Revolting Women

By Stephen Basdeo

This is a précis of an article written by Sylvia Federico. Please click the link and cite Federico’s well-researched article in any work of your own. Do not cite this blog post.

In the summer of 1381, the common people of England rose up against their oppressive government who had hit them with three regressive poll taxes in 1377, 1379, and of course in 1381. In the south, the people organised; the commons of Kent elected the brave Wat Tyler as their leader and, having written down their grievances in a coherent form, marched on London in a 50,000 strong army to present the following demands to the boy king, Richard II: the end of the poll tax; the abolition of serfdom (from the peasant class, a serf was the ‘lowest of the low’); the freedom to buy and sell in the marketplace; the abolition of the Statute of Labourers (1351), which kept wages artificially low; and the execution of all of the king’s treasonous advisors, who also happened to be the architects of the poll tax.

Image 1
John Ball delivers his famous sermon to the rebels: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” (c) Stephen Basdeo

The history of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 is usually conceived of as a very ‘manly’ affair: the ringleaders of the revolt, Wat Tyler, Jack Straw, John Ball, John Wrawe, Jack Chep were all men.

Yet it wasn’t just men who had all the fun. In records from the time, we also find that women enthusiastically took part as well. In his ground-breaking study of the revolt, Bond Men Made Free (1973), Rodney Hilton pointed to the case of one woman, named Joan Smith, from Rochester, Kent, who was indicted after the rebellion and called

The leader of a great band of rebellious evil-doers from Kent.[i]

To find out more about these ‘revolting’ women, I decided to read Sylvia Federico’s study of women’s role in the rebellion.[ii]

Image 6
Richard II

That women took a prominent role in the Peasants’ Revolt is attested to by several sources: Federico points out that they appear in the records of the Court of the King’s Bench and the Court of Common Pleas; the chroniclers Thomas Walsingham and Henry Knighton, from whom much of our modern understanding of the events of 1381 is taken, likewise point out that women were present during the rebellion; and the poets Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower also draw attention to some of these ‘revolting women’ in their writings.

So, let us take a look at some of these women whom Federico identified.

The rebellion began in an Essex village named Fobbing, where a man called Thomas Baker bravely took a stand against the king’s lackies and refused to pay the poll tax. The tax collectors were then attacked by the rebels and forced to leave empty-handed. The revolt spread like wildfire; Hilton shows in his book just how organised the rebels were—messages were sent to parts of Kent where the people too rose up.

Image 4
The execution of Simon Sudbury by the rebels in 1381 (c) Stephen Basdeo

Under the direction of Wat Tyler, the rebels broke into Maidstone gaol and rescued the radical preacher, John Ball, who had been imprisoned for preaching about equality, spreading around the ‘dangerous’ saying

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

Yet Tyler was not the only one to lead the rebels into the prison, for we find another woman goading the rebels into destroying the prison:

Julia Pouchere came to meet with men from Canterbury and the county of Essex where they had risen in rebellion … [and] persuaded the … evil-doers [to] tore down the [Maidstone] jail and destroyed it.[iii]

The events of the rebellion are well-known: when the rebels reached London, the Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury—an architect of the poll tax—was executed by the rebels; the widely-hated John of Gaunt’s palace at the Savoy was destroyed.

The rebels were out for blood.

Image 3
Richard II’s first attempt to meet the rebels. Notice how, although many records make reference to women, very few are pictured in the images.

While sometimes women in history are stereotyped as being more passive, sympathetic figures, this was not the case with one Katherin Gamen. As the rebels pursued another official, Chief Justice John Cavendish, through the streets of Lakenheath on 15 June (angry medieval villagers carrying pitchforks is not a wholly inaccurate image), the beleaguered Cavendish was chased as far as the banks of the river. He saw a boat — a means of escape from the angry mob — he would jump in it and row to safety!

But it was not to be.

Gamen was nearer to the riverbank than Cavendish and saw that he was aiming for the boat. So she untied the boat and let it float out into the lake, depriving Cavendish of the means of escape.[iv]

Cavendish was then taken by the rebels and beheaded.

One of the rebels’ aims was the abolition of serfdom and feudal dues. Back in London, lawyers were the rebels’ primary target, along with the architects of the poll tax. Several lawyers lost their lives and many legal records were burnt, so as to erase all memory of feudal obligations. We find women doing exactly this: Matilda Aleyn Sprynghald stole a full chest of legal documents from a lawyers’ while another woman, Alice Wymond, broke into her lords’ manor house in Sussex and burnt all the documents pertaining to feudal obligations. This was not mindless violence but a well-thought out strategy; in fourteenth-century court cases, if a dispute arose between a lord and a tenant, the lord had to be able to give evidence that the tenant owed him a particular service or rent-in-kind.

Image 5
The death of Wat Tyler at the hands of William Walworth (c) Stephen Basdeo

After Wat Tyler was killed by the treacherous fishmonger, brothel-owner and Lord Mayor, William Walworth, the other ringleaders of the revolt were rounded up and subjected to horrific punishments like hanging, drawing, and quartering. However, the government could obviously not execute over 50,000 people so they wisely declared an amnesty for those who were merely ‘led astray’ by the ringleaders.

People quickly applied for the amnesty.

All in all, in the Pardon Rolls, we can find the names of 30 women who allegedly participated in Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, and they are often listed in the rolls along with their husbands. So we have women such as

  • John and Beatrice Pegge of Bantre.
  • Elena, the wife of John de Wetewang of Beverley.
  • Agnes, widow of John Hunter of Whittington.[v]

The names of these women appear in the Pardon Rolls only once, but some women were so notorious during the rebellion, it seems, that they needed to secure two pardons. These women were:

  • Joan Taburn.
  • Joan Tapister.[vi]

It is not clear exactly what these women did in the revolt. They may have marched against the government, but we know also that, like many men, some women used the disturbances to commit crime, especially against their neighbours with whom, presumably, they had had long-standing grievances. This is what we see, for example, in the records of the Court of Common Pleas: Joan Aleyn stole 2s. 6d. from her neighbour; Agnes Stevenage burgled the house of John Brode, an escheator in Kent, although an escheator was a royal official charged with, among other things, collecting taxes, so perhaps her actions were way of her getting revenge on the government and enriching herself.[vii]

Furthering the rebels’ aims while taking a little for herself is also what a woman named Johanna did while Gaunt’s palace was being attacked. Federico records that this Johanna took a chest containing over £1000 (a staggering amount in 1381 — approximately £617,000 today) from Gaunt’s palace, then took a boat to Southwark where she divided the spoils between herself and her friends.[viii] Apparently, this same Johanna returned to central London the next day where, so some records say, she convinced the rioters to behead Simon Sudbury.

