Post-classical history


In the summer of 1381 England erupted in a violent popular uprising that was as unexpected as it was unprecedented. Previous rebellions had always been led by ambitious and discontented noblemen seeking to overthrow the government and seize power for themselves. The so-called ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ was led by commoners – most famously Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Balle – whose origins were obscure and whose moment at the forefront of events was brief. Even more unusually, they did not seek personal advancement but a radical political agenda which, if it had been implemented, would fundamentally have transformed English society: the abolition of serfdom and the dues and services owed by tenants to their lord of the manor; freedom from tolls and customs on buying and selling goods throughout the country; the recognition of a man’s right to work for whom he chose at the wages he chose; the state’s seizure of the Church’s wealth and property. Their demands anticipated the French Revolution by four hundred years.

The main events of the rebellion are well known. The people of Essex and Kent were the first to rise, marched to London to confront the fourteen-year-old Richard II, sacked royal palaces and religious houses, and murdered the chief officers of state, including the chancellor and treasurer, who also happened to be two of the most senior clergymen in the kingdom, and the chief justice of the King’s Bench. With London in flames around him, Richard was forced to give in to the rebels’ demands, only to retrieve the situation after Tyler was murdered in front of him at Smithfield and exact a terrible vengeance on the ‘rustics’ who had dared to dictate to him. That, at least, is how the revolt is often described: a London-centric orgy of violence luridly characterised as a ‘summer of blood’ or ‘a general riot of destruction and death’.1

By and large this was also the view of contemporary chroniclers, who were all clerics and nearly all monks. Almost to a man, therefore, they had neither sympathy nor genuine understanding of the rebels who had attacked their monastic houses and privileges and murdered their leaders. In their eyes rebellion was an unacceptable challenge to divinely appointed authority and the rebels were a bestial mob, ignorant, illiterate, barely capable of cogent language – though that did not stop Thomas Walsingham, the most accomplished storyteller of them all, from putting eloquent, if entirely fictitious, speeches into the mouths of Balle and Straw when it suited him. These chroniclers did not see it as their task to look beyond what they thought were simply wanton and indiscriminate acts of violence to appreciate why people and property were being attacked on such a massive scale. The widespread burning of court rolls, charters and administrative and legal records seemed to them an attack by ignorance on the accumulated wisdom of the ages, symbolised most memorably in the example of Margery Starr, who danced round the bonfire of the university of Cambridge’s archives, throwing the ashes to the winds and crying, ‘Away with the learning of clerks! Away with it!’2

To monks whose lives revolved around the scriptorium, books and chronicling deeds past and present for the education of future generations, such acts had to be portrayed as incomprehensible except, perhaps, as the result of envy, wickedness or the moral corruption imbibed from the preaching of excommunicate heretics and troublemakers like John Balle. The chroniclers’ accounts therefore have to be treated with caution because none of them wrote impartially and all of them had a didactic purpose in mind. It is true that many of them had access to important sources of information: Henry Knighton, an Augustinian canon at the abbey of St Mary Pratis, Leicester, and close to members of John of Gaunt’s household at Leicester, was able to quote the duke’s officials and acquired five of John Balle’s letters, which he transcribed into his chronicle; as the official chronicler of his house, St Albans, Thomas Walsingham was able to make use of his abbey’s extensive contacts, particularly with the court, was close to events in London and had a ringside seat for both the revolt in St Albans and the subsequent trials of rebels, including Balle, held there; Jean Froissart, the great chivalric historian, had spent seven years in the service of Edward III’s wife, Queen Philippa, who was like him a Hainaulter by birth, and retained many contacts within the English court from whom he sought first-hand accounts of the great revolt. Nevertheless, even the best informed of these chroniclers, such as the author of the Anonimalle, which was written within a few years of the revolt, probably by a chancery clerk based in York, are riddled with factual errors, but when this is combined with a determination to create martyrs out of unlikely material and to demonise the rebels indiscriminately, the result can be toxic for historical accuracy – particularly when the author writes as persuasively and with as much colour as Walsingham or Froissart.

One might expect greater impartiality from the administrative and judicial records but these too present huge challenges for the unwary. The phrase ‘vi et armis’, for instance, is regularly used in the indictments in connection with rebels entering property that did not belong to them; literally it means ‘with force and arms’, which conjures up images of a baying mob armed to the teeth, storming in and destroying everything in sight. In some instances that is what happened, but the phrase was always used in trespass cases to indicate that force was used, or an injury or damage was caused by force, even if it was accidental: a dentist was thus sued in 1361 for ‘imprisoning and extracting’ the patient’s teeth ‘with force and arms’.3 Many of the incidents where force and arms were used may therefore have been as harmless as opening a closed gate or entering a property without the owner’s permission. This must be borne in mind when reading of houses and parks being broken into by force.

