about it. They were lightly armed and the English Jacobite support they’d counted on turned out to be minimal. As did French support.

We’ll skip over a siege and a battle or two back in Scotland. Winter came and both sides settled down to wait for better weather, which given what both the Scottish and the English think of Scottish weather could easily have meant waiting for decades. 

The Jacobites were also waiting for French supplies, but the British navy was out there waiting for French ships. A few got through, but by spring the Jacobites were short of food, money, and weapons. 

What do you do in that situation? You give the dice a good hard shake, kiss the hand that’s shaking them, and spill those dice on the table. 

They didn’t land the way the Jacobites needed them to. The final battle of the rebellion was at Culloden and it was over in about an hour. Some 1,500 Jacobites were killed and 500 were taken prisoner. Compare that to 50 British soldiers killed and around 250 wounded. 

Charlie ordered his surviving troops to disperse and he fled for France, leaving British troops to search out rebels, confiscate cattle, and burn the meeting houses of religious groups who pissed them off. Of the 3,500 Jacobites who were indicted for treason, 120 were executed, 650 died before trial, 900 were pardoned, and the rest were transported.

Culloden marked the end of the Scottish clan lords’ power–not because of the defeat itself, but because the government set out to break them. Estates were confiscated. Laws were designed to undermine them. By way of making the point symbolically, highland dress was outlawed unless it was worn in the (need I say, British) military and the bagpipes were declared an instrument of war, so playing them was banned, although they continued to be played in secret. 

If anyone knows how to play the bagpipes in secret, do let me know. They’re not a subtle instrument. And yes, I do understand that the highlands weren’t densely settled and that even though the sound carries a long way it can’t circumnavigate the globe. Still. In secret?

The government set about mapping the highlands and building more forts, roads, and bridges to help the military control them. The Jacobite Rebellion was over.

Irish Jacobitism continued but it was focused on independence, not on the Stuarts, and it was eventually absorbed into the Republican movement.

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My thanks to Sheila Morris for suggesting the topic. I’m always open to suggestions but I don’t promise to follow all of them. Some of them work and some don’t, and I can’t predict what will fall into which category.

Smoke, chimneys, and beds in Tudor times

No part of the past makes sense in isolation. Or it only does when you’re kidding yourself. Take a wider view and it gets messier but more interesting.

I started out wondering where medieval people slept and ended up learning about chimneys, so let’s start with chimneys.

They were introduced to Britain in the twelfth century, but they were only for the super-rich–the kind of people who had a castle or two–or for monasteries. Think of them as the era’s equivalent of a private plane: They weren’t something even your economically well-above-average person would lust after. They were too far out of reach. What most houses had at the beginning of the Tudor era was a central hearth–a nice fireplace on the floor, in the middle of the room. 

Irrelevant photo: wild blackberries, stolen from an earlier post but who’ll notice?

The smoke rose from the hearth and worked its way out through the thatch, if the roof was thatch, or through whatever other openings were available if it wasn’t. Don’t worry, because even if the house didn’t have a hole in the roof above the fire, it would’ve been rich in chinks and openings. If it had a window, it would at best have been a wooden shutter but was more to have been likely oiled cloth. Glass was a luxury item. And I’m going to make a reckless guess and say the door wouldn’t have been a tight fit. 

If all that sounds awful, it also had its advantages. A website that quotes re-enactors from a Welsh museum says that on its way out the smoke would have waterproofed the thatch, killed bugs, and smoked meat hanging from the ceiling.

But that’s only the beginning. I’ve been re-reading Ruth Goodman’s How to Be a Tudor and–well, let’s back up, as I always seem to in these posts, and talk about who Goodman is before we come back to our alleged topic.

Goodman calls herself a historian of social and domestic life in Britain, and as far as I can figure out she more or less invented her field, coming into it before respectable historians showed much interest in how ordinary people lived. But she doesn’t just study social history, she inhabits it, working out how people lived and trying it herself. Want to know how they cleaned their teeth? She can compare the virtues of chalk, salt, and the soot a wax candle leaves on a polished surface, because she’s tried them all. 

She consults for museums and for the BBC and has presented some wonderful programs on daily life in various eras. She’s fascinated by how people did ordinary things. 

As she puts it, “Our day to day routines have a huge cumulative effect on the environment, our shopping habits can sway the world’s patterns of trade, how we organise and run our family life sets the political tone of nations. We matter. Us, the little people, women, children and even men. How our ancestors solved the problems of everyday life made the world what it is today.”