These are just some of the ‘revolting women’ which Federico has found in records from medieval England and it’s unfortunate that I cannot find any contemporary images of these women.

But fair play to them—where men might have been deprived of certain political and economic rights, women were worse off because they were women and enjoyed fewer advantages than men.

[i] Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free (New York: Viking, 1973), p. 215.

[ii] Sylvia Federico, ‘The Imaginary Society: Women in 1381’, Journal of British Studies, 40: 2 (2001), 159–83.

[iii] Federico, 167.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Federico, 163.

[vi] Federico, 164.

[vii] Federico, 165.

[viii] Federico, 168.


The History of Thomas Walsingham’s Historia Anglicana traced through Reappearances of Jack Straw’s Last Dying Speech

A paper delivered at the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 1–5 July 2019 by Stephen Basdeo

The so-called Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was widely reported in various chronicles. The Anonimalle Chronicle—based here in Leeds—is said to be one of the best sources for historians of the rebellion, along with histories written by the likes of John Froissart, Henry Knighton, and Thomas Walsingham. The latter’s chronicle is highly interesting; although modern editions of Walsingham’s writings are published under general titles such as The St Albans Chronicle, these are actually compilations of what, until the work of V. H. Galbraith in the early twentieth century, were actually viewed as three separate and distinct works: Historia Anglicana, Annales Ricardi II et Henrici IV, Chronicon Angliae. The first of these, Historia Anglicana, is what I would like to focus on today because it contains something very interesting: the purported last dying speech and confession of Jack Straw, one of the ringleaders of the Peasants’ Revolt. Obviously, we have to take Straw’s confession, as recorded in Walsingham’s Historia Anglicana, with more than a pinch of salt. R. B. Dobson tells us that it appears at a point in Walsingham’s narrative in which he ‘gladly relieves himself of the need to adhere to the facts and gives free rein to his powerful imagination’.[1] At the same time, Dobson notes that Straw’s confession ‘is unlikely to be a mere figment of Walsingham’s imaginative powers’.[2] Whatever the truth of the matter, later chroniclers took it at face value and the speech reappears in narratives of the revolt up to the year 1715, after which, very oddly, it disappears completely in print until Henry Riley transcribed the Walsingham’s works for the Rolls Series in 1863. So, I set out to find out why this was so. So, I’d like to tell you a story of how and why Jack Straw’s speech and, by extension, the two manuscripts of the Historia Anglicana ‘disappeared’ between 1715 and 1863. So, although I originally planned a kind of ‘textual’ interpretation of the speech (the primary sources weren’t saying what I wanted them to say), tracing the history of a manuscript still fits within the idea of ‘materialities’ and I hope you’re not disappointed!

straw 1
Victorian image of Jack Straw

Straw’s confession occurs at a point in Walsingham’s narrative after Wat Tyler has been put to death. The Lord Mayor, William Walworth, bribes Straw to confess his reasons for stirring up the commons to rebellion. There are two reasons for this: it will ensure that prayers are said for him after his death, and serve for a useful moral to the country at large.[3] We are also told the rebels ‘true’ motivations:

Our plan was to kill all the knights, esquires, and other gentlemen … then we would have killed the king and driven out of the land all possessioners, bishops, monks, canons, and rectors of churches … We would have created kings, Wat Tylere in Kent and one each in other counties.[4]

To begin, we should note that what we now call Historia Anglicana with Straw’s Last Dying speech appears on two surviving manuscripts: The Chronica Maiora, or Corpus Christi College Cambridge manuscript 195, and the Historia Anglicana, Arundel Manuscript No. VII. The former, as the name suggests, was held in the library of the Cambridge College;[5] during the Reformation, manuscripts from St Albans found their way into the hands of a number of private book collectors.[6] It was John Bale (1495–1563)[7] who originally “owned” or “took” the Corpus Christi manuscript which then made its way into the possession of the famous Matthew Parker (1504–75). It was Parker’s collection of Walsingham’s chronicles which paved the way for their first printing; Parker combined Historia Anglicana with Walsingham’s Ypodigma Neustriae into Historia Brevis, first published in 1574 and again in 1594.[8] Historia Brevis was then incorporated into William Camden’s Anglica, Normanica, Hibernica, Cambrica, a Veteribus Scripta, published in Frankfurt in 1603.[9]

One man who clearly had read Walsingham’s chronicles was John Stow (1524–1605). We have a brief summary of the Peasants’ Revolt and of Straw’s confession in Stow’s A Summarie of the Chronicles of England (1565): ‘Jacke Strawe being taken confessed all the conspiracie & lost his head at London’.[10] He definitely would have had access to Walsingham’s works because his patron was the aforementioned Matthew Parker, who asked Stow to translate and edit the so-called Matthew of Westminster’s Flores Historiarum, published in 1567 and to work with Parker on the 1574 Historia Brevis. After collaborating with Parker, Stow wrote his own Annales of England— reworked from Stow’s much shorter Chronicles of England (1580)—published in 1592, 1601, and 1605. In the Annales, Straw’s confession is reproduced faithfully: the aims of the rebels are the same as in Walsingham’s version, to kill the gentlemen and set themselves up as kings; these details were probably taken from the reprint of Straw’s confession in Holinshead’s Chronicles, published in 1577.[11] In Walsingham’s original text Walworth convinces Straw to confess his crimes in return for masses to be said for him after his death.[12] This obviously reflected the idea of death as a discrete event, of purgatory and the necessity of prayers to be said after a sinner’s passing on.[13] There is one variation in the text of the speech: obviously as a result of the Reformation, Straw in Stow’s account will no longer have masses said for him after his death but his confession, William Walworth tells Straw, should simply be said ‘for thy soules health’.[14]

Regarding the second—and I will only briefly talk about it here as I’ll come on to it later:—in 1589, Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, purchased many of Walsingham’s texts from the Abbey at St Albans. Howard died in 1646, after which the manuscript collection was held by Howard’s son, Henry Howard, and then his grandson, also Henry Howard. The grandson then divided the manuscripts between the Royal Society and then the College of Arms in 1666, with the Historia Anglicana given to the latter.[15] Howard’s donation to the College of Arms was likely a philanthropic gesture: in 1666, the College of Arms was a victim of the Great Fire of London and, although a number of members of the public and the public themselves saved as many manuscripts and rolls as they could, many were lost.

The idea that Straw needed to die with a clean conscience or soul reappears in The Iust Reward of Rebels, published at the beginning of the English Revolution in 1642.[16] The source text for this work, which aimed to show the folly of rebelling against one’s king through providing a true account of the rebellion, was likewise, as much of Stow’s work before, Walsingham’s ‘Chronicle of St Albones’.[17] It is merely a politicised appropriation of the events of the revolt and Straw’s speech completed with the aim of criticising the parliamentarians who were waging war against their king. In a similar vein is a book which sees the final time that Straw’s speech appears in popular culture: The History of all the Mobs, written by Robert Ferguson in 1715.[18] All references to ‘souls’ and ‘spirits’ is absent but the text of the speech itself is largely faithful to that of John Stow’s (although Ferguson was not that great a researcher, declaring that the revolt occurred in 1383 and not 1381).[19]

After The History of all the Mobs, Jack Straw’s speech disappears—as far as I can ascertain—from all new retellings of the revolt (I have listed these in my bibliography on this paper should anyone be interested in consulting them). It is referenced nowhere in cheap eighteenth-century chapbook histories of the revolt, or the many ‘Historical Gleanings’ sections of newspapers and periodicals which appeared throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (many of which appeared in the lead up to the Peterloo Massacre at Manchester in 1819). They often reference Froissart’s chronicles but neglect Walsingham, much as William Hone does in his preface to Robert Southey’s Wat Tyler, published in 1817.[20]

The Iust Reward of Rebels published at the height of the English Revolution to show the folly of rebelling against one’s lawful king

The question remains, therefore: why, when other medieval chroniclers were referenced in a variety of ‘popular’ historical essays, was Walsingham neglected? By extension, we might count Stow, Holinshead, and Parker’s Historia Brevis among those chronicles which were likewise, if not forgotten, then at least less privileged. The short answer is: I have absolutely no idea why Walsingham’s Historia Anglicana ceased to be consulted as a source for the revolt after the mid-eighteenth century, although I do have a few suppositions which, at this stage, may be either right or wrong. Having searched some, although not all, catalogues of rare book libraries from the eighteenth century, Stow’s works are rarely mentioned and, if they are, it is usually in general terms such as ‘Stow’s Chronicles’, which does not contain the speech. Where Walsingham is mentioned, again it is in general terms such as ‘Saint Alban’s Chronicle’, many variants of which do not contain the speech.[21] Walsingham enjoys a very brief (one sentence) footnote in Antiquitates Culinariæ (1791), although the particular chronicle referred to is not mentioned, being simply a ‘Walsingham tells us’.[22] Again we find one brief reference to Walsingham in a pamphlet written by the antiquary Joseph Ayloffe, but whether he had actually read the Historia Anglicana is unclear, as he just refers to ‘Walsingham’ and not any specific manuscript.[23] To me, this suggests that, by the mid-eighteenth century, Walsingham’s Historia Anglicana and Stow’s Annales were perhaps left to languish in various libraries and were no longer being consulted by those who wished to retell the revolt.

Mobs 1

Even early radicals’ and reformers’ late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century publications avoided Walsingham. This was probably due to the fact that they disliked ‘party historians’ whose sympathies were always with Walworth and Richard II.[24] Thomas Paine, in his invoking of Wat Tyler’s name, hit upon the same sentiments in reference to the establishment’s views of the rebel.[25] Even in hardbound history books, such as The Life of Wat Tyler published in 1851, which acknowledges its debt to various sources such as Froissart and Knighton, there is no debt paid to Walsingham—poor Walsingham! These nineteenth-century popular history books often took the bare facts of the revolt but put their own spin on it (ahem—see chapter five of my book for further details). Southey’s Wat Tyler play is referenced more in magazines and newspapers such as Bronterre’s National Reformer, The Northern Star, and the Red Republican more than any medieval chronicler ever was when they printed accounts of the revolt (again, I hate to do this ‘cause it is rather vain but: see my book for any nineteenth-century Wat Tyler query). Not even Pierce Egan the Younger’s—he’s a real favourite of mine—well-researched novel contains Straw’s last dying speech.

19thc slide
Poor Walsingham is not referenced in any of these popular publications

So, would Walsingham’s Historia Anglicana ever be rescued from languishing unnoticed? All I’ll say here, as someone who is more Victorian than medieval, is: Thank God for the Victorians! Walsingham’s history would soon be ‘rediscovered’ thanks to Victorian lawmakers’ passage of the Public Record Office Act in 1838, which aimed to

rescue from oblivion … valuable collections of papers the contents of which are now unknown even to the possessors which are … of the highest value on account of the information which they afford in matters of history, law, legislation, biography, and several other important subjects.[26]

Riley worked from Arundel MSS No. VII to produce his critical edition of Historia Anglicana, which he collated with Chronica Maiora in Corpus Christi College’s archives in Cambridge. Now, since the mid-eighteenth century, the College of Arms had been left to languish; it could barely afford to rebuild after the Great Fire and after the Hanoverian succession, the Georgian kings showed little interest in the college, refused to grant it any money, and even refused to renew its royal charter. In a situation that I’m sure we can all identify with, they kept applying to the government for money and kept getting rejected—history really does repeat itself! By the 1830s, the college was dilapidated and at risk of fire but the government ordered the college, with some financial incentive, to make a list of all the records and manuscripts which they held to comply with the Public Record Office Act.[27] This suggests, as the Public Record Act itself recognised, that the College of Arms simply did not know what they had. A small team of researchers was assembled by the government to collect information about Britain’s records and, where necessary, publish them. Among these was Henry Thomas Riley. Little is known of Riley’s life except for the fact that he was a lawyer, called to the bar in 1847, but his legal career not paying well, he took odd jobs editing and translating old manuscripts for the Public Record Office. But Riley published Walsingham’s chronicles as distinct, separate works which is arguably better practice than some modern translators who compile all of them together into one generalised Chronica Maiora. Riley accepted that the Historia Anglicana was ‘based upon’ or ‘derived from’ a larger and more complete Walsingham text, Royal MS. 13. E. ix—this omits Straw’s speech—but was hesitant to view all of Walsingham chronicles as one large ‘whole’, and his position was disputed in the 1930s by V. H. Galbraith.[28]

College 1
College of Arms in the 1840s

While Galbraith’s conclusions—that each Walsingham chronicle was part of a larger St Albans Chronicle—have become accepted scholarly ‘fact’—based on identifying these manuscripts’ repetitions and references to each other—his publication of the St Alban’s Chronicle comprising Historia Anglicana, Annales Ricardi II et Henrici IV, Chronicon Angliae, a practice carried on by modern editors, has obscured the history of the manuscripts to some extent. Sometimes, when studying the reappearance of a specific passage such as Straw’s speech and why it disappeared from ‘popular’ understanding of the Peasants’ Revolt, the history of one chronicle needs to be disentangled from the rest with which it has been ‘lumped together’. I do, of course, need to do further research; Walsingham’s Historia Anglicana may have been one of those manuscripts in need of being ‘rescued from oblivion’, but this does not account for the lack of citations to John Stow and Holinshead and their versions of Jack Straw’s last dying speech.

