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.
I am currently working on two projects: my PhD thesis examining post-medieval representations of Robin Hood, and my forthcoming book examining the post-medieval cultural history of Wat Tyler, the leader of the so-called Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The two projects are admittedly similar – they both deal with primitive medieval rebels. Yet there is no great degree of overlap between the two figures because both men lived ages apart: Robin Hood (supposedly) flourished in the 1190s, while Wat Tyler died in 1381 at the hands of the treacherous William Walworth. But I finally found one text in which I could, albeit briefly, see the stories of Robin Hood and Wat Tyler united: William Morris’ A Dream of John Ball (1886).
According to his entry in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Morris (1834-1896) was ‘a designer, author, and visionary socialist’.[i] From an early age he loved reading tales of medieval times, devouring the works of earlier nineteenth-century writers such as Walter Scott (1771-1832). When he grew up he was involved with the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of painters who were heavily influenced by the medieval period. By the late 1870s and 1880s, Morris was increasingly attracted to the cause of social justice: in 1883 he joined the Democratic Federation (soon to be renamed as The Social Democratic Federation), and began reading Karl Marx’s Das Capital (1867). A number of socialist writings followed. Still retaining his love of the medieval period which had developed in his youth, Morris looked to the medieval period to find prototypical socialist ideas.
Thus it is with A Dream of John Ball. It was originally serialised in a magazine called The Commonweal, and depicts a time traveller travelling back to the fourteenth century and meeting John Ball. Ball, or Balle, was a radical priest who lived during the fourteenth century and is famous for having the following phrase attributed to him:
Whan Adam dalf, and Eve span, Wo was thanne a gentilman?[ii]
(When Adam delved, and Eve span, who then was the Gentleman?)
That was quite a powerful statement for the medieval period, in which it was taken as a given that the lords were superior to commoners.
Before the time traveller goes to hear Ball speak, however, he is conducted by one of the villagers to a tavern, and tells the men assembled there a story. After he is finished, attention turns to another villager whose friends request to
Hearken [to] a stave of Robin Hood; maybe that shall hasten the coming of one I wot of.[iii]
I think it is the spirit of Joseph Ritson’s radical and republican interpretation that Morris is trying to resurrect here. The song of Robin Hood that the villager sings to the time traveller is a described in the following manner:
My heart rose high as I heard him, for it was concerning the struggle against tyranny for the freedom of life, how that the wildwood and the heath, despite of wind and weather, were better for a free man than the court and the cheaping-town.[iv]
The statement that Robin’s career as an outlaw is a ‘struggle against tyranny’ is reminiscent of Ritson’s sentiments in Robin Hood:
Robin Hood: a man who, in a barbarous age and under a complicated tyranny, displayed a spirit of freedom and independence, which has endeared him to the common people, whose cause he maintained, (for all opposition to tyranny is the cause of the people,) and, in spite of the malicious endeavours of pitiful monks, by whom history was consecrated to the crimes and follies of titled ruffians and sainted idiots, to suppress all record of his patriotic exertions and virtuous acts, will render his name immortal.[v]
Morris was less bombastic than the vehement republican Ritson, but the idea of freedom against tyranny is strong in his depiction of a Robin Hood ballad performance.
After the ballad of Robin Hood has finished, all of the men in the tavern congregate in the centre of the village. John Ball has been rescued and is due to give a sermon on the steps of the Church. The time traveller’s companion, Will, turns to him and says:
Was it not sooth that I said, brother, that Robin Hood should bring us John Ball?[vi]
Robin Hood has prepared the way, both literally (in that the man was singing a song of Robin Hood before he arrived), and figuratively: Robin was one of the first steps in the fight to freedom. After him comes John Ball, preaching egalitarianism and telling people that they need no master. But as the time traveller will later reveal to Ball in conversation, the work is not yet done: powerful Victorian industrialists will rise to take the place of the cruel medieval nobles.
While Robin had been appropriated by radicals on several occasions, he has always been an awkward figure for socialists. One might be tempted to argue that the famous notion of him stealing from the rich to give to the poor is an example of socialist redistribution of wealth and resources, but this is far from the case because Robin has never had any ideology underpinning his actions. Still, Morris’ very brief appropriation of Robin is the heir of Robert Southey, Ritson, Thomas Miller, Pierce Egan, and the anonymous Little John and Will Scarlet (1865), but it also anticipates Geoffrey Trease’s left-wing portrayal of the Robin Hood legend in Bows Against the Barons (1934).
[i] Fiona MacCarthy, ‘Morris, William (1834–1896)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn. 2009) [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/19322 Accessed 4 Dec 2016]. There are a number of biographical and critical works onn Morris available: Fiona McCarthy, William Morris: A Life for Our Time (London: Faber, 2015); Charles Harvey & John Press, William Morris: Design and Enterprise in Victorian Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991); Norman Kelvin, ed. William Morris on Art and Socialism (New York: Dover, 1999).
[ii] ‘John Ball’s Sermon Theme (Walsingham, Historia Anglicana)’ in Medieval English Political Writings ed. by James M. Dean (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996), p.140.
[iii] William Morris, A Dream of John Ball (London: Kelmscott, 1892; repr. London: W. Jonson [n.d.]), p.15.
[All images unless otherwise stated are my own, scanned from a first edition of Reynolds’ Mysteries that is in my own collection – permission to use is freely granted providing there is a citation or link to this blog]
George William MacArthur Reynolds’ long-running serial novel, The Mysteries of London (1844-45), was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era. It was full of sex, featuring characters such as the debauched aristocrat who keeps four beautiful women at his beck and call to service his every need. There is a lot of violence which is often gratuitous, as well as healthy doses of radical political sentiments. Reynolds (1814-1879) was a radical who espoused many political causes, the principal ones being Republicanism and Chartism. The sex, violence, and political radicalism of this novel and of Reynolds’ other novels moved Charles Dickens (1812-1870) to exclaim that Reynolds’ name was
A name with which no lady’s, and no gentleman’s, should be associated.
This post discusses the principal criminal character in The Mysteries of London, the Resurrection Man. While the Resurrection Man, or Anthony Tidkins as he is also known, is a menace to the good and virtuous (if slightly naïve) hero, Richard Markham, Reynolds simultaneously argues that we should not condemn this criminal character outright.
