John Ball, a leader in the Peasants’ Revolt, is hung, drawn and quartered in the presence of Richard II of England

John Ball was born in St Albans in about 1340. Twenty years later he was working as a priest in York. He eventually became the priest St James’ Church in Colchester. (1) Ball believed it was wrong that some people in England were very rich while others were very poor. Ball’s church sermons criticising the feudal system upset his bishop and in 1366 he was removed from his post as the priest of the church. (2)

Ball now had no fixed job or home and he became a travelling priest and gave sermons, whenever he found “a few people ready to listen, by the roadside, on a village green or in a market place, he would pour forth fiery words against the evils of the day and particularly the sins of the rich.” (3)

According to Dan Jones, the author of Summer of Blood: The Peasants’ Revolt (2009) Ball was “a preacher, a poet, a maverick thinker and a natural rabble-rouser” and the authorities saw him as “being an incessant, heretical nuisance, preaching in churchyards and in public places across the region, railing against inequality, the corruption of the established Church and the tyrannies of the powerful against the powerless.” (4)

John Ball was highly critical of the way the church taxed people and urged them not to pay their tithes. He also believed that the Bible should be published in English. It is claimed that Ball was influenced by the 14th century preacher, John Wycliffe. For example, Thomas Walsingham a Benedictine monk at St Albans Abbey, stated that Ball “taught the people that tithes ought not be paid” and that he was preaching the “wicked doctrines of the disloyal John Wycliffe.” (5)

Some historians such as Charles Oman have disputed this claim because during his research failed to discover any evidence that Ball and his followers “showed any signs of Wycliffite tendencies“. (6) However, Reg Groves quotes Bishop William Courtenay as saying that Ball told him that he was a disciple of Wycliffe. (7) R. B. Dobson has observed: “In their understandable reaction from the deliberately propagated legend that John Ball was John Wycliffe’s disciple, historians… have sometimes unduly discounted a not unimportant connection between these two ideologues – that the audience for their respective messages must certainly have sometimes overlapped.” (8)

Wycliffe, the curate of Ludgershall in Wiltshire, attempted to translate the Bible into English. Henry Knighton, the canon of St Mary’s Abbey, Leicester, reported disapprovingly: “Christ delivered his gospel to the clergy and doctors of the church, that they might administer it to the laity and to weaker persons, according to the states of the times and the wants of men. But this Master John Wycliffe translated it out of Latin into English, and thus laid it out more open to the laity, and to women, who could read, than it had formerly been to the most learned of the clergy, even to those of them who had the best understanding. In this way the gospel-pearl is cast abroad, and trodden under foot of swine, and that which was before precious both to clergy and laity, is rendered, as it were, the common jest of both. The jewel of the church is turned into the sport of the people, and what had hitherto been the choice gift of the clergy and of divines, is made for ever common to the laity.” (9)

John Wycliffe tried to employ the Christian vision of justice to achieve social change: “It was through the teachings of Christ that men sought to change society, very often against the official priests and bishops in their wealth and pride, and the coercive powers of the Church itself.” (10) Barbara Tuchman has claimed that John Wycliffe was the first “modern man“. She goes on to argue: “Seen through the telescope of history, he (Wycliffe) was the most significant Englishman of his time.” (11)

While preaching in Norfolk, Henry le Despenser, the Bishop of Norwich, ordered the imprisonment of John Ball. After he was released he began touring Essex and Kent. During this time he became known as the “mad priest of Kent”. (12) He was released but it was not long before he was once again back in prison. Jean Froissart pointed out in Chronicles:”John Ball had several times been confined in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s prison for his absurd speeches… It would have been better had he locked him up for the rest of his life, or even had him executed.” (13)

Ball preached that “things would not go well with England until everything was held in common“. At these meetings he argued: “Are we not all descended from the same parents, Adam and Eve? So what can they show us, what reasons give, why they should be more the masters than ourselves?” It is in Ball’s words that we find the early concept of the equality of all men and women, “as opposed to the rigid class divisions, privileges and injustice of feudalism; equality as justified by scripture and expressed as fraternity, that was to continue as a basic ideal of the English radical tradition.” (14)

John Ball also complained about laws that were passed telling people what to wear and what to eat. He especially objected to a law that forbade peasants from sending their children to school or to go into the Church to become priests. He also objected to “the law, which also stopped the children of serfs going into the towns to become apprentices… this was done in order to maintain the supply of agricultural labour.” (15)