Riley’s publication of Walsingham’s Chronicles


[1] R. B. Dobson, ed., The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (London: MacMillan, 1970), p. 363.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thomas Walsingham, ‘The Confession of John Straw’, in The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, ed. by R. B. Dobson (London: MacMillan, 1970), pp. 365–6 (p. 365).

[4] Ibid., p. 366.

[5] James G. Clark, ‘Thomas Walsingham Reconsidered: Books and Learning at Late-Medieval St. Albans’, Speculum, 77: 3 (2002), 832–60 (p. 837): ‘There is an important group of St. Albans manuscripts containing material attributed to Walsingham all of which can be dated to the second quarter of the fifteenth century, that is, within a generation of his death. This includes Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 195; and Bodl., MSS Bodley 585, Douce 299, Rawlinson B 152, and Rawlinson D 358’.

[6] J. Clark, ‘Reformation and reaction at St Albans Abbey, 1530-58’, The English Historical Review, 115: 461 (2000), 297–328 (p. 321): the chief instigator in this respect was Richard Boreman, the last Abbot of St Albans, who sold a thirteenth-century anthology of astronomical treaties to John Dee in 1553, while the previous abbot, Robert Catton, also retained a number of books from St Albans’s library for his own personal use, as did Boreman.

[7] Thomas Walsingham, The Chronica Maiora, MS Cambridge CCC 195; Thomas Walsingham, The Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham, 1376–1422, Trans. David Preest (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005), p. 22.

[8] For a fuller account of medieval books in early modern England and specifically of Matthew Parker, see the following: Jennifer Summit, Memory’s Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008); R. I. Page, Matthew Parker and his Books (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1993); Anthony Grafton, ‘Matthew Parker: The Book as Archive’, History of Humanities, 2: 1 (2017), 15–50.

[9] John Foxe, Actes and Monuments (London, 1570), pp. 702–3: John Foxe in Acts and Monuments, first printed in 1653, likewise drew upon Walsingham’s chronicles, although Straw’s speech does not appear in Foxe’s work and the only information of the revolt first appeared in the 1570 edition, and what Foxe included was relatively short: ‘But let vs consider yet further of these xx. thousand souldiours so sodenly without wages, without vitall, or other prouision congregated together, what they were, from whence, out of what quarter, countrey, or countreys they came. MarginaliaIn other kynges dayes, when soeuer any rebellion is against the kyng, moued by the commōs, as when Iacke Straw, and Wat Tyler of Kent, and Essex rose in þe tyme of kyng Richard. 2. Whē William Mandeuill of Abyngdon, Iacke Cade of Kent, in þe tyme of kyng Henry the 6. In the tyme of kyng Henry the 8. when the commotion was of rebels in Lyncolshyre, thē in Yorkeshyre, when in kyng Edward the 6. tyme Humfrey Arundell in Deuonshyre, Captayne Kyte in Northfolke made styrre agaynst the kyng, the countrey and partes from whence these rebels did spryng, were both noted and also diffamed. In this so traiterous commotion therfore let vs nowe learne, what men these were, and from what countrey or countreis in all Englande they came. If they came out of any, let the Chronicles declare what countreys they were. If they came out of none (as none is named) then let them come out of Outopia, where be lyke this figment was first forged, and inuented. Wherefore seyng neither the countreys from whence they came, nor yet the names of any of all these thousand do appeare what they were eyther in Chronicle or in recorde, but remaine altogether vnknowen, I leaue it (gentle reader) to thy iudgemēt, to thinke therupon, as thy wisedome shall lead thee’. There is little variation upon these words in successive editions of Foxe’s works which were published in 1576 and 1583.

[10] John Stow, A Summarie of the Chronicles of England (London: Richard Bradocke, 1598), p. 149.

[11] Ralph Holinshed, et al., The Chronicles of England, 4 vols (London: Lucas Harrison, 1577), IV, p. 1036.

[12] Walsingham, ‘The Confession of John Straw’, p. 365. See also Thomas Walsingham, Chronica Monasterii S. Albani. Thomae Walsingham, Quondam Monachi S. Albani, Historia Anglicana, ed. by Henry Thomas Riley, 2 vols (London: Longman, 1864), II, p. 10.

[13] Katherine Royer, The English Execution Narrative, 1200–1700, 2nd edn (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), pp. 51–3.

[14] John Stow, Annales of England (London, 1601), p. 465.

[15] H. T. Riley, ed., Chronica Monasterii S. Albani: Thomae Walsingham, Quondam Monachi S. Albani, Historia Anglicana, London Rolls Series, 2 vols (London: Longman, 1872), I, p. x.

[16] The Iust Reward of Rebels (London: F. Couls, 1642), pp. 14–15: ‘The Lord Mayor againe thus seconded it; I speake to thee as a dying man who now ought to study for the peace of thy soule, and not dissemble at all either with God, or man’.

[17] Ibid., p. 3.

[18] Stephen Basdeo, The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018), pp. 61–3.

[19] Robert Ferguson, The History of All the Mobs, Tumults, and Insurrections in Great Britain (London: J. Moore, 1715), pp. 12–13.

[20] Robert Southey, Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem (London: Printed for William Hone, 1817), p. xvii.

[21] John Berkenhout, Biographia Literaria; or, a Biographical History of Literature, 2 vols (London: J. Dodsley, 1748), I, p. 48.

[22] Richard Warner, Antiquitates Culinariæ; or Curious Tracts Relating to the Culinary Affairs of the Old English (London: R. Blamire, 1791), p. xxxi.

[23] Joseph Ayloffe, An Account of the Body of King Edward the First (London: Printed in the Year 1775), p. 21.

[24] ‘Historical Gleanings’, The English Chartist Circular, 28 (n. d.), 28.

[25] Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man: Part the Second, 8th edn (London: J. S. Jordan, 1792), p. 111.

[26] Roger Ellis, ‘The historical manuscripts commission 1869–1969’, Journal of the Society of Archivists, 2: 6 (1962), 233–42 (p. 233).

[27] Anthony Wagner, Heralds of England: A History of the Office and College of Arms (London: HMSO, 1967), p. 167.

[28] V. H. Galbraith, ‘Thomas Walsingham and the Saint Albans Chronicle, 1272–1422’, The English Historical Review, 47: 185 (1932), 12–30.

