Today marks the 640th anniversary of the 1381 English uprising commonly known as the Peasants’ Revolt. This was a remarkable moment in medieval English history, and the uprisings in Essex, Kent, and London and leaders such as Wat Tyler would become the stuff of folk legend, not least for English socialists.
On Thursday 13 June 1381, rebels from the south east entered the capital and were joined by Londoners and released prisoners. Rebels were disciplined (though not without exceptions) as they attacked selected political, economic, legal, and ecclesiastical targets, including the wealth of the Savoy Palace. The rebels even managed to negotiate with Richard II, demanding the end of serfdom, the pardon of criminals, and the removal of corrupt royal advisors. Some rebels managed to break into the Tower of London and behead leading figures of the realm, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of England, Simon Sudbury.
While Richard seemingly accepted some rebel demands, but Tyler and the Kentish rebels wanted more, including an overhaul of the legal system, aristocracy, and a church to be overseen by the monarch and one bishop. It is not easy to reconstruct exactly what happened next, but in the confusion following the meeting of Tyler and the king, Tyler was fatally wounded while Richard pacified the rebels and thus began the process of re-establishing authority and putting leading rebels on trial.
One recipient of royal justice was the most famous priest of the revolt, John Ball. Ball was captured in Coventry, tried in St Albans in mid-July, and hanged, drawn and quartered with his four parts sent to different cities. There have been speculative attempts to reconstruct Ball’s life prior to 1381, but there is little in the way of firm supportive evidence. Chroniclers from around the time claimed that Ball was a follower of the controversial Bible translator and theologian, John Wycliffe, and while this remains a popular claim to this day it may have originated as an attempt to discredit both Ball and Wycliffe.
Nevertheless, there is some good evidence that helps us reconstruct Ball’s earlier life. From letters attributed to Ball around the time of the revolt, it seems that Ball was a priest trained in York and who moved or returned to Colchester. It is through his activities in Essex where we start to learn of his provocative career as a lower clergyman. In 1364 Ball had gained special protection from Edward III, which was revoked when the king discovered that Ball ‘wandered from place-to-place preaching articles contrary to the faith of the church to the peril of his soul and the souls of others, especially of laymen.’ In the years that followed, Ball was denounced, excommunicated, arrested, and imprisoned for his preaching—though he was also elusive and popular enough sometimes to evade capture and even escape from prison.
It was this itinerant preaching in and around public markets, cemeteries, streets, and fields where Ball made a name for himself as a popular preacher criticising the church hierarchy. As one hostile chronicler of the time put it, Ball preached ‘the things which he knew would please the common people, disparaging men of the Church as well as secular lords, and so won the good will of the commons rather than approval before God.’ He became known for scathing attacks on the social, economic, political, and religious order, criticising the lords and their fine clothing, luxurious houses, and good food, and contrasting such lives with those of the lower orders whose labour helped maintain the nobles’ estates.
For Ball, this critique demanded a dramatic transformation of medieval England, including a revamping of the church which would involve deposing lords, archbishops, bishops, and, indeed, almost any ecclesiastical position of note. In place of the old church hierarchy would be one archbishop in England—Ball himself.
Little surprise, then, that a popular figure like Ball became known as the ideologue of the 1381 uprising, particularly in the south east of England. The class conflict driving the revolt had been building for decades. Labour shortage followed the devastation of the 1348-’49 Black Death, meaning that labourers could make new demands and seek new opportunities, though the lords did not cave in. 1351’s Statute of Labourers was one parliamentary response which involved trying to cap wages, restrict mobility, and keep serfs tied to the land, and this contributed further to the ongoing resentments.
But the more immediate causes of the 1381 uprising included the introduction of new taxes, the most infamous of which was the 1380 poll tax and its heavy-handed collection. Despite the famous label given to the revolt, the uprising did not just involve peasants but also local officials, lower clergy, urban dwellers, and escaped prisoners. Accordingly, rebel interests ranged from social mobility through the end of serfdom to settling old scores. But the longer-term class resentments are crucial for helping us understand both the career of a figure like Ball and why his ideas were so closely associated with the 1381 uprising.
