Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Philip Lindsay & Reg Groves - The Peasants' Revolt 1381

The cowardly murder of Wat Tyler 15 June 1381
Philip Lindsay and Reg Groves' 1950 history of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt is a classic of narrative history. Their story is filled with the words of the ordinary people who rebelled against serfdom, injustice, poverty and for a better world. Their words continue to inspire today. Here for instance, is part of the "hedge priest" John Ball's speech on June 13, 1381 at Blackheath on the edge of London, as 30,000 rebels gathered ready to capture the city.

"Now to Englishmen is the opportunity given, if they choose to take it, of casting off the yoke they have borne so long, of winning the freedom they have always wanted. Wherefore, let us take good courage and behave like the wise husbandman of scripture, who gathered the wheat into his barn but uprooted and burned the tares that had half-choked the good grain. Now the tares of England are her oppressive rulers and the time of harvest has come."
Unlike many historians, Lindsay and Groves see the Peasants' Revolt as being a highly organised, planned insurrection. Despite a lack of evidence, the authors argue, persuasively, that without significant networks, the rebels could not have achieved what they did. They cite, for instance, the rhyming letters sent out by John Ball, which suggest a prearranged plan, and of course, letters sent, must have a destination - perhaps individuals known and trusted in advance.

However organised the rebels were, they certainly had grievances. The over-view of life in Medieval England is one of backbreaking work, vicious exploitation, poverty and hunger. At the same time though, some in England did very well, not least the church, which took a tenth of everyone's possessions. This is no doubt why, the radical preachings of priests like John Ball could get such a hearing. But it was also the experience of many peasants that the church was at the heart of their oppression. The population of St. Albans rose in rebellion on many occasions, 1381 being merely the latest and greatest. They ensured that the Abbot gave back the lands his monastery had stolen, restored the peasants rights to fish and hunt game, even as they threw down hedges and fences. In most villages touched by the rebellion, records of legal decisions and papers that formed the basis for serfdom were also burnt. Lindsay and Groves write

"From the earliest days of the rising, the commoners had declared themselves for 'King Richard and the True Commons'. They swore to this oath of allegiance and they made all whom they met swear to it. In this simple, plain statement is the full purpose of the revolt, for it carried with it a complete destruction of the existing feudal order."

These were "Zealots for truth and justice, not thieves and robbers". In his second meeting with King Richard, the leader of the revolt, Wat Tyler, made the rebels' demands even clearer, all "warrens, as well as fisheries as in parks and woods, should be common to all; so that throughout the realm, in the waters, ponds, fisheries, woods and forests, poor as well as rich might take venison, and hunt the hare in the fields."

He also demanded the end of the bishoprics, save one, and the beheading of the traitorous advisers to Richard. The rebels believed that Richard was surrounded by corrupt ministers, and envisaged a future were serfdom was abolished, with local county government, ruled over by a king selected by the people themselves.

Sadly the rebels' misunderstood the unity of the ruling class. The cowardly murder of Tyler was only the beginning of a counter-revolution that was to lead to thousands of deaths across the country as the feudal order reasserted itself. "Serfs you were and serfs you will be" declared Richard. But many refused to give up without a fight. Leader Grindcobbe said at St. Albans, facing certain death declared:

"Fellow citizens, whom now a scanty liberty has relieved from long oppression, stand while you can stand, and fear nothing for my punishment since I would die in the cause of the liberty we have gained, if it is now my fate to die, thinking myself happy to be able to finish my life by such a martyrdom."
The defeat of the Peasants' Revolt and the torture and murder of most of its leaders however did not end rebellion. Feudalism did appear to continue, but the Revolt was only one of a long line of rebellions, local and national. Within fifty years, the Serfs had "more or less" won their freedom, but perhaps the greatest legacy of the Peasants' Revolt is twofold. The ruling class never again forgot the threat they faced from ordinary people organising, and the stories, poems and speeches of John Ball, Wat Tyler and the others inspired future generations.

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