Sing, John Ball, and tell it to them all
Long live the day that is dawning
I will crow like a cock, I’ll carol like a lark
In the light that is coming in the morning.
This was part of my introduction to Essex; one of the first songs I sang when I joined a community choir after moving to Chelmsford. It was also the first I’d heard of John Ball. Who was he? And why were we urging him to sing?
A glance at Wikipedia established that John Ball was an English priest who took a prominent part in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The song was written by Sydney Carter in 1981 to mark the 600th anniversary of that event. Sydney Carter, incidentally, was also responsible for a song very familiar from my childhood, “The Lord of the Dance” – possibly the jolliest ever account of the crucifixion. Who would have thought that “They whipped and they stripped and they hung me high,/ And they left me there on the cross to die” could sound so cheery?
“Sing John Ball” doesn’t juxtapose gruesome lyrics with a jaunty tune – both tune and lyrics are pretty upbeat. It’s a song about equality, fraternity, and fellowship. It conjures up a future time, a new dawn, when we’ll all be “ruled by the love of one another”, working harmoniously together.
Labour and spin for fellowship I say
Labour and spin for the love of one another
Labour and spin for fellowship I say
In the light that is coming in the morning.
It’s rather heart-warming. Not a brutal call to arms like the Marseillaise, for example. Something that a community choir can sing without feeling uncomfortable.
And yet when I delved deeper into the history behind it, I found that the events commemorated by this song were far from innocuous. The Peasants’ Revolt was a bloody, brutal uprising, which led to even bloodier and more brutal reprisals by the authorities.
The peasants, artisans and townsfolk undoubtedly had every reason to revolt. The situation of the common people in late-fourteenth-century England was dire. The Black Death had swept through the country in the middle of the century, killing almost half the population. This had made labour more scarce, potentially allowing workers to demand higher pay and choose their employers. Horrified by this development, the ruling classes enacted laws to stop it. In 1349 the Ordinance of Labourers condemned demands for “excessive wages”, and in 1351 the Statute of Labourers set out maximum daily rates for every job, at pre-plague levels, and made it a crime to refuse work: “every person, able in body and under the age of 60 years, not having enough to live upon, being required, shall be bound to serve him that doth require him, or else be committed to gaol […] and […] the old wages shall be given and no more.” This led to massive discontent and efforts to circumvent the new law. In response, employers resorted to prosecutions. By the 1370s, the majority of legal business in the king’s courts involved the labour legislation, fuelling a widespread hatred of the law and its representatives.
Other laws also attempted to stop the lower classes from getting above their station: the sumptuary laws of 1363 restricted what the common people were permitted to eat and wear – for example, no one below the rank of knight or lady was entitled to adorn themselves with fur, and the lower classes were not allowed to wear the extravagantly pointed shoes that were fashionable at the time.
The other crucial feature of the fourteenth century was England’s war in France, an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to assert the English claim to sovereignty over that country. Beginning in 1337, this conflict continued for over a century (the name Hundred Years’ War is an understatement) and drained the country’s financial resources. In the late 1370s, the people’s rage at the oppressive labour laws was exacerbated by a series of poll taxes imposed by Parliament to raise funds for the war. The third of these, decreed in November 1380, was particularly onerous, requiring every person over the age of 15, men and women alike, to pay 12 pence, the equivalent of a month’s wages for many. To avoid paying, many did not register on the local rolls. In response, the government sent out commissioners to investigate and enforce the tax.
This was the trigger for the Peasants’ Revolt. On 30 May 1381, royal commissioners attempted to demand payment of the poll tax from representatives of a number of Essex villages who had gathered in Brentwood. Thomas Baker of Fobbing declared that his village would not pay; others followed his example. Violence was threatened, and the commissioners were forced to flee empty-handed. Messengers travelled from village to village, spreading news of the uprising. The first casualties were three jurors who had informed the authorities of the uprising in Brentwood: they were beheaded and their heads were paraded on poles by the rebels.
In the days that followed, the movement gathered momentum across Essex and Kent. Many of the sites of the action are places that I’ve got to know over the last six years. Here in Chelmsford there was a ceremonial burning of royal records, especially financial ones. In the quiet, picturesque little town of Coggeshall, rebels broke into the home of the sheriff of Essex, destroyed documents, and gave the sheriff a beating. He was lucky to escape with his life; another official, the escheator of Essex, was decapitated.
