Class war in feudal England


Summer of Blood: The Peasants' Revolt of 1381
By Dan Jones
Harper Press, 2009
238 pages, $49.99 (hb)

The art of negotiation was on full display in England in 1381 when the peasants and labourers from country and city rebelled and marched on London as an army of up to 140,000.

They sent a delegation one tenth of their size to negotiate with the king on the banks of the Thames. At the sight of this, the king's entourage bolted back to the safety of the Tower of London. They resolved next time to lure the rebels' leader, Wat Tyler, away from his army, to kill him and decapitate the rebellion.

Dan Jones' Summer of Blood recounts the Peasant Revolt of 1381, when rebellion swept through feudal England and came within a whisker of toppling the royal government.

Feudalism was based on the labour of the peasants, all of who were held in some sort of bondage, as serf or tenant farmer, to their landlords. What the lord on Earth didn't take was taken by the lord in heaven: the church creamed off its 10%, divinely ordaining the hierarchy of rich and poor.

Into this grossly unequal society, however, came a great leveller (in more ways than one) — the Black Death.

Bubonic plague, which struck in 1348, was not only a leveller in death, killing up to half the population. It also created a massive labour shortage, which greatly increased the economic bargaining power of the surviving labourers and peasants for higher wages and an end to economic bondage.

This did not suit the wealthy, of course. Their figurehead, King Edward III, issued a royal decree — the Statute of Labourers — which fixed wages and required labourers to serve wherever and whenever instructed under threat of the stocks, fines or jail.

To these oppressive labour laws the economic drain of virtually permanent war (mostly with France) was added. War was a quick path to private wealth but it was the public purse that had to finance the military. From 1377, a series of three poll taxes, each more pernicious than the last, were imposed on every person over fourteen.

When armed tax collectors fanned out from London in April 1381, acting with aggression and contempt towards the villagers, the provocation proved too much. At the village of Fobbing in Essex, the villagers sent the tax collectors packing with a hail of arrows.

The revolt spread rapidly, village by village. It was disciplined, organised and politically focussed under the leadership of Wat Tyler, an inspirational elected leader of a 70,000-strong peasant army in Kent (Jack Straw headed a similar sized army in Essex).

The revolt had the support of the rousing rhetoric of John Ball, a radical parish priest three-times imprisoned by the Archbishop of Canterbury for advocating simple, elementary equality.

The rebel army were judicious in their targets, picking the wealthiest among the landowners, nobility, merchants, lawyers, judges and clergy, and those royal officials they held responsible for corruption and injustice.

They freed prisoners (most of them poor debtors and one of them, Ball, a political prisoner) and ceremonially burnt crown and county records of debt, bondage and poll tax liabilities.

Their uprisings involved no indiscriminate looting. It was banned on pain of death for those rebels who sought private enrichment.

The rebels initially held the upper hand, with London occupied, the royal government paralysed and with the army away facing the French and the always troublesome Scots. The king could do nothing but agree to all the rebels' demands.

The king also sacrificed his royal gang to the wolves, sanctioning the pursuit of all "traitors". The three most hated men in England — the richest landowner (the Duke of Lancaster), the Treasurer (Sir Robert Hales) and the Archbishop of Canterbury (who was also Lord Chancellor) — all lost their heads when the Tower guards suffered a collective failure of nerve and lowered the drawbridge to the rebels.

The old gang were gone but the wealthy classes remained. They closed ranks in the face of the menace to property and lordship in general. Building up their private armed forces, they planned a counter-strike. Tyler was lured to his assassination by the mayor of London as the rebels' forces split, some returning home, uplifted by the king's apparent concessions.

This trust in the fundamental goodness of a divinely sanctioned king (the rebels blamed the king's advisors for whispering poison into the ears of the new child-king, Richard) was to be cruelly betrayed. Military rule was imposed, and the normal system of wealth transfer from the poor to the rich was resumed.

Royal Commissions with punitive, extra-legal powers to hunt, try, mutilate and decapitate rebels, carried out swift and brutal reprisals. Ball's capture and execution (he was hanged, beheaded, disembowelled and quartered, just to make sure), crowned five months of grisly slaughter, when up to 7000 rebels were killed.

This was the crimson backdrop to a venomous lesson in political philosophy delivered by the king. He addressed village envoys at Waltham who were seeking the rights he had earlier promised: "You wretches …are not worthy to live. Villeins you are, and villeins you will remain; in permanent bondage, not as it was before, but incomparably harsher. We shall strive to keep you in subjection." He then had them slaughtered.

The tale of the Peasants' Revolt is capably told by Jones, although he is wary of being mistaken for a socialist by showing too much empathy for the rebels (there was "humanity and heroism on both sides", he writes of rebels and royal butchers alike).

Jones correctly observes that all contemporary chroniclers of the revolt recorded "with extreme prejudice" the deeds of the hated peasants, forever "staining the historical memory of the revolt with class hatred". This "class dimension", he goes on to say, however, has "attracted historians with a greater interest in applying historical theory than in fulfilling the historian's most important duty: to tell … a cracking good story".

Jones then proceeds, despite his distaste for class theory, to describe an historical epic of class conflict erupting into class struggle, which and climaxed into class war.

Although he acknowledges the "brilliance of a great protest against fundamental wrongs", in Jones' eyes the Peasant Revolt was "fleeting", and he lends no weight to any historical theory based on class.

Yet the spectre of exploited classes in rebellion haunted all subsequent English rulers, dissuading them from ever attempting to resurrect a poll tax again until Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher, tried it 600 years later, only to lose her political throne to another stirring protest.

The high and mighty have forever lived in fear of the lowly who repeatedly rise to great heights of revolt. Jones may not agree but it would seem, as Karl Marx put it, that all history is indeed the history of class struggle.