The year was 1381, and England was burning. An agitated peasantry tore across the land, rebelling against the system that had for centuries kept them oppressed as the feudal establishment rallied to try and quell the fires of this would-be revolution.
This was the Peasants’ Revolt – one of the volatile moments in the history of the Middle Ages and, needless to say, a particularly fascinating episode in the history of Harrow too.
The Rebellion on the Ground
The Peasants’ Revolt is, of course, not an event exclusive to Harrow. A moment of unrest that spanned across fourteenth century England, the Revolt was the sum of decades of social immobility and widespread hardship. In the years since the Black Death, out of its myriad of different impacts, there had been a steady pressure from the poorer masses of England for emancipation from their serfdom – the system of labour which kept them poor and in labour.
The decimation caused by the plague, as well as others like it, had allowed serfs to make increasing demands, further fuelling desires for better treatment. This, along with the ongoing war with France as part of the Hundred Years’ War (which at the time was going poorly for the English), lay the needed fuel for the Revolt to take place.
In 1381, when a tax collector in Brentwood, Essex tried to collect unpaid poll taxes – introduced to fund the increasingly costly war against the French – the Revolt found its spark. Soon the peasantry across the country were rising up and attacking their local places of power – burning court records and destroying other manorial centres of governance.
Harrow was no different. During the unrest, several disturbances were reported to have occurred in Harrow and Pinner. One of the most notable was the siege that Harrow’s peasants brought upon the local property of the Archbishop Simon Sudbury, a Lord of Harrow at the time, as well as the infamous Chancellor of England. Sudbury had the misfortune to become the face of what so many across the country had come to resent – particularly when it came to taxes.
In the chaos of the Revolt, the Archbishop was seized by a group of insurgent peasants from his refuge at the Tower of London and dragged to Tower Hill, where, after eight blows to the neck, the much-hated archbishop’s head came rolling off.
This prompted an uprising in Harrow. Here the residents capitalised on Sudbury’s death, refusing to pay rent and trespassing on the Archbishop’s property – destroying the manorial records in the process. Yet their rebellion did not last long. When on the 15th June Wat Tyler, the uprising’s peasant leader, met his end at the hands of one of the King’s allies – during negotiations between the two sides, no less – and the King, Richard II, of Shakespearean fame, promised to abolish serfdom, the uprising came to a gradual end.
The peasants went home, and for a time, peace was restored, until a few months later when government troops took to villages across the country – hanging those that had taken part in the Revolt.
Harrow, it seems, was no different here either. Though many were spared as part of the general royal pardon – some Harrow residents were unable to escape the wave of vengeance that swept across the country, and paid for this with their lives. Their example was enough to deter any further rebellions, in Harrow as elsewhere. Yet the story of Harrow during this period does not end here.
The Knight of Harrow
As much as Harrow was home to the rioters and loses of the 1381 Revolt, it was also the home of a notable victor. His name was Nicholas Brembre, a landowner in Roxeth and Northolt, and eventually a Lord Mayor of London. In the uprising, Brembre emerged as a hero for the feudal establishment for his efforts in helping to quell the rioting.
This earned him a knighthood, and for a time, Sir Nicholas enjoyed considerable fortune as a chief ally of Richard II. This, of course, was not to last.
Six years after the end of the revolt that had made him famous, the Harrow landowner saw himself on the losing end of the period’s increasingly vicious politics. Following his involvement in ousting the Lord Mayor of London John Northampton in 1383, and the insurrection across the city which this ensued, Sir Nicholas was targeted in 1387 by the factions of the court which opposed Richard II, to whom Brembre was a close ally.
Accused of executing twenty-two prisoners in Kent without trial, amongst other things – least of all his actions in ousting John Northampton – the knight and Harrow landowner was put on trial before Parliament.
Brembre made a desperate defence, denying the charges against him, pleading guilty of nothing, and claiming a trial by battle as a knight. Yet he was refused this request, and from there, things only worsened.
The hero of the uprising was practically torn apart by the various court factions, and when Richard II, almost at his peak unpopularity at this point, tried to support him, his fate was sealed. On the 20th February 1387, Sir Nicholas Brembre was sentenced and returned to the tower, where he met his end, like so many others during this time, beneath an executioner’s blade.
Harrow, then – no doubt like many other places across the country – has a number of interesting local stories to tell of this period in history. Indeed, in an episode defined by its populist nature, these local stories are made all the more important – painting a picture of what the experience on the ground was in this nationwide rebellion.
Between the actions of the agitated peasantry, the infamy of Sudbury, the Lord of Harrow, and the Game of Thrones-esque tale of Sir Nicholas Brembre, Harrow defines the experience of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in a number of important and intriguing ways.
Perhaps surprisingly, though, there is more to tell of Harrow’s history of rebellion. Yet this will have to wait until next week. In typical George RR Martin fashion, this narrative requires more than one installment to tell in full (though not, hopefully, seven).
That said, I hope you will join me next week, when we look at another rebellious and volatile episode in our borough’s history – with its own heroes and some very interesting myths – all set in another national event, though one of much greater fame than 1381: the bloody and tumultuous time of the seventeenth century, and the English Civil War.
Written by Harry Turner.
Image Credit: CD Projekt Red – The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings