An Early Socialist History of the Peasants’ Revolt: Charles Edmund Maurice’s “Lives of English Popular Leaders of the Middle Ages” (1875)

While researching my book, The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (2018),[i] I came across an interesting history book, written by Charles Edmund Maurice during the Victorian period, entitled Lives of English Popular Leaders in the Middle Ages: Tyler, Ball, and Oldcastle (1875). The book immediately interested me because it is an early social history, and, as far as I could ascertain, is the first to link the so-called “Peasants’ Revolt” of 1381 with the Marxist idea of class struggle (I use the term “Peasants’ Revolt” here for convenience, but I am fully aware that the rebels were drawn from a diverse range of social classes, as Maurice was also aware). Thus, having tracked down a first edition and reading it in full, I thought I would give an overview

Maurice Title
Charles Edmund Maurice’s “Lives of English Popular Leaders” (1875)

Maurice was a history lecturer and a barrister. He was also the brother-in-law of the noted social reformer, Octavia Hill. Little is known of Maurice’s life (I could not even track down a picture of him for this post, unfortunately, although if any readers have any further information on him do please comment below): he had a role in founding the National Trust,[ii] and was also a committed Christian socialist, which is why the idea of the 1381 rebellion is presented in terms of class struggle. Marxists hold to the idea that society progresses in stages through class struggle, according to changes in the means of production, and usually these changes are accompanied by revolutions. Hence in ancient societies, class struggle occurred between masters and slaves. In feudal societies, the conflict was between lords and serfs, and in capitalist societies, it is between the bourgeoisie and the working class. The transition to a communist society would be marked by a revolution of the working class against the bourgeoisie, after which class struggles would cease .[iii]

What Maurice is interested in throughout his work is the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and the language of class and class struggle comes through strongly from the outset. He spends the first half of his book examining ‘the condition of the poorer classes in England’ from 597 AD to the fourteenth century (emphasis added). Maurice makes no attempt to hide his disgust at the condition of slaves during the sixth and seventh centuries:

The first feeling excited by a study of the slave laws of the early English kings is one of extreme disgust … one is much struck by the barbarous custom of making a distinction between an injury done to the person or life of the landed eorl, or earl, the half free ceorl, or churl, and the absolutely enslaved theow.[iv]

Ideas of the Norman yoke infiltrate Maurice’s analyses of class relations after 1066. While the Saxon kings viewed the ceorl and theow as necessary to the working of society, and were even accorded some limited protections in the law, after the arrival of the Normans, argues Maurice, there was contempt for all those classes of society beneath the Normans, and as a result of their laws:

By the time we reach the legal documents of the reigns of Henry I. and Stephen, the distinctions between the half-free and the slave have grown almost invisible, and though new terms of contempt have come into use [Maurice speaks immediately before this passage of the contemptuous terms ‘villein’ and ‘villanus’], they do not seem to imply any new distinctions.[v]

The only respite that the oppressed classes received during the Middle Ages, Maurice further argues, is the rights which they acquired as a result of reform-minded clergyman, and the prominence that he gives to these early religious reformers stems, perhaps, from Maurice’s own Christian socialist ideals. The Christian socialist movement emerged during the mid-nineteenth century. Christian beliefs have always been easily superimposed onto socialist ideology, to take just one scripture in the Epistle of James, for example, we can see a discontent with the rich and a desire to right the wrongs which they have placed upon the poorer classes:

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up for treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you have kept back by fraud (James 5: 1-6).

Maurice next comes to John Ball, the radical fourteenth-century lay preacher whose teachings followed, as Rodney Hilton argues, ‘in the long tradition of Christian social radicalism which goes back to St. Ambrose of Milan, if not before’.[vi] Ball’s famous phrase,

When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the Gentleman?

gave expression to the inequalities and discontent felt by a number of the oppressed classes during the medieval period. And it is John Ball and his teachings that were, according to Maurice, the most important cause of the 1381 rebellion. While Ball is described as a parochial churchman, Maurice also stresses the fact that he was, in fact, a labourer, of the same class of people as Wat Tyler.[vii] Ball’s preaching was so successful because it occurred at a time when, due to the Black Death, the villeins were becoming aware of their own importance, and were able to demand better wages for their labours, and offered them a vision of a better world. But in this the labouring class were foiled, says Maurice, due to the machinations of the ruling class who sought to prevent, through laws such as the Statute of Labourers (1351).[viii]

John Ball’s preaching is the ideology that underpinned the Peasants’ Revolt, but it’s most immediate cause was the exaction of a Poll Tax designed by the ‘class of tyrants’ which disproportionately hurt the labouring classes. The apocryphal story of a tax man visiting Wat Tyler’s home, demanding payment for her, and then Tyler’s killing of the tax man for handling his daughter in an indecent manner, is taken as a fact by Maurice.[ix] This had indeed become accepted as historical truth during the nineteenth century, and almost every fictional and non-fictional nineteenth-century work, such as Mrs O’Neill’s The Bondman (1833) and Pierce Egan’s Wat Tyler; or, The Rebellion of 1381 (1841), takes this incident as undoubted historical truth.

