The Wretched Treachery of Benjamin Crumm

The Wretched Treachery of Benjamin Crumm

A Story by spence

Historical Fiction piece dealing with 'The Peasants' Revolt' of 1381 (English History)


The Wretched Treachery of Benjamin Crumm

Come the harvest of life, nought shall be reaped for those sowing seeds of deceit. I know this for I, Benjamin ‘Crumm’ have been the best… the worst… of liars. Any gains my fabrications once afforded me have amounted to nothing more than punishment in perfect equity to my sins.

Tomorrow I am to be burned a Lollard heretic by order of Henry Bolingbroke, the usurper King. That it is Henry, son of John Gaunt the Duke of Lancaster, who saw to it that Richard was first deposed then disposed of is the bitterest of ironies. It is more souring to the senses than the acrid aroma of blood and faeces or the sights and sounds of torture and suffering that permeate this place, this dungeon of mortal dread. For it was on Richard’s behalf that I betrayed my people and in service to the Duke that I twisted the tale of glorious uprising out of truth.

This is my last chance to accurately recount what happened that day at Smithfield; the injustices that led us there and the deceit that followed.


Although this story must end with the truth of it, it begins with the lie of my demise two decades earlier. It was a necessary contrivance and one which provided the spark of rebellion to the smouldering discontent of the masses.

It was May 1381 and I was a boy of fifteen years living in the village of Brentwood, Essex. That fateful day my father, Jack Rackstraw bade me to hide in the byre of our home. Chief Justice Sir Robert Belknap and an escort of bodyguards had arrived intent on scouring every home to seek out tax evaders.

My father was a widower with the added burdens of caring for me and my younger sister, Abigail, of twelve years. Like most of the poor, we were defying the levy by poll commanded of all my age and older. The tax was felt to be unjust recompense for the wars with France that had raged on two score years and more at great cost. My father insisted that I had died due to my ailments; that my twisted spine, disfigured torso and the hobble of my gait had worn me down before my time.

Perhaps this untruth would have been believed had I not fallen awkwardly, oafishly from my place of concealment onto the straw covered flooring and alerted Belknap’s men to my presence. Consequently I was dragged outside and presented to the Chief Justice. My father refused to pay still, questioning the wisdom and fairness of taxing a boy unable to toil to earn his keep while placing further burden upon a hardworking farmer without even a wife to share it. While it was true that being born crooked meant practical tasks were beyond my facility, my mind was quicker than most. In a fashion this led to yet greater confrontation.

For two years prior to this incident, I and other young men of Brentwood and nearby villages Fobbing and Corringham had been chosen by The Brethren to learn to read and write with a view of joining their ranks. The Brethren, known pejoratively as ‘Lollards’, were travelling preachers of John Wycliffe’s ‘heretical’ English Bible. They were instrumental in creating the atmosphere of unity and common purpose amongst the serfs and townsfolk which led to the uprising. Inspired by their message of equality in the eyes of God, the people pledged abeyance to the Brethren’s methods and teachings and welcomed them as brothers.

Once familiarised with the written word we, the elected students, were given copies of Wycliffe’s translated scripture and charged with the replication of pages onto gatherings of parchment they provided. It was the rite of passage required in joining The Brethren and a duty successive ‘Peoples Priests’ would then be expected to set others. Scribing was a skill I was particularly adept at and the product of my happy labours was hidden about my person for fear of its detection. When Belknap discovered the gathering I withheld and noted the transcription of the English Bible inked upon it, he became doubly enraged by the deceit and defiance he had uncovered. It was then they made the mistake of provoking my father and, in turn, the alliance of villagers.

A compromise occurred to one of Belknap’s escorts and he suggested, most unwisely it proved, that misdemeanours of treason and heresy be overlooked should Abigail ‘hitch her skirts’. His lecherous eyes fixed longingly to my sister as he spoke and the cortege of twelve, believing their power insurmountable, laughed heartily at our supposed plight. They did not know that the villagers were prepared for such an affront to any persons’ liberty and once my father, ordinarily a peaceful man, though of considerable strength and size, had viciously struck down the offender the King’s representatives were beaten, subdued then expelled discourteously.

Despite all of this and having been required to vow an oath to never return, Belknap swore then to break us with vengeful force in the coming weeks. Again the weasel words of cowards were unwise. Upon my father’s order archers unleashed their bows and felled two more of the men as they scurried away toward the relative safety of their city. But the scent of change was in the air already and the threat of reprisal provided the catalyst by which the rebel march to London was realised.

