21 November, 2006

In Our Time: The Peasants' Revolt

If you have the slightest interest in medieval England, you may like to know that Radio 4's In Our Time programme did the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 last week. You can listen to it from the In Our Time page on the BBC's Listen Again service. Programmes stay available for Listen Again more or less indefinitely. If you want to download it as an MP3 file so you can play it on your iPod, you need to collect the file on or before Thursday 23 November, as the MP3 file is usually only available for the current programme, so on Thursday it will be replaced with the file for the new episode.

As ever, Melvyn Bragg and his guests pack more information and ideas into a 45-minute radio programme than your average blockbuster TV docudrama gets into a whole series. For example:

  • although it’s called the Peasants’ Revolt, it actually included artisans, churchwardens, reeves, bailiffs and similar people of substance. “Middle England on the march”, as one of the contributors said.

  • the rebels displayed remarkable organisation and ease of communication. Letters travelled across East Anglia in a day. The attack on the privileged monastery at Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, was instigated on receipt of written instructions from the men of Kent. The rebels converged on London from multiple directions on the Feast of Corpus Christi, a day everyone knew and could recognise. This rebellion was sophisticated and organised, run by people with considerable administrative ability, and that in itself seems to have terrified the top brass, who had never imagined that the lower orders could be so effective

  • the mayor of London didn’t want his city sacked and was staunchly anti-rebel. He and the aldermen raised what amounted to an army, which was effectively the only armed force on the government side as the king had almost no troops of his own

  • the rebels burned but did not loot - declaring, “we are not thieves” - and in some cases they selectively destroyed administrative and tax records but left academic and monastic libraries untouched.

  • the rebels showed a remarkable ability to get into supposedly impregnable fortresses - the Tower of London, Rochester Castle, numerous others. Either there were a lot of sympathisers who were ready to betray castles to the rebels, or they were remarkable bluffers and/or negotiators, or there were ways and means of getting into medieval castles that meant they weren’t as tough as they look. This reminded me of Alianore's recent post about the rescue of Edward II from Berkeley Castle in 1327. I wonder if the rebels used similar techniques for gaining access to castles, whatever they were.

  • serfdom was already in terminal decline and continued in terminal decline after the rebellion. One reason for this was that it served neither the peasants nor the aristocracy well, as both sides needed and benefited from increased flexibility of labour. Richard II himself flouted all the legislation intended to prevent labour mobility when he was building Windsor Castle, because he needed the labourers. In which case one wonders why the government tried to legislate to prevent labour mobility in the first place? Presumably following the Way of the Ostrich and trying to avoid change by pretending it wasn’t happening.

I could go on, but I won't, as the programme covers it better than I could paraphrase. If you're at all interested in the era, do go and listen. You'll find it’s 45 minutes very well spent.

Did anyone else hear it?

24 comments:

Dr Ian Hocking said...

I heard this one, Carla, and it was excellent - as always. I'm looking forward to the one with Richard Dawkins this week...

Robyn said...

Sounds very interesting. London did seem to have a reputation for violence, didn't it?

Carla said...

Ian - Yes, I rather think 'In Our Time' justifies the license fee all by itself...... I too am looking forward to hearing Richard Dawkins on altruism. I regard The Selfish Gene as a model of precision in prose to aspire to.

Robyn - Hello, and thanks for dropping by. It was a fascinating programme and well worth clicking over to listen. That's an interesting comment - would you care to expand on it? Did London had a reputation for violence in general, or specifically associated with the Peasants' Revolt?

wil said...

I found the comparison between the rebels of 1381 and the militant jihadists of today quite interesting. Indeed, it seems both were a wake-up call for the establishment.

Carla said...

Wil - Yes, that was an interesting parallel. A group of people whom no-one had thought important suddenly bursting onto the scene and shaking up the establishment. Also interesting that they said that there was a crackdown on radical English preachers immediately after the revolt, presumably because priests like John Ball had been thought to be important instigators. Not that the crackdown got rid of them, because the same ideas pop up again in groups like the Levellers in the English Civil War 300 years later.

Anonymous said...

I also have a feeling that London was pretty violent in the Middle Ages, but I don't really have any proof. I'm thinking mostly of Isabella and Mortimer's invasion of 1326. After they landed in Suffolk in September, London (fiercely anti-royal) erupted into absolute chaos, anarchy and violence. Edward II and Hugh Despenser had hoped to make a stand in the Tower, but realised they'd never be able to hold the city and fled to the west. Lynch mobs and gangs of robbers roamed the city, and Eleanor de Clare (Edward II's niece) was forced to surrender the Tower to the mob.

