H.M. Hyndman

The Evolution of Revolution

Chapter 19
The Peasant’s War in England

The conquest of England by William the Norman, and the French inheritances of the Angevin and Plantagenet kings involved little less than the ruin of a large part of France for several generations. The French humorous claim that England is “a French colony mal tourns” is all very well as a jest to-day, but it was no laughing matter for France then. Invasion after invasion, war after war, conducted too often, when the invaders were successful, after the ruthless fashion of the immediate piratical ancestors of the King and robber nobles who led and commanded the English armies, proved one continual curse to the unfortunate inhabitants of the disputed territories. That has been partially shown by our brief survey of the Jacquerie. But the English wars and razzias upon French provinces, carried on systematically by the Plantagenet monarchs, were little better in their results than the wholesale anarchy which followed upon Poitiers. Crecy before and Agincourt afterwards, the frightful maraudings of Edward the Black Prince, his massacres at Limoges and otherwhere, as well as the terrible conquests of Henry V, were all so many almost irreparable disasters for France. It was, in the long run, a good thing for both countries that the new spirit breathed into the French by Joan of Arc enabled them to drive the English across the Channel.

But although England found the means to wage these wars of aggression for her foreign rulers, and wasted year after year on these bootless enterprises men and money which could have been far better employed at home, it is nevertheless the fact that the Norman Conquest and the Norman dominance, nay, even the French wars themselves, by increasing the dependence of her kings upon the money of her burgesses and the arms of her yeomen, gave England the opportunity for consolidating the liberties of her purely English people which otherwise might have been delayed. Her dynasty was foreign and used a strange language; the more important lords gradually separated their political influence, after the failure of the great French parliamentary leader, Simon de Montfort, from the lower knighthood and burgesses of London and the provincial towns; the mass of the people began to feel their growing strength mereh [?] as Englishmen, who inherited a bluff good-fellowship and rough love of freedom from the gentile system and village communities of their Anglo-Saxon forbears. On the battlefields of France, and in the fights on the Scotch and Welsh borders, the common folk trained to the use of bow and arrow and other arms, showed the feudal magnates and their retainers that they were the better men; and all these things, coming together, had developed in England a body of burgesses and yeomen who, ashore or afloat in the field or at the council table, rarely met their match.

But this independence, self-confidence and rough domestic vigour were based, as foreign observers were quick to note upon the material well-being of the upper grades of the common people. It was their economic and social position which made them resolute sticklers for their rights in peace and such very ugly customers in war. They had gained solidly in political influence as well as in rude personal comfort during the French wars. From the time of collective assertions and individua ldevelopment under Henry Ie to the confirmation of all the [?] freemen had won in the Great Charter under John, and thence onwards through the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the manorial system, which constituted the basis of English feudalism, had gradually given way before the resistance of a large minority of the freemen at the top and the villeins at the bottom. Yet there were plenty of these latter to be fully emancipated from attachment to the soil and subservience to the lord, especially in regard to the right of marriage. Moreover, the growth of free labourers out of this very section of the peasantry had grown into a revolutionary factor in the coming social development. Under the newer methods of farming there was plenty of room for the labourers, who earned their chief support by hiring themselves out to the larger peasant farmers now cultivating portions of the special manorial demesne on lease. This process of emancipation and social improvement was going on all the time in spite of the disasters across the Channel, which were bringing English rule in France to an end, while at the same time the home trade and foreign commerce of the towns was making way. The rights of the Lord of the Manor, in fact, were being slowly sapped; and the duties which the serfs had to fulfil in tilling on his behalf were replaced by the very different relations between landlord and tenant farmer. At the same time the needs of the nobility and chivalry constantly tended to change the other labour demands for money payments.

It is clear that prior to the plague of the Black Death, whose ravages, terrible as they were, seem to have been exaggerated, the whole of the Middle Age arrangements were undergoing a crucial transformation.

