14th Century

Wat Tyler: 18th- & 19th-Century Literary Afterlives

“When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?”
– John Ball, Radical Preacher, 14th Century

Late fourteenth-century England had its fair share of problems: socio-economic tensions had been fuelled by the Black Death, and the people were hit hard by taxes in order to fund foreign wars. In addition, England had ineffectual leadership, especially given the fact that the new King, Richard II, was only ten years old upon his ascension to the throne in 1377. To pay for further foreign adventures, the new King, acting under the counsel of his advisors, levied a Poll Tax on the population. Issues came to a head when John Bampton, an MP and Justice of the Peace, travelled to Fobbing in Essex to investigate why the tax from that region had not been paid. Thomas Baker, representing the region, said that the taxes had been paid and that no more funds would be forthcoming. Bampton attempted to have Baker arrested, but violence from the townspeople broke out, and Bampton made a quick retreat to London. This revolt soon spread and other contingents of rebels from Kent, led by Wat Tyler and John Ball, marched on London (their rebellion seems to have been coordinated with rebels from Essex, Suffolk, and Norfolk) to demand redress from the King.

Wat Tyler and the Tax-Gatherer (after Henry Fuseli) 1797, published 1798 by William Blake 1757-1827

Wat Tyler and the Tax-Gatherer (after Henry Fuseli) 1797, published 1798 William Blake 1757-1827 Purchased 1992 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T06588

When the rebels reached London on 13 June, the gates of the city were thrown open to them, and the following day they took possession of the Tower of London. Some of the rebels met with the King and put forward their demands including the King’s officials who were on their lists for execution; the abolition of serfdom and unfree tenure, the right to self-governance, and a general amnesty for the rebels. The King appeared as though he would acquiesce to the rebels’ demands. The next day at Smithfield just outside the city walls, the mob gathered and Richard went out to meet them. He called Wat Tyler forth and Tyler demanded he also sign a new charter, and requested that some refreshment be brought to him. After this, Tyler attempted to leave but the King’s guards set upon him, stabbing him repeatedly. Richard then commanded all of the rebels to disperse. Tyler’s head was cut off and displayed upon a pole.

Wat Tyler died a premature death at the hands of a tyrannical monarch, but he was never forgotten. He has been a prominent figure in radical and socialist literature: the younger Robert Southey authored a ‘dramatic poem’ named Wat Tyler (1794), while in the nineteenth century Tyler features in the socialist William Morris’ work A Dream of John Ball (1888). But there were a host of various cultural afterlives in addition to the work of Southey and Ball, and I am going to provide an overview of Tyler’s representations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Wat Tyler 2

Death of Wat Tyler (1746) BM1875,0508.1498

History books authored during the eighteenth century took a very negative view of Wat Tyler’s insurrection. The anonymously-authored A General History of all the Rebellions, Insurrections, and Conspiracies in England (1718), written in a style not unlike criminal biography, was less than positive in its assessment of the revolt:

The principal heads of the said giddy multitude were Wat Tyler and Jack Straw. The rebels of Kent embattled themselves upon Blackheath near Greenwich, from whence they march’d to London, where the common sort siding with them, they committed a great many outrages and barbarities. [1]

Such a view of Tyler’s insurrections is hardly surprising given the fact that it comes from a conservative historian. Since the 1690s, the British public had developed a habit of taking to the streets and rioting whenever they felt that their needs were not being met. Numerous protests accompanied the Hanoverian succession in 1714, and indeed it was during the eighteenth century when the word ‘mob’ first emerged, being a contraction of the Latin term mobile vulgus. Riots occurred in 1706, 1707, 1710, 1736, 1743, 1754, 1766, 1769, 1780, 1791 and 1797. The most famous of all of these is perhaps the Gordon Riots of 1780, immortalised by Charles Dickens’ novel Barnaby Rudge (1841). While it is true that the majority of people did not have the vote, politicians had to be ever mindful of the effects that their decisions might have upon the public, as ‘King Mob’ was ever ready to rear his head and resume his reign. [2]

References to Wat Tyler’s insurrections and the mob occur more explicitly in the anonymously-authored play Wat Tyler and Jack Straw; or, The Mob Reformers (1730), which was performed at the theatrical booths of the St. Bartholomew Fair celebrations (probably alongside that Robin Hood plays). The play is a something of a farce, which pokes fun at both the mob (for Tyler ridicules the them) and also the establishment:

Mob. Huzzah! Huzzah! Wat Tyler and Liberty!
Tyl. Friends, hear me speak; nor let your smoaky brains hurry you on to do you know not what! [3]

But the play contains some subtly subversive elements. Immediately after taking about how they will whip the politicians for causing trouble with a ‘bubble’ from the South Sea (referring to the economic crisis known as the South Sea Bubble), Tyler exclaims:

On the proud wings of great revenge I fly;
Tyrant sit fast, or you may chance to know,
The mighty kick of Watty Tyler’s toe. [4]

Further literary representations of Wat Tyler from the eighteenth century were more radical, especially during the years of the American and French Revolutions. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) – a book which advocated independence for the Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain – sits in stark contrast to previous portrayals:

Tyler appears to have been an intrepid and disinterested man, with respect to himself. All his proposals made to Richard, were on a more just and public ground, than those which had been made to [King] John by the Barons; and notwithstanding the sycophancy of historians, and men like Mr. Burke, who seek to gloss over a base action of the Court by traducing Tyler, his fame will outlive their falsehood. If the Barons merited a monument at Runnymede, Tyler merits one in Smithfield. [5]

At the height of the French Revolution, the young Robert Southey authored Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem (1794). In this poem, Wat is a freedom fighter, taking up the country’s cause against the unjust taxes that have been levied to finance Richard II’s wars (with a message for his own day regarding the war against Revolutionary France):

Think you we do not feel the wrongs we suffer?
The hour of retribution is at hand,
And tyrants tremble – mark me, King of England.[6]

There appears to have been a trend at this point for radicals appropriating figures from England’s medieval past: one year after Southey there appeared Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795) which attempted to portray Robin Hood as a medieval Thomas Paine.

