Issue 231 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
'Who would ever have believed that such rustics, and most inferior ones at that, would dare to enter the chamber of the king and of his mother with their filthy sticks, and, undeterred by any of the soldiers, to stroke and lay their uncouth and sordid hands on the beards of several most noble knights. The rebels, who had formerly belonged to the most lowly condition of serf, went in and out like lords.'
That was the shocked eyewitness account of a certain Thomas Walsingham of how peasant rebels invaded London over 600 years ago. The 'Peasants' Revolt' shook England's rulers to the core, and its memory has sent a chill down the spine of successive generations of rulers since.
No wonder. The anonymous author of the medieval Anonimalle Chronicle also witnessed the events in London that June. The rebels did not stop at stroking beards.
Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was, in those feudal times, a key figure in the ruling class. Sir Robert Hales was the Treasurer of England--the equivalent of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The rebels seized these and other members of the ruling circle and beheaded them on Friday 14 June 1381. Meanwhile at Mile End, to the east of the city, the rebels seemed to have forced the king to concede to their demands.
The rebel leader was Wat Tyler, from Kent. Our chronicler, who dubbed him 'king of the ruffians and the idol of the rustics', records Wat's demands: 'He asked that no lord should have lordship in future but it should be divided among all men.' 'To this,' the chronicler records, 'the king gave an easy answer and said that Wat should have all.'
The revolt had begun a few weeks earlier in Essex. The king had imposed a poll tax to help finance the cost of wars the feudal rulers were waging in France. Society at the time was ruled by the feudal landowners at whose head stood the king. Alongside them were the bishops and a growing band of wealthy merchants. The mass of the people were peasants, many of whom were serfs--legally bound to their lords and forced to labour for them. The king's attempt to collect a poll tax was the spark that ignited the smouldering resentment at the bottom of society.
In the Essex village of Fobbing, poll tax collectors, headed by a Thomas Bamptoun, arrived. Our chronicler records what happened: 'All the people replied that they would pay nothing.' When 'Thomas commanded the serjeants at arms to arrest these people and put them in prison, these commons would not be arrested and were ready to kill the said Thomas and the two serjeants.' 'Accordingly,' notes the chronicler, 'Thomas fled.' Within days the revolt spread into Kent. There were also similar revolts across the country. Soon two great peasant armies assembled, determined to march on London. Leaders began to emerge, such as Wat Tyler, and also a certain Jack Straw--definitely no relation to the modern version.
At the heart of the rebellion seems to have been a network of people around a radical preacher, John Ball. Ball had been defrocked for his radical sermons, and was locked up in Maidstone jail when the revolt erupted. One of the peasants' first acts was to free him. Our chronicler records why: 'For 20 years and more Ball had been preaching continually and had rather won the goodwill of the common people. He tried to prove that from the beginning all men were created equal.'
When the two peasant armies, tens of thousands strong, reached London they first seemed to have won a victory. But though they struck down the king's hated advisers and top officials, they trusted the young king himself--an all too common theme in history.
The rulers bought time until they were ready to strike back. The day after the king's promise of freedom, Wat Tyler was lured to a meeting at Smithfield, where the mayor of London, William Walworth assassinated him. It was a turning point, and the rebels were persuaded to leave London. Soon after they did the king ripped up his promises. The rebel leaders were hunted down and John Ball, Jack Straw and others brutally executed.
The king's proclamation against the rebels reeks of class vengeance: 'You wretched men, you who seek equality with lords are not worthy to live. Serfs you were and serfs you will remain.
'You will remain in bondage not as before but incomparably harsher. We will strive to suppress you so that the rigour of your servitude will be an example to posterity.'
But though the vengeance was harsh and real, the rulers were also terrified. Within a few years serfdom had disappeared from England. And for 600 years no ruler tried to introduce a poll tax again--until Margaret Thatcher tried it, with fairly disastrous consequences for her.
No doubt the limits imposed by a largely agricultural poor society meant the rebellion could not have won an equal society of the kind some of its leaders dreamed of. But its memory has echoed down the ages, inspiring those fighting for change and terrifying our rulers. Why, is best summed up by the sermon a chronicler describes John Ball giving to the insurgent peasants as they prepared to enter London: