“The study of the past with one eye, so to speak, on the present, is the source of all the sins and sophistries in history,” insisted the historian Herbert Butterfield in 1931. His famous warning against what he called the “Whig interpretation of history” – viewing past events as mere stepping stones towards the present, or judging them according to contemporary prejudices – remains worth heeding, precisely because it is both so necessary and so hard to follow.
Take this sentence, from Juliet Barker’s timely and comprehensive new history of the Great Revolt of 1381 (England, Arise: the People, the King and the Great Revolt of 1381, Little, Brown, £25) more commonly – and less accurately, as it turns out – known as the Peasants’ Revolt: “It must have seemed to many of those struggling to earn their livings and feed their families that their hard-earned money was being seized only to finance the personal ambitions of powerful princes.” Squint your eyes enough and you can make out a faint image of early 21st-century Britain, with its hollowed-out politics, disconnected elites, deepening inequality and rudderless waves of anger at the savage effects of globalisation.
Fortunately, Barker does not fall into the trap of openly drawing such comparisons. She has more important aims than writing pop history: she wants to show that the Great Revolt was more significant than has sometimes been assumed, that it was urban as well as rural, and that those who took part in it were often respectable and middle class. Most intriguingly of all, she wants us to take seriously her claim that King Richard II, only 14 years old when the rebellion came so close to uprooting the English elite, sympathised with the rebels and tried to help them achieve their aims.
Barker’s first task is to lay to rest some of the stereotypes about the period. In 14th-century England, she explains, the population was well travelled and increasingly well educated. People were more literate, and written English was becoming commonplace across the social spectrum. Women were more widely educated than usually assumed, and passed that education on: the first documented female schoolteacher turns up in 1335.
Living conditions, too, were “much more sophisticated than popular legend would have us believe”. City regulations enforced cleanliness in private homes and public areas. Toilets were never, whatever the films show, emptied into the street: complex rules about sewage, housing construction, butchery and rubbish disposal made many urban areas relatively clean. Cities had their own municipal water supplies: “the idea that medieval people rarely washed is a 19th-century fallacy”.
Fourteenth-century England, in other words, was an increasingly advanced nation. “There was a new feeling,” writes Barker, “perhaps of individualism, certainly of confidence, fostered by the growth of personal wealth, literacy and numeracy . . . A new middle class had been created that was aspirational, questioning and articulate but had little or no voice in the way the realm was run.”
It was this new middle class, rather than the peasants of popular mythology, which spearheaded the rebellion of 1381, and it did so because “the forces of reaction were mustering and closing in . . . to turn back the clock and reassert their authority”. These “forces of reaction” were embodied in the state functionaries and noblemen around the adolescent king, who were held responsible for the increasing oppression of ordinary people throughout the 1370s.
With no adult king to take command, the nation had been run by aristocrats and bureaucrats whose main interest had been enriching themselves. Local and national corruption, price manipulation, an oppressive manorial system, three poll taxes to pay for foreign wars, and ongoing and often illegitimate land enclosures all combined to create a simmering rage. Then there was the Statute of Labourers, imposed in 1351 to cap the wages of working people. All of it added up to a growing weight on the shoulders of the population.
This was the context in which the Great Revolt began, at Brentwood in Essex in May 1381, when representatives of 16 villages chased the king’s tax commissioners away when they arrived to impose the third poll tax in five years. It seems to have been a planned rebellion rather than a spontaneous revolt. Following the incident at Brentwood, uprisings began across Essex, and later across Kent. Later chronicles of the revolt, written by the aristocracy, portrayed the “rustics’ revolt” as an outpouring of mindless underclass rage. It was anything but. It was controlled and coherent, and its targets were specific. There was rage, but it was focused rage. It had an aim.
The aim would become clear in time, but first the rebels had work to do. Across Kent and Essex, tax commissioners and local commissioners were beheaded and their tax records publicly burnt. Prisoners were released from jails, serfs were freed or fled. After two or three weeks of this, the rebels, who now numbered in their thousands, must have known there was no turning back: they had to take their grievances to the heart of the state, or die in the attempt.
