Post-classical history


The legacy

The great revolt played out over a remarkably short period of time; its suppression was swift and thereafter, to all appearances, life returned to normal. We even read of former rebels, charged with rebellion in their manorial courts, levying amercements and entry fines against themselves in order to be able to pick up the threads of their old lives as if nothing untoward had happened.1 Yet for others the effect of being caught up in the revolt was profound and even life changing. We have already seen, for instance, how some royal officers in the shires resigned their posts and retired from public life; and there must have been others who, like the sheriff of Kent William Septvans, responded to what had happened to them by taking the decision to free all their own villeins.2

One person above all others must have been marked for life by his experiences, and that was Richard II. He had stood in a turret of the White Tower and watched as the rebels overran London and the flames consumed his uncle’s Savoy Palace and the preceptory of the Knights Hospitaller. He had parted from his two most senior advisers, his chancellor and treasurer, after the council meeting in the Tower and the next time he would come face to face with them was at the entrance to London Bridge, where their severed heads were displayed for all to see. He had met the rebels and their representatives twice in person, at Mile End and Smithfield, had talked to them, listened to their grievances and offered remedies. And he had witnessed not only the murder of Wat Tyler but also the judicial execution of John Balle. These were events which would have tried the mettle of the most experienced medieval monarch but Richard was still a boy, at the impressionable age of fourteen, and facing an unprecedented political crisis before he had even fully assumed the reins of government.

Unfortunately we have no means of knowing for certain what impact these events had on the boy-king as he left no personal account or comment, either public or private. What we can perhaps deduce from Richard’s subsequent behaviour is that the great revolt instilled in him, or reinforced, his own ideas of kingship. The rebels had attacked his government’s policies, his ministers and his officials but they had remained unswerving in their loyalty and devotion to Richard himself. His name had been on their lips as their watch-word and even when he was at his most vulnerable, riding through the streets of London or meeting them at Mile End and Smithfield, they had treated his person as sacrosanct. In granting them their freedoms he had acted solely on his own royal authority – a moment of empowerment for him as much as it was for them – only to be forced by his councillors, and later by parliament, to retract and revoke his charters of manumission in what he clearly felt was an act of bad faith. The significance of this moment, when Richard’s appeal to parliament to reinstate his abolition of villeinage was so crushingly rejected, was perhaps that the young king learned then that he had a better understanding of, and greater rapport with, his ‘true commons’ who, even in rebellion, had demonstrated their love and reverence for him personally, than he had with the representatives of his kingdom in parliament who, like his councillors, were not prepared to allow him to do what he, their divinely appointed monarch, deemed to be right.

In the immediate aftermath of the revolt Richard was still subjected to the conciliar government which had been the hallmark of his minority. It was not until he was seventeen that he began to assert his right to exercise his kingship in person. He was now an imposing six feet tall, though he retained the pale complexion, blond hair and effeminate caste of countenance of his childhood; he was also said to have suffered from a stammer. He shared the medieval nobility’s passion for hunting, riding and hawking although, unlike most other medieval kings, he declined to participate in jousts or tournaments for fear of damaging his regal dignity by taking a fall or being defeated. Richard deliberately cultivated a sense of separateness and uniqueness that set his divinely ordained royal status apart from and above the rest of his subjects, even the most mighty of them. He was highly conscious of his own self-image and so preoccupied with it that more portrayals of him survive than of any other monarch before the similarly narcissistic and despotic Henry VIII. Although realistic in the new renaissance style, they also contribute to his plan of semi-deification by what has been aptly described as their ‘icon-like’ representation.3 Autocratic, vindictive and capricious though he was by nature, Richard was also capable of selfless acts of kindness, particularly towards those who could not reciprocate, paying the debts of all the prisoners held in Newgate in 1388, for example, and pardoning a thief who had been sentenced to death after being caught red-handed in Westminster Hall in 1397. He also had an affinity with children, showering his child-bride with gifts and treating the future Henry V, a hostage for his father Bolingbroke’s good behaviour, with a generosity that he would later repay by ensuring Richard’s honourable reburial.4 Perhaps Richard recognised in these young political pawns some of the difficulties he had himself faced during the years of his minority.

