Sheep and shepherds in a pen, depicted in a 14th-century manuscript (© British Library Board. All Rights Reserved / Bridgeman Images)

Faithful subject or rebel? A 14th-century knight and a protest poem

In the first half of the 14th century England was frequently at war, with Scotland or France. Paying for the wars put enormous pressure on taxpayers, and sometimes this proved too much.

In 1342 the lord of Stokesay Castle, Sir Laurence Ludlow, was arrested for non-delivery of the Shropshire wool tax, for which he was the official collector. Only a few years earlier, a strongly worded poem was composed near Stokesay recording the heightened tensions caused around this time by high taxes. Was Sir Laurence linked to its composition?

Lords of Stokesay

Stokesay Castle today. Apart from the addition of the 17th-century gatehouse, the castle looks much as it did in Sir Laurence’s day

Stokesay Castle today. Apart from the addition of the 17th-century gatehouse (right), the castle looks much as it did in Sir Laurence’s day

On the death of Laurence of Ludlow, wool merchant and builder of Stokesay Castle, in 1294, his descendants put down roots in Shropshire. Having inherited not only the castle but much other property in Shropshire from the fabulously wealthy Laurence, none of them engaged in trade. Instead they became members of the county’s ruling class, marrying into other local landowning families.

Laurence’s grandson, another Laurence of Ludlow, was one such figure. Born in about 1300, he inherited the estate from his father, William, in 1316. Laurence’s career was largely unremarkable. He was knighted and married between 1324 and 1326 and was an MP for Shropshire in 1328. Through his mother, Mathilda, he inherited the estate and castle of Hodnet, also in Shropshire.

Under arrest

The Battle of Crécy (1346), one of the early battles of the Hundred Years War between England and France, at which Edward III (on the right) led his army to victory

The Battle of Crécy (1346), at which Edward III (on the right) led his army to victory over the French. Paying for the king’s wars through high taxes placed enormous pressure on rich and poor alike © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

Sir Laurence served in Edward II’s war in Scotland in 1322; his father, William, had also served in 1311 and 1315. In 1329 and again in 1341 Sir Laurence was named to collect the Shropshire wool tax.

Wool was central to the economy of Shropshire and Herefordshire at the time, so this was an important task. Edward III had agreed with the wool merchants to sell them 30,000 sacks of wool at a set price, for which they would pay him a lump sum in advance, plus a 50% cut of the profits from the wool sales. Laurence was among those tasked with collecting the wool to meet the contract.

He evidently found his second stint as tax collector more difficult than the first, because the following year, in March 1342, he was arrested for non-delivery of wool. All his lands and goods were to be held by the king until Sir Laurence had secured it.

The merchants accused Shropshire collectors like Laurence of supplying bad wool or using false weights. However, contemporary documents make clear that the amount of wool demanded by the Crown may have been more than was readily available.

A protest poem

The opening lines of the protest poem that may have been connected with Sir Laurence Ludlow

The opening lines of the protest poem that may have been connected with Sir Laurence Ludlow © British Library Board (MS Harley 2253 fol 137v)

Around 1338–9 a poem was composed locally which is highly relevant to Sir Laurence’s position, as it gives voice to the general discontent felt at the time.

Circumstantial evidence points to Sir Laurence being the poem’s patron. First, he was noted for being contemptuous of the charges and proceedings against him. Secondly, the poem is part of a collection of works that includes another poem which praises Baldwin de Hodnet, a maternal ancestor of Sir Laurence, as a hero. Another praises Simon de Montfort (d.1265), one-time ruler of England after the Second Barons’ War, who had sought to strengthen the position of parliament and so restrain royal power.

Finally, many of the causes advocated in the collection (such as good governance and respect for church authority) were championed by a major ally of Sir Laurence, Richard Fitzalan, 3rd Earl of Arundel. He was an important  figure in the royal council, charged by the king with raising money to finance the war with France. 

We cannot be certain, but it may be that the poems were the work of a scribe based in Ludlow, who we know worked on legal documents relating to the Ludlow family.

Unjust taxes

The poem, written in Middle French, is especially critical of efforts to raise more money in England through additional taxes, and the pressure this has placed on the poorest in society. Initially it refers to the fifteenth – an additional tax of 15% of the value of moveable goods (as opposed to property) imposed by the king – and the burden that this places on both rich and poor:
   

Now proceeds in England
From year to year
The tax of the fifteenth penny,
Thus inflicting a common harm.
And it brings down those wont
To sit upon the bench [ie those who sit on benches for comfort],
And it forces common folk to sell
Cows, utensils, and clothing.
   

It cannot be that such a policy
Is pleasing to God,
Thus to crush the poor
Under a bitter burden!

Who can give from emptiness,
Or touch it with his hands?
People are in such bad straits
That they cannot give more;
I fear that, had they a leader,
They would rise in rebellion.
Often people turn foolish
From loss of possessions.

The Value of Wool

Sheep and shepherds in a pen, depicted in a 14th-century manuscript

Sheep and shepherds in a pen, depicted in a 14th-century manuscript © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved / Bridgeman Images

The poem also makes clear that the value of wool remained as central to daily life in the mid-14th century as it had been in the late 13th century under Sir Laurence’s grandfather:

Still more oppressive for simple folk
Is the wool collection.
Commonly, it forces them to sell
Their valuables.

By whom will this wool be taken?
Some respond
That neither king nor realm will have it,
But only the wool collectors.
Such a false weight of wool
Constitutes a bitter thing!

By ‘wool collectors’ the poet is referring to the English merchants who had made the deal with Edward III.

Abuse of power

The sense of anger at injustice and abuse of power is palpable. Individuals like Sir Laurence – who had fought for the king’s father and for Edward III himself in Scotland, and acted as a loyal agent in his capacity as tax collector – would have witnessed at first hand the hardship imposed in Shropshire on rich and poor alike.
   

The poem concludes with an appeal to God:

And may you take vengeance
On such oppressors,
And confirm and grant
Love between kings!
May he lose consolation
Who destroys the peace!
Amen.

In the end, Sir Laurence managed to secure the necessary wool and returned to his life as a country lord. In 1350 he founded a Carmelite friary in Ludlow and endowed it with property in the town. 
   

It was in the friary church that Laurence was buried three years later, after he was murdered in uncertain circumstances.


    

By Will Wyeth

Further reading

C Revard, ‘Four fabliaux from London, British Library MS Harley 2253, translated into English verse’, The Chaucer Review, 40:2 (2005), 111–40
BL Bryant, ‘Talking with the taxman about poetry: England’s economy in “Against the King’s Taxes” and Wynnere and Wastoure’, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History, 3rd series, 5 (2008), 219–48
S Fein (ed), The Complete Harley 2253 Manuscript, vol 3 (2014) (accessed 10 July 2018)
S Fein (ed), Studies in the Harley Manuscript: the scribes, contents, and social contexts of British Library MS Harley 2253 (Kalamazoo, Michigan, 2000), especially C Revard, ‘Scribe and provenance’, 21–110
WM Ormrod, ‘Edward III (1312–1377)’, Oxford DNB, 3 Jan 2008 (accessed 10 July 2018)

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