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Jack Cade: Biography, Rebellion & Monument

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

A lot happened to England in the 15th century. In this lesson, we are going to check out the rebellion of Jack Cade and see how this movement further destabilized the already shaken English society.

Jack Cade

The 15th century was rough for England. Decades of warfare with foreign nations bankrupted the nation and led to wars between English lords and nobles. In between these were also popular rebellions that demonstrated the frustration of a population tired of so much fighting. One of these rebellions occurred in 1450. Led by the mysterious figure Jack Cade, this uprising shook the already unstable foundations of English society.

Jack Cade, as he is generally depicted in the Shakespeare play entitled Henry VI
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Background

In roughly 1337, England and France broke into a convoluted conflict over land and power. That war raged on for over a century, as English kings continually invaded France, the French pushed back, and the English invaded again. We call this the Hundred Years' War. By the 1430s, the English treasury was bankrupt from paying for all of these wars, and generations of men had been killed in battle. The king and nobles had also recently lost large portions of their property in France, dispossessing many lords of their wealth and tightening the royal budget even further. To pay for the war, the kings placed increasingly heavy taxes on the working class.

This is the world that Jack Cade was born into. We know very little about his life, except that he was likely born in Ireland sometime between 1420 and 1430. He may have fought in the wars in France, but at some point he moved to Kent, England. It was here that he would etch his name into history.

The Rebellion

In Kent, Cade met with other small property owners who were feeling the brunt of royal taxes. At the time, the King of England was Henry VI. Not only were taxes increasing, but the King's officials were also corrupt and cruel. The men of Kent started complaining, and finally in 1450 banded together in protest.

King Henry VI
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This wasn't a peasant rebellion, but one that drew together mostly small property owners. Cade drafted a list of grievances against the King, most of which demanded the removal of corrupt officials and the establishment of a more fair system of taxation. As a final sign of protest, Jack Cade adopted the nickname John Mortimer. Why was that name significant? The Mortimers were an ancient family whose descendant, the Duke of York, was Henry VI's top rival.

The Conflict Escalates

The King sent royal troops into Kent to break up the protests, and the two groups met in battle. To everyone's surprise, Cade's rebels prevailed. Having defeated the first of the King's troops, they marched on to London. Most of the people of London seem to have supported Cade at first; they were upset with the taxes and corruption as well. The rebels killed the Sheriff of Kent, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the royal treasurer, and nearly took control of the Tower of London before fighting to a standstill against the royal army.

Cade and his rebels made it into London before reaching a stalemate with royal troops
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At this point, a truce was offered and Cade was given the opportunity to present his demands. Royal officials promised to agree to his terms, and in return Cade turned over a list of his men so that they could formally receive royal pardons for their rebellion. At this point, most of the rebels left London and went home, convinced that their rebellion had succeeded.

Death of Jack Cade

Of course, neither Henry VI nor Parliament had any intention of following through on their promises. The King ordered Cade to be arrested, and the rebel leader fled the city. He was later caught by the new Sheriff of Kent in Sussex and fatally wounded. He died while be transported back to London, but his corpse was drawn and quartered, and his head was placed on a pike on London Bridge.

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