From the outset of his personal rule, however, Richard was determined to shake off the limitations imposed on his authority by having to consult his magnates in council or his Commons in parliament. This was not just because he believed it was his right to do so but because he believed that the aristocracy had mismanaged his kingdom throughout the years of his minority. In what we can see to be echoes of the grievances articulated during the great revolt, he held them responsible for prolonging the war with France out of self-interest and failing to achieve either military or political success, for conceding royal powers to the Commons to win their support for this fruitless war and for the repeated demands for heavy taxation to pay for it which had driven the populace to rebel. ‘For the twelve years since I became king,’ Richard declared to his great council in 1389, ‘I and the entire kingdom have been under the control of others and my people burdened year by year with taxes’. Now that he intended to assume control himself, he promised that he would ‘work tirelessly so that my subjects shall live in peace and the realm prosper’.5

A crucial part of that work was a radical political realignment which again echoed one of the themes of the great revolt by placing the king in a more direct relationship with his subjects. He wanted to free the crown from the control of the magnates, replacing them with men about him who ‘owed their position solely to the king’s will and favour’.6 In the shires he recruited a royal affinity to match those of his leading noblemen, directly retaining knights and esquires not just for military service but to exercise influence over local administration by securing their appointment as sheriffs and justices of the peace. At court he built up a small group of trusted intimates, some of them from his father’s household, others from among his own contemporaries, but almost all of them courtiers of lesser birth, rather than the aristocrats who would naturally expect to have such privileged access to the king’s person and patronage. By promoting the likes of Robert de Vere to a dukedom (a rank previously enjoyed only by members of the royal family) and Michael de la Pole, the son of a Hull merchant, to an earldom, Richard demonstrated his belief that the crown alone had the power to confer titles and land at will, but showed a flagrant disregard for the custom, convention and sensitivities of the aristocracy which would ultimately be his undoing.7

By asserting his royal prerogative to rule alone Richard excluded those who felt that they had an equally God-given right to share in the responsibility of ruling the kingdom and set himself on a collision course with the traditional supporters of the crown, including his own family: two of the five Lords Appellant who temporarily deprived him of his powers in 1386–9 were his own uncle Thomas of Woodstock and cousin Henry Bolingbroke. The nobility’s traditional chivalric role was also emasculated by Richard’s decided reluctance to engage in the war with France. Unlike either his predecessor or his two successors Richard preferred to pursue a policy of appeasement which would end the crown’s continual need to come cap in hand to parliament for taxes and subsidies. His ultimate success in this – in the teeth of opposition from his magnates – led in 1396 to his marriage8 to the six-year-old daughter of Charles VI of France and the conclusion of a twenty-eight-year truce which could have brought a premature end to the Hundred Years War.

In the end, however, Richard’s insistence on his royal prerogative would lead to his downfall. He expected the loyalty of his subjects, great and small, but did not appreciate that he had to earn it by inspiring either affection or respect, and preferably both. Although he succeeded in building up a substantial retinue in the shires, his failure to accord his magnates their accustomed place at the heart of government drove them into overt opposition. When Bolingbroke returned from exile in 1399 to claim his father’s inheritance, which Richard had seized on John of Gaunt’s death, he was able to rally enough support among his fellow peers and in parliament to seize the crown as well. Compelled under duress to abdicate, despite continuing to protest the sanctity of his kingship, Richard was despatched to imprisonment in the Lancastrian castle at Pontefract, Yorkshire, where he was almost certainly murdered in February 1400 in the wake of a failed rebellion by his supporters.

Richard’s deposition undermined not only the legitimacy of the monarchy but also its sacral nature, which he had promoted so vigorously. It brought a premature end to the direct line of Plantagenet rulers of England that led back to the accession of Henry II in 1152. That line would have ended with Richard’s death in any case, since he left no child, legitimate or even illegitimate, to claim his throne, but Henry IV’s usurpation effectively disinherited Richard’s preferred heirs in the more senior line, the Mortimers, and their struggle to reassert their rights would be a cause of future dissent, rebellion and ultimately the Wars of the Roses. The weakness of Henry’s claim to legitimate kingship also made him dependent on those very institutions and policies which Richard had decided were an impediment to his rule: the magnates, parliament and the war with France.

