Here is a little more background on the life, imprisonment and execution of Richard Lyons, a corrupt financier in 14th century England…
Banker-bashing is nothing new, but if today’s bankers think they are having a tough time, they should think again.
More than 600 years ago a financier called Richard Lyons, who had accumulated his wealth as Warden of the Mint under the reign of Edward III, was imprisoned by an early equivalent of the Treasury Select Committee for corruption, sent to the Tower of London, and eventually beheaded during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, along with hundreds of other bankers and merchants in the City of London.
Lyons, an illegitimate merchant of Flemish descent, first became wealthy in the mid 14th century as a merchant and member of the Vintners’ Company. He was elected as an Alderman (a local government official) in 1374 and then as Sheriff of London in 1375.
But he only really rose to power as a Privy Councillor and Warden of the Mint, an influential position which oversaw money supply and lending to the English government, a post later held by Sir Isaac Newton.
In this role, Lyons developed his reputation for corruption. One historical account says that he and other financiers:
‘engaged in tricks in order to maintain profits. for example, men like Richard Lyons, a financier, would buy the nation’s debts at a discount but pay themselves back at face value.’
The last few years of Edward III’s reign (he died in 1377) were marked by corruption at court and expensive military failure overseas. In 1376, a sitting of parliament known as the ‘Good Parliament’ hauled Lyons and several other financiers before them. This from the Calendar of Letter Books of the City of London:
…Among those charged with misconduct were three City Aldermen, Richard Lyons, Alderman of Broad Street Ward, Adam de Bury, of Langbourn Ward (who had been removed from the Mayoralty chair by the King’s orders ten years before, and John Pecche, of Walbrook Ward. Lyons had made himself very useful financially to the Duke of Lancaster, but he had come by his wealth by various underhand dealings prejudicial to the honest merchant of the City, and a heavy judgment was passed upon him. Not only was he condemned to pay a fine and be imprisoned during the King’s pleasure, but he was expelled from Court and ordered to lose the freedom of the City and be deprived of all his property…
For his part, Lyons lost his job as Warden of the Mint and Alderman, and was imprisoned for fraud and corruption in the Tower of London.
Lyons had powerful friends at court, not least John of Gaunt, one of Edward III’s sons, who had him released. Lyons later went on to find redemption as an elected member of parliament for Essex in 1380.
But not for long. In 1381 the Peasants’ Revolt erupted in south east England, led by Wat Tyler. The peasants marched into London and made demands of the new king Richard II, among them that all ‘traitors’ in his court be punished.
The King refused to give up his advisers, which triggered an orgy of populist violence against ministers, and wealthy bankers and merchants in the City. On 14 June the mob broke into the Tower of London, grabbed the then chancellor of the exchequer (and Archbishop of Canterbury) Simon Sunbury, and treasurer Robert Hales, and beheaded them on Tower Hil (george Osbourne, you have been warned…)
The letter book further records ‘the decapitation in Chepe of Richard Lyons the disgraced Alderman, and the wholesale massacre of Flemings in the Vintry, the work of murder and devastation being continued until “vespers on the following day” (Saturday, 15 June).’
‘Chepe’ is now Cheapside in the City of London, a street running from the Bank of England to St Paul’s Cathedral. The heads of Lyons, Sunbury, Hales and others were carried around the City on poles before being displayed on London Bridge.
Another account records that after beheading 35 Flemings (who knew Belgians were so unpopular?) that the mob went on the rampage ‘seeking out Lombard and other aliens, broke into their houses, and robbed them of all their goods’, with as many as 160 people beheaded in the City on that day alone.
It makes today’s assault on bankers look somewhat tame.
Here is a link to podcast of ‘The Long View’ on BBC Radio 4 discussing Richard Lyons in the context of Bob Diamond…