The name "Gladman‘s Insurrection", or "Rising", has become attached to several days of serious disturbances and riots which occurred in Norwich in January 1443. John Gladman was a Norwich merchant and member of the Guild of St. George but, apart from his role in the riots, we know nothing more about him. But there is no record of him being directly involved in the disputes which led to the riots; nor was he the leader of the riots or even a rioter. Although he only featured in one part of these events, he seems to have become a central symbol for them. Wearing a crown and dressed as "the king of Christmas" with his horse covered in tinsel, he was the central figure in a procession which seems to have been intended to be a focal point for the rioters and possibly had a symbolic or ritualistic meaning. It was only later that his name came to the fore because, in the legal actions which followed the riots, his "procession" was seized on by those bringing charges against the rioters as, perhaps rather conveniently for them, representing the treason and "rising against the lord king" or "insurrection" which they claimed had occurred. In fact it is very doubtful if any "insurrection" or treason was ever intended or occurred.
A further complication is that there is no one totally reliable record of the event, since the only records we have are legal documents where one side of a case is being argued, or a record written by the city authorities, who were one party to the disputes which gave rise to the riots.
The background for these riots, which Tanner describes as "one of the most remarkable anti-clerical disturbances in fifteenth century England", lay in a long-standing power struggle between a newly rich and ambitious merchant class who controlled the city government and the older established church authorities, such as the Cathedral Priory and abbeys. The struggle was chiefly about which party had jurisdiction over various lands within and around the city. This struggle was exacerbated by divisions within the city elite itself, mainly deriving from the activities of Thomas Wetherby, a prominent alderman, who was also supported by various county gentry, notably Sir Thomas Tuddenham and John Heydon, who in turn were supported by one of the magnates of East Anglia, the Earl of Suffolk, King Henry VI‘s chief minister. This faction had been at the centre of a number of disputes, notably about mayoral elections, and generally supported the church authorities in their disputes with the city. The "city" faction was made up of most of the prominent aldermen of the city and serving or former mayors, many of them wealthy merchants.
To explain how Gladman‘s "Procession" fits in to the riots of January 1443 it is necessary to relate the sequence of events in the two or three days just before the day of Gladman‘s activities. It is in relation to this period, before Gladman‘s procession took place, that the charge of "insurrection" is first heard. It was alleged in the indictments that followed the riots that the "mayor and commonalty ... planned to make a common insurrection and disturbance .. by burning, killing and plundering". But the immediate cause of the disturbances was a meeting of the city assembly called to discuss the "sealing", or confirmation, of an arbitration award made the year before by the Earl of Suffolk. This was an attempt to settle a dispute between the Abbot of St. Benet‘s at Holme and the city authorities about some watermills, the "New Mills", built by the city on the Wensum in about 1430. The Abbot claimed that they obstructed the flow of water to his own mills.
The arbitration award, among other things, required the city to demolish the mills, and was seen by many in the city hierarchy as very biased towards the Abbot, constituting a threat to the city‘s income from the mills and to the supply of flour for a staple food, i.e. bread. They therefore delayed "sealing", i.e. confirming, the award for as long as possible, but in January 1443 a meeting of the city Assembly was called to discuss it, and in order to prevent the award being sealed it seems that some of the city or "popular" party, led by, among others, Robert Toppes, a former mayor and the builder of Dragon Hall, forcibly removed the common seal from the Guildhall. This developed into a full scale riot, fuelled by old resentments about the power of the church, in which the crowd, encouraged by prominent citizens such as the mayor, piled wood against the gates of the Cathedral Close, threatened to burn the Priory and kill the monks, and demanded the return, i.e. cancellation, of an earlier agreement made in 1429 between the city and the priory about tithes in Carrow. The rioters held the city for a week, even refusing to admit the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Oxford who had been appointed by the king to deal with the riot.