The maxim that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter is demonstrated repeatedly in the indictments. Time and again we hear of ‘extortions’ when money, property or bonds were handed over, allegedly as the result of threats to life and limb, or people being forcibly ejected from their tenements, which were then given to others. In many instances, however, these were not simple criminal acts of the moment, but had a history behind them which is often impossible to disentangle from the judicial charge; it might be an overdue debt, or a bond which had been fulfilled but was being unjustly retained instead of cancelled, or a disputed inheritance withheld or given to someone else by a corrupt escheator or manorial steward. The terminology of the indictment does not allow for the possibility that the accused might consider that their rebel actions were righting wrongs, not committing new ones.

Similarly, there are hundreds of examples in the judicial records of rebels ransacking properties, driving off livestock and taking everything from clothes to kitchen utensils. On the face of it this seems to be blatant theft, but consider the case of John Reve of Sutton, who in December 1380 complained that all his beasts, worth one hundred pounds, had been taken from him by force and arms and he had been compelled to pay one hundred shillings to get them back again. This was theft and robbery to him but the ‘thieves’ were John White, the sacristan of Ely, and a group of monks who had seized his goods in order to force him to admit that he was the priory’s villein.4 In other words, they were exerting the lord’s legal but summary right to distrain a recalcitrant tenant. Since distraint was also commonly used to compel the performance of duties and obtain satisfaction for debts or damages, it is quite possible that the rebels believed that they were using the same process against corrupt officials who had acquired money and goods to which they were not entitled. Geoffrey Cobbe, for instance, supervised a two-day auction of the goods of one such official in Cambridgeshire. This was hardly the action of an impassioned peasant seeking vengeance on his wealthy oppressors: Cobbe was a member of the local gentry and took no further part in the rebellion, which suggests that he believed he was acting within the law.5

This brings us to the two main issues to emerge from this book. The first is the fact that this was not a ‘peasants’ revolt’ at all. As with so many neat and enduring labels, including the Black Death, this was a name bestowed by nineteenth-century historians who equated the chroniclers’ description of the rebels as rustici, meaning rural or country people, with peasants and serfs in particular. The problem with this term is that it is no longer simply a description of agricultural labourers or subsistence farmers, but has acquired a politically charged meaning which elevates the universalities of dogma above the differences of the particular. Marxist historians like Rodney Hilton identified the medieval English peasantry as a monolithic social class, inherently united in its opposition to lordship, which lived off the surplus of its labour. The ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ therefore became understandable in terms of ‘a separate peasant self-consciousness’ and the ‘inevitable antagonism’ generated between the peasantry and its oppressors.6 In other words, the ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ was an unavoidable result of the age-old class struggle.

Recent scholarship has been more nuanced, demonstrating the wide social range of the rebels, from servants and labourers living off wages, through the village elite who served as bailiffs, constables and stewards, to the ranks of the gentry. The fact that such disparate people found a common cause is in itself more interesting but it makes the term ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ redundant. Those in power tended to refer to it afterwards as ‘the diabolical insurrection’, ‘the great insurrection’ or, for good measure, ‘the great and horrible rumour and insurrection’, though the Bermondsey chronicler memorably described it as the year of ‘the common people against the nobles of the kingdom of England, which is called “the Hurling”’.7 Like most modern writers on the subject, I have deliberately avoided ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ and substituted more generalised terms such as ‘the great revolt’.

Where I part from most of them, however, is in trying to distinguish between ‘real’ or politically motivated incidents of rebellion and mere acts of criminality. Every major public disorder unleashes copycat violence and provides the opportunity for settling old scores or helping oneself to other people’s property. This does not necessarily mean that such acts did not contribute to the uprising, or were not inspired by it. The activities of the Stathum family in Derbyshire,8 for example, were part and parcel of their long-running feud with John of Gaunt, but would those particular actions have been taken at that particular time if the revolt had not made them possible? To dismiss the uprising in York as a ‘squalid and obscure municipal quarrel, which had obviously no relation to the general causes of the rebellion’9 is to suggest that it was irrelevant. Yet the rioters in York were expressing their frustration at ecclesiastical privilege and abuse of civic power just as much as rebels elsewhere who sacked the properties of the Knights Hospitaller, burned the archives of religious houses and executed corrupt officials.

