Post-classical history


Ye came as helpless infants to the world:
Ye feel alike the infirmities of nature;
And at last moulder into common clay.

From ‘Wat Tyler’ by Robert Southey

John Ball was captured by the men of Coventry during his escape north. The exact date is not recorded, but it was most likely in the second week of July, following about three and a half weeks on the road. He was sent for trial to St Albans, which the king had made his base while London suffered a summer plague that preyed, in particular, on the children.

Ball’s crimes and wicked deeds were rehearsed in detail at his trial before the remorseless Sir Robert Tresilian. The men of St Albans heard how Ball had corrupted the English people for more than twenty years, preaching perfidious doctrines about the Church and the lords both from the pulpit and in the country fields. He was accused of being a Wycliffite and an incorrigible excommunicant who had roused the rabble at Blackheath and incited Sudbury’s death. One of the many cryptic letters that had been circulating the country was produced - this one was addressed to the Essex commons - and Ball admitted to having written it. After Ball was sentenced, the bishop of London, William Courtenay, interceded and secured him a few days’ stay of execution, to try to persuade him to repent. There is no record of his having done so. Ball was hanged, beheaded, disembowelled and quartered, and his butchered body was sent to four parts of the country. He died on Monday, 15 July 1381, exactly one month after Smithfield.

Ball’s death was the biggest coup in Richard and Tresilian’s campaign to extinguish the last flickers of rebellion. But huge numbers of trials and executions followed, and by mid-July, John Wrawe, William Grindcobbe, Jack Straw and almost every other significant rebel leader was also captured or dead. (At the same time as Ball was being tried in St Albans, Wrawe turned approver, or king’s evidence, before the sheriffs and coroners of London.) On the day following Ball’s death the realm was deemed secure enough to receive a summons to a new parliament. Writs were sent out naming 16 September as the date. After various delays, it was finally assembled in Westminster in the first week of November 1381.

The purpose of the November parliament was to tie up the legal and administrative ends of the revolt, to hear petitions relating to damages caused by the rebels and to refinance yet again the endless French war. By November 1381, the repercussions of the revolt were still causing acute discord throughout the country. In fact, there was even more tension than had existed at Northampton at the end of the previous year.

At the root of many of these problems was the emerging nature of Richard’s kingship. The young king had come of age at Smithfield, giving on that perilous afternoon a glimpse of the selfless bravery for which his father and the best of the Plantagenet dynasty had been famous. But in the aftermath he had shown the dark inclinations of his family’s character that lay buried in his breast. He was permanently affected by his encounter with the mob, and the taste of martial law that the days following the revolt afforded him had proven addictive. Through judicial tyrants like Tresilian, Richard prolonged the terror for months after the battles of Mousehold Heath and Billericay. The people had frightened their king, and now the king would frighten his people.

Almost all of the chroniclers remember the months between July and November 1381 as dark, bloody and terrifying. As well as the tit-for-tat executions that had taken place in the Cheap, Englishmen in their hundreds - perhaps in their thousands - were killed by all number of grisly and extraordinarily cruel means. According to the chronicler Adam Usk, the King’s commissioners had some rebels dragged to their deaths behind horses, some hanged, some routed with the sword and some dismembered.1 In many places, the only testimony required to condemn rebels was the accusation of some ‘trustworthy’ local figure. There was a terrible paranoia sweeping the country, as fear of the King’s reprisals against his nobles brought out an equal vindictiveness in his subjects. The Westminster Chronicler wrote of neighbours turning on one another, and of servants accusing their masters of acts of rebellion in order to do them a bloody injustice. A chance misplaced word was enough to condemn a man, as one John Shirley found out: he was executed in Cambridgeshire for having declared in a tavern that he thought John Ball was a true and worthy man.2 Richard was restoring his royal power not through reform or assertion of the rule of law, but by a barely legal terror in which viciousness had replaced wisdom, and blind fear stalked the troubled land.

