The greatest and most fatal error in the annals of the world was suffering the growth and formation of an Aristocracy; it is the direst plague with which this earth is cursed, filling it with eternal bitterness.
“Ah!” said the bookseller, after a pause; “nothing now succeeds unless it’s in the comic line. We have comic Latin grammars, and comic Greek grammars; indeed, I don’t know but what English grammar, too, is a comedy altogether. All our tragedies are made into comedies by the way they are performed; and no work sells without comic illustrations to it. I have brought out several new comic works, which have been very successful. For instance, The Comic Wealth of Nations; The Comic Parliamentary Speeches; The Comic Report of the Poor-Law Commissioners, with an Appendix containing the Comic Dietary Scale; and the Comic Distresses of the Industrious Population. I even propose to bring out a Comic Whole Duty of Man. All these books sell well: they do admirably for the nurseries of the children of the aristocracy. In fact they are as good as manuals and text-books.”
Although Wat Tyler’s rebellion failed, the story was retold in plays, poetry, novels, and the rebels’ names were used as aliases in protests through the ages—this post looks at the first every play written about the events of the Peasants’ Revolt.
Unlike that other medieval hero and man of the people, Robin Hood, Wat Tyler does not enjoy an extensive ballad “afterlife.”
This song, first published in The Garland of Delight (1612), is perhaps the first proper ballad which features the famous rebel. It was subsequently published by Thomas Evans in “Old Ballads, Historical and Narrative” (1777) during the “age of ballad scholarship.” Presented here is a transcription of the song.
In the summer of 1381, the people of England had had enough: disease, war, and low harvests had caused great discontent throughout the land. The Statute of Labourers (1351)—which kept wages fixed at a low price—was still in force, while the lowest class in society, the serfs, were the virtual slaves of the lord, forced to work the land for little-to-nothing beyond what was needed for their subsistence. To add insult to injury, the government had imposed 3 successive poll taxes in 1377, 1379, and 1380.
It wasn’t only men who had all the fun during the Peasants’ Revolt: Joan Smith was ‘the leader of a great band of rebellious evil-doers from Kent’. Who were these rebellious women in the Peasants’ Revolt?
Pierce Egan’s “Quintin Matsys” is like the Belgian “Les Miserables”; the people of Antwerp rise up and take to the barricades to overthrow the evil aristocrats who oppress them.
“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 and 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.”
An Early Socialist History of the Peasants’ Revolt: Charles Edmund Maurice’s “Lives of English Popular Leaders of the Middle Ages” (1875)
Charles Edmund Maurice was a Barrister, History Lecturer, and committed Christian Socialist. In 1875, he authored one of the first socialist histories of the rebellion of 1381.
My book on Wat Tyler in medieval and post-medieval literature is now available for preorder on Amazon!
Mrs. O’Neill’s story of the Peasants’ Revolt, all-but-forgotten now, reflects the political agitation leading up ot the passage of the Great Reform Act (1832)