Cressing Temple Barns is a popular spot for craft fairs and other such events, where I’ve performed “John Ball” with my singing group on at least one occasion. At the time of the revolt this estate was in the possession of the Knights Hospitaller, whose grand prior, Sir Robert Hales, was also the Lord High Treasurer and deeply loathed for his role in imposing the poll tax. The rebels sacked the manor, stole valuables, burned books, pulled down the house and set fire to it. The splendid thirteenth-century barns were left undamaged and are still standing today.
In a number of towns the insurgents stormed castles and freed prisoners. The most famous of these was our hero John Ball, who had been incarcerated in Maidstone earlier that year by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury. Ball was a priest who may or may not have been born and raised in the Colchester area, but had certainly worked as a junior priest at St James’ Church, East Hill, Colchester. He had been excommunicated by Sudbury in 1364 for preaching a radical message of equality, which did not sit well with the wealthy and hierarchically organized church. Sudbury, by the way, was not just the most senior figure in the church, he was also the Lord Chancellor, one of the highest ranking members of government, and had been instrumental in introducing the poll tax.
|John Ball speaking to the rebels. Unknown artist, in Froissart, Chronicles.|
With Ball as their spiritual leader and Wat Tyler, also originally from Essex, as their general, a large army of mainly Kentish rebels made their way to Blackheath on the south bank of the Thames, where they had been promised a meeting with the king. Despite their hatred of the royal advisors, the rebels were unswerving in their devotion to the king himself, the fourteen-year-old Richard II: their rallying cry was “King Richard and the true commons!” Their fervent belief was that if they could put their grievances to the king in person, he would support them and abandon his supposedly traitorous advisors.
On the morning of 13 June 1381, John Ball reportedly preached to the 50,000 or so rebels assembled at Blackheath. His message was that there was no biblical basis for social hierarchies, and that all goods should belong to everyone. The inspiration for Sydney Carter’s lyrics is obvious:
When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman? […]
Why should we be kept thus in servage? We be all come from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve; whereby can they say or show that they be greater lords than we be […]
They are clothed in velvet and camlet furred with grise, and we be vestured with poor cloth: they have their wines, spices and good bread, and we have the drawing out of the chaff and drink water: they dwell in fair houses, and we have the pain and travail, rain and wind in the fields.
Ball went on to argue that the corrupt elites were like weeds that had to be eradicated to make way for a new, free society: in short, all the great lords, lawyers, justices and jurors had to be destroyed. If this account by a contemporary chronicler is accurate, then Ball’s sermon was incitement to wholesale slaughter.
Ball’s preaching stirred up the rebels, and the meeting with the king did nothing to calm them. Richard approached the shore in the royal barge, but was too frightened to land. Offered the opportunity to present a petition, the rebels demanded no less than the execution of several royal advisors, including two of those on the barge with Richard, Treasurer Hales and Archbishop Sudbury. Not surprisingly, these demands were not accepted.
|Richard on the royal barge, rebels on the shore. Unknown artist, in Froissart, Chronicles.|
Furious and disappointed, the rebels headed to London Bridge, which they were allowed to cross with little resistance. Soon after, Aldgate was opened to allow an army of Essex rebels to enter from the east. Their numbers swelled by Londoners, the rebels went on a systematic spree of destruction, attacking the property of particularly unpopular figures and destroying documents associated with the law. They sought out further “traitors” and beheaded eighteen of them that evening, then set up camp around the Tower of London, where Richard and his advisors had taken refuge.
The next critical location was another place very familiar to me – Mile End, where I studied and worked in the 1990s and 2000s. Now a drab urban district dominated by a busy intersection, in the fourteenth century it was an open area a mile from the city of London. On the morning of 14 June Richard summoned the rebels to meet him there, and agreed – no doubt for tactical reasons – to all their demands. These included freedom from serfdom and a rent limit of 4 pence per acre. Many rebels were appeased by the charters offered and returned home to Essex and Kent.
