John Ball and the Peasants’ Revolt

John Ball lived during the turbulent 14th century in English. A poor man and an itinerant, he was made a peasant priest by John Wyclif although Ball opposed some of the church’s tenets. As these dissensions existed between factions within the church and between the mobility and the peasantry, the governmental control was being tossed about in the royal courts and claims to land was causing destructive wars. Wars between countries led to wars between social classes and death became characteristic of these years. An added mortal destructive force came from the presence of the Black Death which hit England first in 1348-49, and returned in 1362 and 1369. Although John Ball’s birthdate is questionable, his death came as a result of his participation in the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381-82.

Edward III became king of England at the age of fifteen in 1327 at the disposition of his father Edward II; in 1328 Edward III was married and had his first son, Edward the Black Prince, in 1330. Until this time, the government was primarily in the hands of his mother Isabella and Roger de Mortimer; however, in 1330 Edward took control of the government forcing his mother to retire and killing Mortimer. Attempting to solidify the English areas only led to trouble and in 1337 a series of wars (called the Hundred Years Wars from 1337-1453) began, which existed throughout Edwards’ reign and after.

The Black Death hit England in 1348-49 and killed nearly a third of the population. Labor became scarce and wages rose sharply. In 1351, Parliament passed a statute controlling wages which caused unrest in the peasantry. Another plague struck in 1362 and again in 1369. Added frustration came when landlords began "asserting their ancient manorial rights." In 1375 a truce was signed with France, but unrest still prevailed. Poor health and eventual death of his son and the strength of his brother John of Gaunt led to Edward’s death in 1376.

John Ball was excommunicated in 1376 for his advocacy of "ecclesiastical poverty and social equality" for priests in direct opposition to the church’s ideas and he was imprisoned at Maidstone by John of Gaunt. The next year Edward II died and Richard became king in 1377 at the age of 10, but John of Gaunt was in control and there was much parlaying for power among the lords in court. finally rebellion of the peasants occurred in 1380 when the poll tax was increased and the peasants rebelled.

The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 began at Essex and quickly spread to Kent, where Wat Tyler was chosen leader. As they captured Canterbury and went on to London, their numbers increased as they freed many from prisons, including John Ball, who, being a priest, was an important addition to their cause. His enthusiasm in their cause and his persuasive nature encouraged the peasants into London. tyler tried unsuccessfully to talk with the king (who was being controlled by others, chiefly John of Gaunt), which resulted into a mob of peasants storming many royal houses and burning Savoy Palace, the residence of John of Gaunt. On June 14, 1381, Richard II met with the rebels at Miles End and agreed to "abolish serfdom, feudal service, market monopolies, and restrictions on buying and selling."

But this was short-lived because some of the rebels, led by Tyler, continued their plundering, captured the Tower of London, killing the archbishop of Canterbury and other officials. Tyler presented more demands but this time was challenged to a duel by the mayor of London; Tyler was mortally wounded and the peasants were quickly dispersed. Angry over the continued destruction and killing after their initial agreement, Richard revoked the earlier grants. John ball was taken to St. Albans, "where he was hanged, drawn, and quartered."

 

The Dream of John Ball was written by William Morris in 1888; the poem contrasts the ugliness of the machine world with the poetry and beauty of the Middle Ages, even though the particular period in which Ball lived had little beauty.