To begin, however, let us briefly discuss what a Resurrection Man was. The medical profession during the eighteenth century needed bodies to dissect and study. In London, the profession received a steady supply of bodies from the many criminals hanged at Tyburn. However, at the same time that the medical profession was expanding, juries were becoming more lenient and, to put it bluntly, there were not enough people being hanged. Still, the doctors managed to somehow get enough fresh cadavers to operate upon, often asking no awkward questions of the shady characters they had to do business with. Issues came to a head when it was revealed that Burke and Hare, two notorious Body Snatchers from Edinburgh in the 1820s, had not only been digging up graves but also murdering people to sell on to the surgeons. By the time Reynolds was writing The Mysteries of London the Anatomy Act had been passed which had at least gone some way to regulating the supply of cadavers for the medical profession – Doctors could now legally have access to the bodies of deceased people provided there was no existing relatives. The Resurrection Man does not simply dig up corpses, however: his exploits comprise a wide range of criminal activities: extortion, blackmail, highway robbery, burglary, and murder.
Yet the blame for the Resurrection Man’s course of life is attributed to Victorian society. Reynolds humanises him by giving his working- and middle-class readers the Resurrectionist’s backstory.
“I was born thirty-eight years ago, near the village of Walmer, in Kent. My father and mother occupied a small cottage – or rather hovel, made of the wreck of a ship, upon the sea-coast. Their ostensible employment was that of fishing: but it would appear that smuggling … formed a portion of my father’s avocations. The rich inhabitants of Walmer and Deal encouraged him in his contraband pursuits … and in consequence of the frequent visits they paid our cottage, they took a sort of liking to me.”
Okay, so his father was a bit dodgy, and he used to supply the local villages with illegal cut-price luxuries. But neither the father nor young Tidkins are wicked to the core. They are generally good people.
But one morning the Resurrection Man’s father is arrested for smuggling, and the local villagers then become confirmed hypocrites:
“The whole neighbourhood expressed their surprise that a man who appeared to be so respectable, should turn out such a villain. The gentlemen who used to buy brandy of him talked loudly of the necessity of making an example of him: the ladies, who were accustomed to purchase gloves, silks, and eau-de-cologne wondered that such a desperate ruffian should have allowed them to sleep safe in their bed; and of course the clergyman and his wife kicked me ignominiously out of door”.
While his father is in prison, the Resurrection Man and his mother are reduced to a state of dire poverty and the villagers, supposed Christian people, refuse to render them any assistance. The young soon-to-be criminal witnesses the local Parson preach charity and philanthropy from the pulpit.
The father is acquitted for want of evidence but the goodwill that Tidkins’ family enjoyed from the other villagers is never revived. Despite the hypocrisy he has witnessed, young Tidkins strives to grow up honest and respectable by finding himself a job. Yet he is met with more callous treatment at the hands of the villagers:
“I was not totally disheartened. I determined to call upon some of those ladies and gentlemen who had been my father’s best customers for his contraband articles. One lady upon hearing my business, seized hold of the poker with one hand and her salts-bottle with the other ;- a second was also nearly fainting, and rang the bell for her maid to bring her some eau-de-cologne – the very eau-de–cologne which my father had smuggled for her ;- a third begged me with tears in her eyes to retire, or my very suspicious appearance would frighten her lap-dog into fits ;- and a fourth (an old lady, who was my father’s best customer for French brandy), held up her hands to heaven, and implored the Lord to protect her from all sabbath-breakers, profane swearers, and drunkards”.
From this point forward the young Tidkins realises that he can no longer maintain an honest livelihood even if he wanted to. But still he is not wicked. He becomes a Resurrection Man with his father and carries on the dubious trade for some time. Yet still there is the prospect of redemption for Tidkins. In the course of his duties as a Resurrectionist, he becomes acquainted with a certain medical doctor and his daughter. Tidkins and the daughter fall in love, and it looks as if he is ready to try and turn from his dishonest profession. However, further ill luck befalls the now adolescent Tidkins:
“One morning I was roving amidst the fields, when I heard a loud voice exclaim,- ‘I say, you fellow there, open the gate, will you?’ I turned round, and recognised the baronet on horseback. He had a large hunting whip in his hand.- ‘Open the gate!’ said I; ‘and whom for?’ ‘Whom for!’ repeated the baronet; ‘why, for me, to be sure, fellow.-‘ ‘Then open it yourself.’ said I. The baronet was near enough to me to reach me with his whip; and he dealt me a stinging blow across the face. Maddened with pain, and soured with vexation, I leapt over the gate and attacked the baronet with a stout ash stick which I carried in my hand. I dragged him from his horse, and thrashed him without mercy. When I was tired, I walked quietly away, he roaring after me that he would be revenged upon me as sure as I was born”.
Unlike what the television period dramas of men such as Julian Fellowes would have you believe, the Victorian and Edwardian eras were not peopled with friendly and benevolent aristocrats. A lot of the time they were exploitative, framing laws in their own interests, resisting any demands for political reform, and treated the working poor with utter contempt. Tidkins is committed to gaol for two years and it is here that his heart becomes truly hardened:
“I could not see any advantage in being good … I swore within myself that whenever I did commence a course of crime, I would be an unsparing demon at my work”.
He is eventually released, and after the manner of the time, there is no probationary service and he is simply left to fend for himself without a crust.
That day came. I was turned adrift, as before, without a shilling and without a crust … How could I remain honest, even if I had any longer been inclined to do so, when I could not get work and had no money – no bread – no lodging? The legislature does not think of all this. It fancies that all its duty consists in punishing men for crimes, and never dreams of adopting measures to prevent them from committing crimes at all. But I now no more thought of honesty: I went out of prison a confirmed ruffian. I had no money – no conscience – no fear – no hope – no love – no friendship – no sympathy – no kindly feeling of any sort. My soul had turned to the blackness of hell!
He resolves to get revenge upon the Justice who sentenced him to goal. He breaks into the Justice’s house and helps himself to the food in his pantry. He also carries off with him a significant quantity of silver plate. As he is making his way out of the Justice’s estate, he spies a barn and resolves to set it alight:
“A bright column of flame was shooting up to heaven! Oh I how happy did I feel at that moment. Happy! this is not the word! I was mad – intoxicated – delirious with joy. I literally danced as I saw the barn burning”.
Tidkins’ glee is raised to new heights the day after when he reads in the newspaper that the fire in the Barn spilled over into the main house, and the Justice’s daughter is burned alive! He next puts the Baronet’s estate to the flame:
“Not many hours elapsed before I set fire to the largest barn upon the baronet’s estate. I waited in the neighbourhood and glutted myself with a view of the conflagration. The damage was immense.
Although both the Justice and the Baronet suspect Tidkins of setting their property alight, they cannot prove it and although he is re-arrested he is released due to lack of evidence.
“And the upper classes wonder that there are so many incendiary fires: my only surprise is, that there are so few! Ah! the Lucifer-match is a fearful weapon in the hands of the man whom the laws, the aristocracy, and the present state of society have ground down to the very dust”.
Make no mistake: Reynolds does not ask us to sympathise with Tidkins – he is, after all, a wicked man. Rather, we are supposed to understand what led him to commit crimes in the first place.
Society has made him the way he is: the Resurrection Man was from the working classes, and the cards were stacked against him since birth. He had no choice but to turn to crime. This was a feature of what Gertrude Himmelfarb calls Reynolds’ nihilistic political radicalism: he often highlighted the plight of the working classes and the need for their enfranchisement, but as Himmelfarb says, if one examines Reynolds’ Mysteries, the only social message to be drawn from it is that:
Violence and depravity, licentiousness and criminality, were the only forms of existence, and potentially the only means of redemption, available to the poor.
The root cause of criminality, as Reynolds argues, is the social and political oppression of the working poor. As the Resurrection Man says:
Let a rich man accuse a poor man before a justice, a jury, or a judge, and see how quick the poor wretch is condemned! The aristocracy hold the lower classes in horror and abhorrence. The legislature thinks that if it does not make the most grinding laws to keep down the poor, the poor will rise up and commit the most unheard-of atrocities. In fact the rich are prepared to believe any infamy which is imputed to the poor.
Other questions of society are also raised in Reynolds’ novel, such as how to properly treat prisoners. Turning them out into the street with minimal support will only increase recidivism rates and harden them further. Thus, Reynolds’ depiction of the Resurrection Man’s history anticipates Emile Durkeim’s statement that ‘society gets the criminals it deserves’.
 Charles Dickens, The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens ed. by Madeline House and Graham Storey 12 Vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981), 5: 604.
 G. W. M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London 2 Vols. (London: G. Vickers, 1845), 1: 191.
The first Robin Hood novel to be published was the anonymous Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time (1819). A few months after this Walter Scott published his enormously influential Ivanhoe(1819). Yet these were not the first Robin Hood stories written: in the vaults of the Bodleian Library, Oxford there exists in manuscript form the first Robin Hood novel: Robert Southey’s Harold, or, the Castle of Morford (1791).
Southey (1774-1843) was born in Bristol to a middle-class family of linen drapers. At an early age his mother sent him to live with his aunt, and it is under the guidance of his aunt that his love of literature was encouraged. When the French Revolution broke out, Southey, like many contemporary Romantic-era poets, found himself in agreement with the principles of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791). Unfortunately, Southey abandoned his revolutionary principles in later life, and then became an ardent opponent of parliamentary reform in the early nineteenth century when he was appointed as Poet Laureate to George IV.
Southey wrote the novel in three weeks, from 13 July to 6 August 1791. The young Robert Southey was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution. And the novel, like his other work, Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem (1794), displays all of the young Southey’s revolutionary fervour. The two main protagonists of the novel are Robin Hood and King Richard II.
In the novel Richard is a reforming King committed to cleaning up Britain’s corrupt political establishment. Richard is also an atheist, evident when he exclaims:
I wish that Villain Constantine was now living. I would proclaim a Crusade against him!’
It is doubtful that Richard I would ever have uttered such sentiments. But the young Southey, as Raimond highlights, never cared a fig for historical authenticity.
There are clearly Gothic influences at play in the novel. Southey admitted that he was inspired to write it after having read Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596). Spenser’s influence can be seen in one of the songs that Robin sings in the novel:
Oddly, while the manuscript has been known to Robert Southey scholars almost since time immemorial, it is not referenced in any Robin Hood scholars’ works (and believe me, I have combed through their indexes and bibliographies). Even Stephen Knight, whose work upon the later Robin Hood tradition is thorough, does not seem to have been aware of the novel, although he Knight is aware of Southey’s Robin Hood poem, Robin Hood: A Fragment (1847).
The bad news at the moment is that the MS. is locked away in the Bodleian. The good news is that I have been in touch with the Director of Research at my university, Dr. Graham Roberts, and he is keen to allocate me funding in order to go and transcribe the novel and have it published.
 Geoffrey Carnall, ‘Southey, Robert (1774–1843)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn. Jan 2011) [Internet <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/26056> Accessed 18 Nov 2016]
 Jean Raimond, ‘Southey’s Early Writings and the Revolution’ The Yearbook of English Studies Vol. 19 (1989), pp.181-96 (p.183).
 Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 114, f. 180 cited in Raimond, ‘Southey’s Early Writings and the Revolution’, p.183.
 Raimond, ‘Southey’s Early Writings and the Revolution’, p.183.
 W. A. Speck, Robert Southey: Entire Man of Letters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p.183.
I have written many times about Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) on this website. It is perhaps the greatest of all Robin Hood novels. Scholars have often been puzzled, however, as to why Scott, a Tory politician, chose to give Robin the relatively humble social position of a yeomen, and effectively linked him with the local body of militia that existed in most towns. Furthermore, this went against the grain of many preceding interpretations of the Robin Hood legend which depicted the outlaw as a member of the aristocracy. One likely answer to this is the fact that Scott, an historian, was simply being faithful to medieval texts such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450) in which Robin is also named as a yeoman.
But perhaps there is another reason for this depiction of Robin Hood as a commoner hero that was connected to an event in Manchester in the same year that the novel was published.
On 16 August 1819 a great crowd of people gathered in St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester to hear the radical orator Henry Hunt speak upon the subject of political reform. This was a time when neither the middle nor the working classes had the vote. These people had other grievances such as the Corn Laws: protectionist tariffs upon imported grain which kept the price of bread artificially high. The gathering itself was peaceful. But the magistrates of the town of Manchester, fearing a riot, ordered them to disperse by having the Riot Act read out loud. In a crowd of what was between sixty and eighty thousand people, it is unsurprising that the majority of people in attendance did not hear it being read. The magistrates then ordered the local Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to disperse the crowd. The soldiers charged at the protestors and in the process killed fifteen people and wounding up to seven hundred more (although historians have debated the actual numbers). This is the description of one of the eye witnesses:
On the breaking of the crowd, the yeomanry wheeled; and dashing wherever there was an opening, they followed, pressing and wounding. Many females appeared as the crowd opened; and striplings or mere youths also were found. Their cries were piteous and heartrending; and would, one might have supposed, have disarmed any human resentment; but here, their appeals were vain.
Among the numbers of the killed and wounded were several veterans of Waterloo – men who had fought and defended their country in that famous battle just four years previously. Thus the event became christened as ‘Peterloo’.
The event horrified Scott.  There was outrage against the authorities in many sections of both the provincial and national press. And the yeomanry came in for harsh criticism. This is one poem that appeared the magazine The Free-Thinking Englishman:
He [The Magistrate] took the advice, and, to make all things sure,
Read the riot act o’er, on the step of his door;
When the Yeomanry Butchers all gallop’d away,
To do some great exploit on Saint Ethelstone’s Day.
They hack’d off the breasts of the women, and then,
They cut off the ears and the noses of men;
In every direction they slaughtered away,
‘Till drunken with blood on Saint Ethelstone’s Day. 
