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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

‘Robin Hood Should Bring Us John Ball’: The Outlaw in William Morris’ “A Dream of John Ball” (1886)

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).

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William Morris (1834-1896) [Credit – Wikimedia Commons]

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.

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Detail from the Kelmscott Edition of A Dream of John Ball (1892) (c) Maryland University

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]

To the villagers, Robin Hood prefigures John Ball. As a lifelong medievalist, Morris will evidently have been acquainted with the printed collections of Robin Hood ballads such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795), as well as J. M. Gutch’s A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode (1847), and perhaps the oft-reprinted editions of Robin Hood’s Garland that flourished throughout the nineteenth century.

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Morris’ A Dream of John Ball was originally serialised in The Commonweal: The Official Journal of the Socialist League (c) William Morris Archive

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).


REFERENCES

[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.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Joseph Ritson, ed. Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads 2 Vols. (London: T. Egerton, 1795), 1: xi-xii.

[vi] Morris, A Dream of John Ball, p.17.

My Forthcoming Book: “The Mob Reformer: The Life and Legend of Wat Tyler” (2018)

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.

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Tyler Killing the Tax Collector who Tried to Rape his Daughter – From Pierce Egan’s Wat Tyler (1840)

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).

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The work will also allow me to revisit some of my favourite nineteenth-century authors such as Pierce Egan the Younger, whose novel Wat Tyler, or, The Rebellion of 1381 (1841) was immensely popular and presented readers with a Chartist Wat Tyler and whose other novel Robin Hood and Little John (1838-40) features prominently in my PhD thesis. In Egan’s novel, Wat leads the revolt and hands the King a Charter with ‘Six Points’ which is highly reminiscent of the Chartist cause.

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 Harrison Ainsworth (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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wat Tyler 2
Death of Wat Tyler (1746) BM1875,0508.1498

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wat Tyler egan
Illustration from Pierce Egan’s Wat Tyler (1840)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Avenge Wat Tyler”


References

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

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

King Richard in great danger … and the rebels discomfited

King Richard in great danger … and the rebels discomfited

King Richard in great danger … and the rebels discomfited

King Richard in great danger … and the rebels discomfited

Radical Ideas in the Penny Serials of Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880)

Scholars will have heard of a Pierce Egan (1772-1849), the Regency author who wrote famous works such as Life in London (1821). His son, Pierce James Egan (1814-1880), however, deserves more recognition than he currently enjoys due to the fact that he was one of the best-selling authors of the Victorian era, a point raised in MacMillan’s Magazine in 1866:

There is a mighty potentate in England whose name is Pierce Egan […] Many among us fancy that they have a good general idea of what is English literature. They think of Tennyson and Dickens as the most popular of our living authors. It is a fond delusion, from which they should be aroused. The works of Mr. Pierce Egan are sold by the half million. What living author can compare with him? [1]

Pierce Egan originally began his working adult life as an illustrator, and he collaborated with his father on projects such as The Pilgrims of the Thames in Search of the National (1838). He soon turned his attention to writing light fiction, and published his first novel entitled Quintin Matsys; or The Blacksmith of Antwerp in  the same year.

IMG_6180
Illustration from Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood (1838-1840)

Other serials soon followed, and Egan enjoyed writing tales of outlaws. Robin Hood and Little John was serialised between 1838 and 1840. His second medievalist story was Wat Tyler which was serialised in 1840, and his third serial was Adam Bell; or, The Archers of Englewood Forest, which began serialisation in 1842. Critics have previously assumed that Egan presented a conservative and bourgeois view of life in medieval England, a reading based upon the fact that Robin is depicted as the dispossessed Earl of Huntingdon. [2] I disagree with this, however, the fact that Robin is presented as the Earl of Huntingdon appears to be an afterthought in Egan’s text. In the first chapter of the second book, Egan mentions that Robin tried to recover his estate through legal means, but being unsuccessful, decides instead to wait for the return of the King. [3] Other than that, the discussion of Robin’s rightful heritage receives little mention in Egan’s novel, and thankfully his story is not reduced to being simply a tale of Robin recovering his birth right, something which other novels of Robin Hood do fall victim to. Robin’s real enemies in Egan’s novel are the aristocracy, represented by the Normans. Raised as the son of a simple Anglo-Saxon yeoman forester, he feels little affinity with the nobility. He is constantly on the side of the yeoman, or the people. And Robin is violent towards members of the establishment. Aristocrats receive arrows through their eyes, [4] limbs are cut off. [5]

