Off with their heads! Lessons from the 14th century for post-election protestors

Holding back the tide. Hannah McKay/EPA

The saying “If you don’t learn your history, you’re doomed to repeat it” usually only applies to failed history classes, but David Cameron’s recent re-election and the vigorous protests that have followed have given me a profound sense that we’ve done this all before.

This week, a demonstration against the Tory re-election and austerity policies marched on Downing Street and turned violent. It was estimated that the crowd contained a few hundred people, and when the smoke bombs cleared 15 people had been arrested and four police officers and a police staff member were injured. Someone had spray-painted an anti-Tory slogan across the Women of World War II memorial. One of my areas of study is a series of riots in late 14th-century London when protesters marched on Westminster and the Guildhall and I think there are some useful lessons to draw.

Protestors, police get medieval.

In both cases, things turned violent, although to be fair, we’ve got nothing on our ancestors. In 1384 about a hundred people were arrested, a man was decapitated, the life of the king was threatened, and unrest related to the riots continued for nine years. While the root causes of these events are similar to today’s in that they emerged from a divergence of political perspectives, the emotional reactions at the root of the riots are the real evidence of history repeating.

Rotten boroughs

The medieval riots I study came about because of conflicts between the supporters of two London mayors: Nicholas Brembre, a wealthy entrepreneurial politician, and John Northampton, a middling merchant whose policies were popular with London’s working class. John Northampton became mayor of London in 1381, immediately following the Peasants’ Revolt – appointed, probably, in part because both the royal and civic governments recognised his popularity with the common people.

Northampton spent the next two terms attacking what he saw as corruption in government and trade practices – and he especially attacked the monopolies of traders in food. These actions were very popular among London’s workers, but when he began to seek out corruption among his allies’ trades, his support waned.

London in the 14th Century. "Map of London, 1300" by Grandiose - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Then, when Nicholas Brembre came into office in 1383, it sparked a shake-up of the craft and trade groups given influence under Northampton. The leaders of those groups were accused of being lightweight, their decisions arrived at “by clamour rather than by reason”. They were replaced by men elected by the wards, effectively robbing many trades of their voice in London’s politics.

As George Galloway would tell you this year, no one likes to lose an election, and Northampton and his supporters attempted to overturn the vote, but were refused. Resentment grew steadily and after several months Northampton had the support to launch the largest civic protest in London since the Peasants’ Revolt.

Popular unrest

The descriptions of the first protest of 1384 tell us that a large crowd followed Northampton along the road leading towards Westminster. Brembre personally confronted Northampton at Fleet Bridge, arrested him, and imprisoned him in Brembre’s own home. In the aftermath of the unrest that followed, Northampton was convicted of high treason and it was recorded that he had intended to murder several people – including the king.

The Westminster Chronicle claimed he had no such intent, and indeed, that he had no idea why so large a mob was following him on his way to church. However, the mob continued without Northampton and four days later, a shoemaker named John Constantyn was beheaded by Brembre’s government on suspicion of organising further resistance.

When Brembre was re-elected in October, a second riot occurred outside the Guildhall. Much like the protests we saw in London over the weekend, some were there because they (mistakenly) believed that their grievances would be heard, while others came with the express purpose of fomenting unrest. A tailor called William Wodecok was arrested after rushing out of his home with a sword, a buckler and a polearm (pike) – hoping to use them all in a riot.

Many of those arrested were imprisoned for speaking ill of the mayor and so it can be interpreted that they were, like the majority of London’s modern protesters, peaceful, if forthright.

A petition against Nicholas Brembre signed by National Archive: SC 8/21/1006

Ultimately, the crafts involved in this riot had legitimate grievances. And their leadership later collectively petitioned parliament for action be taken against Nicholas Brembre for his misgovernment. Their charges were heard, and Brembre was hanged for his crimes in 1388, some four years after the disturbances.

Drowned out

The similarities I see between medieval and modern riots are pretty clear. London’s 14th-century government faced issues of corporate over-reach, class politics, how to best serve the working poor, how to fund public works, how to best manage elections and even how to address local concerns about foreign residents and merchants.

While the context is different, politicians and voters today face many of the same problems that Londoners debated 600 years ago. However, only at our worst do we forget our history and try to repeat it by resolving our disagreements in the same ways.

The riots started by Londoners upset over Northampton’s election loss and Brembre’s re-election accomplished nothing – but contributed to increasingly radical political factionalism. This became so bad that, by 1391, the mayor had to pass an edict banning Londoners from speaking about either man, on penalty of imprisonment. In this entire affair, the only successful method for bringing about change was when the guilds brought their grievances to parliament and calmly asked for redress.

Muddying the waters. Memorial graffiti. Hannah McKay/EPA

The riots against Cameron’s re-election and the defacement of war memorials was shameful. The men who injured police officers accomplished nothing more that the foolish tailor who ran out of his home in 1384 carrying more weapons than he could physically use. The riots in both periods did not bring about real political changes – instead they drowned out the messages of those with legitimate grievances, they destroyed common ground and they hardened politicians against peaceful protesters’ causes.

In the aftermath of the modern London riot, Downing Street responded – but its response was to criticise the rioters and vandals who gave easy ammunition to deflect from any sensible political points they sought to make. No dialogue was created about the austerity policies the protest sought to address.

Six hundred years ago, Londoners learned that rioting did not bring about the changes that they sought: it’s time we stopped repeating history.