Revolting times: Our ruling class needs to pay heed to its fed-up subjects now

British life today has startling parallels with 1381 in the days leading up to the Peasants' Revolt, argues the author of a new book on the bloody rebellion

A political class perceived as out of touch and self-serving. Punitive taxation frittered away on pointless foreign wars. Repressive labour legislation and wage control at home. A disaffected population feeling powerless, voiceless, angry and ripe for recruitment by radical preachers offering a vision of a new political and social order. Not to mention a deadly disease of apocalyptic proportions spreading uncontrollably across the world and threatening to invade our shores.

If that sounds like an accurate account of Britain today then you might be surprised to learn that it is also a description of England in the summer of 1381, an incredibly significant moment in history when the entire fabric of society was shaken to its foundations by the eruption of the first large-scale popular rebellion that the country had ever seen.

Thousands of ordinary men and women across the English shires, from Bridgwater in the South-west to Scarborough in the North-east, attacked corrupt local officials, burned government records and declared themselves free of the chains of serfdom that bound them. The men of Essex and Kent went further, marching on the capital to confront the King himself. With the aid of Londoners, they torched some of the city’s most important buildings, executed the most senior ministers of the Crown and massacred the immigrants that they blamed for their own economic woes.

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This was the so-called Peasants’ Revolt, a misnomer if ever there was one, because the rebels were not simply a Monty-Python-esque mob of agricultural labourers waving pitchforks but included wealthy farmers and burgesses, gentlemen and even former members of parliament. That men of such standing were driven to armed rebellion at all says a great deal about their frustration at the inability to make themselves heard, and their problems understood, by those in authority. For a decade, they had been subjected to heavy annual taxation (including the notorious poll taxes) to pay for military campaigns in France which achieved nothing. English armies were unable to make any gains on the ground because they were hampered by treacherous allies, inadequate equipment and appallingly high casualty rates – problems that are distressingly familiar to our troops still fighting unpopular foreign wars more than 600 years later. Worse still, they proved incapable of preventing the French from making frequent and often catastrophic attacks on English shipping and coastal towns, burning, plundering and seizing hostages as they did so.

Rising popular anger at the government’s abject and expensive failure to protect its people from foreign attack was fuelled by hatred of the King’s uncle, John of Gaunt. Today’s coalition government claims the imperative to cut public spending and enforces austerity measures that frequently seem only to target ordinary people, and yet seems to find money from the public purse to fund its own grandiose and expensive pet projects, such as HS2, without an electoral mandate to do so. John of Gaunt similarly had no scruples about diverting public money raised for the realm’s defence to fund his own political and military ambitions on the world stage.

Having married the daughter of the deposed King of Castile, Gaunt was determined to win the Castilian crown for himself, even if he had to use English arms, men and money to do so. To ordinary people, it seemed that corruption was endemic. If the wealthiest and most powerful man in the kingdom felt entitled to abuse his position for his own ends, then it was not surprising that so many others in authority also had their noses in the trough: sheriffs and tax-collectors who extorted more than their due in order to line their own pockets; stewards of vast private estates, many of them held by the church, who coerced tenants into performing physical labour for their landlords or profiteered from fining them for alleged offences; Justices of the Peace who accepted bribes and brutally enforced against others the Statute of Labourers, which fixed wages at uneconomic rates more than 30 years out of date, but themselves ignored its provisions with impunity.

Again, there are obvious parallels with our own times, both in the recent scandal of MPs exploiting their expenses to make indefensible claims (duck houses and pornographic videos inevitably spring to mind) and in the current outrageous situation where poorly paid yet indispensible public servants, including midwives and nurses, are denied a one per cent increase in wages by a Government whose MPs are about to receive a 10 per cent increase for doing less work than their predecessors.

What made the situation in 1381 even more toxic was the fact that there was no one to turn to for redress. The King, Richard II, was a boy and ultimate power lay in the hands of his uncles and his ministers, the very people whom the public held responsible for government incompetence and corruption. Parliament, which should have been the obvious mouthpiece for popular discontent, was stuffed to the gills with those who benefited from the system: not just the great land owners of the House of Lords but the gentry and merchants of the House of Commons, who were exploiting their roles as sheriffs, stewards and Justices of the Peace in the shires and county towns, for their own personal gain.

It was hardly surprising that there was a rising sense of popular anger and frustration which radical preachers were able to tap into and feed. What they all had in common was the fundamentalist Christian belief that God had created all men equal: it followed that all the bonds of lordship upon which society was built had no scriptural authority and were therefore illegitimate. This argument was most powerfully articulated in the famous lines attributed to John Balle: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” The natural corollary of such ideas was that lordship in all its forms could – and should – be swept away. Here, too, we can draw comparisons with today. Islamic fundamentalists, from those dubbed “preachers of hate” by the popular press to the fanatics who fight in the ranks of Isis, have a similarly simplistic and reductive agenda: they argue that Western society is degenerate and morally corrupt so it should be destroyed and a new universal caliphate, based on the purest forms of sharia, be erected in its place.

