A Rebellious People: Political Rebellion and the English in the Later Middle Ages When the Flemish writer Philippe de Commynes sat down to compose his reflections on the English at the end of the fifteenth century he made two, perhaps contradictory, observations. First, he noted that England was ‘in my opinion, out of all the countries which I personally known ... the one where public affairs are best conducted and regulated with least damage to the people.’ He also wrote, however, of the English propensity to violently depose their kings. In so doing he repeated a commonplace of European political discourse. In 1484 Charles VIII’s chancellor, Guilliame de Rochefort, accused Richard III of murdering his nephews, pointing out to the French Estates General that the English had had no fewer than 26 violent changes of dynasty to date. This historically inaccurate yet telling observation may be explained by the Venetian visitor to England in 1500 who wrote the English ‘generally hate their present, and extol their dead sovereigns.’ In the late Middle Ages then, foreign observers characterised the English polity by a remarkable predeliction to regicide; one in which rebellion and the deposition of king by jealous rivals was in fact the norm. Commynes, however, made another observation, one which underlined his astute understanding of the fifteenth-century English polity. He wrote that in the battles of the Wars of the Roses commanders were keen to spare the lives of the commons, ‘because everyone wants to please them as they are the strongest’. What Commynes and fifteenth-century leaders, like Edward IV or the earl of Warwick, recognised was that the commons played a central role in the bloody political rebellions of the later Middle Ages. The deposition of kings and changes of dynasty were not merely the doings of a narrow band of bloodthirsty and ambitious nobles, but a process that spoke to the engagement of the commons in the political process and, more than that, a recognition that it was the commons, for much of the fifteenth century at least, that was the dynamic force in political rebellions. It was the English, in the broadest sense of the word, that were the rebels and regicides; it was their actions and their approbation that enabled the political rebellions that characterised the late Middle Ages. In so doing, they drew upon longer traditions of rebellion in English political culture. These traditons came to define aspects of both Lancastrian and Yorkist rule in the fifteenth century. Their reframing and delegitimisation from the last quarter of the fifteenth century also emerged, I would argue, as the defining feature of the Tudor polity which would eventually rewrite the idea of the English as a rebellious people. The Medieval Roots of Popular Rebellion The roots of the English as a rebellious people can traced back beyond the Norman Conquest. David Rollison goes so far as to argue that this identity can be traced back to prehistoric times and involves the political geography of a people firmly rooted in their local landscapes. It was carried on, for example, in the proud tradition of the people of Kent, whose motto – Invicta – relates to their communal resistance and refusal to surrender to William Conqueror in 1067. This sense of a distinctly English political culture, one in which the commons were part and parcel of the polity, is captured in the writing of the twelfth-century political philosopher and historian, John of Salisbury. In his Policraticus, written around 1159, John advanced the idea of a political community that was ‘complex’ and unpredicatably dynamic but one in which all the ‘limbs’ or ‘members’ worked together. Princes ruled by the law and those laws were formulated in counsel between all members of the body politic. Virtuous counsel came from the heart, from ‘a senate from which proceeds the beginning of good and bad works’. Membership of this senate was not a privilege of rank, status or landownership but by long experience of public life and interaction with one’s neighbours. John’s view of the polity was one that would have resonance in the discourse of English rebellion for the remainder of the Middle Ages and beyond. He complained of the venality and corruption of courtiers and of the king’s counsellors: ‘No deed and no word is free of charge, no one keeps still except for a price; and thus, silence is a thing for sale.’ He complained of the corruption of tax collectors, all of which, he wrote, ‘only have time these days for extortion.’ In John’s idea of the Body Politic, the head (the king) was served by its sensory organs (judges and counsellors), as well as by its internal organs (‘treasurers and record keepers’) and hands (soldiers and tax collectors). These parts of the Body Politic, however, were greedy and prone to corruption. The idea of a fat belly of grasping courtiers and corrupt financial officials is central to John’s writings. Yet they could be tempered by two other parts of the polity: the armed hand and the feet. The former was not what later writers would term ‘the chivalry’ but ‘rural plebians ... raised under the heavens and upon hard work.’ It should be, to quote David Rollinson, ‘a populist force recruited from the commonalty, motivated by love of country and respect for a king who respected them in return.’ The feet were the ‘peasants perpetually bound to the soil’. As well husbandmen, this included artificers and others that we would understand to be the commons. ‘Remove from the fittest body the aid of the feet’, John warned, and it either ‘crawls shamefully, uselessly and offensively on its hands’. The wealthy and powerful had a duty to uphold the commons – nothing is more ignominious than a ‘barefoot republic’ – and a king who did not respect the Body Politic, and the commons in particular, was, of course, a tyrant. John of Salisbury was very clear that a tyrant was a prince that did not listen to and act upon counsel or who acted upon counsel that allowed the commonweal to be used for selfish, factional purposes. Tyrants could legitimately be removed and thus the Policraticus expounded a view of the polity that legitimised the very rebellions and regicides that later European observers characterised as English. This notion had a long pedigree. The idea of the common good – the communis utilitas – was Ciceronian in origin and not in any way peculiar to John of Salisbury or the English. Nevertheless, it emerged during the thirteenth and fourteenth century as the central component of English political discourse and developed a very particular significance in the context of English political rebellions. Nowhere is this clearer than in the development of the English parliament. There isn’t time here to go into the intricacies of the development of parliamentary institutions or the emergence of the House of Commons in the thirteenth century, but it is clear that in the medieval parliament the innately rebellious character of the English was both facilitated and legitimised. This is very obvious, to me at least, in the document known to us as the Modus Tenendi Parliamentum. It seems certain that it was compiled in the summer of 1321 at a moment of political crisis and rebellion when the barons, led by Thomas of Lancaster, opposed Edward II and the Despensers. The Modus reflected much of what John of Salisbury had written in the Policraticus. Its most remarkable clauses – precisely because, as John Maddicott observed nearly fifty years ago, they represented a breach with procedure under Edward II – stressed the importance of the commons. In the committee to be appointed to determine the most difficult cases put before parliament the seven lords were outnumbered by eighteen commoners. The commons’ assent to taxation was paramount, and although parliament could be summoned without the lords (for they represented only themselves), it could not be held without the presence of the commons’ representative from each shire ‘qui representant totam communitatem Anglie’. The Modus, of course, was intimately connected to the political ambitions of Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster. Its Lancastrian credentials are evident in the manuscript survivals. In seven of the surviving copies, the Modus is followed by a tract on the Steward of England, a role which Thomas of Lancaster claimed as his own. It repeated Lancaster’s demand in 1320 that parliament should held in public, not in cameriis, and it stressed another of Lancaster’s demands, the role of the justices in ensuring that royal government was subject to the law. Thomas of Lancaster, of course, met a sticky end, executed for treason after his rebellion’s defeat at the battle of Boroughbridge in 1322. During the course of the fourteenth century the ideas for which he campaigned became deeply embedded in English political culture and Earl Thomas himself emerged as a figurehead for those who opposed the policies of tyrannical kings and championed the rights of the commons. In 1328 Lancaster’s sentence of treason was annulled by the new king, Edward III, and two years later efforts to have him canonised began. His appeal throughout the fourteenth century to the various individuals and institutions who offered prayers to him or who visited his shrine at Pontefract seems to have less to do with his ability to make saintly cures or defend the church (although it was claimed he did both of these), but with his reputation as a martyr who had died for the cause of justice. He was also presented as a champion of the commons, one who rebelled and legitimised rebellion against tyranny. In the Luttrell Psalter Lancaster is depicted barefoot, perhaps dressed in sack cloth, and supported by two ordinary archers, the one a tonsured crossbowmen, the other a yeoman longbowman (Add. 42130, f.56). The connexion is clear between Lancaster, the commons and the legitimate part that rebellion played in the late medieval English polity. The Lancastrian Revolution On 30 September 1399 in the Great Hall in Westminster before the assembled lords and commons Henry Bolingbroke, earl of Derby and heir of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, laid claim to the throne of England ‘which realm was at the point of ruin for lack of governance and destruction of the good laws.’ The Lancastrian usurpation (or revolution as I prefer to call it) was a momentous event in the history of medieval England and in the history of the English as a rebellious people. Bolingbroke’s accession to the throne, I would argue, was distinctly different to those that had followed previous rebellions against tyrannical kings, such as had happened in 1216 or 1327. 