Black Death and The Great Rebellion

By the 14th century the Norman occupation of England was in full swing with the nobility (*) using its monopoly on violence to live off the labour of others while the Christian church fulfilled its parallel role: "why use the sword when you can keep them in their place with threats of hell-fire and damnation - and get rich while doing it!"

* "nobility" is an interesting word with a multiplicity of meanings and implications. It brings to mind landholdings, castles, stately homes, country estates, farm tenants, servants, deer parks, huntin' & shootin', a brace of Purdeys, Holland & Holland, game keepers, posh accents, public schools, the irresponsible young, "daddy will pay", assisting in a bijou art gallery on Dover Street, a few years in the military, internships in the City, non-executive directorships, pages in Tatler (the revolutionary's handbook), shopping on Bond Street, shirts from Jermyn Street, "a little pied a terre in Chelsea", land agents, polo in the park, house parties, "our place in Tuscany", security guards, pageantry for the peasantry, forelock tugging, cap doffing, obsequiousness, fawning sycophancy, London clubs, a seat in the House of Lords, closed-room deals, control through influence, tax lawyers, tax avoidance, trusts, charity status, off-shore tax havens and naked greed - all done with no effort thanks to the labour of others and living off rent.

The view from the top

In the 14th century the view of the nobility was a simply one:

"So let us get the collar on their necks again (*), and make their day's work longer and their bever-time (**) shorter. And good it were if the Holy Church were to look to it that all these naughty and wearisome holidays were done away with; or that it should be unlawful for any man below the degree of a squire to keep the holy days of the church, except in the heart and the spirit only, and let the body labour meanwhile; for does not the Apostle say, "If a man work not, neither should he eat"? And if such things were done, and such an estate of noble rich men and worthy poor men upholden for ever, then would it be good times in England, and life were worth the living."

* the church, through the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (which is still in existence), continued to brand its slaves in the Caribbean with the word "SOCIETY" burnt in to their chests until in 1833 it demanded over £46 million as compensation before it would free them.

** "bever-time" = break time

This got translated into the hymn: "All things bright and beautiful":

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

In the 21st century not much has changed:

  • Conservative MPs Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss: "the British are the worst idlers in the world. Too many people in Britain prefer a lie-in to hard work."
  • Conservative MP Eric Pickles: "we should all work harder."

    Note: average hours worked per year in the UK: 1,647, in German: 1,408.

  • The church continues to maintain the status quo in our social and ecclesiastical hierarchies.

The Black Death arrived in England in 1348 and by the time it had finished in 1353 between one third and half the population was dead.

We don't know the impact the Black Death had on Trusley but on our western boundary is the very visible deserted village of Osleston. We can't be sure when the village was deserted but it could well have been at the time of the Black Death. (A project for "Time Team"?)

The shortage of agricultural labourers after the Black Death caused a crisis in agriculture as labourers demanded higher wages and landowners tried to force wages down. The "Statute of Labourers" passed in 1351 was an attempt by landowners to use the law to force wages down.

Not surprisingly, this did not go down well with those who worked on the land or in other sorts of rural labour. The scene was set for conflict.

John Ball's speech

In 1381, John Ball, a reforming priest, gave a speech at Blackheath in which he said:

When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?

From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men.

For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free.

And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

Together with the other leaders of The Great Rebellion of 1381 (sometimes insultingly called "The Peasants' Revolt" when most of those rebelling were far from being peasants) Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, John Ball had marched on London. The immediate cause for dissatisfaction was the imposition of the third Poll Tax. (Poll Taxes are never popular - as Margaret Thatcher discovered in 1990.)

However, the rebellion was much wider than simply the Poll Tax and it became a general revolt against those who owned the land and lived off the labour of others by way or rents and feudal duties.

Having stormed the Tower of London, burnt down John of Gaunt's Savoy Palace, executed the Lord Chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Treasurer, the rebels grouped at Blackheath to present the demands of working people. While talking to the king, Richard II, Wat Tyler was attacked by William Walworth, the Mayor of London and killed by Sir John Cavendish. (The Cavendish family later became Dukes of Devonshire and owners of Chatsworth Estate.)

From then on the rebellion petered out and landowners took revenge by murdering many of the leaders as they returned home. The rebels had not forgotten Sir John Cavendish and his father (another Sir John Cavendish, Chief Justice of the King's Bench) was beheaded in the market place of Bury St Edmunds on 15th June, 1381.

The 1381 rebellion may have failed but the pressure of working people gradually forced the end of serfdom and a lesson had been learned - only through physical revolt would landowners bow to the pressure of reform. From that point on, English history is a history of almost continuous pressure and revolt against landowners - much of it unrecorded by the victors.

Radical change in this country, i.e. change for the benefit of us all, has never come through reasoned argument in Parliament - it has always come from rebellion or threat of rebellion. Fortunately for landowners, they could ensure that Parliament was run in their own personal interests so they were able to use the power of the state (tax income and their monopoly on violence through the police and the army) to crush rebellions whenever they occurred. Only when their backs are forced against the wall will they give way and scatter a few crumbs to the lower orders.