The Peasants’ Revolt: Lessons from History

This article, published on the 27th anniversary of the attack by the Metropolitan Police Service on the Poll Tax demonstration in London on 31 March 1990, is dedicated to Ian Bone, class warrior and comrade. The illustrations of the Peasants’ Revolt are by Clifford Harper.


When looking back on an historical event it’s useful to compare the social conditions in which it occurred with those of the present day – not, as our history lessons inevitably do, in order to show how much more advanced, just, equal, wealthier and democratic society is under capitalism, but to reveal just how contingent, unjust, exploitative, impoverished and elitist our present economic, political and legal structures are.

In England we are constantly told by foreigners stupefied by our entrenched class structure that it survives because we never had a social revolution – such as they had in North America or France or even Germany, let alone like those in Russia or China – and therefore retain the anachronism of a monarchy, even if under a parliamentary democracy. It’s slightly odd that so many people, and not only from abroad, are unaware that in 1640 England had the first revolution of any Modern nation, nearly 150 years before the French Revolution, that like it was a revolution of the middle classes, and which – following the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 – gave birth to our current system of constitutional monarchy. Long before even the English Revolution, however, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was the first large-scale uprising of the English working classes, and therefore the most significant social event in England during the Middle Ages; and in this centenary of the Russian Revolution it’s the conditions from which that revolt arose, rather than those ten days in October 1917, that I’ve been looking at and comparing with the England of the present.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is now the most unequal country in Europe, and one of the most unequal countries in the world, worse even than the United States of America. The wealthiest 1 per cent of our population of 65 million people own nearly 24 per cent of the UK’s total wealth: equivalent to that of the poorest 55 per cent, and more than 20 times the wealth of the poorest 20 per cent. The richest 10 per cent of our population owns 54 per cent of the national wealth, with the poorest 20 per cent owning just 0.8 per cent, and the poorest 40 per cent just 14.6 per cent of wealth – the lowest proportion of any Western country. Just 34 per cent of the population owns the UK’s £9 trillion of private wealth, with the remaining 66 per cent holding no positive financial assets. 21 per cent of the population, 13.4 million people, are living in relative poverty – that is, they earn less than 60 per cent of the median income; and 17 per cent, 4.5 million households, are living in fuel poverty – meaning that to heat their homes they have to fall below the poverty line. Over 1 million provisions of three days’ worth of emergency food were handed out at food banks last year. There has been a 71 per cent increase in hospital admissions for people suffering from malnutrition, with 391 people dying from it in 2015. Cases of scarlet fever have doubled in recent years, and we have the fifth highest infant mortality rate in Europe. Yet as home to 120 billionaires the UK has the most per capita of any country in the world, including the USA. The wealth of our richest 1000 people has doubled in the past decade to £547 billion, more than a third of the annual economic output of the entire UK, and we have the fifth largest economy in the world. It seems useful to ask, therefore, not how far we have come from the England of 1381, but how close we still are to a time that may seem unimaginably backward, corrupt and violent to us today, but to which we are not so much returning, as is often said, but seeking to emulate under the conditions of monopoly capitalism. If we don’t think the vast inequalities, social oppression and political violence of England’s Middle Ages could ever return to these isles, we haven’t been paying attention to history.

That’s hardly surprising, since history isn’t something that happened in the past, but something that’s written, or more accurately different texts competing to become the official version of the past. As George Orwell rightly wrote: ‘Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.’ It’s not by chance that so few English children have even heard of the Peasants’ Revolt, with history only being compulsory up to year 3 of secondary school. Nor that until fairly recently in our history what accounts there were of it served the ruling class of the past the better to ensure the continuation of their descendants’ rule in the future. That’s changed slightly over the past few decades, but the control of the ruling class over the present has made sure that few of the children of the ruled classes will ever read a history book or take an interest in the repressed history of their oppressed class. In an effort to take back this control of our future, I’ve been looking at the Peasants’ Revolt, its causes, their similarities to today, and what lessons from history we can learn about changing our present from what happened in the south-east of England in the summer of 1381.

Past and Present


1. Serfdom

In 1348 the Black Death reached England, killing an estimated 50 per cent of the population, and a far higher percentage among the peasantry. This had the effect of increasing the amount of available land, the rental price of which therefore fell, as well as reducing the amount of labour power, which drove wages up, reducing the profits of the landowning aristocracy. As a result, between 1348 and 1381 wages for agricultural workers increased by around 40 per cent. Yet serfs born into bondage – the villeins who made up around 90 per cent of the peasantry – still couldn’t leave the land they worked on without permission, or even marry without the approval of their lord, and their children were born into the same condition. Women who married outside the manor had to pay her lord compensation for lost labour. In addition to rent on the land and taxes based on his land and holdings, which were usually paid in agricultural produce, serfs had to devote a portion of the week to working the lord’s land held for their own use, which took precedence over his own come harvest time. Hunting and trapping of wild game was forbidden. The family of a serf who died before the age of sixty had to hand over their best beast, whether cow or pig, in compensation to their lord for the amount of military service they owed to the age of sixty, and their next best beast to the church in compensation for the tithes they would have paid until that age. Since no peasant family had more than two beasts these death duties effectively reduced the remaining family to abject poverty.

Today we might find such control over another’s movements antithetical to our sense of freedom, but people on Jobseeker’s Allowance are not permitted to travel without forewarning the Department of Work and Pensions, and unless they can prove they are actively looking for work every day for 35 hours per week and can prove it by turning up to a Job Centre, in some cases every day, but at least once a week, their benefits will be sanctioned, initially for up to 3 months, but in the case of further disobedience up to 3 years. To make a claim, every aspect of your private life, from proof of your expenditures to your married status, residence and citizenship, must be submitted for investigation and approval, and after a mere three months of bondage you will be compelled, again under the punishment of being sanctioned, to attend a work programme for up to 2 years, which you’ll have to attend every day. If you are between 16 and 24, until November 2015 you could be placed in a Mandatory Work Programme for two months of full time work without pay for your £70 per week benefit, a so-called ‘work experience’ programme that was imposed on claimants between May 2011 and November 2015 and taken advantage of by a total of 534 employees and businesses who profited from the free labour. They weren’t the only ones to benefit, however. Around 300,000 claimants were sanctioned and deprived of benefits of around £550 each, saving the Department of Work and Pensions around £130 million.

As for our children being born into bondage, the notion of social mobility, which has been dangled before the noses of the British working class for generations, is a thing of the past. Those born into poverty in the UK in 2017 will overwhelmingly remain in poverty. At the other end of the economic scale, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty commission published in August 2014 showed that the 7 per cent of population educated in private schools provide 20 per cent of our university vice chancellors, 22 per cent of chief constables and FTSE 350 CEOs, 26 per cent of BBC executives, 33 per cent of Members of Parliament, 43 per cent of newspaper columnists, 44 per cent of people in television, film and music, 45 per cent of the chairs of public bodies, 50 per cent of members of the House of Lords, 53 per cent of diplomats, 55 per cent of permanent secretaries, 62 per cent of senior officers in the armed forces, and 71 per cent of senior judges. For the less than 1 per cent of the population that went to Oxbridge the figures are even worse, with the two universities supplying 24 per cent of MPs, 33 per cent of BBC executives, 47 per cent of newspaper columnists, 57 per cent of permanent secretaries, and 75 per cent of senior judges.

2. Fixed Wages

The 1349 Ordinance of Labourers required all labourers under the age of 60 to work, fixed wages at pre-plague levels and prices at levels restricting the ‘excess profit’ of peasants, and made it a crime to give alms to beggars. When these laws were flouted and wages continued to rise, the 1351 Statute of Labourers made it a crime to refuse to work, and imposed punishment on transgressors that including branding and imprisonment. These laws were enforced by Justices of the Peace selected from the local gentry and aided by sheriffs, bailiffs and constables.

Today, zero-hour contracts effectively keep the employee on hold, without any obligation by the employee to give them sufficient work to support themselves financially. And with the rise of the so-called ‘gig-economy’, workers are now designated as self-employed, with their ‘client’ relieved of any of the obligations of an employer. In 1381 serfs who tried to move off their lord’s land were imprisoned and punished, whereas in 2017 workers are simply allowed to lose their means of income and starve, while people without homes who are caught sleeping rough, begging or taking food from supermarket bins are fined £100, effectively criminalising them when they are unable to pay. In response, new ‘working charities’ are now offering the homeless food and board for up to 40 hours’ unpaid work a week in what is a return to the welfare system of the Victorian workhouse.