The challenge to Henry’s rule he perhaps could not have expected, however, was actually a lingering legacy of the great revolt: the loyalty among the ‘true commons’ towards King Richard. Henry was unable to shake off persistent and widespread rumours that his predecessor was not dead, but had escaped to Scotland and would return to raise his people against the usurper. Although there was political advantage in spreading such rumours (Charles VI of France sent his valet to Scotland to investigate this ‘common report’ in 1402), what is noticeable is that so many of those involved were what we might term ‘ordinary’ people who had nothing to gain personally by a change of regime: John Lancaster, a piper, who claimed to have seen Richard at Berwickon-Tweed; Franciscan and Dominican friars; John Sparrowhawk, ‘a wandering man of Wales’. Letters allegedly from Richard circulated at the parliament of 1404, and as late as 1416 Henry V was embarrassed by the presentation of a petition to his guest Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor, asking him to depose Henry by force of arms and restore Richard to his rightful throne. While it is not surprising that committed loyalists clung to the belief that the former king was alive, or that the Scots found it convenient to maintain Thomas Warde of Trumpington as a pseudo-Richard II, it is surely significant that the idea that Richard had sympathised with the plight of his ‘poor commons’ was still powerful enough to make his name once more a rallying cry for potential rebels years after his deposition and death.9

It was this ability to utilise, interpret and reinterpret the great revolt to suit contemporary political ideas that has given it such resonance down the centuries. As soon as the rebellion was over it was appropriated by those in authority seeking to extrapolate its lessons for their own purposes. The parliamentary Commons in 1381 blamed the revolt on their perennial complaint about the oppressions caused by aristocratic livery and maintenance. The Church establishment blamed heresy and Wyclif’s teachings in particular. Michael de la Pole, in his role as Richard’s chancellor in 1383, lectured the Commons on the necessity of obedience: the revolt, he said, had begun as a rebellion first against the king’s shire officers, then his ministers of state and then finally the king himself. From this he argued that ‘true obedience to the king and his ministers is the foundation of all peace and tranquillity’.10

What united them all, however, was the belief that the revolt was an object lesson in the anarchy that ensued when the normal rules of society were suspended and broken. To question one’s rank or place in the social order was, in their eyes, an affront to God himself, who had appointed each man to his station in life, and it would be duly punished by Him. A horrifying and hellish maelstrom of chaos, violence and disorder was the inevitable consequence of defying the divinely ordained social structure of the world. This was the theme of virtually all accounts of the revolt for the next four centuries: the spectre of present or future popular insurrection ensured that historians and commentators of all kinds would have little or no sym pathy with the rebels of 1381. For the late-sixteenth-century Holinshed’s Chronicles, drawing on the works of Walsingham and Knighton, they were ‘barelegged ribalds’ and ‘vile rascals’ who were ‘set on by some divelish instinct and persuasion of their own beastlie intentions, as men not content with the state whereunto they were called’.11 The anonymously authored play The Life and Death of Jack Strawe, published in 1593, has Walworth call Straw a ‘dunghill bastard born’ and an ‘accursed villain’; the rebels demand ‘wealth and liberty’ as the price for peace and when Richard grants them liberty but does not offer wealth, Straw tells the men from Essex that they may go tamely home if they wish, but he ‘came for spoil’ and spoil he would have.12

In the seventeenth century Tyler’s was still a name with which to conjure up the horrors of anarchy. In 1642, when parliament presented Charles I with their Nineteen Propositions demanding greater parliamentary oversight of, and involvement in, government, the king responded that to grant them would upset the historic balance of power between the three estates: ‘this excellently distinguished form of government will end in a dark, equal chaos of confusion,’ he warned, ‘and the long line of our many noble ancestors in a Jack Cade or a Wat Tyler’.13 Some of the most extreme radical Puritan sects active during the ensuing Civil War and republican Commonwealth found parallels between their ideas and those circulating during the great revolt, introducing another enduring popular misconception, that the rebels wanted to abolish distinctions of rank and property and create a proto-communist state in which goods were held in common. Thomas Fuller, a royalist parson writing in 1655, identified the rebels of 1381 with the Leveller sect of his own day. ‘These [rebels] were all pure levellers,’ he claimed,

… who, maintaining that no gentry was jure Divino, and all equal by nature,

‘When Adam delved, and Eve span,

Who was then the gentleman?’

endeavoured the abolishing of all civil and spiritual degrees and distinctions. Yea, they desired to level men’s parts, as well as their purses; and, that none should be wealthier or wiser than his fellows, projected the general destruction of all that … could write or read.14

