Wyatt's Rebellion and the Battle of Wrotham
Queen Mary came to the throne in 1553 after the death of her young brother, Edward VI. While he had been a Protestant, Mary followed her mother's faith of Catholicism. Shortly after she became queen she announced her intention of marrying King Philip of Spain.
This was a very unpopular decision to a great many English people, and there was no shortage of conspirators who wanted Mary to change her mind.
Sir Thomas Wyatt of Allington Castle, near Maidstone, was one. His father, also named Thomas, had been a celebrated poet who had died in 1542, leaving his son to inherit his estates. Thomas the younger showed a wild streak from an early age. In 1543 he was briefly imprisoned for taking part in a London street riot. He later travelled a lot throughout Europe and had taken part in various military campaigns while abroad.
By 1549 he was back in Britain and put forward plans for a special military force which could quell civic disturbances. This particular scheme didn't reach fruition, but in 1551 he was made Sheriff of Kent and began to lay the foundations of his own personal militia.
On the accession of Queen Mary, he supported her cause despite the efforts of the Duke of Suffolk to place his daughter-in-law Lady Jane Grey on the throne. Wyatt proclaimed his support for Mary at Rochester.
But with Lady Jane Grey still in the Tower, Mary's betrothal to Philip of Spain became public knowledge and Wyatt began to change his allegiance. The conspirators met at the Duke of Suffolk's house in the capital. Wyatt didn't attend the first two meetings since, pre sumably, he may still have been considered to be one of Mary's supporters, but he was invited to the third meeting.
It was originally planned that insurrection should break out simultaneously in Leicestershire, the Welsh borders, the South West, and Kent. In the event, the plot was discovered and only Wyatt in Kent, with his own special forces, was in any way successful.
We are indebted to Peter Mayer and the Friends of Hartley Countryside for the following account of the local action, as well as the account of a contemporary figure, John Proctor, who was a school master at Sir Andrew Judde's School in Tonbridge - the present Tonbridge school. Proctor brought out an 'official' version of the rebellion in January 1555. This meant, naturally, that he supported the Queen.
The rebellion began in Kent on January 25. Wyatt proclaimed his cause at Maidstone on that day, but then moved his forces to Rochester. He waited for reinforcements in the shape of Sir Henry Isley and Anthony and William Knevett and their supporters in the west of the county. Isley and the Knevetts were in Tonbridge with 500 men, having raided the armoury of Sir Henry Sidney - a loyalist - at Penshurst Place. They wanted to march straight to Rochester, but were impeded by the queen 's forces, headed by Lord Abergavenny and the then Sheriff of Kent, Sir Robert Southwell, who were camped at Mailing. Instead the rebels marched on Saturday January 27 to Sevenoaks, where they roused the townsfolk and enlisted more support before moving towards Rochester.
Meanwhile, Abergavenny and his forces - who included George Clarke of Ford Place, Wrotham - were at Mailing, and had received a message in the middle of Saturday night that Isley and the Knevetts intended to meet up with Wyatt at Rochester, and that they also intended to burn George Clarke's house at Wrotham en route. Early on Sunday morning Abergavenny's forces marched to Wrotham Heath, and thence to Borough Green, where he sent out spies or scou ts to see if he could deter mine the whereabouts of the rebels.
When the scouts returned with news that the rebels were near at hand, Abergavenny sought to arrange his troops in battle order. Unfortunately for him, the rebels seem to have got wind of this, and turned left up towards Wrot ham Hill.
'The first sight that the Lord Abergavenny could have of them after they forsook their proposed way, was as they ascended Wrotham Hill directly over Yaldam, Mr Peckam's house, where they, thinking to have great advantage by the winning of the hill, displayed their engines bravely, seeming to be in a great ruffe. But it was not longer after or their courage abated, for Lord Abergavenny, the sheriff, and the rest of the gentlemen ... overtook the rebels at a field called Blackesoll Fielde in the parish of Wrotham, a mile distant from the very top of the hill, where the Lord Abergavenny, the Sheriff, the gentlemen aforesaid, and other of the Queen's true and faithful subjects handled them so hot and so fiercely that after a small shot with long bows by the traitors, and a fierce bragge shewed by some of the horsemen, they took their flight as fast as they could. Yet of them were taken prisoners above three score. In this conflict Warram Sentleger who brought with him a good company of soldiers, and always a serviceable gentleman) also George Clarke, Anthony Weldon and Richard Clarke with others did very honestly behave themselves.'
From this account it would appear t hat only 36 out of the estimated 500 rebels were taken prisoner. The rest appear to have escaped to take cover in Hartley Wood four miles further on. They were pursued there by the queen 's forces and there was another skirmish. More were taken prisoner- and some possibly killed. Edward Hasted in his 18th century History of Kent states that many rebels were killed in Hartley Wood and that about 60 were taken prisoner. Those who died on the battlefield were buried there, but enough men escaped under the leadership of Anthony Knevett and arrived at Rochester that night. Hasted and Proctor also state that Sir Henry Isley himself escaped and fled to Hampshire, where he was subsequently captured.
Meanwhile the Duke of Norfolk headed the queen's forces at Gravesend. At 10 pm that night he heard about the day's events, and the next day marched on Rochester. Unfortunately, his leadership doesn't appear to have been very popular, because on arrival at Rochester many of his soldiery decamped to Wyatt.
Wyatt set out for London on January 29. He took the usual rebels' route to Blackheath and encamped there. Queen Mary addressed the citizens of London at the Guildhall on February 1. She asked them for support and also offered a pardon to any of Wyatt's forces who would give themselves up. It was said that 20,000 men came to her aid. Whatever the exact number, the insurgents were forced to a halt at that usual rebels' stumbling place- London Bridge. Unable to cross over into the city there, they tried to circle the capital and enter it from the west at Kingston-upon-Thames. But the Earl of Pembroke was waiting there and, thoroughly disheartened, the rebellion crumbled.
Lady Jane Grey was executed in the early days of February, and Wyatt met the usual rebel's end on April111554- hanged, drawn and quartered. His limbs were distributed at various points around the city.
The future Good Queen Bess had cause to be grateful to him, how ever. While he was in the Tower awaiting death, various attempts were made to persuade him to implicate the young Princess Elizabeth, who was also imprisoned there at that time. Despite everything that his captors did to him, he steadfastly refused to implicate her.