Current forecasts are that wages in 2022 will be no higher than in 2007, with families missing out on £12,000 of pay growth in the worst decade for 210 years. A single person working full-time on the minimum wage and earning £13,150 will be £380 worse off by 2020; and a double-income couple with two children and combined earnings of £29,020 will be £360 a year poorer. As for the new minimum wage of 7.50 per hour (£7.05 if you’re 21-24 years old, £5.60 if you’re 18-20) to which a UK worker is ‘entitled’, in response to this raise at least 3,700 of the UK’s 1.7 million shop workers on the minimum wage were made redundant from UK chain stores in the first 3 months of 2017 alone, their employers safe in the knowledge that the government has removed the right to seek compensation for unfair dismissal without having to pay upfront court fees of £1,200.

3. Nationalism and Xenophobia

In 1359 new legislation was introduced to deal with migrants, existing conspiracy laws were more widely applied and the 1351 Treason Act was extended to include servants who betrayed their masters. Londoners in particular resented the influx of foreigners, whom they accused of taking their jobs and undermining their wages. Such feelings were promoted by the ruling class, which under the flag of nationalism used it to pursue their wars of acquisition in France with the blood of a suitably patriotic peasantry.

Today, nationalism and xenophobia is relentlessly encouraged and fuelled by the state propaganda of the ruling class in order to provide an explanation and scapegoat for anger over our worsening poverty. At the same time, the rise in so-called ‘hate crimes’ and what we are told is the ever increasing threat of a terrorist attack are used to pass ever more repressive and oppressive laws by the government, with an increasingly intrusive state apparatus justified, at every new erosion of our human rights, by the so-called ‘war on terror’ and our need for protection by the police, secret service and military forces whose ever increasing power over us constitutes the greatest threat to our freedoms.

This seems a long way from when the New Labour government under Tony Blair changed the policy and laws on immigration in this country to allow a huge increase in the number of work permits granted to migrant workers. Following the expansion of the European Union in 2004, UK labour markets were opened to workers from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. This was not done out of a sudden conversion to the politics of peace, love and harmony between peoples, but to drive down the rising cost of the labour of the working-class population of the UK. By 2014, ten years later, 43 per cent of workers in elementary process-plant occupations (industrial cleaning and packers, bottlers, canners and fillers), 33.6 per cent of workers in cleaning and housekeeping, and 32 per cent of process workers in the food, drink, tobacco, glass, ceramics, textile, chemical, rubber, plastic and metal industries were foreign-born – the latter up from 8.5 per cent in 2002.

The situation we have today, where a UK worker’s request for unionisation, a living wage or a contract is legal grounds for dismissal, is a direct result of this flooding of the labour market. When outraged protesters ask how it is possible that Sir Phillip Green can buy a third luxury yacht with the pensions of 20,000 ex-BHS workers, or sack any employee who strikes for a wage she can live on, they might want to consider where the employment rights, recourse to industrial action and wage bargaining power of the working class in this country went. Capitalist employers call it ‘competition’, and back it up with eagerly received propaganda in the media and entertainment industries denigrating the British working class as lazy work-shy benefit-scroungers lacking in a work ethic for not accepting the same conditions of employment as Polish construction labourers and Romanian cleaning women. Even these are now standing up and protesting against those conditions. But those same workers who have had the economic value of their labour and skills undermined by the deliberate importing of migrant labour into the UK, who have had their unions made impotent or illegal by successive governments in thrall to the City, and who have seen the social services on which their increasingly impoverished communities rely cut by the politics of austerity, know exactly what it is: the means by which the rich have grown richer beyond avarice and the poor have been driven into greater and more abject poverty.

What the middle-class technocrats of neo-liberal capitalism call ‘multiculturalism’, which has been adopted and propagated as the ideology of our brave new world, is nothing more than the unregulated movement of capital through global markets by multinational corporations that have no country, pay no tax, are bound by no government, concede no rights to their workers, write our laws to legalise their theft, and determine our governments. And the free movement of labour acclaimed by middle-class liberals as the economic realisation of this ideology is nothing more than the means by which the resistance of workers to their impoverishment has been taken away from them by the influx of a surplus labour force.

Despite this, the result of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union has been universally interpreted in our private-school and Oxbridge-educated press and media in the same terms that it was pitched by the UKIP-led campaign to leave – as a vote against immigration motivated by racism and xenophobia that is seamlessly equated with the identity of the British working class. ‘Remainers’, in proud contrast, proclaim themselves the defenders of that entirely illusory Britain they have done so much to create, which sees no contradiction in describing itself as built on tolerance, multiculturalism and economic opportunity while presiding over the greatest assault on the living and employment conditions of the working class in this country in a generation. Almost nothing has been said about the economic motivations of the vote to leave: that British workers may be fed up with having their salaries and employment rights undercut by a workforce imported by multinationals to do precisely that; that being treated as a semi-feudal labour and service industry for the financial elite is not their idea of citizenship; and that, like the workers in Greece, they don’t want their pay packets and pensions being set by the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.

It is a measure not of its supposedly inherent racism but of the absence of anything resembling an electable political party that has cast more than a condescending glance in its direction for several decades now – if ever – that the working class of the UK had to make this political choice in tandem with the racist right-wing of the Leave campaign (which isn’t to say that the Stay campaign wasn’t just as racist and right-wing). But for the politically-correct middle classes to continue to dismiss that vote as based on racism and xenophobia, and to ignore its actual economic determinations, is to play into the hands of the politicians, bankers, international financiers and media moguls who want to drive this country further to the right, economically, culturally and politically.

The real violence against the UK’s immigrant workforce is being perpetrated not by the white working class but by our government, about whose actions we hear almost nothing in our so-called free press. Now they’re no longer needed, foreign nationals – under the Immigration Act 1971 supplemented by the new UK Border Act 2007 – can be taken from their home or place of work without warning by Immigration Compliance and Enforcement snatch squads, held indefinitely under guard in Immigration Removal Centres, and then flown on secret chartered flights back to their country of birth, no matter what dangers it holds for them. To qualify for such deportation the foreign national must either be someone whom the Secretary of State believes it is in the interest of the public good to deport; a spouse, civil partner or child of a deportee; or someone convicted of a criminal offence that carries a prison sentence. Between 2009 and 2014 an average of 6,000 people every year were arrested in this way in the UK, around a third of whom have been deported. Between 2010 and 2015 there were 19,853 raids in London alone – almost 11 every day. 75 per cent of those targeted were from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, all former colonies of the British Empire; and in case the class basis of their deportation isn’t clear enough, the majority were snatched from the UK’s construction, retail, leisure, entertainment, care home, manufacturing, restaurant and transport industries.

4. Consumption

The 1363 Statute Concerning Diet and Apparel banned labourers earning larger incomes from either wearing clothes or eating foods previously only available to the wealthy, as well as detailing the style of dress that people of each class of English society were allowed to wear.

Today the sheer cost of luxury good prevents their purchase by an increasingly impoverished working class, but when they adopt imitations – such as the Burberry-and-Barbour wearing Essex look, the so-called ‘bling’ jewellery and accessories of Hip-Hop culture, or just working-class kids buying imitations of the designer label clothing brands they cannot afford – it is subject to relentless mockery and denigration in our entertainment industry, while at the same time exploited in the marketing for consumer goods by our retail industries. The focus of the London riots of 2011 on the theft of consumer goods, which was universally condemned in our press and media as proof of the a-political motivations of the uprising, demonstrated just how successful this regulation of consumption is as a means of class signification, manipulation and control.

5. Tax Assessments

The first Poll tax of 1377 was levied at 4 pence on every person in England over 14. The second, levied two years later in 1379, was on a sliding scale between the seven classes in the English social order. But when this failed to raise sufficient funds for the war in France, a third Poll Tax in 1380, payable by everyone over 15, was levied at a flat rate of 1 shilling (12 pence, or 1 twentieth of a pound) per person, an average month’s salary for serf. When this went largely uncollected, with many peasants in the south-east of England refusing to register, the following year commissions of inquiry were dispatched to identify those who hadn’t paid. These inquires were extremely intrusive, and included checking young girl’s vaginas to see if they’d reached puberty and were therefore eligible for taxation. It was this, according to a later, Sixteenth-century account, that caused Wat Tyler to kill an official who tried to conduct such an examination on his daughter.