Further Reading:

Ailesbury, Charles Bruce, A Catalogue of the Books of the Right Honourable Charles Viscount Bruce of Ampthill (London: Printed at the Theatre, 1733)

Ayloffe, Joseph, An Account of the Body of King Edward the First (London: Printed in the Year 1775)

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

Berkenhout, John, Biographia Literaria; or, a Biographical History of Literature, 2 vols (London: J. Dodsley, 1748)

Bibliotheca Hollandiana (Norwich: Henry Crosgrove, 1733)

Bloch, Maurice and Jonathan Parry, ‘Introduction: Death and the Regeneration of Life’, in Death and the Regeneration of Life, ed. by Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 1–45

Brie, F. W. D., ‘Wat Tyler and Jack Straw’, The English Historical Review, 21: 81 (1906), 106-111

Bronterre’s National Reformer

A Catalogue of Books (Thomas and John Egerton, 1787)

A Catalogue of the Harleian Collection of Manuscripts, Purchased by Authority of Parliament, 2 vols (London: Dryden Leach, 1759)

Chaucer, Geoffrey, ‘The Canterbury Tales: The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’, in The Canterbury Tales and Faerie Queene, ed. by D. Laing Purves (Edinburgh: W. P. Nimmo, Hay and Mitchell, 1897), pp. 165–77

Clark, James G., ‘Reformation and reaction at St Albans Abbey, 1530-58’, The English Historical Review, 115: 461 (2000), 297–328

————, ‘Thomas Walsingham Reconsidered: Books and Learning at Late-Medieval St. Albans’, Speculum, 77: 3 (2002), 832–60

Cleveland, John, The Rustick Rampant; or Rurall Anarchy Affronting Monarchy (London: F. C., 1658)

The Complaint and Petition of the Whole Kingdome of Englande (London: W. Webb, 1643)

A Dialogue Between Mischievous Tom, Wat Tyler, and an English Farmer (London: John Stockdale, 1793)

Dobson, R. B., ed., The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (London: MacMillan, 1970)

Ellis, Roger, ‘The historical manuscripts commission 1869–1969’, Journal of the Society of Archivists, 2: 6 (1962), 233–42

The English Chartist Circular

Evans, Thomas, ed., Old Ballads, Historical and Narrative, 2 vols (London: T. Evans, 1777)

Ferguson, James, Robert Ferguson the Plotter; or, The Secret of the Rye-House Conspiracy and the Story of a Strange Career (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1887)

Ferguson, Robert, The History of All the Mobs, Tumults, and Insurrections in Great Britain (London: J. Moore, 1715)

Foxe, John, Actes and Monuments (London, 1570)

Galbraith, V. H., ‘Thomas Walsingham and the Saint Albans Chronicle, 1272–1422’, The English Historical Review, 47: 185 (1932), 12–30

Godfrey, Walter H., and Anthony Wagner, An Account of the College of Arms in Queen Victoria Street (London: Guild & School of Handicraft, 1963)

Goldsmith, Oliver, Goldsmith’s History of England: From the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Death of George II (Paris: Baudry’s European Library, 1844)

Gordon, Stephen R., ‘The Walking Dead in Medieval England: Literary and Archaeological Perspectives’ (Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Manchester, 2013)

Grafton, Anthony, ‘Matthew Parker: The Book as Archive’, History of Humanities, 2: 1 (2017), 15–50

Graham, Timothy, ‘Matthew Parker’s Manuscripts: an Elizabethan library and its use’, in The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland, ed. by Elisabeth Leedham-Green, et al., 3 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 322–42

The History of Wat Tyler and Jack Straw (London: [n. pub.], 1788)

The History of Wat Tyler and Jack Straw (London: Edward Midwinter [n. d.])

Holinshed, Ralph, et al., The Chronicles of England, 4 vols (London: Lucas Harrison, 1577)

The Iust Reward of Rebels (London: F. Couls, 1642)

The Life and Death of Iacke Strawe (London: Iohn Danter, 1593)

Northern Star

Page, R. I., Matthew Parker and his Books (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1993)

Paine, Thomas, The Rights of Man: Part the Second, 8th edn (London: J. S. Jordan, 1792)

Phillpott, Matthew, The Reformation of England’s Past: John Foxe and the Revision of History in the Late Sixteenth Century (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2018)

‘The Rebellion of Wat Tyler and Jack Straw’, in Old Ballads, Historical and Narrative, ed. by Thomas Evans, 2 vols (London: T. Evans, 1777), I, pp. 280–84

Royer, Katherine, The English Execution Narrative, 1200–1700, 2nd edn (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016)

‘Some Account of Wat Tyler’s Rebellion’, The Universal Magazine, June (1780), 322

Southey, Robert, Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem (London: William Hone, 1817)

Stow, George B., ‘Bodleian Library MS Bodley 316 and the Dating of Thomas Walsingham’s Literary Career’, Manuscripta, 25: 2 (1981), 67–76

————, ‘Richard II in Thomas Walsingham’s Chronicles’, Speculum, 59: 1 (1984), 68–102

Stow, John, Annales of England (London, 1601)

————, A Summarie of the Chronicles of England (London: Richard Bradocke, 1598)

Summit, Jennifer, Memory’s Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008)

 ‘Tax Has Tenet Us Alle (Corpus Christi Coll. Cambridge MS 369 fol. 46v)’, in Medieval English Political Writings, ed. by James M. Dean (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996), pp. 147–9

Trokelowe, Johannis and Henrici de Blandeford, Chonrica Monasterii S. Albani. Monachorum S. Albani, Necnon Quorundam Anonymorum Chronica et Annales, ed. by H. T. Riley, London Rolls Series (London: Longman, 1866)

Turner, Victor, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago, IL: Aldine, 1969)

Wagner, Anthony, Heralds of England: A History of the Office and College of Arms (London: HMSO, 1967)

Warner, Richard, Antiquitates Culinariæ; or Curious Tracts Relating to the Culinary Affairs of the Old English (London: R. Blamire, 1791)

Walsingham, Thomas, Chronicon Angliae, 1328–88, ed. by E. Maunde Thompson, London Rolls Series (London, 1874)

————, The Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham, 1376–1422, Trans. David Preest (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005)

————, Chronica Monasterii S. Albani: Thomae Walsingham, Quondam Monachi S. Albani, Historia Anglicana, ed. by H. T. Riley, London Rolls Series, 2 vols (London: Longman, 1872)

————, ‘The Confession of John Straw’, in The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, ed. by R. B. Dobson (London: MacMillan, 1970), pp. 365–6

