Armies and Losses
Few details are available regarding the numbers of both sides. Walsingham has it that at the outset Despenser had with him ‘not more than eight lances (a term used in this period for man-at-arms) and a very small number of archers’. As he moved quickly towards North Walsham, local knights and gentry joined him but it is difficult to put a definite figure to this.
As for Lister and his rebels we have no firm figures. The number of rebels involved in the siege of the abbey of St Benet at Holme on 23 June was deemed in the indictments to have involved 400 men, a force large enough to prompt the monks to abandon their services and arm themselves to keep watch in defence of their abbey. On several occasions, the judicial records mention that Lister had made efforts to raise men. Indeed, Lister seems to have exercised a notable level of command which in many ways mirrored standard royal means of assembling troops. He is reported as sending out messengers, often over quite wide geographical areas, with proclamations ordering men to gather at certain points (Mousehold; Thorpe Market; and presumably North Walsham). Once at Norwich Lister sent messengers to all hundreds to the north and east of the city to raise men for further actions. The judicial records show that men who had previously been involved in actions in south and west Norfolk were active alongside men from the north and east: this suggests considerable coordination. Andrew Prescott has suggested that the pattern of movements over the region is ‘reminiscent of the chevauchées used by the English in France, and may reflect military experience’.
The indictments have it that Lister and his men entered Norwich and Yarmouth modo guerrino cum penicellis erectis (‘in a warlike manner with banners raised’). Whilst a legal expression, it none the less suggests that his men were armed and organised, as does the obvious selection of specific targets, as opposed to indiscriminate looting. For instance, a prominent official deemed responsible for the city charter of 1378 which increased the power of the elite was singled out. At Yarmouth Lister and his men tore up the charter which gave the town government power over the sale of herring. Elsewhere we find organised attacks on property and servants of John of Gaunt, one of whom was beheaded at Mousehold Heath on 17 June. Lister seems even to have taken up residence in Norwich castle and held court sessions emulating royal practice. At Thorpe Market he received petitions. Such actions no doubt explain Walsingham’s comment that he called himself ‘King of the Commons’ (though the chronicler gives his first name incorrectly as John). The use in the legal records of the term ‘great society’ (magna societas) for Lister’s company also reflects military terminology of the period: a group of soldiers was often termed a ‘societas’, and a fellow soldier a ‘socius’ (companion, or friend).
From the judicial records we can identify participants in the activities of Lister: indeed what we can see is a ‘campaign’ over the previous few weeks not just a final battle denouement. Some men hailing from North Walsham itself were indicted for offences: John Norwich was charged with killing Reginald Eccles at Norwich on 17 June and John Bettes with issuing proclamations in Holt at Lister’s command. Gentry such as Thomas Gissing and Sir Roger Bacon were part of his company. However, the judicial records have next to nothing on the battle itself, save that Lister was killed by the bishop. Bacon is mentioned a number of times in the indictments and also was tried before king’s bench, but was pardoned in December 1381. His role in the battle remains uncertain.
It is possible that a more confident estimate will be possible once the results of an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project, The People of 1381, have been published (http://www.1381.org). This project was begun in 2019, led by Professor Adrian Bell of Henley Business School, University of Reading, with Professor Anne Curry of Southampton, Drs Helen Lacey and Helen Killick of Oxford and Professor Andrew Prescott of Glasgow. The latter, as well as Dr Herbert Eiden based at Reading, have already carried out researches on the judicial records (see Further reading). The project will also include widespread community engagement, including at North Walsham. Through use of judicial records it is hoped to establish a database of those involved in the rising, whether protagonist or victim, which can be fleshed out by manorial records, the poll tax and other sources.
Some parallel recent research has been carried out by the Battle of 1381 group, which has discovered some of the names of local individuals from escheator inquisitions and manorial court rolls: the deaths of John Buk and Nicholas de Orford at the battle, on the rebel side, are noted in the latter source, as we can see on the https://battleofnorthwalsham1381.wordpress.com/ website. Herbert Eiden found at least six deaths from the escheator records, including two men from North Walsham (Richard Hobesson and Geoffrey Coleman). some men were killed by Despenser at Icklingham on 22 June. Capgrave names them as Sceth, Trunch and Cubith, the first two likely being Eiden’s William Kybyte and Thomas Skeet, both of Worstead.
The People of 1381 as well as local research should lead to a better understanding of who was involved on both sides, taking into account that we can also draw on the names of men linked to Lister and active in the weeks before the battle. The rebel side may have included some who had previously served in royal armies who helped give their force at least a semblance of military order, not least by preparing their position ‘like soldiers’, as Walsingham puts it. No doubt Despenser had men with him who had military experience in royal service: he himself had fought in Italy before 1370 and was to lead an English ‘crusade’ to Flanders in 1383. He was also present on Richard II’s campaign to Scotland in 1385. Comparison with Curry and Bell’s database of soldiers (http://www.medievalsoldier.org) will be valuable in tracing earlier careers of both rebels and royalists.
Numbers for the two forces at the battle, however, are unlikely to have been greater than a few hundred each. Some rebels certainly met their end there. It might be assumed that losses on Despenser’s side were very few indeed, given the asymmetry between the two armies. The rebels were forced to adopt as defensive a position as they could, but were unlikely to be armed or armoured to the level of the bishop’s troops, or to have the cavalry resources of the latter.