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“Let God Work!”: Drama and Rebellion in Fifteenth-Century East Anglia

  • Kellie Robertson
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

In a 1449 petition to Henry VI, John Paston asked not only for the return of one of his occupied manor houses, but he also lamented the general lawlessness that plagued East Anglia as a result of the depredations of William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, a favorite of Henry VI. While gentry families like the Pastons were subjected to systematic bureaucratic extortion and oppression by Suffolk’s minions, it was not just local property owners who were outraged by these persecutions. When the rebel Jack Cade, encamped on Blackheath with at least 3000 followers, addressed his own petition to Henry VI in June 1450, he too emphasized the lawlessness of the country that had resulted from Suffolk’s political policy as well as the correlative harm done by his unscrupulous associates. The rebels’ petition protested abuses of the legal system that victimized small landholders and poor manorial tenants who, afflicted by maintenance and purveyance, were forced to labor for and pay rents to whoever claimed a manor on a given day.2 That Cade specifically asked for the repeal of the labor statutes as part of his program of demands showed a responsiveness to the concerns of the lowest elements of society; its significance was to become even more pronounced in the aftermath of the unsuccessful uprising, when labor unrest became indissolubly associated with rebellion.

Keywords

Fifteenth Century Labor Legislation Labor Unrest Manorial Court True Labor 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 2.
    I.M.W. Harvey, Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), reprints the rebel petitions as Appendix A, pp. 186–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    On the dating of the play, see Mark Eccles, ed., The Macro Plays, EETS 262 (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. xxxviii, who argues that the play should be dated to 1465–1470 based on allusions to coinage produced during the reign of Edward IV.Google Scholar
  3. For a discussion of dating based on water-marks in the Macro manuscript, see Stephen Spector, “Paper Evidence and the Genesis of the Macro Plays,” Mediaevalia 5 (1979): 217–32. The play locates itself in East Anglia, mentioning place names in Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, and Suffolk (11. 274, 505–15). For a summary of the manuscript evidence that links Mankind with Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk,Google Scholar
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    On the impressment of able-bodied workers during the corn harvest, see the 1388 Cambridge labor statutes, c. 3 in SR, vol. 2, p. 56. On the deflated corn market, see Mavis Mate, “The economic and social roots of medieval popular rebellion: Sussex in 1450–1451,” Economic History Review 45 (1992): 662–63 [661–76]. On workers being prosecuted for receiving the same pay throughout the year,Google Scholar
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    According to Robert Gottfried, Bury St. Edmunds and the Urban Crisis: 1290–1539 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), p. 74, the abbey was also the single largest landowner in Bury: “aside from a few tenements and pastures, the abbey held all property in the borough and in the suburbs.” On the abbey as a landlord,Google Scholar
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    My reading of this line follows the editorial decision of John C. Coldeway, ed., Early English Drama (New York: Garland, 1993) instead of Eccles, ed., Macro Plays (which has “wynter” for “aventur”) as I believe Coldeway’s reading makes better semantic and codicological sense out of an indistinct passage.Google Scholar
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    Harvey, Jack Cade’s Rebellion, p. 110. Harvey prints all three extant versions of the rebel petitions as Appendix A, pp. 186–91. For an interpretation of the pardon roll (and its over 3,000 names), see Harvey, Appendix B, pp. 192–99; and R.A. Griffiths, The Reign of King Henry VI: The Exercise of Royal Authority, 1422–1461 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).Google Scholar
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  25. 42.
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  26. 47.
    The Cheyne narrative is found in several chronicles, the most complete of which is John Benet’s Chronicle for the Years 1400 to 1462, ed. G.L. Hariss and M.A. Hariss, Camden Miscellany, 4th ser., vol. 24 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1972): “captus est Thomas Cheyne qui nominavit se Blwberd in Cancia quia ibidem congregavit sibi multos homines Ad insurgendum contra traditores Adversum regem scilicet contra ducem iniquum de Suthfolchia, Episcipum Sarum et dominum Jacobum Vynys cero factum seniorum de Say. Et dictus Thomas dixit se esse servum Regi de farye qui multos homines sibi congregavit in Cancia et aliis locis pro causa predicta. Et vto Idus Februarii traditus suspensus evisceratus et viscera crematus decollatus et quarterizatus fuit dictus Thomas Cheyne apud Tybern” (p. 197).Google Scholar
  27. Accounts are also found in The Great Chronicle of London, ed. A.H. Thomas and I.D. Thornley (London: G.W. Jones, 1938), p. 181;Google Scholar
  28. Bale’s Chronicle in Six Town Chronicles of England, ed. R. Flenley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911), pp. 127–28;Google Scholar
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  30. 49.
    This anecdote is included in the Memoranda of John Piggot (ca. 1450–1454) reprinted in C.L. Kingsford, English Historical Literature of the Fifteenth Century (New York: Burt Franklin, 1913), p. 371. For notice of the trial, see CPR 1446–52, p. 383.Google Scholar
  31. 50.
    On the association between Lollardy and labor offenses, see chapter 3 above; on the similar legislative tactics used with regard to the two offenses, see Chris Given-Wilson, “The Problem of Labour in the Context of English Government, c. 1350–1450,” in The Problem of Labour in Fourteenth-Century England, ed. James Bothwell, P.J.P. Goldberg and W.M. Ormrod (York: York Medieval Press, 2000), pp. 90–97 [85–100].Google Scholar
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    The poem is reprinted in Political Poems and Songs relating to English History, ed. Thomas Wright, 2 vols., Rolls Series 14 (London: Longman, 1859 and 1861), vol. 2, p. 245. Wright dates it to reign of Henry VI.Google Scholar
  35. 52.
    Gash, “Carnival against Lent,” p. 95, points to the trials of East Anglian Lollards that were taking place in the 1460s, While Dillon, Language and Stage in Medieval and Renaissance England (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 56–69, sees the Lollard context as the most appropriate one for understanding the tension between Latin and English in the play.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    These examples occur in a contemporary London chronicle reprinted in Kingsford, “Historical Collection,” 514–15. For a discussion on the transformation of treason from acts to “imaginings” and speech in the late fourteenth century, see the discussion above in chapter 2 as well as J.G. Bellamy, The Law of Treason in England in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge, ed. Clifford Davidson (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1993).Google Scholar
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    David Bevington, From Mankind to Marlowe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), p. 15, argues that the quête found here is the first evidence of English professional theatre.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Kellie Robertson 2006

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  • Kellie Robertson

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