‘Wat Tyler’, The Republican, 29 March 1817, 65–80

‘Wat Tyler’, The Weekly Entertainer, 19 May 1817, 390–91

Zook, M., ‘Turncoats and Double Agents in Restoration and Revolutionary England: The Case of Robert Ferguson, the Plotter’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 42: 3 (2009), 363–78


The Last Dying Speech and Confession of Jack Straw

In 1381, one of the most important events in English medieval history occurred: the Peasants’ Revolt. Under the leadership of a former soldier, Wat Tyler (d. 1381), a radical priest, John Ball (d. 1381), and Jack Straw (d. 1381), approximately 50,000 Englishmen descended on the capital to vent their grievances to King Richard II (although the event has been called ‘the Peasants’ Revolt’ by historians in the nineteenth century, the rebel crowd was actually composed of people from a variety of social classes). The most immediate cause of their anger was the imposition of a Poll Tax the previous year. This had been the third such tax enacted in recent years, with the government having demanded money in 1377 and 1379 as well. The rebels also demanded the abolition of serfdom, and the right to buy and sell in the market place. Their social and economic grievances were further fired by John Ball’s radical egalitarian ideology which proposed bringing all land under common ownership. His views are famously encapsulated in the record of a speech which he gave to the rebels at Blackheath:

When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men were created equal by nature, and that servitude had been introduced by the unjust and evil oppression of men, against the will of God, who, if it had pleased Him to create serfs, surely in the beginning of the world would have appointed who should be a serf and who a lord.

Ball then finished with the recommendation that the people,

uproot the tares that are accustomed to destroy the grain; first killing the great lords of the realm, then slaying the lawyers, justices and jurors, and finally rooting out everyone whom they knew to be harmful to the community in future.[i]

Some of the above must be taken with a pinch of salt, particularly John Ball’s recommendation that all lawyers must be slain, for they were recorded by a chronicler named Thomas Walsingham who aimed to paint the actions of the rebels in as negative a light as he possibly could.

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Although royal charters had been granted which satisfied the rebels’ demands, Wat Tyler was brutally killed by the Lord Mayor of London, William Walworth. The additional rebel ring leaders such as Ball and Straw were then rounded up and suffered one of the most brutal sentences of the age: they were hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Unusually for common rebel leaders from this period, we have an account of the last dying speech and confession that Jack Straw allegedly made shortly before his execution because it is recorded by Walsingham. I say that he allegedly made the confession, however, for the noted historian of the Peasants’ Revolt, R. B. Dobson, says that it occurs at a point in Walsingham’s narrative in which ‘he gladly relieves himself of facts and gives free rein to his powerful imagination’.[ii] Yet still, Dobson acknowledges that Straw’s alleged confession cannot have been a mere figment of Walsingham’s imagination and must have had a grain of truth to it.[iii]

Let us take a look at the portrayal of Jack Straw’s final moments as Walsingham records them:

How the insurgents planned to destroy the realm is proved by the confession of Jack Straw, the most important of their leaders after Walter Tylere. After Straw had been captured and sentenced to execution in London by the mayor, the latter spoke to him publicly: “Behold, John! You are certain to die soon and have no hope of saving your life […] tell us in all honesty what plans you rebels pursued and why you stirred up the crowd of the commons.[iv]

Straw then proceeds to say

It no longer serves me to lie, nor is it proper to speak falsehoods, especially as I know that my soul would be subjected to harsher torments if I did so. Moreover, I hope for two advantages in speaking the truth: first because what I say may profit the country; and also because, according to your promises, I will have the help of your prayers after my death. So I will speak without any attempt to deceive. At the time we were assembled at “le Blakehethe” in order to arrange to meet the king, our plan was to kill all the knights, esquires, and other gentlemen who came with him. Then we would have taken the king with us from place to place in full sight of all; so that when everybody, and especially the common people, saw him, they would willingly have joined us and our band […] then we would have killed the king and driven out of the land all possessioners, bishops, monks, canons, and rectors of churches […] We would have created kings, Walter Tyler in Kent and one each in other counties, and appointed them […we would have] set fire to four parts of the city and [burnt] it down and divided all the precious goods found there amongst ourselves.[v]

After this short speech, Straw was executed and his head was placed on top of London Bridge alongside that of his fellow rebel leader, Wat Tyler. It is likely that the other parts of Straw’s body, as well as Tyler and Ball’s, were sent to be displayed in public spaces in other cities, although none of the accounts of the revolt tell us where.

This type of ‘spectacular justice’, in which criminals underwent an excruciating death, might at first glance seem to simply be a sign of a strong state crushing its opposition. Yet as Katherine Royer points out, if governments had to use this form of ‘spectacular justice’ frequently, which the government of Richard II had to do after the rebellion, it actually shows just how weak the state was.[vi] Thus, ‘the history of the dismembered and displayed body of a traitor bears little resemblance to the long-told story of a late-medieval state’s march to a monopoly of violence’.[vii]

Straw’s alleged last dying speech is interesting, furthermore, because it shows how just how important the actual speech of a dying person is becoming at this point. This is because, as Royer argues elsewhere, in the early medieval period, death was imagined as a long, drawn out process: a human was not properly dead until their body had completely decayed. But with the emergence of the doctrine of purgatory in in the 12th century, death increasingly became conceived of as a discrete event. Thus, what a criminal said in his last moments mattered more and more.[viii]

In his confession, Straw makes a ‘bargain’ with the authorities: prayers will be said on behalf of his immortal soul if he, in his final moments, recognises the authority of the state. If he dies resistant to authority, then prayers will not be said for the safety of his soul after death. Thus Straw has nothing to lose: he may as well as submit to kingly authority and ensure the safety of his soul in the hereafter.

Jack Straw’s story was adopted by later authors who wrote about the Peasants’ Revolt. Jack Straw appears as the principal protagonist in a play entitled The Life and Death of Iacke Strawe (1593). In this narrative, Straw and Wat Tyler have swapped places, for the former is the leader of the revolt, while the latter is consigned to a minor role in the rebellion. As such, Straw’s last dying speech is not dramatized as he is killed at Smithfield by William Walworth. The rebels’ aims are the same, however, as those intimated in Straw’s final confession above: to kill the king and the nobleman; to kill all bishops and lawyers; and to divide the land between themselves in the name of ‘communalitie’ (an almost proto-communist) ideology.