The Yeomanry receive a similarly bad press in another political satire entitled The Bloody Field of Peterloo:
Methinks I see the crimson flood,
And mark well the aim’d fatal blow,
The yeoman’s sabre dy’d in blood,
Reeking on far fam’d Peterloo!
Wives, mothers, children on the plain,
In one promiscuous heap, I view;
The husband, son, and father slain,
Stretch’d on the field of Peterloo!
But Yeomen’s hearts are form’d of steel,
Ardent to fields of blood they go;
Their gallant souls disdain to feel,
Whilst dealing death at Peterloo! 
Other satires such as William Hone’s important and influential The Political House that Jack Built (1819) depicted the soldiery of England as the tools of the elites’ oppression of the working man:
England was a divided society when Scott was writing in 1819. The end of the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) has brought economic depression, unemployment, and clamours for political reform.
Why, then, did Scott choose to depict Robin Hood, a people’s hero, as a yeoman at a time when the yeomanry of England were being almost universally excoriated?
Scott’s novel was a plea for national unity: he turned to the medieval period in order to find a harmonious ordering of society. In Scott’s vision of society, the feudal ordering of society in the Middle Ages was a model that could be adapted to solve social and political divisions in nineteenth-century Britain. In the words of Alice Chandler, Scott’s vision of a feudal ordering of society ran thus:
The serf should be willing to die for his master, and the master willing to die for the man he considers his sovereign.
So why do I argue that Scott specifically wants the band of outlaws in Ivanhoe to be associated with the military? (They are rarely called outlaws in the text). There is a definite hierarchical structure to their set up: Locksley is called the ‘Captain’ of the yeoman on several occasions (and rarely is Robin himself referred to as an outlaw twice in the whole novel). This Captain Locksley has underneath him several ‘Lieutenants’. They are not a motley crew of undisciplined brutes but a well-ordered militia. Furthermore, Robin Hood in Ivanhoe, or Locksley as he is called, is a man who is unwaveringly loyal to the King. He works with Richard the Lionheart to help him regain his kingdom from the machinations of Prince John and the Norman Templars. Robin the yeoman worse for the nation and for the King. He bridges social divides and effectively restores trust in a much-maligned body of soldiers.
Thus the above may be one reason why Scott chose to cast Robin as a yeoman, in defiance of what had become a convention in writing about Robin Hood where the outlaw, as we have seen, was usually being cast as an Earl at this point. He wants to reclaim the yeomen of England as servants of both the nation and the King. The important thing is that all classes and members of society must work together.
 Samuel Bamford, Passages in the Life of a Radical (London: T. Unwin, 1893), p.152.
 Simon J. White, ‘Ivanhoe, Robin Hood, and the Pentridge Rising’ Nineteenth-Century Contexts 31: 3 (2009), 209-224 (p.212).
 Anon. ‘To the Editor of the Theological and Political Comet’ The Theological Comet; or, Free-Thinking Englishman 1: 16 (1819), p.125.
 Anon. ‘The Bloody Field of Peterloo’ The Theological Comet; or, Free-Thinking Englishman 1: 11 (1819), 85-86 (p.86).
 Alice Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’ Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19: 4 (1965), 314-332 (p.324).
 Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (Edinburgh: Ballantyne, 1819; repr. Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1875), pp.125-126
I have recently been contracted by a commercial publisher to write a popular history book entitled The Mob Reformer: The Life and Legend of Wat Tyler which is due for publication in 2018.
The title is taken from that of an old play, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, or, The Mob Reformers (1750) and the idea for the book first appeared on this website in an earlier post about nineteenth-century appropriations of Wat Tyler. It struck me that every great medieval hero had their ‘mythic biography’: Stephen Knight has published three books and countless articles upon Robin Hood; Joanne Parker in England’s Darling (2007) explores post medieval representations of King Alfred; Stephanie Barczewski, and John and Caitlin Mathews have written at length upon King Arthur. Yet Wat Tyler, who was arguably England’s first notable radical leader, or so he would be called during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, did not enjoy the same critical attention that has been devoted to other medieval figures.
The ‘blurb’ which I have submitted to the publishers gives a flavour of the shape that the book is taking (please make an allowance for the sweeping generalisations – I only had max. 150 words to describe the book):
In 1381, England was on the brink – the poor suffered the effects of war, the Black Death, and a Poll Tax. At this time the brave Wat Tyler arose who led an army of commoners to London to meet with King Richard II and present him with a list of grievances and demands for redress. Yet Tyler was treacherously struck down the Lord Mayor, and his head placed upon a spike on London Bridge. Yet Wat Tyler lived on throughout the succeeding centuries as a radical figure, the hero of English Reformers, Revolutionaries, and Chartists. The Mob Reformer: The Life and Legend of 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.
It will begin by giving an account of the so-called Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. It will then examine Tyler’s appearance in the literature of the English Revolution under Oliver Cromwell (1642-1651), before moving on to the eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century radical literature. Consequently, the book will be as much a piece of Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, Victorian, and twentieth-century cultural history as much as it is a piece of medieval history.
As my doctoral research upon Robin Hood winds down, I am really looking forward to starting work on this in earnest. As well as my interest in Robin Hood and highwaymen, another of my research interests is the history of English radicalism, and this book will allow me to pursue this interest to a greater extent than I currently am able to do in my thesis upon Robin Hood.
To radical authors during the late eighteenth century, for example, Tyler became the symbol of a tough Englishman who fought for people’s rights and liberties, which is the case in Robert Southey’s Wat Tyler (1794).
In fact, Chartism shall feature prominently in the work just as Wat Tyler was important to the Chartists, appearing in several poems published in radical newspapers such as The Northern Star and Reynolds’ Miscellany.
Unlike Robin Hood who was elevated to the rank of an Earl during the seventeenth century, and who has gradually become a relatively conservative (with a small ‘c’) figure, Wat Tyler resists any attempts at gentrification. This is not to say that some authors did not try to make him a hero of the establishment: the book will also explore the attempts at de-radicalising Wat Tyler, in the process allowing me to revisit the works of one of my favourite novelists, William HarrisonAinsworth (1805-1882) and his novel Merry England, or, Nobles and Serfs (1874); G. A. Henty, the arch-imperial propagandist of the late Victorian era, similarly transforms Tyler into a hero of the establishment in A March on London (1898).
The book will also see me revisiting another research interest of mine: the study of penny bloods and penny dreadfuls. Tyler was the hero of several boys’ stories in magazines such as The Boy’s Own and The Boys of England, all of which contained lurid and violent scenes.
Finally, the book moves into the twentieth century when Tyler’s name was invoked by socialist writers and politicians against Margaret Thatcher’s government during the Miners’ Strike of 1984 and the Poll Tax Riots of 1989.