Messengers were sent forth and word spread quickly that the time of the uprising was nigh. For miles around the homes of nobility were ransacked, manorial records of serfs burnt; churches surrendered their property and clergy were deposed as rebel forces assembled to take the message of dissent to London.

All men and women of able body that could relinquish domestic duties joined the rebellion. Abigail was given temporary provision and lodgings with a neighbouring family while I accompanied my father, travelling on the back of a jackass hardy enough to bear my cumbersome form. My self-begotten task was to memorise the account of the uprising and later make record of it for posterity.

Our overall aim was to free ourselves and Richard the boy King, a year my junior, from the malignant influence of the ‘three pronged serpent’; self-appointed regents, the Duke of Lancaster, King Richard’s insidious uncle John of Gaunt; Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury and Royal Treasurer Robert Hailes. There were many culprits besides, but it was they above all whom had limited the wage and movement of the serfs by law and who levied tax after tax for their own gain.

We marched in our multitudes beneath the banner of Saint George to demand these wicked agents were removed from their duties, executed as traitors and that freedom and equality be granted to the true commons. I first considered the advance as my being akin to a single bee within a swarm angered to attack an intrusive bear, but the further I travelled the more I saw myself as one with the swarm, itself merely one active hive within a host of others. Over every hill and plane it seemed that an army had grown up and we adjoined together; each absorption creating a more formidable and ungovernable mass of buzzing fury.

Within this expanding colony I came by many tales to add to the chronicle of the uprising. Accounts such as the beheading of clergy and landowners at Bury-St-Edmunds and the execution of Sir John Cavendish in Suffolk were committed to memory for later transcription, although the army from Kent were the most noteworthy force. Under the guidance of their leader, yeoman and soldier of fortune Wat Tyler they marched upon Maidstone Castle and freed The Brethren leader John Ball from its gaol. They then sacked Rochester and in Canterbury appointed an austere monk the new Archbishop, wherein they swore an oath to execute those collaborating against the King and his faithful subjects.

Barely ten days after the expulsion of Belknap our amassed ranks arrived at Mile End; our Kentish counterparts to Blackheath to the south, equally determined that our common demands would be met. A message from the Essex rebels was relayed to the King to attend us so that we might state our cause plainly and avoid further disharmony. Richard acquiesced to this and made his way by Royal barge to negotiate, only for his advisers to usher a hasty retreat upon seeing our number and ferocity.

This rebuttal of peaceful means was how the Kent army reasoned to call upon allies in the city who lowered its gates to grant passage to the rebellion. Soon the narrow streets and alehouses were filled with the unchallenged riotous assembly; more gaols were opened as we made our way west toward Savoy Palace, home of John of Gaunt. The Duke, to his great fortune was absent but his palace and possessions were burnt, his subordinates killed in lieu of his presence. The rampage ended when word arrived that the King would meet us back at Mile End the next day to hear our case, should we cease our quest for retribution.

Wat, by now the foremost identifiable leader of the uprising, suspected treachery. He left it to my father and preacher John Ball to greet Richard while he and an elected group of fellow veterans made their way to the Tower of London. They overcame the guard and took the Archbishop Sudbury and Royal Treasurer Hailes captive. Shortly afterwards they along with John Legge, architect of the Poll Tax lost their heads upon Tower Hill. These were then displayed atop pikes along London Bridge. Meanwhile King Richard had agreed to our charter, save execution of nobility without trial, and decreed that each rebel would receive a pardon for their part in the rebellion.

On return from victory and inspired by these political gains, Tyler demanded a second meeting with the King. The King agreed, but requested that this provision be made upon Smithfield by the cattle market and St Bartholomew’s Hospital outside of the city walls.


And so it was that on the 15th June the rebel army faced that of Richard upon Smithfield. The sun blazed in the cloudless blue while the sweet smells of nature combined with the pall of cattle excrement to remind the weary rebels of the homes they longed to return to. To waylay this fatigue Wat Tyler delivered a rousing oratory that invigorated the spirits of all who heard it.

‘There should be equality among all people save only the king. There should be no serfdom and all men should be free and of one condition. We will be free forever, our heirs and our lands!’

With this rallying cry uttered, Tyler turned his mare to face the King’s army who then bore him off to the meeting of leaders. Rebels armed with pike and sword awaited the charge at the fore, archers held their bows at the ready behind, while The Brethren stood to the sides to commit all that might occur to memory. It was set to be a glorious chapter in the story of England.