If we consider his bitter words to the vanquished rebels at Chelmsford, and then project back from the rest of his troubled reign, it is not hard to imagine that Richard himself was ultimately responsible for the character of the revolt’s legal suppression. There seems to have been no check on his youthful instinct to wipe out, rather than to mollify or discipline, his enemies. His first thought in restoring the Crown’s dignity was to exercise his own anointed wrath, and though the records are patchy, it is likely that between July and September, anywhere between 1,500 and 7,000 of Richard’s subjects died.3 In many cases they were killed as traitors.

By November, the bloody reprisals (the scale of which would not be seen perhaps until the aftermath of the Monmouth rebellion in 1685, where 3,000 were either killed in battle, executed or transported) had themselves become a threat to the social order of the country. There was a chaotic series of commissions still in action across the country, often with special commissioners operating in the same county and at the same time as senior judges on regular judicial work. The property forfeitures resulting from the deaths and executions were so extensive that an entire new set of escheators (royal officials who dealt with forfeited property) had to be appointed. Malicious litigants had begun to drop accusations of treason and rebellion into ongoing lawsuits, confusing and clogging up the courts. Poor grumblers like John Shirley were meeting with their deaths for mere drunken words, while in counties like Kent the almost tyrannical response of Richard’s government was provoking rumours of another wave of rebellion. In short, the country was as unstable as ever, yet it was also decorated with thousands of gibbeted, mutilated and quartered bodies. The bloated and bloodied heads that gazed blindly down from the gates of rebellious towns and cities looked on a country feeling its way not towards harmony but only towards worsening discord.

In addition to this, Richard was still experiencing dire difficulties at the top of government, arising from the personality and politics of his uncle Gaunt, who remained impossible to manage. Despite being absent from the central events of the rebellion (including its suppression), Gaunt found his unpopularity undimmed. And at a time when securing an inexpensive foreign peace to encourage domestic stability should have been the realm’s first priority, by late 1381 Gaunt was developing a plan to throw resources into his own ambitious war in Castile.

He was also actively undermining English politics, when once again the moment called for harmony. The revolt had provided him with yet another enemy, this time in the person of Henry Percy. Northumberland’s craven refusal to help or harbour the duke at a time when he believed his life was in danger was, to Gaunt, an unforgivable slight. So, since the revolt Gaunt had been doing all he could to humble Percy.

Richard and his council tried on three occasions to pour oil on the troubled waters of his uncle’s new feud.4 They failed. When the two men arrived at Westminster for parliament, they did so with large armed retinues and the real threat of another violent conflict looming (the Londoners, unsurprisingly, stood firmly behind Percy, so there was a strong prospect of yet more rioting against the duke). It took days of formal negotiation, which further delayed the opening of Parliament, to force a rapprochement.

When Parliament did open, it did so in great tension. The consequences of the revolt were obvious merely from the people serving royal office: when the new archbishop-elect William Courtenay, and the new treasurer, Sir Hugh Segrave, made their opening remarks, it would have been hard for all present not to think of their predecessors’ ugly fates. Likewise, the presence of Thomas Holland as the new earl of Kent was a reminder of the ruthlessness with which the revolt had been crushed in that county.

But more importantly, there was in November 1381 the first hint that Richard, despite his Smithfield heroics, did not carry with him the faith and trust of the political community. Segrave was forced to take Parliament’s debated opinion as to whether the Mile End charters of manumission should be allowed to stand, or were invalid, as the king claimed. In a sign of the commons’ divided opinion of Richard’s kingship, the official revocation took some considerable effort. First the speaker of Parliament, Sir Richard Waldegrave, attempted to resign his office. Richard refused to accept his resignation, upon which Waldegrave dissembled on behalf of the rest of the commons, saying that they couldn’t agree on the matter because (in an improbable excuse) they could not understand what they were being asked. Eventually Richard had to command the new chancellor, Sir Richard le Scrope, to ensure that the repeal went through fully comprehended. After what we can assume was a fair degree of menacing, the king got his way, but his Parliament’s reluctance to stand with him against the rebels was a worrying omen.

Even more concerning was the fact that the November parliament went on to demand reform of the royal household. They asked for ‘good and worthy people about [the king’s] person’ and ‘that the great company of people on horse and foot who come to the household, be reduced to such a number and comprise such persons that our said lord may live honestly within his own means from now on, without charging his people as has been done before’.

