Distrust of politicians... savage cuts which hit the poorest and a working class ready to revolt. Writer Juliet Barker talks to Yvette Huddleston about the lessons we can learn from the past.
A country ruled by a political class considered to be out of touch with ordinary working men and women, where many people feel they don’t have a voice, where employment legislation and pay cuts seem to hit the most vulnerable and where in some quarters there is a growing resentment towards immigrants. Sound familiar? It could be an account of Britain today, but is in fact a description of England in the spring of 1381 in the lead-up to the mass popular rebellion known as the Peasants’ Revolt.
Historian and biographer Juliet Barker’s latest book England Arise: the People, the King and the Great Revolt of 1381 is an in-depth exploration of the extraordinary events of, and reasons behind, that medieval ‘summer of discontent’ in which thousands of people rose up in an attempt to free themselves from the shackles of serfdom and to express their disgust at the corruption and profligacy of the Church and State.
They were demanding radical social and political change – an end to harsh taxation, repressive labour laws and wage control. Had it been successful in its aims, it would have transformed English society and anticipated the French Revolution by four hundred years.
Barker, who lives near Leyburn in North Yorkshire, is, of course, very aware of contemporary parallels. “People today can identify with it so strongly,” she says. “And there are lessons to be learnt. At that time nearly all the Parliamentarians owned serfs – they didn’t represent the vast majority of people and they had vested interests in land and business. If those who ought to be listening aren’t, then someone else will fill the gap.”
She cites as examples the close call in the Scottish referendum last autumn and the rise of support for UKIP (“claiming to be the voice of the people who aren’t being listened to”). “They have made Westminster sit up and take notice.”
She is careful to refer to the 1381 rebellion as the Great Revolt – not the Peasants’ Revolt – as it has been called in the past because, she says, she feels it can conjure up Monty Python-esque images of rampaging agricultural workers wielding pitchforks. While there were people from rural communities involved, the revolt mobilised a wide sector of English society. As Barker points out in the preface to her book, the rebels ranged ‘from servants and labourers living off wages, through the village elite who served as bailiffs, constables and stewards, to the ranks of the gentry.’
“The medieval age was much more sophisticated that we tend to think,” she says. “One of the main features of the revolt was that it was very much town-based – which has been completely ignored. It is a major factor in why it spread so quickly – news travelled very fast and there was always someone locally who was prepared to stand up.”
Barker’s two most recent books – Agincourt and Conquest – had covered the famous battle against the French in 1415 and the lengthy English ‘occupation’ of Northern France, so there seemed to be a momentum directing her chronologically towards another, more recent, period of English history, but she resisted.
“The next obvious place to go would have been the War of the Roses which would have been huge,” she says. “But what I love most of all is to find a small subject and then take it outwards. The Great Revolt is such a short period of time, only a few weeks and nothing effectively happens as a result of it. But it’s such an important part of our history – the idea that ordinary people can rise up.”
She says that what also interested her was that there is relatively little known about the Revolt so there was the possibility of discovering new material. “I expected to find out more about rebel leaders Wat Tyler and John Balle but there is very little, particularly about Wat Tyler because he destroyed all his own records himself. It was frustrating but what I found fascinating, and had no idea about, was that the Revolt wasn’t just about London and Kent and Essex but took place all over the country – leaders sprang up fully formed and you can find out a huge amount of information about them, if you seek them out.”
Barker is meticulous about her research and spends a great deal of time crafting her books which generally take her several years to produce. “I do three years research and then I sit down and begin to write,” she says. “I have never employed anyone else to do my research because I need the overview. It’s like a jigsaw that has to be put together.”
Parts of the jigsaw in this particular book include the compelling accounts she has gathered together of ordinary people who were involved in the rebellion. And it is Barker’s great skill in selecting precisely the right small, individual human stories that really bring the past alive, including one poignant case of a widow of one of the Cambridge rebels that Barker discovered among legal records.
“She wrote to the King to ask for her husband’s belongings saying he wasn’t a traitor but he had been executed without trial,” explains Barker. “Legally she had a very good case but then Parliament passed a law saying that any rebels who had been executed without trial should be treated as though they had had a trial.” Another little known fact about the Revolt is that more people were executed for taking part in it than were killed by the rebels during it.
In her book Barker suggests that the boy-king Richard II – only 14 at the time – was sympathetic to the rebels’ cause. Interestingly, the rebels always declared themselves loyal to the King – it was the corrupt officials surrounding him that they took issue with. When the violence flared the rebels’ remained focussed on specific targets – the King’s extravagantly wealthy uncle John of Gaunt, the archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury and the King’s treasurer, Sir Robert Hales. Gaunt managed to escape the rebels’ wrath but Sudbury and Hales – found hiding in the Tower of London – were captured and beheaded. In a meeting with the rebels on June 14 at Mile End, Richard agreed to all their demands, setting it out in an official letter and detailing, among other things, the abolition of serfdom.
From then on the rebels acted in the sincere belief that they had the King’s approval. Sadly, it was short-lived – Richard later revoked the letters under the direction of his advisers. “You wonder what might have happened if he hadn’t been a boy,” says Barker. “Five months after the revolt he offered to free all the serfs, if Parliament agreed. It was completely unexpected – and had he been older, it might have gone through.”
AEngland, Arise has been quite an undertaking for its author and Barker says she is now ready for a break, but there will certainly be another book in due course. “My passion is to make history available and interesting to people who aren’t specialists,” she says.