In 1381, one of the most important events in English medieval history occurred: the Peasants’ Revolt. Under the leadership of a former soldier, Wat Tyler (d. 1381), a radical priest, John Ball (d. 1381), and Jack Straw (d. 1381), approximately 50,000 Englishmen descended on the capital to vent their grievances to King Richard II (although the event has been called ‘the Peasants’ Revolt’ by historians in the nineteenth century, the rebel crowd was actually composed of people from a variety of social classes). The most immediate cause of their anger was the imposition of a Poll Tax the previous year. This had been the third such tax enacted in recent years, with the government having demanded money in 1377 and 1379 as well. The rebels also demanded the abolition of serfdom, and the right to buy and sell in the market place. Their social and economic grievances were further fired by John Ball’s radical egalitarian ideology which proposed bringing all land under common ownership. His views are famously encapsulated in the record of a speech which he gave to the rebels at Blackheath:
When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men were created equal by nature, and that servitude had been introduced by the unjust and evil oppression of men, against the will of God, who, if it had pleased Him to create serfs, surely in the beginning of the world would have appointed who should be a serf and who a lord.
Ball then finished with the recommendation that the people,
uproot the tares that are accustomed to destroy the grain; first killing the great lords of the realm, then slaying the lawyers, justices and jurors, and finally rooting out everyone whom they knew to be harmful to the community in future.[i]
Some of the above must be taken with a pinch of salt, particularly John Ball’s recommendation that all lawyers must be slain, for they were recorded by a chronicler named Thomas Walsingham who aimed to paint the actions of the rebels in as negative a light as he possibly could.
Although royal charters had been granted which satisfied the rebels’ demands, Wat Tyler was brutally killed by the Lord Mayor of London, William Walworth. The additional rebel ring leaders such as Ball and Straw were then rounded up and suffered one of the most brutal sentences of the age: they were hanged, drawn, and quartered.
Unusually for common rebel leaders from this period, we have an account of the last dying speech and confession that Jack Straw allegedly made shortly before his execution because it is recorded by Walsingham. I say that he allegedly made the confession, however, for the noted historian of the Peasants’ Revolt, R. B. Dobson, says that it occurs at a point in Walsingham’s narrative in which ‘he gladly relieves himself of facts and gives free rein to his powerful imagination’.[ii] Yet still, Dobson acknowledges that Straw’s alleged confession cannot have been a mere figment of Walsingham’s imagination and must have had a grain of truth to it.[iii]
Let us take a look at the portrayal of Jack Straw’s final moments as Walsingham records them:
How the insurgents planned to destroy the realm is proved by the confession of Jack Straw, the most important of their leaders after Walter Tylere. After Straw had been captured and sentenced to execution in London by the mayor, the latter spoke to him publicly: “Behold, John! You are certain to die soon and have no hope of saving your life […] tell us in all honesty what plans you rebels pursued and why you stirred up the crowd of the commons.[iv]
Straw then proceeds to say
It no longer serves me to lie, nor is it proper to speak falsehoods, especially as I know that my soul would be subjected to harsher torments if I did so. Moreover, I hope for two advantages in speaking the truth: first because what I say may profit the country; and also because, according to your promises, I will have the help of your prayers after my death. So I will speak without any attempt to deceive. At the time we were assembled at “le Blakehethe” in order to arrange to meet the king, our plan was to kill all the knights, esquires, and other gentlemen who came with him. Then we would have taken the king with us from place to place in full sight of all; so that when everybody, and especially the common people, saw him, they would willingly have joined us and our band […] then we would have killed the king and driven out of the land all possessioners, bishops, monks, canons, and rectors of churches […] We would have created kings, Walter Tyler in Kent and one each in other counties, and appointed them […we would have] set fire to four parts of the city and [burnt] it down and divided all the precious goods found there amongst ourselves.[v]
After this short speech, Straw was executed and his head was placed on top of London Bridge alongside that of his fellow rebel leader, Wat Tyler. It is likely that the other parts of Straw’s body, as well as Tyler and Ball’s, were sent to be displayed in public spaces in other cities, although none of the accounts of the revolt tell us where.
