Another in the occasional series on contemporary accounts of events in the history of London, this one written by Roger of Wendover in c. 1196 …
“About this time there arose a dispute in the city of London between the poor and the rich on account of the tallage, which was exacted by the king’s agents for the benefit of the exchequer: for the principal men of the city, whom we call mayors and aldermen, having held a deliberation at their hustings, wished to preserve themselves from the burden, and to oppress the poorer classes. Wherefore William Fitz-Robert [also rendered as Fitz-Osbert], surnamed ‘with the beard’ [William Longbeard] … called the mayors of the city traitors to our lord the king for the cause above mentioned; and the disturbances were so great in the city that recourse was had to arms. … [T]he king, his ministers, and the chief men of the city charged the whole crime on William. As the king’s party were about to arrest him, he … escaped, defending himself with nothing but a knife, and flying into the church of St Mary of the Arches [St Mary-le-Bow], demanded the protection of our Lord, St Mary, and her church, saying that he had resisted an unjust decree for no other purpose than that all might bear an equal share of the public burden, and contribute according to their means. His expostulations, however, were not listened to, … and the archbishop [Walter] … ordered that he should be dragged from the church to take a trial, because he had created a sedition … among the people of the city. When this was told to William, he took refuge in the tower of the church, for he knew that the mayors … sought to take away his life. In their obstinacy they applied fire, and sacreligiously burnt down a great part of the church. Thus William was forced to leave … , … seized, … and … conveyed away to the Tower of London. Soon after, … he was … dragged, tied to a horse’s tail, through the middle of London to Ulmet [Tyburn] … : after which he was hung in chains on a gallows. … With him were also hanged nine of his neighbours or of his family, who espoused his cause”.
According to other contemporary sources referenced in Lindsey German and John Rees’s perfectly splendid “A People’s History of London” (Verso, 2012), William Longbeard was “in origin one of the most noble citizens of London”, but nonetheless became “the champion of the poor, it being his wish that every person, both rich and poor, should give according to his property and means, for all the necessities of the state”.
In one remarkable and radical speech that provoked fear and outrage throughout the Establishment, he proclaimed:
“I am the saviour of the poor. Oh poor, who have experienced the heaviness of rich men’s hands, drink from my wells the waters of the doctrine of salvation, and … do this joyfully, for the time of your visitation is at hand. For I will divide … the humble and faithful people from the haughty and treacherous … , as light from darkness”.