By Stephen Basdeo
The following is an excerpt from my book: The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (2018).
It is available to buy from the publisher here: Link.
Wat Tyler’s rebellion in 1381 was the first large-scale uprising of the common people against the rulers of the land. The rebels demanded, among other things, the abolition of serfdom; the freedom to buy and sell in the market place; and an end to the hated poll tax—the initial spark of the rebellion.
Although the revolt failed and its ringleaders were executed, as my book shows, their legacy lived on in plays, poetry, novels, and the rebels’ names were used as aliases in protests through the ages—most recently in the poll tax riots under Thatcher and even at pro-Brexit protests.
The first major reincarnation of Wat Tyler and Jack Straw in popular culture came in an anonymously authored play entitled The Life and Death of Iacke Straw, A Notable Rebel in England (1593).[i] The play was written during the Golden Age of English theatre, when playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), and Anthony Munday (c.1560-1633) flourished.
Many playwrights at this time utilised medieval settings in their works. Marlowe authored The Troublesome Reigne and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England (1593). Shakespeare’s medieval plays include King John, Richard III, and Macbeth. He also authored Richard II, based upon the story of the boy king that has figured previously in this history (Shakespeare’s play does not feature Wat Tyler or any of the other rebels, but instead focuses on the last two years of Richard’s life).
It is in early modern plays that some medieval figures acquire, for better or for worse, the reputations that would stick with them throughout the whole of their literary afterlives. For example, Shakespeare is responsible in large part for popularising the image of Richard III as a cruel and deformed tyrant. It is also in this period that Robin Hood is first elevated to the peerage, having been portrayed as a dispossessed nobleman for the first time in two plays, authored by Munday, entitled The Downfall of Robert Earle of Huntington, and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597-98).[ii]
As its title suggests, Jack Straw is the principal protagonist in The Life and Death of Iacke Strawe.[iii] Straw is also named ‘the Tyler’, even though, puzzlingly, there is a separate character in the work called Wat Tyler. A possible source of this confusion may have been Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century Nun’s Priest’s Tale, in which the leader of the revolt is said to be Jack Straw instead of Wat Tyler.[iv]
Evidently drawing upon John Stow’s Chronicles of England, the play begins with the tax collector visiting Straw’s home and enquiring as to the age of his daughter, upon which Straw vents his frustration at the government:
Collector. Now such a murmuring to rise upon so trifling a thing,
In all my life neuer saw I before:
And yet I haue beene Officer this seuen yeare and more,
The Tyler and his wife are in a great rage,
Affirming their Daughter to be vnder age.
Iacke Strawe. Art thou the Collector of the Kings taske?
Collector. I am Tyler why dost thou aske?
Iacke Strawe. Because thou goest beyond the Commission of the King,
We graunt to his Highnes pleasure in euery thing;
Thou hast thy taske money for all that be heere,
My daughter is not fourteene yeares olde, therefore shee goes cleare.[v]
The tax collector is unconvinced and attempts to indecently examine Straw’s daughter. Enraged, Straw strikes the tax collector upon the head. Immediately afterwards, John Ball, Wat Tyler, Nobs, and Tom Miller enter, and Ball tells Straw that ‘thou hast done a good seruice to thy country’.[vi] As a result of the tax collector’s assault upon Straw’s daughter, the men begin plotting the rebellion.
It is tempting to believe that the Elizabethan era was some sort of ‘Golden Age’, during which a largely benevolent monarch presided over an era of economic prosperity and a flourishing of the arts. Certainly there were advancements in these areas, but the idea that the period was any kind of golden age, especially in the latter period, is far from the reality of the situation. It was a period of increasing crime, war, famine, and courtly intrigues.
Most importantly for our purposes here, it was an era that was marked by a number of popular disturbances.[vii] Many of these small-scale riots were caused by low wages and the high price of food, and hardships were felt particularly by apprentices.[viii] Matters became bad enough for Queen Elizabeth I to issue a Royal Proclamation in 1590 against unruly apprentices who might be tempted to publicly express their discontent by rioting:
Where the Queen’s most excellent majesty, being given to understand of a very great outrage lately committed by some apprentices and others being masterless men and vagrant persons, in and about the suburbs of the city of London, in assaulting of the house of Lincoln’s Inn and the breaking and spoiling of divers chambers in the said house […] hath therefore thought good for the better avoiding of suchlike outrages hereafter (by advice of her majesty’s Privy Council) straightly to charge and command all such as be any householders […] that they and every of them do cause all their apprentices, journeymen, servants, and family in their several houses […] to tarry and abide within their several houses and not be suffered to go abroad after nine of the clock at night, upon pain of imprisonment.[ix]
The description of the apprentices as ‘masterless men’ and ‘vagabonds’ here is quite telling as to how the political elites view those who participated in popular disturbances. The apprentices are not men who have been driven to riot as a result of want and penury. They are instead depicted as criminals, on a par with the rogues that flourished in Tudor England, and who were similarly described as ‘masterless men and vagabonds’.
In such a context, it was quite daring for the author of The Life and Death of Iacke Strawe to paint the doctrines of John Ball in a positive light, much less to show any sort of sympathy with the rebels. This is the impassioned speech which John Ball gives to those assembled after the slaying of the tax collector. It is a damning indictment on the state of England which undoubtedly had resonance for those who saw it performed:
Parson Ball. Neighbors, neighbors, the weakest now a dayes goes to the wall,
But marke my words, and follow the counsell of Iohn Ball.
England is growne to such a passe of late,
That rich men triumph to see the poore beg at their gate.
But I am able by good scripture before you to proue,
That God doth not this dealing allow nor loue.
But when Adam delued and Eue span,
Who was then a Gentleman.[x]
Having appropriated and adapted the historical John Ball’s famous sermon, the Ball of the play preaches further egalitarian principles and advocates the equal division of wealth and land among the people, to be achieved, if necessary, through force of arms:
The rich haue all, the poor liue in miseries,
But follow the counsell of Iohn Ball,
I promise I loue yee all:
And make diuision equally,
Of each mans goods indifferently,
And rightly may you follow Armes,
To rid you from these ciuil harmes.[xi]
Later on, Tyler speaks of ‘communalitie’, and what the conspiring rebels propose – the redistribution of wealth and lands equally – is akin to a type of proto-communism.
While Ball and Straw are the brains of the rebellion, Tyler and Tom Miller are its brawn:
Wat Tyler. I Iacke Strawe, or else Ile bide many a fowle blow.
It shall bee no other but hee,
That thus favours this Communalitie,
Stay wee no longer prating here,
But let vs roundly to this geare,
Tis more than time that we were gone,
We be Lords and Maisters eueryone.
Tom Millar. And I my Maisters will make one,
To fight when all our foes be gone.
Well shall they see before wele lacke,
Wele stuffe the Gallowes till it cracke.[xii]
The execution of noblemen, an egalitarian ideology, and the advocating of a redistribution of wealth and property make this play revolutionary for its time. Later in the play, when the rebels send a messenger to the royal household, even the King admits that he has some slight sympathy with those who feel they have had no choice but to rebel:
King. Admit him neere, for wee will heare him speake,
Tis hard when twixt the people and the King,
Such termes of threats and parlies must be had,
Would any Gentleman of worth,
Be seene in such a cause without offence,
Both to his God, his countrie and his Prince,
Except he were inforced thereunto?[xiii]
Later on, when the rebellion is at its height, the King, seemingly in good faith, offers all of the rebels a pardon, but this is rejected by Jack Straw with scorn, who intimates that the words of Kings and noblemen can never be trusted:
Iacke Straw. The King and his Nobles thinke they may sleep in quiet,
Now they have given us a little holy water at the Court,
But there’s no such matter, we be no such fooles,
To be bobd out with words and after come to hanging.[xiv]
Matters come to a head at Smithfield, and as the King and Straw are negotiating terms, Walworth stabs the latter:
Maior […] Villaine I doe arrest thee in my Princes name,
Proud rebel as thou art take that withal, (here he stabs him)
Learne thou and all posteritie after thee,
What tis a seruile slaue, to braue a King.
Pardon my Gratious Lord for this my fact,
In seruice done to God and to your selfe.[xv]
Walworth is subsequently knighted for his heroism in slaying the leader of the revolt. Despite the sympathy allotted to the rebels throughout the play, it ends in very moralistic fashion with an injunction to always obey the King who rules by divine right.
