As the sunset over Haldon Hill in the distance on the 9th April 1422 (or roughly around this time from what we can gather) the fire that had ended Antonio Breadstick’s life was dying down quietly on the banks of the River Exe. It was the dramatic conclusion to a story that ended in the murder of the mayor, the collapse of the medieval spoken word scene and the execution of the chief protagonist in the Poets Rebellion. This is a little known chapter in the history of Exeter, but it is important and helps us understand one of our most important poetic figures, Antonio Breadstick. But first some context.
Exeter was, like many cities during medieval times, a dire infested pit of brothels, monasteries and guilty looking monks. With no real sanitation and a sparse militia to keep the peace it attracted many poets from outlying areas with its lawlessness, many inns and brothels. A famous observer, merchant and diarist at the time was Sir Jasper Marmalade who kept accounts of the daily goings on By the 1420s it had become famous for its ‘Spokyn Worde Nytes’ at various inns and meeting houses which often descended in to ‘A grate orgey off violent ackts’ and poets engaging in ‘all mannare off debaucherye and sordid ackts’ which seemed to be the main attraction.
The mayor of Exeter at the time was a gentleman named Sir Cobius Muthbert, who had managed to upset most of poets of Exeter by directly insulting The Poetick Guilde of Devonshyre by forbidding free refreshments at their monthly meetings at the Guildhall. By the summer of 1418 the population of Exeter were mostly made up of monks and various church worker types, merchants and poets. This was of great concern to Muthbert who had seen the poets as a nuisance and a scourge that needed sorting out.
In a letter from Muthbert to his mother who lived in Tiverton, he states that (translated in to modern English) “The poets are a fucking nuisance. They spend all their waking moments composing crap poetry and going on about this one poet who did really well called Chaucer, but none of them can actually see straight to write as they’re all permanently pissed out of their heads on mead and wine. When they’re not marinating their livers, they’re at one of the their Spoken Word nights trying to either punch one another of have sex with one another”
This viewpoint that Muthbert took was accurate enough to be confirmed by Jasper Marmalade in one of his occasional entries. Again this has been translated in to modern English. “The poets held a festival outside the South Gate with a staged area and a line-up that included a chap who read his poetry from the back of a pig, the pig in question belonged to another poet who took great offence to this and caused a fight when, mid-reading, he grabbed the pig and thumped the other poet with the said pig. The pig scuttled off but left the two poets fighting each other which spilled in to the crowd, which then ensued in a violent riot that engulfed the south quarter of the city. No one thought to shut the gates.”
The notorious Pig Poet Riots as it had become to be known caused Muthbert to expel every poet from the city of Exeter which laid the seeds for the Poets Rebellion.
A year later and with no real place to settle, the expelled poets had mostly settled on a patch of marshy ground just outside of Topsham. Exeter was under a strict Non-Poetry Order which meant recitation or composition of poetry was an executable offence, on the same level as heresy.
There is no account of when the decision was made to appoint the lowly Antonio Breadstick as the leader of the delegation but Sir Jasper Marmalade writes an account that three men on horses appear at the South Gate about a year from the date the Poets were expelled and ask to speak to the mayor. Muthbert refused to talk to them, so the three men “rode away threatening they’ll come back with their mates”
We don’t know anything about Antonio Breadstick apart from three very sparse pieces of information that we can gleam from a few sources. The first source is a letter written by one of the expelled poets who, ironically, was the daughter of Muthbert and considered the Rebellion’s second in command. Her name was Isabella Muthbert. She was in frequent correspondence with her friend from school who was Tracey Leach. She had terrible acne and it was well known that Isabella had stayed friends with her because she made her look good. Her account of meeting Antonio Breadstick went something like so:
“OMG, I met the nicest guy today, he’s called Antonio and he’s, like, so nice. I think he’s a baker as well as his surname is Breadstick. But I can’t tell if this is like, his stage name or what. Anyway, I think he’s in to me as he shared his stale loaf with me today. It wasn’t too bad as we dipped it in some mud for taste”.
