‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers!’

Out of all of Shakespeare’s lines, we can be pretty sure that few – if any – got as big a cheer as this one.

The play is Henry VI part 2, the context is the popular rebellion by Jack Cade in 1450. The line is spoken by ‘Dick the Butcher’, one of Jack’s henchmen, and it’s part of a series of utopian promises offered by the rebel ‘when I am king – as king I will be’.

But, it’s also a line – and a joke – that is seeping with irony.

First of all, there’s the audience. In London,, playgoing was almost certainly very popular with, who else, but lawyers. In fact, the city was filled with intelligent young men, who’d moved there in their late teens and early twenties, to study at the Inns of Court. These were exactly the kind of young and boisterous lads who enjoyed a play and a pint. So skewering lawyers was a playful v-sign at a segment of the audience, who were probably knowing (and drunk) enough to enjoy it.

But I think there’s an even cleverer irony at play, too, and it’s one that cuts to the heart of Tudor society.
Lawyers, to many ordinary people, were a pain. They were expensive and pedantic. Their knowledge of the law courts, and their archaic languages and arcane procedures, would have seemed as magical and as diabolic to many as the work of any witch.

But it was not just this. They were disruptive of the social order. Litigation was seen, by commentators, politicians, and ordinary villagers alike, as something that upset social harmony. In a world where ‘neighbourliness’ was prized above most other virtues, the urge to sue was the mark of a true scoundrel.

Litigiousness, and the lawyers who facilitated it, then, were described in terms that betoken disruption and destruction. Lawyers were ‘caterpillars’ and ‘vipers’, eating away at the commonwealth. Litigious neighbours disturbed the social order, so they must themselves be disturbed. In early 17th century Abingdon, one local man – William Bostock – was so litigious that his neighbours questioned his sanity, calling him ‘Mad William Bostock’ (which, in another nice irony, we only know because it got written down in some legal proceedings).

Quentin Massys, Portrait of a Legal Notary
Quentin Massys (1466-1530), Portrait of a Legal Notary

So lawyers – in what was a profoundly litigious society – were a threat to the social order. This made them just like rebels.

For Shakespeare’s audience, rebellion still seemed a real threat. Within a decade of Henry VI part 2’s composition, there had been a series of riots by apprentices in London, a frightening conspiracy of peasants in north Oxfordshire (of all places), and an aristocratic uprising surrounding the Earl of Essex, the dangerous former favourite of Queen Elizabeth. In 1607, there would be serious, if fleeting, peasant unrest across the Midlands – unrest that is thought to have influenced the composition of Shakespeare’s own Coriolanus, which is set in a Rome beset by grain riots.

They will have looked back, too, to the previous hundred years, for the sixteenth century was one of the great ages of the English rebel. There had been major uprisings in Cornwall in 1497, across Lincolnshire and the North during the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ in 1536. Then, in 1549, there had been serious revolts in the West Country, around Oxfordshire, and in Norfolk, as well as rioting across most of the South and East. Kentish rebels, meanwhile, had challenged the government of Mary I in 1554, while Northerners had tried to bring down that of Queen Elizabeth in 1569-70. In fact, if people thought hard enough about it they will have remembered that their own royal dynasty, the Tudors, itself had origins in a successful revolt, in 1485 against Richard III.

Rebels, were still – in the 1590s – seen as part of the political landscape, and just like lawyers, they were a threat to the social order. They endangered the stability of the state – threatened to turn the world upside down. So it’s a delicious irony to hear – in Dick the Butcher – a rebel denouncing lawyers. Disorder, it seems, will eat itself. In fact, to anyone who knew that the most successful upstart rebel of the age, Robert Aske – who led Yorkshire’s Pilgrimage of Grace – was himself a lawyer, the irony was even greater.

But there is yet another irony, which probably was lost on Shakespeare’s audience, for it’s only really apparent to historians.
The sixteenth century, so far of course, seems to have been the last great age of popular rebellion in England. The seventeenth century saw a permanent end to this tradition of large peasant rebellion. This despite its political upheaval, its civil wars, its continuing price rises, and despite the fact there was probably more enclosure of common land in that century than any another (this was a perennial gripe of rebels).

The reasons behind this are complicated, of course, and historians still argue over them. Like the disappearance of famine (also in the seventeenth century), or plague (again, in the seventeenth century), few doubt the importance of the event, but we are still some way from understanding why England stopped (mostly) having popular uprisings.

One theory puts it all down to changes to the social structure. As the population grew and as the price of land and food rose, wealthy peasants became wealthier, so whereas before they might’ve helped lead rebellions, by 1600 they saw their interests align with the forces of order. The creation of a county militia, of an effective poor law, or the gradual acceptance of Protestantism and growing religious uniformity, are all potential reasons too. And there is the simple fact of dynastic continuity: the longer Queen Elizabeth lived the harder it became to think up pretenders, especially once Mary Queen of Scots was killed off in 1587.

But it’s just possible, in what might be the biggest irony of all, that those lawyers, those vipers of the commonwealth, were part of that story too.

For even rebellious peasants were legally-minded. Those with grievances often combined minor-level rioting with the raising of funds for litigation. Rebels often tried hard to stay within the law, even mimicking legal institutions, such as at the famous Mousehold Heath camp, near Norwich, in 1549, where they held administrative courts. There is even some evidence that some ‘rioting’ was in fact targeted disorder, aimed – essentially – a piquing the interest of the law courts. It was a way of being heard, which they hoped would set off litigation.

And so, given this, it wasn’t much of a step – over time – and especially as those wealthier peasants continued to get wealthier, and more invested in the social order, for disgruntled folk to turn away from riot, away from disorder, and away from the call of rebellion, and to turn to the law for redress. Particularly as, it seems, the English legal system was relatively egalitarian. It was surprisingly likely to support the interests of the peasant against the landlord.

So perhaps the biggest irony in that famous, cheer-raising line from Dick the Butcher in Henry VI, is that it came at a time when it was lawyers were actually killing all the rebels.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. As a law student, I have to say thanks for explaining this line. I always thought it was a funny one, but I didn’t get the context.

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