Ball argued that the feudal system was immoral: “Why are those whom we call lords, masters over us? How have they deserved it? By what right do they keep us enslaved? We are all descended from our first parents, Adam and Eve; how then can they say that they are better than us… At the beginning we were all created equal. If God willed that there should be serfs, he would have said so at the beginning of the world. We are formed in Christ’s likeness, and they treat us like animals… They are dressed in velvet and furs, while we wear only cloth. They have wine, and spices and good bread, while we have rye bread and water. They have fine houses and manors, and we have to brave the wind and rain as we toil in the fields. It is by the sweat of our brows that they maintain their high state. We are called serfs, and we are beaten if we do not perform our task.” (16)

John Ball also complained about government legislation that attempted to control wage levels. Historians estimate that between 30% and 50% of the English population died from the Black Death. The chronicler, Henry Knighton, wrote: “Many villages and hamlets were depopulated, and there were no houses left in them, all who lived in them being dead… there was such a shortage of servants for all sorts of labour as it was believed had never been before”. (17)

This dramatic loss in population led to great changes taking place. Fields were left unsown and unreaped. Those who had not died of the plague were in danger of dying from starvation. Food shortages also resulted in much higher prices. Knighton tells us that “necessaries became so dear that what had been previously worth 1d was now worth 4d or 5d”. Peasants who had purchased their freedom before the Black Death, began to demand higher wages. (18)

Some landowners, desperately short of labour, often agreed to these wage demands. The landowners were worried that if they refused, their workers would run away and find an employer who was willing to pay these higher wages. Eventually landowners began to complained to Edward III about having to pay this extra money. The landowners were also worried about the peasants roaming the country searching for better job opportunities. In 1351, Parliament decided to pass the Statute of Labourers Act. This law made it illegal for employers to pay wages above the level offered in 1346. (19)

The new law set out the maximum daily rates of pay for almost every profession imaginable. Farmers, saddlers, tailors, fishmongers, butchers, brewers, bakers and every other labourer and artisan in England were prevented from charging more than pre-plague prices for their goods or work. The also had to work wherever and whenever they were instructed. “Punishments were tough – three days’ imprisonment in the stocks for first offenders, fines (300 per cent of the offending mark-up for shopkeepers who hiked their prices) and imprisonment for the obstinate.” (20)

Employers, who were desperately short of workers tended to ignore the law. This was especially true of those employers living in towns. Some freemen who had skills in great demand, such as carpenters and masons, began to leave their villages. Serfs became angry when they heard of the wages that people were earning in towns. Some serfs even ran away to towns in an effort to obtain higher wages. Large numbers of serfs went to London. Most of these serfs could only find unskilled manual work. By 1360 over 40,000 people were living in the city. Further outbreaks of the Black Death in 1361 and 1369 increased the labour shortage. (21)

If the serfs were caught they were taken back to their village and punished. It was difficult for the lords of the manor to punish them too harshly. Execution, imprisonment and mutilation only made the labour shortage worse, therefore the courts were more likely to punish the serfs by a fine. Sometimes runaway serfs were branded on the forehead. The rest of the serfs’ tithing group were also fined for not stopping him or her from running away.

King Edward III was also having problems fighting what became known as the Hundred Years War. He achieved early victories at Crécy and Poitiers, but by 1370 the French won a succession of battles and were able to raid and loot towns on the south coast. Fighting the war was very expensive and in February 1377 the government introduced a poll-tax where four pence was to be taken from every man and woman over the age of fourteen. “This was a huge shock: taxation had never before been universal, and four pence was the equivalent of three days’ labour to simple farmhands at the rates set in the Statute of Labourers”. (22)

King Edward died soon afterwards. His ten-year-old grandson, Richard II, was crowned in July 1377. John of Gaunt, Richard’s uncle, took over much of the responsibility of government. He was closely associated with the new Poll Tax and this made him very unpopular with the people. They were very angry as they considered the tax unfair as the poor had to pay the same tax as the wealthy. Despite this, the collectors of the tax seem not to have had to face more than an occasional, local disturbance. (23)

In 1379 Richard II called a parliament to raise money to pay for the continuing war against the French. After much debate it was decided to impose another poll tax. This time it was to be a graduated tax, which meant that the richer you were, the more tax you paid. For example, the Duke of Lancaster and the Archbishop of Canterbury had to pay £6.13s.4d., the Bishop of London, 80 shillings, wealthy merchants, 20 shillings, but peasants were only charged 4d.

