First published June 1981. Produced and distributed for the SWP by Socialists Unlimited, London.
The text of this pamphlet was first given as a talk in celebration of the 600th Anniversary of the Peasants’ Revolt at the Socialist Workers Party Rally in Skegness, Easter 1981.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Matthew Caygill.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
‘Matters cannot go well in England, nor ever will, until all things shall be held in common, when there shall be neither vassals nor lords, when the lords shall be no more masters than ourselves.’
For this ideal, 140,000 peasants marched on London under the elected leadership of Wat Tyler in June 1381, camping at Blackheath in the south and Barnet in the north in an attempt to force from the king charters abolishing their serfdom and repealing oppressive laws.
It was perhaps the first time the standard of socialism was raised in Britain.
TO START with a couple of announcements. The first comes from Lambeth Palace, the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The archbishop will not be attending this year any of the celebrations which are being held to commemorate the Peasants’ Revolt.
He won’t be going to Canterbury where a lot of respectable people have arranged a commemoration of the Peasants Revolt. He won’t be going to Blackheath, or Mile End, or St Albans where there are other celebrations in June.
And it’s not because he’s busy. A spokesman for the archbishop was quoted a fortnight ago as saying: ‘This is not a celebration with which Dr Runcie would want to be associated’. And that’s not altogether surprising, because the first thing that the rebels did when they got into the Tower of London on June 16th 1381 was to search out the Archbishop of Canterbury, to tell him what they thought of him, and to chop off his head.
Now the second announcement comes from Buckingham Palace. Her Majesty the Queen will not be attending any celebrations this year to commemorate the Peasants’ Revolt – and that is rather surprising really, because, if there’s one thing that can explain the immediate failure of the Peasants’ Revolt, it is that the people had faith in their monarch. I think it’s a bit churlish of her majesty not to commemorate that fact – but perhaps she feels that people won’t make the same mistake again.
Many socialists will be gathering in a whole lot of places where there are to be celebrations this June, and it is worth remembering why. To do that we’ve got to go back a long way, six hundred years, to an England where there were only two and a half million people living and all of them bound in one way or another to the land they were working, and to the lord who owned that land. ‘The serf works the land, and the lord works the serf’ – that’s the explanation of the feudal system in a single sentence. The lords owned everything, lacking only the right to buy and sell people, which was something that happened under the Roman Empire, and would happen again in Africa and America. Everything that the serf or the villein did, everything they produced on the land was the property of the lord – everything. Even their daughters were subject to the sexual pleasures of the lord. The relationship between the lord and the people who produced their wealth was like the relationship between the lord and the beast of burden, except that probably the beast of burden was more generously treated.
What the lord on earth didn’t take, the lord in heaven did. The church, headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, had found a quotation from the story of Jacob’s Ladder in Genesis: ‘Of all that thou shalt give me, I will surely give the tenth unto thee’. They’d rewritten it to: ‘Of all that thou shalt make, thou shalt surely give a tenth to me.’ That’s how they saw it, and that was what the tithe barns were built for, and that was what the tithes meant: that a tenth of what you made, on top of what you gave to the lord, went to the church.
And if you died, it was extremely expensive. If you died under the age of sixty, the lord took your best beast – to compensate for the amount of military service that you would have given if only you had lived to be sixty – and the church then took your second beast, to compensate for the tithes you would have paid if only you’d had the decency to live to the proper age. Since no working families at all had more than two beasts, you can see the poverty that system caused.
The feudal system, which is described so often as though it was part of the natural order, as something tidy and well parcelled up, was in fact utterly brutal and utterly horrible. And at the time we are discussing it was beginning to crack up, or at any rate to fray at the edges.
Rich people were beginning to understand that they didn’t have to produce one-for-one in each manor, but that they could trade across the board, produce a lot of things cheaper, and make a lot of money that way. Money flowed into a feudal system that had largely depended on barter, and new merchants ran the system of buying and selling. And some working people discovered that, if they worked really hard, they could produce a little bit of surplus even on top of what they were giving to their lord and the church.
But the break-up of feudalism was hardly felt at all by the serf at the bottom of society. Only tiny particles of freedom came to him. Even at the top of society it wasn’t making any substantial difference. The previous rulers of England had been the king, the barons, the landed gentry and the clergy. Now they were, by way of a change, the king, the barons, the landed gentry, the clergy – and the monopolists, the merchants who dominated the new trade.
Now who were the rulers of England at this time?