No doubt we can’t imagine such intrusiveness and abuse being permitted today by a government official, yet for some years now we have allowed the government to subject people in the UK claiming Employment Support Allowance or other disability allowances to the most intrusive, humiliating and unnecessary tests of their disability that have been the cause of enormous stress, and, as they are designed to, the cause of people refusing to participate, and in doing so falling into poverty, homelessness, in some cases starvation and in many more suicide. According to figures released by the Department for Work and Pensions in August 2015, between January 2011 and February 2014 a total of 91,740 people died while claiming incapacity benefits at a rate of 99 deaths per day from December 2011, an increase from 32 deaths per day over the previous 11 months. In the same period, 2,650 people (2,380 on Employment Support Allowance and 270 on Incapacity Benefit or Severe Disability Allowance) died after being found fit for work following disability benefit assessments by Atos Healthcare. A subsidiary of the French IT services corporation, Atos was awarded government contracts with a total value of £1.6 billion by June 2013, on which they paid zero corporation tax in 2012.

Although the Poll Tax has been replaced by an almost unavoidable Council Tax on domestic property paid by its occupant, the UK has the lowest share of public spending of any major capitalist nation, including the USA. The impact of changes to tax and benefits has hit, and will increasingly hit, the poorest harder, with a further 2.3 million people predicted to be living in poverty as a result by 2020. Four fifths of the gains from cuts to income tax go to the wealthiest half of households, while the poorest third will shoulder two-thirds of the government’s cuts to benefits. Despite this, taxes to British households as a percentage of gross domestic profit are due to hit a 40-year high of 37.5 per cent by 2026.

As for violence against women, under the government’s Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, which came into effect last November, 88,000 households, with 250,000 children, have had their total benefits reduced from the previous cap of £26,000 to £23,000 per annum for families in London and £20,000 for families in the rest of the UK, an average reduction of around £60 per week. 61 per cent of claimants whose benefits have been reduced by these caps are single mothers. 86 per cent of the burden of the government’s austerity cuts is born by women, who make up the largest proportion of public sector workers, as well as home care and agency staff. By 2020 Asian women in the poorest families will be poorer by £2,247, black single mothers by £3,996, and the changes to universal credit will on average cut £800 a year from working single parents, 90 per cent of whom are women. Meanwhile, the government plans to restrict tax credit entitlement for any new claimants to a maximum of two children, an exception being made for women who conceive a third child because of rape, but only following an examination by a third party that proves they have been raped. When you think of Justices for the Peace under King Richard II sticking their fingers up peasant girls’ vaginas to establish whether they had reached puberty, think of our own police, social and health workers outsourced by the Department of Work and Pension to do the same thing to victims of rape in order to establish whether they can legally claim those extra few quid a week.

6. Military Spending

1337 saw the beginning of the Hundred Years War, which cost the peasants enormously in both lost manpower in deaths and in the wealth they alone produced to fund its ruinous waste of resources. The King’s counsellors were pocketing huge sums from these taxes, and in 1380 the Chancellor, who was also the Archbishop of Canterbury, declared a third poll tax to raise £160,000, equivalent to about £62.3 billion in today’s money.

The obvious equivalent today, when the government is seven years into its imposed programme of austerity that has cut every aspect of state support and social care and nearly bankrupted the National Health Service, and which the Royal Society of Medicine estimates is likely to have resulted in 30,000 deaths in England and Wales in 2015 alone, is the Trident nuclear weapons programme that Reuters have estimated will cost the UK taxpayer £167 billion over its 30-year lifespan, or £5.56 billion per year. To put this in context, the entire NHS debt for hospitals in England is £2.45 billion. In 2015 the UK’s £56.2 billion defence budget was the fifth largest in the world, after only the USA, China, Saudi Arabia and Russia, and accounted for 2 per cent of our gross domestic product. And of course, over the past ten years the UK has been the second largest arms dealer in the world, second only to the USA, selling arms to 22 of the 30 countries on the government’s own human rights watch list, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, with £7.7 billion of arms deals approved in 2015 alone.

7. Church and Monarchy

Besides the acquisition of common land and the expropriation of 10 per cent of all the produce or earnings of the peasantry in tithes, the role of the Church in Medieval England was to sanctify the King and therefore the social, economic and political system of which he was the head, preaching forbearance and suffering to his subjects, with the promise of eternal reward for their obedience in the afterlife. To this end the clergy identified serfdom as a consequence of original sin, the inheritance of Cain and ordained by God, rebellion against which, accordingly, was against God’s laws as interpreted by the King’s clergy, administered by the King’s ministers, judged by the King’s judiciary, enforced by the King’s soldiers, and punished by the King’s jailors and executioners.

Little has changed today, when poverty is identified by the government and its right-wing press not as a result of low wages, cuts to benefits, the ever increasing cost of living and housing and the higher and higher concentration of wealth in the hands of a smaller and smaller percentage of the population, but of individual moral failings, with benefit claimants forced to undertake treatment for supposed problems with their mental health or face being sanctioned, with 40,000 benefit claimants forced to take cognitive behaviour therapy. As it continues to tear itself apart over the identity politics of whether women can be priests and gay priests can fuck other men, the Church of England has remained dutifully silent about the class war being perpetrated, with its tacit approval, against the working class of Britain. As in 1381, the Christian doctrine of preaching forbearance and quiet suffering to its ‘flock’ is ideally suited to the government and class that pay its bills.

As for the monarchy, as a 14 year-old boy King Richard II then was much like Queen Elizabeth II now, a figurehead rather than a holder of power. But like then, the monarch plays a crucial role in deflating the anger of the working class, who like the rebellious peasants retain an inexplicable allegiance to the figurehead and guarantor of a class system they otherwise despise, with 76 per cent of the population in favour of retaining our monarchy and 86 per cent preferring a monarch as the head of state rather than an elected president. No wonder the ruling class is so loathe to do away with the anachronistic figure of a monarch, which serves their needs far better than any president could ever hope to. It takes little more than an appeal to patriotism by the right-wing media for every subject of Her Majesty to step in line. If you think the Queen plays nothing more than a symbolic role in or society, you should recall that no Parliamentary Bill becomes an Act until it is granted Royal Assent in a bizarre ceremony carried out by the befrocked Clerk of the Parliaments, who declaims in an appalling accent La Reine le veult – ‘The Queen wills it.’ A legacy of the Norman Conquest, this phrase turns the government’s Bill into the new law of the land, to be implemented by local authorities, enforceable by the courts, the cops and the military, and, since the British Sovereign is head of state, commander-in-chief of our Armed Forces and Supreme Governor of the Anglican Church, authorised by God Himself (as you get closer to heaven the capitals come closer and faster).

More topically and particular to our form of government today, now Theresa May has triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty initiating the two-years of negotiation of the departure of the UK from the European Union, she will introduce a new Bill to Parliament, variously called the Great Repeal Bill or the European Union Bill, that will transfer all European laws into UK law at the end of this period. However, because of the lack of debate it will receive due to the lateness of its introduction, because of its absence of transparency about which of the tens of thousands of laws will be retained, and because it will grant the government discretionary powers to repeal rights contained in EU laws without the permission of Parliament, this Bill will give the Prime Minister so-called ‘Henry VIII powers’. Named after the 1539 Statute of Proclamations that gave King Henry VIII the power to legislate by his word alone, these powers will permit the government to change primary legislation using secondary legislation that passes through Parliament with little or no scrutiny, allowing her ministers to jettison, for example, equality and environmental legislation, and human and employment rights.

8. Contingencies of the Present

As I said at the start of this article, the purpose of making these comparisons between different periods in English history is to show the contingency, rather than historical necessity, of the economic, political, legal and social institutions under which we live, and to try and jolt us out of our familiarity with and unquestioned acceptance of them. Few of us outside the British Establishment would find serfdom, fixed wages, laws on consumption, girls sexually assaulted to establish their tax status, ruinous expenditure on a hundred years of war, the justification for poverty by appeal to the Bible, or a 14 year-old head of state to be acceptable parts of contemporary society; but we are, apparently, quite content to let birth be the overwhelming determinant of our individual wealth or poverty, force the unemployed into a choice between compulsory labour and destitution, be stripped of our employment and human rights, submit to the most intrusive and far reaching surveillance of any nation in the world, watch as our cultural and entertainment industry is turned into a propaganda machine for the ruling class, subject our poorest and most vulnerable citizens to planned destitution in order to reduce the government’s budget deficit, dismantle and privatise our health, transport and other public services while spending tens of billions on the military industrial complex, derive the authority of our laws from the religious books of an Iron Age tribe from the southern Levant, select our governors at every level of society from the very wealthiest percentile of the population, and still – six centuries after King Richard II betrayed the common people – have his nominal descendant as our head of state, church and military.