The serfs and villeins were not only being relieved by their masters, but were relieving themselves from onerous personal obligations by conscious revolt, and at times by threatening combinations against authorities who might endeavour to enforce the continuance of the old conditions of personal servitude. The enormous loss of life by the Black Death strengthened the position of the free labourers who were left, and enabled them to demand payment far in excess of what they could command before. But as prices of food, owing to scarcity, had risen at the same time, it is doubtful whether the increase of wages relatively bettered the condition of those toilers who were chiefly, still less those who were exclusively, dependent upon money payments in return for work done. However this may be, it is certain that for the next thirty years after the outburst of the plague in 1348 a great effort was made by the landowning classes to set back the movement of social and economic emancipation going on below. There were plenty of genuine poor at this period to justify the furious denunciation of John Ball and his fellow hedge-priests, as well as the scathing satire of Piers Plowman. No worse moment could have been chosen to enter upon a reactionary and unjust policy. No time could have been more favourable to the revolt of an awakened people. And of all the measures calculated to combine the whole country against not only King and nobles, but Parliament itself, with its repressive statutes, a poll tax, falling upon the poor with far greater weight and severity than upon the well-to-do, was the one financial enactment certain to produce this result.

The whole country was well prepared for the rising which followed. A systematic agitation, so far as was possible in those days, had been carried on against the dominant class for years beforehand. The ownership of land and the ostentation of wealth of all kinds were denounced with apostolic enthusiasm combined with rough popular rhymes and phrases and not a little blunt and telling English humour. All the vigour, courage and sense of fair play which then animated Englishmen were thus concentrated in one great effort against their rulers. The rising of 1381, known as the Peasants’ War, was manned by a very different set of people from those who constituted the French Jacquerie. Many of the peasants and yeomen had fought in the French wars, and though their forces were not well armed as a whole, there were enough among them in possession of good weapons to inspire confidence in the rest.

The history of the upheaval is so well known, as far as the imperfect records of the time admit, and its significance has been so fully set out and commented upon from different points of view that any detailed account would be out of place. But the attention of historians of all schools has been almost exclusively given to the part played in the upheaval by the vigorous “men of Kent” under the leadership of the famous Wat Tyler. This man knew well what he was about. The common citizens and apprentices of London were obviously favourable to his enterprise, seeing that his army was able to enter the capital without opposition, and the Tower of London fell into his hands without any resistance. There was no looting or incendiarism. Those only fell victims to the revolting peasantry who had, as they thought, prevented a peaceful solution of the whole difference by interfering between themselves and the King. Tyler himself, with London in his power and his army encouraged by success, was still willing to negotiate; knowing by experience as a soldier the difficulty of keeping a large body of men together, even in the metropolis, without thorough discipline and an organised commissariat. He therefore went forward without, as it appears, a proper personal guard, to treat with King Richard II. in person. What followed he might have anticipated, if only from what had so often happened before. The King, pretending that he himself would lead the people and grant them their demands, took good care that Tyler should be treacherously murdered. His immediate following, discouraged by the death of their leader, disbanded, and were cruelly butchered by the King and his nobles. Partial successes were achieved by the peasants in the counties surrounding London, and over the greater part of England. But the result in every case was the same. The leaders were either killed, treacherously assassinated, or condemned by suborned courts and corrupt juries; and the peasants fell victims to their enemies.

None of the horrors which befell the French Jacquerie on their defeat were spared to the English peasantry after their struggle. Atrocities of the most abominable description were wreaked upon the defeated people and their families wherever the least opportunity was offered. The King distinguished himself by his ruthlessness in this campaign of butchery, as might have been expected from the son of the Black Prince. He and his barons rivalled the French nobles in their hideous acts of cruelty. But the English peasants, being further advanced in their progress towards the next period, were better able to withstand their oppressors, and the conflict, instead of being brought to an end within thirty days, extended over several months. There was the less excuse for the reign of terror instituted over so large a part of the country, since the insurrectionists were guilty of little outrage and destruction. Moreover, the demands of the serfs and peasants for complete emancipation and financial relief from odious taxation were so obviously just, and, what is more important in our consideration of historical sequence, so fully in accordance with the stage of economic and social development attained, that even the young King, guided by his more capable counsellors, suggested that it might be well to anticipate the inevitable by granting freedom and withdrawing the obnoxious poll tax. But the time for full surrender was not yet.

