'Kill all the Gentlemen’

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John Ball encouraging rebels in the Peasant's Revolt, 1381

This is an engrossing and readable account of the great sweep of rural revolts in England which more than lives up to its magnificent title.

The English countryside is usually presented to us as bucolic, timeless and unchanging, the epitome of the “real England”. This is in contrast to the fast-changing, strange and crowded cities and towns. Think of English Heritage, antique roadshows at stately homes or property shows promoting homes in rural villages. It remains an important element in the creation of a national myth of a common interest between “the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate”.

Martin Empson’s fascinating and accessible book turns this impression of English history on its head.

Drawing on a massive amount of research, it tears away at the myth of English history as only the story of kings and queens, their intrigues and battles. In fact key factors driving progress throughout English history included mass challenges to the hated tithes or taxes paid to the lords by peasants, the resistance to enclosure of common land and pastures by vast crowds of people and the huge revolts that marched on London to confront the king and his cronies. These caused the panicked passing of reforms by government ministers fearful of rioters and demonstrations.

Beginning with Wat Tyler and the Peasants Revolt of 1381, through the revolts of the Tudor period, the Diggers in the English Revolution, the machine-breaking Luddites, the Captain Swing revolts, the Tolpuddle martyrs and the development of agricultural trade unions, Martin weaves a rich, continuous narrative of rural class struggle which shaped the whole of modern English society.

Wherever possible, he draws on the words and voices of the rebels themselves, bringing to life their daring, imagination and audacity.

This is history from below in the best sense, rich with detail about the inspiring struggles of those on the ground but used to draw out a better understanding of the greats forces at play in the tensions and shifts between different periods of history.

It is also a remarkably sensitive account of the role of, for example, religious ideas. On the one hand, being used to justify tyranny, inequality and injustice. On the other, providing a language for those who rebel against it. Radical travelling preachers like John Ball, a key figure in the Peasants Revolt, invoked the bible to question the whole existence of a landlord class: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”

It also celebrates the role of women in the revolts, such as the women of Exeter who in 1535 opposed the destruction of a local priory on the orders of Henry VIII and “rallied outside some with spikes, some with shovels, some with pikes, some with such tools as they could get, trapping the workmen who were taking down the roof loft of the church”.

Martin roots his analysis in a careful study of the economic and social relationships, between lords and serfs, rich landowners and peasant farmers, agricultural businesses and rural labourers, and their battles over who controlled the means of life or the surplus that rural labour created. The development of larger fields for more profitable sheep farming, for instance, forcing smallholders off their land, and the gradual enclosure and fencing of previously commonly-held land, was a cause of widespread resistance over centuries.

Martin takes this narrative right up to the present, showing how modern capitalist production methods, such as the widespread use of chemicals and pesticides and their disastrous impact on the environment, on health and the climate, were and are the product of these same social forces.

But this is no attempt to look back to an idyllic rural past. At every stage the book makes clear the harshness, poverty and precarious nature of rural life for most peasants, small farmers or rural labourers.

Martin shows how sometimes the slightest change, the imposition of a new tax to pay for England’s wars or the reduction of wages following a bad harvest, could make life unbearable for vast numbers of people, who could then be drawn in to open revolt against their lords and masters. He also shows how a crisis could suddenly reveal the weakness and vulnerability of the ruling class.

Unable to rely on deference, they relied on brutal violence and terror to put down revolts.

Martin draws out the lessons of the defeat of various revolts and uprisings, how often a misplaced faith in the monarchy or sympathetic lords, with resentment focussed on scheming advisers, time and again led the rebels to drop their guard, trust in offers of a truce and promises of reform, only to be massacred as soon as the balance of forces shifted. The incredible events of 1381, with thousands marching on London from the surrounding counties led by Tyler, trapping the king’s court in the Tower of London, was ultimately disarmed by “good King Richard” making promises of reform. The rebels hesitated, demobilised and then the King took his revenge, with mass hangings of the rebel leaders.

He also makes a very insightful point that the celebration of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, who were sentenced to transportation for forming a trade union in Dorset in 1834, stands in sharp contrast to the lack of commemoration of the more far-reaching and radical Captain Swing rebellion which involving widespread burnings and destruction. The relative moderation of the movement to defend the Tolpuddle Martyrs, involving marches of tens of thousands in London, suited a substantial section of the leadership of newly emerging trade unions, keen to prove their respectability to the employers and government ministers.

This is a magnificent and badly needed book that grounds the fight for a better society today in a deep understanding of history and deserves a wide readership.