Thus, the book aims, following what Stephen Knight has done for Robin Hood in his works, to provide a history of the literary afterlives of Wat Tyler.
With the exception of Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John, or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1838-40), Robin Hood penny dreadfuls have generated very little critical attention. Usually they are not even read but merely cited. I have shown in a previous post, and in an essay for Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies (2016), (1) how Egan’s text should be read as a radical text. That particular essay has been adapted into an article which has recently been accepted by the journal English. But here I would like to draw attention to a less prominent, though no less radical Robin Hood story entitled Little John and Will Scarlet (1865). The novel was not merely an insignificant piece of trashy literature, but rather a thought-provoking story that was intended as a commentary upon nineteenth-century British society. In this post I shall show how the novel made direct references to contemporary debates regarding the extension of the vote to working-class men, and similarly highlight how the anonymous author employs radical discourse in the novel.
Radicalism in the Mid-Nineteenth Century
By the mid-Victorian period the great radical movements of the early nineteenth century had all but disappeared. Chartism had effectively failed in 1848, and while a few attempts were made to revive the movement after this date, it is clear that many previous radicals lent their support to reform movements which advocated a series of more gradual reforms in British politics:
The campaign for ‘the Charter and something more’ ended with the sacrifice of the [Chartists’ demands and] abandoned in favour of ‘respectable’ and rational gradualism, moderation, and expediency.(2)
Yet demands for working-class suffrage did not disappear after the failure of Chartism. Two factors contributed to the emergence of a national debate about the extension of the vote to working-class males. Firstly, the Prime Minister Lord Palmerston died in 1865. Palmerston had previously blocked any attempt at political reform. Secondly, the American Civil War made some of the elites in this country fearful that Britain would witness the resurgence of a popular radical movement.(3) Debate about the subject of working-class votes was a hot topic in the press during the mid-1860s, and it is in such a political landscape that Little John and Will Scarlet began its publication.
“Old Corruption” was a term used by radicals during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to draw attention to corruption endemic in the British political system. At its most basic, it highlighted how the propertied elites abused the law to oppress the rights and trample upon the sovereignty of the people. Yet it had practically disappeared from political discourse by the 1860s, as W. D. Rubinstein argues.(4)
Yet Little John and Will Scarlet is unusual in that it still uses the discourse of Old Corruption in its description of both twelfth- and, indirectly, nineteenth-century British society. The aristocracy are:
England in the medieval period is ‘falsely called merrie’ according to the author for ‘miserable and wretched was man’s condition’.(6) This is because the people were ruled by a corrupt aristocracy:
The aristocracy was uniformly composed of marauders, tyrants, and sycophants – the usual characteristics of aristocrats – whose occupation was pillage, murder, and the ravishment of maidens.(7)
Moreover, these members of the aristocratic classes, or the legalised banditti use every device of cruelty and wickedness to oppress the good people of England. The result is that
Under these circumstances the people of England suffered deeply for the present, and had yet more dreadful cause for fear for the future. They always in the end bore the burden, and have from time immemorial to the present day.(8)
Both the twelfth- and the nineteenth-century aristocracy are to blame for the dire poverty that the common people of England face.
It was not enough simply to whinge about the present, however, for if one wishes to effect radical change then one must also present a vision of a better society. For society to change for the better, then society must become democratic. This is why Sherwood Forest’s outlaw society is presented as one which elects its leaders: Robin must be elected by his fellow men.(9) The result of this democratic and egalitarian arrangement is that society becomes harmonious and a place in which food is plentiful. This is in stark contrast to the undemocratic system perpetuated by the Norman/nineteenth-century aristocracy. But the anonymous author goes further: he hints at a republican solution to the problems facing nineteenth-century society:
Once when Oliver Cromwell released them from despotism, they had an opportunity, but they threw it away.(10)
This seemingly innocuous Robin Hood penny dreadful is suffused with radical thought. The public debate surrounding the extension of the vote to working-class males raged on until 1867 when the administration of the Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli passed the Representation of the People Act. Little John and Will Scarlet effectively marks the end of radical portrayals of Robin Hood. Between 1880 and 1914 a number of children’s books appeared which presented a wholly conservative depiction of the famous outlaw. Attempts would be made during the 1930s to reclaim Robin Hood for radicals, notably with G. Trease’s Bows Against the Barons (1934) which is a very communist portrayal of the legend in which the outlaws call each other ‘comrade’.
(1)Stephen Basdeo, ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’ in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies, Volume 15: Imagining the Victorians ed. by Stephen Basdeo & Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016), pp.48-64.
(2) John Belchem, Popular Radicalism in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1996), p.101.
(3) Brent E. Kinser, The American Civil War in the Shaping of British Democracy (Ashgate, 2011).
(4) W. D. Rubinstein, ‘The End of Old Corruption in Britain, 1780-1860’ Past and Present, No. 101 (1983), pp.55-86.
(5) Little John and Will Scarlet (London: H. Vickers [n.d.]), p.182.
(6) Little John and Will Scarlet, p.3.
(8) Little John and Will Scarlet, p.183.
(9) Little John and Will Scarlet, pp.46-47.
(10) Little John and Will Scarlet, p.183.
Modern period dramas on television often depict the Victorian era as a time when, although there were problems, people never criticised the monarchy or the established order. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, to the extent that Parliament felt compelled to pass the Treason Felony Act in 1848 which made it a felony to “compass, imagine, invent, devise, or intend”:
To deprive the Queen of her crown.
To levy war against the Queen.
To “move or stir” any foreigner to invade the United Kingdom or any other country belonging to the Queen.
Yet while most radical journalists during the period masked their republican sentiments by criticising Old Corruption – indeed, even the Chartists did not advocate republicanism – one brave journalist was unafraid of sounding his opinions in the public arena: George William MacArthur Reynolds (1814-1879).
Reynolds was the nineteenth century’s most popular author, outselling even Dickens, and his novel The Mysteries of London (1844-45) was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era. His output of novels was certainly impressive, for he authored over thirty, and was editor of three newspapers throughout his life.
He hated the idea all of the hereditary nobilities of Europe – Queen Maria of Spain he called:
A bloated, gluttonous strumpet. 
When it was proposed to erect a statue of Prince Albert, Reynolds denounced the measure as:
One of the most nauseating, degrading, and sickening specimens of grovelling self-abasement. 
The Secretary of State for War, the Duke of Newcastle was said to have:
A mental capacity amounting almost to the idiotic. 
These attacks were not simply for sensationalism, however, for what Reynolds aimed to do was to present an alternative history of monarchy and aristocracy which in Reynolds’ view was too sycophantic and loyal.  When he published his history of England in Reynolds Newspaper, Henry VIII was:
The Royal Bluebeard. 
