The Great Revolt was helped in its early stages by the date – Sunday, 2nd June, Whitsunday. Whitsunday was traditionally a time for the lower classes to meet in numbers at festivals and pageants for good-natured, controlled disorder. Thus the news spreading from Essex found large groups of the lower orders gathered together and in fine spirits. Led at this early stage by Abel Ker, the Kent rebels attacked the Abbey of Lesnes. Lesnes was a rich monastery with great landholdings, from which they extracted fines and extra labour from their tenants at will via the system of monastic law courts.
Although the Abbey was an obvious target, given its unjust lordship, the attack was a strategic move. Ker captured the Abbot, William de Hethe, and forced him to pledge allegiance to their cause, thenceforth using his (coerced) approval as propaganda. For the next few days, Ker continued to bully his social betters into complicity. But he did not rest on his laurels, and pursued a policy of recruiting men to the cause, which was simultaneously taking place north of the Estuary in Essex. As a recruitment strategy, Ker travelled with a standard topped with the heads of three executed jurors.
The rebels targeted the possessions of the men in power whom they deemed corrupt or unjust, such as John of Gaunt, the king’s uncle. He was the richest landowner in the country, which meant he had a lot of property to burn down. Other targets were largely made up of those connected with the law, including courts and ecclesiastical buildings. Records of wrongdoers, convictions, and taxation were destroyed. The Kent rebels even took the great Rochester Castle with its 12-feet thick walls by force, cunningly relying on their ability to cause panic and disorder rather than laying it to siege.
Freeing the prisoners of Rochester and the county’s other jails (including John Ball from Maidstone) under the new command of Wat Tyler, the Kentish rebels also took control of the important road linking Canterbury, seat of the most important churchman in the country, and London. They took oaths from anyone passing by. Simultaneously, the pattern of organized mobs targeting the legal profession and the property of unjust gentry was mirrored in Essex. The rebels from the counties met at Cressing Temple, near to where the Sheriff of Essex had just managed to escape with his life, if not his power.
You may wonder where the authorities were in all this, when not being beheaded or fleeing for their lives. Fortunately for the rebels, the nearest soldiers, usually stationed at London, had marched north with John of Gaunt to negotiate peace with the Scottish. They had caught the authorities underprepared. It seems royal intervention was forced when Tyler captured Canterbury Castle, freed the prisoners, had a bonfire of legal records, and murdered judges and gentry alike. At last, royal messengers came from Windsor with the incredible news that King Richard II had requested an audience with the rebels in London.