A few people were murdered, including the Bishop of Exeter, and it took until mid-November for the city to calm down, when Isabella and Mortimer appointed a new Mayor. The Archbishop of Canterbury commandeered the Bishop of Rochester's horses to flee to city, leaving Rochester to escape on foot! The Bishop of London, a supporter of Edward II, was also forced to flee the city.

Bernita said...

Did London avoid overt violence during the Maud and Stephen civilities?

Carla said...

Alianore and Bernita - Good point. If I remember correctly, Maud was chased out of London by irate citizenry after trying to increase their taxes (rarely a popular move, that) - I don't know how violent it actually got but it certainly wasn't entirely peaceful. I also have a recollection that there were riots in London against Henry III, and that the Londoners sided with Simon de Montfort in the revolt of the barons (1260-1270- something?), and that it wasn't just moral support but that they did warlike things like holding London Bridge against royal troops. I have an idea that there was a London contingent at the Battle of Lewes as well (the one Montfort won, though I have an idea the Londoners had a bad time). I ought to go and look all
this up :-)

Which raises an interesting question - does anyone know if other sizeable cities were also militant, or was London unique? And if unique, anyone care to hazard a theory as to why that might have been?

Anonymous said...

As I recall, the future Edward I got so carried away at Lewes chasing the motley group of forces from London that he lost sight of the more important contingents, thereby helping turn the battle in Montfort's favor. Part of his animosity toward the Londoners was the disrespect with which they had treated his mother the queen--pelting her barge with garbage, if I recall correctly.

Robyn said...

I understand that other Europeans considered Londoners barbaric in the 17th century- and Brits apparently liked a good fight. Not just riots and revolts but street fighting. Cries of "A ring! A ring!" brought the crowds running to cheer on combatants. A diversion of the English, according to some reports, was female combat. They fought almost naked with two handled swords- and these battles were reported on with great enthusiasm in The London Journal.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

This is all without recourse to my research books.
I don't think the Londoners were unique in their attitudes, but they were the strongest. London took over from Winchester as England's capital and with the largest population and its clout as a port and admin centre it was always bound to be at the forefront. From an early stage it aimed for a degree of 'self-rule'. Having the Londoners on your side gave you a lot of clout. Having them against you was a distinct disadvantage. King Stephen had a tremendous rapport with the Londoners. They opened their gates to him when he first landed in England to try and claim the crown, when Dover and Canterbury had refused him entry. All towns had their moments. I would think if you looked at their histories, places such as Bristol and York would have powerful citizenry who were not above taking the law into their own hands. Strategic towns, knew they were strategic and had the most to gain and lose.
I seem to recall reading somewhere that the reign of one of the Edwards (don't ask me who, it's not my period) was the most violent in the way of murder and GBH than any other period in English history.

Anonymous said...

Rome was trouble, too. There were times when Rome's rabble had a greater influence on electing a new pope than any conclave. Overall, the north Italian cities were an independent bunch and caused several German emperors - who technically held the overlordship over Lombardy - a lot of trouble. Don't mention Milan in front of Friedrich Barbarossa, if you don't want to listen to a long rant. :)

In the early Middle Ages* (until about 1250) about which I know a few things, no German town had that sort of influence on politics. But the Hansa League developed into a power to reckown with, and the role of the towns was increasing.

* The time we call Hochmittelalter because in Germany, the Middle Ages start with the Merovingian Chlodwig.

Carla said...

Susan - that's the incident I was thinking of, thanks. Didn't Sharon Penman make use of that in Falls the Shadow?

Robyn - thanks for coming back to explain. I have a feeling that some Europeans probably consider Brits and Londoners barbaric to this day....

Elizabeth - many thanks for the information. You've reminded me that York famously declared for Edward IV when he came back to challenge Henry VI and Warwick the Kingmaker for the throne second time round, and that probably had a major influence on the outcome of his war. York city doing some Kingmaking for itself, maybe? Sadly, any of the first four Edwards might be a candidate for that - Edward I beat up Wales and Scotland, Edward II had the tail-end of the Scottish wars and Mortimer's rebellion, Edward III presided over much of the Hundred Years' War and Edward IV had the Wars of the Roses.

Gabriele - thanks, that's an interesting parallel from other countries. Makes me wonder if cities exercising their politicial muscle is some sort of reflection of the growing power of trade and the mercantile classes during the Middle Ages, trade and commerce tending to concentrate in cities. Anyone know if that's plausible?

Anonymous said...

It's more than plausible, it's what happened.

See some of my older blogposts here and here. Sigh, that's another topic I should take up again. Back when I wrote those articles, no one ever commented (but I had like 5 readers at best, lol) so I sorta lost interest to invest the time. If I post stuff that takes hours to research and compose, I'd like to know there are people who read it. ;)

Carla said...

Those are really interesting posts, Gabriele. Many thanks for the links. Is the Hansa the same association that I know as the Hanseatic League? (And why does the Baltic have such a low salt content? I never knew that).