The most telling line in the petition came next: ‘Considering also, for the love of God, the grievances and complaints that the poor people have often made about bad governance and outrageous expense, and that they do not know how, and are unable, to secure a remedy’.

Having vacillated over repealing the Mile End charters, the commons were now implying that they thought the recent rebels may have had a point!

Finally the king seems to have accepted that his bloody reprisals were winning him no supporters among the parliamentary commons and the realm at large, for eventually Parliament was allowed to formulate what it considered the best response to the rebellion. Some six months after the revolt had begun it was decided that the only way to bring some form of peace to the country was to issue a national pardon. (It is likely that the new queen, Anne of Bohemia, whom Richard married in January 1382, played a part in convincing her young husband to see sense.) Life could not practically continue for the ordinary people in England with the shadow of death hanging over them indefinitely. As a result, a three-part pardon was issued. Grace was offered to the nobles and gentry - this excused those maverick and technically illegal heroes of the revolt such as Despenser, who might have been guilty of overreaching of their powers during the crisis days of June. Second, grace was offered to the rebels. With the exception of men from the towns of Canterbury, Bury St Edmunds, Beverley, Scarborough, Bridgwater, and Cambridge, those who had been involved in the deaths of Sudbury and Cavendish, and a list of 100 or so named, known miscreants, the rebels were excused their bad behaviour.

Finally a general pardon was issued, offering grace to the ordinary people of England. And in a sense, as 1382 dawned, the great revolt was over.

The rebellion of 1381 was in many senses the making of King Richard II. Kings who acceded as minors often found themselves in a difficult position when their time came to grow up. Shaking off the shackles of those men appointed to oversee government in their name usually required some great moment - a statement of manhood; of fitness to rule. Edward III’s had come three years into his reign when he overthrew the tyrannical regency of his mother and her lover, Roger Mortimer. More than a century later, the Tudor King Henry VIII marked his coming of age with his first French war. Richard’s great moment was Smithfield.

Prior to 1381, Richard was a child. After Smithfield, Richard the man emerged. His wedding and Anne’s coronation interrupted the November parliament, which had by that time formally granted the pardon and moved on to arguing about the best way to finance the continuing war - and from that point on, he struggled to free himself and his household from oversight, and to govern entirely as he saw fit.

But Richard’s personality and judgement had already been badly warped. He emerged from childhood, and 1381 in particular, with a profound distrust of his subjects and in particular his nobility. He grew up paranoid and vindictive, incensed at any attempts to guide him or to reform his rule. He preferred the company of men like Tresilian and Nicholas Brembre to the higher nobility who ought to have been his natural allies. (Both Tresilian and Brembre were executed on the authority of the so-called Merciless Parliament of 1387, which attempted to purge Richard’s household of its most pernicious members.) When his government failed and his nobles and family attempted to coerce him into mending his ways, he raged and thrashed against them. He was a paranoid bully. At his best he was passive-aggressive, and at his worst a tyrant and a brute. During the dark years of 1397-1399 he forced his enemies among the noble classes to seal blank charters, with which he could hold them to any ransom he chose. Just as his great-grandfather Edward II had been considered ‘incorrigible’ during proceedings leading to his forced abdication, so Richard, when he was deposed in 1399, lost the throne and extinguished the true Plantaganet bloodline forever, having exhausted the patience of his subjects.

Not all of this can be blamed squarely on his experience in 1381. But many of Richard’s later problems were to be seen in kernel form during his summer of blood. Part of the reason it spiralled so badly out of control was that when it began Richard had no one around him who could demonstrate the art of governance and of crisis management. This was not a momentary lack of counsel, but a fundamental problem with his reign and with his personality.

