We all have our particular favourites among historical people. Quite often, the people we idolise will be vilified by others – history, just like pretty much everything in life, is a matter of perception and opinion. After all, none of us knew the people who took central stage during the preceding centuries. (Well; I would assume not. Maybe there are some reincarnated souls out there who have been on chit-chatting terms with Julius Caesar or Hannibal, who’ve shared a bath with Fredrik Barbarossa or got drunk with Henry II. Lucky them…)
Still; there are favourites and non-favourites. My top-of-the pops list when it comes to historical people is headed by Saladin, Gustav II Adolf of Sweden and Henry II of England. On my shit list, Stalin and Hitler come right at the top, followed by an assortment of dictators, fanatics and plain dislikeable people, plus a number of incompetents.
One historical person I have very lukewarm feelings about is Richard II of England. Okay, so he didn’t have an easy act to follow, what with Edward III in his prime being quite the impressive dude, and besides, Richard had a cousin – soon to be the usurper Henry IV– who was a far better leader of men than he was. Sandwiched in between these two, Richard II comes across as something of a megalomaniac, a man convinced since childhood that he was set apart from other men, a rule unto himself. Richard’s misfortune was to believe in absolute monarchy before it became popular, so to say. That, and a propensity to prefer sycophants to honest advisors, to distribute lands and riches to his favourites – well, it’s left him with a less than glorious reputation. Somehow being remembered as the king that introduced the handkerchief in England, is an indication of how little a mark Richard II actually left behind.
Richard II was by all accounts tall, handsome and very intelligent. That he didn’t lack for personal courage was demonstrated in his finest hour, when as a boy not yet fifteen he managed to pacify the angry peasantry that had taken up arms against their betters in the so called Peasant’s Revolt. And this brings me to one of the more likeable people in history, although it must be said that we know very little about this character, except that he had a gift of the tongue and liked rhyming verse. I am referring to John Ball, the preacher credited with being the main motivational speaker at the Peasant’s Revolt.
John Ball was a priest. He was also accused of being a Lollard, a man who followed John Wycliffe’s teachings, according to which the Catholic Church had lost contact with the true message in the Bible. Lollards advocated the translation of the Bible into English, they preached social equality and were distrustful of the trappings of power with which the Church’s prelates tended to surround themselves. In many ways, the Lollards were precursors to the Reformation, and initially they were tolerated, Wycliffe himself being protected by the powerful John of Gaunt.
John Ball was too unimportant to ever hobnob with dukes such as John of Gaunt. He was a hedge priest, a man who travelled about the countryside and preached, and his sermons tended to be invigorating little rants in which he attacked the social injustices of the times. The powers that were disliked John Ball. They thought him a bloody nuisance, and so he was imprisoned, he was punished, he was even excommunicated, but the man must have led a charmed life, always popping up like the proverbial bad penny to continue harassing the Church and the rich.
Social discontent was rife in England in the latter half of the 14th century. Years of war with the French, in combination with the Black Death, had decimated the population, and while this should have increased the bargaining power of the working class, the ruling classes responded by implementing laws that made it unlawful for the workers to demand wages that were higher than before, or to leave their hometowns in search of better conditions elsewhere. A fixed wage when the costs of life increased tenfold, led to even more discontent, more social unrest. Angry peasants had had enough, and the flames of discontent were further fanned by preachers such as John Ball – which was probably why our Mr Ball spent a lot of time locked up, his nimble tongue having aggravated yet another local lord or bishop.
In 1381, all this discontent erupted into The Peasants’ Revolt. The final straw that broke this particular camel’s back was the increased poll tax (it was tripled – talk about tax hike). People refused to pay, and when the tax collectors insisted, things turned nasty. All over southern England, peasants and labourers rose in rebellion, demanding a reduction in the tax rate, the abolition of serfdom, and the removal of certain people from among the king’s counsellors.