Maybe you could consider re-posting some of your early entries, perhaps one section at a time? The one downside of blogs is that once a post rolls off the bottom it effectively expires, so new readers don't always see the earlier material.

Gabriele C. said...

Yep, Hansa (German: Hanse) and Hanseatic League ar the same. The Baltic Sea was once a lake, separated from the North Sea / Atlantic by a land bridge, and the salt concentration has still not reached the level of those, albeit it's a tad higher in the Belt between Germany and Danemark than near the Finnish and Russian coasts. The Baltic Sea is not tidal, either. But it's a tricky water for ships because of the sandbanks and some weird currents as well as unpredictable winds. Gustav Adolph of Sweden of Thirty Year War fame managed to sink his flagship in the harbour of Stockholm because of those winds (and the construction of the ship).

I have linked the more important of my blogposts in the sidebar, and that includes the old ones. I don't feel like reposting old stuff; what I could do is to have some posts that expand on older posts and then link them. But my blog was less active in the first months that it's now. :)

Gabriele C. said...

Why do my former comments suddenly appear as anonymous?

Marg said...

This was a really interesting interview! I was vaguely aware of this revolt, mainly through reading some Katherine by Anya Seton, and another book that I can't remember the name of this early on a Sunday morning!

Carla said...

Gabriele - I changed to Blogger Beta yesterday so that probably explains why your earlier comments have changed to anonymous, Blogger probably mislaid the information when it did the switch. It knows who you are now though, so I shouldn't worry about it. It's managed to lose Susan Higginbotham's name and Alianore's name as well, so it hasn't just got it in for you!

I didn't know the Baltic used to be a lake, though it makes perfect sense now you mention it. Where was the land bridge? Was it from the top of Jutland to somewhere in Sweden, or was it across the island where Copenhagen is? The circulation of water must be really slow if the salt concentration still hasn't equalised, I suppose it's only a narrow connection between the North Sea and the Baltic so there's not much opportunity for the water to exchange. I didn't know it wasn't tidal either, but again that makes perfect sense with the narrow entrances - same reason as the Med. I wonder if tribes living on the Baltic coasts got a terrible shock if they migrated across Jutland to the North Sea and discovered tides?

Gustav Adolph sinking his ship in Stockholm sounds like the Mary Rose going down in the Solent. How terribly embarrassing. What was the construction flaw that made it sink? (If it can be explained to someone like me who doesn't know much about ships).

Marg- Yes, the Peasants' Revolt is a major event in Katherine, isn't it? If I remember rightly, Katherine is almost caught when the rebels burn John of Gaunt's Savoy Palace and is rescued by one of her serfs, who joined the revolt to get his freedom and then has it cruelly taken away again when Richard II and co ratted on all their promises after the Revolt. I think Katherine finds the serf again after her pilgrimage to Julian of Norwich and gives him his freedom herself. If you remember the name of the other book, do let me know. I borrowed bits of the Peasants' Revolt for the civil war in Ingeld's Daughter - one of these 'what if things had worked out differently?' questions - so I've always been interested in it.

JBlue said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sherhazade said...

I wish I had time to listen to the program, but right now, I'm happy to have your summary!

Thanks for commenting on my blog and directing my attention here. This is a great blog!

Gabriele C. said...

Carla,
the Kattegatt and the Belt, the straits that separate Danemark and Germany, are narrow - in a way it's even worse than the Strait of Gibraltar because they go round the corner, that peak of Germany poking up between North and Baltic Sea.

Gustav Adolf managed to build his ship too big in relation to the keel. And he kept the canon ports open when he sailed off so they could fire salute. The Gustav Vasa leaned to the side because of a gust, took in water through the ports and that was it. *bubble, bubble* :)

Maxine said...

Thank you for this post. I have emailed it to (1) my husband, interested in history and thinking of buying an MP3 player; and (2) my daughter, busy listening to various historical themed podcasts for GCSE and general interest.

Carla said...

Sherhazade - Hello, and thanks for dropping by. Glad you found it interesting. The nice thing about In Our Time is that, unlike a TV programme, you can listen to it whilst doing something else - I listened to this edition whilst doing the week's ironing :-)

Gabriele - Poor Gustav Adolph! I guess the small keel made the ship top-heavy so more inclined to tip over, or something like that? You'd think commanders would learn to keep the gun ports shut, wouldn't you? It seems logical that a row of holes in a ship = A Bad Thing.


Maxine - glad you found it useful. I don't own an iPod but my partner subscribes to the In Our Time podcast and listens to the programmes on his MP3 player when he has to travel to London. Your daughter may well find it worthwhile trawling through the In Our Time history archive, which is packed full of fascinating stuff on an incredible range of subjects.