Never mind for a moment that today’s world isn’t great advertising for the wisdom of our ancestors’ choices. How many of us can know where our decisions will lead, and how many of our ancestors had much of a range to choose from? Can we not get snotty about this? Most of them were only trying to cook a meal and stay warm. 

Which takes us, handily, back to fireplaces. 

Central hearths were good at warming a room. No heat disappeared up the chimney–there was no chimney–and they kept the floor of the house level nice and warm. This brought the people down to floor level, not just because it was warm but because the clearest air was down below. Sitting on the floor starts to look appealing when the higher levels are smoky. So does sleeping on the floor. You don’t want furniture that lifts your head up into the smoke.

What was it like to sleep on the floor? Well, having read that medieval floors were strewn with rushes, Goodman tried to figure out what that meant. By trial and a couple of errors, she found that if you make them into bundles and lay them somewhere between two and six inches deep, you get a solid surface that’s comfortable to sleep on–both springy and warm. (If you just strew them around, they get caught in your skirts.)

When she watered them lightly every couple of days, they stayed fresh and didn’t catch fire when a spark fell on them (that’s a plus), and they smelled like cucumber (that’s another plus if you like cucumber). And in spite of people walking, cooking, sitting, eating, sleeping, and spilling on them during a re-creation she participated in (and in spite of a family of chickens that no one had the heart to evict), at the end of six months the surface was still clean and when she cleared the rushes all out there was no mess at the bottom. Also no evidence of mice or insects or mold.

So sleeping on the floor? Not a hardship. Which is lucky, because that’s where lots of people slept, not just in the cottages of the poor but in castles. Have you ever wondered where the many, many servants in big households slept? Beds were for the few (to reverse the Labour Party’s current slogan), not the many. So what did everyone else do? I couldn’t help imagining that they had some sort of mattresses, no matter how basic, and I sometimes wondered where they stashed them all during the day. How much storage space could they devote to them?

But no. The lower orders bedded down on the floor, more or less communally, although separated by sex. Come morning, all they needed to store away were some blankets.

As the Tudor era rolled onward, fireplaces became more common, and with them, beds–or at least platforms that raised people off the floor and some sort of mattress to soften them. Bring in a fireplace and you get rid of the smoke (and can add a second story) but the tradeoff is that you get drafty floors and colder rooms. A huge amount of heat is carried up the chimney. Furniture that lifts you off the floor starts to look pretty good. 

That still leaves us with the storage problem, and I’m not sure how they solved that or if the lowest orders still slept on the floor–which was now drafty.

Mattresses ranged from a heap of straw to bags stuffed with everything from straw to wool to down, and bedsteads from simple platforms to boxes to hugely expensive four-poster beds, which you can think of as yurts set up inside a room. Sleeping in a four-poster was the original glamping. Your bed would be covered on top and on the sides, and inside all that covering you got not only warmth but some kind of privacy.

Privacy was a hard thing to come by at this point. 

That doesn’t tell us how many people slept in some form of bed, whether the ones who were left on the floor got something mattressy to protect them from the drafts, or where the mattresses got stacked in they did. Nobody was tracking people’s welfare and no one was keeping statistics–or not that kind of statistics anyway. 

What we do know is that life moved upward, into the now-clear air. And they all slept happily ever after. 

Or some of them did.

The Gordon Riots: Religion, Poverty, and No Revolution

“How did the American Revolution affect Britain?” an American reader asked me a good long time ago. I didn’t have a clue, so I plugged some version of the question into Google and Lord G.’s answer seemed to imply that no one in Britain much noticed it. Or, since that’s just the slightest exaggeration, that life went on pretty much as it had before.

But getting a decent answer is all about knowing what to ask, so let’s talk about the Gordon Riots of 1780.

What was happening around that time? Britain was losing the war in its thirteen colonies. Gentlemen wore wigs when they dressed formally and powdered their hair when they were being informal. Was there a connection? Don’t jump to conclusions. George Washington may not have worn a wig (the Smithsonian magazine says he didn’t), but he powdered his hair and floofed it out on the sides so it looked wiglike. It was time consuming, but for formal battles it was important to get the look right. 

Absolutely relevant photo, because what’s a riot without a flower or six?

