The history of the world itself is nothing but a long story of robberies in which honest people are always the duped. - WILHELM WEITLING: Guarantees of Harmony and
‘Carle,’ I thought, ‘were I thou or such as thou, then would I take in my hand a sword or a spear, or were it only a hedge-stake, and bid others do the like, and forth would we go; and since we would be so many, and with nought to lose save a miserable life, we would do battle and prevail, and make an end of the craft of kings and of lords and of usurers, and there should be but one craft in the world, to wit, to work merrily for ourselves and to live merrily thereby.’ - A King’s Lesson (Speech of the King).
Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. - WILLIAM MORRIS: A Dream of John Ball.
1. - THE STORY OF THE REVOLT.
The spectacle of a people rightly struggling to be free, to be masters in their own house, and denied that freedom and mastery only by their political ignorance, is the most appalling of all human tragedies, since it affects, not merely the short life and happiness of an individual, but the lives and prosperity of an entire nation during centuries of time. And as the failure of such an effort is the greatest of all tragedies, so the causes of that failure surely form, of all possible lessons, the most important and the most necessary to be learnt.
A Stirring Time.
The fourteenth century was a time of great social stir and hope among the masses. At Bannockburn in 1314 the Scots had thrown off the yoke of England, an assertion of national right achieved almost entirely by the commons - the poor men who followed Wallace and Bruce through all their reverses and wanderings, while the ‘nobles’ skulked and scoffed and conserved their property, keeping on good terms with the enemy against whom their countrymen were fighting.
The following year (1315) witnessed the great and at first promising attempt at independence by the Irish under Edward Bruce, eventuating in the usual Irish failure. In the year after Bannockburn, also, the ‘cowherds and dairymen’ of Switzerland, at Morgarten, the Marathon of their country, sent flying before them all the mail-clad Austrians that were not left dead on the field; and the same decade (1386) that witnessed the revolt of the English peasants saw the end of Hapsburg pretensions to Swiss suzerainty when, on the field of Sempach, Winkelried of Unterwald gathered the spear-points of the enemy to his breast, broke the Austrian line of defence, and turned the fortune of the day in favour of his countrymen. And not least notable of immediately contemporary events was the struggle maintained by the men of Paris against Charles VI. and by the free Flemish cities - Ghent at the head of them - against the Earl of Flanders.
But these were mostly struggles in which an outside enemy was worsted. The labourers of England in 1381 arose against the enemy within the gates.
The revolt has been treated in the flimsiest way by all the historians, with the exception of Green, and even his narrative is brief, in accordance with the plan of his history. A comparison of the different accounts shows many obvious inaccuracies as to matters of fact; and in spite of much study and weighing of evidence, absolute accuracy is not claimed for the present narrative. One has only to start the writing of history in order to find out how slipshod the historians can be. Naturally, the contemporary chroniclers are strongly and often amusingly biassed against the rebels; and it is unfortunate that we should have to depend for any particulars upon such a chronicler as the French canon Froissart, who of course wrote very much at second-hand, and whose naive prejudices are corrected only by his mediæval love of a good tale.
It is customary to ascribe the revolt to an unpopular poll-tax and the ruffianly manner in which it was collected. As matter of fact, there were three poll-taxes, and although all of them were farmed out to capitalistic harpies, to take as much out of them as they could squeeze, these taxes do not appear to have been specially unpopular. In the form in which they were imposed they were much less unfair than our present-day ‘taxation of the breakfast table,’ under which the poor may actually pay more imperial taxes than the well-to-do. Under the first poll-tax, beneficed clergymen paid a triple assessment, beggars and mendicant friars were exempted, but all others contributed on an equal footing. The second tax was graduated, a duke of the royal blood and an archbishop, for instance, paying five hundred and twenty times as much as the labourer did. From this tax, moreover, married women were exempted. Under the third and last-imposed poll-tax, the minimum payment was one groat, the maximum sixty groats. The age-limit for the first tax was fourteen, for the second tax sixteen, and for the third fifteen years of age. But the times were good for labour, and, as said, there was no particular outcry against these taxes. When John the Tiler, of Dartford (not Wat Tyler, of Maidstone) came hastily home from his work, on an urgent summons from his wife, and, with a blow of his helving hammer, dashed out the brains of the poll-groat bailiff, it was not because he resented the tax, except as we all resent taxation. It was because the bailiff, claiming that the tiler’s daughter was over fifteen, was proceeding to rudely inspect the girl, as had, apparently, been done by his colleagues elsewhere. The tax had been already paid by the tiler’s wife for all the members of the household for whom she admitted liability. The slaughter of the bailiff, and the riot at the seizure of a burgess of Gravesend by Sir Simon Burley, on the plea that the man was the son of a neif, or female serf, of his, and consequently his (Sir Simon’s) serf, were only the more picturesque and decisive openings of a movement that had been in process of fomentation and organization for years.
