John Ball’s Letter to the Essex Men

By Stephen Basdeo

In the summer of 1381, the people of England had had enough: disease, war, and low harvests had caused great discontent throughout the land. The Statute of Labourers (1351)—which kept wages fixed at a low price—was still in force, while the lowest class in society, the serfs, were the virtual slaves of the lord, forced to work the land for little-to-nothing beyond what was needed for their subsistence.

To add insult to injury, the government had imposed 3 successive poll taxes in 1377, 1379, and 1380.

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

The Church might have preached deference to one’s betters, and for the lower orders to accept their lot in life, but some preachers like John Ball had a different view. John Ball was a radical preacher who went from town to town preaching a doctrine of equality, epitomised by his famous lines:

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

Conditions were ripe for an uprising of the people against their tyrannical overlords. And the first outbreak was at a village called Fobbing in Essex in May 1381, when the people there refused to pay the poll tax, having insisted that they had already paid it. The tax collectors were outnumbered and chased out of the village.

In fairness to the tax collectors, the villagers probably had not paid the tax already, for we know that there was a lot of tax evasion in the fourteenth century.

In any case, news of the revolt spread like wildfire, and soon the men of Kent and Essex rose with one accord to demand the abolition of the poll tax, the end of serfdom, and the freedom for all men to buy and sell in the marketplace (which serfs could not do).

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The Death of Simon Sudbury (c) Stephen Basdeo

At the initial outbreak of the rebellion in May, Ball was locked away inside Maidstone Castle, his radical message having gotten him in trouble with the authorities. It was probably while there that he wrote the following letter—listed as ‘a pastoral exhortation and sermon’ by scholars and preserved on a manuscript in the British Library—intended to be delivered to the Essex men.[i]

The letter is produced here in modern English (transcription completed by myself):

The Letter Sent by John Ball to the Commons of Essex

John Sheppard, some time priest of Saint Mary’s in York, and now of Colchester, greets well John the Nameless, John the Miller, John the Carter and bids them to be wary of treachery in the borough, and stand together in God’s name, and bids Piers Ploughman to go to his work, and chastise well Hobb the Robber, and take with you John Trewman and all of his comrades, and obey only one leader.

John the Miller has been ground down to almost nothing. The king’s son of heaven shall pay for us all. But be wary or you will be sorry; know your friend from your foe; do not sin—show restraint and do not loot, for you can do better than that. Seek peace and adhere to that principle. Thus bids John Trewman and all his fellows.

Ball first introduces himself under the alias of John Sheppard. As he went from town to town, preaching a subversive message of equality in defiance of the authorities (for which he had been locked up more than once), the need for such aliases becomes apparent. Perhaps it was as John Sheppard that the men of Essex knew him.

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The Death of Wat Tyler

He then mentions three people: John the Nameless, John the Carter, John the Miller. These did not refer to any particular person but to certain types: John the Nameless could refer to, perhaps, the lowest of the low, the serfs. Yet the 1381 rebellion was not simply a mob of discontented serfs, for respected village folks were aggrieved at having to pay another poll tax, and this is why the miller and the carter, two important village trades in the fourteenth century, are also mentioned. This is an inclusive social protest that has grown out of annoyance with the poll tax, cutting across all class distinctions. They need to show solidarity with each other in God’s name.

Curiously, Ball then proceeds to reference Piers the Ploughman of Langland’s famous 1377 poem. Piers Plowman was an allegorical poem in which a dreamer surveys medieval life, the follies of its higher and lower classes (the poem is also noteworthy for containing the first literary reference to Robin Hood). The figure of the ploughman was said to be representative of the most virtuous class of medieval society, while the other figure which Langland mentions in his poem, Hob the Robber, was the antithesis of the virtuous Christian worker. And it was very convenient that one of the architects of the poll tax was named Robert Hales and was easily elided with a ‘robber’. So Ball was using contemporary popular culture to make a political point and criticize the establishment.