In his novel Canonbury House (1857-58), Queen Elizabeth I is described as being both a tyrant and ugly:
Despite the eulogies passed upon her by parasite poets and sycophantic scribes of her own time and subsequent periods. 
Charles II was:
One of the most licentious, dissipated, and unprincipled scoundrels that ever disgraced the earth. 
Moreover, in Victorian history writing, William of Orange was often viewed positively – as a Protestant King who freed the English from the tyranny of the Catholic Stuarts. But according to Reynolds William III was:
A sovereign to be execrated and loathed as one of the scourges of the human race. 
When the Duke of Cumberland died in 1851, many of the obituaries were overwhelmingly positive, but the obituary in Reynolds’ Newspaper stated that the sum total of his character amounted to:
Perjury, adultery, seduction, incest and murder. 
In the article he discusses how the aristocracy came to hold their land, and argues that the people in the nineteenth century are essentially slaves to the nobility:
Albeit pretty certain that Britons never will be slaves to foreign masters, it is by no means equally sure that they are not even now bondsmen to native tyrants. 
The article then goes on to give a survey of the state of land ownership in nineteenth-century Britain: in pre-historical times, Reynolds argues, ‘providence intended that the produce of the earth should be enjoyed in common’.  However, after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror rewarded those who joined him in battle with land stolen from the English. The result of this land grab by the Norman nobility resulted in the poverty that many people suffered during the Victorian era, according to Reynolds: ‘heavy rents hang round the necks […] like Millstones […] and thus it is that we find tens of thousands of our fellow men starving amid plenty’. 
But, Reynolds notes, throughout history there have been a few courageous men who have stood up to these tyrants, and they were mostly thieves:
Servile historians have depicted as robbers, rascals, and freebooters men who were in reality doing their utmost to save themselves and posterity from being plundered by the ancestors of those coroneted robbers who now hold possession of a large portion of English soil. 
Among these robbers and freebooters, Robin Hood is the most noteworthy. Although he was called a robber, Reynolds notes, he was gallant and brave, ever ready to help those who suffered under the oppression of Norman tyranny.
Perhaps as an indication of the continuing influence of Walter Scott’s Saxon vs. Norman idea, Reynolds argues that Robin Hood was most popular with the oppressed Saxons who looked upon Robin Hood ‘as their chieftain and defender’. 
Unfortunately, Robin was not to be successful in his endeavours:
The struggle, however, that endured for centuries between the people and the nobility – the former striving to retain possession of their land, the latter determined to dispossess them of it, has terminated in the complete triumph of the of the latter, and the result of this is despoilment is the terrible amount of pauperism, misery, destitution, and crime that overshadows the nation like a funeral pall. 
In many ways this is a topical post: the Duke of Westminster has recently passed away, and there have been ongoing debates in the press about whether the new Duke will pay inheritance tax upon the land and estates that now pass to him.Incidentally, the Duke of Westminster is descended from Gilbert le Grosveneur, who came over with William in the conquest annd was awarded land in and around London. It is impossible to know what Reynolds would have written about a situation like that, but he would have been questioning just by what right aristocrats continue to hold the land that they do.
 G. W. M. Reynolds cited in Michael Diamond, ‘From Journalism and Fiction into Politics’ in G. W. M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press Eds. Anne Humpherys and Louis James (Ashgate, 2008), p.91.
 Diamond, ‘From Journalism and Fiction into Politics’, p.92.
 G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’ Newspaper 26 October 1851, p.1.
 G. W. M. Reynolds, Canonbury House (London: J. Dicks, 1859), p.103.
 G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’ Newspaper 13 July 1851, p.1.
 G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’ Newspaper 5 September 1852, p.1.
 G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’ Newspaper 23 November 1851, p.12.
 G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’ Newspaper 10 January 1869, p.5.
The early nineteenth century witnessed two phenomenally successful Robin Hood novels: Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). After those two novels, authors took a break from casting Robin Hood in any of their historical romances. That was until the appearance of Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower, or, The Days of King John (1838).
Thomas Miller (1807-1874) was born in Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. His father died when he was very young as a result of having participated in the Burdett Riots in 1810, thus leaving Miller and his mother in desperate poverty. Despite the dire straits that the family were reduced to, however, Miller’s mother ensured that he received an education. From an early age he loved to read, and went on to become a poet and novelist. As far as his novels go, he appears to have been a ‘Jack of all trades’: capable of writing pastoral poetry, historical romance, and crime fiction. He even continued G. W. M. Reynolds’ penny dreadful The Mysteries of London (1844-45) after Reynolds fell out with the publisher.
The Robin Hood who appears in Royston Gower can justifiably be called the Chartist Robin Hood. Chartism was a political reform movement composed of middle-class radicals and working-class men that really began to pick up momentum in 1838, the year that Miller was writing. Indeed one of Miller’s life-long friends was the Chartist activist Thomas Cooper (1805-1892). The Chartists had six demands:
A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime.
A secret ballot.
No Property Qualification for Members of Parliament.
Payment of Members, enabling ordinary people to serve a constituency when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.
Annual Parliamentary elections.
Although the movement ultimately failed, gradually the British Parliament have actually implemented all-but-one of the reforms – that of annual elections.
Medieval heroes were often appropriated by Chartist activists. For example, the Chartists had a ‘Wat Tyler Brigade’, named after the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. And figures such as Wat Tyler and Robin Hood have been easily appropriated by radicals of all shades during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For example, Robert Southey authored his dramatic poem Wat Tyler in 1794 which is highly supportive of the French Revolution. Thus although in its historicisation of Robin Hood Miller’s novel owes much to Walter Scott, and was meticulously researched from documents that Miller says he studied in the British Museum, in its political sentiments it is more alike to Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads (1795). Miller’s Robin Hood defiantly fights against the forces of King John, proudly declaring that ‘we own no tyrant’. Miller presents Robin as a political reformer saying in his preface that his:
Earliest recollections of the brave freebooter are from “Robin Hood’s Garland,” which, embellished with rude woodcuts, represented this EARLY REFORMER as shooting deer, fighting rangers.
In fact, advocating political reform is equated with patriotism in Miller’s novel, as he says that the outlaws in his novel are true patriots. Miller’s novel was published in three volumes and retailed at a price of thirty-one shillings: the message for his affluent readers is that England’s great national hero Robin Hood would have been a Chartist/Reformer if he was alive in the nineteenth century, and readers should patriotically lend their support to the cause of political reform as well.
Significantly, while the growing trend in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Robin Hood literature had been to cast Robin as a nobleman, Miller gives him humbler social origins. In keeping with fifteenth-century Robin Hood poems, Robin is a yeoman. By the nineteenth century, the term ‘yeoman’ was understood to mean a small-scale land owner, as opposed to a person who was merely a tenant farmer. Thus Robin is definitely of the class that we might term the ‘labour aristocracy’. He is not a Lord standing up for the people, but is actually one of the people fighting for his rights and liberties.
