Chartism and Progressive Nationalism: The Spirit of Wat Tyler

By Stephen Basdeo, a historian and lecturer based in Leeds, United Kingdom. This short post is précis of a chapter recently written for Subaltern Medievalisms, edited by Mike Sanders and David Matthews.

Wat Tyler and the people of England march on London (From Pierce Egan’s Wat Tyler. Personal Collection)

The Meaning of the Nation

‘Nationalism’ is a dirty word nowadays. Yet in the 1840s, nationalism, founded upon medievalism, was progressive: English Chartists appropriated the medieval period to find to promote the idea of a historic working class ‘nation’.

The ‘nation’ in the 1840s signified those who were entitled, through the property qualification, to vote and participate in the political nation. Outside of the political nation was ‘the people’.[1] Chartism—which called for six measures, these being universal male suffrage, equally-sized constituencies, salaries for MPs, abolition of the property qualification, annual elections, and the secret ballot—was the British working classes’ struggle for self-determination and inclusion in the political national. The passage of the 1832 Reform Act had widened the electoral franchise to the middle classes and created new constituencies. Yet the law of 1832 left the majority of the labouring classes without a vote. Consequently, the London Working Men’s Association, drafted the first version of the People’s Charter which called for the six points previously stated: The Chartist movement had begun.

Chartist Historiography and Wat Tyler

The Chartists had groups in virtually every city in the United Kingdom. Support for the movement among the working and lower middle classes was galvanized through the popular press. A striking feature of the movement was its activists’ promotion of the Chartist message in poems, essays, and novels that were printed in newspapers, periodicals, and books.[2] It was through these mediums that Chartist authors began writing a ‘history from below’, centred upon the deeds of great working-class figures, to create a shared sense of national identity. One man stood out for them: Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, who was commemorated not only in novels but many times in Chartist poetry.[3]

In Charles Cole’s ‘Sonnets after Reading Wat Tyler’ in Cleave’s Penny Gazette, Tyler was held up as a man whom the working classes and ‘true patriots’ could be proud, in contrast to the elite historical figures.[4] Further poems continue this tradition of glorifying anti-establishment rebels. The anonymous ‘Voice of Wat Tyler’, in Odd Fellow, lists a number of British historical revolutionaries such as ‘Crowned Cromwell’, ‘Giant Wallace’. Chief among all of these, however, is Wat Tyler, the poem’s narrator. If readers did not know about the lives of the historical figures to whom this poem referred, then they could turn to the footnotes to read short biographies.[5] Radical poetry could, therefore, be just as instructional and informative as the historical essays.[6]

Wat Tyler and the Modern Peasantry

Tyler’s rebellion in 1381 was swiftly put down but he was revered because his struggle was viewed as English workers’ first struggle against the elites. This sentiment was echoed in The Penny Satirist in 1840.[7] Just as Tyler’s revolt failed, so the Chartist movement would in 1848 after the government’s rejection of their third and largest petition. Again Tyler’s name was invoked in order to rally the working men of England and The Northern Star reprinted a little-known poem titled ‘The Spirit of Wat Tyler’.[8] What the working people of Great Britain need in 1848 is a new sense of purpose and, perhaps, ‘a TYLER’, whose spirit speaks to the modern ‘peasantry’:

       Now to the purpose – I am He,

       Who not for fame competed,

       But would have seen my country free,

       And have her foes defeated:

       Mine was a deed the good desired,

       The shackled chain was round us;

       We rose at once like men inspired,

       And burst the links that bound us!


       And still ye cowards ye are bound,

       As ‘twere a serpent coiling,

       Its dreadful weary length around,

       Your limbs, all faint and toiling![9]

Tyler’s disappointed with the Victorian working classes; he admonishes them for forgetting events such as 1381 and the Peterloo Massacre in 1819.[10] The inclusion of these events signifies that the poet is building a revolutionary nationalism based upon collective historical memory of previous struggles and Tyler exhorts them to rise again and break the chains that bind them into submission. Yet it will not be easy; there will be plenty of distractions to beguile them away from the cause of reform:

       ‘God save the Queen!’ Still Britons slaves,

       In this land of bravery;

       Ye sing ‘Britannia rules the waves,’

       Yet bow to basest slavery.[11]

Popular Monarchism

The historical Wat Tyler’s actions were not republican and on the march to London in the summer of 1381 the rebels stopped random passers-by and made them swear loyalty to the king. Yet in Spartacus’s poem, loyalty to the monarch is meaningless: Tyler’s ghost learnt his lesson and urges the Chartists not to make the same mistakes that the rebels back in 1381 did by being loyal to the monarch.[12] Paul Pickering suggests that most Chartists’ visions of a reformed political constitution envisioned a role for the monarchy – what he calls ‘popular monarchism’ – and that Victoria was seen by many a Chartist activist as the person who might be able to sway politicians into granting the Charter.[13] Yet here, Tyler reprimands them and implies that any movement which bows to popular monarchism is doomed to fail; a republican spirit is needed.