Another snippet that gives an idea as to Antonio’s origins is also given away in Isabella’s letters to Tracey: “I think he’s Italian too, he has this amazing accent and he has such nice eyes. He said he’d take me to Rome and we’d visit The Holy Roman Empire, which he says is really nice this time of year..”
His origins are possibly foreign, and how he ended up in Exeter and why he started hanging out with the Poets are up for speculation. Could he have been a mercenary? Possibly a merchants son who wound up in desperate times after he lost his passport? Or maybe he had heard of the debauchery that went with being a poet in Exeter? Its hard to say. But despite being a poet of little output, a few bits of his still survive. Most of them incomplete, but I believe I have now found the only surviving poem left that was written by Antonio Breadstick. The poem, transcribed by Sir Jasper Marmalade was recited by Breadstick at the dramatic conclusion to the Poets Rebellion as he burned at the stake.
After demanding an audience with the mayor, the three men (one of them Breadstick himself) rode back to their camp. Angered that they had been ignored, messengers were sent out to gather support for their cause. In a fit of rage, Antonio ordered his followers to ‘kill Muthbert with a sharpened eraser’.
Not much is known about the murder of Sir Cobius Muthbert, but we can tell that it happened soon after the failed audience request and according to Isabella’s letter to Tracey, it was Isabella who struck the fatal blow. “I know you’re going to kill me, but you know how I always wished my Dad would do me a favour and kill himself? Well I might have given him a hand with that, well, me and a sharp eraser I found at the bottom of my pencil case. Please don’t tell anyone, you’re like my best friend, and I know I can trust you…”
Two months later a large gathering of poets, jugglers and mime artists had gathered on the banks of Exe armed with words and pitchforks, they planned to raid the city and overturn the militia, creating a poetic haven that would be free of rules and poetic form for the rest of time. With the poetry-hating Muthbert now dead, it would be easy to gather support in a city where no poetry had been recited or composed for nearly two years.
Unfortunately their timing couldn’t be worse as Exeter was holding two events that consequently meant that the rebellion wouldn’t work. The Castle was holding the Longbow Monthly ‘Arrow Of The Year’ awards which was attracting some of the biggest names in arrow shooting and longbow manufacture and the Cathedral was holding the funeral of Sir Gregor Grabnut, who was murdered by performance poet at a demonstration in Westminster. A Castle full of expert arrow-shooters and a cathedral full of poet hating knights lay in wait for the army of rebels.
As it goes with medieval rebellions, keeping it quiet was hard and by the time the poets had grouped, marched, stopped for lunch and done some more marching, the welcome party had already been gathered, organised, swords sharpened, longbows tightened and horses brushed.
Sir Jasper Marmalade recounts the battle which lasted half an hour outside the South Gate. It would have lasted 15 minutes but some of the poets were quite fast runners and therefore very hard to aim at. Out of the 14 poets that had gathered, with a promise of some lunch afterwards as well, only two remained. Antonio Breadstick and his lover Isabella. This was blamed mostly on the fact that Antonio had hid behind Isabella for the majority of the battle.
Antonio was tried for crimes against the church, crown, and the murder of the mayor and verse. Isabella was sent to boarding school and later married a mime artist called Dave, taking her true crimes to the grave until Tracey Leach sold the letters to the papers years later.
Antonio’s final words as he sizzled nicely with some BBQ sauce and Piri-Piri was the following (translated in to modern English):
Slice up my thighs,
for the rest of your life.
You’ve killed the art
You’ve murdered the heart,
And in 10 years time
You’ll know you’ve played your part
As we dish out our soul
And sell off the rest for scrap,
What remains will just be crap.
Measured by prizes,
Of different sizes,
Made in Devizes,
You’re full of lies-iz.
I might be flame grilled
But you’ll just die ill.
Without poetry in your naked heart
Your words will be as eloquent as a
Advice on the history of melon cultivation and the simian underworld by Jon Freeman