Walter Scott’s idea that the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans are opposed to each other is present in the novel, but in Miller’s novel the problem is not one of race but one of class. Miller highlights the fact that in the medieval period there were many good Normans living in poverty, and many good wealthy Normans. What is needed in medieval England (and of course Victorian England), Miller argues, is complete reform of the political system. The problem back in the days of King John is a problem that would have been familiar to nineteenth-century readers: Old Corruption.
Old Corruption was a term employed by middle-class radicals and the labour aristocracy in late eighteenth and nineteenth-century England to describe a political system in which the elites shored up their own interests at the expense of the people. The callous and self-interested thirteenth-century elite are embodied in the character of the Norman nobleman De Marchmont, the principal villain of the tale, who Miller compares to nineteenth-century politicians:
The Baron gazed for a moment on the King, then cast his eyes towards the floor, as he feared his thoughts might be discovered; for he could not avoid comparing in his own mind the policy and hypocrisy of King John, with that which the monarch attributed to the Church of Rome. But De Marchmont was too much of a courtier to allow these thoughts to escape him, and too much of a tyrant himself, to murmur at the King’s conduct, and with a tact which politicians in our own day occasionally copy, he shaped his reply to suit his interests.
Miller’s use of dating is also significant in this respect: by setting his novel after King Richard dies, and having Robin fight against King John, Robin is not required to side with a corrupt political establishment composed of Kings and noblemen, as he does in Ivanhoe.
Miller’s depiction of the outlaws’ society offers an alternative model for the creation of an egalitarian society. In Sherwood all men are equal: for instance, all of the outlaws including Robin Hood must undertake equal duties. This is so that there is no cause for murmuring or complaining from any of them, and to convey the message that all men are equal.
While Miller sought to convey a political message to his readers, he also had to entertain them first and foremost. The Victorians loved violent entertainment. Millers novel is therefore filled with many violent scenes. Robin ‘dreams all night of cutting barons’ throats’. When Robin kills a Norman soldier, we are told vividly how:
The blood gushed from his mouth.
Thus Miller draws upon the early Victorians’ love for violent entertainment, and presents us with a Robin Hood who is unafraid to resort to violence to achieve his political objectives.
In conclusion, what Miller’s Royston Gower shows us is that there was a resurgence of a radical image of Robin Hood in the late 1830s – a time of great political excitement due to the rise of Chartism, after having been made respectable in 1819 and 1822 by Scott and Peacock respectively. In the same year also, Pierce Egan the Younger would author the penny dreadful Robin Hood and Little John(1838-40) which similarly rails against Old Corruption and advocates for democratic reform. While Clare A. Simmons has argued that nineteenth-century medievalism became conservative and the preserve of the elites after c.1830, Miller’s novel, as well as Pierce Egan’s simultaneously published serial, means that we must rethink our understanding of Victorian medievalism as being conservative. A text which supports Chartism can hardly be considered ‘conservative’. At the very least, Miller’s novel deserves much greater attention from Chartist scholars than it has yet received.
 Louis James, ‘Miller, Thomas (1807–1874)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) [Internet <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/18738> Accessed 4 Aug 2016]
 Thomas Miller, Royston Gower, or, The Days of King John (London: J. Nichols [n.d.]), p.171.
 Miller, Royston Gower, p.7.
 Miller, Royston Gower, p.333.
 Miller, Royston Gower, p.26.
 Philip Harling, ‘Rethinking “Old Corruption”’ Past and Present No. 147 (1995), pp.127-158.
 Miller, Royston Gower, p.107.
 Miller, Royston Gower, p.36.
 Miller, Royston Gower, p.309.
 Miller, Royston Gower, p.268.
 Rosalind Crone, Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012).
 See Clare A. Simmons, Popular Medievalism in Romantic-Era Britain (New York: Palgrave, 2011), pp.191-194.
Header Image: Wikimedia Commons – Chartist Rally on Kennington Common.
“When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?”
– John Ball, Radical Preacher, 14th Century
Late fourteenth-century England had its fair share of problems: socio-economic tensions had been fuelled by the Black Death, and the people were hit hard by taxes in order to fund foreign wars. In addition, England had ineffectual leadership, especially given the fact that the new King, Richard II, was only ten years old upon his ascension to the throne in 1377. To pay for further foreign adventures, the new King, acting under the counsel of his advisors, levied a Poll Tax on the population. Issues came to a head when John Bampton, an MP and Justice of the Peace, travelled to Fobbing in Essex to investigate why the tax from that region had not been paid. Thomas Baker, representing the region, said that the taxes had been paid and that no more funds would be forthcoming. Bampton attempted to have Baker arrested, but violence from the townspeople broke out, and Bampton made a quick retreat to London. This revolt soon spread and other contingents of rebels from Kent, led by Wat Tyler and John Ball, marched on London (their rebellion seems to have been coordinated with rebels from Essex, Suffolk, and Norfolk) to demand redress from the King.
When the rebels reached London on 13 June, the gates of the city were thrown open to them, and the following day they took possession of the Tower of London. Some of the rebels met with the King and put forward their demands including the King’s officials who were on their lists for execution; the abolition of serfdom and unfree tenure, the right to self-governance, and a general amnesty for the rebels. The King appeared as though he would acquiesce to the rebels’ demands. The next day at Smithfield just outside the city walls, the mob gathered and Richard went out to meet them. He called Wat Tyler forth and Tyler demanded he also sign a new charter, and requested that some refreshment be brought to him. After this, Tyler attempted to leave but the King’s guards set upon him, stabbing him repeatedly. Richard then commanded all of the rebels to disperse. Tyler’s head was cut off and displayed upon a pole.
Wat Tyler died a premature death at the hands of a tyrannical monarch, but he was never forgotten. He has been a prominent figure in radical and socialist literature: the younger Robert Southey authored a ‘dramatic poem’ named Wat Tyler (1794), while in the nineteenth century Tyler features in the socialist William Morris’ work A Dream of John Ball (1888). But there were a host of various cultural afterlives in addition to the work of Southey and Ball, and I am going to provide an overview of Tyler’s representations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
History books authored during the eighteenth century took a very negative view of Wat Tyler’s insurrection. The anonymously-authored A General History of all the Rebellions, Insurrections, and Conspiracies in England (1718), written in a style not unlike criminal biography, was less than positive in its assessment of the revolt:
The principal heads of the said giddy multitude were Wat Tyler and Jack Straw. The rebels of Kent embattled themselves upon Blackheath near Greenwich, from whence they march’d to London, where the common sort siding with them, they committed a great many outrages and barbarities. 
