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The Complaint of the Poor Commons of Oz



Jack had been increasingly exasperated as the northern winter of 1450 faded slowly into spring, bluebells appeared in the lanes and fields of Kent and new leaves rustled in the forests. Natural wonders didn't especially impress Jack, but he was a loyal man of Kent and took a lively interest in the life of his county and such affairs of state as might affect people he would soon describe as 'the poor commons of Kent'.

Illustration of Jack CadeAs far as Jack was concerned, there was much to worry about. Like his lower class compatriots, he was rapidly losing faith in the capacity of King Henry VI to manage the responsibilities and demands of high office. Jack wasn't much concerned with whether England should claim the French throne, an argument dividing Henry's court, but he was certainly interested in the behaviour of some important courtiers and office holders. In the view of many of his increasingly dissident subjects, the king was incapable of reining in the corruption, exploitation and incompetence endemic in the royal court, and he was too spineless to make a stand.

When he did act, seeking to show real determination and halt the waves of insubordination and discontent that were poisoning his authority, Henry's rumoured intention was so outrageous and blazoned with confected rage that the situation was made more critical. Watching these developments, Jack, under-educated, unsophisticated and full of grievance, a dogged product of what in a later age would be known as the school of hard knocks, but buoyed with a sense that the people's turn had come, organised the creation and distribution of a manifesto entitled The Complaint of the Poor Commons of Kent.

The Complaint enumerated 15 'complaints' and five 'demands' to be brought to the notice of the king. It was like a modern royal commission except that the supplicants looked to the king and not a judge to deliver the final decisions. And, despite its title, it was not solely the product of the work-a-day people of Kent. Its supporters included members of parliament, lords and other leaders of the county.

As the complainers began to look more and more like rebels, their leader, Jack Cade, who would soon claim to be Jack Mortimer — a better lineage — showed both the strength of his outraged convictions and the shallowness of his understanding of events and machinations that would quickly run out of his control.

As Shakespeare saw Jack and his rebels, basing his portrait, as so often, on Holinshed's chronicles, they were guileless revolutionaries. 'I will make it felony to drink small beer' was one of Jack's several 'economic' announcements. Like many idealists in ensuing centuries, Jack vowed to do away with the signs of class and cast. 'I will apparel [supporters] all in one livery that they may agree like brothers ...'

Fervour and vague grievance were, as ever, not enough. Jack Cade quickly lost control of his rebels. Defections and dissension became continuous. 'In the world of Cade and his followers,' write historians Robert K. Turner and George Walton Williams, 'ordinary values are completely inverted, manifest impossibility replaces fact and right reason becomes a series of ... contradictions in terms.


"The Prime Minister, who has genuine cultural, artistic and literary interests and achievements, turns himself inside out to deny or hide them and placate his philistine back bench."


'In Cade's England all is in order when most out of order — seven halfpenny loaves will be sold for a penny, the three-hooped pot will have ten hoops, the pissing conduit will run nothing but claret for a year; it is a capital crime to read and write English and high treason to speak Latin. The massive confusion of such a world is shown not only by the brutality of Cade's actions but also by the havoc wrought upon the arts of language when the rebels speak ...'

'Twas ever thus. The same sense of grievance and undifferentiated outrage that drove Jack and his rebels 500 years ago has sent Donald Trump to the White House, propelled the United Kingdom unceremoniously out of the European Union, resurrected the poisonous 'Irish question' and legitimised Senator Pauline Hanson. She, with Cade-like empty bravado, claims to be for the 'battlers' but leads her disintegrating party in support mostly of Coalition legislation and conducts a relentless vendetta against the ABC from a position of unexplained, undetailed fury and grievance.

And then there's Peter Dutton, a powerful senior government minister, who announced that the ABC, the Guardian and Huffington Post are 'dead' to him. The Prime Minister, who has genuine cultural, artistic and literary interests and achievements, turns himself inside out to deny or hide them and placate his philistine back bench, keep at bay his benighted predecessor and unleash lowlife abuse on his opposite number.

As Shakespeare might have written, no doubt referencing Holinshed, 'O Jack Cade, thou art mighty yet/Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords in our own proper entrails,' a result that would have pleased Jack Cade's right hand man, Butcher, who counselled, 'The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.'



Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer. Main image: British soldiers man a checkpoint, Belfast, 1973.

Topic tags: King Henry VI, Shakespeare, Peter Dutton, Pauline Hanson, Malcolm Turnbull, Donald Trump



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Existing comments

The expression, "Play it again, Sam", has more to do with history than playing piano in a bar.

Ian Fraser | 02 July 2018  

How fantastic - a commentator who sees the continuities of history - not only in this land but in its roots and nearly six centuries back. Brilliant parallels - thanks for introducing me (at least) to Jack CADE and aspects of Henry VI I had otherwise hitherto glossed over! But then - my maternal grand-father was a Kentish man - not a man of Kent. Therein lies my previous lack of interest I suspect!

Jim KABLE | 09 July 2018  

Brian, as soon as I started reading this, as a now retired teacher of history, I began to see the similarities in today's political scenes. A wonderful story indeed! As I used to challenge my students; Can you learn from history?... the answer... is blowing in the wind!

Gavin O'Brien | 12 July 2018  

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