The Peasants' Revolt in Ely - 1381

The Rising of 1381 - the so-called Peasants' Revolt - provided a short-lived opportunity for the people of Ely to assert their independence. While the revolt inflamed much of East Anglia, the main leaders of the rebellion in Ely were local men - Richard de Leycester of 'Bocherisrowe'; Robert Buk, a fishmonger; and Adam Clymme.

Yet despite the name 'Peasants' Revolt', none of these men fit the image conjured up by the word 'peasant'. Lecycester held property including a dovecote and two shops in Butcher's Row, as well as goods valued at 40 marks; Buk had property at Castlepath, four shops and other property in Walpole Lane, worth £17 11s. 6d., and £4 in money; Clymme was worth £10 19s. 5d. They were, in other words, not poor, ignorant labourers, but self-confident, well-to-do men. In other towns or villages they would have been able to exercise at least some power amongst their neighbours; in Ely they were no doubt particularly frustrated by their own lack of political authority. (The ferocity of the revolt in Bury St. Edmunds, another town heavily dominated by monastic authority, suggests that this pattern was a general one.)

On Saturday 15 June, in the heat of early summer, the resentments which had been simmering for decades or centuries burst into open rebellion. As ever, the town was full of people who had travelled in from the neighbouring hamlets to sell their surplus produce, or to buy manufactured goods, or perhaps simply to wander amongst the market-stalls. It was in this volatile atmosphere that the rebels began their inflammatory speeches. Clymme began by calling upon the peasantry to refuse customary labour services - those which they all owed to the Abbey must have been uppermost in his mind - and to behead lawyers, and made mysterious reference to the potency of the 'Great Society.' Leycester demanded the death of those who were traitors to the king and to the common folk. The crowd moved swiftly to turn these words into bloody action. Edmund Galon, an Ely lawyer, was killed; two other men were lucky to escape with their lives. On the next day, Sunday, Leycester mounted the cathedral pulpit 'on behalf of the king' to make further speeches, and on Monday the Bishop's Prison was attacked. On the same day Leycester and Buk seized and executed Sir Edmund Walsyngham, a justice, and placed his head in the town pillory. They went on to destroy various court rolls and documents. All of these acts can, in their various ways, be seen as attacks on the Bishop's authority.

The revolt, if violent, was short-lived, and the denouement sadly predictable. From Ely the rebels moved to other parts of Isle. On Tuesday they marched towards Ramsey. Here the rebels were defeated and subdued. The principal figures in the rebellion were hanged, but for the majority a policy of conciliation was judged to be preferable to further conflict. Episcopal government survived unshaken, and the lot of the parishioners of Holy Trinity was largely unchanged. As we shall see, however, this was not to be the last time that the people of Ely rose up to assert their demands.

[Extract taken from Holy Trinity, Ely - In Search of a Vanished Parish by B.M.G. Smedley
published by Hyde Park Antiquarian ISBN 0 9529706 2 7]

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