Causes of the Revolt.
The price of labour had been sent up, not merely by the wiping out of half the population by the Black Death, but also as the result of a widespread trade unionism among the labourers and artizans, with, in addition, the powerful stimulus and inspiration of the russet priests’ communistic oratory. When, as early as Whit Monday, the men of Gravesend revolted at the seizure of their townsman, they cried ‘Let us to Rochester. Let us join our brethren of Essex,’ the men of Essex being already in the field, a month before the march upon London. When the neighbours of John the Tiler gathered round the body of the slaughtered bailiff their demand was to be led to Canterbury, where the brethren were already in arms under Wat Tyler, John Ball, Hob Carter, and Tom the Miller.
By the end of May the nation was in revolt, from the coast of Kent northwards through all the eastern counties to Scarborough, and in the west from Hampshire all the way to Lancashire.
That the revolt was chiefly due to general social discontent, and not to the attempts to rivet and confirm villeinage, is shown by the fact that the men of Kent, who were freemen, were the first to rise. During the whole of the last week of May, parties of rebels - ploughmen, millers, blacksmiths, and all manner of rural workers (‘upland men’) - were pouring into Canterbury.
‘The Candle of Canterbury.’
On the day following the Feast of the Holy Sacrament hostilities opened with the pillaging of the Abbey of St. Vincent, the Church of St Thomas, and the Archbishop’s palace. According to Froissart, the rebels, as they carried off the Archbishop’s gear, said, ‘The Chancellor of England hath had this piece of furniture very cheap. He must now give us an account of his revenues and of the large Sums he hath levied since the coronation of the king.’
During the week the men of Essex, under Jack Straw, set forth for London on the north side of the Thames. They had just beaten a party of the royal troops sent down with a commissioner to suppress the disturbance which had arisen over the seizure of the Gravesend burgess.
Early in June the Kentish force, under the command of Wat Tyler, a soldier who had seen service in the French wars, set out for London. On the way they called in at Maidstone, the county town of Kent, burned a house of the Archbishop’s there, and set at liberty John Ball and the Gravesend man who had been arrested by Sir Simon Burley.
John Ball was serving what would nowadays be called his third sentence. These spells of prison lasted a few months at a time; and Froissart admits that ‘the moment he was out of prison he returned to his former course.’ The following has been preserved to us as a specimen of the ‘crazy harangues’ delivered in the churchyards and market-places of Kent, at the conclusion of mass, by the russet priest:
Good people, things will never go well in England as long as goods be not in common, and so long as there be villeins and gentlemen. By what right are they whom we call lords greater folk than we? On what grounds have they deserved it? Why do they hold us in serfage? If we all came of the same father and mother, of Adam and Eve, how can they say or prove that they must needs be better than we, if it be not that they make us gain for them by our toil what they spend in their pride? They are clothed in velvet, and warm in their furs and ermines, while we are covered with rags. They have wine and spices and fair bread, and we oatcake and straw, and water to drink. They have leisure and fine houses; we have pain and labour, the rain and the wind in the fields. And yet it is of us and our toil that these men hold their state.
For twenty years this propaganda had been carried on, not only by Ball, but by others of the Lollard priests who accepted the communistic tenets of their master, Wycliffe. The insurrection was no hasty upheaval. Nor, at the time of the rising, was John Ball a youthful hothead, but a man well over the prime of life, and clearly an orator. The fame of the popular preacher naturally spread to London, and his communistic doctrines were canvassed at meetings of London citizens. When the revolutionary forces began to assemble, the Londoners invited the leaders to march to the metropolis, and promised to co-operate with them in bringing pressure to bear upon the young king, Richard II.