I mention the wigs as a reminder that the upper classes had both time and money that they could afford to piss out the window. London was a city of what Professor Jerry White calls “almost unimaginable inequality. And inequality was underpinned by a deeply-loathed system of ‘justice’, its key component the London prison system”–which among other things imprisoned people for debt. (That link will, if life and the internet are kind, lead you to a pdf of an article on the riots. It’s five pages long and it’s good, but you’ll have to download it.)

The cost of living had gone up and (you’ve heard this about other time periods, right?) wages hadn’t. Funny how that works.

You can think of inequality and a war that was going badly (there’s the American Revolution again) as your standard-issue liquid fuel. The match that ignited it was an act allowing Catholics to join the army and buy land if they took an oath of allegiance. It didn’t go as far as giving them freedom of religion, but this was pretty radical stuff for its time and place. 

The act had come into force in England and Ireland in 1778 without setting off any sparks, but when it was introduced in Scotland in 1779 it was met with anti-Catholic rioting that was so serious that Catholics themselves asked the government to withdraw the bill, which it did. 

Then London’s Protestants looked at their cold fireplace and thought that setting fire to the chimney might just be a good idea. Because there’s nothing like a bit of religious, ethnic, or national intolerance to take your mind off your problems. 

Enter Lord George Gordon. He was twenty-nine, an MP, the third son of a duke, and generally considered a religious nut. “His speeches were wild and unbalanced,” according to Prof. White. His hair was also wild and unbalanced. Or, as White has it, long and lank. Either way, he managed to look like one of the Puritans from a century before his time. 

The Catholic Relief Act, Gordon said in an audience with George III, was “for the diabolical purpose of arming the Papists against the Protestant colonies in America.”

If you strip away the insults and the ranting, that wasn’t an entirely unbalanced belief. The war needed soldiers, and Catholics looked as good in a bright red coat as well as anyone else did.

A quick interruption while I talk about sources. The George Gordon quote comes from a book, The English Rebel: One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties, by David Horspool. It’s informative and well written and everyone should rush out and buy six copies or go to the library and borrow one. Among other things, it’s left me thinking about how we define rebellion. And a mob. It’s a rich source of blog fodder. But it’s not online, so no link.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming. If you’d stop interrupting, we could get to the point faster.

In a well-organized campaign, the Protestant Association had been handing Parliament petitions against the Catholic Relief Act ever since it passed, and in 1780 some 50,000 to 60,000 people gathered to hand in a petition with 44,000 signatures. They marched from St. George’s Fields into London, flying flags and singing hymns. Outside Parliament, in the usual spirit of hymn-singing, they attacked members of the House of Lords, who were just rolling up in their carriages. 

The Commons were already in session and the mob (the word didn’t carry the same overtones it does today; it meant an excitable crowd–and this one does sound like it was excitable) swirled into the lobby, where Gordon excited them a bit more, reminding them that the Scots hadn’t made progress against the act until they “pulled down the mass-houses.” 

MPs expected the mob to break into the Commons chamber at any moment and White says several were ready to draw their swords and one (who happened to be Gordon’s uncle) announced that he’d put his sword through Gordon if anyone broke through the door. 

I know. Most of us have at least one relative we feel that way about.

What were the MPs doing with swords when a statute from 1313 bans anyone coming armed (or in armor) to Parliament? No idea. Sorry. I’d love to know.

As it turned out, no one broke in and no one ran Gordon through, although it wasn’t for lack of wanting to, I’m sure. But oddly enough, no one stepped in to stop Gordon running out to make sure the mob maintained its level of excitement.

Parliament voted not to receive the petition, with only nine members wanting to accept it.

In the middle of this mayhem, the Duke of Richmond introduced a motion to extend the vote to all men. It was the height of lousy timing. What, give the vote to “the people” when “the people” were just outside, punching lords as they arrived in their carriages? 

The secretary of state argued against universal male suffrage on the grounds that the British constitution was “the wisest that had ever been created.” And no one could prove it wasn’t, since it’s (oh, so wisely) never been written down. It would be like arguing that the Invisible Man wasn’t devastatingly handsome. 

The motion lost.  

That evening, the mob attacked several Catholic chapels, including private ones belonging to Catholic ambassadors. Then things settled down for a while. And then they unsettled. Catholic churches, schools, and homes were attacked. Soldiers were called out but didn’t have clear orders about what to do. Politicians who took unpopular positions had already been attacked, so no one wanted to give the order to shoot. 

