The sweet scent of flowering bluebells followed the marchers to Canterbury. Guy yelped when startled bumble bee stung him on the ear and Spragg laughed at his dancing like a drunken jester all over the path.
As the rebel ranks tramped past hamlets and villages on the road, more men and boys tagged along. Many joined just for fun and, at times, it felt more like a carnival than a march. The sun reached its highest point overhead and the rag-tag rabble paused for a break. Spragg, Guy and Rowan strolled into the shade of a larch tree where they found Tyler speaking to John Ball.
“After we occupy the Council House,” Tyler announced, “I’ll bring a company of my best men to join the rest of you at the Archbishop’s palace. We’ll teach him a lesson he’ll not forget.”
Ball spat a piece of raw carrot on the floor. “Don’t talk to me of that wretched priest. Once we see the old fool off, I’ll be the leader of the Church of England. Then we’ll march on London and show those High-borns who this country belongs to.”
Guy began to doubt that Tyler was following the plans agreed with the society of the Three Doves. “Do you follow my master’s instructions or do you seek personal glory?” he demanded.
“I’d be careful if I were you young ‘un. Montfort’s an old war horse and no fool. He wants justice sure enough, but knows the sharp end of a sword gets better results than the sharp end of a tongue.” The amused twinkle in Tyler’s eye irritated Spragg.
“Some call fighting no more than a common murder.”
“And some might say you should hold your tongue.”
Spragg tugged Guy’s arms. “C’mon Guy, we’ve work to do.” Tyler grunted and slid outside.
Spragg was not prepared for a town the size of Canterbury. His senses reeled when he passed through its main gate. Row upon row of densely-packed houses, built mostly of wood, flanked narrow streets covered by a mass of humanity. Scores of pigs foraged in the mud bundling pedestrians aside, rats ran everywhere and children openly urinated against walls.
The sight of three of Tyler’s men breaking into a nearby house brought him to his senses, and he was appalled as they emerged seconds later with armfuls of silver and brass ornaments. Everywhere he looked was the same. Anyone standing in the way of the marauding mob was pushed roughly aside, or worse. Guy and Tyler shouted to Spragg to accompany them to the Council House where the clattering of hooves and mocking jeers from the soldiers brought a group of bewildered aldermen rushing to the door to meet them.
“Get out scum, and take your servants with you while you can,” demanded Tyler. “In you go men, stay here until I send word and don’t let these bloodsuckers back inside.” He waited until all twenty had followed his order, then wheeled his horse and headed towards the Archbishop’s palace. Rowan and Ball were already outside the palace arguing with a group of priests.
“I don’t believe you. The Archbishop must be here,” Ball shouted. “Sudbury is due to say mass in the cathedral. Why would he go to London?”
“Believe what you like,” spat one of the priests. “He left yesterday, and no amount of talk will make him appear here today.”
Ball stomped over to Tyler, crimson-cheeked. “Sudbury has escaped. Come, we are wasting time.”
A stone’s throw from the west gate, the cathedral’s impressive edifice towered above the town dominating the skyline with ecclesiastical arrogance. Its thick, stone walls dwarfed dozens of huts and lean-to houses nestling around its base. Inside, local worshippers kneeling in the front few rows of pews were soon swamped by scores of rebels piling in through the arched entrance. Before long the nave was full.
On the altar, the Cathedral Dean was about to begin the sermon, when John Ball stepped into the aisle, and raised his hand. “Tell me, your grace, and tell all the people here. Who do you serve exactly? Who does the church serve?”
“What do you mean by asking such a ridiculous question?” the Dean spluttered. “The impertinence. How dare you enter the house of God and interrupt a holy service.” An argument was just what Ball was hoping for.
“How dare I interrupt? I’d rather ask, how is it that you, and your so-called priests, dare treat poor people like cattle fodder? I have made myself Archbishop of Canterbury to right your wrongs. Seize him.” Three rebels rushed the altar, grabbed the Dean and dragged him into the cloisters. Ball marched up to the pulpit.