Image 1
John Ball preaching to the Commons – Reproduced from Froissart in Henry Newbolt’s Froissart in Britain (1893)

Maurice then follows up with a fairly standard narrative of the revolt: Wat Tyler’s rescuing John Ball from gaol in Maidstone, the march of the men of Kent to London, the meeting with Richard II at Smithfield, and Wat Tyler’s death. Afterwards, Maurice then muses upon John Ball and Wat Tyler’s achievements. The most notable among these was the construction of a labouring class-consciousness:

[Wat Tyler] taught the serfs and workmen to stand together, and depend upon themselves. They had implanted a tradition of freedom and self-respect in the most depressed classes of the kingdom, which was remembered afterwards when, in 1424, the villeins rose against the monastery in St. Albans.[x]

Although theirs was a revolt that ultimately failed, Maurice further argues that it had a ‘slow burn’ effect which benefitted both the serfs and the free labourers of medieval England:

After the insurrection of Tyler, the position of the villeins steadily improved; and that, though nominally refused, the demands of the villeins were silently but effectually accorded.[xi]

Moreover, Maurice also argues that it strengthened the position of Parliament, particularly those who sat in the Commons, who also felt the tyrannies of the nobility, though to a lesser degree than the serfs.

After Maurice’s work, the next major socialist interpretation of the Peasants’ Revolt came from the pen of the brilliant William Morris in A Dream of John Ball (1888). Socialism is essentially a foreign, non-British ideology, and nineteenth-century British socialists such as Morris looked back to the medieval past, to the teachings of men such as John Ball, to find evidence of proto-typical socialist thought. Thus, in A Dream of John Ball, a man from the nineteenth century wakes up in a medieval village in Kent in 1381. All around him he hears tidings of ‘the valiant tiler of Dartford’. He then manages to speak with John Ball privately, and the two men converse about the class struggles of the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although the traveller tells John Ball that his revolution will be unsuccessful, he should still take heart, for struggles and rebellions such as Wat Tyler’s insurrection are necessary milestones on the road to achieving socialism.

Frontispiece to William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball (1888)

The most prominent historian of the Peasants’ Revolt during the mid-twentieth century was Rodney Hilton, a neo-Marxist, of the same school as Eric Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson. It was Hilton, Hobsbawm, and Thompson, among others, who founded in 1952 the prestigious academic journal, Past and Present. In many ways, Maurice’s work anticipates Hilton’s: one of Hilton’s aims in Bondmen Made Free (1973) was to reposition the egalitarian ideology of John Ball as the central cause of the revolt, whereas in early twentieth-century historical scholarship it had been side-lined, with economic and social causes of the result given privilege at the expense of ideology. I have checked the references in Hilton’s works, and it does not appear that he was aware of Maurice’s book, or at any rate, he does not cite it. If you would like to read Maurice’s work for yourself, however, the Internet Archive has scanned it in (Click here).


[i] Stephen Basdeo, The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2018).

[ii] Astrid Swenson, ‘Founders of the National Trust (act. 1894–1895)’, in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn., 2008) [Internet <> Accessed 15 July 2017].

[iii] There are many writers who have written upon this subject at length, and in more detail than I ever could, but I recommend the Very Short Introductions from Oxford University Press on ‘Marx’ and ‘Socialism’ as a starting point.

[iv] Charles Edmund Maurice, Lives of English Popular Leaders in the Middle Ages: Tyler, Ball, and Oldcastle (London: Henry S. King, 1875), p. 7.

[v] Maurice, Lives of English Popular Leaders, pp. 26-7.

[vi] Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 (New York: Viking Press, 1973), p. 211.

[vii] Maurice, Lives of English Popular Leaders, p. 143.

[viii] Maurice, Lives of English Popular Leaders, pp. 146-48.

[ix] Maurice, Lives of English Popular Leaders, p. 153.

[x] Maurice, Lives of English Popular Leaders, p. 195.

[xi] Ibid.


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