Richard’s first and greatest misfortune was that he lacked any effective role model for kingship. When he was a child he saw his grandfather, Edward III, at his worst: senile and surrounded by grasping acolytes. His own father did not live long enough to shape Richard in his own mould. In the end, Richard’s real role model was his uncle Gaunt, as disastrous a study in rule as he could have had. The boy picked up all of Gaunt’s worst faults, without displaying any of his talent. He was a bully, but not authoritative; aggressive in defending the rights of the Crown, but with no true comprehension of its awesome responsibilities; eager to pick and maintain a quarrel, but guileless in making peace.

Likewise, Richard’s harsh and divisive personality was there for all to see after the rebellion had been squashed. His vengefulness and his untrustworthiness were what led to the pleas in the November 1381 parliament for an end to the punishments; they were also what turned so many in his realm against him, including - ultimately - his nemesis, cousin, and successor: Gaunt’s son, Henry of Derby.

But the story of Richard and Henry, which in many senses began in the Tower, is another story again. In fact, in the winter of 1381/82, as Richard prepared to marry, to become a man and a king, and to put the troublesome revolt behind him, it was a short lifetime away.

If this was Richard’s legacy from the revolt, what, then, was England’s? The first, baldest truth was that the governing classes acknowledged that a poll tax was foolish and unfair. The November 1381 parliament fudged its way to a new funding of war and national defence that derived from a long-term tax on trade. No direct, regressive attempt at widening the tax base was seen for several generations, and when it was, under Henry VII in 1497, there was another rebellion against the government. The English have always hated poll taxes, and probably always will.

Allied to the hatred of tax was a resentment of the labour laws and their effective imposition of a new form of serfdom, that was legal rather than tenurial in character. While the revolt had little direct effect on labour legislation, fears of serfdom had diminished within a generation. And the labour laws remained as impractical and absurd after the revolt as they had been before it.

But of course the rebellion of 1381 was not just a tax revolt or a revolt against poorly considered labour legislation. It was the first sign that the ordinary people in England were politicised, and could be made angry enough to rise against bad leadership. They cared about foreign policy, and corrupt ministers, and bad laws. And ultimately, they cared about the social compact that Langland characterised in Piers Plowman, when Piers told the knight: ‘I shall sweat and strain and sow for us both/And also labour for your love all my lifetime/In exchange for your championship of the Holy Church and me.’ There was a profound sense that those high up in society were failing in their godly duties to protect and defend those lower down. Tyler’s rebels were really very conservative. Only a few would have believed in Ball’s doctrine of total egalitarianism; most simply wanted society and social relations to operate normally again.

And they were not alone. Just as the English rebels had mimicked the (Jacques) who had terrorised the French nobility during the 1350s, so there was an explosion in other lower-class rebellions across Europe during the fifteenth and especially the sixteenth centuries. There were savage uprisings of the agricultural and urban lower orders in Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Finland and Switzerland in the 250 years that followed Tyler’s rebellion. All took different forms and involved different local grievances, but all demonstrated that as the medieval period gave way to early modernity the ordinary men (and women) of Europe’s kingdoms were beginning by turns to understand, appreciate, resent, defend and vocalise their own place in the social compact. They could communicate complex ideas and move en masse and with abstract purpose. They could appoint and follow leaders in a form that mirrored the political construction of the states and kingdoms they inhabited. And they were prepared to suffer the hideous, vengeful punishments that their insurrection earned them in the name of their righteous cause.

But Tyler’s rebellion showed that the English lower orders were among the most advanced in terms of their political development. And so they remained. By the time of Jack Cade’s rebellion in 1450 - the next great rising of the English people, led once again from the south-east - the feudal aspects of the great agreement had withered. Serfdom was dead. Cade led an overtly political rebellion, rather than one that demanded the end of lordship or great social reconstitution. His rebels protested policy, not the principles on which society was formed. But even in Cade’s context, the compact lived on: the people toiled, and their masters protected them. When it worked, all went well. When it did not, the results were bloody.

