This week, across the world, people have been expressing dissatisfaction with their leaders. Whether it’s through democratic means: voting for Presidential nominees for forthcoming US elections, or in the general election campaign in Japan; or, more dictatorially, through an attempted military coup in Turkey, those countries’ populations are disgruntled and trying to make their voice heard.
In England, Ashford’s inhabitants led the way in protesting against tyrannical leaders as early as the fifteenth century. Jack Cade, born in Ashford, was the leader of a popular revolt (known as the Jack Cade Rebellion) against Henry VI’s government of England in 1450.
The rebels were angry about the debt caused by years of warfare against France and the recent loss of Normandy. Simultaneously, the coastal regions of Kent and Sussex were seeing frequent attacks by Norman soldiers and French armies; and ill-equipped English soldiers began raiding southern English towns along the route to the coast, on their way to battles in France.
There was also much political disagreement amongst Henry VI advisers, which led to the eventual banishment from court of Henry’s closest friend: Wlliam de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk. When the Duke’s body washed up on the shores of Dover, the people of Kent feared retaliation. Rumours emerged claiming that the King intended to turn Kent into a woodland in reprisal for the Duke’s death. Tired of the exploitation that the Duke of Suffolk had come to represent, Cade drew up “The Complaint of the Poor Commons of Kent”, a manifesto listing the fifteen grievances and five demands, not just of the poor but also of MPs and Lords.
When the King failed to remedy their complaints, the rebels, estimated to have numbered five thousand, gathered at Hothfield Common and marched on London. However, the group, including Cade, became increasingly drunken and unruly, alienating the initially sympathetic citizens of London. On 8th July, at about ten in the evening, a battle broke out on London Bridge between Cade’s army and various citizens and officials of London. The battle lasted until eight the next morning, when the rebels retreated with heavy casualties.
After the battle on London Bridge, the Lord Chancellor Archbishop John Kemp, who came from Wye in Ashford and would have known Cade, persuaded him to call off his followers by issuing official pardons, and promising to fulfill the rebels’ demands. However, these pardons were quickly revoked by the King in a document entitled “Writ and Proclamation by the King for the Taking of Cade”. A reward of 1000 marks, was promised to whomever could capture and deliver Jack Cade to the King, dead or alive.
There is some controversy over what followed. An 18th century writer claimed that Cade was captured at Heathfield, in Sussex. But it is much more likely that Cade returned to his home turf: Hothfield in Ashford. However, he was overtaken by Alexander Iden, a future High Sheriff of Kent, who captured him in the garden of Rippers Cross Farm, between Hothfield and Bethersden, on 12 July. In the skirmish, Cade was mortally wounded and died of his wounds before returning to London for trial. As a warning to others, Cade’s body underwent a mock trial and was ritually beheaded at Newgate. Cade’s body was then dragged through the streets of London before being quartered and driven through Kent, including Ashford: the hotbed of dissension.
Inspired by Cade, a number of further rebellions occurred in other counties in England and, whilst these insurrections did not provoke immediate changes, they can now be seen as important precursors to the Wars of the Roses. The weakness of the Lancaster dynasty and the English government had been exposed. These Wars over the crown of England would result in the end of the Lancaster dynasty and the creation of the Yorks. In addition, the request made by the rebels in Cade’s manifesto: namely, that the king welcome the Duke of York as his adviser, plainly informed the King that the masses wished to see the Duke return from exile. When Richard, Duke of York, finally did return to England in September 1450, several of his demands and reform policies were based on those made in the manifesto issued by Cade.
Shakespeare immortalised Jack Cade in his play, Henry VI, Part II.
In this country, last month, a record turnout in the Referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU and the consequent developments: the surprising Leave result and resignation of David Cameron as Prime Minister, shows that those who govern ignore the people at their peril. Ashford’s heritage reflects exactly this point.
* Many thanks to Lydia and Janette for taking me to Hothfield Common.