By Ian Thomas of Cirencester Civic Society
The church tower of St John Baptist dominates the skyline of Cirencester and its medieval market square. What is relatively unknown is the story of how it was funded: a story of treachery, rebellion, violence, retribution and deception but one which led to the townspeople having the wherewithal to build the tower with its statues of St John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary.
The story begins in 1399 when Henry Bolingbroke seized the crown from his cousin, Richard II. In October 1399, Henry was crowned King Henry IV. Henry’s usurpation of the crown was not universally popular and a group of conspirators plotted to remove him, a plot now known as the Epiphany Day Plot.
In early January 1400 King Henry was to attend a tournament at Windsor Castle. With four hundred armed men, the conspirators came to Windsor but, forewarned, the King had left. The rebels panicked and split up. The Earls of Kent and Salisbury with three knights and thirty men at arms fled, arriving in Cirencester in the late afternoon of the 8th January. An account describes them arriving with lances and banners displayed and with hauberks, bascinets and other armour. They took lodgings in the Ram Inn in the West Market Place.
Thomas Wallsingham, a contemporary chronicler from St Albans Abbey, takes up the story. The townspeople, suspicious of the Earls’ display of armour and convinced that they were not telling the truth, barricaded the two Earls and their men into the Ram Inn. Determined to escape, the Earls and their followers attempted to break out that evening, attacking the townspeople with lances and arrows. The townspeople overwhelmed them with such a volume of arrows that not only could they not get out, they were not even able to look out. The fighting continued until three o’clock in the morning when the Earls surrendered.
What had happened was quite extraordinary. A crowd of townspeople armed with bows and sticks had taken on, and prevailed against, an armed and armoured group of nobles, knights and men at arms.
Thomas Wallsingham records that the Earls surrendered and begged not to be killed before they saw the King. They were taken to the Abbey where they heard Mass and were given breakfast. During the afternoon, in an attempt to release the Earls and to distract the townspeople, a priest set light to houses in the town. Initially the ruse worked, but then the townspeople abandoned the burning houses and rushed to the Abbey to prevent the rebels escaping. Thomas, Lord Berkeley had arrived to escort the prisoners to the King. The townspeople, so infuriated by the wanton burning of the houses, threatened to kill Lord Berkeley if he did not hand over the prisoners. By sunset the Earls had been taken to the Market Square and beheaded. Some chronicles say that many of the Earls’ men were also beheaded. The heads were put on spikes and “the quarters put in sacks “ and taken to the King. It was the talk of the country and Shakespeare refers to it in his play Richard II, Act V the rebels having “consumed with fire Our town of Ciceter in Gloucestershire but whether they be taken or slain we hear not”.
The King was pleased: two of the five principal conspirators were dead in Cirencester. Rewards soon came when, on the 28th February 1400, he granted to the men of Cirencester “ all the goods and chattels of the Earls of Kent and Salisbury at the time of their arrest “. The King retained for himself the Earls’ “gold and silver in mass or money, vessels of gold or silver or gilt and jewels “ . This was contained in a treasure box and intended to pay for the conspiracy, but it was missing, and the King wanted it. William Tanner, the landlord of the Ram Inn, was arrested. Even John Cosyn, who led the men who defeated the Earls, was arrested. The King came to Cirencester and houses were searched but only a small part of the contents of the treasure box was recovered, valued at the time at £130. However by July 1400, the King had decided to reward the men of Cirencester with an annual grant of “Four does yearly in season from the forest of Brayden and a tun of wine from Bristol” and the women with an annual grant of “six bucks and a tun of wine”. The town achieved the ultimate reward when, on the 4th July 1403, the King granted a charter for the Guild of Merchants.
The value of the property given by the King to the men of Cirencester was immense. The armour of one man at arms would be worth at the time about £16, for a labourer this would be four years’ wages. The armour of the Earls and their knights was considerably more valuable and their horses, usually two per man one for fighting and the other for travel, were worth more than the armour .To this you can add the arms and the horse equipment and the major part of the contents of the treasure box successfully hidden from the King by the townspeople. The blood money from the beheading of the Earls paid substantially for the tower. It was built between 1402 and 1415 and the statues of St John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary put in place.