Feudalism was the common system of government during the Middle Ages. It was a custom
widely held throughout Europe, especially in England. Serfs would work the land for
the vassals and lords who owned it in exchange for protection. They were legally
tied to the land, and for all practical purposes they were slaves.
However, the system began to break down after the devastating plague of the Black
Death in the middle of the fourteenth century. Labor was so scarce that workers could
afford to demand actual money wages, or run away to the growing cities in search
of more freedom and higher pay. In addition, many people were tired of being treated
as inferior and worked like draft animals to keep the local baron and his ladies
in silks and imported wine. The very first stirrings of the concept of individual
liberty and dignity were beginning to take hold, as well as the concept of class
and class warfare.
Such a man was John Ball, a priest in the county of Kent in England, who was a vocal
opponent of feudalism and who has gone down in history as one of the first quasi-Marxists.
To this day, John Ball is a hero of the Left. He could be heard on Sundays after
his sermons voicing his opinions on social issues to the commoners and serfs. The
Archbishop of Canterbury imprisoned him several times for his reckless words and
eventually deprived Ball of his parish. Ball then became what was called a "hedge-priest,"
a kind of wandering holy man and agitator.
He preached on one astounding and wondrous new theme: "That naught shall ever go
well in England until all land and goods be held in common." A few people such as
the early Franciscans had questioned the institution of private property before,
but always from a religious and personal viewpoint. John Ball was one of the first
men whose words have survived who questioned the entire state of things and the way
society was set up. Ball or someone at the time composed a couplet which spread like
wildfire throughout the peasantry:
"When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?"
After Ball's last imprisonment of three months, he met and joined forces with two
other rebellious peasants, Jack Straw from Essex and fellow Kentishman Wat Tyler.
Tyler especially was impressive, a blacksmith of gigantic stature and a fiery orator.
The peasants formed a number of secret groups or cells and began coordinating plans
for an uprising and a revolution in which they would kill all the nobles and high
church officials--and, significantly, lawyers who used pieces of paper and the courts
to enslave them.
At the beginning of 1381, the regents for the young King of England, Richard the
Second, tried to impose a "poll tax" or head tax on the peasants for the second time
in a year, to cover budgets deficits largely caused by their own incompetence and
embezzlement, as well as by the quest of the King's uncle John of Gaunt, Duke of
Lancaster, to buy his way into becoming King of Castile. The overtaxed and abused
peasants in the southern counties of the country exploded. Tax collectors and lawyers
were hunted down and slaughtered, tax rolls and land deeds and other legal documents
burned in great bonfires, manor houses were sacked, knights and nobles and their
families were murdered and their women raped and mutilated. The height of every assault
on a castle or manor house was the looting of the wine cellar, and the bands of peasant
rebels generally concluded the festivities by a mammoth drunk, which should have
made them easy prey for royal troops. But the King's forces were all in France or
fighting along the Scottish border; southern England was denuded of soldiers and
the peasants were able to pretty much run riot.
Ball and Tyler inspired more than thirty thousand men to join their crusade. The
peasants gathered carrying the traditional pitchforks and torches, but also the deadly
English longbow which many of them had wielded in France during the on-again-off-again
Hundred Years' War. Many of these military veterans remembered their discipline and
formed into proper companies, with elected leaders, and two great peasant armies
converged on London, one from Kent in the South and one from Essex in the northeast.
The Kentishmen arrived first, occupying the suburb of Southwark on the south bank
of the Thames in June of 1381, and Tyler was able to browbeat or bribe some local
men into lowering London Bridge. His army streamed across the river and got into
the city, and went berserk. The first target was the Savoy Palace, seat of John of
Gaunt; the peasants stripped it bare of food and wine and valuables and then burned
the stately home to the ground. The young King and his family holed up in the Tower
of London while peasants chased any well-dressed person through the streets. They
caught Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and hacked off his head, which
they then paraded through the streets on a pike. One wealthy citizen of London, Richard
Lyon, was also caught and beheaded. He happened to be the man for whom Tyler had
worked as a servant during the wars in France.
