Insurrection: a Suffolk tradition

Visit Suffolk [ http://www.visitsuffolk.com/ ] is an organisation that has the task of promoting tourism to the county and is one of many bodies marketing Suffolk as a picturesque and bucolic retreat for jaded city-dwellers & holiday home buyers. According to its website Suffolk has “a countryside dotted with quintessential English villages and thriving market towns.” It alludes to the county’s history, too, as a selling point. “Suffolk has its place in history,” it says, “tales of Anglo Saxon kings and Tudor Queens.” 

Cavendish Green in Suffolk

Cavendish Green


All this may well be true, but just as in the 18th century, when Constable and Gainsborough’s paintings portrayed a landscape and society at odds with the sordid reality and enormous social unrest of the time,  Suffolk’s pretty aspect hides real hardship and social division. There are many towns and villages where local people have simply been driven out by the high costs of housing (or even of beach huts). Closures and cuts in local services have resulted in the people of Suffolk taking to the streets in protest. But this is nothing new, the county has a long history of rebellion.  Here is my brief survey of the long tradition of insurrection in Suffolk.

In 1214, the Norman Barons of England met at the abbey in Bury St Edmunds and swore an oath to force King John to accept Magna Carta. The Barons, of course, were merely protecting their own interests. It would be a long time until the lower orders were even regarded as human beings. However, Bury itself would be the scene of many more open acts of revolt. In The History & Antiquities of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds by Richard Yates (1843, 2nd  ed.) there is a chapter with the odd title of “Contests with Townsmen.” This, in fact, describes the ongoing political unrest in the town for almost the whole of the period of the Abbey’s power. During the mediaeval period, the Abbots had supreme power over the inhabitants of the town. Yates describes many of the conflicts  from 1264 onwards. He clearly feels that the Abbey had the right to hold totalitarian power over the town, and so his history has to be read in that light. In “1292 we find the convent and the townsmen again involved in a dispute, that appears to have been conducted with much asperity and animosity on both sides.” There was more trouble in 1305 when the Alderman and burgesses were brought to court for “withholding fines …  resisting the officers employed in distraining, throwing stones upon, and damaging, the roof of the church; stoning the workmen employed in repairing the same; beating the servants of the Abbey; etc.” In 1327 “a vast force from the neighbouring towns and villages made several attacks upon the monastery and its possessions.”

The events of 1327 in Bury were perhaps the most violent and certainly the most serious. What Yates describes as a “vast force” has been estimated at around 20,000 local people. They attacked the abbey and, over a period of several days, burned down and destroyed buildings in the abbey grounds and satellite  properties in nearby villages like Horningsheath (Horringer) and Fornham St. Martin. The Abbot still clung to power but concessions had to be made. Unrest continued until the Abbey lost its powers during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and gradually fell into disuse.

The Abbey Gardens, Bury St. Edmunds

The image that the mediaeval peasantry were compliant or servile is not borne out by historical documents. The Court Rolls of Walsham le Willows, 1351-1399; edited by Ray Lock (Boydell Press, 2002) give hundreds of examples of low-grade acts of rebellion and petty law-breaking amongst the bonded labourers of Suffolk in the fourteenth century. It’s hard to know whether these examples of “contempt of the lord” were political in any sense that we would recognise today but it certainly doesn’t give an impression of docility:

   “Elias Typetot made an assault on the reeve of this manor, threatening him in breach of the peace and in contempt of the lord. Elias being questioned could not deny [the charge] and placed himself on the lord’s mercy…” [Walsham Court, 15 July, 1363] … “John Manser and John Pye each amerced 12d because in the autumn they made an assault on John Baner, the lord’s bailiff, in contempt of the lords.”  [Walsham Court, 16 September, 1376] … “Edmund Patel amerced 3s 4d for contempt of the lord, openly abusing all the jurors in full court.”  [Walsham Court 22 February, 1380] … “William Grocer, the son of William, amerced ½ mark for contempt of the lord, making an assault on the lord’s bailiff and beating him.”  [Walsham Court, 26 September, 1385]

There is an extensive account of the poll tax rebellion known as the Peasants’ Revolt which took place across the whole of England in 1381, in Edgar Powell’s The Rising in East Angliain 1381 (Cambridge University Press, 1896). The principal leader of the rebels in East Anglia was John Wrawe of Sudbury, described in contemporary documents as a chaplain.  In June 1381, he led an attack at the manor of Overhall in Essex, near Long Melford, directed against the lord of the manor Richard Lyons, who was notoriously corrupt. The rebels proceeded to Cavendish and attacked the parish church where they took the goods of John de Cavendish which had been hidden in the church tower. They then visited various towns and villages in the area, such as Lavenham, Sudbury and  Bury,  their attacks being directed upon the property of the lords of the manor. Although condemning the violence in his account of the peasants’ revolt in East Anglia, Powell admits that “we cannot…  withhold a large measure of sympathy both for the ideas which prompted, and for the results which followed the action.” The rebellion was crushed and the ringleaders were punished severely. In Cavendish, the village sign still celebrates those events.

