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.
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.
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,...
(The entire section is 2102 words.)