A slightly altered version of Jack Straw’s last dying speech appeared a few centuries later in a little-known criminal biography entitled The History of All the Mobs, Tumults, Insurrections in Great Britain (1716):

When we were assembled, says he, upon Black Heath, and had sent for the king to come to us, our purpose was to have slain all knights and gentlemen that he should have about him; and as for the king, we would have kept him among us, to the end the people might more boldly have repaired to us, and when we had gotten power enough, we would have slain all noblemen, especially the Knights of the Rhodes, and lastly would have kill’d the king and all men of possessions, with bishops, monks, parsons of churches […] then we would have deivs’d laws according to which the people should have liv’d, for which we would have created kings; as Wat Tyler in Kent, and other in other counties: and the same night that Wat Tyler was kill’d, we intended to have set fire to the city in four corners and to have divided the spoil amongst us. And this was our purpose as God may help me now at my last end.[ix]

When The History of all the Mobs appeared, the last dying speeches of criminals were printed en masse to be read as entertainment at public executions, and these speeches were often incorporated into compendiums of criminals’ lives such as The Newgate Calender (1784). The eighteenth century was also a period in which, as Dorothy George says, ‘King Mob might at any point resume his reign after the briefest insurrection’.[x] That is to say that the plebeian classes during the eighteenth century regularly expressed their dissatisfaction with the government’s policies through rioting. The spark for the riot could be quite small, and a series of riots in the 1740s began because the government slightly increased the duty on gin, thereby making it more expensive. With the purpose of criminal biography being primarily moralistic, what the anonymous author of The History of All the Mobs is doing is going back through the lives of every rebel leader throughout history, showing how they came to an untimely end, and through that warning people not to make the same mistakes, as it says in the preface that,

In all our histories of Great Britain and Ireland, we meet with nothing more frequent than mobs and insurrections, which tho’ they have terminated always in the destruction of the ringleaders and principal abettors, yet we shall find that the madness of the people has fatally spread itself from one age to another, and is become even at this day no less dangerous and infectious than it was at the very beginning. Upon this account this short history is attempted, that it may be a standing caution to the common people, for whose use it is chiefly intended.[xi]

Jack Straw appears as a turncoat in Mrs. O’Neill’s The Bondman (1833), who betrays the rebels in return for a pardon from the king. And as was the case with most historical rebels, Jack Straw was honoured (?) with a penny dreadful devoted entirely to himself entitled The Sword of Freedom; or, The Boyhood Days of Jack Straw (c. 1860). In this story he is a young lad who, like Robin Hood, is forced to become an outlaw. He spends his youthful days rescuing women from attempted rapes by Norman soldiers, and singlehandedly fighting off hordes of Norman soldiers. As the story only deals with his life before the insurrection, the reader is not given any information on his last dying speech here either.

[i] R. B. Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (London: Macmillan, 1970), p. 375.

[ii] Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, p. 364.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, p. 365.

[v] Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, pp. 365-66.

[vi] Katherine Royer, The English Execution Narrative, 1200-1700 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), p. 31.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Royer, The English Execution Narrative, p. 51.

[ix] The History of All the Mobs, Tumults, Insurrections in Great Britain (London: J. Moore, 1716), pp. 12-13.

[x] Dorothy George, Grub Street: Studies in a Subculture (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), p. 4.

[xi] The History of All the Mobs, pp. 2-3.

Hang’d, Drawn, and Quartered! “Spectacular Justice” during the Medieval and Early Modern Period

Katherine Royer’s new book, The English Execution Narrative, 1200-1700 (2015) analyses the meanings behind the often gruesome executions carried out in the medieval and early modern period.

Reviewed  by Stephen Basdeo

To be hanged, drawn and quartered was the usual method of execution for those accused of treason between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was one of the grimmest ways that a malefactor in the medieval and early modern period could meet his end. An illustration found in Matthew Paris’s Chronica Majora (1259) depicts a man being dragged along the ground tied to a horse. Once the offender arrived at the place of execution, he would have hanged almost to the point of death where usually he was disembowelled and had his ‘privy members’ (penis and testicles) cut off, until finally he was quartered: his head and all of his limbs would be cut off and each part of his body would be displayed throughout the kingdom. Reading about these forms of executions can be unsettling for modern readers.

Yet in a way, these criminals have lived on: their final moments have been recorded in medieval chronicles, last dying speeches, criminal biographies. I have written regularly on this site about the last dying speeches of condemned men during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but I confess I knew little about such speeches from before this era. This was until I read Katherine Royer’s The English Execution Narrative, 1200-1700 (2016), which examines narratives of public executions, in particular the last dying words of offenders about to face ‘spectacular’ or ‘exemplary justice’, during the medieval and early modern periods.

Royer currently serves as a Professor of History at California State University Stanislau, where she teaches a variety of subjects and time periods ranging from the middle ages to the nineteenth century. She has previously published on similar topics, and The English Execution Narrative is her first monograph.[i] And it is an impressive tome. For too long, scholarship on public executions and their related narratives in print have been beholden to Michel Foucault whose Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975). Foucault argues that exemplary executions in medieval and early modern Europe were part of the long march in the state’s attempts to establish a monopoly of violence. While Discipline and Punish contains some valuable insights, is now rather dated and Foucault’s findings, dealing as he does with France and Europe, are often inapplicable in parts to the British Isles which developed a wholly different legal system. For example, as Royer points in her introduction, torture was never a formal part of criminal law in England during the late medieval period, especially after 1215 with the passage of Magna Carta, when the legal process relied on a jury to convict (in theory if not always in practice) (p 4). Thus, it is refreshing to see a scholar of executions in Britain move away from Foucault.

But it is not with the legal system that Royer is concerned, but rather the final moment in a felon’s life as it is depicted in ‘narratives’. The definition of narratives is left quite broad, and in the book it is taken to mean anything ranging from the supposed last words of an offender as recorded in chronicles and pamphlets, to the display of criminals’ physical remains in towns. The first chapter challenges the idea that the display of malefactors’ body parts in towns and cities throughout the country was an attempt by the state to deter would-be criminals from committing acts of domestic order, and thereby facilitating the development of the state’s monopoly of violence (p. 16). As Royer points out, rarely did issues of domestic disorder (such as rioting or treason) influence a ruler’s decision to have a person hanged, drawn, and quartered. Most of those who were subject to the punishment in thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries were not English subjects but foreigners who had waged war against the king of England. Thus, the imposition of such a sentence had more to do with the imperialist politics of the Angevin Empire and less to do with deterrence.

The chapter that I personally found most interesting was Royer’s second chapter entitled ‘The Case of the Missing Blood’. The descriptions of executions in various contemporary narratives are often horrific. Yet, as Royer points out, rarely do they refer to blood or to bleeding. I confess that this is something that I had considered as being of little consequence: after all, if a person is being emasculated, disembowelled, and then hacked to pieces, the presence of blood should be implicit in every execution narrative, should it not? Royer cites a contemporary account of the execution of Hugh Despenser to begin her chapter:

His private parts were cut off … his private parts were then cast into a large fire kindled close to him; afterwards his heart was thrown into the same fire because it had been false and traitorous, since he had by his treasonable councils so advised the king, as to bring shame and mischief on the land and had caused some of the greatest lords to be beheaded … the other parts of Sir Hugh were thus disposed of, his head was cut off and sent to London (p. 33).

