The Harvest of Heads

Ok, so if you’ve been paying attention (sit up straight at the back, there!) I was talking about Duke Humphrey’s Tower recently – you know – the one that stood where the Observatory is today.

If you remember, Our Humph was a hero of Agincourt, who did very nicely, thank you, building palaces left, right and centre, until a new king came to the throne. Humph and his wife were accused of dabbling in The Black Arts against nutty King Henry VI and everything went horribly wrong. Humph died in mysterious circumstances and his wife was convicted of sorcery. They got off lightly – his followers were hanged, drawn and quartered.

Right, so now we’re up to speed…

Not everyone was delighted by this, and one Jack Cade (his real name, John Mortimer, just didn’t have that swashbuckling feel to it…) led a rebellion – The Men of Kent – against the king. It’s uncertain how interested Cade actually was in the issues but he was an adventurer who was looking for an excuse to swagger around in a red outfit, make speeches and lead an army of men into the history books. All togged-up in his scarlet clothing, he led his motley crew (some accounts say 46,000 of them) onto Blackheath and camped there in 1450 – not dissimilar in many ways to the Wat Tyler’s Peasants Revolt 70 years beforehand.

Shakespeare doesn’t think much of The Men of Kent – he describes them as “the filth and scum of Kent, mark’d for the gallows” – though of course you do have to remember which side of Shakey’s bread was buttered a hundred-odd years later.

It does seem that Cade himself was a bit of a meathead, into dressing up in his fancy clobber, beheading people and causing general terror everywhere he went (presumably if he were alive today he’d be found glassing someone outside the Meantime Nightclub on a Friday night) but not all his followers were rabble – there were lots of respectable men who had real grievances. Many of them were from Greenwich, loyal friends and servants of Duke Humphrey who were convinced he’d been murdered.

It all got really nasty when Cade killed the leader of the King’s party, then led the gang into London itself, beheading and destroying as they went. The Lord Treasurer got his head chopped off and Cade’s mob destroyed sundry property documents, declaring themselves for universal equality – pretty radical stuff for the fifteenth century. Cade struck the London Stone and declared himself Lord of the City.

It didn’t last of course. The king brought out the army and, offered a pardon of sorts (they were forced to beg for it on their hands and knees wearing nothing but their shirts) many of rebels backed down. Some of them were still executed but pardoned in death and allowed to be buried. The repercussions rippled through Kent with executions all the way to Rochester, where nine men were beheaded.It became known as the Harvest of Heads. Heaven Only knows how many people were decapitated on both sides by the time it all started to calm down.

Cade was hunted down and hanged, drawn and quartered, bits and bobs of him brought back to Blackheath to go on general display. It’s not clear which bits and bobs of him we got, but presumably they flapped around in the wind on the bleak heath as a warning to anyone else who fancied their chances. It didn’t work – two years later, the Duke of York amassed an army there as The Wars of the Roses really began in earnest.

Cade’s always been remembered as a bit of a romantic hero, however thuggish he might really have been. There’s a road named after him – Cade Road – and Blackheath Cavern, underneath Point Hill and which I will talk about another day, is also known as Jack Cade’s Cavern.

There’s a good article about Jack Cade’s rebellion at:

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