Once more, therefore, the rightful endeavour of an oppressed class, this time our own countrymen, to secure their enfranchisement by force of arms failed, under circumstances where success might reasonably have appeared to the revolters almost certain. Not only were their claims justifiable and, if they had been granted, beneficial in the long run to the dominant class itself, but, having obtained control of the metropolis, they held a strong strategic and economic position. By means of this Tyler judged that he could compel the acceptance of such terms as would ensure to the people all over England everything that could be gained by force at that juncture, confirming also their political position at the same time. Yet the peasants and their friends, the farmers and small bourgeoisie, miscalculated their strength. Not that the rising was entirely without its influence later. The fear of what might occur of a similar character on a larger scale helped towards the recognition of the freedoms of the people, accompanying the final break-up of the feudal system in England, and the greatly increased well-being of the mass of Englishmen from the close of the fourteenth century onwards throughout the fifteenth. The latter century, notwithstanding the general disturbance of the country by the Wars of the Roses and the suicide of the barons and their retainers, by their treacherous campaigns against one another and the frequent changes of kingship, was the most favourable age for the mass of Englishmen that the nation had yet reached

What had been striven for unavailingly by force in the previous generation, was realised almost imperceptibly by the immediate descendants of the men who had listened to the exhortations of John Ball, and tried to realise them by fighting under Wat Tyler. In the middle of the century villeinage and serfdom had virtually disappeared all over England through the unseen but inevitable social changes brought about by economic necessity. Englishmen, from the close of the reign of Richard II to the early portion of that of Henry VIII, were in the main a well-to-do body of free farmers and free labourers, having friendly relations with the artisans, citizens and burgesses of the towns. As a whole the Englishmen of that period were a population well-fed, well-clothed, not ill-housed, alike in town and in country, who had a clear conception of their own rights and importance. The silent progress of peace had gained for them a great social victory. The temporarily successful political rising of Jack Cade was chiefly remarkable for the facts that practically all classes of the men of Kent joined in his movement; that his army easily defeated the forces of the King; and that, although Cade himself was sacrificed when his followers dispersed, no attempt was made at revenge upon the insurrectionists such as had been wreaked upon Tyler’s peasants seventy years before. They gained little by their revolt beyond the privilege of recording their “complaint,” but they retained the independent position they had previously acquired.

England thus affords another example that the course of economic events and unconscious social progress may secure prosperity for a people who have been unable to win their way to freedom by arms before the time was ripe. Yet no country has so completely demonstrated the truth that economic changes may also crush the mass of an agricultural population, in spite of the conjoint efforts of the Government and people to check this harmful development, favoured by the socially dominant class of the period. The sixteenth century, with all its national, piratical and literary glamour for the upper classes, was the century when the English common folk were deprived of control over their own land, by a series of events which hitherto have had no parallel in any other country. This ex­propriation was accompanied by an increase of vagrancy and vagabondage, due to no laziness on the part of those thus turned into homeless wanderers, which laid the foundation in Great Britain, even thus early, of the propertyless wage-slave class of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The first symptom of the break-up of the old feudal system, so far as it affected the lot of the common folk, was the discharge by the impoverished barons of the numbers of retainers who were necessary to secure their status, and even their safety during the civil wars, but were an intolerable encumbrance upon them when the bloody struggle came to an end. By his marriage with Elizabeth of York, Henry VII after the battle of Bosworth rendered his title to the throne almost indisputable; and, to make his position yet more secure, he enforced upon those landowners who were still able to keep large bodies of men in attendance the discharge of these unprofitable servants who had no longer any parasitical duties to perform. Hence many of these unfortunate retainers of the lower grades who had no land at their disposal to till found themselves out upon the highways unable to earn a living. They were regarded therefore as vagrants and “masterless men,” wandering about not because they were unable to get employment, but because they left their places of birth out of sheer perversity. Statutes against them were passed from 1494 onwards, and the clauses of these became more and more cruel as time went on and vagrants became more numerous. For other forces were at work to aggravate the condition of the poor. The landowners, who had been ruined by the debts incurred by the wars, sought to reimburse themselves by enclosing the people’s common land and other lands, recognised as appertaining to the villagers.