Disillusion with Cromwell and the other army leaders who had beheaded the king and abolished the monarchy only to seize power themselves united those of disparate political views. John Lilburne, who had fought for the parliamentary cause and was a prolific pamphleteer and passionate advocate of freeborn rights, wrote in 1649 that the crimes of the general and his council far outweighed those of Jack Straw, Wat Tyler and ‘all those famous men mentioned with a black pen in our histories and called rebels and traitors’. John Cleveland, the royalist poet, historian and author ofThe Idol of the Clownes, or, Insurrection of Wat the Tyler, With his Priests Baal and Straw (1654), later given the even more inflammatory title The Rustick Rampant, or Rurall Anarchy Affronting Monarchy(1658), saw Tyler as a prototype of Cromwell, ‘the future monarch, who had designed an Empire for himselfe’. ‘The world cannot exist without Order and Subjection’, Cleveland’s Richard declared, ‘men cannot be freed from Lawes’. For Cleveland, like Lilburne, the revolt of 1381 was abhorrent but paled into insignificance compared with the events of their own times, in particular what they saw as Cromwell’s great betrayal.15

It was not until the final two decades of the eighteenth century that Wat Tyler began to shed his bogeyman image and emerge as the champion of the people. Even as late as 1780, the Gentleman’s Magazine could draw attention to the ‘so strikingly a resemblance’ of the great revolt to the recent anti-Catholic riots in London which had led, once again, to the breaking open of Newgate prison and the Clink. Indeed, Lord George Gordon, president of the Protestant Association which had inadvertently instigated the riots by presenting its petition to parliament, declined to step down from his post on the grounds that ‘there might spring up some Wat Tyler who would not have patience to commune with Government, and might very possibly chuse to embroil the nation in civil war’.16

What changed popular perceptions of the great revolt was the advocacy of Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man (1791–2), promoter of colonial America’s independence from Britain and enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution. His most famous intellectual adversary Edmund Burke was himself no admirer of absolute monarchy, but had argued that the only security for English law and liberty was its ancient constitution, not abstract principles and notions about ‘the rights of man’. He had no time for revolutionaries, English or French. He dismissed John Balle as ‘that reverend patriarch of sedition, and prototype of our modern preachers’ and mocked his propagation of the same message as the French National Assembly ‘that all the evils which have fallen upon men had been caused by an ignorance of their “having been born and continued equal as to their rights”’. Burke scoffed that Balle’s ‘sapient maxim’ (the Adam and Eve couplet) was ‘in learning, sense, energy, and comprehensiveness … fully equal to all the modern dissertations on the equality of mankind; and it has one advantage over them – that it is in rhyme’.17

Paine’s response was a spirited defence of the rebels of 1381. Tyler, he argued, was ‘an intrepid disinterested man’ whose ‘proposals’ to Richard II were made ‘on a more just and public ground’ than those made by the Magna Carta barons to King John. Walworth, so long celebrated as the hero who had saved the king from the importunate rebel, was merely ‘a cowardly assassin’ and it was Tyler who deserved a national memorial to be erected in his honour at Smithfield, not the barons at Runnymede.18 Paine’s intervention ensured that Tyler would be taken up by other enthusiasts for the French Revolution, including the future Poet Laureate Robert Southey who, in 1794, aged nineteen, dashed off his three-act play Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem in just three days and celebrated by drinking the toast, ‘May there never be wanting a Wat Tyler whilst there is a Tax-gatherer’. (After the revolution turned into a bloodbath Southey changed his mind and became an equally ardent critic; he therefore spent the rest of his long life regretting having written his play and trying unsuccessfully to suppress it. Nevertheless, such was its popularity that unlicensed copies of it outsold by three times to one the rest of Southey’s considerable output combined.)19