Most of the time up to the Peasants’ Revolt, though not actually during it, there was a fine -old tyrant called Edward III – usually described in school history books as ‘a good king’. Always be suspicious when that is written about a king. The thing that Edward liked to do most was to go to war. That was because he didn’t have to do any of the fighting – and because it was the quickest way to make booty. He couldn’t get loot out of the barons or the monopolists very easily, but he found that if he could win (or somebody else could win for him) a battle in France, such as Crecy or Poitiers, then the riches flowed in. So he was always off to war. In fact he was one of the inspirers of what’s known as the Hundred Years War.
One of the things he did in the process, which is relevant to this story, was that he insisted that the people should be armed, or at any rate instructed in the processes of arms, and he was very adamant that there shouldn’t be any pastimes undertaken by anyone that would take time away from archery practice. There’s a statute in 1341 which decrees that anyone caught playing football, handball, hockey or racing dogs was liable to imprisonment.
King Edward had a gang. They were known as a gang. The central figure was his brother, John of Gaunt. In Shakespeare John O’Gaunt appears as a benevolent old man, usually dying. At this time he was very much not dying: he was always fighting. He had an obsession that he wanted to become the King of Castille. He was determined to become the King of Castille, and he didn’t see why there should be a King of Castille if it wasn’t him. This drove him to all kinds of ridiculous and relentless adventures. If he couldn’t fight in Castille he would get in some practice by fighting the Scots.
He laid claim, with every justification to being the most hated man in England. He was strongly challenged for the title, though, by Sir Robert Hales, who was the Treasurer of England, what’s known today as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and was widely known even by his friends as ‘Hob the Robber’, because of his habit of stealing other people’s estates.
Simon of Sudbury, was another member of the gang, Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Chancellor – just in case there should be any doubt that the church laid down the laws, he made sure he was head of the church and head of the law at the same time.
The fifth member of the gang, the monopolist who joined them, was a man called Richard Lyons. He had discovered (mathematics was very in vogue at the time) that if he paid for the king’s wars, he could get the monopoly over the buying and selling of wool, and that there would be a big profit in it. I’ll explain it, because these things are complicated, He bought the wool for six pounds by order of the king, and he sold it for fourteen pounds by order of the king, and therefore made a profit. Only a few people in society could understand that sort of subtlety, but Lyons made himself extremely rich by this process.
Now this was the gang that ruled England. They represented different powers, and as different powers do, they were constantly quarrelling with one another about who was to pay for the wars, where were the taxes going to come from, who was to collect the taxes? All the time arguments were going on between the king, the clergy, the barons and the monopolists.
But as they were arguing – and as the wars went badly the arguments got fiercer – so the single point on which they could unite also became more solid. Namely their hatred and contempt for all the people who produced the wealth over which they were quarrelling.
IN 1348, THERE CAME something which increased that hatred and contempt enormously: the Black Death, a great bubonic plague coming up from Europe and sweeping through the country, killing people at a rate it’s almost impossible to imagine.
Perhaps 15 per cent of the population were killed as a result of this plague. Three hundred thousand people out of about two million. And of course the numbers killed among the serfage and the villeinage, among the people at the bottom of society, were far, far greater in proportion to those at the top.
The immediate economic effect of this, however, was that there were fewer serfs and fewer villeins, but more work to do. So for the first time since the Norman Conquest the people at the bottom of society began to feel a growing confidence about their economic condition in society. They began to feel that they were in demand. Instead of the demand all the time being made of them, they could make demands of someone else because they were scarce. Their labour was scarce, and their labour was vital to the society, and so out of the scarcity they could benefit.
And just as soon as they did start to make some advancement, and to press for higher wages if they were wage-earners, or for more freedom if they were serfs or villeins, so the government started to move in repression against them. In 1351 was passed the first known statutory incomes policy in Britain. People think that incomes policy is a modern thing. Not at all. The Statute of Labourers – you’re taught that at school, but no one teaches you that it was an incomes policy. It’s a perfect precursor for all the people who have recently been conducting incomes policies, all the Barbara Castles, Ted Heaths, Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlons. Listen to this:
‘Because a great part of the people, and especially workmen and servants, late died of the pestilence, many, seeing the necessity of masters and the great scarcity of servants, will not serve unless they receive excessive wages and some willing to beg in idlesness rather than by labour to get their living. We, considering the grievious incommodities which of the lack, especially of ploughmen and such labourers as may hereafter come, have upon deliberation and treaty of the prelates and nobles and learned men assisting us, ordained:
‘One: Every able-bodied person under sixty shall be bound to serve when required at no higher wage than in the twentieth year of the reign or else be committed to prison.’
