In one of the letters circulating in Balle’s name during the revolt, he refers to himself as ‘som tyme seynte marie prest of ork. and now of colchestre’. Quite why Balle should have been in York before he came to Colchester is unclear, though there were long-standing links between the two places. Both had Benedictine abbeys and in 1096–7 the abbot of St Mary’s Abbey in York had sent thirteen of his monks to found St John’s Abbey at Colchester, one of whom went on to become its first abbot; a continuing relationship between the two houses would not have been unusual. As a ‘St Mary priest’, Balle may have been either a vicar in one of the many churches owned by the abbey (seven within the city of York and a further thirty-three in the county) or, more likely, a chaplain or chantry priest associated with the abbey – all professions which tended to foster religious radicalism and were well represented among the rebels in 1381.1
Balle was not an uncommon name and there were at least two clerical John Balles active in Colchester at the time. One was the rector of the twelfth-century parish church of St James in the 1370s, who lived in the rectory near the church; the other was one of two chaplains who shared a lodging house in East Street in the same parish in 1377.2 Neither of these seems likely to be the rebel since by this stage in his career Balle had no permanent residence and is likely to have eluded this type of official record. If we go further back, however, there is another possibility. On 3 October 1362 ‘Johannes Balle’, parochial chaplain of Layer de la Haye, was alleged to have verbally and physically abused Henry, son of Thomas Waryn, lifting him up and throwing him down so that he broke his right leg, for which Waryn claimed damages of one hundred pounds. Balle, who appeared in person before the court of King’s Bench in Colchester to answer the charges, explained that Waryn was ‘his clerk and pupil’, and that he had only chastised him in the way teachers do so that he learned his lesson. Upon which perfectly satisfactory explanation he was fully acquitted of all charges and allowed to go free. If this chaplain is indeed our John Balle it raises interesting questions. The church at Layer de la Haye, a village five miles south of Colchester, belonged to the town’s priory of St Botolph, the oldest Augustinian house in England, and its chaplains would therefore have been members of that order. A year after the incident, the prior led an armed band of his canons and laymen which invaded St John’s Abbey and assaulted one of the monks, allegedly because of a dispute concerning Layer de la Haye, which was settled in 1364 after papal intervention.3
Was the John Balle of the great revolt involved in any of these things? The first incontrovertible reference to our man occurs in the royal writ of 25 February 1364 by which the king withdrew the special protection he had granted to ‘John Balle, chaplain, on his petition setting forth that he feared bodily injury from some of his enemies in the prosecution of his business’. This all fits neatly with the possibility of the Waryns seeking revenge for the injuries inflicted on young Henry and even with the fracas between the priory and the abbey. However, the reason Edward III gave for withdrawing his protection was that he had learned that Balle was ‘not prosecuting any business but wanders from country to country [sic] preaching articles contrary to the faith of the church to the peril of his soul and the souls of others, especially of laymen’.4 While it is possible that Balle had fled his parish for fear of reprisals, the fact that he was already a vagabond preacher at odds with church teaching and taking his controversial message directly to the laity suggests that personal conviction, rather than a fear of reprisals for his schoolmastering methods, lay behind his choice of career.