The village sign at Cavendish in Suffolk depicting events from the Peasants' Revolt.

The village sign at Cavendish depicting events from the Peasants' Revolt.


Although Suffolk was relatively quiet during the Tudor period, some Suffolk people joined up with the Norfolk-based Kett’s rebellion in 1549, in what became known as the “year of the many-headed monsters.” The rebellion was caused by increasing enclosure of common land by the wealthy. Although historians generally regard enclosure as a progressive move which eventually led to the agricultural revolution, the issue of enclosure was a matter of life and death for peasants who had traditionally survived by grazing livestock on common land. A contemporary account of Kett’s rebellion, Stow’s Summarie (1565), the earliest account, played down the fact that there were similar rebellions at the same time in Devonshire, Cornwall, Oxfordshire, and Buckinghamshire and the contribution “made by the commoners of Suffolk to the commotion time.” But the work did admit that those who had ‘encamped them selves’ on Mousehold Heath (near Norwich) had come from both ‘Norffolke and Suffolke’ and gave as much attention to the execution on 5 February 1550 of Robert Bell of Gazeley, the leader of the Suffolk insurrection, as it spent upon the execution of William and Robert Kett.


From The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England by Andy Wood (Cambridge University Press, 2007): “The most powerful surviving plebeian memory…  comes, appropriately enough, from the town of Lavenham. Early Tudor Lavenham provides a strong example of continuity in local traditions of popular protest. In 1525, and again in 1549, the weavers and farmers of the Lavenham area rose in armed rebellion. In the spring of 1525, thousands of local people had gathered in the town in order to demonstrate against Cardinal Wolsey’s Amicable Grant. … Twenty years later, a Lavenham man named James Fuller admitted to plotting the new rising with John Porter. The target of the insurrection was to be the ‘rich churles’ and ‘heardemen’ of the locality, whom they intended to kill. They had had enough and in defending themselves, alluded to being let down over promises made  to the poor after the Kett rebellion: ‘we wyll not be deceived as we were at the last rysinge, for then we were promised ynough and more than ynoughe. But the more was an hawlter.’ ”

The Captain Swing period and the “bread or blood” riots, the rick-burning, machine-breaking and attacks on the clergy of the late 18th and early 19th centuries have also been well-documented. In fact the labourers and farmers in Suffolk were accused of collusion, as  both were hostile to the parsons who insisted on taking a tithe of the farmer’s income. The Ipswich Journal repeatedly reported on court cases resulting from allegations that labourers had sent threatening letters to their “betters.” These are just two cases that were brought to court:

In By a Flash & a Scare, John Archer quotes from examples of such letters. One, from someone called Grimwade of Polstead begins: “Sir, This is to inform you that unless your tenant, Mr. Brown of Polstead, pays his men an advance of wages… he will be visited with a blaze…” In 1844, the subject of “incendiarism” in Suffolk was debated in Parliament http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1844/jul/19/incendiarism-in-suffolk

At Rushmere Heath, near Ipswich, villagers from miles around attended meetings to discuss labourers wages in 1830.  This was amid a huge amount of unrest in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex about wages, agricultural changes such as the introduction of threshing machines which meant that labourers were thrown out of work, and the tithe system which entitled clergymen to a substantial percentage of farmers’ incomes.  The meeting at Rushmere was banned, troops were called in and three Ipswich craftsmen were prosecuted for inciting labourers to engage in “illegal assemblies.”  Around the same time, “ in Ipswich the magistrates dispersed a ‘Disputing Club’ in an ale-house consisting of ‘very Inferior people’ ” [EP Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, p. 125]

The violence of the labourers against their masters seems extraordinary today, but this was the age of the Houses of Industry, the Poor Law (which meant that if you were poor you could be forced to return to the parish of your birth), transportation to the colonies for petty crimes like poaching. There were no trade unions and no franchise for the labouring classes, in a county notorious for its rotten boroughs and corrupt politicians. Behind the images of the haywain and Flatford Mill, lay poverty and hardship, cruelty and murder. Luckily, the people of Suffolk would never put up with it.








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