1399 was a change of dynasty, but it also represented a fundamental shift in English political culture. The Lancastrian revolution depended upon, and was thus forced to legitimise, a rebellious discourse that fully recognised the role of the commons in politics and gave them an agency that would shape politics through a series of rebellions for the remainder of the fifteenth century. This situation was made possible by a number of related developments. The first, as we have seen, was the representation of the House of Lancaster as defenders of the English constitution and of the commons against tyranny. In May 1402 Henry IV reminded his subjects ‘that it always had been and will be the king’s intention that the common profit and laws and customs of the realmn shall be observed and kept.’ The second, and more important, was the growing importance of the commons, and the idea of the commons, in England during the fourteenth century. As Mark Ormrod, Chris Dyer, John Watts and many others scholars have shown, the fourteenth century witnessed a remarkable explosion in the depth and breadth of the public sphere and an increase in the number of individuals who participated in, and expected to participate in, the public life of the realm. At least three important factors were at work here. First, the growth of government, fuelled in part by the ambitions of the Plantagenet kings and in which the various estates of the realm were willing partners. In return for granting taxation and funding the ambitions of the three Edwards in Wales, Scotland, Gascony and France, there developed a system of parliamentary taxation in return for the sometimes nebulous, but more often specifically understood, concept of ‘good government’. This, as Gerald Harriss showed us, was worked out through a series of crises that were resolved not by rebellion, but by debate and eventual consensus in parliament. The increase in the crown’s ability to wage war had two consequences: first, it involved more and more individuals in the business of war, both as soldiers in the king’s armies and as suppliers and financiers of the royal war machine; second, a burgeoning system of royal taxation involved most of the king’s subjects as tax payers, with a vested interest in the proper spending of their money in the king’s name. The new systems of lay taxation developed from the 1290s and codified in the 1330s established the expectation that all contributed to the common good in accordance with their means. Service to the king – in body and in goods – was a reciprocal arrangement and, in return, the king offered access to the law and undertook to defend the rights not just of his tenants-in-chief but of the communitas as a whole. The final factor, and one which would sustain traditions of rebellion throughout the late Middle Ages, was the development of a discourse of rebellion that was appropriated by and gave legitimacy to the commons. Once again we can identify two important and related components. The first was the development of a vernacular that was commonly understood and which, through written texts, allowed ideas to be easily disseminated. This, as Anne Middleton observed, was a verncaular formulated and established through a discourse about the commons in their own language; ‘the comun worldes speche’ as Gower had it and articulated through the words of Chaucher’s pilgrims, Piers Plowman and Langland’s Will. The second was, from the late thirteenth century, the development of, what Wendy Scase has called, ‘a literature of clamour.’ This grew out of a legal form – the bill of complaint – where petitioners presented themselves, like unfree peasants, as powerless to access justice (usually by the malfeasance of those in public office). These ‘peasant plaints’ grow in the fourteenth century to encompass not just individual complaints, but wider social outrage which relied on commonly understood notions of damage done to the communitas as a whole. Crucially, however, this development was not one-sided; it did not come spontaneously from the commons emboldened by their emancipation as tax-payers and plaintiffs in the king’s courts and made possible by their embrace of a commonly understood vernacular. Rather than appropriating ‘peasant plaint’, the literature of clamour provided the commons a political language of collective protest that the aristocracy and Church had used, for example, in 1215 and 1258 in their challenges to royal authority. From the second half of the fourteenth century the literature of clamour expanded precisely because the crown encouraged it as a means of checking the behaviour of its officials and identifying grievances which could be legislated upon in parliament. We can see this in the aftermath of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, but also in libel campaign against John of Gaunt, the petitions presented in the Good Parliament of 1376 and the various petitions and bills that originated in the disputes between London citizens in the 1380s. The literature of clamour, the expression of collective grievances to which the crown was expected to respond to, not individually but as a general undertaking to respect the will of the communitas, was central to the Lancastrian polity. Jenni Nuttal, Paul Strohm, Matthew Giancarlo and others have identified a Lancastrian literature which challenged the Lancastrian regime and demonstrated how ‘it has broken its promises, fallen short of expectations or changed its priorities.’ In other words, the poetry of Thomas Hoccleve and the anonymous authors of Mom and the Soothsegger and Crowned King held the king to account, testing Henry IV and Henry V against the standards to which they had pledged themselves on their accession. Yet, as Henry IV reminded the commons in parliament, ‘kings are not wont to render account.’ There was, then, a tension and potential for legitimate rebellion that lay at the heart of the Lancastrian polity. What I want to do in the remainder of this lecture is to argue that the discourse of common good and rebellion, which was not distinctly Lancastrian in its origins but, which through the special circumstances of the Lancastrian Dual Monarchy from 1422, became distinctly Lancastrian in practice, made it possible for the fifteenth century to be one defined by rebellions, successful and otherwise. In turn, the eventual response to this peculiar political culture, in which rebellion and rebels were legitimised, even celebrated, was a defining feature of refashioning of English political life that occurred under the early Tudors. Rebellion and the Wars of the Roses If there is one thing that historians of the fifteenth century have come to understand in the last three decades or so, it is (as Boris Johnson will hopefully discover to his cost) that words matter. As David Rollinson has reminded us, some ‘words were linguistic fireworks, exploding in the crowded streets, setting up a multitude of associations’ that determined the shape of political events. One word in particular has been identified as crucial to the development of political discourse during the rebellions and civil wars of the fifteenth century: commonweal. The term ‘commonweal’ was not, as David Starkey claimed in 1986, ‘a new language of politics’ stimulated by the ‘intensity of the struggle’ between Lancaster and York which ‘stimulated open and vigorous debate on the nature of monarchy [and] fundamental reform of the governmental machine.’ Rather, intense struggle was a manifestation of the peculiar nature of the Lancastrian polity which, through its embrace of the ideas that lay behind the notion of ‘commonweal’, encouraged and facilitated rebellion. The notion of commonweal had a long tradition in both English and European political discourse. As John Watts and others have shown, its origins lay in Roman Law ideas of political communities and in the language of Aristotle, Cicero and other neo-classical writers. By the end of the twelfth century Richard I could act with commune consilium regni and in 1215 the Magna Carta – communis carta regni - was guaranteed, as Geoffrey de Mandeville tells us, by 25 barons cum communis tocius terre. By the time of the baronial revolt of the mid thirteenth century the reformers styled themselves ‘le commun de Engletere’, while the knights of the shire came to the parliament of 1265 ex parte communitatem comitatuum. By the 1340s it appears commonly understood that the knights and burgesses in parliament – ‘les communes’ – represented that part of the community of the realm, the commons, not represented by the lords spiritual and temporal. Crucially, there was a sense in which the commons in parliament, alongside the lords, spoke for the community of the realm. In 1264 Simon de Montfort declared that the provisions for government, made in a parliament at which four knights from each county were present, had been authorised by ‘the king, prelates, barons ac etiam’ by the communitas then present. This, then, laid claim for parliament, and the commons in parliament in particular, to speak for and on behalf of the community of the realm as a whole. This is clear in the development of royal taxation, which by the beginning of the fourteenth century could only be granted with the approval of the commons in parliament and once so granted it was unlawful for subjects to refuse to pay. This begun to change in the last decades of the fourteenth century. Stephen Justice has argued that the use of term ‘commons’ by the rebels of 1381 was limited to their sense of representation of their own local communities, but I think it’s clear that their sense of the word ‘commons’ encompassed a wider, national poltiical community. In 1381 the rebels claimed to speak for the realm, enabled by a new vernacular language of politics and emboldened by the changes in political society that had developed in the wake of Black Death. By the end of the fourteenth commons had come to denote the lower sort – not nceccessarily the poorest, but those husbandmen, artificers, merchants and burgesses who paid taxes, fought in the king’s armies and sought justice in his courts. As active citizens they sought a say in the affairs of the realm. In 1348 the commons in parliament had responded to Sir William Thorp’s explanation of the reasons for summoning the assembly and plea for counsel by arguing that they ‘are so ignorant and simple that we do not know how, nor are we able, to counsel’ on whether to sue for peace with France. The king, they argued, should take the ‘advice of the great and wise men of your council’ before deciding the course of policy. The parliaments of the 1370s and 80s were more assertive, reflecting, but also reacting to, a more general assertion of the rights of the ‘commynalte’ (as a preacher writing around 1400 described the third estate). We know from the poetry of John Gower and contemporary chroniclers, like Thomas Walsingham, that there was a general unease around the growing political confidence of the commonalty. Yet it was precisely this political confidence that was embraced by the Lancastrian kings to give legitimacy to their regime. As Simon Walker demonstrated, the Lancastrian approach to popular criticism of the regime was ambivalent to say the least. Occasionally, as in 1401 when a Canterbury scrivener lost his hand for writing and circulating seditious bills, political comment by ordinary people was met with represssion, but more frequently accusations of treason or criticism of the regime ended in pardon or acquital. In 1405 Richard Scrope, archbishop of York, led a rebellion against Henry IV’s corrupt counsellors. His petition of grievances, written in English and nailed to the gates of the city of York, read like a Lancastrian manifesto: a freely elected parliament and a demand for justice against those who put their own self interest before the common good of the realm. Although Scrope himself was executed for treason, his tomb became a shrine for recognisably Lancastrian political principles and even received the patronage of the Lancastrian royal family itself. In 1408 the king’s son, John, was instructed to see that proper wooden barriers were in place at the tomb in York Minster to control the flow of pilgrims, while from 1413 Henry V sanctioned offering to the rebel archbishop, even including Lancastrian livery collars of ‘SS’. In some ways the successes of Henry V in France hid the extent to which the political culture of the Lancastrian kings was distinct from what had gone before. That ended, albeit slowly, with the accession of the nine-month old Henry VI in 1422 and Lancastrian Dual Monarchy. During Henry’s long minority there seems surprisingly little evidence of the commons’ disillusioment, or even their active engagement, with the business of politics. There was a concerted propaganda effort to sell the Dual Monarchy to Henry VI’s English and French subjects, while Lancastrian poets, like John Lydgate, continued to pressure the members of the minority council to follow the principles of conciliar government. The king’s majority, however, from 1437 ended this. The commonalty once more made its voice heard and, crucially, the king and council reacted to popular pressure. This is clear from the extraordinary document released by the council following the decision to release the duke of Orleans from captivity in 1439. The preamble states ‘for as moche as it is comen to the kinges knoulech that their is growen and spradde in his people a noyse and grutching that it liked him of hymself for many causes’ to explain the decision to release Orleans (against the dying wishes of Henry V). It may be that the document sought to reveal and put an end to divisions in the council and undermine the position of the king’s uncle, Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, but the crucial thing here is that it was framed as a response to a collective demand for an explanation made by the king’s subjects. The way in which the Lancastrian regime was dependent on the approbation of the commons, and thus could be legitimately made to change course by them through rebellion, was revealed in 1450. With king surrounded by corrupt counsel, rebellion was the only available way for the commons to have their voice heard. In the wake of defeat in Normandy and amidst accusations that the king’s counsellors were traitors who had put their own ambitions before the common good, the commons of Kent and Essex took up arms, using communal institutions of local government and military organisation, and marched on London. I have written about Cade’s rebellion at length elsewhere, but I want to make two points today. First, the rebellion of 1450 was made possible by a commonly understood discourse that cast the rebels as not only defenders of the commonweal, but as empowered to act on behalf of the community of the realm, embodying that community itself. In one of their petitions to the king, the rebels described themselves as the ‘trew comyns of our soueraigne lord the king.’ Thomas Gascoigne, himself no friend of the rebels, characterised them as ‘public petitioners for public justice to be done, and demonstrators of their own grievances and those of the realm.’ This discourse of accountability - that the Lancastrian regime could be held to account by its subjects - had been developed over the previous fifty years through literature – both the elite poetry of Hoccleve and Lydgate and the anonymous poems that named the corrupt courtiers and counsellors of Henry VI – and through the language of government. The account of the decision-making process that led to Orleans’ release in 1439 is one example, but there are others and every indictment that asked a jury to consider treasonable words implicitly legitimised and, at times through pardon or acquital, vindicated a discourse of resistance and rebellion. This led to a remarkable and sophisticated understanding by the rebels of their rights and responsibilities. In 1450 those indicted for the murder of William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk, the king’s leading counsellor and the man, unjustly