The government was taken by surprise – putting it mildly. Until now, the villeins had known their place – right at the bottom of the dung-heap – and to have these lowborn men threaten the hands that fed them, well, it was totally inconceivable,wasn’t it? (Apparently not. But there’s a first for everything.) To make matters worse, most of the armed forces were up in the north, and the rebels therefore met little or no opposition as they made their way through Kent – in the process freeing John Ball who was yet again kicking his heels in prison – and set out for London, led by the charismatic Wat Tyler. In the capital, panic reigned. The young king was moved to the Tower for safety. The London citizens viewed the approaching rabble with fear, but there was also quite some support for the cause among the labourers and artisans within the city walls.
At Blackheath, John Ball preached to the assembled rebels – a rather beautiful and visionary sermon along the lines of all men being equal, an early precursor, if you will, to that immortal speech Martin Luther King was to make almost six centuries later. John painted a picture of a fairer society, a place where a just King would rule over an empowered people. The assembled rebels roared their approval, and I guess Wat Tyler cheered and clapped John on the back, thanking him for his morale boosting efforts.
On June 13, the rebels rode into London. Aided and abetted by disgruntled apprentices, artisans and labourers, the rebels went wild and crazy. The homes of the rich were sacked – John of Gaunt’s Savoy palace was more or less destroyed – prisoners were released from gaol, anyone associated with royal government was summarily killed. In the Tower, the king and his retinue must have been quaking in their boots.
This is when Richard II rose to the occasion. With only a minimum of companions, he rode out and treated with the rebels on June 14. The rebels loved their king, blaming his advisors for everything that was wrong with the country. At the time, this was probably a fair supposition; a boy of fourteen did not have much say in government, no matter how much of a king he was. In his later life, Richard was to show a marked disregard for the suffering of the common people, far more interested in wringing yet another penny out of them than in bettering their situation.
It must have taken quite some courage for the young king to parley with the rebels. That they intimidated him is made obvious by the fact that he acceded to all their demands – including the abolition of serfdom. He firmly refused to turn over his officials into the rebels’ hands, saying he himself would dispense whatever justice was necessary, but he seems to have allowed the rebels access to the Tower, there to seek out the enemies of the state – as per their definition. Whooping with glee, the rebels went on a rampage, killed the Lord Chancellor and the Lord High Treasurer and came close to killing John of Gaunt’s fifteen-year-old son, the future Henry IV. But they didn’t touch the king, treating their young prince with reverence.
Next day, Richard and a substantial following rode out for yet another parley. In the initial discussions, tempers ran wild and one of Richard’s men, the Mayor of London, killed Wat Tyler. There was a howl of rage from the rebels. For an instant, everything hung in the balance, which is when Richard II rose in his stirrups and demanded that the rebels follow him, was he not their king and leader, were they not the true commons of England and therefore sworn to obey him, their king? Besides, had he not acquiesced to their demands already yesterday?
The rebels shuffled where they stood, no doubt entranced by this handsome young man, their king. After some muttering they fell in step behind him, and a triumphant Richard led them away from Smithfield and the city. In essence, the revolt was already over. Wat Tyler’s head was placed on a spike, and without its principal leader, the rebellion guttered and died, no matter vociferous people such as John Ball.
Did the king honour the promises he’d made on June 14? Of course not. Two weeks later, Richard II commanded all serfs to return to their masters. The rebels were hunted like animals through the countryside, and more prominent members of the revolt, such as John Ball, had the doubtful honour of being tried for treason before being hanged, drawn and quartered. A terrible death, more or less impossible to meet with courage and dignity. Somewhere late in November, Richard II ordered that the killings cease. By then, close to 1 500 rebels had died, in one way or the other. The Peasants’ Revolt had been squashed underfoot.
And yet… something was begun by John Ball and Wat Tyler. It takes a lot of guts – but also quite some thinking out of the box – to challenge the established orders of things. Change begins with one person questioning how things are done and why. John Ball was one such person and what was an utopian view of the world back then – seriously, a villain to be considered equal to a lord? – is now the fundament of all democratic societies.
John Ball lost his life in the aftermath of the revolt. But his cause didn’t die with him, and while the king he confronted left little more than a fluttering handkerchief behind, John Ball left us two catchy lines of rhyme and a vision of a better world. Not bad for an impoverished priest, huh?
“When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?” Good question, John Ball, a very good question – one we should now and then ponder even today!