This was not a defeatist poem, however; it will be recalled that it was originally written in 1839 when the Chartist movement was full of possibilities. In spite of its reprinting in 1848 after the rejection of the petition in that year, the poet makes clear that the nineteenth-century working classes have unfinished business, as he exclaims

       May kindred spirits still survive,

       To rouse for coming glory,

       Till not a Briton but will strive,

       To profit by His story.[14]

Even after the rejection of the petition, as Sanders states: ‘there nevertheless remained a widespread feeling that a decisive class conflict had been postponed rather than resolved’.[15] In the poem, therefore, Tyler impresses the duty to continue to fight for reform to every working Briton but the people will have to prove themselves as worthy heirs of Tyler himself.

Early Victorian elites promoted a narrative of national identity based on the national story of England’s kings queens, and conquests. Outside the political nation, the Chartists had to create their own sense of national identity from below. This sense of nationhood focused on rebellion against ‘the powers that be’, and the men who led the revolts against the establishment. Indeed, Chartism itself was conceived of as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in origin. The great radical orator, novelist, and Chartist George William MacArthur Reynolds, writing in 1849 in Reynolds’s Political Instructor, declared that the struggle for working-class self-determination was carried on ‘under the good old Saxon name of CHARTISM’.[16]


[1] John W. Derry, Politics in the Age of Fox, Pitt, and Liverpool, rev. edn (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), passim. Several chapters explain and refer to this difference between the ‘nation’ and the ‘people’.

[2] Chief among these was the Leeds-based Northern Star newspaper, The English Chartist Circular, Cleave’s Penny Gazette, the Democratic Review, Red Republican—which represented the hard left of the movement—and in the late Chartist period there was Reynolds’s Political Instructor, and Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper, the last of which was recognized by Karl Marx as the biggest-selling organ of radical politics in Britain. Added to this were a host of regional and smaller newspapers such as the Northern Liberator, Bronterre’s National Reformer, the Labourer, Notes to the People, The National, Reynolds’s Miscellany, as well as this were a number of standalone pamphlets, one-off broadsides, and serialised penny novels such as Thomas Doubleday’s The Political Pilgrim’s Progress (1839), Pierce Egan’s novels Wat Tyler, Robin Hood, Quintin Matsys, and Adam Bell (1838–42), and, of course, George W.M. Reynolds’s Mysteries of London (1844–48), and The Seamstress; or, The White Slave of England (1850).

[3] Most of the Wat Tyler poems have an easily remembered ABAB rhyme scheme, or they are imitations of the ballad form. This suggests that the Chartists aimed to provide the rebel leader with a ballad tradition of his own which he had lacked in popular culture until this point. R. B. Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (London: MacMillan, 1972), 71: The exception here, of course, as Dobson points out, is that while most of the information we have of the actual rebels comes from writers opposed to their cause, such as Walsingham and Froissart, there does exist a ‘handful’ of vernacular letters which make much use of rhyme ‘Iohan the Mullere hath ygrounde small, small, small, / The Kynges sone of heuene schal paye for al. / Be war or ye be wo; / Knoweth your freend fro your foo.’ There is one ballad which celebrated the nobility and heroism of Richard II and William Walworth in facing down Tyler’s revolt and which first appeared in The Garland of Delight (1612), which was then reprinted in Thomas Evans’s Old Ballads, Historical and Narrative (1777).

[4] Charles Cole, ‘Poets Corner: Sonnets after Reading a Part of History Relating to Wat Tyler’, Cleave’s Penny Gazette of Variety and Amusement, 3 July 1841, p. 195.

[5] ‘The Voice of Wat Tyler’, The Odd Fellow, 16 April 1840, 64.