Modern portrait of John Ball by David Simkin (1981)

The proceeds of this tax was quickly spent on the war or absorbed by corruption. In 1380, Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggested a new poll tax of three groats (one shilling) per head over the age of fifteen. “There was a maximum payment of twenty shillings from men whose families and households numbered more than twenty, thus ensuring that the rich payed less than the poor. A shilling was a considerable sum for a working man, almost a week’s wages. A family might include old persons past work and other dependents, and the head of the family became liable for one shilling on each of their ‘polls’. This was basically a tax on the labouring classes.” (24)

The peasants felt it was unfair that they should pay the same as the rich. They also did not feel that the tax was offering them any benefits. For example, the English government seemed to be unable to protect people living on the south coast from French raiders. Most peasants at this time only had an income of about one groat per week. This was especially a problem for large families. For many, the only way they could pay the tax was by selling their possessions. John Wycliffe gave a sermon where he argued: “Lords do wrong to poor men by unreasonable taxes… and they perish from hunger and thirst and cold, and their children also. And in this manner the lords eat and drink poor men’s flesh and blood.” (25)

John Ball toured Kent giving sermons attacking the poll tax. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, heard about this he gave orders that Ball should not be allowed to preach in church. Ball responded by giving talks on village greens. The Archbishop now gave instructions that all people found listening to Ball’s sermons should be punished. When this failed to work, Ball was arrested and in April 1381 he was sent to Maidstone Prison. (26) At his trial it was claimed that Ball told the court he would be “released by twenty thousand armed men“. (27)

In May 1381, Thomas Bampton, the Tax Commissioner for the Essex area, reported to the king that the people of Fobbing were refusing to pay their poll tax. It was decided to send a Chief Justice and a few soldiers to the village. It was thought that if a few of the ringleaders were executed the rest of the village would be frightened into paying the tax. However, when Chief Justice Sir Robert Belknap arrived, he was attacked by the villagers. (28)

Belknap was forced to sign a document promising not to take any further part in the collection of the poll tax. According to the Anonimalle Chronicle of St Mary’s: “The Commons rose against him and came before him to tell him… he was maliciously proposing to undo them… Accordingly they made him swear on the Bible that never again would he hold such sessions nor act as Justice in such inquests… And Sir Robert travelled home as quickly as possible.” (29)

After releasing the Chief Justice, some of the villagers looted and set fire to the home of John Sewale, the Sheriff of Essex. Tax collectors were executed and their heads were put on poles and paraded around the neighbouring villages. The people responsible sent out messages to the villages of Essex and Kent asking for their support in the fight against the poll tax. (30)

Many peasants decided that it was time to support the ideas proposed by John Ball and his followers. It was not long before Wat Tyler, a former soldier in the Hundred Years War, emerged as the leader of the peasants. Tyler’s first decision was to march to Maidstone to free John Ball from prison. “John Ball had been set free and was safe among the commons of Kent, and he was bursting to pour out the passionate words which had been bottled up for three months, words which were exactly what his audience wanted to hear.” (31)

Charles Poulsen, the author of The English Rebels (1984) has pointed out that it was very important for the peasants to be led by a religious figure: “For some twenty years he had wandered the country as a kind of Christian agitator, denouncing the rich and their exploitation of the poor, calling for social justice and freeman and a society based on fraternity and the equality of all people.” John Ball was needed as their leader because alone of the rebels, he had access to the word of God. “John Ball quickly assumed his place as the theoretician of the rising and its spiritual father. Whatever the massess thought of the temporal Church, they all considered themselves to be good Catholics.” (32)

On 5th June there was a Peasants’ Revolt at Dartford and two days later Rochester Castle was taken. The peasants arrived in Canterbury on 10th June. Here they took over the archbishop’s palace, destroyed legal documents and released prisoners from the town’s prison. More and more peasants decided to take action. Manor houses were broken into and documents were destroyed. These records included the villeins’ names, the rent they paid and the services they carried out. What had originally started as a protest against the poll tax now became an attempt to destroy the feudal system. (33)

