Discover more from Rebel Britannia
8th June 1607:
What was in Captain Pouch's magic bag? As it turned out, probably not what his followers were expecting, but instead a lesson for the ages.
In the 1590s and 1600s there was a great increase in "enclosure" - landowners putting hedges and ditches around their fields, to prevent what had been their traditional use in subsistence farming by ordinary people. The land was now used instead for intensive farming, especially the raising of sheep for wool, a commodity which had become almost unimaginably profitable. This meant much bigger incomes for the landowners, and unemployment and hunger for their tenants.
Legally, all this was dubious to say the least but, you'll be astonished to hear, the rich mostly got away with breaking the law.
Rebellions against the enclosures broke out repeatedly, and one of the biggest and last was what historians call the Midland Revolt. It culminated in the Newton Rebellion, often described as England's last peasant uprising.
John Reynolds was apparently a Northamptonshire tinker (someone who travelled around mending things), and not much else is known of him other than that he adopted, or was given, the alter ego of Captain Pouch, and was the leader of the revolt.
Because he had received direct authority from The Lord and King of Heaven to physically destroy enclosures, he explained to his supporters, those who followed him could come to no harm: the object that he carried in his pouch (whatever it was; nobody was ever allowed to see it) had the power to protect them from their enemies.
That (and probably more so the fact that they were close to starvation) was enough for thousands to join the Captain in tearing down the new hedges and filling in the ditches. They did this for weeks, all across Northamptonshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire. No violence was to be used against any person or their property, Reynolds insisted: his band were merely concerned with forcibly returning to the common people the common land to which they had ancient rights.
Predictably, the landowners did not likewise forswear violence. In fact, it was pretty much their first resort.
The Newton Rebellion took place near Kettering, when a thousand men, woman and children attacked the enclosures of what was said to be England's "most odious" family. Not only were they traitors - they'd been involved in the Gunpowder Plot to kill the government and replace it with a Catholic dictatorship - but the Treshams were amongst the nation's most enthusiastic and ruthless enclosers of common land.
They were powerful people, and the law enforcement agencies of the day were called out to protect their fields from the mob. But local people serving in militias refused to attend, and it took a while for the gentry to amass sufficient armed men to deal with the rebels.
Once they'd done so, however, on 8th June, the engagement with the uprising was short enough. Mounted men with swords charged the protestors, killing around 50 of them. Most of the survivors were pardoned, but the ringleaders, including John Reynolds, were hanged, drawn and quartered, their body parts displayed around the region to encourage future obedience.
When the authorities opened Captain Pouch's pouch, in search of the amulet or talisman within, they found it contained nothing but a piece of old cheese, gone green with mould. I wonder if the captain managed a chuckle on his way to the scaffold, thinking of his message to posterity - that we are defended only by our own collective actions, not by magic. Or perhaps it was just a spot of lunch which he'd overlooked.
Of cabbages and kings by Caroline Foley (Frances Lincoln, 2014)