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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2102

Article abstract: The rebel John Ball, who described himself as “Sometime Saint Mary priest of York and now of Colchester,” was one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

Early Life

The outline of John Ball’s life is blurred by the lack of historical records and complicated by...

(The entire section contains 2102 words.)

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Article abstract: The rebel John Ball, who described himself as “Sometime Saint Mary priest of York and now of Colchester,” was one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

Early Life

The outline of John Ball’s life is blurred by the lack of historical records and complicated by the apparent existence of another John Ball. The John Ball of the Peasants’ Revolt was probably born in the village of Peldon, in Essex, in 1331, and became parochial chaplain at St. James’s Church, East Hill, in Colchester, a position comparable to an appointment today as an assistant curate. The other John Ball served as rector of St. James, and his separate identity is confirmed by church records that report his death in 1394, more than a decade after the rebel John Ball was hanged, drawn, and quartered for his role in the Peasants’ Revolt. An unbiased account of Ball’s life is impossible to find in the chroniclers of his time, for even the most talented of them, the Frenchman Jean Froissart, was an upper-class historian who approached the Peasants’ Revolt as a “pestillensse” and Ball as an evil madman.

Parochial chaplains were drawn from the peasantry and for that reason could be expected to sympathize with the distressed subjects to whom they ministered. Although John Ball’s preachings reveal some parallels to the doctrines of John Wyclif and the Lollards, no conclusive evidence links Lollardy to Ball’s peasant movement. The best evidence of Ball’s thought comes in the six widely read letters that he wrote in code to the Essex peasants. The messages are oblique and allegorical, with such moralizing as “Now the clergy for wealth work themselves woe. God give us redress, for now is the time!” These letters reveal the unmistakable influence of William Langland’s long allegorical poem The Vision of Piers Plowman (1377), which is interpreted by most scholars as a key to the meaning and social context of Ball’s exhortations to his followers. Whether these letters were distributed by a revolutionary people’s organization known as “Magna Societas,” or “The Great Society,” is not clear, as historians differ on whether such a disciplined, well-structured group existed.

Ball’s success as a preacher led to his being called before the archbishop of Canterbury in 1366 to answer charges of preaching error and scandal. As a result, all people were warned to shun his sermons or face excommunication. Not long after this brush with authority, Ball was excommunicated for preaching in the diocese of Norwich and, on King Edward III’s order, arrested and imprisoned in Essex. Barred from preaching his Christian communism after his release, Ball spoke against corruption in the church and the greed of the wealthy classes, finding audiences in marketplaces, churchyards, and roadside gatherings. He is commonly identified with the popular rhyme, “When Adam delved and Eve span/ Who was then the gentleman?” (“When Adam dug the earth and Eve spun the cloth, where then were class distinctions?”) Threatened by the effectiveness of Ball’s eloquence and moral earnestness in arousing the people, the archbishop of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury, had him imprisoned at Maidstone just before the revolt broke out.

Life’s Work

The English economy was suffering, partly because of the cost of war in France, and taxes were already oppressive when in November, 1380, a new poll tax was imposed on everyone fifteen or older. Mass protests ensued, and when tax collectors appeared in Kent in June, 1381, a mob assaulted the dungeons at Rochester and freed the prisoners. A former soldier, Wat Tyler, was named the rebels’ leader, and in less than a week he had earned the allegiance of about twenty thousand men from Kent and rescued John Ball from Maidstone prison. After Tyler and Ball, the most important rebel leader was Jack Straw, who may have been the rector of Fobbing in Essex. Tyler’s leadership genius and Ball’s inspirational presence combined to attract more followers. Perhaps as many as fifty thousand men eventually joined the movement. The sudden success of the rebellion, with citizens joining from many regions, supports the argument for a well-established Great Society. Exactly when John Ball wrote his letters cannot be determined, but they probably went out soon after his release from Maidstone.

The throng marched toward London and arrived on June 12 at Blackheath, where they told messengers from the fourteen-year-old King Richard II that they would not go home until they had parleyed with the king. The next morning, Ball celebrated Mass on Blackheath Common and preached a moving sermon pleading for social equality. According to Froissart, the sermon began:

“Ah, ye good people, the matters goeth not well to pass in England, nor shall do till everything be common, and there be no villeins or gentlemen, but that we may be all united together, and that the lords be no greater masters than we be. What have we deserved, or why should we be kept thus in servage? We be all come from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve; whereby can they say or show that they be greater lords than we be, saving by that they cause us to win and labour for that they dispend?”

Another source, an anonymous monk, reported that Ball urged the rebels to take revenge on their persecutors, killing the lords, the lawyers, the justices, and all others hostile to their vision of egalitarianism.

Ball’s sermon was cheered enthusiastically by the throng on the common, who shouted their wish that Ball be their new archbishop and chancellor in place of Simon Sudbury, who was in hiding with the king and his followers in the virtually impregnable Tower of London. Inspired by Ball and their success in moving unhindered, the rebels marched on London and made camp on June 12 at Mile End, just outside the northeast corner of the city. By this time, the combined forces from Essex and Kent exceeded one hundred thousand men, and they were awaited eagerly by most of London’s thirty thousand inhabitants.

They were welcomed cordially the next morning by two London aldermen, who lowered the drawbridge for them to enter the city. Before crossing London Bridge, however, the militants—probably influenced by Ball’s preaching on Christian marriage and morality—stopped at Southwark and burned the brothels to the ground, just as they had earlier burned down the Colchester brothels. The brothels were housed in buildings leased from the bishop of Winchester, William Wykeham, by the lord mayor of London, William Walworth, who employed Flemish girls from across the English Channel.

