Book Review from the December 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
When Adam Delved and Eve Span: A History of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. by Mark O’Brien, New Clarion Press, Cheltenham, 2004.
The publishers say that “the aim of this book is a modest one”, and there are in fact only 86 pages of text. Nevertheless, O’Brien describes the revolt, and its background and origins, in reasonable detail. Of the author, the publishers state that he is a “lifelong socialist and trade unionist”, and then give the game away by adding that “he has stood twice as a Socialist Alliance candidate in Liverpool”. And it does show in parts of his narrative.
By the end of the fourteenth century, feudalism was breaking down. The plague earlier in the century had decimated the population, with between a third and a half dying. Many former peasants moved into the towns. Artisans and others demanded, and often achieved, higher wages. The government attempted to keep wages down by law, but with little success. The Church was in crisis, and was corrupt. Jon Wycliffe and, to a greater extent, priests such as John Ball, preached a kind of primitive Christian communism: hence, when “Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?” And, moreover, the Hundred Years’ War with France was crippling the English state. The government attempted to increase the poll tax by three groats. As O’Brien comments, “England was seething with unrest.”
By 1381, a peasants’ revolt was inevitable. All over Essex and Kent and, later, beyond the peasants and their supporters organised their army, first taking Rochester Castle. John Ball had, for some time, been sending letters as well as travelling from town to town, preaching rebellion couched in allegorical and religious sentiments. Wat Tyler, until then unknown, organised an army of probably 30,000 peasants who, on 12 June, arrived on Blackheath, south of the Thames.
O’Brien details the taking of London, the capture of the Tower and the attempts of the government, and the king, to placate the peasants. A number of aristocrats and government officials were captured and then beheaded by the rebel army. The showdown between Tyler and the king and his representatives occurred on 14 June, at Mile End, when Tyler was stabbed and, shortly after, taken from St. Bartholemew’s Hospital and beheaded.
Meanwhile, as O’Brien writes, the revolt had been spreading throughout Kent, Essex and East Anglia. But by this time, the government had been able to cobble together a few hundred disciplined troops. There were battles in Cambridge. Rebels gathered in Billericay in Essex, but were soon forced to retreat to Colchester. As O’Brien notes, by 15 June, “the revolt was in full flow”. In Norfolk, events were proceeding apace. Incidentally, on the same day that Geoffry Lister mustered rebels on Mousehold Heath near Norwich, on 17 June, my ancestor Thomas de Newell of Craneworth in the Hundred of Mitford, was indicted for “depriving John de Harlyngg and Adam Galyon of their goods and chattels”. He was, like many others, almost certainly hanged or beheaded.
Inevitably, as Mark O’Brien demonstrates, the government won the day and defeated the peasants in battle. The chronicles of the time tell of the execution of 7000 peasants “by the axe and the noose”. Reliable estimates have since reckoned the final toll to be about 2000.
What then was the outcome of the revolt of 1381? O’Brien says that it played a decisive role in putting an end to villeinage and the economic base of feudalism in England. It further weakened the power of the Catholic Church. In more recent times, it captured the imaginations of historians as well as writers such as William Morris, who wrote The Dream of John Ball, and whom O’Brien quotes. He also mentions a number of works written by Stalinist and Trotskyist writers, although he does not appear to be conversant with a much longer fictionalised account, English Episode, by Charles Poulsen written in 1946. For those interested further in the revolt and its background, I would recommend G.M.Trevelyan’s England in the Age of Wycliffe despite his “Whiggish prejudices”.
Peter E. Newell