Others, however, had ignored the invitation to Mile End and continued to blockade the Tower. As Archbishop Sudbury was saying mass in the chapel, the rebels managed to enter and began to hunt down their most hated enemies. Sudbury, Hales and two others were dragged out of the fortress and onto Tower Hill, where they were summarily beheaded. The inexpert executioner evidently required several axe blows to finish off the archbishop. The heads of the victims were then carried on poles to Westminster Abbey and back, before being displayed on London Bridge.
|Killingof Archbishop Sudbury and others. Froissart, Chronicles.|
As the day went on more acts of violence took place, some apparently unrelated to the rebels’ core grievances. The most shocking was the massacre of scores of Flemish residents (estimates range from 40 to 140), a group who had been subject to violence from Londoners in the past. Many were dragged out of churches where they had sought sanctuary, and beheaded in the street.
The next day Richard met the rebels again, this time at Smithfield, where he summoned Wat Tyler to approach him and explain his continued presence in London. Alone and far from his army, Tyler was fatally stabbed by two members of the king’s party – whether this had been the king’s plan is unclear. Before the rebels had realized what was happening, Richard galloped over to them and proclaimed himself their leader and sovereign, leading them further out of the city. In the meantime the London authorities had mustered a respectable military force, beheaded Tyler, and presented his impaled head to the rebel army to demonstrate the end of their hopes. Disheartened, they surrendered to the king and returned home.
|Death of Wat Tyler, Richard addresses the rebels. |
Outbreaks of rebellion continued in other parts of the country, but the tide had turned. Richard subsequently revoked all the charters he had issued and ordered severe punishment of the rebels. In the months that followed, thousands were killed for their part in the revolt. In Colchester, a particularly brutal judge appointed ordered so many hangings that new gallows had to be built. On one occasion, nineteen men were reported to have been hanged on a single gibbet.
After the debacle at Smithfield John Ball fled north, but he was captured in Coventry and brought to St Albans for trial. On 15 July 1361 he was hanged, drawn (i.e. disembowelled alive), quartered and beheaded in the presence of the king. Richard had offered to mitigate the punishment by having him hanged to death first (yes, that’s the medieval version of mild sentencing) if he would kneel to the king, but Ball refused.
So a revolt that had started with genuine and legitimate grievances, bringing together a huge number of people with shared hopes and a common purpose, ended in utter disaster. Could there have been any other outcome? The general consensus seems to be that the rebels were condemned to failure by their naïve faith in the king, whom they saw as appointed by God. It was this that allowed Wat Tyler to be lured into the ambush at Smithfield, and prevented his army from taking advantage of their superior numbers after his death. In a fictionalization of the events published in 2015, Melvyn Bragg has John Ball experience a flash of insight when he sees the young king riding to Westminster with his courtiers: “The King was not from God. […] The King was no innocent among the wicked. The King was no different from his traitorous councillors around him on horseback now.”
Had the rebels realized this, they might have acted more decisively at crucial moments – and yet if the movement had been openly anti-monarchist from the start it would probably not have gained the popular support that it did.
In any case the revolt failed to bring about any major changes in English society – if anything it condemned the common people to even harsher servitude than before. This, at least, was Richard’s intention: “Rustics you were, and rustics you are still; you will remain in bondage, not as before but incomparably harsher.” And it failed to go down in history as a source of national pride: unlike the 14th of July in France, the 13th of June is not a public holiday or a day of celebration here.
There have, however, been attempts to rehabilitate the Peasants’ Revolt and present it as part of a long history of socialism in England. In the 1880s, five hundred years after the revolt, William Morris painted an idealized picture of the camaraderie of the rebels in A Dream of John Ball. This may have supplied some of the inspiration for Sydney Carter’s song. And the song wasn’t the only commemoration of the 600th anniversary in 1981. A mural painted in Bow Common Lane in East London showed oppressed peasants fighting desperately against fully armed knights on one side and the monarchy, in league with the corrupt church, on the other. And closer to home in Colchester, a plaque was erected and two streets in the Dutch quarter were named after John Ball and Wat Tyler.
|Mural by Ray Walker in Bow Common Lane.|
The event was also celebrated at the Socialist Workers Party Rally in Skegness, where the journalist and campaigner Paul Foot delivered a stirring speech. He described the revolt as “perhaps the first time the standard of socialism was raised in England”, and emphasized the disciplined, systematic approach of the rebels: “They didn’t burn or loot anywhere at random”; “they acted swiftly and with great restraint”. Foot’s speech makes no mention of the slaughter of the Flemings, and glosses over the other killings carried out during the revolt. Quite reasonably, he notes that the king’s revenge was far more savage than the revolt: “In the rising itself, perhaps a hundred dead, most of them people guilty of the most terrible extortion and exploitation […] In the putting down of the rising, perhaps three thousand dead”.
