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.
The Political Symbolism
The date was 7 June 1377 and Bishop Henry Despenser was on a formal visit to Lynn (at the time it was known as “Bishop’s 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 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. Publicly witnessed rituals were an essential part of the fabric of medieval society; and their power and efficacy were implicitly accepted.
When Bishops of Norwich had previously visited Lynn, someone carrying a staff had walked before the bishop’s party. 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.
So Why The Fight?
There are usually background factors which contribute to conflagrations, and there were at least three 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 people 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.
Thirdly, there was a long history of conflict between the Despenser family and the present king’s (for example, see what Edward III’s mother did to one of Henry’s ancestors here). Castle Rising had been given to the Black Prince and the leaders of Lynn had spent a lot of money lobbying him. They wanted to get Lynn nominated as a wool staple town (a designated place where wool could be traded and where tax was officially collected). Although the Black Prince had died in the previous year, Henry would not have been pleased with these attempted clandestine dealings with his family’s enemies.
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.
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 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 in church, 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. They needed to receive sacramental grace in order to shorten their time in purgatory. The interdict 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 (two pensions of £50 each). Clearly the fighting was not all one-sided.
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, and according to the author’s present knowledge – a Despenser Road.
The Peasants’ Revolt erupted a few years later in 1381. Edward III was dead, Richard II was still a teenager, and the wars with France were continuing to demand seemingly bottomless pits of money. Attempts to raise a series of poll taxes didn’t go down well and there were uprisings. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Sudbury, (who had agreed to the interdict on the people of Lynn) was a particular target for the rebels, as he was also Richard’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. Bishop Despenser’s base in Norwich was also threatened by rioters and the fighting bishop entered the fray to help quell the rebellion.
The Archbishop’s Palace at Lambeth was ransacked and on June 14, 1381. Sudbury himself was taken by the mob from his hiding place in the Tower of London and decapitated on Tower Hill. It was a messy execution and took eight blows of the sword. His Archbishop’s mitre was nailed to his skull and his head was placed on a pole and paraded around parts of London. His preserved head can be seen today in St Gregory’s Church in Sudbury, Suffolk.
Although Despenser had been given protection from the rioters against him in Lynn in 1377 in St Margaret’s, he showed no respect for the traditional sanctuary of churches four years later. (Criminals had the right to take refuge or sanctuary in churches, and, after 40 days to confess and be banished from the kingdom rather than face trial.) When suppressing the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 he and his men invaded the church in Peterborough and slaughtered the rebels who had taken sanctuary there.
© James Rye 2021
- 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.
- Jones, D. (2014) Summer of Blood: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, William Collins
Websites all accessed July 2021