Recent scholarship has done much to widen the focus away from London to reveal the extent of the revolt across the country and its causes. The emphasis remains on the countryside, however; even today it seems we are still trapped by contemporary descriptions of it as a rebellion by rustici. While much good work has been done to elucidate the inter-dependence of town and country, the urban revolts have tended to be sidelined as the result of internal petty politics as opposed to the grand causes which inspired the countryside. The urban voice in shaping the rebels’ agenda has been neglected, yet the abolition of tolls and customs was every bit as radical a demand as the abolition of villeinage. Men like Thomas atte Raven and John Ferrour, alias Marchall, to pick two examples at random from Rochester, Kent, were leading rebels in their own town but also in the uprising in London. And the root causes of rebellion in the towns were the same as in the countryside: anger and frustration at years of heavy taxation with nothing to show for it, oppressive tolls and customs exacted by landlords such as the abbeys of Bury St Edmunds and St Albans, punitive labour legislation, and corruption and extortion by officialdom. The urban uprisings were just as important and as legitimately part of the revolt as those in the countryside.

Another, perhaps more controversial, theme to this book is my argument that the boy-king sympathised with the grievances of the rebels, willingly granted the letters of manumission and pardon at Mile End and would have stood by them if he had not been overruled by his councillors and eventually by parliament as well. It is ironic that his attitude made a bad situation worse. I will argue that, because he did not revoke and cancel the letters until eighteen days after issuing them, the rebels felt that they had his authority to act as they did, encouraging the spread of the revolt and drawing in many who would not otherwise have become embroiled in what would later be defined as treason. William Grindecobbe and his fellow rebels at St Albans actually had royal letters, granted at Mile End, ordering the abbot to hand over the abbey’s charters to the townsmen. Geoffrey Cobbe declared that he was acting on the king’s commission when he auctioned off Haseldene’s property. It should not be forgotten that these acts did not become ‘crimes’ or ‘treasons’ until the king changed his mind, or had it changed for him.

What will surprise most readers is that the three most famous protagonists of the revolt scarcely appear at all in my account. This is as much a source of frustration to me as it will be to them, but it is unavoidable. For despite the fact that John Balle, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw have achieved immortality as the heroic leaders of the revolt, there are remarkably few references to them in contemporary sources. Balle is the one about whom we know most but even he remains elusive in terms of both his character and the role he played in events. Tyler really only emerges from the shadows at the Smithfield meeting where he was assassinated; Straw is glimpsed so fleetingly that it is difficult to explain his continuing hold on the popular imagination. What the absence of these iconic figures does mean, however, is that other local leaders come to the fore. And that, surely, is a vitally important point to grasp. The great revolt was emphatically not inspired and led just by three charismatic men of the people. It was a many-headed hydra. In every locality different local leaders volunteered to take charge of the direction of events – men like John Wrawe, William Grindecobbe, John Hauchach, Thomas Sampson, Geoffrey Lister – and it was their specialised local knowledge which enabled their actions to be so effectively targeted and made them so dangerous. That there were so many of them indicates not only the depth of feeling across the country which caused the revolt in the first place but also the difficulty facing the government in trying to quell the rebellion. It was not simply a question of catching and executing Balle, Tyler and Straw so that the rebels would be leaderless and easily dispersed. There were local leaders in every rebel area, many of whom already held positions of authority, and each of whom had their own particular local grievances to be addressed. It was this multiple leadership which made the great revolt the most serious popular rebellion in England’s history.

What I hope emerges from this book is a more comprehensive overview of the revolt than has hitherto been published: one that attempts to answer the questions why, how and who, though sometimes it can only raise them. There is another purpose underpinning this. The great uprising brought into focus the vast majority of people whose lives and concerns were usually beneath the notice of the chroniclers. Even at this critical moment contemporaries dismissed them as ‘the commons’, or treated them as an amorphous mass, but the records of the revolt provide a rare opportunity to identify individuals and tell their stories. In doing so we gain a far richer insight into what life was like in England in 1381 and, I hope, a more balanced view of medieval society as a whole.

Inevitably, as research continues, more will emerge which will enhance or change some of the conclusions I have reached, but the immense amount of scholarship on which I have drawn should be acknowledged. The bibliography alone attests to that but the work of five scholars in this field deserves special mention. André Réville’s compendium of original administrative and judicial documents, Le Soulèvement des Travailleurs d’Angleterre en 1381 (Paris, 1898), remains the most valuable resource of its kind on the subject. R. B. Dobson’s more accessible and chronicle-driven sourcebook, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (Macmillan, 1970), first drew attention to the extent of the revolt outside London and is still the best starting point for any study of the rebellion. The indefatigable work in local manorial records of Christopher Dyer, in particular, has mined a rich seam of social and cultural history which has transformed our understanding of who the rebels were and why they were drawn into revolt. Equally painstaking and revelatory is the analysis of judicial records undertaken by Andrew Prescott, which sheds light not only on the identity of individual rebels, their motives and their organisation, but also on the chronology of the revolt and the many incidents of sometimes startling importance which passed unnoticed by the chroniclers. Finally, Carolyn Fenwick’s superb three-volume edition, The Poll Taxes of 1377, 1379 and 1381 (The British Academy, 2001–5), is a mine of fascinating information and an essential resource for any study of this period.

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