Such demands were presented, of course, in Christian terms. Ball picked up on a known biblical example which looked to the beginning of human history to undermine the exploitative social hierarchy of the present and point to future transformation: ‘When Adam dug and Even span, who was then a gentleman?’
It is often claimed that this saying promoted radical egalitarianism, but this needs some qualification when understood in Ball’s context. In Ball’s view, there would still be a divinely justified social hierarchy, but now it would be one which would dispense justice for those who laboured rather than serve the interests of lordly power. Ball, after all, would be the new leader of the church and evidence from the chroniclers suggests that the rebels believed in the idea of popular local ‘kings’ under an idealised and just King of England.
But it remained that this new future was expected to favour those who laboured, as Ball’s emphasis on the activities of Adam and Eve already suggests. Letters attributed to Ball further combine the labour involved in breadmaking with Christian ideas about the bread of the Eucharist and accompanying ideas of sacrifice, salvation, and liberation. In somewhat cryptic language, one letter refers to the coded name of ‘John Miller’ who has ‘ground small, small, small; The King of Heaven’s Son shall ransom all.’
This rethinking of eucharistic ideas ‘from below,’ and as a justification of rebel interests and for the uprising itself, may also be reflected in the timing of rebels’ arrival in London on Thursday 13 June 1381—the feast of Corpus Christi. Corpus Christi was a celebration of the Eucharist and the body of Christ and it is commonly argued that the uprising was a deliberate commentary on the state of the social body and the new social body that was to come.
Ball and the rebels seem to have thought that June 1381 marked the divinely appointed or justified time for action, though with a strong emphasis on human agency. In a sermon allegedly delivered at Blackheath on the eve of the entrance into London, Ball was said to have claimed that God ‘had now given them the time during which they could put off the yoke of their long servitude’ and ‘rejoice in the liberty they had long desired.’
It was a sermon which foregrounded the violence required of the rebels and that they must bring about the great transformation ‘by killing the post powerful lords of the realm, then by slaying the lawyers, justiciars, and jurors of the land, and finally, by weeding out from their land any that they knew would in the future be harmful to the commonwealth.’
In this, transformed England would echo the idealised past of Christian origins in that there would be communally-shared possessions and distribution according to need. Ball was said to have proclaimed that things were ‘not well to pass in England, nor shall do till everything be common.’ This idea of ‘everything be common’ probably involved full access to the resources of the land along the lines of a demand attributed to Tyler in his meeting with the king,
All game, whether in waters or in parks and woods should become common to all, so that everywhere in the realm, in rivers and fishponds, and woods and forests, they might take the wild beasts, and hunt the hare in the fields, and do many other such things without restraint.
The failed uprising of 1381 obviously pointed to possibilities of an existence beyond the established Medieval order of lords and peasants. While Ball himself may have received overwhelmingly hostile treatment at the hands of historians, intellectuals, and theologians for the next 400 years, ideas similar to his would re-emerge – most strikingly in the seventeenth-century English Revolution, which now threatened the very idea of a monarchy.
The reputation of Ball himself was eventually rescued with the emergence of bourgeois capitalism and parliamentary democracy, with his ideas now seen as far more reasonable in an age where serfdom was a thing of the increasingly distant past. But a more reformist Ball was only one reading to take hold by the early nineteenth century; the other major reading was Ball as someone who now represented a challenge to wage-slavery and capitalism itself.
William Morris—one of Ball’s greatest interpreters—recognised that Ball was of his time both in terms of critiquing feudalism and in his religious beliefs. But Morris also stressed that the example of Ball’s will and sacrifice for change was still needed to help bring about the transformation to socialism and a new world where things will be held in common and distribution made according to need. As Morris put it in A Dream of John Ball, people win and lose battles yet ‘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 so others ‘have to fight for what they meant under another name.’
A century ago, Ball and Morris’ reading of Ball as an English hero integral to understanding the emergence of capitalism and the transformation to socialism was the norm on the left. Now is the time to rehabilitate once again the contribution of this forgotten English legend to our history and to our understanding of historical change.