So, given these similarities between the England of 1381 and the just about United Kingdom of 2017, and without ignoring or trying to reduce the differences between them, what lessons can we learn from history about our present, and more importantly about how to change the future that is being prepared for us by the ruling class?

Lessons from History


1. Divided Rulers

In 1381 Londoners resented the authority of the Crown over London, with the royal legal system competing with London authorities for judicial power. There were rumours that the London Mayor was to be replaced by a Crown appointment. This meant the ruling class was divided against itself and slower to respond to the threat to its power by the Peasants’ Revolt. The bulk of the army and its commanders were away in France, and London only contained a few hundred men-at-arms. Local lords failed to act partly out of cowardice, but also because under English law only the King could summon local militias or lawfully execute rebels – and the King and his ministers were weak, indecisive, arrogant and, most importantly, completely underestimated the rebels.

Today London is a city overwhelmingly in the hands of Labour-run councils, which control 20 of the 33 local authorities, and the Greater London Authority has a Labour mayor; yet at the same time London is the seat of the Conservative government, the home of the British Monarchy and – until Brexit kicks in – the financial capital of world capitalism, the City of London. Although both the major political parties share an unshakable allegiance to monopoly capitalism and the politics of neo-liberalism, their hatred of each other has left them blind to the hatred of the class of people they both despise, and who make up the largest and invisible part of the population of the UK, some of the poorest residents of which live in the capital. The chaos that followed the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, when the government lacked a Prime Minister for several weeks and Her Majesty’s loyal opposition saw fit to initiate a challenge to its own leadership, was a comparable time of weakness of authority. Unfortunately, the popular reaction, under the direction of the propaganda of the ruling class, was almost entirely confined to middle-class protests against the referendum, and so failed to see the opportunity this power vacuum presented for working-class uprising.

2. Appeals to Authority

During 1377, protests began to break out in the south-east and south-west of England. Known as the ‘Great Rumour’, rural workers organised themselves into protest groups and refused to work for their lords, arguing that, according to the Domesday Book, which had been compiled to enable William the Conqueror to tax his newly conquered people, they were exempt from feudal labour services. Appeals and petitions were made both to the law courts and to King Richard II, but they were unsuccessful. Four years later the peasants turned up at the gates of London armed with quarterstaffs, pitchforks, threshing flails, scythes, billhooks, knives, clubs, hammers, wood axes and long bows – all of which were readily available to the peasant class. Now the king was ready to meet them.

Today the Domesday Book has been evoked again, not by protesters but by lawyers, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the London Mayor and the London Land Commission, which has produced a land register of all disused land in London, including the council and housing association estates on which around 2 million Londoners live, in preparation for its redevelopment as investment properties for international capital. And once again, protesters and authorities threatened by this so-called ‘Twenty-first Century Domesday Book’ have sent appeals and petitions to the authorities planning to demolish their homes, and like King Richard II and his ministers those authorities have refused to listen. It’s a rule of politics that only an opponent over whom you have some power will listen to your demands; petitions never moved the pitiless to pity, let alone concession.

3. Demands of Authority

Faced with thousands of angry peasants executing his ministers and burning their palaces, Richard II conceded to every one of their demands when he met them on 14 June at Mile End. These included an end to bonded labour, the freedom to sell their produce on the market rather than to a lord, the reduction of land rent across the country to a annual flat rate of 4 pence an acre, and amnesty for the rebels. The peasants weren’t daft, and insisted that royal charters were drawn up and signed by the King. But they were gullible in the extreme to trust the word of a gentleman, let alone a king, and once they had been defeated the boy King went before his Parliament, pleaded that he had signed under duress, and they dutifully repealed every one of his concessions. The first thing the peasants should have done is killed the King, as they did his ministers, bishops and all the other administrators of his kingdom of exploitation. That they didn’t was the ultimate cause of their defeat.

Similarly today, the demands made by protesters to authorities to abolish their authority are self-evidently contradictory. No ruling class in history has ever voluntarily given up its own power, and nor will it ever. By the same token, demands by liberals and social democrats to tinker with capitalism, to soften its harsher effects while retaining their economic causes, betrays a fundamental ignorance of how capitalism works. Capitalism does not work by the production of wealth, as we are constantly told by capitalists, but by the production of the poverty that guarantees a ready surplus of low-paid labour that produces that wealth, the unequal distribution of which – both the labour and the wealth it produces – it is the role of the police and military to maintain and defend. If we want to overthrow this inequality we have to overthrow the source of inequality, starting with its head. Revolutionaries do not demand, they overthrow and create a new world.

4. Direct Action

What distinguished the Great Rumour of 1377 from the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was that the latter began with the attack on the MP and Justice of the Peace John Bampton when he arrived in Brentwood in Essex on May 30 and tried to collect the unpaid Poll Tax from the surrounding villages. Tom Baker, the representative from Fobbing, told him that his village had already paid its taxes and wasn’t going to pay any more (from where the term ‘fobbed off’ comes), and when Bampton ordered Baker arrested the peasants chased him and his sergeants out of town. When they returned the following day with men-at-arms the peasants, who had taken the precaution of arming themselves, attacked and killed several clerks and jurors.

Today, marching, demonstrating, protesting, and all the other out-of-date activities of the liberal Left, have become a purely formal, symbolic activity – that is to say, they have become the self-expression of the middle-classes. They have neither constitutional reckoning (which is why our democratically elected leaders really don’t care how many people march against them) nor political threat – not only because of the growing power of the police, army and other security forces, but because, with a few exceptions, the mass of people who march do so with no intention or ability to use their numbers as a political force. What was once, a long time ago, a demonstration of working-class power, has for some time now become little more than a show of disapproval. And politicians with armies at their disposal don’t care about disapproval.

Historically, successful revolutions have crossed the point of no return as soon as possible. Far from a failure to retain the moral high ground protest occupies in the minds of liberals, who never tire of telling us of the pointlessness of violence, direct action commits protest to its consequences. The rebels of 1381 did in fact have a moral code, and when they entered London they banned looting and themselves punished anyone found doing so; but this didn’t stop them tracking down and beheading anyone connected to the King’s ministers and the administration of their hated laws. Without this willingness to go beyond petitions and demands, and defend themselves against the violence of the state, the revolt of 1381 would have been as ineffectual as the protests of 1377.

5. Communication

On 4 June, 5 days after the revolt began, the rebels held a large gathering in Bocking in Essex, where peasants and community leaders gathered from dozens of villages and formulated their manifesto, declaring they would have no rulers but themselves, and to which end they committed themselves to executing the corrupt lieges of King Richard II. In the peasants’ eyes it was they, and not the King, who were responsible for all their afflictions and who had betrayed England. At the top of their list of traitors was the King’s uncle, John of Gaunt, the 1st Duke of Lancaster and the richest and most hated man in England, who was suspected of stealing large amounts of the Poll Tax and had amassed a fortune equivalent to roughly £90 billion in today’s money. Close behind him was the King’s Lord Chancellor, Simon Sudbury, who was also the Archbishop of Canterbury, in which capacity he had introduced the third Poll Tax. And neck and neck with him was the King’s Lord High Treasurer, Sir Robert Hales, the Grand Prior of the Knights Hospitallers, and who was personally responsible for collecting the Poll Tax. Against such powerful opponents, the rebels took care to organise their revolt using coded messages, which they sent out to Kent, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and London; and from the very first day of the revolt they targeted the manors, abbeys, priories and palaces in which the records of taxes, labour duties and debts were kept, knowing that although the tax collectors could be replaced should the revolt fail, the records could not.

