Part 1 of James Crossley’s talk at Cambridge Socialist Club’s ‘Forward Cambridge 2019’ (6 April 2019)
Like many socialists in this country, particularly as they hit middle age, I’ve developed a fondness for the English radical tradition.By this I mean the long English history of those who stood up to feudal, state, capitalist, or fascist power and fought for liberty, representation and sometimes even the overthrow of the economic, social and political order (e.g., the Diggers, Levellers, Chartists, Tolpuddle martyrs, Peterloo, Jewish and Irish East-enders, Suffragettes, and so on).
What interests me at the moment is the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and its leading intellectual, the priest John Ball. My interests have focused on the action in London, but it was an uprising that occurred broadly throughout the south east, including Cambridge itself—the University was trashed, and one Margery Starre was said to have thrown the ashes of the archives into the air and proclaimed, ‘away with the learning of clerks! Away with it!’
The Peasants’ Revolt was sparked off by a poll tax and disagreements over the status of a serf, as well as tapping into all sorts of other grievances and conflicts over labour demands following the Black Death. The revolt quickly grew and as it moved to London it became a sometimes disciplined (sometimes not) attack on elite locations (including the Savoy Palace). This also involved targeting lawyers and major landowners, demanding economic and legal freedoms and the end of serfdom, and springing prisoners from prison. Arguably the most spectacular result was the beheading of leading figures of the realm, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor, Simon Sudbury, and the Treasurer of England, Robert Hales.
The term ‘Peasants’ may be a bit misleading, even though rural workers would have made up a sizeable number. The revolt also included local officials, plenty of Londoners, and, crucially, the lower clergy with an understanding of wealth, power and privilege that was often revolutionary, and certainly different from that of the church authorities. Even if success was always unlikely, the storming of London and the deaths of leading elites show the extent of the threat the rebels posed to the status quo.
But despite King Richard II seemingly accepting their demands, the revolt failed, perhaps due to the cunning of the king combined with the naivety of rebels’ trust in him. Of the leaders of the London-based revolt, Wat Tyler went down first. John Ball too was soon captured then hanged, drawn and quartered.
A regular thorn in the side of the church authorities, John Ball had long used the Bible in his regular criticism of lords and landowners. In Medieval England, the Bible was effectively the main source for a revolutionary message and in Ball’s most famous sermon during the uprising he was said to have uttered his most famous words, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’ This call for a return to a time of no serfs and no lords has remained popular to this day. But one part of this message has not been widely remembered: a message which pushed for patient organisation combined with a time appointed to act, including the killing of lords which, it was claimed he said, was needed to attain peace and equality.
In Part 2 we’ll look at why this often-forgotten piece of English history is still worth remembering—and why it is sometimes forgotten.
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