It was at some point during the unfolding of these events that Gladman‘s procession took place. We have some agreed details of it, but historians differ about its exact nature and significance. In the indictments brought soon afterwards it was claimed, that they (i.e. the city authorities) "then and there arranged for John Gladman .. to ride in the city on a horse, like a crowned king with a sceptre and sword carried before him...and twenty four others to likewise ride on horseback .. with a crown upon their arms and carrying bows and arrows, as if they were valets of the crown of the lord king; and a hundred other unknown persons ... to follow the same John Gladman, carrying bows and arrows and swords. They went around urging people in the city to come together and to make an insurrection and riots there". They went on to allege that by the ringing of bells they were able to gather three thousand people and "to make a violent insurrection throughout the entire city .. armed with swords, bows and arrows, hauberks and coats of armour". The indictments claimed that this represented a direct challenge to the king‘s authority, by mimicking a royal procession, with Gladman himself as king, including a "sceptre" and attendants wearing crowns on their sleeves etc., that it was a planned "insurrection", and therefore constituted treason - serious charges indeed. This theme of alleged treason is continued in an account of 1482 which says that Wetherby and the Abbot made an allegation to the king that the mayor and others were "rysers ageynst the kyng", adding weight to the idea that Wetherby and his allies were very keen to press the charge of treason, not only riot, as this would be a particularly powerful and dangerous weapon against their opponents.
Even though no lives were lost, the consequences for the city were serious: it was fined three thousand marks, later reduced to one thousand; its liberties were seized by the king; and a governor, Sir John Clifton of New Buckenham, ruled the city for four years, until 1447. A month later, at the instigation of Tuddenham and Heydon, charges were brought against William Hempstede, the mayor, the two sheriffs, eight aldermen including Robert Toppes, and sixty eight others for planning a rising to intimidate the bishop and the priors into abandoning their lawsuits. Another indictment stated that a total of ninety eight people, headed by the mayor, threatened to burn the priory and kill the monks.
However, in a contrasting account by the city some five years after the riots, as part of a suit against Tuddenham and Heydon, the city claimed that Gladman was in no way being treasonable and that he was a "man of sad (i.e. sober) disposition and true and faithful to God and to the King". His procession was simply like the normal one held on Shrove Tuesday, they claimed, to mark the beginning of Lent the next day. His horse was decorated with tinsel and before and after him rode others representing the months of the year, dressed in white with red herring skins, to symbolise Lent, and the horses decorated with oyster shells. He was crowned as "King of Christmas in token that all mirth should end" and he was riding in the streets "disguised making mirth and disport and plays". This account said that Tuddenham and Heydon had made "presentments .. by perjury .. caused the said mayor.. and the said John Gladman to been indicted... to have made a common rising ...with many other horrible articles therein comprised", and that they had accused Gladman of being crowned as king "with crown, sceptre and diadem, when they never meant such a thing" and accused them, by their allegations, of being responsible for the city‘s loss of liberties. However, their defence was somewhat unconvincing as it didn‘t explain why Gladman should be riding some five weeks before the beginning of Lent. This may indicate, whatever the truth about the purpose of Gladman‘s procession, that the city were worried about the accusations of insurrection.
Transcriptions of these original reports can be read in Hudson and Tingey (below): Volume I p.343 to 347 and in Tanner p.149 to 151. The full account by the city of the dispute over the New Mills can be seen in Hudson and Tingey, Volume I, p.348 to 353.
Historians take different views of the veracity of the city‘s defence and of the exact nature of Gladman‘s procession. Most accept that serious riots took place but some claim that Gladman‘s procession was primarily of a ritualistic nature, typical of many parades and processions in medieval cities, often at the time of carnival; it was not therefore an "insurrection" or treasonable. Maddern says that it should be understood "as rituals designed to legitimate one group of the city‘s rulers" (i.e. the anti-Wetherby faction), and that "the procession was to assert citizens‘ capacity to order their own world without reference to the Prior". Hudson and Tingey take it rather less seriously, describing it as "a piece of Christmas mummery".
Another question that remains unresolved is about who exactly organised Gladman‘s procession, on the assumption that while the riot may have been spontaneous it is unlikely that the procession was. Do we believe the assertion by the Wetherby faction that the city party planned the whole riot and "arranged" Gladman‘s procession? Was Gladman himself a prime mover or just following orders and re-enacting, rather prematurely, his normal pre-Lenten procession? The study of this whole episode, while interesting in itself, is also a useful study in the difficulty of arriving at the truth when the various reports, deriving from parties locked in a long conflict, tell very different stories.
Unfortunately, we shall never know the truth about the exact organisation and purpose of Gladman‘s procession or his role in it. We know nothing more about what became of John Gladman, or whether he was punished for his part in the riots, although the city‘s defence of him did state that he, along with many others, was indicted by name. But this obscure citizen of Norwich has left his mark on history by, perhaps misleadingly, giving his name to a serious conflict within a major medieval city which illustrates very well the tensions within many urban communities of that period, and one which clearly alarmed the crown.