The Battle for North Walsham described by Margaret Callow
This narrative is based on Margaret’s book ‘Of Wheat or War’.
Norfolk played a part in the Peasants Revolt and the Battle for North Walsham saw the last major resistance of any kind during the whole of the Rising. In 1381 England is ravaged by the Black Death, the poor have never been so impoverished, the rich never wealthier. It is a time of wars and witch hunts, of desperate poverty for the workers and endless extravagance by the rich.
Not only has the population been halved after the plague leading to a shortage of labour, but the 100 Years’ War, a series of conflicts over who should govern France, continues at great expense. With other undisciplined Government spending, the country’s coffers are almost empty. It is decided there will be a Poll Tax which all must pay. News of this demand fills the peasants with dismay. Starting in Essex, unrest quickly spreads through Kent, then London, Suffolk and Norfolk and soon there is word of a rising. Thousands are ready to support the cause on a march to London. The Peasants Revolt is about to begin.
We know the rising occurred when Richard II was just 14 years old, and that his uncle John of Gaunt partly ruled for him because of his age. The man responsible for defeating the Norfolk rebels was a man of the cloth, Henry Le Despenser, Bishop of Norwich. The nobleman was said to carry a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other whenever he went into battle. Today he lies in front of the High Altar in Norwich Cathedral.
We also know the rebel leaders were Walter the Tyler, aided by a fiery Lollard priest John Ball and Jack Straw. Records for the period are sparse so there is some confusion over identities, but Norfolk men were anxious to pledge their support and it was an artisan, a dyer of cloth from Felmingham, Geoffrey Lister who led them with another in the group called Cubitt who came from North Walsham. Like all the poor, they dreamed of a day when there would be no serf yoked to a master and all men would be free.
At the time of the rising, North Walsham was heavily wooded – large swathes of trees broken up by patches of heath. The local men held out to the last, but Le Despenser prevailed and the final battle is said to have taken place just south of North Walsham on land known as Bryant’s Heath where hundreds of unruly peasants had set up camp.
Three Medieval stone marker crosses were erected round the battle site. Close to the Water Tower is what is now a stump cross. Once taller than a man, there is a small brass plaque behind it on a flint and cobble wall. It was relocated there in 1932. A second remains just about intact in Toff’s Loke (close to Toll Barn Vets) just off the Norwich Road. This cross was probably removed to serve as a parish boundary marker although now it is a shadow of its former self – eroded by time and acid air, the finial is broken and the crucifix has lost its arms. The third marker also now reduced to a stump used to stand in a small paddock opposite the Loke, but is now on private land.
Like all rebellions throughout history, battles were fought and lives lost for the freedoms we enjoy today. So it was for the Battle of North Walsham.
Margaret’s book ‘Of Wheat or War’ is a fact based novel of these events.