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Revolution in the air

Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasants' Revolt, being killed by the Mayor of London William Walworth

By Dan Jones
Author, Summer of Blood

The anger in the air is palpable. The ordinary people hold the political class in contempt.

The government is failing, as war and economic catastrophe are dealt with in increasingly unconvincing fashion by second-rate public servants. There is, for the first time in a generation, a sense of revolution brewing.

This is not today's Britain. It is England in 1381, the year that witnessed one of the greatest popular risings in our history: the Peasants' Revolt.

Lessons of the Peasants' revolt

Between May and November that year, England was seized by spasms of popular rebellion, provoked by poll taxes and a disastrous war, and underpinned by the common belief that the government was a pack of scoundrels.

Towns and villages from Somerset to Scarborough rose against their rulers, beating and sometimes killing MPs, lawyers, landowners and politicians, tearing down their homes and vandalising their land.

Bloody revenge

At the heart of the rising was a march on London on Corpus Christi weekend (Thursday 13 to Saturday 15 June).

Traditionally this was a time of mystery plays and festive processions. In 1381, the main procession consisted of villagers from the Thames estuary marching along the pilgrim road between Canterbury and London, burning houses and taking political prisoners as they protested against their venal, incompetent masters.

Wat Tyler's mob burning St John's Monastery near Smithfield, London
The peasant's revolt ransacked London before it was put down

When the protestors, led by their general Wat Tyler and the maverick preacher John Ball, reached London, they found they had significant common cause with the townsmen.

The London populace bore long-held grudges towards their own ruling elites - which included the oligarchic, super-rich merchant traders in the City as well as the hapless courtiers who governed in the name of 14-year old King Richard.

Common fury with the state of lordship bound rural and urban rebels in a compact to clean up government.

So the town mice opened their gates to the country mice, and together they all set about the cats.

At first there were organised protests, attacks on specific, symbolic landmarks: the Savoy Palace, home of the powerful and unpopular duke of Lancaster, was burned to the ground; the Temple, home of the legal profession, was sacked. Prisons were broken open and the Tower of London, where the government had holed up, was besieged.

Demonstrations became riots. A chopping block was set up at Cheapside, where the street ran sticky with the blood of the condemned.

Portrait of Richard II
Kind Richard II was only 14 years old when faced with the rebellion

The Archbishop of Canterbury had his head hacked off on Tower Hill. The Treasurer was murdered, as - in Suffolk - was a Chief Justice.

Some 140 Flemish merchants and their families were butchered on the banks of the Thames, in a shocking xenophobic massacre.

But for the luck of the young king, Richard II, and the fortitude of a few good men around him led by Mayor of London, William Walworth, the City would have been burned to the ground.

Tyler and his mob were eventually defeated at Smithfield, but it took nearly six months to calm the rest of the country.

Political revolt

The summer of discontent left a profound mark on the English political consciousness.

A few lines written, prior to the rebellion, by the Kentish poet John Gower, were suddenly recognised as an important tenet of government.

"There are three things of such a sort that they produce merciless destruction when they get the upper hand," he wrote.

"One is a flood of water, another is a raging fire and the third is the lesser people, the common multitude; for they will not be stopped by either reason or by discipline."

I have thought many times during the past months that our politicians would benefit from revisiting the events of the Peasants' Revolt.

In many ways it is a tale of mutual misunderstanding: the ordinary folk thought the worst of their politicians, and politicians saw their people as an economic resource, to be taxed and tormented as the necessities of government demanded.

Skeleton from the Great Plague discovered in Spitalfields Market
The Black Death was a major factor in fermenting anti-government feeling

This government, like the government in 1381, has been caught out by a global crisis of unprecedented severity.

In the fourteenth century it was the Black Death, which killed 40% of Europe's population.

The government's reaction - to impose labour laws that stifled economic recovery but preserved the social hierarchy, was vastly unpopular, for it prevented ordinary people from improving their lives.

Now, it is the collapse in global credit which has brought a different sort of misery to millions.

No doubt there are many differences between 1381 and 2009. They were medieval, we are modern. And history never repeats itself as exactly as historians sometimes wish.

But if I were an MP today, I would make it my business to learn the course and the lessons of 1381 by heart. Then I would give thanks that there are no longer any chopping blocks at Cheapside.

Dan Jones is the author of Summer of Blood.




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