The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was a singular event in English history, not merely a food riot, but an organised outbreak of pure class warfare which, leaving aside John Ball’s rabble-rousing, Biblical egalitarianism, was untrammelled by constitutional quarrels or religious disputes. It was fomented by vicious class legislation — the Statute of Labourers of 1351 and three poll taxes levied between 1377 and 1380 — which was intended to prevent the common people from benefiting from increased wages as a result of the Black Death’s depletion of the labour supply. The government presented the poll taxes as a fair way of supplying the revenue needed to sustain a faltering and unpopular war against France. But the game was given away by sumptuary laws designed to keep the people in their place. Those laws forbade the lower orders to eat anything but basic foodstuffs or to clothe themselves above their station: the points added to shoes, for instance, could be up to 24” for noblemen, 12” for gentlemen and 6.5” for merchants. Dan Jones does not say how pointed lesser mortals’ footwear could be. Presumably they were to be pointless.
The third poll tax lit the fuse that, running from Essex to Kent and quickly igniting the non-peasant inhabitants of London, produced what Jones a bit luridly calls the summer of blood. Inspired by dreamy visions of a new social order, the rebels had no programme of political reform. Their anger was directed, not against monarchy, but against the corrupt counsellors who surrounded the throne, the makers of oppressive laws and the agents who enforced them. London’s prisons were emptied. Holders of high office, such as Lord Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor, and Robert Hales, the Lord High Treasurer, lawyers and rich merchants were hunted down and sent to their maker. The Savoy Palace, belonging to the hated John of Gaunt, was razed. Amazingly, the instruction of Wat Tyler, the rebels’ leader, that there was to be no looting, only the destruction of ill-gotten goods, was largely obeyed. Gaunt’s gold and silver plate was smashed or thrown into the Thames, his jewels trampled into dust.
The rebels’ cry was ‘King and commons’. Putting their faith in the boy king Richard II led to their downfall. Luring them into negotiations, he betrayed their naive trust. Defeated, they made their sorry way back to the counties. Tyler was slain. Ball was hanged and quartered. In the royal retribution that followed, between 1,500 and 7,000 rebels lost their lives. Little had been gained. Labour laws that flew in the face of supply and demand remained what they had been, impossible to enforce. Although Jones writes that the revolt ‘would change the course of English history forever’, all that he comes up with is that it ‘was the first sign that the ordinary people in England were politicised, and could be made angry enough to rise against bad leadership’.
Since the revolt has been relatively neglected by historians, Jones’s book is welcome. His purpose, he writes, is to fulfil ‘the historian’s most important duty’, which is ‘to tell, as accurately as possible, a cracking good story’. At his best he does. His prose rises to the occasion provided by the dramatic showdown between Richard and the rebels at Smithfield. But he is too willing to supply ‘colour’ in the absence of evidence, and to fall back on ‘must have’ or ‘would have’ in an attempt to get inside the minds of his characters. Juicing up prose dilutes it. Dry wood crackles. ‘Bold, surprising, unputdown- able’ David Starkey gushes on the cover. It is high time that publishers’ deplorable practice of scouting around for pre- publication puffs and presenting them as if critical reviews were abandoned.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 13, 2009