The revolt of 1381 by tens of thousands of peasants shook England’s rulers. This new edition of Mark O’Brien’s short but powerful book recognises the importance of this entry of the poor into English history.
England was dominated by the king; lords and the church reached into every area of the peasants’ lives. The authorities imposed a poll tax on people to help finance wars against France.
The situation of unfree peasants or “villeins” was grim. They owned “nothing but their bellies”. There were laws on what they could wear, and on what and when they could eat.
O’Brien connects the revolt to the internal contradictions of feudalism. The plague had cut the population of Europe. That and technological development meant a shortage of labour, which enabled class relations to be challenged.
Freedom to work and move became intertwined with a broader ideal of freedom.
The revolt began when people in the Essex villages refused to pay a poll tax. Two great peasant armies assembled, one from Essex led by Jack Straw and the other from Kent led by Wat Tyler. Both armies marched on London.
The rebels captured castles and jails. They freed prisoners including radical preacher John Ball. They arrived at Blackheath on 12 June where Ball preached:
“Matters cannot go well in England nor ever shall until all things shall be held in common, when there are no vassals nor lords.”
On 13 June, as Mark puts it, “the peasants entered London as a conquering army”. They marched with discipline. Each section represented a town or a village. Some 60,000 people occupied the city.
They seized the archbishop and the treasurer of England, the equivalent of George Osborne today, and beheaded them.
The rebels met King Richard II at Mile End in east London. Tyler “asked that no lord should have lordship in future but it should be divided among all men”.
The revolt demanded the liberation of the serfs, the freezing of rents and a pardon for all rebels. The king verbally agreed to this.
Many trusted the king, believing he was a good man being misguided by his advisers.
That gave the rulers time to regroup and strike back. Tyler was lured to a meeting at Smithfield the day after the king’s promise of freedom. The mayor of London William Walworth cut off his head.
The reaction saw at least 7,000 people killed. But the revolt had terrified the rich. Mark writes, “The rulers of England had seen what their vassals were capable of. They had stared revolution in the face and they did not like it.”
By being firmly on the side of the revolt and explaining its roots When Adam Delved and Eve Span is an essential introduction to what Mark describes rightly as “a wonderful historical drama” and “an allegory for our times”.