In 1380, Thomas, the master of St John’s, complained that William Blacche, a tanner, John Thomas, a carpenter, John Kelly, a hosier, and many others, attacked St John’s hospital, breaking its doors and windows, taking food and £20 in cash, locked all the doors, beat up the servants and threatened them in such a way that they were afraid to go back to the hospital. The event reflected the hostility which was developing between many of the locals and those who held power at the hospital. But it was only a prelude to what was to follow.
In 1381, the power held by the St John’s priory resulted in an unfortunate backlash. Across the country, but especially in the South-East, there had been religious unrest which resulted in the troubles labelled the Wat Tyler Rebellion. The rebellion was crushed and Wat Tyler executed. In York, Scarborough and Bridgwater, the news had failed to get through and the troubles continued. In Bridgwater, there was friction between St John’s and St Mary’s. St John’s took all the tithes and even appointed the vicar of St Mary’s.
The master of St John’s also had numerous deeds in respect of monies loaned to various townsfolk. Nicolas Frompton, a priest who had seen the way the Knights of St John had been treated in London, and Thomas Engilby, a yeoman, raised a mob of 14 men with Engilby as their captain. They forced their way into the house of the Knights and seized William Camel, the master, demanding that he transfer all properties and rights to Frompton. In addition they burned a large number of deeds and bonds and bullied the master into signing a £200 ransom promise. Finished at the priory, they moved on to Sydenham Manor, the home of John Sydenham, and burnt the rolls of the manors of Sir James Audley and John Cole. Then they burned a tenement belonging to Thomas Duffield, and a house and goods of Walter Baron of East Chilton. Worst still, they had Walter Baron beheaded.
On the Friday, Frompton headed towards Ilchester gaol, forcing John Bursy of Long Sutton to go with him. At Ilchester they removed Hugh Lavenham from the gaol and made John Bursy behead him in order that they could take the head on a spear back to Bridgwater. There it was displayed on the town bridge alongside that of Walter Baron.
Then they heard the news that elsewhere the rebellion had been crushed several days before. This was bad news since Frompton and Engilby were using that as the justification for their actions whereas their grievance was, in reality, unrelated and a strictly local affair. Engilby fled the country and, in his absence, was condemned to death. Before the month was out he was pardoned and Frompton meanwhile had disappeared, never to be heard from again.
Text Copyright © 2008 Roger Evans