In the chaos two men stepped forward to thwart the rebel mob. One was William Walworth,
Lord Mayor of London, who along with many citizens had lost whatever sympathy he
had for the peasants' demands when they started burning and looting his city. The
other was the fourteen year-old King Richard the Second. Richard later proved to
be a mediocre monarch at best, but this was his finest hour.
Here is a description from Froissart, a chronicler of the time, of the final meeting
of King Richard II and the leader of the Peasant's Revolt, Wat Tyler.
* * * * *
"Then the King caused a proclamation to be made that all the commons of the country
who were still in London should come to Smithfield, to meet him there; and so they
"And when the King and his train had arrived there they turned into the eastern meadow
in front of St. Bartholomew's, which is a house of canons: and the commons arrayed
themselves on the west side in great battles. At this moment the Mayor of London,
William Walworth, came up, and the King bade him go to the commons, and make their
chieftain come to him.
"And when he was summoned by the Mayor, by the name of Wat Tighler of Maidstone,
he came to the King with great confidence, mounted on a little horse, that the commons
might see him. And he dismounted, holding in his hand a dagger which he had taken
from another man, and when he had dismounted he half bent his knee, and then took
the King by the hand, and shook his arm forcibly and roughly, saying to him, 'Brother,
be of good comfort and joyful, for you shall have, in the fortnight that is to come,
praise from the commons even more than you have yet had, and we shall be good companions.'
"And the King said to Walter, 'Why will you not go back to your own country?' But
the other answered, with a great oath, that neither he nor his fellows would depart
until they had got their charter such as they wished to have it, and had certain
points rehearsed and added to their charter which they wished to demand. And he said
in a threatening fashion that the lords of the realm would rue it bitterly if these
points were not settled to their pleasure.
"Then the King asked him what were the points which he wished to have revised, and
he should have them freely, without contradiction, written out and sealed. Thereupon
the said Walter rehearsed the points which were to be demanded; and he asked that
there should be no law within the realm save the law of Winchester, and that from
henceforth there should be no outlawry in any process of law, and that no lord should
have lordship save civilly, and that there should be equality among all people save
only the King, and that the goods of Holy Church should not remain in the hands of
the religious, nor of parsons and vicars, and other churchmen; but that clergy already
in possession should have a sufficient sustenance from the endowments, and the rest
of the goods should be divided among the people of the parish.
"And he demanded that there should be only one bishop in England and only one prelate,
and all the lands and tenements now held by them should be confiscated, and divided
among the commons, only reserving for them a reasonable sustenance. And he demanded
that there should be no more villains in England, and no serfdom or villainage, but
that all men should be free and of one condition." [Remember, this was 1381, not
1776, and these concepts were not just revolutionary, but considered shocking and
insane by the standards of the time. - HAC ]
"To this the King gave an easy answer, and said that he should have all that he could
fairly grant, reserving only for himself the regality of his crown. And then he bade
him go back to his home, without making further delay.
"During all this time that the King was speaking, no lord or counselor dared or wished
to give answer to the commons in any place save the King himself. Presently Wat Tighler,
in the presence of the King, sent for a flagon of water to rinse his mouth, because
of the great heat that he was in, and when it was brought he rinsed his mouth in
a very rude and disgusting fashion before the King's face. And then he made them
bring him a jug of beer, and drank a great draught, and then, in the presence of
the King, climbed on his horse again.
"At this time a certain valet from Kent, who was among the King's retinue, asked
that the said Walter, the chief of the commons, might be pointed out to him. And
when he saw him, he said aloud that he knew him for the greatest thief and robber
in all Kent ...