perhaps, held responsible for most of the failings of Henry VI’s government gave a clear understanding of their role as representatives of the commons and of the role that the commons played in the English polity: ‘they did not know the said king’, they replied when Suffolk showed to them Henry VI’s letters of protection, ‘but they knew well the crown of England, saying that the aforesaid crown was the community of the realm and that the community of the realm was the crown of the realm’. The second point, and for me this is the most telling contrast with the baronial-led rebellions of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, is that in 1450 and in the decade or so that followed, the commons were the dynamic force in English politics. In 1450 they led and the baronial opposition to Henry VI’s government followed. Throughout the 1450s and into the 1460s the crown and nobility sought to appease the commons, were often led by the commons, and ultimately appealed to the commons for legitimacy. It was rebels’ demand in 1450 that the duke of York return to England to counsel the king that precipated York’s return from Ireland. His epistolary exchange with Henry VI that summer only latterly staked his claim to be the commons’ champion and the man to reform the problems bestting the Lancastrian regime and when he did so he spoke in the language of Cade. As one of the Pastons’ correspondent wrote: the duke ‘desyred meche thynge, qwych is meche after the Comouns desyre.’ Throughout the period 1450-1461 York and his allies reacted to events led by the Commons: their appropriated the rebels’ manifestos, even reissuing one verbatim in 1460, they courted popular opinion and staked their claim to be more ‘Lancastrian’ than the Lancastrian regime itself. In 1461 when York’s son, Edward, was crowned king, Yorkist sources stressed the role of the commons in the popular acclamation of the new king. Even if, as Armstrong demonstrated, Eward’s claim to the throne was through just inheritance, his supporters recognised the importance of the commons in granting legitimacy to the new dynasty. By 1459, however, there are signs that primacy of the commons – and the idea of the commons – was being questioned. In October, in the wake of the Yorkist lords’ defeat at Ludford Bridge, Henry VI summoned a parliament to meet at Coventry. It was assembled to attaint the Yorkist lords and their supporters of treason, but there was also the fear that the king would offer a pardon to the rebellious lords. An anonymous tract, written in latin and English and circulated before the parliament met, the Somnium Vigilantis, characterised York and his allies as rebels and traitors. One of their principal failings was the way in which had courted the support of the commons. The author of the Somnium Vigilantis offered a quite different view of the commons than that which had prevailed for the last fifty years or so. The ‘favoure of the peple’ was worth nothing, ‘for by cause hit is so varyable and for the mooste parte it groweth of oppynable conceytis, and not of trowith.’ Anyone, he continued, ‘who so hathe rede in the old storyes, he may be suffyciently informed of ye grete varyablenes of the peple and of thyncertitude of thaire oppynions.’ In dismissing the opinions of the ‘foolish commons’ and delegitimising a rebellion explicitly riased for the commonweal, the author of the Somnium Vigilantis was signalling the beginnings of an important shift in attitudes towards the commons and towards rebellion. The End of Rebellions? The shift in attitude towards rebellion and the commons’ role in politics was slow and often bloody. As John Watts has argued, it was bound up with the spread of Renaissance neo-classical ideas in England and a rediscovery, and reivention, of the ideas of Cicero in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. In this period, as Dan Wakelin has so astutely put it, it was ‘as if Englishmen wrote in togas.’ Armed with a new understanding of the Ciceronian republicanism and a new political vocabulary of res publica, the common lawyers, churchmen and administrators of the later fifteenth century reimagined the English polity as one where laws and councils, formulated by and guarded over by men of virtue, replaced aristocratic lordship and the demotic power of the commons. This is clear in the writings of Sir John Fortescue and Bishop Russell, but it would take ambitious and assertive monarchy of Henry VIII to take this to its logical conclusion and deny the commons their role in politics and delegitimise rebellion. Perhaps the clearest exponent of a new Tudor attitude was the courtier, Sir Thomas Elyot, who in 1528 published The Boke Named the Governor. It begun with a chapter entitled ‘The significacion of a Publike Weale, and why it is called in latin Respublica.’ Elyot explained to his readers the need to explain ‘the propre and trewe signification of the wordes publike and commune, whiche be borowed of the latin tonge for the insufficiencie of our owne langage.’ This last phrase, ‘the insufficiencie of our owne langage’, is important denying the legitimacy of a vernacular that had dominated political discourse throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and reasserting the primacy of an elite and exclusive language. Elyot continued to describe how the commons had mistakenly been given a political prominence: ‘Plebs in englisshe’, he wrote, ‘is called the communaltie, which signifieth only the multitude, wherin be contayned the base and vulgare inhabitantes not auanced to any honour or dignite.’ The passage is worth quoting at length: And in the countrey, at a cessions or other assembly, if no gentyl men be there at, the sayenge is that there was none but the communalte, whiche proueth in myn oppinion that Plebs in latin is in englisshe communaltie: and Plebeii be communers. And consequently there may appere lyke diuersitie to be in englisshe betwene a publike weale and a commune weale, as shulde be in latin betwene Res publica and Res plebeia. And after that signification, if there shuld be a commune weale, either the communers only must be welthy, and the gentil and noble men nedy and miserable, orels excluding gentilite, al men must be of one degre and sort, and a new name prouided. For as moche as Plebs in latin, and comminers in englisshe, be wordes only made for the discrepance of degrees, wherof procedeth ordre: whiche in thinges as wel naturall as supernaturall hath euer had suche a preeminence, that therby the incomprehensible maiestie of god, as it were by a bright leme of a torche or candel, is declared to the blynde inhabitantes of this worlde. More ouer take away ordre from all thynges what shulde than remayne? The message is clear: the misuse of the word commons, the conflation in Middle English to mean both public and plebian, had handed the ordinary people a political legitimacy which threatended to overturn the God-given order of things. Elyot went on to list Biblical and classical precedents where ‘a multitude hath had equal authorite without any soueraygne’ and the disasters that had ensued. Elyot’s arguments were echoed by other writers in response to attempts by the commons of early Tudor England to assert their political role using the forms and language of commonweal and rebellion employed in the fifteenth century. Interestingly the unambiguous statement in this regard comes from Henry VIII himself. On 1 October 1536 the townsmen of Louth in Lincolnshire, in response to rumours about new forms of taxation and the closure of the monasteries, seized the royal commissioners and demanded, through a petition, the removal of Thomas Cromwell and other unpopular agents of the Henrician Reformation and a reversal of the statutes of the Reformation Parliament. The rebellion ended with a threat of violence and the execution of the ringleaders, but it also elicited a printed response from the king. Henry stated that the statutes which had caused the commons’ rebellion had been passed by the king, lords and commons in parliament, not simply at the whim of the king and his councillors. The king’s choice of councillors was entirely his own: ‘how presumptuous then are ye the rude comons of one shire ... to fynde faulte with your prince for electing of his counsaylours and prelatis.’ Moreover, the response asserted a new political philosophy which excluded the commons - and the idea of the commons – from a legitimate role in politics: We marvaile what madnes is in your braine, or upon what ground ye wolde take auctoritie upon you to cause us to breake those lawes & statutes, whiche by all the nobles, knyghtes and gentylmen of this realme (whome the same chieflye toucheth) ... seynge in noo maner of thynges it toucheth you the basse commons of our realme. In the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace, a larger and much more dangerous rebellion of the commons that engulfed the north of England within days of the suppression of the Lincolnshire Rising, Richard Morison, wrote two tracts echoing the king’s words, replete with neo-classical justifications for denying the commons their voice. ‘It far passeth cobblers’ craft’, he wrote (channeling Plato), ‘to discuss what lords, what bishops, what counsellors, what acts, what statutes and laws are most meet for a commonwealth.’ Conclusion Rebellions of the commons did not end with the Pligrimage of Grace. That came, infamously and violently, at Dussindale outside Norwich on 27 August 1549 when thousands of the commons, protesting against enclosure and the harsh economic conditions of the late 1540s were massacared in open battle by a royal army comprised chiefly of German mercenaries. The contrast between the experience of the rebels who marched under Robert Kett in 1549 and those who marched with Watt Tyler in 1381 or Jack Cade in 1450 could not be more stark. The years between 1381 and 1549 then were a period in English history when the English truly were a rebellious people. It coincided with an equally distinctive period of political culture in which the long-established notions of the duties and responsibilities of the king and his reciprocal relationship with his subjects were refashioned and mediated through the vernacular to an inclusive community of the realm. This, in turn, was appropriated by and used to legitimise Lancastrian kingship, a dynasty that had itself come to the throne through rebellion. From 1549 the character of English rebellions reverted to an older form of violent baronial opposition to royal policy. In 1569, 1601 and, of course, in 1642 it was nobility, secure in the knowledge of their God-given right to represent the commonwealth, who challenged the tyranny of kings.