This type of ‘spectacular justice’, in which criminals underwent an excruciating death, might at first glance seem to simply be a sign of a strong state crushing its opposition. Yet as Katherine Royer points out, if governments had to use this form of ‘spectacular justice’ frequently, which the government of Richard II had to do after the rebellion, it actually shows just how weak the state was.[vi] Thus, ‘the history of the dismembered and displayed body of a traitor bears little resemblance to the long-told story of a late-medieval state’s march to a monopoly of violence’.[vii]
Straw’s alleged last dying speech is interesting, furthermore, because it shows how just how important the actual speech of a dying person is becoming at this point. This is because, as Royer argues elsewhere, in the early medieval period, death was imagined as a long, drawn out process: a human was not properly dead until their body had completely decayed. But with the emergence of the doctrine of purgatory in in the 12th century, death increasingly became conceived of as a discrete event. Thus, what a criminal said in his last moments mattered more and more.[viii]
In his confession, Straw makes a ‘bargain’ with the authorities: prayers will be said on behalf of his immortal soul if he, in his final moments, recognises the authority of the state. If he dies resistant to authority, then prayers will not be said for the safety of his soul after death. Thus Straw has nothing to lose: he may as well as submit to kingly authority and ensure the safety of his soul in the hereafter.
Jack Straw’s story was adopted by later authors who wrote about the Peasants’ Revolt. Jack Straw appears as the principal protagonist in a play entitled The Life and Death of Iacke Strawe (1593). In this narrative, Straw and Wat Tyler have swapped places, for the former is the leader of the revolt, while the latter is consigned to a minor role in the rebellion. As such, Straw’s last dying speech is not dramatized as he is killed at Smithfield by William Walworth. The rebels’ aims are the same, however, as those intimated in Straw’s final confession above: to kill the king and the nobleman; to kill all bishops and lawyers; and to divide the land between themselves in the name of ‘communalitie’ (an almost proto-communist) ideology.
A slightly altered version of Jack Straw’s last dying speech appeared a few centuries later in a little-known criminal biography entitled The History of All the Mobs, Tumults, Insurrections in Great Britain (1716):
When we were assembled, says he, upon Black Heath, and had sent for the king to come to us, our purpose was to have slain all knights and gentlemen that he should have about him; and as for the king, we would have kept him among us, to the end the people might more boldly have repaired to us, and when we had gotten power enough, we would have slain all noblemen, especially the Knights of the Rhodes, and lastly would have kill’d the king and all men of possessions, with bishops, monks, parsons of churches […] then we would have deivs’d laws according to which the people should have liv’d, for which we would have created kings; as Wat Tyler in Kent, and other in other counties: and the same night that Wat Tyler was kill’d, we intended to have set fire to the city in four corners and to have divided the spoil amongst us. And this was our purpose as God may help me now at my last end.[ix]
When The History of all the Mobs appeared, the last dying speeches of criminals were printed en masse to be read as entertainment at public executions, and these speeches were often incorporated into compendiums of criminals’ lives such as The Newgate Calender (1784). The eighteenth century was also a period in which, as Dorothy George says, ‘King Mob might at any point resume his reign after the briefest insurrection’.[x] That is to say that the plebeian classes during the eighteenth century regularly expressed their dissatisfaction with the government’s policies through rioting. The spark for the riot could be quite small, and a series of riots in the 1740s began because the government slightly increased the duty on gin, thereby making it more expensive. With the purpose of criminal biography being primarily moralistic, what the anonymous author of The History of All the Mobs is doing is going back through the lives of every rebel leader throughout history, showing how they came to an untimely end, and through that warning people not to make the same mistakes, as it says in the preface that,
In all our histories of Great Britain and Ireland, we meet with nothing more frequent than mobs and insurrections, which tho’ they have terminated always in the destruction of the ringleaders and principal abettors, yet we shall find that the madness of the people has fatally spread itself from one age to another, and is become even at this day no less dangerous and infectious than it was at the very beginning. Upon this account this short history is attempted, that it may be a standing caution to the common people, for whose use it is chiefly intended.[xi]
Jack Straw appears as a turncoat in Mrs. O’Neill’s The Bondman (1833), who betrays the rebels in return for a pardon from the king. And as was the case with most historical rebels, Jack Straw was honoured (?) with a penny dreadful devoted entirely to himself entitled The Sword of Freedom; or, The Boyhood Days of Jack Straw (c. 1860). In this story he is a young lad who, like Robin Hood, is forced to become an outlaw. He spends his youthful days rescuing women from attempted rapes by Norman soldiers, and singlehandedly fighting off hordes of Norman soldiers. As the story only deals with his life before the insurrection, the reader is not given any information on his last dying speech here either.
[i] R. B. Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (London: Macmillan, 1970), p. 375.
[ii] Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, p. 364.
[iv] Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, p. 365.
[v] Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, pp. 365-66.
[vi] Katherine Royer, The English Execution Narrative, 1200-1700 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), p. 31.
[viii] Royer, The English Execution Narrative, p. 51.
[ix] The History of All the Mobs, Tumults, Insurrections in Great Britain (London: J. Moore, 1716), pp. 12-13.
[x] Dorothy George, Grub Street: Studies in a Subculture (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), p. 4.
[xi] The History of All the Mobs, pp. 2-3.