At the same time the farmers, like the landowners who cultivated their own property or the common lands they had enclosed, resorted to pasture instead of arable farming, in order to supply wool, which was then at a very high price, for the home, and above all for the Flemish wool manufacturers. This raising of wool showed two profits to the farmer: one in the saving of wages (for sheep need fewer hands to the acre than arable land), the second by the rise in the price of wool. Thus, while the yeomanry and tenantry were being removed often by fraudulent devices, the introduction of sheep-farming greatly reduced the number of labourers employed on the farms. Two such different men as Sir Thomas More, writing at the time, and Lord Bacon, writing as a student of history in the reign of James I, notice the ruinous effect of this reactionary movement on the land. Thus More speaks of the injury done to the commonwealth by those who “leave no ground for tillage, they enclose all into pastures, they throw down houses.”

“Therefore,” he proceeds, “that one covetous and insatiable cormorant and very plague of his native country may compass about and enclose many thousands acres of ground together within one pale or hedge, the husbandmen be thrust out of their own, or else by coveyn and fraud, or by violent oppression, they be put beside it, or by wrongs and injuries they be so worried that they be compelled to sell all: by one means, therefore, or another, either by hook or by crook, they must needs depart away, poor silly, wretched souls, men, women, husbands, wives, fatherless children, widows, woeful mothers with their young babes, and their whole household, small in substance and much in number, as husbandry requireth many hands. Away they trudge, I say, out of their known and accustomed houses finding no place to rest in. All their household stuff, which is very little worth, though it might well abide the sale, yet being suddenly thrust out, they may be constrained to sell it for a thing of nought. And, when they have wandered about till that be spent, what can they else do but steal and then justly, pardy, be hanged, or else go about begging. And yet these, also, they be cast into prison as vagabonds, because they go about and work not; whom no man will set awork though they never so willingly proffer themselves thereto. For one shepherd or herdsman is enough to set up that ground with cattle to the occupying whereof about husbandry many hands were requisite. And this is also the cause why victuals be now in many places dearer. Yea, besides this, the price of wool is so that poor folks which were wont to work it, and make cloth thereof, be now able to buy none at all. And by this means very many be forced to forsake work and to give themselves to idleness.”

Lord Bacon in his turn deals with the same set of circumstances. But he states, quite incorrectly, that the legislation of Henry VII, which he approves, checked the evil, whereas it did nothing of the kind. Thus: “Enclosures at that time began to be more frequent, whereby arable land, which could not be manured without people and families, was turned into pasture which was easily rid by a few herdsmen; and the tenancies for years, lives and at will, whereupon much of the yeomanry lived, were turned into demesnes. Thus began a decay of people, and by consequence a decay of towns, churches, tithes and the like. The King likewise knew full well, and in nowise forgot, that there ensued withal upon this decay, and diminution of subsidies and taxes for the more gentlemen.” For this last reason more particularly Henry VII was very anxious to check or at least to reduce this tendency to expropriate the peasant farmers from their holdings, to extend the area of enclosures and to substitute pasture for arable farming. Hence, as Bacon records, an ordinance:

“That all houses of husbandry that were used with twenty acres of ground and upwards should be used and kept for corn; together with a competent proportion of land to be used and occupied with them and in nowise to be severed from them, as by another statute made afterwards in his successor’s time was more fully declared: this upon forfeiture to be taken, not by popular action, but by seizure of the land itself, by the kings and the lords of fee, as to half the profits until the house and lands were restored. By this means the houses being kept up did of necessity enforce that dweller not to be a beggar or a cottager but a man of some substance that might keep hinds and servants, aud set the plough going.”