That’s the way to do it. You don’t muck around with ‘guidelines’ and all that sort of thing. Three simple rules: one, you’ve got to work; two: you’ve got to work for what you had ten years ago; and three: if you don’t, you’ll go to prison.
Now that was passed, and when you passed laws in those days that was the end of the matter, except that this time the gang found things went rather differently: they had passed a law which was promptly broken, and broken, and broken. And not only by the people underneath, but also by some of the employers, who decided that they would rather produce things than not produce things, and would rather pay higher wages to the wandering workers than obey the Statute of Labourers.
So, for thirty years following that Statute, from 1351 to 1381, there was a relentless class campaign with the people at the top, who were trying to hold on to their property, passing law after law in order to try to keep themselves in control and their property at the level to which they were accustomed.
Here are some of those laws:
It’s awfully old language, isn’t it? Sounds an awfully long time ago, that 1361 Statute. But in December 1932 Tom Mann, the Communist agitator and unemployed workers’ organiser, was arrested under the Statute of 1361 and held for three days without charge while the unemployed demonstration that he’d organised took place. Before, they passed the Criminal Trespass Act in parliament recently, this statute of 1361 was the one they used to procure criminal charges against people who were engaged in trespass.
In 1377 King Edward died and was replaced by his grandson Richard, who was only ten years old. But the statutes went on.
Due remedy was of course provided. Brandings, and burnings, and imprisonments.
This last law was directed, not at the investigative reporters of that time, for there were none, but against the people who carried the news by word of mouth to meeting places in village after village. These were religious people, working within the framework of religion but attacking the way in which religion was being carried out. Excommunicated monks and priests were beginning to challenge the power of the church over people’s minds, over how people thought.
John Wycliff started off the process – he wasn’t a wandering priest at all, he was the Master of Balliol. He said for instance that there could be such a thing, there could be such a thing as a corrupt priest. Unheard of! Unimaginable! That there should be such a thing said! But he said it, and he also said that if there is a corrupt priest, that priest should not be obeyed.
And from challenging the church, the wandering preachers, excommunicated and imprisoned and constantly harassed by these statutes, started to take ‘false rumours’ about prelates and earls to the village meetings. From 1360 to 1381, for those twenty years before the revolt, these people moved around carrying these simple messages.
Most famous of them, the one we know most about, was John Ball, who was the parish priest at St James Church in Colchester.
John Ball applied himself to the arguments used by the church to justify the division of human society by property. What was the justification for that? People seemed to have the same physical characteristics, they seemed to be the same, what was the justification for this great division?
The church came up with an answer. Read the bible, they said. Adam and Eve had three sons: Cain and Abel and Seth. Cain did a terrible thing. He killed his brother, Abel. Cain therefore represented the evil, the barbarous, the people who were ineducable, the people at the bottom of society. If you are at the bottom of society you’re descended from Cain, and that’s why you’re there.
Then there were the people who were descended from Seth, who was quite a different character. Very respectable gentleman, never slaughtered his brother in public anyway, and eventually begat Noah. Noah, you know, was the absolute pinnacle of respectability, who behaved with great foresight and vision. When there was a natural disaster he packed an ark with all the important people, namely his own family, and even all the important animals. His example shines down to the people who are arranging the guest lists for the nuclear shelters today.
If you were descended from Seth – and there were very few people descended from Seth – then you were civilised, educated, fit to be on top of society. Thus did the Bible ‘explain’ the division of the human race.
John Ball came to this argument and wiped it clean with a wonderful rhyming couplet which was the theme of all his speeches.
‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’
It means two things. In the beginning, when people first existed, when human beings were first able to use their brain power to conquer the animal kingdom and to conquer nature, then where could you say that one person was more important than the other? Where could you see the class origins then?
It also means something else. In those same circumstances, where was the evidence that the man was superior to the woman?
We don’t have reports of John Balls’s speeches unfortunately. There were no scribes taking down in shorthand what John Ball and all the others were saying at that time. Occasionally a chronicler in a monastery would note one down, just to show how terrible these revolutionaries were! Here’s one such fragment which shows the inspiration and the ideal which John Ball held out to his audiences.
‘My good friends, matters cannot go well in England, nor ever will, until all things shall be held in common, when there shall be neither vassals nor lords, when the lords shall be no more masters than ourselves.’