Finally, the revolt left us a great story, which was immediately reflected on and retold by some of the great English writers. Chaucer and Gower both wrote about the rebellion - and both paid close attention to the animal instincts of the rebels. From Elizabethan times onwards, the rebellion proved fertile territory for playwrights and historians. John Stow included it in his history, as did other sixteenth-century London chroniclers, and the most popular story was that of one ‘John Tyler’, usually of Deptford, who brained a sexually lascivious tax-collector to defend the honour of his daughter. Stow first mentioned the rebellion in 1566, at a time when the fear of popular rebellion would still have reverberated, following Wyatt’s rebellion of 1553 against Queen Mary I. Soon the rebellious mob as a terrifying and herdly rabble had become a staple of English literature. Though he never tackled Tyler, Shakespeare dealt with rebellious mobs on numerous occasions. In Henry VI, Part II, Jack Cade was sent up as a pompous ignoramus in a way that would perhaps have amused Thomas Walsingham, when he accuses Lord Say (shortly before cutting off his unfortunate head and sticking it on a pole):

Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school … It will be prov’d to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear.

Likewise, in what were most likely his additions to the play Sir Thomas More, Shakespeare has More remonstrate with a mob protesting the appearance of foreigners who were taking away Englishmen’s jobs:

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England.

And that you sit as king in your desires,
Authority quite silenced by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed:
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled, and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With selfsame hand, self reasons and self right
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.5

This is not far from being an alternative version of another English chancellor’s arguments with a rabble: Walsingham’s speech for Sudbury as he was dragged to his fate on Tower Hill has a more desperate poignancy but at the core it is the same: the hopeless invocation of reason against the rabble.

It was not long before Tyler’s rebellion became more than just grist to the playwrights’ mills, and began to be appropriated for political analogy. In 1642 an anonymously written pamphlet called ‘The Just Reward of Rebels’ used the Kent and Essex rebels’ experience as a warning to the Irish rebels of the time; while the most popular eighteenth-century rendition of the story (a chapbook called simply ‘The History of Wat Tyler and Jack Strawe’) gained popularity around the times of the Jacobite and American revolts against the Hanoverian crown.

In the eighteenth century, Tyler’s revolt interested writers including Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke, who used it as material for contemporary arguments about political theory.6 Later, in the mid-nineteenth century, Friedrich Engels saw in the upheaval of 1848 parallels with Europe’s history of medieval class revolt.7 Even in the twentieth century, Marxist historians gravitated towards the subject of Tyler’s rebellion as a rare occasion of life imitating theory.

But perhaps the finest piece of writing about the revolt was by the young Romantic poet Robert Southey, who claimed to be descended from Wat Tyler himself and, as a lusty twenty-something, wrote a play about his supposed ancestor in three frantic nights of work. Like most writers on the revolt, Southey was most fascinated by John Ball, and it is to him that he gave perhaps the best lines in his play (which was published, to Southey’s great embarrassment, some two decades after he wrote it, by which time the author had become a hoary old conservative and Poet Laureate).

This epilogue started with the details of John Ball’s death; it seems fitting that it ends with Southey’s gloriously imagined version of the mad priest’s swansong:

John Ball
[to Sir John (sic) Tresilian]

The truth, which all my life I have divulg’d
And am now doom’d in torment to expire for,
Shall still survive - the destin’d hour must come,
When it shall blaze with sun-surpassing splendour,
And the dark mists of prejudice and falsehood
Fade in its strong effulgence. Flattery’s incense
No more shall shadow round the gore-dyed throne;
That altar of oppression, fed with rites,
More savage than the Priests of Moloch taught,
Shall be consumed amid the fire of Justice;
The ray of truth shall emanate all around,
And the whole world be lighted!

In the end, the story of the revolt of 1381 - the Peasants’ Revolt, or the Great Revolt, or Tyler’s Revolt, or whatever else we want to call it - is the story of the relationship between the small men and the great men. The burning injustice that became a mass movement; the small, ungracious serving man who faced down his liege lord, and nearly won; the maverick churchman who preached from the heart instead of from the prayerbook; the fragile victory of a boy wearing the crown of a king; the heroism and the hubris so evident on both sides, likewise the humanity and the cruelty; the fleeting brilliance of a great protest against fundamental wrongs, which may have failed, but inspired the poets five hundred years later: all these sing to us through the centuries, and are what, I think, makes history still worth reading; and worth writing, too.

A revell!

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