Today, the ability of protesters to communicate with each other using modern technology facilitates the coordination of actions across an even wider area; but we should never forget that our mobile phones are tracking devices, our laptops are personal files for the secret services, and our every move is recorded by the highest density of CCTV coverage in the world. Before it is a means of communication, technology is first of all a means of surveillance, and like the rebels we should always use coded language and pseudonyms, because if things go wrong, the names of protesters attached to communications or identified by traitors will be used to track them down and punish them. The names of 110 Essex rebels who attacked the Cressing Temple of the Knights Hospitaller on 10 June, and over 500 rebels who attacked the Savoy Palace of John of Gaunt three days later, were recorded by the authorities, and they suffered extreme and disproportionate punishment by a vengeful ruling class.

Similarly, the prison sentences handed out to 945 of the 2,770 protesters against the police shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011 were nearly four times as long as comparable offences the previous year, and two-thirds were remanded in custody while awaiting trial. Two young men were given four-year jail sentences for nothing more than inciting a riot on social media that never occurred, while another received a 6-month sentence for stealing a bottle of water worth £3.50. If you think the judiciary is exempt from the class war you should think again, and recall that 71 per cent of senior judges went to private school, 75 per cent to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. In advocating resistance in any medium that can be produced as evidence in a court of law, therefore, we should take care (as I have done in this article) never to advocate anything that can be used to prosecute, silence or imprison us.

6. Solidarity

As chance would have it, at the same time as the Essex revolt began, a man in Kent called Robert Belling had been arrested by Sir Simon de Burely, the Constable of Dover Castle and one of the most influential men in the court of King Richard II. Burely claimed Belling was a runaway serf from his lands and had him imprisoned in Rochester Castle. Infuriated, the local people gathered in Dartford on 5 June, just as news of the Essex uprising reached them. From there they marched on Maidstone, where they stormed the jail, and reached Rochester Castle the following day. Faced with the angry crowd the constable opened the gates and Belling was freed. Not only that, but many of the local peasants and townsfolk joined the revolt, including the constable of Rochester Castle.

The same thing happened when the Kent rebels reached London Bridge on 12 June and were admitted to the city without resistance; when the Essex rebels, on the same day, were let through Aldgate by the city guards; and when a force of 400 rebels under Johanna Ferrour, one of the leaders of the Kent rebels from Rochester, stormed the Tower of London on 14 June and found its drawbridge down and portcullis raised. Secure behind two lines of walls and the keep itself, part of the reason the guards were so accommodating was that, while the King was conceding to the rebel’s demands at Mile End, his universally hated Chancellor and Treasurer were cowering inside, together with John Legge, a royal sergeant and creator of the Poll Tax and the so-called ‘puberty test’, and William Appleton, John of Gaunt’s physician. All four were taken to Tower Hill and beheaded, and their heads paraded around the city before being stuck – as the heads of so many common people had been before – on the approaches to London Bridge. The rebels also found John of Gaunt’s son, the future King Henry IV from whom the current Duke of Beaufort is descended, and were about to execute him when a royal guard interceded and convinced them to show mercy. Henry IV would fail to return the favour when bloodily suppressing the numerous rebellions against his rule, including the Welsh Revolt for independence between 1400 and 1415.

No matter how small in numbers and resources a rebellion is at its beginning, if it communicates its appeal to the working class that operate the machinery of the state they will support it. The exception, of course, are the police and military, which represent the greatest barrier to a popular uprising and who are retained by the state for precisely this purpose – rather than, as we are constantly told, to protect us from each other or from others. But the ease with which the rebels, without siege equipment or anything more than the most basic arms, took previously impregnable military positions also shows the possibility and importance of taking direct action against unjust laws and the institutions that impose them. There is nothing more encouraging to an oppressed people than to have justice in their own hands, and discover that they, and not their lords and masters, decide the laws under which they chose to live. The widespread hatred and loathing of our former Chancellor and Prime Minister and their Cabinet of aristocrats and hereditary millionaires, who giggled and snorted their way through six years of austerity and privatisation, didn’t result in the same fate as was dealt to their ancestors; but if there’s a lesson to be learned from the mercy the rebels showed to Henry IV, it’s that clemency has no place in the class war against tyranny.

7. Leadership

On 7 June at a gathering of rebels in Maidstone in Kent, Wat Tyler was nominated the overall leader of the rebellion, which until then had many local leaders. Chroniclers suggest Tyler, whose name indicates he was a roof-tiler and tradesmen, had served in France as an archer, and was a charismatic leader whom they held responsible for formulating the political aims of the revolt. The rebels advanced to Canterbury, where once again they entered the walled city and castle without resistance on 10 June. The Archbishop had run away to London, so the rebels deposed him in his absence and executed anyone associated with the Royal Council. The city’s jail was opened and prisoners freed. The following morning Tyler led a march on London with several thousand rebels, while another force closed in from Essex. These forces included numerous village militias who had been imprisoned for refusing to fight in France, and now joined the revolt that had freed them. Although composed overwhelmingly of peasants, the rebels included village and townsfolk, tradesmen, freemen and merchants, and was led by already existing community leaders who had the respect and trust of the people.

Unfortunately, Tyler’s appointment as overall commander of the rebels – which allowed greater coordination of the revolt, with both arms arriving at the gates of London on 12 June – also made it vulnerable to the loss of authority to lead in the event of his death. The King’s ministers, who understood this leadership hierarchy better than the peasants, recognised this; and when Tyler called for further demands from the King, they agreed to meet him at Smithfield on 15 June on the condition that he approached the King alone. Failing to recognise the vulnerability of his own position as the leader of the rebels, or that with the concession of the royal charters most of the Essex rebels had left the city, leaving the rebel forces considerably weaker, Tyler nonetheless made demands that struck at the social and economic foundations of England that still survive to this day. These included the freedom of all men from serfdom; local law courts and police forces to be governed by the communities themselves; the abolition of the senior clergy and the aristocracy – apart from the King; and finally the redistribution of the immense wealth of the lords and bishops among the common people.

This was the cue the King’s household was waiting for. First Sir John Newton insulted Tyler, calling him a thief; then on the command of William Walworth, the Lord Mayor of London, men-at-arms attacked Tyler. Although severely wounded, Tyler managed to ride away and took refuge in the Priory of St. Bartholomew, but he was dragged out and beheaded in front of the rebels. For this piece of treachery, conducted under the black flag of truce, Walworth was knighted by the King, and today a statue of the Lord Mayor stands on Holborn Viaduct, near to the place where he ordered the murder of Wat Tyler.

The role of leadership is one of the most questionable issues today, when negative examples are plentiful in our politics. Among organisations on the Left the democratic election of leaders, the subjection of every decision to a democratic vote and the care taken that due process is followed in the meeting room if not on the street – where protesters are policed by their own stewards, leaders obediently followed and order reigns supreme – dominates and appears to exhaust whatever energies the members of that organisation may once have had. With the examples we have at every level of public life of the way the public is manipulated with lies and propaganda to vote for the sociopaths in power, it’s hard to believe that we continue to place so much faith in the democratic process; or that the mediocrities that hold public office, from the interchangeable leaders of Her Majesty’s Governments to the London mayor and leaders of our local authorities, are our real leaders.

Outside these democratic structures, real leaders are not voted for but emerge as a function of the will of the community. Within such a community, a leader may put herself forward for the role, or she may be placed there by her comrades, but she will only retain that function for as long as her abilities and personality fulfills its requirements. By contrast, the person elected to office shares one defining characteristic with his fellow leaders, and that is his will to lead. It’s a truism about the political class that anyone who wants to be a leader should, because of that desire, be disqualified from being one. Anyone who has been a part of a genuine community knows that leaders aren’t elected, and that the heart of the community can often lie elsewhere or with somebody else. One of the definitions and measures of community is that each of its members finds their own role in the community, and everyone takes responsibility for its common actions. This isn’t only about communities being experiments and models from which future social formations may emerge, but also about resisting the trap into which the rebels fell when, having elected an overall leader, they made themselves vulnerable to his removal.

Today’s police know this as well as the men-at-arms under William Walworth. The question they never fail to ask first when policing protests is: ‘Who’s in charge?’ Democratic organisations don’t need to answer, as they invariably informed and asked permission of the police in advance of their protest; and their speeches, listened to by a nodding crowd, are delivered by a pre-selected order of democratically elected leaders safe from arrest. All very amusing. In contrast, those who are identified by the police as leaders by their actions are increasingly being arrested, kept overnight in the cells, charged with fabricated crimes, and subjected to all the harassment, intrusion into their privacy and attempts to destroy their livelihood that the police and legal services can inflict within the bounds of the law, and often outside them. Such tactics serve not only to ground down otherwise active individuals and in doing so reduce their ability to lead, but also to divert the energy of the community from its aim into a defence of their leaders.