The peasants decided to go to London to see Richard II. As the king was only fourteen-years-old, they blamed his advisers for the poll tax. The peasants hoped that once the king knew about their problems, he would do something to solve them. The rebels reached the outskirts of the city on 12 June. It has been estimated that approximately 30,000 peasants had marched to London. At Blackheath, John Ball gave one of his famous sermons on the need for “freedom and equality”. (34)

Wat Tyler also spoke to the rebels. He told them: “Remember, we come not as thieves and robbers. We come seeking social justice.” Henry Knighton records: “The rebels returned to the New Temple which belonged to the prior of Clerkenwell… and tore up with their axes all the church books, charters and records discovered in the chests and burnt them… One of the criminals chose a fine piece of silver and hid it in his lap; when his fellows saw him carrying it, they threw him, together with his prize, into the fire, saying they were lovers of truth and justice, not robbers and thieves.” (35)

Charles Poulsen praises Wat Tyler as learning the “lessons of organisation and discipline” when in the army and in showing the “same pride in the customs and manners of his own class as the noblest baron would for his”. (36) The medieval historians were less complimentary and Thomas Walsingham described him as a “cunning man, endowed with much sense if he had applied his intelligence to good purposes“. (37)

Richard II gave orders for the peasants to be locked out of London. However, some Londoners who sympathised with the peasants arranged for the city gates to be left open. Jean Froissart claims that some 40,000 to 50,000 citizens, about half of the city’s inhabitants, were ready to welcome the “True Commons”. (38) When the rebels entered the city, the king and his advisers withdrew to the Tower of London. Many poor people living in London decided to join the rebellion. Together they began to destroy the property of the king’s senior officials. They also freed the inmates of Marshalsea Prison. (39)

Part of the English Army was at sea bound for Portugal whereas the rest were with John of Gaunt in Scotland. (40) Thomas Walsingham tells us that the king was being protected in the Tower by “six hundred warlike men instructed in arms, brave men, and most experienced, and six hundred archers”. Walsingham adds that they “all had so lost heart that you would have thought them more like dead men than living; the memory of their former vigour and glory was extinguished”. Walsingham points out that they did not want to fight and suggests they may have been on the side of the peasants. (41)

John Ball sent a message to Richard II stating that the rising was not against his authority as the people only wished only to deliver him and his kingdom from traitors. Ball also asked the king to meet with him at Blackheath. Archbishop Simon Sudbury and Robert Hales, the treasurer, both objects of the people’s hatred, warned against meeting the “shoeless ruffians”, whereas others, such as William de Montagu, the Earl of Salisbury, urged that the king played for time by pretending that he desired a negotiated agreement. (42)

Richard II agreed to meet the rebels outside the town walls at Mile End on 14th June, 1381. Most of his soldiers remained behind. Charles Oman, the author of The Great Revolt of 1381 (1906), pointed the “ride to Mile End was perilous: at any moment the crowd might have broken loose, and the King and all his party might have perished… nevertheless, though surrounded all the way by a noisy and boisterous multitude, Richard and his party ultimately reached Mile End”. (43)

John Ball at Mile End from Jean Froissart, Chronicles (c. 1470)

When the king met the rebels at 8.00 a.m. he asked them what they wanted. Wat Tyler explained the demands of the rebels. This includes the end of all feudal services, the freedom to buy and sell all goods, and a free pardon for all offences committed during the rebellion. Tyler also asked for a rent limit of 4d per acre and an end to feudal fines through the manor courts. Finally, he asked that no “man should be compelled to work except by employment under a regularly reviewed contract”. (44)

The king immediately granted these demands. Wat Tyler also claimed that the king’s officers in charge of the poll tax were guilty of corruption and should be executed. The king replied that all people found guilty of corruption would be punished by law. The king agreed to these proposals and 30 clerks were instructed to write out charters giving peasants their freedom. After receiving their charters the vast majority of peasants went home.