Simple, elementary equality, preached there within the framework of religion. Not just the idea of equality, not just the inspiration, but most important and central to this entire story, the organisation that went with that idea. The belief that the idea could be put into effect if people took action. The John Balls weren’t just going around the villages saying nice things about how all .things could be held in common. They were agitators, engaged in thirty years of organisation, of inspiration to action, of the appointment of representatives, of linking the experience between town and country.
AGAIN AND AGAIN the authorities tried to suppress them. In 1379, in forty-five ‘hundreds’, which is not a very big area, around and about Essex, £10,000 was taken in fines on the peasantry in a single year.
That sounds quite a lot even today, but then the average monthly wage paid to ploughmen and reapers was one shilling, that is a twentieth of a pound.
The enormous numbers of people in prison, the large numbers of brandings, and the tremendous amount of money taken in fines, all these are indications of what was going on. But all to no avail.
John Gower was a landlord and a lawyer (you really had to be one in order to be the other). Shortly before the Peasants’ Revolt broke out, he wrote, with all the prejudices of the class he represented, the most extraordinary prophecy:
‘Three things, all of the same sort, are merciless when they get the upper hand, a water flood, a wasting fire, and the common multitude of small folk. For these will never be checked by reason or discipline and therefore, to speak in brief, the present world is so troubled by them that it is well to set a remedy thereunto. Ha! Age of ours, whither turnest thou? For the poor and small folk who should cleeve to their labour demand to be better fed than their masters. Moreover, they bedeck themselves in fine colours and fine attire whereas were it not for their pride and their privy conspiracies they could be clad in sackcloth as of old.’
That shows just how worried they were about the rise in the peasants’ standard of living. In spite of all that repression, of all those law courts, of all the religious preaching in the churches, the villeins and the serfs and the wage-earners were beginning to encroach upon the wealth of the rulers.
The king’s gang were in great difficulty, because the wars were going badly in France. They needed more money to maintain their own standard of living. In December 1380 John of Gaunt took his parliament to Northampton, where they decided they were going to have a poll tax, which is a sort of VAT, except that you didn’t have to buy anything to pay it, you just paid the tax. Every person over the age of fourteen had to pay at least a shilling, that is at least a monthly wage – every person.
Now the problem with a poll tax was how to collect it. The standard procedure for tax collection was useless. People had found out how to escape from one village to another, how to get off the tax roll on this village and off it on that, how to dodge the bailiffs when they came – and many of the bailiffs were themselves dissatisfied about the taxes they had to collect.
So John of Gaunt’s parliament enrolled a special squad of tax collectors under a particularly revolting specimen called John Leg. John Leg was conceivably the nastiest person in the whole of this very nasty story. He was a sort of mixture of a Black’n’Tan corporal and a racist immigration officer at London Airport. Those were the sort of people he engaged around him to collect these poll taxes.
I mentioned the immigration officers at London Airport deliberately. One of the tasks of John Leg’s gang was to discover whether people were fourteen or not. John Legg devised what he called the ‘puberty test’, which has its echo, doesn’t it, in the ‘virginity test’ that has been forced on immigrants coming to Britain today. For to decide whether sons and daughters were over 14, and so liable to the tax, they would measure the pubic hairs. That, as you can imagine, was not particularly popular.
Through January, February and March 1381 they collected their forces, a new, drilled gang of tax collectors. They started collecting in April, and as though to mark the date, on April 26th John Ball was arrested and locked up in Maidstone Prison. The counter-offensive, the gang’s attempt to crack down once and for all on this insubordination of the last thirty years, had started.
Instead it was the spark to the flame, and unlike peasants’ revolts in other parts of Europe at the time, it was spark to fuel and tinder that had been carefully piled up over a whole number of years.
On May 30th a man called Thomas Bampton, a very, very important man indeed, rode into Brentwood in Essex at the head of a group of five or six armed people to complain about the low taxation of the Essex village of Fobbing. The men of Fobbing said they had paid the taxes and they didn’t intend to pay any more, and so of course Bampton ordered their arrest. And then something fantastic happened. The Fobbing men refused to be arrested! Then something more fantastic happened: twenty men with longbows were suddenly standing outside the court. And they politely asked Mr Bampton if he would mind getting on his horse and going out of Brentwood – which he did with amazing alacrity.
He went to see the authorities, to see a man called Sir Robert Belnap. Thomas Bampton was a very important person, but Sir Robert Belnap was the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. I can’t describe how important he was.
