Hereford’s Radical History—part one

 At 5 o’clock in the morning on the Tuesday of Whitson 1605, the vicar of Allensmore, Richard Heyns, was woken by a commotion. From the window of the vicarage he saw 40 heavily armed people carrying out a funeral ceremony. The deceased was Alice Wellington, who, being a Catholic, had been 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 leadership of the Vatican with equally dodgy people closer to home. Herefordshire had become a safe haven for Catholics. But life for the vast majority of people living in this part of the county was extremely hard, most people survived by spinning hemp, begging and scrumping unlike the decadent lives of the privileged landowners.

 Heyns, being part of the privileged ruling class, rushed off to Hereford to tell the bishop what he’d seen. In those days, 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 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. As the group passed Belmont they were ambushed by 40 men. Due to being threatened with more than just a bloody good hiding, the constables released Marsh.

 When news of these disturbances reached London, the king demanded that an example should be made of the ‘Herefordshire-men’. 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, 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 heavily referenced Whitsun Riot by Roland Mathias (1963) Bowes & Bowes London 

We’d like to hear from anyone who has experience or memories of radical movements in Herefordshire. Were you involved with a local socialist, communist or anarchist group? Did you take part in a memorable strike, protest or march? Did your trade union hold a lot of power and influence or did you help achieve improvements for its members? If you have a story, we’d love to hear from you. Please get in touch with us by emailing kay.bulstreet[at]hotmail.co.uk

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