[6] Michael Cullen, ‘The Chartists and Education’, New Zealand Journal of History, 10: 2 (1976), 162-77 (p. 165). Some Chartists viewed middle-class philanthropists’ attempts to provide some form of basic instruction to the poor as yet another attempt at controlling their lives. Yet there was a widespread acknowledgement from many Chartists that educational reform would be required after they had managed to get their demands written into law. For many Chartists, especially the ‘Knowledge Chartists’, wholesale educational reform had to start before they won their rights, and the footnotes provided alongside poems such as ‘The Voice of Wat Tyler’ offered both entertainment and historical instruction.

[7] ‘The Meeting of Richard the Second and Wat Tyler’, The Penny Satirist, 3 October 1840, p. 1. When, having concluded a fairly unremarkable history of the revolt, the anonymous writer stated that ‘thus failed the first struggle of the British helots’. Yet as Edwin F. Roberts noted, 1381 was a ‘nationalist’ uprising (one of self-determination) but was part of an internationalist ‘age of proletarian revolt’ which included the struggles of workers in other countries such as the Jacquerie in France and uprisings in Flanders. A few selected examples include: Anon., ‘Chartist Meeting in Manchester’, The Northern Star, 24 April 1841, 6; Anon., ‘Happy Land’, The Northern Star, 16 July 1842, 3; Anon., ‘West Indian Capital and Free Labour’, The Northern Star, 3 September 1842, 3; Anon., ‘To the Editor’, The Northern Star, 29 April 1843, 5. Further examples can be found at Nineteenth-Century Serials Edition <; Accessed 17 December 2018. P. Cartledge, ‘Review of Ducat (1990)’, Classical Philology, 87: 3 (1992), 260-263. See also Johannes Siapkas, Heterological Ethnicity: Conceptualizing Identities in Ancient Greece (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Uppsala, 2004). A helot was a serf in Ancient Sparta, a member of a class which revolted a number of times against their overlords from the fifth century BC onwards and as one historian of Ancient Sparta rightly concludes: ‘the history of Sparta … is fundamentally the history of the class struggle between the Spartans and the Helots’. See Edwin F. Roberts, ‘The Days of Wat Tyler’, Reynolds’s Miscellany, 4 August 1849, 3-4 (p. 4).

[8] Charles Cole, ‘The Spirit of Wat Tyler’, in National Songs and Poetical Pieces, ed. by Hugh Williams (London: H. Hetherington, 1839), pp. 17-19. The poem, or rather song, originally appeared in Hugh Williams’s edited volume of National Songs and Poetical Pieces (1839). It is often difficult to trace the first appearance of a Wat Tyler poem in the archives due to the fact that they were often reprinted in a subsequent paper.

[9] Charles Cole, ‘The Spirit of Wat Tyler’, The Northern Star, 16 September 1848, p. 2.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Hugh Williams, ‘Dedication’, in National Songs and Poetical Pieces, ed. by Hugh Williams (London: H. Hetherington, 1839), pp. iii-iv. The animosity towards the queen in this poem was unusual in Chartist poetry and in its activists’ writings more generally. Williams’s volume in which Cole’s poem was first printed was, in fact, dedicated ‘to the Queen and her Countrymen’ while the dedicatory note reiterates contemporary radicals’ love for the person of her majesty. Pickering goes further and suggests that most Chartists’ visions of a reformed political constitution envisioned a role for the monarchy – what he calls ‘popular monarchism’ – and that Victoria was seen by many a Chartist activist as the person who might be able to sway politicians into granting the Charter. See Paul Pickering, ‘“The Hearts of the Millions”: Chartism and Popular Monarchism in the 1840s’, History, 88: 290 (2003), 227-47.

[13] Ibid. This was a view also echoed in many nineteenth-century ‘King and Commoner’ ballads published during the 1840s, in which a commoner unwittingly meets the Queen and tells her the working classes’ grievances, after which the monarch is moved to call her corrupt ministers to account. See Stephen Basdeo and Mark Truesdale, ‘Medieval Continuities: Nineteenth-Century King and Commoner Ballads’, in Imagining the Victorians, ed. by Stephen Basdeo and Lauren Padgett, Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies, 15 (Leeds: LCVS, 2016), pp. 11-28.

[14] Cole, ‘The Spirit of Wat Tyler’, p. 2. The Northern Star misprinted ‘may kindred spirits’ as ‘my kindred spirits’, although this does not significantly alter the meaning.

[15] Mike Sanders, The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History (Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 167.

[16] George W.M. Reynolds, ‘The Revival of a Working-Class Agitation’, Reynolds’s Political Instructor, 10 November 1849, 2.