He came to Brentwood with fifteen men – fifteen, that’s a lot you know. You don’t need fifteen men to carry out a puberty test on a fifteen-year-old child. He came to Brentwood and commanded a jury to charge the rebels. ‘These men have revolted against the crown, let’s have a jury,’ he declared. Well, two people in Brentwood agreed to form a jury – that was enough for Sir Robert. Two good men and true. So he started to hold his court ... and suddenly there were a hundred men outside with longbows. They took hold of Sir Robert Belnap and they put him the wrong way round on his horse, tied him to it, and sent him out of the town. He’d gone a long way before someone got him down. Then he saw another horse coming towards him, and on the horse were the severed heads of the jurors who had agreed to indict the rebels of Brentwood.
Now on the same day, on the same day – you see, people say the thing wasn’t planned, that it was sporadic outburst – but on the same day, June 2nd, in Dartford in Kent, which is some way away, one of John Leg’s gangs went to the house of John Tyler.
Here is a description of what happened:
‘Some of Leg’s fellow criminals ... (this is actually quite a moderate historian, not a socialist at all, a man called Edmund Maurice, a liberal, and even he refers to ‘Leg’s fellow criminals’)
‘Some of Let’s fellow criminals had already arrived, and had gone to the house of one John Tyler and commanded of his wife the payment of the poll tax on behalf of herself, her husband and her daughter. She refused to pay for her daughter, as not being of age, and the collector thereupon seized the daughter, declaring he would discover if this were true.’
Maurice then quotes from Stowe’s chronicle:
‘Neighbours came running in, and John Tyler, being at work in the same town tiling of an house when he heard thereof, caught his lathing staff in his hand and ran reeking home, where, reasoning with the collector, who made him so bold, the collector answered with stout words and strake at the tiler. Whereupon the tiler, avoiding the blow, smote the collector with the lathing staff that the brains flew out of his head, wherethrough great noise arose in the streets and the poor people, being glad, everyone prepared to support the said John Tyler.’
That’s the original chronicler, not the modern historian. Just as Brentwood had provided the spark in Essex, so Dartford set fire to Kent.
TROOPS OF ARMED PEASANTS suddenly started arriving at the main townships of Essex and Kent within 24 hours. On June 3rd the monastery at Erith had fallen. On June 5th the castle at Rochester fell to the peasants – never had it been taken since the Norman Conquest.
On June 6th John Ball was set free from Maidstone Prison – and it was there, as he was set free, that rebel forces representing twenty, thirty, perhaps forty thousand men, elected as their leader a man called Wat Tyler. Not the John Tyler we have met before, but Wat Tyler, about whom, to his enormous credit, we know absolutely nothing. We don’t know what he looked like, we don’t know what he did for a living, we don’t know anything about him save that he led the biggest rising of ordinary people in Britain before Oliver Cromwell.
I know there are lots of academic people who like to hear from sensible, university professors about Wat Tyler, so here is Professor Sir Charles Oman – you couldn’t get better than that could you? He writes in The Great Revolt, published by Oxford University Press 1906: ‘it is probable that Tyler was an adventurer of unknown antecedents, and we may well believe the Kentishman who declared that he was a well-known rogue and highwayman.’
That’s the way professors write, when they’ve really done the research, who accept only facts ... ‘we may well believe’, he writes! ‘it is probably ...!’
At any rate, this ‘rogue and highwayman’ was leading an army of seventy thousand people through Kent. At the same time Jack Straw was leading another army of seventy thousand through Essex. Every day the army was growing. Through Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, even Lincolnshire, there were peasants meeting together in the villages. Representatives had been previously appointed and marked down. We know that because when John Ball was released from prison in Maidstone he wrote and sent a series of letters. Only two or three have come down to us, but the letters are direct, like Party circulars mobilising the membership. They are to Jack So-and-so, get out there and get the people out. You there, John this or Wat that, go for this particular landlord, or for that particular set of manorial rolls.
The peasants didn’t sack the monasteries, they didn’t even burn them down. They didn’t burn or loot anywhere at random. Everything was done by pre-arranged plan. They went for the manorial rolls which listed the crimes that people had committed, their liability for tax, and what tax had been paid. Those rolls were specially feared and hated, and were systematically destroyed.
On June 11th these two big armies from Kent and from Essex (incidentally representing two different levels of exploitation, the men of Kent much more advanced and aware, but the men of Essex much more exploited and therefore more ferocious) camped outside London. Tyler’s army came to Blackheath and Straw’s to Barnet.
You can imagine then the feelings of the King’s gang inside the Tower of London. The only decision that was taken, by the way, was to shut the gates. You can imagine it in there: 70,000 men at Black-heath, and probably another 70,000 at Barnet, and the situation is really rather serious because Sir David McNee is not here, we don’t have any police, we don’t have any riot shields, we don’t know what we’re going to do about this situation. The people are in motion – we can’t even trust the people of London not to join these vagabonds.
