Published: 8 January, 2015
by ILLTYD HARRINGTON
WHAT with a Prime Minister who is acting like the Flying Dutchman, a deputy who looks more like Ian Beale from EastEnders and a Labour leader who can neither bark nor bite, we are in a state of political paralysis.
We have an England which apparently is about antiques, cooking programmes and journeys up and down rivers. We are asleep but contented.
These negative thoughts took me over during the New Year holiday.
Then I read England, Arise by Juliet Barker.
It shows what injustice eventually causes – reaction. On April 23, 1381, Richard II brought in a poll tax. It was the last straw, not just for the peasants and serfs, but also for the rising merchant class.
The revolt started up in the tiny village of Fobbing on the banks of the Thames Estuary in Essex, then lit a prairie fire from the Wash to Southampton.
Soon it had knocked itself into a deadly and sophisticated army. The rebels had sufficient resources and intelligence to seek out, surprise and destroy any offices where public records were kept. It was a very broad alliance.
There were abbots of monasteries, merchants, landowners and the workers.
They moved at a dramatic pace and tidied up their business by beheading the officials who fronted the tax collecting. It was an extraordinary feat for a rebel army so diverse.
The rebels moved into the City of London at the speed of lightning. The establishment and the monarchy saw their power slipping away.
But the City Corporation, like the City today, knows when real danger is afoot, and their descendants are on the city council today.
None of them in the 14th century was averse to murder. I found it surprising that Barker took it upon herself to undermine the reputations of the best-known members of the Peasants’ Revolt, Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and the wonderful hedge priest John Ball.
Initially the upper class spoke with contempt and derision of these people, although Richard II appeared to want conciliation. After all, the rebels had taken over the Tower of London and seemed unstoppable. At first he agreed to all their demands, but did little to stop the stabbing to death of Tyler by a city alderman who stood before the King’s horse.
Soon after, the King reneged on all his promises. John Ball, the people’s priest, is treated with reserve by Barker, all hingeing on his famous “dream” sermon on Blackheath. It was resurrected or remembered in a socialist revival in the 1880s by William Morris, the fine artist, together with HM Hyndman, both founders of socialist leagues. With his skill for publicity, Morris circulated the dream. Some see it as a forerunner of the Communist Manifesto:
When Adam delved, and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman?
To preach equality, even in 1880, was a danger signal to the ruling class. Six hundred years later, Mrs Thatcher, who had begun dressing for state occasions like Queen Elizabeth I, decided to reintroduce the poll tax. Such was her removal from reality – even though she was warned by Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson – a massive and inclusive demonstration turned into a riot when the Metropolitan Police released its Cossacks; believe it or not they charged into a banner which represented Middle England like no other. It declaimed: “Tunbridge Wells is against the tax.” The middle class had spoken. Thatcher’s death rattle echoed along Whitehall. The tax was abandoned.
• England, Arise: The People, the King and the Great Revolt of 1381 by Juliet Barker (Little Brown, £25)