Thomas Becket was not the only Archbishop of Canterbury to be murdered in office, as Richard West explains...
Like many high-profile figures in medieval times, Simon of Sudbury suffered a grisly fate.
In June 1381, the Archbishop of Canterbury was dragged from the Tower of London - where he had sought refuge - by a rebellious mob.
He was then beheaded on Tower Green, with the executioner reportedly taking up to eight attempts.
His head was then placed above the gatehouse on London Bridge.
It was an unceremonious end for the Archbishop, who had found himself caught up in one of the most tumultuous periods of British history.
But what were the events which led to this gruesome conclusion and what do we know about the man himself?
Born in Sudbury in Suffolk in 1316, Simon Theobald went on to study at the University of Paris and became a chaplain to the pope. In 1356 Simon of Sudbury, as he became known, was sent on a mission to King Edward III of England.
In May 1375 Simon succeeded William Whittlesey as Archbishop of Canterbury. Two years later, he crowned the 10-year-old Richard II King at Westminster Abbey, following Edward III’s death the previous month. The late monarch’s son Prince Edward of Woodstock, known as the Black Prince, had already died from dysentery, so it was Edward III’s grandson Richard who took the throne.
In January 1380, Simon was appointed Lord Chancellor of England, which would subsequently prove not to be his best career move!
The country was not yet halfway through what would become the hundred years war, draining the Treasury. Army garrisons in France had not been paid for three months and money was needed for the war to continue.
When Parliament met in Northampton in November 1380 the financial situation was dire. Three options were proposed: a sales tax; a wealth tax on property; or a poll tax of one shilling and three groats per head on everybody over the age of 15. Parliament opted for the poll tax, to raise £100,000 if the Church raised the other £60,000 needed. The richest people would pay up to six groats per man and wife. A groat was the equivalent of four pence.
The Great Rising, now known as the Peasants’ Revolt, started on May 30, 1381, in Brentwood, Essex. It was the outcome of overall dissent following the Black Death pandemic of 1348 to 1349, wiping out a third of the population, resulting in a labour shortage with inevitable higher wages, which the government had successively attempted to hold down by statute. The ending of serfdom was an important part of people’s demands.
The revolt was triggered when a royal commission from the Exchequer arrived in Brentwood to enquire why there had been a mysterious fall of one third in the adult population since the poll tax was introduced.
Having released radical cleric John Ball from Maidstone gaol, Wat Tyler led the Kentish insurgents to Canterbury, where they broke into the Cathedral during the celebration of high mass demanding that the monks depose the Archbishop.
Wat Tyler’s followers denounced the Archbishop as “a traitor who will be beheaded for his iniquity”. After causing damage and destruction at the Archbishop’s palace, the insurgents moved on to the Archbishop’s Lambeth Palace.
On June 14, King Richard rode out from the Tower of London for an arranged meeting with the rebels at Mile End. After the meeting ended, Wat Tyler and 400 men went to the Tower of London and found Lord Chancellor Simon of Sudbury and Lord High Treasurer Sir Robert Hales, who was responsible for collecting the third poll tax in four years, at prayer in St John’s Chapel in the White Tower. Both men were seized and led to their deaths.
Wat Tyler met a similar end the next day by the Mayor of London’s sword.
During his time as Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury was responsible for strengthening the defences of the city walls and the rebuilding of the Westgate Towers, which later became the city gaol. In addition, he demolished the Norman Nave of the Cathedral which was in a state of bad repair and unsafe. Reconstruction commenced in 1375.
He gave 3,000 marks, equivalent to more than £2m today, to subsidise the cost of the building works authorised.
On Christmas Day at the end of the Eucharist service the Lord Mayor and Corporation process from the Nave to the tomb of Archbishop Simon of Sudbury, where the Lord Mayor lays a wreath of roses on behalf of the city.
The Black Prince is buried in Canterbury Cathedral near the tomb of Simon of Sudbury.
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