Sunday, April 08, 2018

Stephen Basdeo - The Life & Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler

Stephen Basdeo's book is a fascinating study of the cultural impact of one of England's most famous rebels: Wat Tyler, who was a key figure in the Great Revolt of 1381. I've written myself about the Peasants' Revolt and I won't repeat that here. For those who do not know the history Basdeo opens his book with a good summary of events, though he also encourages people to read Juliet Barker's excellent history. He also concludes his work with fascinating reprints of poems and ballads about Tyler from the periods he covers.

It is one of the ironies of history that the detail that we know most about Wat Tyler is the manner of his death. A whole number of contemporary accounts describe Tyler's murder at the hands of William Walworth, mayor of London, during negotiations with King Richard II as rebels from around London had converged on the capital. It's probably because of this that Tyler has become an iconic figure for generations after - though not always from the progressive side.

My first encounter with Wat Tyler was in the years following the Poll Tax rebellion against Margaret Thatcher. In the early 1990s it was still common to see activists wearing t-shirts celebrating the 1381 rebellion which had begun as with resistance to Richard II's poll tax. As a result of that, and I think because of William Morris' work The Dream of John Ball, the Peasant's Revolt was seen very much as the property of the far-left. Basdeo shows however that there are far deeper roots to Tyler's association with radical politics, but more surprisingly, Tyler was not always someone held up by progressive forces.

In the turmoil of the 1640s, Basdeo explains, the only side to use Wat Tyler's story were the Royalists. Prior to the 17th century, Tyler and John Ball had been held up as examples of people wanting to "overturn the social order". "Perhaps," wonders Basdeo, Tyler was "too radical, even for regicides". Instead, Royalists argued that Tyler shows the folly of trying to challenge the King and hence the real social order. In the words of one writer, Tyler was man who wanted to "change the Monarchy into anarchy". Rather neatly the 17th century writers were slurring those contemporaries who challenged the king (very few of whom before the late 1640s had ever considered deposing the king) as being potential regicides, or at least dangerous revolutionaries.

This approach towards Tyler and the Revolt continued into the next century. One quoted example, from 1769, argues that the events of 1381 showed the
absolute necessity it is for the nation to be provided with such laws, as may prevent even the first steps and approaches towards any riotous and disorderly meetings of the people; for, when once a mob are collected together; and they have done one act of violence, they soon proceed to another, till they perpetrate the most extravagant enormities, and the most horrid cruelties.. that may shake the foundation of a government.
18th century fears of the mob are here given a historical justification. In this, and other works, the struggles of Tyler and his mob, are contrasted by those who stood firm against them, which might have "accomplished the destruction of the Kingdom, had it not been for the gallant behaviour of its citizens". So at the end of the account, it all turns out alright. In one play that Basdeo quotes, performed at the "rowdy Bartholomew Fair", "it turns out the mob never wanted to follow Tyler all along. They had been duped by their wicked captain. Thereafter, due to the good king's grace all of the rebels are pardoned."

I am slightly wary however, about simply reading these accounts as designed to "safely contain" its subversive parts. At the same time as reading Basdeo's book I was reading Christopher Hill's A Nation of Change and Novelty and in his chapter on Literature and the English Revolution Hill demonstrates how, to escape censorship, authors often used happy acceptable endings to ensure their work was published. As Hill writes, "most masques were expected to end with all problems solved by a rex ex machina, and even writers who wished to criticise royal policy had to wrap their message up in so much flattery that there is every likelihood that the king missed the point."

It is entirely possible that authors of plays about Tyler had to end on an appropriate note or risk not being performed, rather than simply being opposed to radical politics. I speculate that playwrights wanted audience approval, they had to at least contain a few passages that would go well among the rowdy attendees at Bartholomew Fair.

As the 18th and then the 19th centuries develop, growing demands for reform from sections of society meant that Tyler's story again gets appropriated, this time to create an "imagined national community" where throughout history there had always been a section of English society who had fought for democracy, freedom and equality. Tyler, in this context, is remoulded as an early freedom fighter, a precursor of Chartists and others. He was no longer the leader of a mob, instead an entirely justified rebel against oppression. In one fascinating appropriation of Tyler, James 'Bronterre' O'Brien, lays the blame for Wat Tyler's defeat, not on the aristocracy, but on the "middle classes who had abandoned their former working-class comrades". O'Brien sees Walworth as a "London shopocrat", a "base and bloody-minded middle-man".

O'Brien's piece, written in 1837, is a reaction to the great defeat of the Reform Act, when the wealthier middle classes won the vote and backed down for further agitation to gain suffrage for the poorer workers. Tyler becomes a weapon in a 19th century struggle for a democracy which he could not even have comprehended.

Basdeo documents how Tyler's story becomes a growing part of the radical tradition, though not without being shaped by each generation's customs. During Victorian times, for instance, the story (and it is a story, without any historical evidence at all) that Tyler began the revolt after a tax collector sexually abused his daughter, became a way of fixing Victorian morals onto the rebellion. Increasingly Tyler also becomes a central figure in historical novels, and Basdeo gives us an excellent summary of these, including a few that I firmly intend to read. I was also amazed to learn that in 1969 the Peasant's Revolt was the subject of a American educational film with no less an actor than Anthony Hopkins staring as Wat Tyler.

Stephen Basdeo's book should be of interest to a far wider readership than those scholars studying 1381. It is a detailed example of how historical events can be used, and abused, by contemporary times to fit the needs of those defending the status quo and those challenging it. Wat Tyler and those who rose with him were struggling against a system that was cruel in its exploitation and oppression of those at the bottom of society. Today we live in a very different world, but there remains much to rebel against and so 1381 will continue to be something from which people draw inspiration. As the author concludes, there will likely be future points when "English people hold a mass protest" and then, "we will once against see Wat Tyler's name reappear".

Related Reviews

O'Brien - When Adam Delved and Eve Span
Dunn - The Peasants' Revolt
Lindsay & Groves - The Peasants' Revolt
Hilton - Bond Men made Free

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