As we can see, blood is mentioned nowhere in this rather grim account. Royer considers other similar cases to this account, and we find indeed that Despenser’s account is typical. The reason that blood is never mentioned, Royer argues convincingly, is because blood was connected to ideas of the innocence of Christ, who, of course, had been wrongly executed. Blood humanised people, and the deliberate omission of blood from execution narratives were designed to do the opposite: to dehumanise the condemned; Christ was innocent and his blood was spilt, the felons on the chopping block were not. The subsequent display of traitors’ body parts were a further stage in this process of dehumanisation: it reduced the remains of the condemned to no better status than beasts’ carcasses, left to rot out in the open air (p. 45).

The third chapter examines the idea of death on the scaffold: why was it necessary that traitors’ body parts be exposed to the elements in public locations, if it was not about deterrence? Nowadays, death is usually depicted as a single moment: as Royer points out, today, doctors are asked to state ‘time of death’, and so forth. But in the medieval period, they had a different view of death: they lacked precision in estimating time, which was usually estimated by the position of the sun or social conventions, such as the time it took to say a prayer (p. 51). In this imprecise world, there was three stages of death: the social death, in which a traitor was cut off from the community and taken on a journey to the place of execution; physical death through torture then followed; the final stage was a spiritual death, in which the life force left the body, which could only be achieved once the carcass had completely decayed (pp. 51-2). However, politics and ideology soon changed this state of affairs: the emergence of the doctrine of purgatory meant that eventually, by the late medieval period, death became a discrete event rather than a long, drawn out process. In tandem with this were the crusades: when kings died abroad, their bodies were embalmed and divided up; after their deaths abroad kings’ souls were in purgatory, but they were physically dead (p. 53). After the idea of death as a discrete event became the norm, what began to matter more in accounts of executions was not the physical display of traitors’ remains, but their behaviour in their last dying moments. This of course paved the way for the decline of hanging, drawing and quartering in England, and the adaptation of the French amende honorable into the English last dying speech in the sixteenth century.

Traitors’ heads on display at London Bridge

A better title could have been chosen for the fourth chapter, ‘Clothes and the Construction of Identity on the Scaffold in Early Modern England’. Royer makes the point that, in contrast to medieval traitors who wore sackcloth to the scaffold, early modern traitors were allowed to wear whatever they wanted. In effect, they could shape people’s perceptions of themselves in their last dying moments. While this is very interesting, the chapter is about so much more than clothes: for an important part of post-medieval execution narratives is that condemned criminals were allowed to speak before their deaths, which permitted them to rehabilitate their characters in front of the community, which is the argument of the fourth chapter. Tudor monarchs originally allowed the condemned to speak in return for a statement of submission to the will of the king or queen. Thus, there is the execution of Ann Boleyn for treason against Henry VIII:

Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord.[ii]

However, this opened the door to defiance on the scaffold: criminals often made a last dying speech which sounded as though it conformed to the state’s requirements, but was subtly ambiguous enough as to challenge the government. For example, men like Thomas Wyatt proclaimed that they had been ‘lawfully condemned’, but they never actually admitted the crime for which they were sent to the executioners’ block. Other common terms at the scaffold were ‘the law has found me guilty’, implying that the condemned was submitting to an unjust sentence, but that they did not consider themselves guilty of the charge. Moreover, bravery was the sign of a guilt-free heart, and if a traitor showed courage in the face of death, this further subverted the state’s narrative about the guilt of the condemned (p. 77).

The concluding chapter examines a further stage in the evolution of the execution narrative: the emergence of widespread print culture in the seventeenth century and its implications upon depictions of felons’ last dying moments. As we have seen, death had by the early modern period become a final, discrete event in a felons’ life, and their behaviour on the scaffold was increasingly focused upon by writers. Writers, therefore, with the emergence of the execution broadside and biographical pamphlet, looked back over the course of a criminals’ life and endeavoured to show that their whole lives were the product of wickedness. Thus, the stage was set for the flurry of criminals’ lives that appeared during the eighteenth century.

Royer makes frequent use of the term ‘spectacular justice’, yet the meaning of this is left unclear in the main body of the text. It is defined in further detail in the notes: ‘the term spectacular justice or theatrical justice will be used to refer to an execution that was meant in some form or another to be theatrical and public’ (p. 102). There is no issue with Royer using this definition, but a reader should not have to search through the book for an endnote to find the definition of a key term used throughout.

In spite of the above, Royer’s work is a refreshing read which avoids jargon and will be of use to anyone interested in crime and execution during the medieval and early modern period.

Katherine Royer, The English Execution Narrative, 1200-1700, 2nd Edn. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 187pp. ISBN9781138664753 RRP £30.00

[i] Further publications by Royer on similar topics include the following works: “Dead Men Talking: Truth, Texts and the Scaffold in Early Modern England,” in Penal Practice and Culture 1500-1900: Punishing the English, edited by Simon Devereaux and Paul Griffiths. Basingstoke: Palgrave Press, 2004: 63-85; “The Body in Parts: Reading the Execution Ritual in Late Medieval England,” Historical Reflections, 29 (2003): 319-339.

[ii] Ann Boleyn’s Execution Speech (

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

By Stephen Basdeo

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.

Available for preorder: “The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler” (2018)

My book entitled The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (Pen & Sword, 2018) is now available to preorder on Amazon and Waterstones’s website.

Follow the Amazon link: Stephen Basdeo, The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader (2018)

The blurb on the back of the book reads:

In 1381, England was on the brink – the poor suffered the effects of war, the Black Death, and Poll Tax. At this time the brave Wat Tyler arose to lead the commoners, forming an army who set off to London to meet with King Richard II and present him with a list of grievances and demands for redress. Tyler was treacherously struck down by the Lord Mayor. His head hacked from his shoulders, pierced on a spike, and made a spectacle on London Bridge. Yet he lived on through the succeeding centuries as a radical figure, the hero of English Reformers, Revolutionaries, and Chartists. ‘The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler’ examines the eponymous hero’s literary afterlives. Unlike other medieval heroes such as King Arthur or King Alfred, whose post medieval manifestations were supposed to inspire pride in the English past, if Wat Tyler’s name was invoked by the people, the authorities had something to fear.

If you buy it, I hope you enjoy it and are likewise inspired to learn more about the hero of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.