Blackheath seethed with a mass of sweaty rebels carrying tools and makeshift weapons, mostly of wood, as men and boys alike jostled for position on the crowded plain. Spragg had not imagined so many people in the whole of England.
On a small rise, towards the edge of the sea of heads, he spotted Tyler’s standard fluttering in the breeze outside a makeshift tent. It took him almost an hour to fight through the crowd. The rebel leader stumbled from his tent reeking of alcohol.
“Welcome to hell, boy. Did you find your friend?” Without waiting for an answer, Tyler swept his arms in an arc above his head. “Look yonder. I’d warrant there be over ten thousand of England’s finest … and worst out there,” he chuckled. “I’ve sent my lieutenant, Jack Straw, to Mile End to gather even more.” He lurched towards Spragg, just managing to grab the flagstaff to steady himself.
Spragg turned away in disgust. His father liked to drink a flagon or two of beer, especially on holy days, but he never got blind drunk.
“Guy can’t be found,” he spat before turning away. “But I won’t give up.” Tyler’s dismissive attitude irritated him. The throbbing of his old wolf-bite wound did nothing to lighten his mood.
Spragg hadn’t eaten for hours, so he went in search of food. Even the putrid stink of human waste and unwashed bodies failed to blunt his appetite He begged a handful of bread from a burly farmer and wriggled into a tiny space next to him.
“Come far, boy?” hailed a voice from over his shoulder. In front of Spragg stood an old man leaning on a stout staff. His first reaction was to turn away. Then he remembered Guy’s talk of chivalry and relented.
“Not far. And you, brother?”
“Followed my three boys here. The young rascals be spoiling for a fight. They follow their friends like lovesick sheep.” Spragg suspected that this man’s sons were not the only ones on the heath caught up in a frenzy they did not fully understand.
Before Spragg had a chance to respond, shouts rang out and everyone around them sprang to their feet. Tyler and about a dozen of his men were riding off in the direction of the river. Without a horse, Spragg had no option but to shuffle forward with the crowd. At least he was near the front. He feared for anybody trapped in the middle.
When they reached the banks of the Thames, Spragg pushed and elbowed his way towards Tyler who was swaying unsteadily as he stood on the edge of the river.
“What’s happening?” he shouted to Tyler above the noise.
“I sent word to the King to meet us hereabouts today or surrender the throne,” he smirked.
Spragg felt arms and hands push from behind and, turning round, realised everyone’s attention was fixed on a point upstream. He strained forward and watched a highly-decorated vessel veer slowly around the river bend toward them.
The royal barge was a magnificent sight. Rich tapestries hung from the roof, brightly-coloured silks draped the sides. A ghostly hush descended on the crowd as the vessel silently glided towards them. Spragg caught sight of the King seated on a golden throne, dressed in dazzling regal finery. As his eyes searched the deck, Spragg’s heart leapt. The slight figure standing just behind Richard looked like Guy. A second glance confirmed it.
He rejoiced to know that his friend was still alive. But what on God’s earth was he doing here? As the barge moved close to the bank, he could see his friend was distracted and tense. Head bowed, his eyes never left the deck of the barge.
King Richard stood up and strode to the bow. He scanned the massed ranks almost spilling into the river.
“My loyal subjects,” he began. “I rejoice to see so many gathered here in this place. What brings you hence, that you would speak with me so urgently?”
Tyler stumbled forward, and placed a hand on his sword.
“These men you see before you be your true Commons, your Majesty. They demand justice against your government. We have come with a list of demands by your leave.”
Richard studied the shore and realised he had too few armed men at his disposal to defeat such a number. He puffed out his chest and stared up at Tyler. “And who are you to make demands on the royal person?”
Tyler mopped his brow.
“It matters not who I be.” Cramper moved next to the king and whispered in his ear, as he continued. “Come ashore sire, and parley with us. We mean you no harm.” Spragg was grudgingly impressed with this cheeky display, and this from a man hardly able to stand only minutes ago.
Cramper approached the King once more, this time more urgently. Richard nodded before turning back to shore.
“My advisors will not allow it.” Murmurs spread through the crowd. Spragg was jostled and the discontented rumbling grew more urgent. Without warning, two scythes splashed in the water, not far from the barge.
John Ball pushed Tyler aside, and raised his fist. “Then send us John of Gaunt and heathen Archbishop Sudbury, and we’ll leave you in God’s peace. Aye and while you are about it, send that poll-tax thief, your treasurer Bancroft.”
“We want action,” Spragg shouted to cheers from behind.
At that, Tyler pulled down his pants and an arc of urine splashed into the river. Jeers and laughter rang out all around. “That’s what I think of thieving High-borns,” he spluttered, winking at Spragg.
Richard blanched and turned to face a group of dignitaries at the rear of the barge.
More farm tools and makeshift weapons were hurled from the bank into the river, this time landing even closer. A line of royal soldiers guarding the sides of the barge drew their arrows, waiting for the order to fire. Tyler pulled up his trousers and raised his hand in an attempt to stop the onslaught of flying debris, but buckets, pitchforks, and all manner of objects now rained into the water.
The barge pulled away and began to head back downriver followed by mocking cries from the bank. The mob was baying for blood. Spragg watched the frown deepen on Tyler’s brow.
Turning to face the peasants, Spragg bellowed. “We’ll not be so easily pushed aside, even by a king. Follow us to the city gates!”
Tyler called Spragg over to him. “Hop up boy, ride with me. At least now we know where Guy is.” Spragg perched uneasily on the rear of Tyler’s saddle, squeezed his thighs and placed his hands carefully on the shoulders of the rider.
As the horse skittered nervously through the throng, Spragg pictured the uncomfortable look on Guy’s face as he stood on the barge. He wondered what information had been forced out of him. Telling himself guessing was useless, he told himself instead to concentrate on staying on the horse.
Four hours later, the advance party arrived on the east bank of the Thames at Tabard Inn in Southwark. They waited impatiently for some foot-weary reinforcements to catch up, before heading for the southern approach to London Bridge. Tyler told Spragg the bridge would be heavily guarded, and his worst fears were realised when they saw a large group bearing arms blocking the path as the river came into view.
Taking the lead, Tyler reined in his horse, at the head of the main group and stood defiant before the reception committee.
“Good day to you, yeomen. Don’t be fooled by my present company. There be thousands of men not an hour away. We seek entry to the city, and be warned that before this day is through the city will be in our hands.”
To Spragg’s surprise, a man dressed in the heavy robes of a city alderman smiled. “We welcome you and your men to the city of London. For days we have heard of your coming and bid you safe passage.”
Behind the brightly-clad official Spragg could see several Guildsmen. He had seen such men pass through the manor, seeking food or shelter when about their business on the road.
Tyler’s grin spread from ear to ear as he led the first group of peasants across London Bridge. Many began cheering and banging mallets and spades or whatever came to hand in a symphony of triumph. For several hours, wave after wave of rebels followed.
Travelling up the Watling Road, the leading group halted in a courtyard in the giant shadow of the city cathedral. It was there that more men confronted Spragg and Tyler, this time less friendly.
It was the Lord Mayor William Walworth who spoke. “By order of the King’s Regent and the burghers of London, I command this rabble to disperse.”
Tyler laughed in his face.
“There’ll be no dispersing. But don’t worry. My men are no rabble and I have given orders. There’ll be no trouble.” Spragg recognised the sly look in Tyler’s eyes and thought his words false. He remembered no orders and even if Tyler really had issued them, Spragg thought, he doubted the victorious rebels would be in any mood to obey.