“What this town needs is a priest of the people, a Deacon who cares for his flock. I call on Friar Rowan to come forward.”
Rowan hesitatingly rose. So this is what Ball meant by preparing for greatness? Ball gestured for him to kneel and placed his hands on the friar’s bald head.
“With the new power vested in me as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, I crown thee Dean.” Rowan’s mouth opened and closed with involuntary spasms, and Spragg smiled to see his discomfort.
Rowan soon recovered to give such a stirring sermon about the evils of sin and the horror of eternal damnation that an old man fainted and was carried out mumbling, begging God’s forgiveness.
After the service, Ball spoke to Tyler. “Gather the townspeople on the common in one hour, if you will. I have prepared a sermon of my own I want all to hear.”
Spragg and Guy could only stand and watch as gangs of rebels rampaged through the city, herding every person they could find to the gathering place. Those who resisted were whipped for their trouble.
“I heard four merchants were strangled on the river bank last night,” they overheard one say. “Then they stripped them bare and chopped them into tiny pieces.” Skirmishes broke out all around them as more people resisted or tried to escape. By the time John Ball stood atop a makeshift scaffold, just after noon, several hundred souls were packed tightly, surrounded by their tormentors. The boys sat on a grass-covered knoll to get a better view. The cleric’s powerful voice boomed across the crowd.
“My good friends, things do not go well in this England of ours, neither will they ever until the fruits of our labour are shared more equally. Why are we held in bondage? Are we not all equally descended from the same parents, Adam and Eve?” Murmurs of assent rippled through the crowd. Ball wiped his brow and dramatically gestured with his arm.
“The wealthy clothe themselves in velvets and silks,” he continued. “They have wines, spices and fine bread, when we have only rye and watered ale. They do little work while we must brave the wind and rain in the fields to feed their greed.” Shouts and cheers rang across the common.
“And they took my youth and beauty,” shouted a toothless hag to jeers and laughter. The new archbishop was not to be distracted.
“We are called slaves, and if we do not perform our duties we are beaten. The Regent’s men care nothing for justice. Let us go to our wise, young king, and tell him we must have it otherwise. And we will tell him we’ll prevail with or without his help.” Tyler then took the stand and motioned for the applause and cheers to die down.
“We march on London. But first we gather at Barking tomorrow to meet those from other counties who would join the fight. Who is with us?” Spragg found himself pulled along by the surge of feeling from the assembly and raised his hands with the rest.
Spragg and Guy headed towards the north gate before the main crowd dispersed. There they came across the corpses of two dark-skinned merchants propped up against a well, their throats slit from ear to ear and stripped of all their clothes. The boys hurried past.
“The rumours are true then,” said Spragg despondently. “Did the message we carried cause this?”
“No,” replied Guy. “Our information simply helped the revolt happen more quickly. Nothing could have stopped it. There will be less bloodshed as a result, not more.”
As they entered the Old Boar’s Head inn, opposite the malting house, Guy noticed a figure lurking in the shadows.
“Have you seen that man before?” he whispered. By the time Spragg turned there was nobody to be seen, but Guy was shaken. “I thought for a moment he was one of the Regent’s men who came to Moldwood.” Spragg placed a reassuring hand on his friend’s arm.
“Come on, we must get some rest.”
They climbed into a lumpy bed, exhausted. As they lay in the dim light, neither could find sleep. Spragg was finally beginning to relax on his bug-ridden mattress, when the creak of a floorboard shook him awake.
He could not tell if the dark shape bending over him was real or the imagining of his troubled conscience.
Suddenly, a hand covered his mouth and a blade, real enough, was pushed against his neck. This is becoming a habit, he thought grimly. He heard muffled sounds of a struggle from the other side of the bed. A searing pain spread quickly from one side of his face as a clenched fist smashed into his cheek bone with the force of a mill stone.
When he woke just before dawn, his whole face throbbed, and his eye was closed and swollen. He quickly realised he was alone in the room. There was a small pool of drying blood on the stone floor. Guy was gone.