The 2021 Capitol Siege Was a Modern Day Cade’s Rebellion | Andrew Trovalusci

It’s safe to say that the last 365 days have been the among most tumultuous in living memory. Worldwide lockdowns root tens of millions to their chairs or to their sofas and we’re asked to trust politicians to give us back our freedoms when they feel like the time is right. Ingenious algorithms keep our phones seemingly glued to our hands and social media acts as a megaphone to amplify our anguish and beam it across the world. News events from one corner of the globe can trigger manic depressive episodes in people thousands of miles away.

Most distressing of all was the growing instability of the USA that began in the summer and reached its highest pitch earlier this month with an event now dubbed on Wikipedia the “2021 storming of the United States Capitol” or the “Capitol siege” for short. What was most curious about that event in particular was that it bore a striking resemblance in many ways to another event that precedes it by almost 600 years: Cade’s rebellion.

Cade’s Rebellion was an ultimately ill-fated popular uprising in England in 1450 with one curious quality: the rebellion was in support of the King. Both it and the Capitol siege were peculiar in that they were both demonstrations of support for the head of state but against the government of that country.

Cade’s men believed that their King – King Henry VI – was being led astray by his closest advisors and they wanted those advisors replaced with advisors aligned with the Duke of York, whose significance will be touched upon later. Cade’s men even accused officials in Kent of fixing elections similar to how Trump supporters believe the 2020 election was rigged. Furthermore, both events were incidences of a political “march” getting out of hand and escalating into disorder. Cade’s rebellion was intended to be a march on London in order to present a manifesto to the King when Cade lost control of his men, who began to rob and terrorise local townspeople.

Similarities can be found too in the national context behind the two events. Both “revolts” were preceded by months of civil unrest and, in some areas of the country, the partial breakdown of law and order. I’m sure no-one reading this has too short a memory to remember the unrest in the USA over the summer. Similarly, Kent in 1449 was ravaged by French coastal raiding parties as well as by bands of underpaid soldiers returning from war in France. The English economy in the 15th century was saddled with crippling war debt as a result of decades of expensive misadventures abroad, much like the USA is today.

National despair and frustration reached crescendo in 1450 in England due to the loss of almost all of  land in France – frustration with their government perhaps mirrored by the frustration of Americans with perceived mishandling of the Coronavirus pandemic. Also, of geopolitics, common people in England were terrified of a resurgent France that appeared to have bounced back after humiliation and defeat at the hands of Henry V; similarly, people in the United States fear a rising China not because they fear conventional invasion but they, like the English, fear being subdued by a foreign power either militarily or economically. Hegemony provides security.

Despite all the similarities it’s also worth pointing out for honesty’s sake the differences between the Capitol siege and Cade’s rebellion. As said earlier, Cade’s army looted London in a display of protesting-turned-plundering more similar, in fact, to protests last year than to the Capitol siege. The Capitol siege involved no such looting of homes or businesses but instead only the looting of the Capitol building itself. Participants stole items of symbolic or political importance – the Speakers podium for example – while Cade’s rebellion involved a general ransacking of London despite Cade’s best attempts to control his men. 

Another difference was the role each head of state had to play in their respective events. Henry VI had no knowledge of Cade’s rebellion at all before it happened, while Donald Trump was aware and fully in support of the protest that would then later spin out of control. Thankfully for the US senators the Capitol siege was much smaller than Cade’s rebellion, which lasted almost four months and resulted in the deaths of about 250 people. Cade’s rebellion was also much better organised – Cade used the King’s own system for levying troops to summon men from across the South East to join him. While both incidents ended in immediate failure, the Capitol siege was put down by policemen while Cade and his men defeated the small forces of the King’s men sent against them and the rebellion was only crushed when the people of London themselves organised to oppose it. Jack Cade himself was later killed.

To tease the metaphor out further, it’s not at all difficult to imagine the red Republicans as the Lancastrians and the Democrats as the Yorkists, or even to transpose the figure of Richard of York onto the figure of Donald Trump. The Duke of York was, after all, definitely a populist: popular among common people but absolutely reviled by most of the King’s court. Once it’s understood that the King was the embodiment of the English state – God’s representative on earth – the metaphor seems even more apt. Henry VI was weak, decrepit, prone to long bouts of mental illness where he’d forget his own name, and his court was bloated, ineffectual and corrupt. While Henry VI has no immediate analogue in the USA it’s clear that deep institutional rot – the “swamp” if you like – is what both Cade’s men and the Capitol protestors believed they were opposing.

It’s commonly accepted that the root cause of England’s instability in the late 15th century was the untimely death of Henry V while his heir and successor (who would become Henry VI) was still a baby. This situation necessitated almost two decades of minority rule where the court ruled the country instead of the King. Instead of the King ruling on behalf of the people the nobles were concerned with maintaining their own positions first and governing the country second. However, the USA has no king. It remains in a state similar to that of England in Henry VI’s minority rule: it’s perpetually ruled by the King’s Court.

The situation of politics in both the US and the UK today is dominated entirely by an insular and self-interested political class quite like England’s court during Henry’s minority rule. Much is said of the stability brought to Britain’s political system by the monarch and maybe there is more truth to this fact than many would like to admit, given that America was embroiled in a continent-shattering civil war not even 200 years ago. Republican democracy is perhaps nothing more than rule by the King’s Court rather than the King.

It is obvious that thanks to modern surveillance and communications technology a true Cade’s Rebellion type event would be impossible to pull off but despite their differences it and the 2021 USA Capitol Siege both fall into that odd historical category of “revolts in support of the king”. Perhaps it’s best to stop the comparison at that point, given that what followed was a civil war that would last for thirty years and would involve the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil.

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