There were two reasons why the great revolt, or ‘Wat Tylerism’, as its later interpretations have been christened, acquired such a hold over the popular imagination after 1789. The first was that it gave radicals and reformers across party and political divides a plebeian lineage or tradition which they could claim to validate their own efforts to obtain change or ‘liberty’, especially by direct action. This counterpointed nicely with the ‘aristocratic’ version of history espoused by the likes of Edmund Burke and many nineteenth-century historians, which venerated Magna Carta, Simon de Montfort and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 as the sacred foundations of the English constitution. The second was that radicals from 1789 onwards appropriated the story of the great revolt for their own particular causes and, more importantly, enabled their politically charged versions of it to reach a wider audience by mass producing cheap and accessible printed chapbooks, pamphlets and leaflets to circulate among an increasingly literate working class. Southey’s Wat Tyler was first printed, without his knowledge, in 1817, to coincide with government repression of popular dissent, and was quoted frequently thirty years later by Chartist agitators who printed selections from it on ballad sheets distributed at their public assemblies and radical camp meetings.20 Chartist poets such as Thomas Cooper celebrated Tyler’s name in enthusiastic if execrable verse (‘They’ll tell his fair fame, and cheer his blythe name, When a thousand years are gone!’) and Pierce Egan’s 1841 novelWat Tyler, which gave its hero an entirely spurious backstory as a ‘Freeborn Englishman’ and veteran of the Hundred Years War, enjoyed widespread success among readers with Chartist sympathies. In 1848, as in 1817, Wat Tyler clubs were founded in London, together with a Wat Tyler Chartist Brigade, and Tyler’s name and image were regularly reproduced on Chartist banners, including, most appropriately, that flown at the Hyde Park meeting of 1867 which asserted the people’s right to enter royal parks.21 The most famous and enduring image, that of Tyler the blacksmith striking down the tax-gatherer with his hammer, was instantly recognisable and, like the later Communist hammer and sickle, immediately apposite as a wronged working man using the tool of his trade to destroy his oppressor. The story behind the image was a sixteenth-century invention22 but its powerful symbolism ensured that it would never lose its emotional appeal and it still enjoys popular currency today.

Another re-invention, that of John Balle, has proved equally enduring. William Morris, the Victorian medievalist, designer, writer and political activist who co-founded the Arts and Crafts movement, recruited Balle for his crusade against the capitalist exploitation of his own age by claiming him as an early socialist. In A Dream of John Ball, Morris’s time-travelling narrator explains to the rebel chaplain that the injustices of the feudal system have been replaced by those of the Industrial Revolution and that Balle’s dream of an egalitarian society remains un fulfilled. The novel was serialised in 1886–7 in The Commonweal, then republished in a single volume with an iconic frontispiece based on the Adam and Eve couplet by Morris’s friend the Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones. It became a socialist classic, reprinted countless times in cheap editions in Britain, and published throughout the English-speaking world. Less influential, but equally anachronistic, was Balle’s appropriation by anarchists as a teacher of ‘distinctly … anarchist character’ and by Bede Jarrett, head of the Dominican order in England, as ‘the preacher of communism’ in his Medieval Socialism (1913).23

Despite such misinterpretation of both Tyler’s demands and Balle’s preaching, their appeal to revolutionaries has never faded. For those on the political left, in particular, reclaiming the rebel leaders’ reputations from ‘the thousand defamatory pens’ that have ‘lied away’ their characters, places them at the forefront of the historical march towards an inevitable socialist utopia.24 They are the epitome of popular history and the great revolt itself the first direct action by an oppressed and voiceless people who felt they had no constitutional means for redressing their wrongs. Tyler’s name is still shorthand for resolute resistance to the iniquities imposed by government and society: hippies in 1970s London set up a counter-cultural squatting agency with the slogan ‘established by Wat Tyler, 1381’ over its doorway, and anti-poll-tax rioters in 1990 blazoned ‘Avenge Wat Tyler’ across their campaigning leaflets.25 Establishment reactions were as horrified in the twentieth century as they were in the fourteenth.

Even today the great revolt remains a point of reference for almost every radical political movement, from socialism through to the extremes of communism, republicanism, anarchism and environmentalism. The passage of more than six hundred years may have blurred popular notions of what it was all about but it continues to exercise a fascination far beyond narrow political factional interests. What makes this so extraordinary is that the great revolt achieved none of its stated aims: villeinage and villein tenure were not abolished; neither were market tolls and restrictive practices; nor were manorial courts. There were no fundamental reforms in society, law or government. Even though the great revolt failed in its specific historic objectives, however, it articulated much wider ideas which continue to resonate today. For the first time in English history ordinary people had defied authority and tradition, taken matters into their own hands and asserted what they conceived to be their basic human rights. Their concepts of personal liberty, articulated so powerfully in the Adam and Eve couplet attributed to John Balle, transcend the limitations of their age and play into what we now consider to be the rights of the individual: to be heard and to be respected. That surely is the reason why the great revolt continues to speak to us all.

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