Hereford radical history: the Whitson riot

At 5 O’clock in the morning on the Tuesday of Whitson week 1605 the vicar of Allensmore, Richard Heyns, was woken by a commotion in his church yard. What he saw from the window of the vicarage was forty to fifty heavily armed people carrying out an illegal funeral ceremony. The deceased was Alice Wellington, who, being a Catholic, had been excommunicated from the church and denied a burial.

England at this time was rife with anti-Catholic feeling due to the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation involved the replacement of the corrupt leadership of the Vatican with equally dodgy people closer to home. Herefordshire had become something of a safe haven for Catholics, particularly along the border with Monmouthshire and the edge of the Black Mountains. Life for the vast majority of people living in this part of the county was extremely hard. Protestants and Papists alike, living outside the fruit growing area, survived by spinning flax and hemp, begging and scrumping. This was a world away from the decadent lives of the privileged land owners and religious leaders.

Reverend Heyns, being part of the privileged ruling class, rushed off to Hereford to tell the Bishop what he’d seen. In those days the authority in Herefordshire rested with the church, the head of which was Richard Bennett, the Bishop. Bennett’s reaction to the commotion in Allensmore was to send the High Constable, and his aides, to arrest those that had taken part in the illegal burial.

After a struggle in which some of the constables were injured, Leonard Marsh was arrested in Hungerstone and lead back to Hereford for questioning. As the group passed Belmont they were ambushed by forty armed men. Due to being threatened with more than just a bloody good hiding, the constables released Leonard Marsh.

When news of these disturbances reached London, the King demanded that an example should be made of the ‘Herefordshire-men’, even if that meant spilling blood. This news emboldened the ‘rebels’, but worried the Bishop and his magistrates who feared provoking a wider uprising. And so followed ‘a state of lawlessness’ that lasted for six weeks, in which a game of cat and mouse was played between the Bishop’s men and the locals. The constables often rode into deserted villages while looking for the supposed ringleaders. The communication network that existed in order to evacuate these villages is an example of the high level of organisation that prevailed during the ‘disturbances’.

It eventually became clear that the Bishop of Hereford was unable to reassert his power over the people, so the Earl of Worcester was given the task. Being a Catholic gave the Earl the influence he needed to convince the people to get back in line, and with minimal effort the rebels of south-west Herefordshire were subdued. As with most uprisings, a suitable scapegoat had to be found. That person was William Morgan of Kilpeck who was sent to the Tower of London for supposedly organising, what is now called, ‘The Whitson Riot’.

This article referenced Whitsun Riot by Roland Mathias (1963) Bowes & Bowes London

Article first published in Hereford Heckler #12

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