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Revolt rekindled: when Adam delved and Wat did rebel

A radical history event reignited the flame of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, a grassroots uprising that terrified kings and clergy, for ALISON BANVILLE and JAMES FLOREY

“MATTERS cannot go well in England, nor ever will, until all things shall be held in common, when there shall be neither vassals nor lords, when the lords shall be no more masters than ourselves.” — John Ball
 
On the evening of June 13 we attended a free event held in Clerkenwell, London, and hosted by the Marx Memorial Library as part of their Reds on the Green series, which aims to bring alive England’s rich radical history.

This night was devoted to the Peasant’s Revolt, a seismic historical moment that holds particular resonance for Clerkenwell, the huge throng led by Wat Tyler having gathered here on their way to confront King Richard II, but not before they burnt down the original priory on the very site we were now sitting in, currently the Museum of the Order of St John.

The evening got started with a fascinating short lecture and Q&A with historian James Crossley and compelling readings by acclaimed actor and vice-president of the Marx Memorial Library, Maxine Peake.

Both brought alive the momentous events of June 1381 when a huge grassroots uprising which had erupted in Essex and Kent and which triggered rebellions across a swathe of counties reaching even as far afield as Yorkshire, came together to march to London and demand an end to serfdom, crippling taxes, wage caps, the corruption of the church and state officials. In other words, they wanted their freedom.

Peake, in her captivating readings, reminded us of the words of the radical priest John Ball who, after being released from prison by the Kentish rebels led by Tyler, addressed them at Blackheath with an inspiring open-air sermon during which he declared: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” reminding them — and us — that “from the beginning all men by nature were created alike” and that their “bondage and servitude came in by the unjust oppression” of corrupt men.

James Florey, a member of Veterans For Peace, asked Crossley if, as he suspected, veterans from the hundred years war took part in the revolt? This was confirmed, which might explain the historian’s assertion that the rebels were a disciplined group and far from a wild, unruly mob.

The rebels did indeed put to death many local and national figures they deemed key in oppressing the people, but this was calculated, not a murderous frenzy.

As legendary journalist Paul Foot tells us in his brilliant talk on the revolt, “King Richard had a gang. They were known as a gang.” This gang included his uncle John of Gaunt who acted as regent when Richard became king at just nine years old.

Gaunt, “the most hated man in England,” was “strongly challenged for the title by Sir Robert Hales (Hob the Robber), the Treasurer of England.”

A gang member also was “Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Chancellor,” who “made sure he was head of the church and head of the law at the same time.”

Sudbury lost his life while John of Gaunt escaped execution only because he happened to be in the north when the rebels reached his lavish home, the Savoy Palace. Still, they took one of his jackets, made an effigy of him and then hacked it to pieces before burning his beloved house to the ground.

If we should be in any doubt as to the relevance of the Peasants’ Revolt in modern times, Foot reminds us that at the time of his talk in 1981, 600 years after the events took place, Lambeth Palace released a statement confirming that “the archbishop will not be attending this year any of the celebrations which are being held to commemorate the Peasants’ Revolt.” His spokesman added: “This is not a celebration with which Dr Runcie would want to be associated.”

Unsurprising, observes Foot wryly, “because the first thing that the rebels did when they got into the Tower of London on June 16 1381 was to search out the archbishop of Canterbury to tell him what they thought of him, and to chop off his head.”

And Elizabeth II? “Her Majesty the Queen will not be attending any celebrations this year to commemorate the Peasants’ Revolt,” Buckingham Palace stated at the time.

Establishment historians, being a part of the system of oppression, like to tell us that the uprising failed — end of story. But Foot disagrees and so do we.

The Establishment does not want the idea of its ultimate success to be known. They do not want to face the fact that when we properly organise we are extremely powerful and we can win; as Foot says, the king and his nobles “had seen the strength and the potential of the risen people.”

Indeed, just one year after the uprising in 1382 a new poll tax targeted landowners only. In 1390, Foot tells us, “the attempt to hold down wages by law was formally abandoned and the statute of labourers effectively repealed. By 1430, only 50 years from the end of the Peasants’ Revolt, bondage and villeinage had been abolished, in England before anywhere else in Europe.”

And why was it, asks Foot, that it was first in England “in the revolution of the 1640s that feudalism was crushed?” His answer: it is “precisely in the success of the Peasants’ Revolt,” and “the most important thing” about it was that “it was organised.”

The appointment of representatives, the linking from the town to the country, from county to county. By these means, by planning and organisation, men like Ball, Tyler, Rawe, Grindcobbe and Straw, from the darkest depths of feudal England, were able to raise two mighty armies which scared the living daylights out of the rulers of the time.

How the righteous anger of the rebels and their just cause chimes through the centuries. “The scaring has gone on for 600 years,” asserts Foot. “Nothing concentrates the minds of the hereditary landlords and capitalists quite like the memory of Wat Tyler.”

Maxine Peake had profound words to say about all this when we talked to her after the event.

“First and foremost I’m the vice-president of the Marx Memorial Library. I was asked to come and do some readings. I’m very open to these sorts of events with these organisations — it gets the story out and helps get the message out.

“The importance of the Peasants’ Revolt today is that we can rise up, can’t we? We did it in the 17th century — it obviously wasn’t the biggest success, but it goes to show we can mobilise — apart from chopping people’s heads off! But we can, it’s the whole thing — there’s more of us than there is of them.

“I mean what are we doing? Positions of power, politically so many people are absolutely stumped as to who to vote for — we have an election coming up — maybe our political system isn’t fit for purpose.”

We asked her if she thought that acting and performing is part of, and has a part to play in, the traditions of English radicalism. “I think so,” she replied.

“It’s about storytelling. Stories in action. You can imagine a big action streaming version of the Peasants’ Revolt would be an amazing story to tell. You can just imagine scenes with Wat Tyler when the poll tax collectors come to his door and the terrible things that happened to his daughter — but then maybe the powers that be would be too frightened to make it!

“But then there are films I’ve been in, like Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, and also something I did years ago called Devil’s Whore. Fiction is based around fact — but still, it’s getting people interested in the past. Sometimes people can be quite moribund with the truth, but it gets people thinking: ‘I want to know more about that.’

“Telling stories is a really important part of getting across to people and letting them get to the history. We were never taught at school about the Levellers, or the Diggers or the Ranters — it was all kings and queens — and who really cares about that?”

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