Ball exhorts the commons of Essex to ‘take with you John Trewman and all of his comrades, and obey only one leader’. John was one of the most common names in medieval England, and John Trewman is another ‘everyman’ type of the lower orders who, in Ball’s words, should be ‘taken’, that is that they should be recruited to the cause. The rebels should organise—recruit everyone they possibly can for their cause but importantly they should be organised under one leader.

Then we come to the main part of the letter beginning with the words ‘John the Miller has been ground down to almost nothing’. In the original Middle English, the words are as follows:

Johan the Mullere hath ygrounde smal, smal, smal;

The Kynges sone of hevene schal paye for al.

That is to say, taxes have so reduced the circumstances of the common people, typified by men such as John the Miller, that they have almost nothing left. The people are right to be angry.

Yet they must be wary: they will have many foes who will seek to undermine and demoralize them. They should therefore engage, as far as possible, in peaceful protest. They should not loot anyone’s properties. If the rebels follow Ball’s guidelines, then all should go well.

Ultimately, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was a violent clash between the ruling class and the lower class. The rebels killed the Chancellor, Simon Sudbury, as well as Robert Hales, while the rebel leader Wat Tyler was killed at Smithfield, and Jack Straw and John Ball were later put through an excruciating death for their role as ringleaders of the revolt.


[i] Royal MS 13.E.ix fol.287r.

Further Reading: James M. Dean, ed. Medieval English Political Writings (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996); R. B. Dobson, ed. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (London: MacMillan, 1970); Stephen Basdeo, The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018).

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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!

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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]

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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]

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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.

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Riley’s publication of Walsingham’s Chronicles

Notes

[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.

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.

800px-william-morris-john-ball
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).


References

[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 <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/theme/95571> 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.

“The Bondman” (1833): Wat Tyler, Medievalism, and the Great Reform Act of 1832

In the course of my research for my book The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler, due to be published by Pen & Sword in 2018, I came across a now little-known novel written by a Mrs. O’Neill (I have been unable to find out her full name) entitled The Bondman: A Historical Narrative of the Times of Wat Tyler (1833). O’Neill’s text is the first time that the story of Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 received its ‘big break’ in the historical novel. Now, during the nineteenth century, novelists would often appropriate the medieval past to comment upon contemporary social, political, and economic issues. Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), about which I have written a lot on this site, was written as a response to the parlous, divided state of England at the time. As I was reading The Bondman, I realised that in the novel there are echoes of the political agitation that occurred in the lead up to the passage of the Reform Act of 1832.

During the early nineteenth century, by and large, neither the working nor the middle classes had the vote. The franchise was restricted to those who owned over 40 shillings of freehold property. Electoral constituencies were not equally sized, and many were not fit for purpose. Some constituencies, the ‘rotten boroughs’, such as Old Sarum in Wiltshire (which was a mere field in 1832), returned two MPs to Parliament. Yet new towns such as Leeds and Manchester had no representation in Westminster. The system needed changing, and after the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), reform-minded members of the middle and working classes came together to secure representation in Parliament. Mass meetings were held throughout the country, but it was only in 1832 that the Whigs passed the ‘Great’ Reform Act, which widened the franchise by lowering the property qualification to £10. This went some way to addressing the demands of the reformers, but it still excluded many members of the working classes from voting. From that point on, the middle classes, who had been allies with the lower classes previously, now abandoned all further actions towards reform (the working-class Chartist movement would be founded six years later).[i]

So how does The Bondman reflect the events of 1832?

Firstly, perhaps a précis of the plot is in order. The narrative revolves around the life of a serf named Stephen Holgrave, who lives on Baron Sudbury’s estate in the South of England. He is set free from bondage after having saved his master Sudbury’s life on campaign in the Hundred Years’ War. Now a free man, he goes off to marry his sweetheart. Yet he falls victim to the schemes of Thomas Calverley, the Baron’s sergeant-at-arms, who is secretly in love with Holgrave’s life. Accused by Calverley of poaching in the Royal forest, Holgrave must submit to becoming a bondman again. From that day forward he experiences a radical awakening. He begins to resent the upper classes, a resentment fuelled by the preaching of his brother-in-law, John Ball (a historical figure and one of the key men in the Revolt of 1381), as well as by the revolutionary ideas of the local village blacksmith, Wat Tyler. Soon the revolt breaks out, and Holgrave joins with Tyler, Ball, and Jack Straw.

