Sussex was once a hotbed of protests and riots over religion, bread and farming machines

Henry VI came to the throne aged just nine months in 1422. Regents ruled England until Henry was old enough to take charge. The painting (left) depicts him en route to also being crowned the infant King of France in 1431. Henry's reign was marked by wars and rebellions supported by many Sussex yeomen. SUS-190502-161850001
Henry VI came to the throne aged just nine months in 1422. Regents ruled England until Henry was old enough to take charge. The painting (left) depicts him en route to also being crowned the infant King of France in 1431. Henry's reign was marked by wars and rebellions supported by many Sussex yeomen. SUS-190502-161850001

Last week I wrote about Jack Cade’s ill-fated rebellion against King Henry VI in 1450 and named some of the Sussex people mixed up in the revolt. At the end of the story I said that Cade’s death did not put an end to the unrest and that within months Sussex would be in turmoil again.

Prominent among the agitators were brothers John and William Merfold of the village of Salehurst, not far from Bodiam Castle. The pair were victuallers, supplying inns and beerhouses. Imagine a medieval off-license that could also deliver.

Sussex was also central to the 'Swing Riots' that broke out in 1830 when workers on the land came out in violent protest against poor wages and creeping farm mechanisation. 'Swing' refers to the gallows that awaited rioters convicted of murder. Captured arsonists were kept in rotting prison hulks (right) awaiting transportation to Australia. SUS-190502-161901001

Sussex was also central to the 'Swing Riots' that broke out in 1830 when workers on the land came out in violent protest against poor wages and creeping farm mechanisation. 'Swing' refers to the gallows that awaited rioters convicted of murder. Captured arsonists were kept in rotting prison hulks (right) awaiting transportation to Australia. SUS-190502-161901001

The brothers had accompanied Cade in his march on London in the late spring of 1450. That July the pair spoke out in a public market and declared the King to be a “natural fool” who was not a fit person to rule.

No immediate action was taken against the Merfolds. However, their condemnation of the monarch caused a stir elsewhere in the county. In August 1450 a trader named William Howell called on men from Chichester, Bramber and Steyning to join him in an uprising.

He soon assembled 40 rebels and marched on Eastbourne where he hoped to recruit more men as a consequence of unfairly high land rents. Throughout the autumn, armed bands entered Sussex towns as far apart as Horsham and Robertsbridge. Another hotspot was Hastings where support for Jack Cade had been strong.

The next Easter men gathered at Rotherfield, Mayfield and Burwash in Sussex, and in villages in Kent. From arrests made later we know that in the rebel ranks were many artisans including carpenters, blacksmiths, masons, thatchers, tailors, cobblers, weavers and butchers. Such skilled tradesmen had seen their standard of living fall through increased taxation by the state and the church amidst a prolonged economic downturn known as “The Great Slump”.

However it seems that the ordinary farm workers did not heed the call in the large numbers Cade had attracted the previous year. This may be because the Lollards supported the new calls for revolt. The Lollards were a religious movement championed by theologian John Wycliffe who declared the Catholic church to be an abomination and placed the Pope on a par with the Antichrist.

Wycliffe was denounced as a heretic but surprisingly was allowed to live on and die of natural causes in 1384. Later both Henry V and his son Henry VI ruthlessly suppressed Wycliffe’s followers and had several burnt at the stake. The Lollards went underground but retained many supporters especially among tradesmen.

In 1451 the Merfold brothers continued stirring up trouble. They threatened to kill any gentlemen, lord or churchman that opposed them. Further, they wanted to see King Henry VI deposed and replaced by a council of 12 rebels charged with ruling England in the name of the people.

However, real support for a full-scale insurrection was lacking and when the King ordered a crackdown the rebellion swiftly fell apart. Many suspected rebels were arrested and we know that at least four Sussex men went to the gallows. John and William Merfold were indicted in mid-1451 and were most likely executed although I couldn’t find conclusive proof of this.

Persecution of the Lollards persisted for another eight decades. From this time we hear of at least one martyr - cleric Thomas Bageley - convicted of “diverse heresies and lollardries” burnt at the stake in Sussex before Henry VIII’s Reformation more or less fulfilled the Lollard demand for a decisive break with the Church of Rome.

Leaving aside the English Civil Wars, it was several hundred years before Sussex saw more serious rioting. Around the time of the Napoleonic War it was bread shortages that caused unrest. But these demonstrations were minor compared to the “Swing Riots” of 1830-31.

Land workers demanded higher wages and the scrapping of the recently introduced mechanical threshing machine that had curtailed an important source of winter employment for labourers. Alongside noisy protests, a menacing campaign encompassing hayrick-burning, destruction of agricultural machinery and livestock-maiming began.

The riots spread from Kent to Sussex. In November 1830 there were disturbances around the village of Ringmer. The “Sussex Advertiser” reported that malcontents were “very active in promoting tumult”. In consequence a delegation of labourers met local landowner Lord Gage (of Firle Place) and requested an increase in pay. This was granted and the protests abated. However, in less than six weeks the original rate was re-imposed. November also saw around 1,000 men gather in Horsham to demand the local magistrates authorised raising their wages to 2s 6d per day (just a few pence in today’s money). The rowdy crowd got short shrift from the authorities with many protesters being arrested and imprisoned. In all there were 145 disturbances related to the Swing Riots in Sussex. The name came from threatening letters sent to landowners signed by “Captain Swing”, a reference to convicted rioters dangling from the gallows.

A few farmers agreed to pay their workers more. Most didn’t and the unrest continued sporadically until 1831. Of those men arrested in the Sussex Weald nine were sentenced to death while 457 convicted arsonists were transported to Australia. Another 400 men received prison sentences to be served in England.