After two millennia of Christian dogma the desire for martyrdom is perhaps still deeply ingrained in even the most atheistic of us; but it’s important we don’t allow ourselves to be subject to the snatch squads that are used to turn every demonstration against the authority of the state into a demonstration of its power to arrest and attack us with impunity. Time and again we see protesters sloping off from demonstrations when the fancy takes them, just as the peasants of Essex returned home when they had got their charters off the King, leaving their comrades to be attacked by the police, kettled for hours, their personal details taken by force, their spokespersons and leaders picked off and arrested by cops who had stood off from the larger crowd waiting for this moment of indiscipline. It’s important to our continued ability to protest and act under the ever more restrictive and punitive laws that await us that communities of protest organise themselves far better than they currently are against the police and defend their comrades from arrest. Without that organisation, and the discipline it requires, protesters, no matter what slogans they may chant, are no better than hippies, liberals and social democrats.

8. Neither God nor Masters

When the rebels stormed Maidstone Prison they freed John Ball, a radical Lollard and the former parish priest at St. James Church in Colchester, who had been excommunicated and imprisoned for preaching that all men were created equal. As a lettered man Ball played a crucial role in spreading word of the revolt, and many of his letters to rebel leaders still survive. His sermon to the rebels on Blackheath on 12 June is said to have asked the question: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?’ John Ball’s message was intended to do away with serfdom and the hierarchies of the Church that separated the King’s subjects from the King, but not to abolish his sovereignty, whose present incumbent he continued to insist was divinely appointed. ‘With King Richard and the true commons of England!’ was his watchword, to which the rebels compelled everyone they met to swear allegiance. Whatever equality Ball preached to the commons, however, he believed that all subjects except the sovereign were equal beneath God. John Ball would find out exactly how far beneath God the King’s subjects were when, a month later, his divinely appointed sovereign had him hanged, drawn and quartered in the market at St. Albans as a warning to others.

It was the rebels’ fatal allegiance and obedience to the King, for which Ball must bear part of the blame, that held back the fingers of the archers at Smithfield, when their loosed arrow shafts would have killed him and his force of no more than 200 men-at-arms, and laid the ground for turning their revolt into a revolution. Instead the young King, according to the chroniclers, declared himself their leader and led them to Clerkenwell Fields. Once the rebels were outside the city the London militia was raised, and the peasants, leaderless and facing growing armed opposition, retreated back to Essex.

It is not for nothing that Labour Party figures from Morgan Phillips and John Smith to war criminals like Tony Blair have paid lip service to their God, and claim – quite accurately – that their political philosophy owes more to Methodism than it does to Marxism. Today, the Cult of Corbyn, a seemingly anachronistic development under late capitalism, and itself a middle-class rebellion against the decline in its standard of living, has a similarly religious fervour. Blinded by their faith in their saviour to deliver them in the future, Jeremy Corbyn’s followers steadfastly refuse to see his very present betrayal of the working class he claims to represent under the typically middle-class appellation of ‘ordinary people’, and quote his placating speeches in their defence, much like the peasants of Essex waved the royal charters before the swords of the King’s avenging soldiers. Meanwhile, Labour councils, with Corbyn’s backing, demolish our housing estates, sell off public land, criminalise the homeless and pursue a programme of privatisation.

In any popular movement there will always be people who act out of what they think of as Christian charity – whatever that may mean with regard to this most violent and punitive of religions; and the various groups that compose the housing movement, homeless charities and Labour-affiliated activist organisations in London are no different. But we should remember that Christians, or any other believers in a divine source of authority, including – and perhaps most especially – the high priests of the Labour Party, are always ultimately obedient to the interpreters of their faith – which is to say, the authority of the ruling class. We shouldn’t have to refer to the Bible to answer John Ball’s rhetorical question when the lived experience of the working class is all the knowledge we need. ‘Neither God nor masters!’ is our watchword – and we should never forget it.

9. Land Ownership

The revolt had spread rapidly from Essex, and on 13 June, the same day the rebels marched into London, the townsfolk rose in St. Albans in Hertfordshire, where they had long grievances against the power of the abbey. The following day they met with the Abbot, Thomas de la Mare, and demanded their freedom from the rule of the abbey. A group of rebels marched to London to appeal to the King, but met instead with Wat Tyler, who by then was in charge of the capital, and returned inspired to take direct action against the abbey. On 16 June the rebels stormed the abbey, opened its dungeons and freed the prisoners, destroyed its tax records, drained the Abbot’s fish pond, broke down the fences enclosing the common land, killed and ate the game, and divided up the abbey land between them. They then forced the Abbot to sign charters granting the return of their rights of common over the land stolen by the Church, to graze their cattle on its pasture and collect firewood from its woods, and the freedom to fish its rivers and hunt its game. By then, however, Tyler was dead, and the revolt was already being suppressed.

Today, just 0.3 per cent of our population – 160,000 families – still owns two thirds of the land in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, making us second only to Brazil as the country with the most unequal land distribution in the world. This is the real establishment, the people who own Britain: not tenants of a freehold on the property that’s built on it, but the trees, grass, mud and rocks, all the way down to the earth’s core and forever. It’s not for sale at any price, and you can be as rich as God and still not buy it, for the simple reason that it was never purchased in the first place. It was given, in return for political power and the lives of the men that died fighting to take it, by kings.

The families that own the land – the Beauchamps, D’Arcys, FitzWilliams, Harcourts, Lyons, Mandevilles and Percys who inherited it from their fathers and will bequeath it to their sons – are mostly Normans, or at least Anglo-Normans, descendants from the ninety or so families that tied their banners to William the Conqueror’s mast and fought with him at Hastings, then administered the feudal system he introduced when they won. Half the country was placed in the hands of 190 men, a quarter in the hands of a mere 11 men. Today, the Duke of Buccleuch owns 250,000 acres, the Duke of Northumberland 135,000 acres, the Duke of Westminster 133,000 acres, the Earl of Lonsdale 70,000 acres, the Duke of Cornwall 135,000 acres and the Duke of Lancaster 45,500 acres – these last two being better known as the Prince of Wales and Queen Elizabeth II, who also owns a further 70,000 acres on the Balmoral and Sandringham estates.

But in fact, all land in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is formally owned by the Crown, then leased to the Government, the Church of England, Oxford, Cambridge and Eton, the Ministry of Defence, the National Trust, the Forestry Commission, the degenerate offspring of a few hundred Norman lords, and several thousand privately-owned corporations. There is no such thing as publically owned land, which in itself is a misnomer. Common land, another misunderstood term, refers to the rights of common over land adjacent to that leased by commoners. We own none of it. We are subjects of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, and since her ancestor, William the Conqueror, turned us into a feudal society, we don’t own a square foot of the land we walk, live, work and die on.

A foreign or perhaps alien visitor to the UK today who was shown the political and legal justifications for the distribution of its land and wealth would conclude that the inhabitants of these isles are mad, or stupid, or so lacking in human dignity that we deserve to be the landless serfs we are – and they would be right. The descendants of murderers and thieves who still own the land – whose ancestors were given it by William the Conqueror or some other autocrat in return for power, or who simply stole 7 million acres of it during the land enclosures of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries – will never be compelled to give it up under the existing political and legal system. It is in the face of this enforced expropriation of our putative birthright from 90 per cent of the population of the UK that the tinkering of parliamentary politics is most clearly revealed as the ineffective irrelevance it is. Political and social revolution is the only means to undo the obscene injustice under which our ancestors have lived as far back as history records, and which our descendants will continue to live under until we, as a class, do something to change it.

