Circumstances of rebel Jack Cade’s death in Sussex could be a myth

Left: St Pancras Church in Kingston near Lewes dates from the 13th century so would have been there when local men joined Jack Cade's march on London to demand reforms from King Henry VI. On the right is a plaque in Cade Street, East Sussex, said to mark the place where the rebel leader was mortally wounded.
Left: St Pancras Church in Kingston near Lewes dates from the 13th century so would have been there when local men joined Jack Cade's march on London to demand reforms from King Henry VI. On the right is a plaque in Cade Street, East Sussex, said to mark the place where the rebel leader was mortally wounded.

There is considerable doubt that the medieval rebel Jack Cade met his grisly end in Sussex despite the village of Cade Street near Heathfield being named after him. Some historians believe that the more likely site was actually Hothfield in Cade’s home county of Kent.

What we can be sure of is that thousands of Sussex men joined the rebellion against the government of King Henry VI that took place in the summer of 1450. Jack Cade led the revolt that addressed widespread discontent at corruption and perceived abuse of power by ministers and royal favourites. There was also dismay at the cost of many decades of conflict with France that had left England weakened and deeply in debt.

Old London Bridge much as it would have looked in 1450 at the time of Jack Cade's Rebellion. Many men from Sussex joined Cade's army and would have fought on the bridge against Londoners angry with rebels who had resorted to looting and arson in the city.

Old London Bridge much as it would have looked in 1450 at the time of Jack Cade's Rebellion. Many men from Sussex joined Cade's army and would have fought on the bridge against Londoners angry with rebels who had resorted to looting and arson in the city.

What would end up as the biggest popular rising in this country in the 15th century began in the South East. As word spread of an army of disaffected citizens marching on London to demand changes in the way England was governed, large bands of men left their homes and hurried to join Jack Cade’s cause.

The rebel’s complaints included unfairly high taxation, a judicial system where bribery and corruption was rife and many instances of land and goods being appropriated in the name of the King without recompense. Most of all the men wanted the chance to vote in open and free elections.

Without knowing the strength of the enemy but eager to crush the rebellion early, the King sent a small force under the command of Sir Humphrey and William Stafford to confront Cade. In a major skirmish at Sevenoaks on 18th June 1450, both Stafford brothers were killed and their men routed. Cade took the elaborate armour of Sir Humphrey as his own.

With the rebel army nearing London a shocked King Henry deserted the capital and fled north. Within a few days Cade and his men were encamped in Southwark at the southern end of London Bridge. Unopposed, the rebels crossed the bridge into the city proper. Officials deemed culpable were rounded up and put on trial. The most senior were the Lord High Treasurer, James Fiennes, and his son-in-law, William Crowmer. Both were found guilty of treason and summarily executed. Their heads were displayed on London Bridge.

The ill-discipline of the rebels now came to the King’s aid. Despite Cade’s attempts to keep order, many of his men descended into drunken and boorish behaviour and embarked on a looting spree. Though initially not hostile to the rebels, London’s appalled population rose up and in a sharp fight fought on London Bridge kept the rebels from re-entering the city from their Southwark encampment.

The ensuing stalemate was ended when Cade received assurances that his grievances would be addressed and that his men would be pardoned. The rebel mass swiftly dissipated; many of Cade’s followers were anxious to get back to their farms as harvest time approached.

Despite assurances, the King had no intention of implementing Cade’s demands. Instead he had the ringleaders of the rebellion hunted down. A bounty was put on Cade’s head. On 12th July the rebel leader was attacked and mortally wounded by Alexander Iden. The latter would later marry murdered William Crowmer’s widow Elizabeth Fiennes. Cade died before reaching London. Even so, his corpse was subjected to a mock trial and afterwards was hanged, drawn and quartered.

Other leading rebels were caught and executed but the vast majority of Cade’s followers were spared. This may not have been so much down to royal largesse but more to do with the fact that there had been so many men involved in the uprising - perhaps as many as 30,000 along with a vast number of sympathisers.

Cade’s rebellion had attracted broad support and encompassed minor gentry, yeoman, craftsmen, churchmen and a host of labourers. From the pardons issued after the revolt was suppressed we know that the constables of Lewes were involved along with the Prior of Lewes, John Danyell. The churchman was pardoned along with all his “men and servants” of the Priory. Danyell (or Danyel) was Prior from 1445 until his death in 1464.

Kingston’s contribution to Jack Cade’s Rebellion is well documented in a village history book by Charles Cooper that also refers to many other places in the vicinity: ”Members of the Culpeper family, certainly gentry, had taken part. Many rebels came from parishes south of Lewes. In Piddinghoe and Meeching (modern Newhaven), at the mouth of the Ouse, a carpenter and several labourers were involved along with a husbandman called Johin Alecock of Southease. Further north, at Iford, a yeoman called John Machyn had taken part, together with a whole family of Holybons. In Kingston itself, John Hylder, yeoman, had joined the march.”

The Rector of Mayfield and the Clerks of two other Sussex villages, Dallington and Wartling, led parties of local men who joined up with Cade and marched on London and later seem to have escaped royal retribution.

Though Cade’s rebellion had been unsuccessful, the following year would see Sussex central to another uprising against the King and his establishment, this one orchestrated by two brothers from Salehurst who were otherwise engaged in the victualling trade. More of John and William Merfold next week.