The rioting continued. The poet George Crabbe  (no, I never heard of him either, but the opera Peter Grimes is based on his work, so somebody has) wrote, “I met a resolute band of vile-looking fellows, ragged, dirty, and insolent, armed with clubs, going to join their companions. I since learned that there were eight or ten of these bodies in different parts of the City.” 

By now, the nature of the mob had changed–it was poorer and more desperate–and so had its targets. They were attacking the justice system, burning criminal records, freeing prisoners, and destroying prisons. 

Again, George Crabbe, talking to a tavern waiter: “I asked him what could induce him to do all this? He said the cause. I said, do you mean a religious cause? He said no; for he was of no religion. He said, there should not be a prison standing on the morrow in London.”

White describes the next couple of nights as civil war. 

When the soldiers finally received orders to shoot, the first ones who did were commanded by Gordon’s brother-in-law.

We can, I think, reasonably assume that the family’s Christmas dinners were strained.

The next day, gangs started knocking on doors, demanding money for “the true religion.” Buildings that had already been attacked were systematically looted. The Bank of England and toll houses on Blackfriars Bridge were attacked. A distillery owned by a Catholic was set alight and either the vats of alcohol caught fire or gin was pumped on the fire accidentally, instead of water. The second version sounds unlikely but I prefer it.

It took two days, 210 shot dead, 75 wounded (and, according to one source, later dying in the hospital), and an uncounted number dying or recovering at home before the riots were over. Soldiers, magistrates, and peace officers made their way through poor neighborhoods, arresting people, including criminals, wage earners (journeymen, apprentices, domestic and public house servants) street sellers, assorted other men working marginal jobs, and a few women whose jobs weren’t recorded, although it was recorded that one of them was black.

Ten times more property had been destroyed than was destroyed in Paris during the French Revolution, and far more prisoners were freed than were freed from the Bastille (1,500 compared to 7). But in the end the French had a revolution and Britain had riots.

Horspool points out that the attacks focused on prosperous Catholic institutions, which he takes to mean that it was “the success of the hated group as opposed to their existence that was resented.” He also points out that Catholics had less to fear from the rioters than MPs did, although I doubt they’d have agreed with him. 

And Lord Gordon?

He was indicted for treason but acquitted on the grounds that he hadn’t intended any treason. It helped that he hadn’t taken any direct part in the riots.  According to the Jewish Magazine, which is more sympathetic to Gordon than either Horspool or White, he came out of the trial a more religious man. He was drawn to the Quakers for their pacifism and work to help the poor and to the Jewish community (only recently returned to England after some 400 years of exile) for their efforts to care for the poor. The story is that he was walking through a Jewish neighborhood in Ipswich and saw a sign saying, “All who are hungry enter and eat.” He went in and struck up a lifelong friendship with the householder, Isaac Titterman.

In 1787, Gordon was jailed for libeling Marie Antoinette, the French ambassador, and the English justice system. 

Then, in case you think anything’s simple, this most Protestant of anti-Catholic Protestants converted to Judaism–according to one source when he was in prison and according to another, more detailed one, before. Having converted, he became strictly observant, to the point of refusing to talk with Jewish men who shaved their beards. In court, he refused to remove his kippa. Since the court saw it as a hat, making it a sign of disrespect rather than a religious observance to keep it on, it was pulled off his head and he tied a nightcap on his head with a handkerchief. 

What he was doing with a nightcap in  court is beyond me. I’ve never heard that there’s anything in the many, many (many, many, many) Jewish laws and traditions that involves nightcaps and court appearances. But then, I’m no expert. Never mind. He covered his head. Both sides, presumably, were unhappy with the outcome, although maybe not equally unhappy.

He served out his sentence but couldn’t be freed unless two people guaranteed (apparently with money) his good behavior. But the people who appeared for him were Polish Jews, who the court refused to recognize. Whether that was because they were Jewish or Polish is anyone’s guess, but my money’s on Jewish. His brothers and sister offered to cover his bail but he turned down their offer.

He was returned to prison and died of prison fever–typhoid–at forty-two.

Horspool mentions speculation that his conversion came out of a belief that if the Jews returned to Israel it would bring the second coming of Christ, but his letters from this period, along with his willingness to have religious alterations made to a body part that men are generally pretty sensitive about, make his conversion sound less complicated and more genuine than that.

Oh: The British lost the war.