Monday, 31 August 2020

The Peasants Strike Back

The people had had enough. Endless war, a deadly pandemic, and stagnant wages had pushed them to the edge of revolt. The actions of a selfish oligarchy took them over it. I could be writing about America in 2020, but the events in question took place in 14th century England.

England had been at war with France almost continuously since King Edward III laid claim to the French throne in the 1330s. Historians call the conflict the Hundred Years War, though no one called it that at the time, obviously. The fighting had favoured the English in the early going. They won several major victories, notably at Crecy in 1346 and at Poitiers ten years later. In a treaty of 1360 they gained control of large parts of France. In the 1370s, however, the war resumed and the French won back what they had lost and more. (Image: Battle of Crecy, 1346. Chronicles of Jean Froissart)

In 1376 England's greatest warrior Edward, the Black Prince, died of a lingering disease.. He was also heir to the English throne. His father Edward III died the following year. The crown passed to his son, ten year old Richard II. During the next few years, actual power was in the hands of councils dominated by overmighty nobles, including Richard's uncles. (Image: Richard II, portrait in Westminster Abbey, 1390s)

In order to pay for the French war, the government raised taxes. It introduced a new tax, a regressive poll tax. Attempts to collect the tax in May 1381 triggered a massive popular uprising. The causes of the revolt go far beyond hatred of the particular tax, however. Unrest and tension had been growing for decades. At its heart was the response of the ruling classes to the effects of the plague pandemic later known as the Black Death.

The plague arrived in England in 1348, having made its way along trade routes from the Far East. By 1349 it had killed between 40 and 60 per cent of the population. Plague returned in 1361, killing off another 20 per cent or so. One effect of this massive mortality was a severe shortage of labour. Peasants and other workers saw an opportunity to improve their condition. They demanded higher wages and an end to serfdom and other injustices.

The landed classes, the lords and gentry who dominated Parliament, responded with the Statute of Labourers (1351). That act essentially froze wages at their pre-plague levels. Although not entirely successful, it worked well enough to arouse widespread anger at the government and the aristocrats that controlled it. The sense of injustice contributed to the popularity of egalitarian ideologies.

The revolt broke out in Essex on May 30 with an attack on tax collectors. It spread quickly to Kent and much of the Southeast. The rebels, who included artisans and local officials, burned court records and emptied the jails. Thousands of Kentish rebels marched on nearby London, led by Wat Tyler and a radical priest, John Ball, whom the rebels had released from prison.

At Blackheath, near London, Ball famously exhorted the rebels to fight for equality. "When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?" he asked. "From the beginning all men were by nature created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of evil men ... now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may ... cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty." (Image: John Ball encouraging the rebels; Wat Tyler is in red at front left. Chronicles of Jean Froissart)

On June 13, sympathetic citizens admitted them into the capital. Together, they destroyed the Savoy Palace, residence of the king's hated uncle John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. They attacked the jails, burned buildings, and killed a number of government officials, including the Lord Chancellor and Lord High Treasurer. Richard II fled to the safety of the Tower of London.

On the 14th, Richard met the rebels representatives at Mile End and granted most of their demands, including the abolition of serfdom. On the following day he met them again. On this occasion, a melee that broke out, and the king's party killed Wat Tyler. (Image: The Death of Wat Tyler, Chronicles of Jean Froissart)

In the confusion that followed, Richard managed to calm the rebels and assure them he was on their side. "I am your captain, follow me," he is alleged to have said, and led them away from the scene. Meanwhile, the Lord Mayor of London rallied a militia and confronted the rebel forces. Richard urged them to disperse to their homes, which most did.

The rebellion continued in other places but the king's supporters suppressed it during the next few weeks and months. Richard rescinded his promises for change, including the abolition of serfdom. Most of the rebel leaders were hunted down and executed, along with about 1500 others.

The Great Revolt, or Peasants' Revolt, as it is more conventionally known, failed to win the rebels' immediate demands. Yet, the fright it gave to the ruling orders did help bring change. The poll tax was abandoned. Nothing like it was imposed again until the time of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. It also aroused mass outrage and was replaced in 1993 by the Council Tax.

Subsequent Parliaments were reluctant to raise taxes, making it difficult for the government to pay for campaigns in France. Serfdom was not abolished but gradually died out over the next few decades, as labour services were commuted into money rents.

Wages also rose, despite the Statute of Labourers. Economic laws proved stronger than the laws of Parliament. Between 1350 and 1450 wages nearly doubled. The 15th century has sometimes been called the Golden Age of the English Peasant. Unfortunately, these gains were lost by population growth in the 16th century.

The Peasants' Revolt has continued to fascinate historians, writers, artists, and musicians into our own times. In 1888, the artist, writer, and designer William Morris published a novel about the Great Revolt A Dream of John Ball. The work centres on Ball and his egalitarian ideology. Below is one of Morris's illustrations for the novel.

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