Geoffrey, the poet and customs officer, and his friend Wouter Van den Bergh, a Flemish weaver from St Mary Spittle, are standing by the leaded casement window of the front room of Geoffrey’s apartment above the Aldgate on the London Wall staring at the crowds below them. 24,000 protesting rebels from Essex have pushed their way past St Mary Matfelon and are pouring into the City literally underneath their feet. They see the leader Jack Straw in the throng.
“Amazing sight, Geoffrey. Personally I wish them well, but who on earth let them in?” “Wouter, these are extraordinary times. This morning I went to the other Great Uprising – a huge gathering at Blackheath of Kent peasants in revolt. There were fine speeches calling for freedom and equality, justice and an end to serfdom. But now the mob is everywhere and dangerous. They are burning buildings, breaking open the prisons, killing the King’s ministers in the Tower. Now I hear they’re setting on foreign immigrants with murderous intent. Listen Wouter; we want you, Lina and the kids to come and stay here with us right now till this blows over. Go and get them now!”
Wouter hurries over to his workshop by the Priory, locks up his looms and gathers his family together. They cross Spitalfields on their way to Aldgate. Suddenly a man steps out from a doorway and blocks Wouter’s path. He says he’s from the Worshipful Company of Weavers “Oy! Are you lot fucking Flemish bastards?!” he shouts. In a moment they are surrounded by a leering crowd of strangers, some of them armed. They grab hold of Lina and the kids. “What’s this?” asks the man. He waves a stale crust and a piece of cheese under her nose. “Tell us what this is in English, bitch or die!”
Lina speaks little English. She stares at the bread blankly. Then to his horror Wouter hears his wife’s faltering voice “Brood, Brood en kaas …”
The story is fictional but the Peasants Revolt is history. Chaucer did live in Aldgate, and during the Uprising in London the mob, egged on by the Weavers Guild, attacked and killed hundreds of immigrants from Flanders and Brabant who had failed their ‘bread and cheese’ test. In the Canterbury Tales Chaucer refers to this xenophobic act of genocide in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale:
”Certes he Jacke Straw and his meynee/ Ne made never shouter half so shrill/
Whe they wolden any Flemyng Kille/ As thilke day was maad upon the fox”
The Kent & Essex rebels stormed through Southwark, razed Marshalsea Prison to the ground freeing its prisoners, sacked John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace and burned the Inner Temple. Some broke into the Tower of London, beheading the Archbishop and several of the King’s ministers. On June 14tth the boy King Richard II rode out to a huge peasant rally at Mile End, met the rebel leaders and signed a document agreeing to all the peasants demands – no serfdom, equal rights and no more Poll Tax – and told them all to go home. On June 15th there was another meeting with the rebels at Smithfield. There was a scuffle. One of the King’s men killed Wat Tyler. The peasants dispersed. The King cancelled his agreement to their demands. Leading rebels were hunted down, hanged, drawn and quartered, their heads put on display on London Bridge.
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