The only hope they had was the faith that the people had in their king, Richard, then a boy of fourteen. For this faith was at the root of the demands of the peasants. Their slogan was ‘For King Richard and the true commons.’ They believed in the king – and it’s a strange thing that you hear the echo even today – saying that the fault was in the courtiers, the hangers-on, the family, the John of Gaunt, Hob the Robber, the Archbishop. But the king himself came from God. The king could do no wrong. The king believed in the people over whom he ruled and had an indissoluble link with the people over whom he ruled and the king would see them straight.
The king’s council realised that their only hope was to use the people’s faith in the king. They made a desperate attempt to stop the armies going into London. The king and his closest advisers took a barge and went down the Thames to Rotherhithe, a village south east of London, and called upon Wat Tyler and the people to come and meet them there with their demands.
Froissart, the most descriptive of the chroniclers, tells the story:
‘Accordingly, attended by the earls of Salisbury, Warwick and Suffolk and other knights, Richard rowed down the Thames towards Rotherhithe’ (that doesn’t of course mean that he rowed, you understand. He was rowed down the Thames towards Rotherhithe) ‘where were upwards often thousand men who had come from Blackheath to see the king and to speak with him. When the king and his lords saw this crowd of people and the wildness of their manner, there was not one among them so bold and determined but felt alarmed.
‘The king was advised by his barons not to land, but to have his barge rowed up and down the river. “What do you wish for?” demanded the king. “I have come hither to hear what ye have to say.” Those near him cried out with one voice: “We wish thee to land, when we will remonstrate with thee and tell thee more at our ease what our wants are.” The Earl of Salisbury then replied for the king and said: “Gentlemen, you are not properly dressed, nor in a fit condition for the king to talk with you.” Nothing more was said, for the king was desired to return to the Tower of London from whence he had set out.’
The earls and marquesses of Salisbury have been saying it for 600 years: ‘You’re improperly dressed’.
Naturally enough, the rebels were undismayed by this performance. They moved at once into the City of London, from both-sides, and once again they acted swiftly and with great restraint. They went for two areas, two areas that were particularly hated. They went for the Temple, representing all the lawyers – all respectable lawyers operated from the Temple, still do as a matter of fact – and they burnt it down. Then they went to the Savoy, which was the palace of John of Gaunt, and they burnt that down with the most systematic savagery. Every single thing in it was burnt and burnt and burnt again. Only one person died in all this, and he was a looter who was seen taking something out of the Savoy, which wouldn’t then have been burnt. The crowd were so angry that anything connected with John of Gaunt should not be burnt that they killed the looter and burnt the thing that he had taken.
The next day, June 14th, the king admitted defeat and opened the gates of the Tower of London and went to Mile End to meet Tyler’s army and agreed to all the rebels’ demands, all of them; repeal of the Statue of Labourers and all the repressive statutes of the last thirty years, an end to bondage and villeinage. Worst of all for the landed gentry was that he decreed: ‘all game and fish to be open to the commons and all the common land which had prevously been taken by the monasteries to be returned to the commons.’
The king didn’t give just his word. He sat all day at Mile End in his tent signing charters for the people of this village, the people of that village, all over the home counties.
Meanwhile in the city, the rebel army moved on the Tower. No looting, no destruction, no burning of the Tower. The peasants knew what they wanted, and they got them. They got the Archbishop Sudbury. They got Hales. They got the detested Leg. They got Lyons. All of them lost their heads. The gang, except for the king, and John of Gaunt, who was fighting one of his pet wars in Scotland, had gone forever.
BUT OF COURSE there was another gang to replace that gang, and they understood the central weakness of the peasant armies: that they could not last forever, that they couldn’t be supplied, and so would be forced to disband and return to their fields. Above all, they trusted the king. So after waiting a week, in which gradually they built up their own forces, the lords and the barons set up a new and this time very successful intrigue. I don’t want to go into it in detail because if there’s any part of the story that’s known well it’s this part.
Pretending that they wanted new talks with Tyler’s army, the king and a large gang of courtiers went to Srnithfield. They insisted that Tyler come alone at least a mile from his army and talk to the king’s men about his demands and whether the army would disband. Tyler, still, trusting the king, came, alone, on his horse, and engaged in absurd negotiaions for a few moments. It’s not exactly known what happened. Somebody shouted out some insulting remark. Tyler drew his dagger. Five people jumped on him, stabbed him, and he fell dying to the ground.