Wat Tyler egan

Illustration from Pierce Egan’s Wat Tyler (1840)

Perhaps the greatest account of Wat Tyler’s life comes from Pierce Egan the Younger’s Wat Tyler, or, the Rebellion of 1381 (1841). In this novel, Tyler is truly allowed to live up to his potential. Thomas Paine held him up as a working-class hero, while Robert Southey envisioned him as a man who fought for ‘Liberty! Liberty!’ Circumstances had changed when Egan was writing, and Britain saw the emergence of Chartism between 1838 and 1858. It was a working-class political reform movement which sought to establish a People’s Charter:

• A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime.
• The Secret Ballot.
• No Property Qualification for MPs.
• Payment of MPs, thus enabling an honest trades-man, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency; when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
• Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.
• Annual Parliamentary Elections.

In Egan’s novel, then, Wat Tyler is a man who fights for a medieval form of a People’s Charter (the Chartists, in actual fact, even had a Wat Tyler Brigade). Egan borrows the Saxon versus Norman theme from Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819). The Normans represent the nineteenth-century political establishment, while Tyler – of Saxon descent in the novel – represents the British working classes. Egan’s Tyler attempts to obtain the end of serfdom for the Anglo-Saxons (which means enfranchisement for the nineteenth-century working classes) through ‘petitions’ but to no avail. Tyler then leads a peasants’ revolt in order to obtain ‘a code of laws or charter’. [7]

Egan’s novel was practically plagiarised and abridged in the anonymously authored The Life and Adventures of Wat Tyler: The Good and the Brave (1851). Given the fact that it is a slimmed down copy of Egan’s text, the radical sentiments are still present within it, and Tyler is described as:

‘The friend of the poor, [who] supported their cause against the tyranny of their oppressors’. [8]

Wat Tyler’s next big break came in William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Merry England, or Nobles and Serfs (1874). Ainsworth is a novelist who has featured frequently on this website due to having published Rookwood (1834) and Jack Sheppard (1839). Merry England starts out promisingly, and sees Tyler and Jack Straw ‘conspiring’ together to overthrow the nobles. Although Ainsworth was not a confirmed radical (although I suspect he enjoyed causing sensation in the press, however), the novel is fairly critical of the nobles:

They [Tyler and Jack Straw] both hated the nobility, and burnt to avenge the wrongs inflicted on the serfs. Both desired to level all distinctions of rank, and partition all property among the people.[9]

The novel might have ended up being a perfectly enjoyable historical romance were it not for one majorly unconvincing subplot: Ainsworth tried to emulate Romeo and Juliet by having Tyler’s daughter fall in love with Richard II.

Perhaps the worst novel is G. A. Henty’s A March on London: Being a Story of Wat Tyler’s Insurrection (1897). Henty was a fervent imperialist who wrote a score of (now thankfully forgotten) children’s historical novels. Usually they centre round a boy hero who gets embroiled in major historical events. In the novel, Wat Tyler and his rebels fight not only against unjust taxes but also for the right to fight alongside their King in foreign wars. For the record, Tyler never demanded that he be able to fight for the King: he simply desired an end to serfdom and the alleviation of the harsh poll tax.

Wat Tyler did not lose his radical appeal, despite the fact that Henty portrayed him as an immoral man (the boy hero in Henty’s novel helps to protect the King from the mob rather than participating in the rebellion). In the twentieth century, during the Poll Tax Riots of the 1980s at Trafalgar Square in London people carried placards bearing the words:

“Avenge Wat Tyler”


References

[1] Anon. A General History of all the Rebellions, Insurrections, and Conspiracies in England (London, 1718), pp.28-29.
[2] See Tim Hitchcock & Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp.73-74.
[3] Anon. Wat Tyler and Jack Straw; or, The Mob Reformers (London, 1730), p.2.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Thomas Paine, Common Sense (London, 1776), p.112.
[6] Robert Southey, Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem in Three Acts (London: Sherwin, 1813), pp.10-11.
[7] Stephen Basdeo, ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’ in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies Vol. 15: Imagining the Victorians Eds. Stephen Basdeo & Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016), pp.48-65.
[8] Anon. The Life and Adventures of Wat Tyler: The Good and the Brave (London: Collins, 1851), p.8.
[9] William Harrison Ainsworth, Merry England, or, Nobles and Serfs 3 Vols. (London: Tinsley Bros. 1874), p.15.

Header Image: King Richard in Great Danger (1803) BM 1880,1113.4126

King Richard in great danger … and the rebels discomfited

King Richard in great danger … and the rebels discomfited

King Richard in great danger … and the rebels discomfited

King Richard in great danger … and the rebels discomfited

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