Class, Revolts; Continent: Europe

Summer of Blood: England’s First Revolution by Dan Jones

  • Epic part of British history…and incidentally the best-ever argument for a boy needing a male role model
  • 238 pages (211 pages, counting the epilogue but excluding Notes, which might be worth a look)

In the summer of 1381, England faced its first rebellion (no, fellow Americans, not us). The Black Plague had left much of Medieval England’s labor force dead; consequently, the living saw the value of their labor increase significantly. Common folk stratified into classes, and with so much social mobility, the lowest among the English – the serfs – began to envision freedom from working the local lord’s fields and fighting his wars for him.

Author Jones gives us a richly detailed discussion of all sides: the royals, the nobility and the peasantry. However, I was most struck by Richard II because his age in all of this was so close to my own kid’s. I tell her constantly not to assign too much importance to anything a middle school-age boy has to say or do, and here’s one that was king of England during an intense social crisis. I’m going to talk about him most in my review, but Jones consistently writes about all parties in an evenhanded and detailed way.

Find the Money

Richard II’s grandfather, Edward III, was a capable leader with a strong military mind. He spent most of his reign engaged in the Hundred Years War against the French. Richard’s father, the Black Prince, died in that war while Richard was a child. Both men pretty much emptied the coffers of an otherwise prosperous nation for the sake of fighting France. They had taxed anything they could think of, and now the royal advisors were reduced to taxing the peasantry. Two poll taxes had been levied to finance a long war to claim places across the Channel. Even with some of the sting taken out of the second tax by hitting the merchant class harder than the poorest citizens, the taverns and marketplaces would have heard a lot of grumbling.

Newly crowned 13-year-old Richard saw Parliament ask for a universal tax that summer. The clergy would shoulder much of this burden. However, most priests were enjoying a better standard of living than farmers and shepherds; some, like the bishops, lived very well indeed and had a large measure of political power. Consequently, England’s commoners weren’t impressed that the clergy were getting hit a bit harder. Meanwhile, the war with the French was going badly without his grandfather’s military talent, and money was disappearing down that very unpopular hole.

Thanks for Nothing, Uncle John

Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt, was the most powerful noble in England at the time, ruling as regent before the boy could be crowned. Nearly everyone disliked John of Gaunt: the nobility who had cause to know him personally disliked him because he was prickly and arrogant, and the commoners detested him because he’d approved the hated poll taxes during his regency. By the time Parliament wanted its next big tax on the peasantry, John had excused himself to negotiate peace with the Scots, who had taken the war with France as an ideal time to hassle the Crown. As unpopular as he was, Richard’s uncle had the imposing social position and personal wealth to have probably made the next few months easier on Richard if he’d wanted to give him some meaningful support. Instead, he got out of the way to Scotland and waited.

Now What? …Anyone?

Some commoners were starting to make trouble. One preacher, John Ball, was making noise about the amount of wealth controlled by the churchmen of the day. He’d already been excommunicated, but threat of hellfire wasn’t shutting him up, much to the Archbishop of Sudbury’s chagrin. When he partnered with Wat Tyler that June, the two of them inspired rioting in Essex and Kent. Initially, these two men seemed to keep their peasant army in line somewhat: looting of noble and church property encouraged, but no threat to commoner life or goods; release of prisoners (many were debtors rather than criminals by modern standards); and destruction of legal documents (e.g., anything indicating that a certain family was bound in serfdom). Interestingly, the rebels and their leaders bore little ill will toward King Richard himself: they only wanted to clean house with respect to the nobility and powerful clergy.

The people most wanted the heads of some of King Richard’s closest advisors. The Archbishop of Sudbury had crowned Richard in Westminster Abbey and represented a grotesque degree of luxury for clergy. Sir Robert Hales had the unenviable job of chancellor of the exchequer during the collection of the poll taxes. and of course, the absent John of Gaunt. All assumed a defensive posture in advising their king: they feared the rabble who had been killing gentry and burning manors, so no one wanted to take charge and become the next hated target. When young Richard – by that time trapped in the Tower of London – wanted to negotiate with the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt, most of them tried to talk him out of it. The crowd they saw on the riverbank as the royal barge approached for the first attempt at meeting the rebels as dangerous and uncontrolled. They begged Richard to turn around, and he relented. The crowd saw the king snub them with the turning of the royal barge, and they howled even more angrily. Any time the young king tried to take the initiative or show any leadership that summer, his advisors tried to shift his thinking into a more defensive posture to save their own skins.

Outcomes

With time and the lack of direction from the Crown, however, the circle of vengeance against their social betters widened to include many others, like people who merely worked for the courts or lower-level priests. Eventually, hedge knights and lower nobility managed to bring order to the countryside, but the damage was done. The Peasants’ Revolt was the most important milestone in Richard’s rule, and it shaped his character profoundly. As an adult, he was suspicious and vengeful, not happy traits to combine with the characteristic Plantagenet quickness to anger. While John of Gaunt never attained the throne himself, his son, Henry, was in line after Richard and does succeed him.

Image: Death of Wat Tyler at the Hands of Walworth, uploaded to www.wikimedia.org on 2006.

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