10. Propaganda

The Peasants’ Revolt placed the hold the ruling class had on England in such jeopardy that their revenge was extended to rewriting its history. Under the direction (and payment) of the King and his Church, the contemporary chroniclers took rebels who had organised a nation-wide revolt, targeted corrupt officials, destroyed legal records, banned looting, produced a programme of revolutionary political demands and nearly overthrew the social order of Medieval England, and set about reducing them to a disorganised mob of criminal rioters bent on personal gain through looting and murder. As late as 1906 Sir Charles William Chadwick Oman, Professor of Modern History at Oxford, would write: ‘It is probable that Tyler was an adventurer of unknown antecedents, and we may well believe the Kentishman who declared that he was a well-known rogue and highwayman.’ The other side of this coin saw contemporary chroniclers attribute the killing of Tyler to the Mayor of London personally, rather than to his men-at-arms; and even today historians claim that the quelling of the rebels was due to the fourteen year-old King’s ‘charisma’ and ‘bravery’, rather than the sanctity that centuries of religious dogma had conferred on the person of the sovereign.

If this all sounds familiar it’s because it is. From the General Transport Strike of 1911, when Winston Churchill, in his position as Home Secretary, ordered the British military to crush the uprising, to Black Friday when, as Secretary of State for War, he ordered British tanks against striking workers in Glasgow in 1919, all the way up to the demonstration against police brutality in Brixton in 1981, the Orgreave picket line attacked by police and army forces in 1984, the Poll Tax demonstration in 1990 attacked by the Metropolitan Police, and the London protest against the police shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011 – the government, police and media have dismissed social protests as ‘riots’. As anyone who has ever been in such a ‘riot’ knows, they are the result of police attacks carried out for precisely this reason, in order to produce the propaganda that allows the state ideological apparatus to rewrite their history.

Let’s just remind ourselves who runs this propaganda. 10 of the top 12 British dailies (The Sun, Daily Mail, Metro, London Evening Standard, Daily Mirror, Daily Telegraph, The Times, Daily Star, Daily Express, i, Financial Times and The Guardian) are owned by 7 billionaires, including 1 non-domiciled naturalised-American Australian tax exile (Rupert Murdoch), 1 non-domiciled tax exile (Viscount Rothermere), 2 non-domiciled ex-Thatcherite tax exiles (Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay), 1 Tory pornographer tax exile (Richard Desmond), 1 non-domiciled naturalised-British Russian tax exile (Evgeny Lededev), and 1 Japanese businessman (Tsuneo Kita). Our former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, the heir to the baronetcy of Ballentaylor and Ballylemon, has just been made the new editor of the Evening Standard; and the former editor of the folded News of the World, Andrew Coulson, despite having served a prison sentence for phone-hacking, has just been made public relations advisor to the Telegraph Group

The bulk of our political opinions, however, come from elsewhere. The average UK adult consumes nearly 57 minutes of news and current affairs each day from UK sources: 39 per cent comes from television, 29 per cent from radio, 18 per cent from newspapers and 14 per cent from online news sites. The British Broadcasting Corporation accounts for 75 per cent of television, 85 per cent of radio and 50 per cent of online news and current affairs, with an overall share of 60.6 per cent; and its institutional bias is overwhelmingly for the Conservative government. Andrew Neil, the presenter of Daily Politics and This Week, was the editor of The Sunday Times under Margaret Thatcher’s government; Evan Davis, the presenter of Newsnight, was part of the team at the Institute of Fiscal Studies that devised the Poll Tax; Chris Cook, the policy editor of Newsnight, used to be an adviser to David Willetts, the current Minister of State for Universities and Science; and Nick Robinson, presenter on Today, was once president of the Oxford University Conservative Association. Let’s recall that 26 per cent of BBC executives and 43 per cent of newspaper columnists come from the 7 per cent of the population that were privately educated; and 33 per cent of BBC executives and 47 per cent of newspaper columnists come from the less than 1 per cent of the population that went to Oxbridge.

Nothing really has changed. In 1984 the Secretary of State for Transport, Nicholas Ridley, the architect of the plans to curb the power of the trade unions under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, declared that the miner’s strike was ‘very much in the nature of a peasants’ revolt.’ The son of Viscount Ridley, an old Etonian and graduate of Oxford, and the Cabinet Minister responsible for introducing the Poll Tax in 1990, Ridley was made a life-peer as Baron Ridley of Liddesdale two years later. Nothing will change unless we as a class change it. From the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 to the almost weekly marches, protests, demonstrations and occupations taking place across the UK in 2017, those who control the present will continue to control the past, and those who control the past will continue to control the future. If we want to take back control of what future we have left, we must take back control of our own propaganda during and after protests. If we don’t, the state propaganda of the present will continue to control our future by rewriting our past as surely as it has that of the Peasants’ Revolt and every other working-class uprising since.

11. Revolt and Revolution

The rebels in London beheaded the Lord Chancellor, the Lord High Treasurer, the former Warden of the Mint and current Member of Parliament for Essex Richard Lyons, killed dozens of lawyers and clerks, broke into the Marshalsea, King’s Bench, Newgate, Fleet and Westminster Prisons and released the prisoners, ransacked the Tower of London, burnt down the Savoy Palace of John of Gaunt and threw an estimated £10,000 worth of booty into the River Thames, demolished the Clerkenwell Priory that was the headquarters of Robert Hales and the Knights Hospitallers, burnt the Poll Tax records in the Temple complex, and spread word of their revolt far and wide across England. The Peasants’ Revolt reached Suffolk on the 12th June, Hertfordshire on the 13th, Norfolk on the 14th and Cambridgeshire on the 15th, with further rebellions springing up as far afield as Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Somerset. But when the majority of the Essex rebels left with the royal charters and what they believed were the King’s concessions, including their own amnesty from prosecution, they left the structure of the society against which they had rebelled intact.

The Peasants’ Revolt, therefore, despite its revolutionary demands, was not a revolution; and once the administrators and functionaries of State and Church had been replaced with new members of the aristocracy and clergy, and around 4,000 men-at-arms had been mustered in London, the ruling class was quite capable of enacting bloody revenge – which it did. The revolt in Suffolk was subdued with 500 men-of-arms under the Earl of Suffolk. The King himself rode to Essex, where he oversaw the massacre of 500 rebels in the woods at Billericay. But the main resistance was in Norfolk, where forces under the Bishop of Norwich defeated the rebels at the battle of North Walsham on 25-26 June. To accommodate the suppression a wide range of laws were invoked, from charges of book burning and demolishing houses to general treason, but the majority of captured rebels were executed without trial.

The leaders of the revolt were hunted down, tortured and killed. Jack Straw, one of the leaders of the rebels who had beheaded Sir John Cavendish, the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, was tortured and executed in London. John Wrawe, a former chaplain who had led a force of rebels from Essex into Suffolk and helped spread the revolt across East Anglia, was hanged, drawn and quartered on 6 May the following year. William Grindcobbe, the miller who led the revolt at St. Albans, was hanged, drawn and quartered together with John Ball on 15 July. Geoffrey Litster, a cloth dyer crowned ‘King of the Commons’ in Norfolk, was hanged, drawn and quartered in North Walsham soon after the battle, and the parts of his body sent to Norwich, Yarmouth, Lynn and his own home in Felmingham; his widow was later pursued by the authorities and made to pay her dead husband’s outstanding debts of 33 shillings and 9 pence. And the man who started it all, Tom Baker, was also hanged, drawn and quartered in Chelmsford on 4 July, just over a month after his village had refused to pay the Poll Tax.

For a parliamentary democracy whose economic, political and military power through the centuries has remained in the hands of an almost unchanging ruling class, we make a great song and dance about the fact our leaders can only hold office for a limited number of terms and are democratically elected by ‘The People’ (as they like to call us). But what does it matter who sits in office when that office remains the same, and whose overriding purpose is to continue governing us through incremental changes to the same economic system? Over the past 18 months we’ve seen the extraordinary and unrelenting attacks by the press, the media, the City of London, the British military (one of whose generals promised to lead a military coup) and even his own political party to the threat of someone as mild as Jeremy Corbyn, whose programme of nationalisation within a capitalist economy falls well short of either the socialism he promises or the ‘far-left’ demagoguery he is accused of by every news editor across our limited political spectrum. Can we really expect a genuine challenge to the status quo to be allowed to arise within the framework of our 900 year-old parliamentary democracy? The indistinguishable policies of our political parties in response to the increasing economic inequality of the electorate is testimony to the hegemony of the ruling class, but some recent laws give us further indication of just how far our parliament, civil service, police and security forces are willing to go to criminalise any threat to their power.