This was all very well; but the Statutes had no more effect upon the victory of the enclosers and sheep farmers than the horrible laws against vagrants, under which they were flogged, branded, tortured, hanged or enslaved, prevented the economic effects of this systematic land-grabbing, and the pastoral com­petition with arable culture, from turning out thousands of poor people on the highroads, to be treated in this ruthless fashion. The overthrow of the monasteries, priories and convents, and the giving of their lands to the King’s favourites, or their retention in ownership by Henry VIII himself, did but intensify the prevailing tendency to vagabondage which was terribly pre­valent at the time when Bacon wrote. The abbots and priors, after the decay of serfdom, had been for their own sake easy landlords, who helped the poor and kept up the roads between their farms. But the good and the ill they did were swept away together. The courtiers and rogues who obtained their estates performed no such social duties, to balance a greed and laziness quite equal to all the shortcomings imputed to the celibate men of God in this respect.

Thus the King’s enactments, even when well-intentioned, were powerless to stop economic action to the hurt of the peasants, and the laws prohibiting vagrancy under hideous penalties failed entirely of effect. Also, in England under Henry VIII, as in France a hundred years before, the debasement of the coinage affected harmfully the entire country; and monarchical misrule, going hand in hand with the removal of all power from the lower strata of the trade guilds, reduced the heirs of the free Englishmen of the fifteenth century to a much inferior position in the sixteenth. This was followed by other serious risings over nearly the whole country from Devonshire to Norfolk, in which men of considerable substance, like Kett, the famous tanner of Wymondham, led the common folk. Here, in many cases, religious devotion to the old creed went with hatred of intolerable oppression; and in some districts men of far higher standing than those who took part in the previous risings helped the popular movement. All to no purpose, however. Revolt beat unavailingly against the tyranny of the King and the landowners. The people, who were suffering under every form of injustice, were driven back to their hovels: their leaders, as usual, were hanged. While the trading class under the Tudors were being greatly enriched by commerce, and the intellectual minority of the metropolis and the country were displaying a brilliancy in literature and philosophy which will bear comparison with the best period of Athens, the mass of the people were being deprived of freedom and well-being to an extent from which they have never yet recovered.

Such is the perpetual irony of economic and social history. Periods in the life of mankind which seem on looking back the highest and most beautiful in the annals of the race, periods when art, science, letters flourished to such a degree that even now we can scarcely comprehend how so much glory and beauty and dignity were crowded within such narrow limits of time and space – these very days of intellectual magnificence and greatness covered up the vile condition of the toilers below – a con­dition the more degrading and horrible by reason of the splendour above which we so deeply admire and strive in vain to rival and imitate. This is most true of the Elizabethan age. It was indeed a stirring time. A new world was being discovered in art and science in Europe as well as in actual existence on the other side of the Atlantic. Statesmen and thinkers, church­men and courtiers, soldiers and navigators, poets and dramatists sweep past us in magnificent array. All is full of life and colour. Few groups stand out in bolder relief than the great men who gathered around the throne of the Tudors. Never before had so strong an impulse been given to human enterprise and human imagination; never in England have noble minds been more ready to embrace great opportunities. From the point of view of the dominant class of our day, nothing can be finer than the survey: the rise of our bourgeoisie is surrounded with a glamour which conceals from most observers the growth of misery among the people. Yet from the first years of the sixteenth century the lot of the great mass of working Englishmen, which had been so flourishing and so wholesome, became miserable in the extreme, and the labourers of England were reduced to destitution – plunged quite unnecessarily from the age of gold into the iron age.

Last updated on 6.7.2006