The way the rebels wanted to achieve change is key to understanding the Great Revolt. This was not a revolution: they did not want to kill or dethrone the king, let alone attack the institution of monarchy. Rather, they wanted to save it from itself. Time and again in English history, popular revolts have offered up this same, ultimately conservative, narrative: the king is a good man, but he is surrounded by corrupt advisers. If we can speak to him, he will do right by us. Rage at a loss of personal liberty combined with a respect for rightful authority: it was a very English form of rebellion.
But the thousands of people who massed at Mile End, in Essex, in June 1381, and demanded an audience with the king, were no less terrifying for it. Following an earlier failed attempt to meet with the king at Blackheath, a furious rebel army had invaded London, murdered high-ranking officials including the chancellor and the archbishop of Canterbury, and left chaos in its wake. The 14-year-old king had no choice but to hear what the rebels had to say.
Richard’s meeting with the rebels is one of the most astonishing moments in English history. Imagine the scene: a 14-year-old boy rides out to meet thousands of his armed and angry people. Greatly outnumbered, the king was taking a huge risk. In that moment, the realm itself might have been overthrown. But something quite different happened: “And when the king arrived and the commons saw him, they knelt down to him, saying, ‘Welcome, our Lord King Richard, if it pleases you, and we will not have any other king but you.’ ”
The rebels had come to appeal to the king, as their true leader. They presented him with the most radical list of demands in medieval English history. They demanded he abolish serfdom: no man was to serve any other in England “except at his own will”. They demanded the right to buy and sell goods anywhere in the country, thus breaking the grip of the monopolies and guilds that ran the medieval economy (in other words, not socialism but a freer market). Other demands, which arose later, were even more radical: the abolition of the aristocracy and of the church hierarchy. There were to be no lords but the king, and no masters but the people.
All of this can best be seen in the context of growing prosperity and social mobility. The Great Revolt was less about turning the world upside down than making it fairer: sweeping away corrupt people, institutions and laws and allowing citizens to live without undue state interference or illegitimate burdens. Which is why the most astonishing aspect of the whole affair was the king’s response to the rebels’ demands: he agreed to them and issued sealed proclamations confirming his promise.
What was Richard doing? Most historians, Barker says, assume he was cynically buying time so that he could gather forces to put down the rebels. But the fact that it took him 18 days to revoke the promises he made suggests something different: that he meant it. Barker believes that the young king had a greater connection with his people than with the advisers who surrounded him, and that he genuinely wanted to meet their demands, but that the aristocracy – the same aristocracy that would later depose and murder him – closed ranks and prevented him from doing so.
If all this is true, the Great Revolt of 1381 begins to look like a giant opportunity almost taken. It was not the “Peasants’ Revolt” beloved of the Marxist historians whom Barker criticises for presenting it as “an unavoidable result of the age-old class struggle”. Neither were its two folk heroes, Wat Tyler and John Ball, especially important. Tyler led the Kentish rebels in their last meeting with the king but was only one of many leaders. Ball is even murkier. The famous proto-socialist sermon he is supposed to have given on Blackheath (“when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”) seems to be later invention: Barker doubts he was even there.
But the Great Revolt’s significance is beyond doubt. It was the first time a rebellion against the state had been led by ordinary citizens rather than aristocrats, and the first time those citizens had demanded their personal liberty from their king.
In the event, they failed to win it. The rebels went home, believing the king would keep his word, and they were mistaken. The revenge was brutal: across the south-east of England “gibbets rose where none had been before”. The elite were back in the saddle – but only just, and scars would remain.
It is not too Whiggish to wonder what England would look like now had the rebel demands been met. It is not too Whiggish either, I don’t think, to accept that the study of history does sometimes throw up clear forks on the road: points at which two different paths open up, leading to different possible futures. So, 878, 1066, 1658, 1939: we could argue all day over our favourite turning points in England’s history. Barker shows that, without doubt, the turmoil of 1381 cannot be left off anyone’s list.