As part of its 2015 Counter Extremism strategy, the government is trying to pass a Bill that defines non-violent extremism as ‘the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’. The Bill hasn’t been published yet, and we are promised it will be scrutinised by a Joint Select Committee for its compliance with human rights legislation on our freedoms of expression and assembly; but the strategy proposes the use of civil orders – the breach of which is a criminal offence – to clamp down on perceived extremism without having to make a criminal case to the requisite standard of proof. So far, no legal definition of what constitutes ‘British values’ has been forthcoming – although we’ve seen in this article a range of examples of what those might be.

Last November, as a further example, the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 became law. The so-called ‘Snooper’s Charter’ requires internet service providers and mobile phone companies to keep records of everyone’s browsing histories, including on social media, e-mails, voice calls and mobile phone messaging services for 12 months, and gives the police, security services and a range of government departments unprecedented access to the data (which means they know I’m writing this and you’re reading it). It also gives police and security services new powers to hack into computers and phones to collect communication data in bulk. Despite being one of the most extreme surveillance laws ever passed in a self-styled ‘democracy’, the Act was passed with little parliamentary scrutiny or public opposition on 29 November while the UK electorate was being distracted by the debates over the legality of the Brexit referendum and its threats to our human rights.

Today, we live under ever more restrictive and punitive laws enacted by an increasingly militarised and privatised police whose duties and powers are already being outsourced to private security companies. As well-armoured as any Medieval man-at-arms and armed with far deadlier weapons that they use with increasing impunity – from speed-cuffs, weighted batons and CS-gas sprays to tasers, automatic pistols and assault rifles – the police patrol our streets and skies in patrol cars, riot vans and helicopters equipped with the surveillance technology of an army of occupation – which is, of course, precisely what they are. In London, the Metropolitan Police Service is one of the largest police forces in the world, with nearly 50,000 officers and an annual budget of £3.24 billion. Once again, to put this in context, the entire NHS debt for hospitals across the whole of England is £2.45 billion. This February Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, appointed the new Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, a privately-educated graduate of Oxford and Cambridge who oversaw the killing and cover-up of the killing of Jean Charles de Menzes following the 7 July London bombings of 2005. And last August the London Mayor announced a new force of 600 grey-clad, heavily-armed, dubiously-trained, paramilitary so-called ‘anti-terror’ police, who were photographed, like the street gang they are, proudly showing off their array of body armour, handguns, sniper rifles, submachine guns and automatic assault rifles. There are now an estimated 2,800 armed officers in the Metropolitan Police in London.

And yet these enormous resources of manpower and weapons and equipment and surveillance and technology, and the new laws and erosion of our human rights that enable the government to use them, were not sufficient to stop one man in a van killing 4 people and injuring 50 more on Westminster Bridge on 22 March this year. We might conclude from this highly incredible scenario that the huge sums spent on these policing resources, and all the new anti-terror and anti-extremism laws passed and the corresponding loss of our human rights and privacy, are not there to protect us from terrorists and extremists, but to protect the ruling class from us as they subject our class to ever greater poverty and servitude.

Following the Westminster attack, Parliament and press alike clamoured for the Conservative MP for Bournemouth East, Tobias Ellwood, to be knighted for his actions in trying to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to the killed police officer, PC Keith Palmer. Ellwood, a former army captain who also happens to be the Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Counter Terrorism, was subsequently appointed to the Queen’s Privy Council. Founded by the Norman monarchs and comprised of senior politicians, judges and bishops, membership of the Council means that, in addition to being addressed as ‘The Right Honourable’, Ellwood will now also receive top-secret national security briefings and be given advance notice of any prime ministerial decision to commit the UK’s Armed Forces to action. Exactly four weeks after the Westminster attack, on 18 April, Theresa May announced a snap election that was expected to win her the largest parliamentary majority since Margaret Thatcher’s second term in office.

I could go on. I haven’t even mentioned the military, our numerous secret services or the surveillance powers of GCHQ, let alone the financial power and corruption of the City of London and the threat of the military-industrial complex of world capitalism under which we all live. But let’s stop here. If we think we face an impossible task opposing the seemingly unstoppable rise of a more dominant, invasive and controlling totalitarianism than any that has existed before, we should think back to those serfs who, six centuries ago, rose up from grinding poverty and violent oppression to challenge the wealth and power of the English King, the Anglo-Norman aristocracy and the Roman Catholic Church – and take heart from their example. More to the point, we have no choice if our class is not to sink into a world that will make Fourteenth-Century England look like an illuminated manuscript of the Apocalypse to come.

An Example to Posterity


In the lecture he delivered in 1981 on the 600th anniversary of the Peasants’ Revolt, the journalist and socialist Paul Foot concluded with these words about our inheritance from the uprising of 1381:

‘There’s a tendency among people who think about history, even – perhaps especially – among Marxists who think about history, to divide it into sealed compartments. They say that the peasant comes from a different age, is separate from us, has nothing to do with us, and that history moves by stages, scientific stages, and the peasant is one stage, and the workers are in another. It’s nothing therefore to do with us what happened six hundred years ago, in a quite different sort of economy. We can leave it on one side. We’re not peasants, we’re very advanced people, we’ve been an industrial working class burrowing away for years and we’ve got pretty well nowhere, but we’re terribly important and we’re much more important than any peasant.

‘I think that that is not only reactionary and wrong but paralysing – because the whole idea that history determines things and that everything’s inevitable paralyses us, leaves out the activity which is at the centre of the Peasants’ Revolt. It is also insulting to the people who carried those standards for us all through those years before. What’s most extraordinary about the Peasants’ Revolt is not the differences between us and them, which are obvious and expected, but the similarities. We’re bound together by this relentless struggle between the classes, which persists all the way through their story and all the way through ours.’

Serfdom was finally abolished in 1574 nearly two hundred years after the Peasants’ Revolt; the Statute of Labourers was repealed in 1863; national service took until 1963 to be phased out; and the Poll Tax, which was famously brought back by Margaret Thatcher in the guise of the Community Charge in 1990, was defeated that same year by mass demonstrations and a widespread refusal to pay. So there have been some victories over the past 636 years. But until the head of state and everything that resembles it has been removed in Smithfield, on the same site where King Richard betrayed, ambushed and assassinated Wat Tyler, we’re basically still fighting the same class war.

John of Gaunt was not in London at the time of the Revolt but on the March of Scotland, where on hearing about the uprising he ran from one castle to the next seeking sanctuary, and was finally taken in by King Robert II of Scotland, no doubt for a handsome fee. Unfortunately, therefore, the 1st Duke of Lancaster escaped beheading by the rebels, as Archbishop Simon Sudbury and Sir Robert Hales did not. The Beaufort family, descended in the male line from John of Gaunt, is today represented by its cadet branch the House of Somerset, whose senior representative David Somerset, 11th Duke of Beaufort, was ranked 679th in the Sunday Times Rich List 2015, with an estimated wealth of £145m in land from the Badminton and Swangrove Estates. I’m happy to report, however, that the various Hales Baronetcies, which were created in the Seventeenth Century, are all extinct.

And the serfs? Nine days after signing royal charters in which he swore he would abolish serfdom, repeal the Poll Tax and the Statute of Labourers, return common land to the commoners and grant amnesty to the rebels, King Richard II – who would rescind every one of the charters that July and by November had authorised the execution of between 3,000-7,000 rebels – according to the contemporary chronicler and monk Thomas Walsingham, declared to the peasants of Essex:

‘Serfs you have been and serfs you shall remain in bondage, not as you have hitherto been subjected to, but incomparably harsher. For so long as We live and rule by God’s grace over this kingdom, we shall use our strength, sense and property to treat you such that your slavery may be an example to posterity, and that those who live now and hereafter, who may be like you, may always have before their eyes, as it were in a glass, your misery and reasons for cursing you, and the fear of doing things like those which you have done.’

Over 600 years later, are we still obedient to this example to posterity, as we are to so many others, or have we learned the lessons of history and found the courage to overcome our fear and bring about, finally, what the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 so nearly achieved?

Simon Elmer


9 thoughts on “The Peasants’ Revolt: Lessons from History

  1. One of the best constructed, incisive and informative articles I have seen for a long time. Quite brilliant.


  2. I’ve just re-read this and I’m still in awe. My own take on British Values: The epitome of ‘british values’ that we all espouse – popped out of the right vagina, on the right bed, inherited wealth appropriated generations ago, educated at public school where they are taught to a) rule and b) make sure the wealth stays with them.


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