Then the king, alone, went to the peasant army and explained that there had been an accident, a mistake. We don’t know exactly what he said to them, but he managed to persuade them that their demands would be met full, indeed had been met in full, and that it was a terrible thing that their leader had been killed. He led them out of the city.
That moment is the climax of the revolt, which begins to falter from there. The confidence of those peasant armies depended on their success, and now the success has stopped.
It’s difficult even to imagine, in those circumstances, how they could have conceded to King Richard as they did. The only explanation lies in the tremendous power which the royal presence had at that time over the common people.
I don’t want to deal too long on the period that followed the rebellion. It was only too familiar. Every home in London was visited by the forces of the king and asked to swear an oath of allegiance on pain of death. John Ball was half-hanged, disembowelled while still alive, hanged again and drawn at St Albans. John Rawe, Jack Straw, John Sherwin of Sussex, William Grindcobbe in St Albans, all of them were executed in one way or another after varying forms of resistance in different towns.
William Grindcobbe from St Albans was arrested, imprisoned, and told that he would be killed unless he went back and told the insurgents to lay down their arms. He agreed to go back, and spoke to some 100-150 armed men at St Albans. He told them on no account to lay down their arms, to continue the struggle – and he was taken from behind while he was speaking and executed. Such was the spirit of the Peasants’ Revolt.
In Billericay five hundred were put to death by a particularly revolting lawyer who ran a competition to see how many could be hanged on the branch of one tree. The record was nineteen.
The proportions of the deaths during the rising and afterwards are familiar for all the revolts and rebellions and risings before and since. In the rising itself, perhaps a hundred dead, most of them people guilty of the most terrible extortion and exploitation over a long period of time. In the putting down of the rising, perhaps three thousand dead. That’s roughly the proportion that has been followed in similar events all the way through history. The rulers, in their retribution, are always far more savage than those who oppose them.
The men of Essex, finally beaten and broken down by this force of arms, got through three messengers to the court of King Richard with the charter that he had signed at Mile End, reminding him of his commitment to do away with bondage and villeinage. The reply of this boy king, this hero of the hour, is really what sums him up better than anything you’ll ever read in Shakespeare or anywhere else:
‘Serfs you have been and serfs you shall remain in bondage, not such as you have hitherto been subjected to, but incomparably viler. For so long as we live and rule by God’s grace over this kingdom we shall use our strength, sense and property to treat you that your slavery may be an example to posterity and that those who live now and hereafter, who may be like you, may always have before their eyes, as it were in a glass, your misery and reasons for cursing you and the fear of doing things like those which you have done.’
That’s the real spokesman of class war in victory. Promising his people a measure of freedom at Mile End signing the charters, and only nine day later tearing up the promises with all the contempt and hatred of a king who has felt the breath of his people in revolt.
But the truth of the matter is not, as historians always tell you, that the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 left the peasants worse off than they were before, that the rising would have been better for the peasants not to have happened. For Richard, as he spoke those words, was whistling in the dark and he knew he was whistling in the dark, because he and his nobles had seen the strength and the potential of the risen people, and he wasn’t going to risk that in any circumstances again.
In 1382 a new poll tax was ordered by John of Gaunt’s parliament, but this time for landowners only. In 1390 the attempt to hold down wages by law was formally abandoned and the Statute of Labourers effectively repealed. By 1430, only fifty years from the end of the Peasants’ Revolt bondage and villeinage had been abolished, in England before anywhere else in Europe.
When you ask: why was England first in the fight against feudalism? Why was it first in England in the revolution of the 1640s that feudalism was crushed? One of the best answers is precisely in the success of the Peasants’ Revolt, more successful than all the peasants’ revolts in Europe – such as Jacquerie in France – because it was organised.
Here is the conclusion of Reg Groves’ and Philip Lindsay’s marvellous book on this subject. And that’s by far the best book, by the way, about the Peasants’ Revolt:
‘All that we know about the commoners of fourteenth century England suggests that they had long awaited and prepared for extensive and radical revolution.’
That’s the most important thing about it: the organisation and the propaganda, the linking of the organisation and propaganda, the appointment of representatives, the linking from the town to the country, from county to county. By these means, by planning and organisation, men like Ball, Tyler, Rawe, Grindcobbe and Straw, from the darkest depths of feudal England, were able to raise two mighty armies which scared the living daylights out of the rulers of the time.
