The Filth and Scum of Kent



In 1450, five thousand peasants, yeomen, shopkeepers, craftsmen and demobilised soldiers marched on London, complaining about corruption and abuse of power in the Royal Court of Henry VI. Their numbers swelled with the circulation of their manifesto, called ‘The Complaint of the Poor Commons of Kent’. They came from Kent, but also from neighbouring counties.

In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Sir Humphrey Stafford declared them to be the ‘filth and scum of Kent’ (Part 2, 4.2.113), before he engaged them in battle at Sevenoaks, and died in the subsequent action. The rebels then moved to occupy London. Eventually the King and Lord Chancellor came to terms with this rebellious horde promising to fulfil their demands, as well as promising pardons. No sooner were they disbanded, than the leaders were hunted down and executed.

Their main leader, Jack Cade, initially escaped. According to Shakespeare, the ‘headstrong Kentishman, John Cade of Ashford’ (2HVI 3.1) was eventually mortally wounded by Alexander Iden, in Iden’s garden in Kent (2HVI, 4.10).

Shakespeare generally gets his facts right. But here they are decidedly wrong. Hall’s Chronicle, one of Shakespeare’s sources for the play, records that Cade was a Sussex man. Cade was born in Sussex. History says Cade fled towards Lewes in southern Sussex, but was overtaken by Iden and killed.

Over one hundred years ago, the historian for Mayfield in Sussex, Iva Bell-Irving (1903), reported that “Cade had hidden at Newick Farm between Mayfield and Heathfield, but becoming tired of the monotony, he sallied forth to play bowls in an old garden at Heathfield, when he was surprised and shot with an arrow by Iden.”

Why did Shakespeare change the record in this instance?

Records show that the recently identified Shakespeare authorship candidate, Henry Neville (see ‘The Truth Will Out’, by James and Rubinstein, 2005), was Lord of the Manor at Mayfield and knew the Cade family there. Documents show that Henry Neville ‘sold Richard Cade of Mayfield, yeoman, 81 acres’ (Bell-Irving, 1903). Our question, in this one single instance, is answered if we consider that the author of Part 2 of Henry VI was protecting his neighbours from old prejudices—or himself from a charge of calumny, in having one of his characters, refer to his neighbours as ‘filth and scum’.

Henry VI, Part 2, is thought to be the first complete History play by Shakespeare. It was published anonymously in 1594. This was about ten years after John Stubbs had a hand cut off (by cleaver and mallet) for a writing that displeased the Queen. It was one year since John Penry was hurried to execution for printing the Marprelate documents. It had also been in 1593 that Marlowe was knifed by agents of Her Majesty. Writing was dangerous, especially writing about power and politics. In this his first play, then, the author of ‘Shakespeare’s’ Henry VI, Part 2, was troubled not just by a need to obfuscate one name—the name Cade. He also had trouble refraining from advertising another name. Consider the following youthful rashness:

The day will come when York shall claim his own;

And therefore I will take the Nevils’ parts (2HVI, 1.1.239)


And he of these that can do most of all

Cannot do more in England than the Nevils:

Salisbury and Warwick are no simple peers (2HVI, 1.3.74)


The Nevils are thy subjects to command (2HVI, 2.2.8)


And, Nevil, this I do assure myself:

Richard shall live to make the Earl of Warwick

The greatest man in England but the king (2HVI, 2.2.80)


The princely Warwick, and the Nevils all,

Whose dreadful swords were never drawn in vain (2HVI, 4.1.90)


Now by my father’s age, old Nevels crest,

The Rampant Beare chain’d to the ragged staff (2HVI, 5.1.202)


In subsequent plays, Shakespeare was much more circumspect about the name Neville. It is as frequent, but hidden behind other titles such as Warwick, Westmoreland and Salisbury. Further fascinating exploration of names and much else besides can be found in the new book, I have written with John Casson, ‘Sir Henry Neville, Alias William Shakespeare: Authorship Evidence in the History Plays’, by Bradbeer and Casson (2015).


Mark Bradbeer


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