Such a view of Tyler’s insurrections is hardly surprising given the fact that it comes from a conservative historian. Since the 1690s, the British public had developed a habit of taking to the streets and rioting whenever they felt that their needs were not being met. Numerous protests accompanied the Hanoverian succession in 1714, and indeed it was during the eighteenth century when the word ‘mob’ first emerged, being a contraction of the Latin term mobile vulgus. Riots occurred in 1706, 1707, 1710, 1736, 1743, 1754, 1766, 1769, 1780, 1791 and 1797. The most famous of all of these is perhaps the Gordon Riots of 1780, immortalised by Charles Dickens’ novel Barnaby Rudge (1841). While it is true that the majority of people did not have the vote, politicians had to be ever mindful of the effects that their decisions might have upon the public, as ‘King Mob’ was ever ready to rear his head and resume his reign. 
References to Wat Tyler’s insurrections and the mob occur more explicitly in the anonymously-authored play Wat Tyler and Jack Straw; or, The Mob Reformers (1730), which was performed at the theatrical booths of the St. Bartholomew Fair celebrations (probably alongside that Robin Hood plays). The play is a something of a farce, which pokes fun at both the mob (for Tyler ridicules the them) and also the establishment:
Mob. Huzzah! Huzzah! Wat Tyler and Liberty! Tyl. Friends, hear me speak; nor let your smoaky brains hurry you on to do you know not what! 
But the play contains some subtly subversive elements. Immediately after taking about how they will whip the politicians for causing trouble with a ‘bubble’ from the South Sea (referring to the economic crisis known as the South Sea Bubble), Tyler exclaims:
On the proud wings of great revenge I fly;
Tyrant sit fast, or you may chance to know,
The mighty kick of Watty Tyler’s toe. 
Further literary representations of Wat Tyler from the eighteenth century were more radical, especially during the years of the American and French Revolutions. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) – a book which advocated independence for the Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain – sits in stark contrast to previous portrayals:
Tyler appears to have been an intrepid and disinterested man, with respect to himself. All his proposals made to Richard, were on a more just and public ground, than those which had been made to [King] John by the Barons; and notwithstanding the sycophancy of historians, and men like Mr. Burke, who seek to gloss over a base action of the Court by traducing Tyler, his fame will outlive their falsehood. If the Barons merited a monument at Runnymede, Tyler merits one in Smithfield. 
At the height of the French Revolution, the young Robert Southey authored Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem (1794). In this poem, Wat is a freedom fighter, taking up the country’s cause against the unjust taxes that have been levied to finance Richard II’s wars (with a message for his own day regarding the war against Revolutionary France):
Think you we do not feel the wrongs we suffer?
The hour of retribution is at hand,
And tyrants tremble – mark me, King of England.
Perhaps the greatest account of Wat Tyler’s life comes from Pierce Egan the Younger’s Wat Tyler, or, the Rebellion of 1381 (1841). In this novel, Tyler is truly allowed to live up to his potential. Thomas Paine held him up as a working-class hero, while Robert Southey envisioned him as a man who fought for ‘Liberty! Liberty!’ Circumstances had changed when Egan was writing, and Britain saw the emergence of Chartism between 1838 and 1858. It was a working-class political reform movement which sought to establish a People’s Charter:
• A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime.
• The Secret Ballot.
• No Property Qualification for MPs.
• Payment of MPs, thus enabling an honest trades-man, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency; when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
• Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.
• Annual Parliamentary Elections.
In Egan’s novel, then, Wat Tyler is a man who fights for a medieval form of a People’s Charter (the Chartists, in actual fact, even had a Wat Tyler Brigade). Egan borrows the Saxon versus Norman theme from Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819). The Normans represent the nineteenth-century political establishment, while Tyler – of Saxon descent in the novel – represents the British working classes. Egan’s Tyler attempts to obtain the end of serfdom for the Anglo-Saxons (which means enfranchisement for the nineteenth-century working classes) through ‘petitions’ but to no avail. Tyler then leads a peasants’ revolt in order to obtain ‘a code of laws or charter’. 
Egan’s novel was practically plagiarised and abridged in the anonymously authored The Life and Adventures of Wat Tyler: The Good and the Brave (1851). Given the fact that it is a slimmed down copy of Egan’s text, the radical sentiments are still present within it, and Tyler is described as:
‘The friend of the poor, [who] supported their cause against the tyranny of their oppressors’. 
They [Tyler and Jack Straw] both hated the nobility, and burnt to avenge the wrongs inflicted on the serfs. Both desired to level all distinctions of rank, and partition all property among the people.
The novel might have ended up being a perfectly enjoyable historical romance were it not for one majorly unconvincing subplot: Ainsworth tried to emulate Romeo and Juliet by having Tyler’s daughter fall in love with Richard II.
Perhaps the worst novel is G. A. Henty’s A March on London: Being a Story of Wat Tyler’s Insurrection (1897). Henty was a fervent imperialist who wrote a score of (now thankfully forgotten) children’s historical novels. Usually they centre round a boy hero who gets embroiled in major historical events. In the novel, Wat Tyler and his rebels fight not only against unjust taxes but also for the right to fight alongside their King in foreign wars. For the record, Tyler never demanded that he be able to fight for the King: he simply desired an end to serfdom and the alleviation of the harsh poll tax.
Wat Tyler did not lose his radical appeal, despite the fact that Henty portrayed him as an immoral man (the boy hero in Henty’s novel helps to protect the King from the mob rather than participating in the rebellion). In the twentieth century, during the Poll Tax Riots of the 1980s at Trafalgar Square in London people carried placards bearing the words:
“Avenge Wat Tyler”
 Anon. A General History of all the Rebellions, Insurrections, and Conspiracies in England (London, 1718), pp.28-29.
 See Tim Hitchcock & Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp.73-74.
 Anon. Wat Tyler and Jack Straw; or, The Mob Reformers (London, 1730), p.2.
 Thomas Paine, Common Sense (London, 1776), p.112.
 Robert Southey, Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem in Three Acts (London: Sherwin, 1813), pp.10-11.
 Stephen Basdeo, ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’ in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies Vol. 15: Imagining the Victorians Eds. Stephen Basdeo & Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016), pp.48-65.
 Anon. The Life and Adventures of Wat Tyler: The Good and the Brave (London: Collins, 1851), p.8.
 William Harrison Ainsworth, Merry England, or, Nobles and Serfs 3 Vols. (London: Tinsley Bros. 1874), p.15.
Header Image: King Richard in Great Danger (1803) BM 1880,1113.4126
King Richard in great danger … and the rebels discomfited
King Richard in great danger … and the rebels discomfited
King Richard in great danger … and the rebels discomfited
King Richard in great danger … and the rebels discomfited