The play is something of a mystery to scholars. Besides the debates surrounding its authorship, critics are not even sure of whether the play was performed or not.[xvi] Leonard R. N. Ashley suggests that if it was, then it would have been part of ‘low’ street entertainment culture, most likely presented as a morality play at a city pageant.[xvii] W. J. Lawrence downgrades the play’s status even further, suggesting that it was probably intended as an inn-yard production.[xviii]
If it was performed in either of the contexts that Ashley and Lawrence suggest, it was most likely abbreviated. The text would have served as a loose guide to what the performers should say, rather than being prescriptive. Furthermore, researchers are not agreed as to how the play was received during the period, although Stephen Schillinger suggests that the play ‘gives voice to the period’s most radical ideas about popular revolt and protest, suggesting how public theatre could reflect a sense of political unrest in the city’.[xix]
While the sentiments expressed by the play’s leading protagonists seem at first glance to be subversive, the anti-establishment tone of the play is of course nicely contained. At the end, the rebels meet with justice at the hands of Walworth. There is only ever one outcome for rebels who betray their King. Schillinger further notes that in editions of the play that were printed after 1593, much of the radicalism was edited out of it.[xx] This suggests that the publishers of the play, at least, were conscious of the implications of the original text’s effect upon the minds of audiences and of possible repercussions on themselves in Elizabeth’s supposed golden age.
[i] There have been various attributions to contemporary authors by scholars for this play, including George Peele and even Shakespeare. For a critique of these theories see Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957; repr. Abingdon: Routledge, 2005), pp. 72-73.
[ii] It is Munday’s portrayal of Robin Hood as a dispossessed Earl that has persisted in modern portrayals of the Robin Hood story.
[iii] By far the best analysis of The Life and Death of Iacke Strawe is carried out by Stephen Schillinger in the following article: Stephen Schillinger, ‘Begging at the Gate: Jack Straw and the Acting Out of Popular Rebellion’, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England 21 (2008), pp. 87-127.
[iv] R. B. Dobson, ‘Introduction: Geoffrey Chaucer and the Peasants’ Revolt’ in The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 ed. by R. B. Dobson (London: MacMillan, 1970), p. 387.
[v] The Life and Death of Iacke Strawe, A Notable Rebel in England: Who was Kild in Smithfield by the Lord Maior of London (Printed at London by Iohn Danter, and are to be Solde by William Barley at his Shop in Gratious-Street ouer against Leaden-Hall, 1593), [p. 3]. The original edition has neither lines nor page numbers, but I have inserted page references.
[vi] The Life and Death of Iacke Strawe, [p. 4].
[vii] Curtis C. Breight, Surveillance, Militarism and Drama in the Elizabethan Era (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 1996), p. 88.
[viii] For more information about the disturbances and riots of the late Elizabethan period see Ian W. Archer, The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
[ix] ‘Enforcing Curfews for Apprentices’, in Tudor Royal Proclamations ed. by Paul L. Hughes & James F. Larkin 3 Vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969), 3: 42 cited in Mihoko Suzuki, ‘The London Apprentice Riots of the 1590s and the Fiction of Thomas Deloney’ Criticism 38: 2 (1996), pp. 181-217 (pp.181-182).
[x] The Life and Death of Iacke Strawe, [p. 5].
[xi] The Life and Death of Iacke Strawe, [p. 6].
[xii] The Life and Death of Iack Strawe, [pp. 6-7].
[xiii] The Life and Death of Iack Strawe, [p. 14].
[xiv] The Life and Death of Iack Strawe, [p. 31].
[xv] The Life and Death of Iacke Strawe, [p. 34].
[xvi] Schillinger, ‘Begging at the Gate’, p. 87.
[xvii] Leonard R. Ashley, Authorship and Evidence: A Study of Attribution and the Renaissance Drama Illustrated by the Case of George Peele (1556-1596) (Geneva: Libraire Droz, 1968), p. 83.
[xviii] W. J. Lawrence, Pre-Restoration Stage Studies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927), p. 27
[xix] Schillinger, ‘Begging at the Gate’, p. 87.
[xx] Schillinger, ‘Begging at the Gate’, p. 87.