In Egan’s Robin Hood, Robin is not actually outlawed until the second book of the novel. But we see quite a ‘democratic’ set up in Sherwood Forest. Robin is elected as the leader of his men, but Egan says this is not to do with the fact that he is the Earl of Huntingdon, but rather he is elected upon his merits by downtrodden Anglo-Saxon peasants. [6] It is a pure form of democracy, in opposition to the notions of ‘Old Corruption’ that were frequently levelled at the early nineteenth-century establishment. Indeed, what could have been more radical in the early Victorian period than seeing the peasantry voting? It is what the Chartists demanded, although more on the Chartists allusions in Egan’s work is highlighted below in the brief discussion of Wat Tyler.

adam bell
Illustration from Egan’s Adam Bell.

The Anglo-Saxons versus Normans theme is continued in Egan’s serial Adam Bell, which is based upon the story of an eponymous medieval outlaw who supposedly lived in the thirteenth century and was, like Robin Hood, celebrated in ballads and songs. [7] In Adam Bell life under the Normans is presented as pretty grim for the good Anglo-Saxon folk:

The Normans still governed, still possessed everything; still laid a grievous yoke upon the English, who hated them to the very marrow of their bones. [8]

Like Scott before him, Egan presents a vision of a divided society, and it is the oppression of the Normans which creates outlawry and crime:

Cumberland possessed, at this time, an extensive forest, which bore the name of Englewood – and in various parts of this wood dwelled several bands of Saxons, who had all been sufferers under the Normans. [9]

Egan’s most radical text, however, was his serial Wat Tyler, the complete volume of which was published in 1841. The medieval Wat Tyler who led the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 had been appropriated by radicals in the aftermath of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815). Thomas Paine held him up as a working-class hero, while Robert Southey envisioned him as a man who fought for ‘Liberty! Liberty!’ [10] 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 Parliament Elections.
FullSizeRender(13)
Illustration from Egan’s Wat Tyler.

In Egan’s novel, then, Wat Tyler is a man who fights for a medieval form of a People’s Charter. Again Egan borrows the Saxon versus Norman theme from Scott’s Ivanhoe. 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. [11] Tyler then leads a peasants’ revolt in order to obtain ‘a code of laws or charter’.

The genius of Egan’s writing lay in the fact that he managed to cloak his radicalism in respectability. How could the Victorian middle classes object to tales of Robin Hood, Adam Bell, and Wat Tyler? They had after all been staples of broadsides and chapbooks for centuries before, and in the case of Robin Hood, the outlaw had by the nineteenth century become thoroughly gentrified and respectable due to the works of Walter Scott and Thomas Love Peacock. Egan’s tales of thieves and rebels certainly did not come in for censure like another novel about a thief entitled Jack Sheppard, written by William Harrison Ainsworth and published in 1839. Where the establishment saw quaint tales from English history, readers got a semi-radical vision of one in which commoners rose up and violently challenged the establishment.


References

[1] Anon. ‘Penny Novels’ MacMillan’s Magazine June 1866, 96-105 (96).
[2] See the third chapter in Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003).
[3] Pierce Egan, Robin Hood and Little John; or, the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (London: W. S. Johnson, 1840), 98.
[4]  Egan, Robin Hood, 65.
[5] Egan, Robin Hood, 94.
[6] Egan, Robin Hood, 144.
[7] See Thomas H. Ohlgren (ed.) Medieval Outlaws: Ten Tales in Modern English (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1998).
[8] Pierce Egan, Adam Bell; or, The Archers of Englewood Forest (London: G. Vickers, 1842), 3.
[9] Egan, Adam Bell, 5.
[10] Robert Southey, Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem (London: T. Sherwin, 1817), 6.
[11] Pierce Egan, Wat Tyler (1842 repr. London: W. S. Johnson, 1851), 460.
[12] Chris R. V. Bossche, Reform Acts: Chartism, Social Agency and the Victorian Novel, 1832-1867 (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 2014), 38.