Jack Cade was, allegedly, of Irish origin, although he grew up in Sussex. It's claimed he was originally named Mortimer, but he murdered a woman in 1449. He fled to France, adopted the name "Cade" and returned to England. Cade became famous for leading a revolt in Kent in 1450. Few people would argue that the revolt was anything but just and necessary.
Jack Cade's behaviour, however, was disgraceful. The unrest that had been fermenting for some time erupted in earnest in the springtime of 1450, when the poverty-stricken peasants began to mutter against the corrupt and weak leadership of the King, and the unfair taxes levied upon them. Jack Cade produced a manifesto entitled: "The Complaint of the Poor Commons of Kent." This was an inventory of grievances against the unpopular government and it named MPs and lords.
In June, 20,000 rebels appeared at Blackheath, including not only peasants but shopkeepers and artisans, as well as the upper-classes. There were soldiers and sailors who had returned from France via the county. Intimidated, King Henry VI took off for safety in Warwickshire. The rebels advanced on Southwark, where they settled themselves in the White Hart Inn.
Jack Cade's rebels fight on London Bridge
On 3 July, the rebel band crossed London Bridge. At this point, Cade got carried away, and, brandishing his sword, he declared himself Lord Mayor of London. He led his followers to the Guildhall, then on to the Tower, with his demands. The mob captured the Lord Treasurer and speedily beheaded him, and then they set about decapitating other favourites of the King. Duly spiked, in medieval fashion, the heads were then raised in the air and placed together, nose-to-nose, as though they were kissing. As if this wasn't enough, Cade and his men started looting, an action contrary to his original promise when he began his march.
By the time they returned to Southwark, preparations had been made to prevent the bloodthirsty rebels from entering the city, and, around 10.00pm, a fight erupted on London Bridge, which continued until the following morning. The rebels suffered severe casualties and had to retreat. Finally, in response to the Archbishop, John Kemp, Cade agreed to calm his men in return for pardons and the fulfilment of his demands.
Jack Cade branded a traitor
Archbishop Kemp did not follow through. The following week, Jack Cade was to discover a most unpleasant truth: the government now considered him to be a traitor and a reward was offered for him, dead or alive. Cade died in a fight near Heathfield, East Sussex, on 12 July 1450 and his body was taken to London and quartered, the pieces being sent to different cities for display. His head stayed on a spike on London Bridge, along with those of his cohorts. The rebels themselves were pardoned, although after Cade's death, thirty-four more were executed.
This is a tragic story, since the cause was just and the men were brave - if only it hadn't all gone, both literally and metaphorically, to Jack Cade's head.
Murder & Crime, Medway, Janet Cameron, Tempus Publishing, 2008.
This Sceptred Isle, Christopher Lee, Penguin History,/BBC Books, 1997.