England’s loss of Normandy after their defeat at the Battle of Formigny against France in April 1450 during the Hundred Years War crushed the morale of the English people. England’s impending loss in the war unleashed French and Norman raiders on English coasts. However to the people of Kent and Sussex, their enemies across the English Channel were the least of their worries.
Corruption in Lancastrian King Henry VI’s court was already legendary, but the loss at Formigny exposed the corruption and incompetence for all to see. There was no longer a war to hide behind. Nobles long used to abusing their Norman and French charges, returned to England and thought they could do the same with their own countrymen. The actions of the soldiers sent by the King to protect the coastal communities from the Norman raiders greatly exacerbated the situation. The cure was worse than the disease. The soldiers looted, raped, and devastated the towns and farms they were sent to defend. Sheriffs and magistrates, King’s men who held their offices through fraudulent elections, sided with the soldiers against the people. The final straw was the death of the Duke of Suffolk.
The Duke of Suffolk was the King’s best friend and closest advisor. Some say he ruled England while the mentally infirm Henry was just a puppet. The Duke was the most corrupt of king’s privy council, all of whom were the most corrupt men in England. His murder was part of the vicious, bitter, and petty internecine squabbles that wracked Henry VI’s court. The Duke of Suffolk’s body washed up on the shore of Kent and the people immediately assumed the King would blame them. Rumors abounded that the Royal Army would march across the countryside with fire and sword expelling the people and turning the entirety of Kent into the King’s personal hunting preserve.
On 8 May 1450, a man named Jack Cade proclaimed himself “Captain of Kent” and vowed to make the people’s demands heard by the king. He declared himself a “Mortimer”, which was the name of Henry VI’s Yorkist rivals. He wrote up a list of complaints and demands, “The Complaint of the Poor Commons of Kent”, outlining the King’s transgressions against the people of Kent. The first point was a declaration of innocence for the Duke of Suffolk’s murder. The remainder of the Complaint detailed the rampant corruption of the King’s men, including unfair taxation, extortion, “perversion of justice”, ruination of the economy, and election fraud. Cade called for an army to give the demands the force of arms. 5000 beggars, shopkeepers, artisans, peasants, destitute soldiers, and outlawed knights and nobles responded.
Initially, the King didn’t take the uprising seriously. He dispatched a small force of knights and men at arms to put it down, but they were ambushed and destroyed in June. Shortly thereafter, the King’s attitude changed when his personal confessor, the Bishop of Salisbury, was tortured and killed by a Kentish mob, as Jack Cade and his army marched on London. The Bishop of Salisbury was the second most powerful man in England, since he knew all of the King’s dirty secrets, and there was no telling what he told rebels. King Henry VI and his court fled London.
Jack Cade struck the London Stone, declared himself the mayor, and set about finding King’s men to try and punish. Cade’s rebels and the people of London existed harmoniously for but a few days. Cade couldn’t keep control of his men. Despite assurances that the rebel army would respect the people of London and their property, Cade’s men began to get drunk and loot. The Londoners understood the behavior of the king’s men better than most, but lost their sympathy for the rebels quickly. On 8 July 1450, the Londoners marched across the London Bridge determined to storm the White Hart Inn where Cade lived and oversaw his tribunals. Cade’s men met them half way. The bloody Battle of London Bridge saw the defeat of Cade’s rebels, and they retreated from London.
Despite the rebel loss, the next day the Lord Chancellor convinced the King to issue pardons and accede to the rebel’s demands in The Complaint of the Poor Commons of Kent. The King did so and the remainder of Cade’s army dispersed. King Henry VI revoked the pardons almost immediately. His men hunted down Cade and the rebels now that they were no longer an army. The King’s men were largely successful. On 12 July, Cade was wounded fighting his pursuers, and died before he could be brought to trial. Henry didn’t care though: he gave the body a mock trial in which Cade was found guilty. Cade’s body was then hung, drawn, quartered, and beheaded, with the parts displayed publically all over Kent until they fully decomposed.
Cade’s Rebellion was unsuccessful but the king’s duplicitous behavior inspired numerous smaller uprisings across England. Worse, the king’s double cross confirmed to his rivals that there was no negotiating with him. If there was any justice in England, it was not going to come from king and his lackeys. Support for the king evaporated in the countryside. The wronged people of England began looking for a new monarch to support, and they found one in the Lancaster’s bitterest rival, the banished House of York. A few weeks after Cade’s Rebellion, Richard of York returned from his exile in Ireland. In 1455, Richard’s White Rose of York was in open rebellion against the Red Rose of Henry VI’s House of Lancaster, in what later became known as The War of the Roses.