"And for these words Watt tried to strike him with his dagger, and would have slain
him in the King's presence; but because he strove so to do, the Mayor of London,
William Walworth, reasoned with the said Watt for his violent behavior and despite,
done in the King's presence, and arrested him. And because he arrested him, he said
Watt stabbed the Mayor with his dagger in the stomach in great wrath. But, as it
pleased God, the Mayor was wearing amour and took no harm, but like a hardy and vigorous
man drew his cutlass, and struck back at the said Watt, and gave him a deep cut on
the neck, and then a great cut on the head. And during this scuffle one of the King's
household drew his sword, and ran Watt two or three times through the body, mortally
"And he spurred his horse, crying to the commons to avenge him, and the horse carried
him some four score paces, and then he fell to the ground half dead. And when the
commons saw him fall, and knew not how for certain it was, they began to bend their
bows and to shoot, wherefore the King himself spurred his horse, and rode out to
them, commanding them that they should all come to him to Clerkenwell Fields." [This
is, of course, the Official Version. In actual fact it is believed Walworth planned
to kill Tyler and lured him to the parley as an ambush. - HAC]
"Meanwhile the Mayor of London rode as hastily as he could back to the City, and
commanded those who were in charge of the twenty four wards to make proclamation
round their wards, that every man should arm himself as quickly as he could, and
come to the King in St. John's Fields, where were the commons, to aid the King, for
he was in great trouble and necessity.... And presently the aldermen came to him
in a body, bringing with them their wardens, and the wards arrayed in bands, a fine
company of well-armed folks in great strength. And they enveloped the commons like
sheep within a pen, and after that the Mayor had set the wardens of the city on their
way to the King, he returned with a company of lances to Smithfield, to make an end
of the captain of the commons.
"And when he came to Smithfield he found not there the said captain Watt Tighler,
at which he marveled much, and asked what was become of the traitor. And it was told
him that he had been carried by some of the commons to the hospital for poor folks
by St. Bartholomew's, and was put to bed in the chamber of the master of the hospital.
And the Mayor went thither and found him, and had him carried out to the middle of
Smithfield, in presence of his fellows, and there beheaded. And thus ended his wretched
life. But the Mayor had his head set on a pole and borne before him to the King,
who still abode in the Fields.
"And when the King saw the head he had it brought near him to abash the commons,
and thanked the Mayor greatly for what he had done. And when the commons saw that
their chieftain, Watt Tyler, was dead in such a manner, they fell to the ground there
among the wheat, like beaten men, imploring the King for mercy for their misdeeds.
And the King benevolently granted them mercy, and most of them took to flight. But
the King ordained two knights to conduct the rest of them, namely the Kentishmen,
through London, and over London Bridge, without doing them harm, so that each of
them could go to his own home.
Afterwards the King sent out his messengers into diverse parts, to capture the malefactors
and put them to death. And many were taken and hanged at London, and they set up
many gallows around the City of London, and in other cities and boroughs of the south
country. At last, as it pleased God, the King seeing that too many of his liege subjects
would be undone, and too much blood split, took pity in his heart, and granted them
all pardon, on condition that they should never rise again, under pain of losing
life or members, and that each of them should get his charter of pardon, and pay
the King as fee for his seal twenty shillings, to make him rich. And so finished
this wicked war."
* * * * *
The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 was a sloppy and disorganized affair, and never really
had a chance. Yet in Tyler's terms to the King at Smithfield, it can be seen that
they at least did have a political and economic program that was far ahead of its
time. Prior to this insurrection all politics was personal, so to speak, i.e., who
shall be King, thee or me? The basic system and structure of society was never questioned—until
Tyler and Ball picked up their pitchforks.
This was the first time that non-religious, purely political, class, and economic
ideology of a kind that we would recognize makes its appearance in history. Two and
a half centuries later, in the 1640s, a man named Oliver Cromwell would lead another
such insurgency, and win at least a temporary victory. In 1776 the descendants of
Wat Tyler and John Ball arose again over the sea—and won.