Leaving Maidstone, not without a rousing ‘harangue’ from the newly-liberated prophet-priest, the men of Kent made for Rochester, their ranks being steadily augmented by the way. They burned the house of every lawyer and proctor on their line of march, and all members of these hated callings that came in their way were executed out of hand. And in Kent as elsewhere they burned all manorial records upon which they could lay hands.
An Archbishop Prisoner.
At Rochester they attacked the castle, and made prisoner Sir John de Newtoun, whom they took with them to London, intending to make use of him. In their host another illustrious prisoner reluctantly marched, no less a personage than Simon de Sudbury, the Archbishop and Chancellor, whom they had taken along with them from Canterbury. They beheaded him on Tower Hill on the 14th of June, in this ‘repeating the action of the Danes during their invasion of 1011, who seized Archbishop Elphege from this cathedral and shortly afterwards put him to death at Blackheath.’
From Rochester the rebels marched by way of Dartford, the burning of lawyers’ houses and the increase of the army of the commons being continued. By the time Blackheath was reached, the rebel armies mustered not fewer than 120,000 men, indifferently armed and badly provisioned, it is true, but with nothing to oppose them, and a whole country upon which to draw for supplies. While the men of the southern counties, numbering 6o,000, encamped on Blackheath, the main body of the Essex men lay at Mile-End, and the rebels from Hertfordshire at Highbury. Among the prisoners brought in from other counties were Sir Thomas Cossington, Sir Stephen Hales, and Sir John Manly.
A Princess’s Adventure.
One of the oddly Contradictory incidents connected with the rising is the story of how the Dowager Princess of Wales, the King’s mother, was returning from a pilgrimage to Canterbury, and, her coach coming up with the rebels on the road, of how it was surrounded by them and the princess (widow of the Black Prince) forced to kiss a number of them before she was allowed to proceed. With pillage and fire at Canterbury and Maidstone, and a revolutionary army in possession, for some weeks past, of all the surrounding counties, that any lady should have been thinking of pilgrimages or of any kind of travelling save flight from the area of the storm, shows how difficult it is for women of wealth and rank especially to realise the volcano upon which they live and to grasp the significance to them of a social revolt.
By order of the Mayor, William Walworth, the gates of London Bridge were closed against the insurgents, and guards placed to defend that the only approach to the city from the south.
A Reluctant Ambassador.
News of the closing of the gates being sent to Tyler at Blackheath, Sir John de Newtoun was despatched from the insurgent camp to seek an interview with the king. Crossing the Thames in a boat, he was immediately admitted to the king’s presence. Richard was attended by his mother (who had posted home in great terror after her encounter with the rebels), the king’s two natural brothers the Earl of Kent and Sir John Holland, the Earls of Warwick, Salisbury, and Suffolk, the Great Prior of the Templars, Sir Robert de Naumur, the Lord Mayor, and several of the chief citizens. The reluctant spokesman of the rebels, having humbly excused himself and explained the constraint under which he acted, the young king, as reported, answered, ‘TeIl us what you are charged with: we hold you excused.’
Sir John then proceeded to explain that the insurgents desired to hold parley with his Majesty in person at Blackheath; that they held him in loyal respect and intended no harm to his person; that they held his (Sir John’s) children in hostage: and that unless his Majesty returned a reply to prove that he (Sir John) had been in his Majesty’s presence, he feared either to return to the rebels or to stay away.
With the promise of a speedy answer, the emissary withdrew. After a short consultation with those about him, the king recalled de Newtoun and told him that if the rebel leaders would come down the following morning to the Thames he would hear what they had to say.
The King and the Rebels.
Next day, being Thursday, the king heard mass in the chapel of the Tower, and thereafter proceeded in his barge down the river towards Rotherhithe, where a large company of the rebels had assembled. But so little friendly was his reception as he drew near that those with him refused to let him land. ‘What seek you?’ cried the king. ‘I am come hither to hear your petitions.’ The insurgents demanded that he should land, and they would tell him what they sought. The Earl of Salisbury called to them that they were neither in the mood nor the attire to hold converse with a king.
Amid much outcry, the young king was then rowed back to the Tower, somewhat against his will it would seem.
‘Let us march to London!’ cried the insurgents, and set out forthwith, the houses of lawyers and courtiers faring badly, as usual, on the way through the suburbs.
PART TWO... to be continued next month... the revolution continues...
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