Bondman 1
Joan of Kent, the Queen Mother. Frontispiece to The Bondman (1837 edn.). Personal Collection.

Essentially, the novel is the story of the growth of a labouring class consciousness, and the language of class is prominent throughout the novel. Having resubmitted to bondage, Stephen asks himself,

Can it be that the lord of the castle and I are sons of the same heavenly father?[ii]

In one of his speeches given to a crowd of peasants, John Ball speaks of bondmen as being,

The labouring class.[iii]

When the Poll Tax of 1381 is initiated by Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury (who also has a personal rivalry with John Ball), opposition to the tax creates discontent, nnot simply among the peasants, but amongst merchants, skilled workers, and professional people. What emerges in the novel is

A coalition of the lower classes.[iv]

This ‘coalition of the lower classes’ mirrors the alliance of the working and middle classes seen prior to the passage of the Reform Act. Reflecting the strikes and the political agitation seen in the lead up to the passage of the Act in 1832, O’Neill’s novel speaks of how there was,

In many places a total suspension of labour.[v]

In the novel, the rebels have a very specific set of demands which are in keeping with the historical rebels’ demands, such as the abolition of serfdom, the right to freely buy and sell in the marketplace, as well as a general pardon for all offences committed during the rebellion. But in O’Neill’s novel, added on to this list of demands, is the general enfranchisement of serfs and freemen.[vi]

At the end of the novel, Tyler and Ball die, but Holgrave survives and must go back to serving his Lord. But the Baron of Sudbury soon realises, through twists and turns in the plot which are unnecessary to repeat here, that Holgrave was falsely accused of the crime. the Baron immediately restores Holgrave to freedom, and in a show of good faith, he releases all of his other serfs from bondage as well, because it is, in the Baron’s opinion, much better to be served by freemen. Of course, O’Neill points out that it is only some people in medieval England who get emancipated, while the rest carry on as before. Holgrave, instead of adhering to Tyler and Ball’s revolutionary principles throughout his life instead settles down to family life and thinks no more about his fellow bondmen in England. Such scenes mirror the ‘Great Betrayal’ of the working classes by the middle classes after 1832.

In addition, Kathryn Gleadle points out in Borderline Citizens: Women, Gender and Political Culture in Britain, 1815-1867 (2009), the role of women and the events of 1832 are not well-researched.[vii] The novel is also interesting because it illustrates how one woman, at least, in an era when women could not vote, was engaging in politics (some wealthy women could vote in elections in some instances prior to 1832, but it was rare, and this right was taken away from them after the passage of the Act). Unfortunately, I have been unable to find out any further information about Mrs. O’Neill. She was definitely an educated woman, for footnotes appear throughout the novel referencing primary sources such as Froissart’s Chronicles. Of what social class she was I do not know, but it is evident that her sympathies lay with the rebels of 1381, for she calls Wat Tyler ‘the Worthy’.


Notes

[i] See the following works on the Great Reform Act of 1832: Edward Pearce, Reform! The Fight for the 1832 Reform Act (London: Random House, 2003); Eric J. Evans, The Great Reform Act of 1832 2nd Edn. (London: Routledge, 1992).

[ii] Mrs. O’Neill, The Bondman: A Historical Narrative of the Times of Wat Tyler (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1833; repr. 1837), p. 139.

[iii] O’Neill, The Bondman, p. 250.

[iv] O’Neill, The Bondman, p. 244.

[v] O’Neill, The Bondman, p. 259.

[vi] O’Neill, The Bondman, pp. 263-265.

[vii] Kathryn Gleadle, Borderline Citizens: Women, Gender and Political Culture in Britain, 1815-1867 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)