Balle is generally depicted as the great architect of the revolt in 1381, the man of ideas and principles who gave the people their voice and the rebellion its agenda. Like Alex Salmond in Scotland and Nigel Farage in England, he was a demagogue who portrayed himself as a man of the people and powerfully articulated the sense of popular disconnect with the Westminster elite of his day. It is surprising, therefore, that we know so little about him – and almost all that we think we know is wrong. We do not know when or where he was born, or became a priest. We know that he was a former chaplain who had been thrown out of the church in 1364 for preaching “articles contrary to the faith” but he had not been silenced, taking his message to the people by wandering from place to place and sermonising in churchyards and at market crosses. In this, he was like most unlicensed preachers of the time, including the friars, who attacked the worldly wealth and moral corruption of the established church while preaching and practising apostolic poverty and simplicity of life themselves.

What Balle is best remembered for today is his famous sermon at Blackheath, based on the Adam and Eve adage, but this is almost certainly a fiction created by Thomas Walsingham, a hostile monastic chronicler determined to blame heresy for causing the revolt. By quoting extensively from the supposed sermon, and having Balle preach it at Blackheath, where the assembled rebels were about to invade London and murder the head of the church in England, Walsingham placed the excommunicate chaplain at the spiritual and physical heart of a rebellion that threatened to overthrow both church and state. Even if Balle’s personal role has been deliberately exaggerated by the Establishment to suit the post-revolt narrative, it was deeply significant in at least two respects: almost all the surviving evidence places him in Essex, at the heart of the region where the revolt began, and, in contravention of usual church practice, he preached – and wrote – in English, the language of the common people.

Balle, and others like him, articulated the grievances of the population at large and, in their fundamentalist ideology, offered a vision of an alternative society founded on purely religious principles. In doing so, they stirred up a generation of unlikely converts to their cause – not just the poor, marginalised and uneducated who were always easily incited to rebel, but also the wealthy and literate, many of them in positions of trust and authority, who felt both financially exploited and politically ignored by the Establishment.

These unnatural rebels had no other way of making their voices heard and their legitimate concerns addressed. They were therefore prepared to join an armed rebellion against the state, even if the vast majority of them had little or no sympathy with its more radical elements. As many Ukip supporters today have also discovered, joining a more extreme political party to register a protest against the mainstream parties can also mean having to put up with some uncomfortable bedfellows, from out-and-out racists to those who believe that a woman’s place is only in the kitchen. But, just as in 1381, these protest voters feel that this is what they must do to achieve change.

It is here, I think, that we can learn lessons for today. One might question how a popular revolt that was quickly crushed and achieved none of its stated aims can teach anything to those living more than 600 years later. Our world would be unrecognisable to our medieval ancestors, not just in its technology and material condition, but in its forms of society. We proudly claim to be democratic and liberal. We boast that wealth, social background and power are immaterial because we are all equal under the law and no one can be discriminated against because of age, gender or religion.

And yet, just as in 1381, there is a simmering discontent throughout Britain which is not purely the result of our economic woes, though low wages and unemployment are a festering sore. There is a sense of disconnection with the political Establishment, fostered by a feeling that we, the ordinary people, especially those living outside London, are not being heard by those who are supposed to represent us in Parliament.

Vainglorious Prime Ministers such as Tony Blair and David Cameron appear interested only in posturing on the world stage and, regardless of the cost in lives and to our purses, have committed us to foreign wars we cannot win. Westminster politicians of all parties appear to feel entitled rather than obligated: the party whip prevails over loyalty to the views of constituents and it is only powerful big businesses that seem to have the ear of the Government.

All this helps to explain why Farage’s Ukip party is storming its way up the polls, how Salmond came so close to winning the referendum for an independent Scotland and what the appeal is of Islamist extremists such as Abu Hamza and Anjem Choudary. The Establishment might choose to dismiss and pour scorn on such radicals, but they are Balle’s successors and, rightly or wrongly, they articulate the disenfranchisement that many people feel in Britain today.

We have to learn the lessons of the past. If those who are supposed to represent and govern us don’t, or won’t, listen, then ultimately they will be held to account – but preferably at the next election rather than in a second Peasants’ Revolt.

© Juliet Barker, October 2014

England, Arise: The People, the King and the Great Revolt of 1381, by Juliet Barker (Little, Brown, £25), is out now