Review: Alexander Kaufman’s “Jack Cade Rebellion of 1450: A Sourcebook” (2019)

By Stephen Basdeo

Alexander L. Kaufman, ed. The Jack Cade Rebellion of 1450: A Sourcebook. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2020. (xii), 257pp. ISBN 978-1-4985-5029-1. £65 (RRP)

As the several endorsements on the rear cover of Alexander Kaufman’s The Jack Cade Rebellion of 1450: A Sourcebook suggest, Kaufman—a well-established expert on Jack Cade’s Rebellion—has gathered together and published for the first time in one volume all of the primary sources relating to that turbulent event in English history.

Kaufman has provided three perspectives on the rebellion: historiographical, legal, and cultural. In the first category, we have translations and transcriptions of Latin and Middle English chronicles. These are usually hostile to Cade himself but were sometimes in sympathy with the rebels’ aims as a whole. The second ‘legal’ view of rebels comes in the form of translations of pardon rolls, proclamations, and writings by the rebels themselves. The third is a collection of poems and songs airing the rebels’ grievances against the establishment.

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Jack Cade declaring himself Lord of the City of London

Kaufman prefaces his anthology with an exciting and engaging account of the revolt itself.

In the spring of 1450, the people of England, had finally had enough. They had long had to endure the abuses of an incompetent and corrupt ruling class, who manipulated the king to their own advantage, and the nation was demoralised due to several recent military reversals during the Hundred Years’ War.

The focal point of the people’s anger was the Duke of Suffolk, William de la Pole, nicknamed “Jackanapes,” King Henry VI’s closest friend and the man whom the people widely regarded as responsible for England’s military defeats and many of its social and political problems. One of the primary sources included in Kaufman’s collection is a small medieval poem, “Verses Against the Duke of Suffolk” (pp. 211–12), reveals something of the popular anger towards him:

Some must go hens, hit none other weys be,

And els is lost all this lond and we;

Hong up such menne to oure soverayne lorde

That every counseldehym with false men to be acorde.

Although Suffolk was the king’s favourite, infighting among the nobles at court led to him being exiled. On his way to Calais, where he was to live out his exile, Suffolk’s ship was intercepted by the Nicholas of the Tower; an angry mob boarded Suffolk’s ship, subjected him to a mock trial, and beheaded him. His body then washed ashore at Dover.

A rumour spread among the common people of Kent that, in retaliation for Suffolk’s death, the king intended to turn Kent into a royal forest. Just as they had done some 70 years before during Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, the people of Kent organised: over 5,000 of them marched on London to take their grievances directly to the king, led by Cade, who drew up a “manifesto,” highlighting their complaints included in the “Rebels’ Bills of Complaint” (pp. 113–22) which appear in Kaufman’s anthology.

Their manifesto included, among other things:

  • A statement affirming that they were not responsible for Suffolk’s death.
  • that they were loyal to the king.
  • the impeachment of the king’s ‘evil’ advisors.

Cade’s rebellion was ultimately a failed one. The Kent rebels lost the support of the citizens of London fairly quickly when the rebels, many of whom were drunk, turned to looting—Cade also enriched himself and amassed a ship full of “booty.” A battle between the citizens of London and the rebels ensued but Londoners came out on top and the rebels were forced to retreat, having suffered heavy casualties.

The king promised to pardon Cade after the battle and he thought he might get away scot-free, until, that is, the king signed a warrant calling for the arrest of

John Cade, born in Ireland, who calls himself John Mortimer and in some writings calls himself captain of Kent, who is openly known as a false traitor … [having] falsely and untruly deceived many of the king’s people, and under the color of of holy and good intents made them to assemble with him against the king’s sovereignty and his laws (pp. 123–24).

Of course, the word ‘commoner’—which conjures images of angry peasants and serfs with pitchforks—used in the context of Cade’s rebellion is actually a misnomer. One of the most interesting parts of Kaufman’s anthology is the aforementioned pardon rolls, and through these, we get a sense of just how socially diverse the revolt was. Cade himself was not an angry peasant but a property owner and the rebellion involved peasants, labourers, carpenters, merchants, yeomen, “gentilmen,” bakers, thatchers, and even constables! There are also a few women present as well.

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Jack Cade hiding from the law

A further eight people were hanged and the rest, perhaps wisely, kept a low profile—some names do appear again in further rebellions, however. But Cade was not so lucky. Cade fled to Lewes but was quickly tracked down and the ship of booty he had sent on to the continent was seized. The arresting officers must have roughed him up a bit because he died of his injuries on the way back to London. Although dead, his body was still drawn and quartered through the streets of London.

Kaufman’s highly readable anthology will be useful for anybody who wants to study late medieval history and Cade’s rebellion, as well as being of interest to those interested in English radical history more generally.

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