When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort ye to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.
–from John Ball’s sermon at Blackheath, delivered on this date.
Under the feudal system that had operated in England since the Norman Conquest, the life of a serf was one of drudgery and oppression. The majority of the population lived in the countryside at the sufferance of landowners to whom they paid rent in the form of unpaid labor and military service. A small amount of their produce was their own, but could only be milled or processed if they made payments to the landowner. Theoretically a serf could buy himself out of his bondage but the opportunities for any sort of paid labor were severely limited. A rigid social structure was enforced by a legal code that stipulated what clothes a serf could wear and what food could be eaten, but most importantly of all, forbade them to leave their villages.
There was no strong centralized authority to enforce this in the modern sense but the feudal state was a three-headed creature: The Church – often a landowner as well – provided ideological legitimacy; the Nobles acted as a form of privatized law enforcement; and the Crown sat in the shadows behind it all. Consequently, while peasant resentment was aimed at the Church and landowners, the king was generally seen as some sort of champion of justice for the common people – an unfortunate illusion which the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 soon exposed.
The Black Death of 1348-9 – the pandemic that killed off a third of the total population – created the cracks in the system that made rebellion possible. Wide-scale depopulation and a resulting chronic labor shortage gave serfs and craftsmen an opportunity to earn higher wages. A nascent urban working class was created by peasants leaving their villages and taking up trades in the towns.
The landowners were alarmed by this threat to the social order. In response, a draconian Statute Of Laborers was enacted in 1351 that stated:
- No peasants could be paid more than the wages paid in 1346
- No lord or master should offer more wages than paid in 1346
- No peasants could leave the village they belonged to
As a result, the next thirty years saw social conflict with peasants, craftsmen, and merchants forced into an alliance by laws that penalized both worker and master who agreed to higher wages than those specified.
Young King Richard II
At the same time, England was involved in the Hundred Years War. This had left the Treasury empty, and the landowners were tired of paying for the war. In 1377 John Of Gaunt, uncle of the teenage king, Richard II, and the effective power behind the throne, imposed a new tax, the poll (head) tax, that was to cover the cost of the war. Every lay person over the age of 14 was to pay 4 pence, substantial amount for a poor person.
It was not a popular tax. The unfairness of everyone, rich or poor, paying the same amount bothered some people. Taxpayers were also aggravated by tax collectors grilling them about their personal circumstances. Politically prominent people ignored those complaints; they were mainly bothered by the inefficiency of the tax.
The government needed more money for the war, and allowing the rich to get off cheap seemed foolish. In 1379, a graduated poll tax was introduced. The fact that the rich paid more, or were supposed to, did not stop the grumbling, and the tax still yielded less than Parliament and the king’s council had hoped for.
When the financial crisis deepened the next year, 1380, Parliament went ahead with a third poll tax. Once again, rich and poor were to pay the same and the tax rate was jacked up: In 1381, every lay person above the age of 15 was to pay one shilling, 12 pence, three times the rate of the first poll tax of 1377.
The parliament was not unaware that this was ruinous for the poor, whose family income was often 20 shillings a year or less. A family with two adults would have to pay ten percent of their yearly income. The parliamentarians reassured themselves that the rich would, as a matter of what we might call noblesse oblige, help the poor to pay. Also instructions were given to collect the tax in installments: two-thirds by January of 1381, one-third by the following June.
These minor adjustments did nothing to stem public discontent. People refused to cooperate with the tax collectors, and up to a third of the adult lay population succeeded in avoiding the tax. The London collectors reported to the Exchequer that they couldn’t do their job without stirring up dangerous agitation. The king’s council told collectors to put on the screws and collect the whole tax at once, and now. It was a fatal mistake.
Inspired by hatred of the unfair tax as well as the virtual-regent John of Gaunt who had abused the powers of the Crown, crowds of peasants and townspeople gathered in Essex and Kent led by Wat Tyler, an independent artisan with some military experience, and by John Ball, an itinerant English Lollard preacher. However, Ball was not a revolutionary in any modern sense – he sought recourse for injustices by corrupt nobles and churchmen from the king as God’s appointed judge on Earth.
Ball lived in Kent at the time of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which was not only the most extreme and widespread insurrection in English history but also the best-documented popular rebellion to have occurred during medieval times. He is said to have gained considerable fame as a roving preacher, especially by his insistence on social equality. Unfortunately, what is recorded of Ball’s adult life comes from hostile sources liable to exaggerate his political and religious radicalism.
Ball’s speeches brought him into conflict with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and he was thrown in prison on three occasions. These measures, however, did not moderate his opinions, nor diminish his popularity. Ball was in the archbishop’s prison at Maidstone, Kent when the uprising began with protests in Dartford; he was quickly released by the Kentish rebels. He preached to them at Blackheath (the insurgents’ gathering place near Greenwich) in an open-air sermon, from which the passage (probably authentic) at the beginning of this essay is taken.
Some sources, unsympathetic to Ball, assert that he urged his audience to kill the principal lords of the kingdom and the lawyers, and that he was later among those who rushed into the Tower of London to seize Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury. But Ball does not appear in most accounts after his speech at Blackheath.
The rebels stormed into London on 13 June to present the young King Richard II with a set of demands, and for two days their forces were in control of the capital. The king, with limited military forces available and desiring to keep fighting away from London, met with the rebels on 14 June at Mile End. They pledged their allegiance to Richard, and handed him a petition which asked for the abolition of villeinage, for labor services based on free contracts, and for the right to rent land at fourpence an acre. The King said he would grant these demands.
British photographer Red Saunders depicts rebels of Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
However, this virtual abolition of serfdom was only a cynical attempt to play for time while the king actually gathered his military forces. At a second private meeting on 15 June in Smithfield, Wat Tyler was murdered by the Lord Mayor of London William Walworth. Unaware of this, the rebels agreed to disperse and leave London. When they had done so the king immediately renounced his previous promises. Having now gathered an army, over the next two weeks he defeated the remaining rebel forces in Hertfordshire, Essex, and Kent.
John Ball was taken prisoner at Coventry, given a trial in which, unlike most, he was permitted to speak, and hanged, drawn and quartered in the presence of King Richard II on 15 July 1381. Ball’s head was subsequently stuck on a pike on London Bridge.
The revolt later came to be seen as a sign of the beginning of the end of serfdom in medieval England, although the revolt itself was a failure. It increased awareness in the upper classes of the need for the reform of feudalism in England and the appalling misery felt by the lower classes as a result of their enforced near-slavery. By the start of the 15th century, serfdom had in effect all but been abolished. And John Ball’s rallying cry “When Adam delved and Eve span – Who was then the gentleman?” endured to inspire later radicals of the English Civil Wars and Victorian socialists.