G. R. Kesteven, the author of The Peasants’ Revolt (1965), has pointed out that the king and his officials had no intention of carrying out the promises made at this meeting, they “were merely using those promises to disperse the rebels”. (45) However, Wat Tyler and John Ball were not convinced by the word given by the king and along with 30,000 of the rebels stayed in London. (46)

While the king was in Mile End discussing an agreement with the king, another group of peasants marched to the Tower of London. There were about 600 soldiers defending the Tower but they decided not to fight the rebel army. Simon Sudbury (Archbishop of Canterbury), Robert Hales (King’s Treasurer) and John Legge (Tax Commissioner), were taken from the Tower and executed. Their heads were then placed on poles and paraded through the streets of cheering Londoners. (47)

Rodney Hilton argues that the rebels wanted revenge on all those involved in the levying of taxes or the administrating the legal system. Roger Leggett, one of the most important government lawyers was also killed. “They attacked not only the lawyers themselves – attorneys, pleaders, clerks of the courts – but others closely associated with the judicial processes… The hostility to lawyers and to legal records was not of course peculiar to the Londoners. The widespread destruction of manorial court records is well-known” during the rebellion. (48)

The rebels also attacked foreign workers living in London. “The commons made proclamation that every one who could lay hands on Flemings or any other strangers of other nations might cut off their heads”. (49) It has been claimed that “some 150 or 160 unhappy foreigners were murdered in various places – thirty-five Flemings in one batch were dragged out of the church of St. Martin in the Vintry, and beheaded on the same block… The Lombards also suffered, and their houses yielded much valuable plunder.” (50)

It was agreed that another meeting should take place between Richard II and the leaders of the rebels at Smithfield on 15th June, 1381. William Walworth rode “over to the rebels and summoned Wat Tyler to meet the king, and mounted on a little pony, accompanied by only one attendant bearing the rebel banner, he obeyed”. When he joined the king he put forward another list of demands that included: the removal of the lordship system, the distribution of the wealth of the church to the poor, a reduction in the number of bishops, and a guarantee that in future there would be no more villeins. (51)

Richard II said he would do what he could. Wat Tyler was not satisfied by this reply. He called for a drink of water to rinse out his mouth. This was seen as extremely rude behaviour, especially as Tyler had not removed his hood when talking to the king. One of Richard’s party shouted out that Tyler was “the greatest thief and robber in Kent”. The author of the Anonimalle Chronicle of St Mary’s claims: “For these words Wat wanted to strike the valet with his dagger, and would have killed him in the king’s presence; but because he tried to do so, the Mayor of London, William of Walworth… arrested him… Wat stabbed the mayor with his dagger in the body in great anger. But, as it pleased God, the mayor was wearing armour and took no harm.. he struck back at the said Wat, giving him a deep cut in the neck, and then a great blow on the head. And during the scuffle a valet of the king’s household drew his sword, and ran Wat two or three times through the body… Wat was carried by a group of the commons to the hospital for the poor near St Bartholomew’s, and put to bed. The mayor went there and found him, and had him carried out to the middle of Smithfield, in the presence of his companions, and had him beheaded.” (52)

The peasants raised their weapons and for a moment it looked as though there was going to be fighting between the king’s soldiers and the peasants. However, Richard rode over to them and said: “Will you shoot your king? I will be your chief and captain, you shall have from me that which you seek ” He then spoke to them for some time and eventually they agreed to go back to their villages and the Peasants’ Revolt was over. (53)

An army, led by Thomas of Woodstock, John of Gaunt’s younger brother, was sent into Essex to crush the rebels. A battle between the peasants and the King’s army took place near the village of Billericay on 28th June. The king’s army was experienced and well-armed and the peasants were easily defeated. It is believed that over 500 peasants were killed during the battle. The remaining rebels fled to Colchester, where they tried in vain to persuade the towns-people to support them. They then fled to Huntingdon but the towns people there chased them off to Ramsey Abbey where twenty-five were slain. (54)

King Richard with a large army began visiting the villages that had taken part in the rebellion. At each village, the people were told that no harm would come to them if they named the people in the village who had encouraged them to join the rebellion. Those people named as ringleaders were then executed. Apparently the king stated: “Serfs you are and serfs you will remain.” A. L. Morton, the author of A People’s History of England (1938) has pointed out: “The promises made by the king were repudiated and the common people of England learnt, not for the last time, how unwise it was to trust to the good faith of their rulers.” (55)

The king’s officials were instructed to look out for John Ball. He was eventually caught in Coventry. He was taken to St Albans to stand trial. “He denied nothing, he freely admitted all the charges without regrets or apologies. He was proud to stand before them and testify to his revolutionary faith.” He was sentenced to death, but William Courtenay, the Bishop of London, granted a two-day stay of execution in the hope that he could persuade Ball to repent of his treason and so save his soul. John Ball refused and he was hanged, drawn and quartered on 15th July, 1381. (56)

Source: http://spartacus-educational.com/YALDballJ.htm

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