In 2011, well after the disturbance caused by another unsuccessful poll tax had died down, the Labour-run council of Islington invited residents to vote for the people and places they would like to see commemorated with green “people’s plaques”. The Peasants’ Revolt was one of the winners, and a plaque was unveiled to mark the site where Highbury Manor, the home of Robert Hales, had been destroyed during the uprising. At the ceremony, veteran socialist campaigner Tony Benn described the Peasants’ Revolt as “the first of a long series of campaigns to secure freedom and democracy in Britain”. Local MP Jeremy Corbyn linked the rising to Islington’s “tradition of dissent”, and made no bones of his approval of the rebels’ actions: “Why did the peasants march here? […] because they were poor and angry at the injustices of the time […] because one of the people who had instituted the poll tax lived here in a big moated house. They thought it was better if he didn’t live in a moated house so they came here and burned it down.”
On 15 July 2015, the anniversary of John Ball’s death, further prominent left-wing or Labour-affiliated figures gathered to unveil a new monument in Smithfield. This time the central role went to film director Ken Loach; former mayor Ken Livingstone was also present. The stone triptych gives the following summary of the events at Smithfield:
At this place on 15th June 1381 Wat Tyler, John Ball and other representatives of the Great Rising met King Richard II to finalise terms for ending the Rebellion. The King had agreed to all the political reforms aimed at alleviating the plight of the people. However he and his advisors later reneged on that agreement after killing Tyler in the process near this spot. John Ball and many others of the Revolt were also later executed.
Between the lines of this description, the following quote from John Ball is inscribed: “Things cannot go on well in England nor ever will until everything shall be in common. When there shall be neither Vassal nor Lord and all distinctions levelled.”
I don’t believe “Sing John Ball” was performed on this occasion, but it might as well have been. The song is part of a tradition of celebrating John Ball’s message of equality, while downplaying the violence unleashed by his preaching. Perhaps it’s fair to overlook the massacre of the Flemings, which was probably not part of Ball’s and Tyler’s plans. The beheading of the archbishop, the treasurer and many others, however, was clearly integral to their programme.
Were these killings justified? Paul Foot would say yes, and Jeremy Corbyn might agree, but I’m not so sure. It’s partly middle-class squeamishness, I expect; the same feeling that makes me applaud a well-organized political rally (for a cause I agree with, naturally) but condemn the destruction of property, with two thoughts in mind: What about the effort and resources that have gone into making that? And who’s going to clean up the mess?
I think my choir would probably agree with me. And yet when our current crisis is finally over and we’re allowed to sing together again, I’m sure we’ll all be happy to belt our way through “John Ball”. Regardless of the bloody events behind it, it’s a rousing song - and it's part of our history.
 Dan Jones, Summer of Blood: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (London: Harper, 2009), p. 15.
 Brian Bird, a retired clergyman, carried out extensive archival research and concluded that Ball was born in Peldon and came of age in in 1350 before training as a priest in York. See Rebel Before His Time: A Study of John Ball and the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (Worthing: Churchman Publishing, 1987). Dan Jones states that Ball came from York; Wikipedia is non-committal on this point.
 Walsingham, Chronicon Angliae, quoted in Brian Bird, Rebel Before His Time, p. 66.
 Melvyn Bragg, Now Is the Time (London: Sceptre, 2015), pp. 276-277.
 Interestingly, this plaque was subsequently “removed from the wall of a house in John Ball Walk at the request of the resident” (I would love to have read the correspondence around this) then put into storage and lost for several years. It was rediscovered, restored, reinstalled, and unveiled for a second time by the Bishop of Colchester and the human rights campaigner and peer Shami Chakrabarti, chancellor of the local university at the time. Given the pointed refusal of the Archbishop of Canterbury to join in the 1981 commemorations, this could be seen as representing a change in church attitudes – but on the other hand the Church of England has always contained a broad spectrum of views.
 On the other hand, it has been argued that killing Flemings really was central to the rebels’ aims, and that its purpose was to assert and shape their English identity. See Erik Spindler, “Flemings in the Peasants’ Revolt, 1381”, https://www.academia.edu/1865034/Flemings_in_the_Peasants_Revolt