The first target of the insurgents in the city of London was the Savoy, the mansion of John of Gaunt, the king’s uncle. The leaders in the destruction of the Savoy were probably Londoners, assisted by men from Kent and Essex. From the Savoy, the rebels went on to free the inmates in the Fleet prison and destroy the lawyers’ quarters in the Temple, where many documents were housed. Other buildings sacked were the residence of Sir Robert Hales, the hated treasurer, and the Priory of St. John’s at Clerkenwell.

The king, meanwhile, was secure in the Tower with his mother, Hales, Archbishop Sudbury, the bishop of London, and other notables. On the advice of the earl of Salisbury, Richard agreed to meet the rebels the next morning, June 14, at Mile End. In the ensuing confrontation with the king, Ball and Tyler demanded an end to serfdom, cheap land rentals, freedom to trade, and common justice, to all of which the king agreed. The other major issue of the conference—punishment of those who had been judged to be traitors—is unclear and disputed by historians. One source claims that the king gave permission only for the rebels to pursue the traitors and bring them before him for punishment, whereas another—the official city record—maintains that the king allowed the rebels to punish their captives themselves. Whatever the agreement, four hundred men hurried to the Tower, set up a block on Tower Hill, and beheaded Sudbury, Hales, John Legge, the sergeant-at-arms, Brother William Appleton, the king’s physician and confessor, and three lesser officials. Others regarded as enemies were later executed, and numerous foreigners were assaulted before Richard issued the agreed-upon charters and the force retired to Mile End.

The king took up quarters in the Great Wardrobe, near St. Paul’s cathedral. After consulting anxiously with his advisers while rebellions flared up across the kingdom, he informed the rebels that he would meet them at the Smithfield cattle market, outside Aldersgate, that same day, June 15. Whether the king’s intentions were peaceful is unclear; all of his party wore armor and carried weapons, however, suggesting to many historians that he was deliberately leading Ball, Tyler, and their followers into a trap. In the meeting, Tyler rode across the field with a single companion to meet the king, only to die in an altercation with Lord Mayor Walworth and another attacker.

With Tyler dead and the charters voided, the rebellion continued sporadically in the rural areas but sputtered to a halt on July 2, when the king and five hundred soldiers announced at Colchester that the serfs and villeins would continue in their low status. Ball was hiding in nearby St. Runwald’s Church with several other ringleaders, and he fled to Coventry upon hearing of the king’s vindictive speech.

Ball’s security did not last. On July 13, he was arrested and immediately arraigned before Justice Sir Robert Tresilian in St. Albans. Ball confessed to his role in the uprising, admitted sending the inflammatory letters, and refused to ask for pardon. He was indicted for rebellion and writing seditious letters. Although he was apparently tried by jury and acquitted of all but writing the letters, Ball was sentenced by Tresilian to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, and the execution took place on July 15 in the public square near St. Albans Abbey. Fifteen local businessmen were executed with him, their only crime having been to petition for charters of freedom. On July 15, 1981, a plaque to Ball’s memory was erected in Colchester’s Dutch Quarter.

Summary

John Ball was the kind of figure—obviously talented but frustratingly obscure—who easily polarizes the historians who judge him. He lived in a time when the common people of England found their lives uncommonly difficult, and with his eloquence he could incite popular feeling against their oppressors. Scholars sympathetic to Ball and Tyler minimize the rebels’ actions in London, viewing them as heroes who were tricked by a corrupt king when they thought they were poised to ally themselves with him in establishing a just rule for all. More hostile historians condemn the rebellion for its offenses against law and order and see Ball, Tyler, and Jack Straw as irresponsible rabble rousers. Despite the disparity of opinion, nothing suggests that John Ball was anything but a decent man, devoted to the poor people in his pastoral care and courageous enough to work for their general good even when his actions led to his gruesome death.

Bibliography

Bird, Brian. Rebel Before His Time: The Story of John Ball and the Peasants’ Revolt. Worthing, England: Churchman, 1987. Excellent, radically sympathetic account that identifies Peldon as Ball’s birthplace and includes translations of Ball’s six letters.

Dobson, R. B., ed. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. London: Macmillan, 1970. Indispensable collection of contemporary documents bearing on the revolt, plus a chronology. Letters by Ball are included, as are accounts of him by several of his contemporaries.

Hilton, R. H., and T. H. Aston, eds. The English Rising of 1381. London: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Eight scholarly essays on the historical background of the Peasants’ Revolt.

Lindsay, Philip, and Reg Groves. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. New York: Hutchinson, 1950. Reprint. Greenwood, Conn.: Greenwood, 1974. An excellent introduction to the subject, with a good bibliography. Two chapters on John Ball, one a moving account of his death.

Morris, William. A Dream of John Ball. London: Oriole Chapbooks, 1971. The British poet’s evocative fictionalization of John Ball’s dream of an egalitarian community, originally serialized in Commonweal from November, 1886, to January, 1887.

Oman, Charles. The Great Revolt of 1381. New York: Haskell House, 1968. Only brief references to John Ball, but valuable for its appendices, maps, and region-by-region account of the revolt. Reveals little sympathy for the rebels; originally published in 1906.

Zelitch, Simone. The Confession of Jack Straw. Seattle: Black Heron, 1991. A lively political novel about the Peasants’ Revolt featuring Jack Straw, perhaps the most important figure in the uprising after Wat Tyler. John Ball figures as one of the major characters.

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