The Riot when Bishop Henry Despenser came to Lynn

This wasn’t an afternoon for cucumber sandwiches and tea on the lawn.

The bishop was running. His horse had bolted, and he was wounded. He and his retinue were being attacked by some furious people of Lynn. The rioters threw stones, used clubs and staves, and even fired arrows. As darkness fell many of the bishop’s party fled. The town gates were shut. Thankfully the Bishop himself was able to reach the safety of St Margaret’s Priory before the mob. He took refuge there and his episcopal career was safe – for the night at least.

So Why the Dreadful Confrontation?

The date was 7 June 1377 and Bishop Henry Despenser was on a formal visit to Lynn. Henry was Bishop of Norwich, but at that time the Norwich Bishop had authority over, and income from, more than one thousand three hundred parishes in East Anglia (including Lynn). He would rarely have visited Lynn, but if he did, he would normally have stayed at his Bishop’s manor at Gaywood.

Henry was met by the civic dignitaries. These were headed by the mayor (John de Brunham), who in turn was preceded by someone carrying the town’s mace. This was a political statement as the mace was seen as representing the authority of the town and the mayor was reminding the bishop of the town’s claimed independence and of the mayor’s final authority over the town and all who lived in it.

When Bishops of Norwich had previously visited Lynn, someone carrying a staff had walked before them. However, Henry was having none of it. He wanted to have the mace carried in front of him. He wanted to assert what he saw as his historic rights.

A 14th-century carving of Henry le Despenser, St Margaret’s Church, King’s Lynn

There are usually background factors which contribute to conflagrations, and there were at least two in this case.

First, Henry himself was no stranger to confrontation, to independent action, and to asserting his claimed rights. He had spent several years studying civil law at Oxford. He knew how to find and argue a case. As a soldier he had fought for Pope Urban V in Italy. A few years following these events in Lynn Henry was to be an important player in successfully putting down the Peasants’ Revolt. He was to defeat the rebels at Thetford in 1381. In 1382 he was to have the courage to ignore an order from King Richard II over timing and launch a crusade in France. His reported actions rarely displayed subtlety or temerity. He had the strength to claim what he genuinely felt was his – regardless. At the time of the incident in 1377, the 34-year-old Soldier Bishop was described as “unrestrained”.

Secondly, Lynn had been left in an unfortunate position that was almost guaranteed to produce ongoing conflict. In 1204 King John had granted the men of Lynn a free borough and a merchant guild. However, at the same time, the King also specifically preserved the rights of the Bishop of Norwich and the Earl of Arundel. The situation was further confounded in 1205 when John de Gray, the then Bishop of Norwich, granted Lynn a charter giving it all the liberties enjoyed by the town of Oxford. However, again, he also preserved all the rights that the bishop already held. Although in 1268 Henry III granted Lynn permission to have a mayor, confusing claims about what separate rights the bishop and the town had were entwined.

Stemming from this ambiguity there was a reluctance from the Bishops of Norwich to acknowledge Lynn’s right to elect its own mayor without reference to the bishop, and for that person to be recognised. As late as 1352 any elected Lynn mayor had to swear allegiance to the Bishop of Norwich. Lynn’s mayoralty was undoubtedly the result of communal self-assertion, but the people of the town were not entirely free to order their own affairs.

The Cunning Plan that Failed

When Henry asked to be preceded by the mace the town’s aldermen faced a quandary. If they agreed they risked setting a precedent about ultimate episcopal authority in the town, and also faced violent protests (perhaps fearing for their own lives if people took their compliance as agreement with the bishop). If they refused, they faced the potential wrath of the Soldier Bishop who had fought for the Pope.

Someone from amongst the aldermen came up with a cunning plan. They told the bishop that they would be happy to comply if, but only if, the bishop gained permission to walk behind the mace from the King and his Council. They pointed out that to comply without this royal approval might lead to uncontrollable violence. Such a request would take months to decide on even today with all the advantages of modern communication. It was a delaying tactic and put responsibility for sorting out the ambiguity clearly back with the monarch.

When it looked like Henry was still intent on having his own way, the aldermen were clearly afraid of being attacked by the crowds. On bended knee they begged the bishop to desist. Henry, being Henry, rejected their requests and warnings. He called the aldermen “mecokes” (cowards, effeminate) and called the common people “ribalds” (an emphatic contemporary term of abuse). The aldermen asked to be excused from the proceedings, but Henry ordered one of them to carry the mace. After a short distance, the local people let their feelings be known and the attack began.

Afterwards

In the light of day things calmed down. The mayor would have ultimately been responsible for keeping the peace and would have wanted to ensure that the bishop eventually got home safely. But Henry wasn’t going to let the threat to his life and the afront to his authority go unpunished.

On 16 June the bishop obtained the King’s permission to appoint a commission to examine the attack. Twenty-three named people from the town were accused of assaulting the bishop with the intention of killing him, of killing twenty of the bishop’s horses, and of assaulting his men and servants.

Two days later the bishop unleashed an even more potent spiritual weapon when he persuaded the Archbishop Sudbury to lay an interdict on the town, thus temporarily depriving it of all the religious rites and sacraments of the church. This meant that officially marriages, baptisms, confessions, confirmations, anointings of the sick, burials in consecrated ground, and Holy Communion were suspended. This could have been a significant blow to people in 1377 who strove to achieve divine favour and ward off the fires of hell and shorten time in purgatory by receiving sacramental grace. It was spiritual bullying.

On 12 July the King’s Council tried to end the dispute, warning each side to do no further harm to the other on pain of a huge penalty (a fine of £2000 and forfeiture of goods). To judge from this decision, both sides were felt to share the blame. Note the decision does nothing to settle the ambiguity that caused the original trouble.

Both sides eventually settled with arbitration from the sheriffs of Norfolk and Cambridge. At the end of it, Lynn was worse off by £515. 5s. 6d. This figure included the cost of a huge wax candle (13s. 5d.) weighing twenty-one pounds which was humbly offered in the church of the Holy Trinity, Norwich. The figure may or may not have included the £100 generously given by the town to William Holmestone and Thomas Sporram in consideration of the injuries they received in defending the honour of Lynn. Clearly the fighting was not all one-sided.

The Tiny Legacy

Mill Fleet, King’s Lynn
Photo © James Rye 2021

Although there are records of disputes between the bishop and Lynn going on into the fifteenth century – arguments about land, about Henry’s failure to restore a staithe, and about financial bonds guaranteeing that the burgesses of Lynn would not harm him – Henry indirectly left at least one enduring (but tiny) mark on the town. In 1391 Henry granted the mayor and burgesses of Lynn the privilege of building a water mill or mills in the ‘Flete’ for a rent of twenty shillings a year. Although the mill that was built no longer survives, the fleet is now known as Mill Fleet.

Although there are roads in the town named after other Bishops of Norwich (Losinga Road, Turbus Road, De Grey Road), perhaps unsurprisingly there is not yet – at the time of writing – a Despenser Road.

© James Rye 2021

Sources

Allington-Smith, R. (2003) Henry Despenser the Fighting Bishop, Larks Press

Hillen, H.J. (1907) History of the Borough of King’s Lynn, Vol.1, EP Publishing Ltd.

Websites all accessed July 2021

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_le_Despenser

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Dictionary_of_National_Biography,_1885-1900/Despenser,_Henry_le

https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1386-1421/constituencies/bishops-lynn

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