The distance between opposing forces was not so great as to not be seen, but only the keenest ears could make sense of the conversation between Wat Tyler and the King. When the rebel leader reached the extent of the distance he dismounted and bowed low before the King and said, ‘forgive our trespass, your majesty. The people mean to free thee from servitude.’

With a velvet gloved hand the fourteen year old King delicately flicked a lock of his blonde bobbed hair from his cheek and regarded the bedraggled, hairy brute before him disparagingly.

‘Why will you not go back to your own country?’ asked he.

Wat sat back onto his knees and smiled up to the boy King, ‘we are all of God’s country and we demand equality to all save he that Providence has elected to rule.’

At this point William Walworth, the Mayor of London, ordered his guards to step forth. Wat made to stand, but too late. A squire withdrew his sword and stabbed the defenceless Tyler in the neck, piercing from collar toward his heart.

There was a great uproar from the rebel ranks as archers prepared to unleash a deadly rain upon the Royal forces, but stayed their intent when Wat, staggering and holding the wound to stem the tide of red, remounted his horse and turned back to the rebel lines. Cries of outrage and despair punctuated the summer bliss, drowning out the chirping quiet and murmured nature tones, but no arrow was loosed until Wat, slumped upon his steed, fell halfway between the armies. The rebels, some thinking Tyler dead and wishing retribution, others more cautious, still could not decide what course of action to take, but when one maverick fired long into the royal guard it impelled a boy to act against the prospect of further bloodletting. Before a second shot could be loosed he rode out into the fray, yelling for attention to his reason.

‘Sirs!’ he cried, appealingly, ‘would you kill your King?’


You will read in other accounts that the courageous boy was the King himself, that Wat Tyler insulted Richard, attacked the Mayor and was therefore killed prior to this courageous act. There are many variations, but for the most part these are lies. I know this because they are lie’s that I, myself have conceived and held to be true. The slaying of foreigners, the molesting of the King’s mother and pillaging of peoples homes are also wilful inaccuracies of my making.

I had no choice, in truth. With Wat felled and the King’s presence appeasing the rebels’ wrath the rebellion was effectively over. It just didn’t know it yet. Wat was taken to the nearby hospital only to be dragged out and beheaded on order of Walworth, his head replacing that of Simon Sudbury on London Bridge even as the rebels were escorted across it.

Richard kept to his promise and issued pardons, promising to repeal the Poll Tax and to lead the people fairly in future. But once London was secured he revoked his oath, swore vengeance instead and hunted down participants. The pardons they proudly held were a mark of guilt and through their bearers the leaders, chiefs and rabble rousers were identified. The King had them all put to death. All, that is, except one.

When my act of impulse saved Richard’s life the Mayor had me taken to the Tower for interrogation. I first thought the King’s representatives would condemn me to death, but they had other more sinister plans. This I discovered fretful days later when John Gaunt visited me. I was commended on my bravery then asked what I would give to preserve the head of one of the insurgents from Essex, Jack Rackstraw and that of his daughter Abigail.

My instructions were simple: serve the King well. In return for my father and sister’s lives I was to revise my actions in quelling the rebellion as Richard’s courageous deed and worse, retell the tale of a ‘mad multitude’ so that all who read it should receive the rebels as Godless beasts that roamed the wilds of England.

I served the regency in this manner for eighteen years until the death of John Gaunt two years since spelled the end of Richard’s reign. John’s son Henry, exiled and disinherited on order of his cousin, returned to supplant the Plantagenet lineage with the House of Lancaster, imprisoning Richard at Pontefract until his death last year. But his conquests did not end there.

Henry, determined to eradicate every last vestige of Richard’s tyranny has in this year, 1401, signed De Heretico Comburendo, the burning of heretics, unto law. My past affiliations to Richard and to Lollardy together with my malformed appearance see me condemned to purging by fire. Here I wait, in the Tower that held me twenty years ago. All told it would have been best had I died then, or stayed my hand and allowed the archers to let fly their vengeance.

No matter; I shall perish content in the knowledge that my sins are atoned in full and that the boy King whom I saved has likewise met a fate fitting of his character.

So it falls to you, dear witness, to bear the truth of this testimony, this wretched treachery, for I shall never again speak or scribe to lie.


© 2013 spence

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Added on June 24, 2013
Last Updated on June 24, 2013



Grimsby, United Kingdom

Just returning to WritersCafe after a couple of years in the wilderness of life. I'm a 40 year old (until December 2013, at least) father of two, former youth and community worker, sometime socio-pol.. more..