The scaring has gone on for 600 years. Nothing concentrates the minds of the hereditary landlords and capitalists quite like the memory of Wat Tyler.
Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, has a wonderful character in it called Sir Lester Dedlock – the names in Dickens always sum the person up. He was always worried about the ‘floodgates’ of society, whether they might open and sweep the social order away.
There is a passage about a case in the Court of Chancery:
‘He, Sir Lester, regards the Court of Chancery, even if it should involve an occasional delay of justice and a trifling amount of confusion, as a “something” devised in conjunction with a variety of other “somethings”, by the perfection of human wisdom for the external settlement of everything. And he is upon the whole of a fixed opinion that to give the sanction of his countenance to any complaints respecting the Court of Chancery would be to encourage some person in the lower classes to rise up somewhere ... like Wat Tyler.’
Throughout the whole book, Sir Lester Dedlock, when someone says something wrong at a party, or eats with the wrong knife, or doesn’t come home at the time that they ought to, Sir Lester is reminded of Wat Tyler and of people who meet by torchlight with grim and swarthy expressions.
THERE’S A TENDENCY among people who think about history, even, perhaps especially, among Marxists who think about history, to divide it into sealed compartments. They say that the peasant comes from a different age, is separate from us, has nothing to do with us, and that history moves by stages, scientific stages, and the peasant is one stage, and the workers are in another.
It’s nothing therefore to do with us what happened six hundred years ago, in a quite different sort of economy. We can leave it on one side. We’re not peasants, we’re very advanced people, we’ve been an industrial working class burrowing away for years and we’ve got pretty well nowhere, but we’re terribly important and we’re much more important than any peasant.
I think that that is not only reactionary and wrong but paralysing – because the whole idea that history determines things and that everything’s inevitable paralyses us, leaves out the activity which is at the centre of the Peasants’ Revolt. It is also insulting to the people who carried those standards for us all through those years before. What’s most extraordinary about the Peasants’ Revolt is not the differences between us and them, which are obvious and expected, but the similarities. We’re bound together by this relentless struggle between the classes, which persists all the way through their story and all the way through ours.
In 1881, one hundred years ago, inspired by the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Peasants’ Revolt, William Morris, a great socialist writer, grappled with this same idea. We do have something in common with what John Ball and Wat Tyler were doing in 1381. How could William Morris, with his enormous writing powers, try to bridge the gap for the socialists of his time? He did it in a really very brilliant piece of writing. It took him a long time to do it, and didn’t in fact appear until 1885.
He imagined himself or somebody like himself, a socialist in 1881, being plunged back into the villages of Kent in 1381, beating off the barons and the nobles. He describes John Ball coming to a village – probably the best description there is, better than the chronicles themselves because William Morris really went into it and found out about it.
At the end of the piece, which is called The Dream of John Ball, this man, who has all this experience of 500 years after 1381, has a long discussion with John Ball about what will happen. John Ball says, in effect, that he knows the revolt is going to fail, but asks what is going to happen after that? When, he asks, is his dream of all people living in common and sharing everything and there not being any vassals or lords going to come about?
Morris replies sadly that it won’t come for 500 years at least.
Not surprisingly, John Ball gets a bit depressed about that. He reminds his guest that he is marching to certain defeat and execution, and asks: For what? Is it worth it?
Here is the reply:
‘John Ball, be of good cheer, for once more thou knowest as I know that the fellowship of man shall endure, however many tribulations it may have to wear through. It may well be that this bright day of summer, which is now dawning upon us, is no image of the beginning of the day that shall be – but rather shall that day dawn be cold and grey and surly, and yet, by its light shall men see things as they verily are, and, no longer enchanted by the gleam of the moon and the glamour of the dream-tide, by such grey light shall wise men and valiant souls see the remedy and deal with it, a real thing that may be touched and handled and no glory of the heavens to be worshipped from afar off.
‘And what shall it be, as I told thee before, save that men shall be determined to be free, yea free as thou wouldst have them, when thine hope rises the highest and thou arte thinking, not of the king’s uncles and poll-grote bailiffs and the villeinage of Essex, but of the end of it all, when men shall have the fruits of the earth and the fruits of the earth and the fruits of their toil thereon without money and without price. That time shall come, John Ball, when that dream of thine shall this one day be, shall be a thing that man shall talk of soberly, and as a thing soon to come about as even with thee they talk of the villeins becoming tenants paying their lord quit-rent.
‘Therefore hast thou done well to hope it, and thy name shall abide by thy hope in those days to come, and thou shalt not be forgotten.’
Last updated on 24.11.2013