Monday, 7 May 2012

1381: The Peasant's Revolt

"In which the Queen's bed is used as a trampoline and somebodies spoons are stolen"

  Heavy taxation was certainly a big cause of the Peasant's Revolt.  But it was when the local authorities started rummaging about beneath lady-folks’ skirts, as an inventive way of deducing whether they were taxable, that the British peasantry really got a bee in their bonnets.  This eyebrow raising trivia was actually the blue touch paper that led to the Peasants Revolt.

  On May 30th 1381 a tax collector, by the name of John Bampton, sidled into the small village of Brentwood and received the bums rush from a crowd led by a Baker.  Bampton said “I’ll file a complaint with the chief Justice you know” and the villagers said “Go ahead” and Bampton was stumped.

  The next day, Bampton returned with his arm around the shoulders of the chief justice and a group of soldiers.  The Justice asked what all this was about and the villagers replied with dramatic gestures that creased the Justice’s garments.  They also loosed the heads from a few soldiers to emphasise their point and the game, as Shakespeare put it, was afoot...

  Word spread like measles in a kindergarten and before long a great morass of peasants and merchants had got together for a bit of a protest march and appointed a fellow called Wat Tyler as their head. 

  They stalked about the countryside, graffiti-ing manor houses and setting fire to tax registers.  They had a particular interest in the Archbishop of Canterbury and sought to knock his block off in the Cathedral, á la Thomas Beckett.  Disappointingly though, he’d just popped out to London. 

  Desiring to let as many of their fellow men in on the fun as possible, these happy revellers ransacked prisons and released the convicts to join in the merrymaking.  One of these prisoners was a priest by the name of John Ball.  He had been stowed away in the Clink for preaching outlandish themes like ‘all men are equal when you think about it.’  The rabble thought his ideas were the cat’s pyjamas and, as his sermons had the pleasing bonus of rhyming, he was voted vice-president without hesitation.

  The protesters arrived at London on the 12th June and all congregated on the playing fields at Blackheath.  John Ball, clambered onto a wagon and gave them a few of his choicest rhymes.  In this one he posed the witty question “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”  People marvelled at his winsome lyrics and after John had called their oppressors “naughty men” everybody cheered.

  Wat now demanded to speak with the young king who was holed up in the Tower of London.  Although only young he could see that things could get a bit spicy if he ignored the rabble, so his advisors recommended taking the boat.  In this way they could prevent the crowd stampeding the royal party.

  When the crowds heard that the king was practicing his strokes on the Thames they all surged to the water’s edge for a good nose.  Jostling and noisy excitement was made by one and all. There was a thrill in the air as the king’s herald furtively stepped out from under the canopy and declared “The King says go home.”  Most in the crowd couldn’t hear and shouted back “What?”  After a stout bit of repetition the crowd understood and got restless.  There was muttering at the back of the barge and the representative shouted over “What do you want?” To which the reply was "The Archbishop and the Treasurer."

  Richard was in a dickens of a spot; the Bishop and Treasurer were in the barge listening.  One imagines that there was an awkward moment in which all aboard looked at their shoes in embarrassed silence.  Not knowing what to say back, Richard ordered a pirouette and sloshed back to the Tower.  The peasants, not satisfied with the response, tramped over London Bridge and burnt the unpopular John of Gaunt’s Savoy palace to the ground by starting a bonfire in his wardrobe.  Somebody also pinched his spoons.

  The following morning the King sent word that he’d meet the leaders of the opposition at Mile End.  Practically the whole city turned out and things were a bit tense.  Wat and John’s demands were:  Give us your advisors; get rid of serfdom; reduce rents and let us play in the forests.  Richard said “Okay” and the lawyers got busy.

  The crowd did two things at this point.  Some of them went home patting each other on the back and calling each other ‘brother’.  Another sizable part shuttled off to the Tower to do in the Archbishop and Treasurer. 

  Once inside the royal castle though, they simply had to enjoy themselves.  This was the highlight of the trip.  People ran in and out of rooms screaming gaily.  Some scampered upstairs and into the Queen’s bedchamber.  They went through her drawers looking at her knickers and jumped up and down on her bed.  It was an absolute wheeze.  The Queen fortunately was out, but when she came home there were mysterious footprints on her linen.

  The Archbishop, Treasurer and a few others were in the Chapel, wishing they'd applied themselves better to hide-and-seek as children.  These were promptly dispatched by the mob.  Their heads were placed on poles and carried around by the peasant’s who thought themselves exceedingly clever..

  Had the Revolt ended here, who knows what might’ve happened.  Unfortunately Wat Tyler was enjoying the limelight and wanted to swagger a bit.  He asked the king to meet again.

  Wat trotted over to Richard and reverse parked his horse’s bottom under the nose of the king’s horse – something the tabloids remarked upon negatively.  Wat was positively cock-a-hoot.  He ambled up to the king and, shaking his Majesty’s hand, said “Yo!” 

  Playing the Big Cheese, Wat ordered a beer and chatted until someone in the King’s guard called him a thief.  Wat was stung.  He said “come ‘ere an’ say that” and a ruckus started in which the Mayor of London stabbed old Wat in the neck.

  The crowd was uneasy and in a moment of great courage Richard rode towards them and said “You shall have no leader but me.”  They asked how Wat was and the King said “Oh, he’s fine.”  Richard then led them to another field where an army surrounded them, totally ruining their day out.

  Richard sought to teach his citizens a lesson by executing a few chaps.  John Ball was hung drawn and quartered in front of the King but remained lyrical to the end.  However, things would never be the same again.  People power had been discovered.

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