After reading Dan Jones’ The Hollow Crown recently, I moved straight on to another non-fiction book on English history while I was still in the right mood! But while The Hollow Crown looked at the Wars of the Roses, a period I’m starting to become very familiar with, this book deals with an entirely different subject and one that I previously knew very little about: the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
The first thing I discovered on beginning Juliet Barker’s England, Arise was that even the little I thought I did know about the revolt was incorrect. To call it the ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ is inaccurate because the people involved actually came from a range of different backgrounds and included craftsmen, artisans and apprentices as well as agricultural workers. Peasants’ Revolt was a label used by 19th century historians; Barker replaces it in this book with other terms such as ‘Great Revolt’, which is a more accurate description. I also hadn’t realised that there was not just one single revolt, but a whole series of uprisings, riots and rebellions taking place across large areas of the country.
In the first few chapters of the book, Barker puts things into context for us and explains some of the possible causes and motives for the revolt. First, she provides some political background by discussing the final years of the reign of Edward III and the challenges faced by his successor, his grandson Richard II, who came to the throne at the age of ten. The ongoing war with France meant that money was urgently needed and the solution was to tax the English people…three times, in quick succession. There was widespread discontent and resentment over the collection of the taxes and this is what sparked the rebellion. Of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as that – in some cases the anger was directed at the church or at corrupt officials, and this is also discussed in the book.
Next, we are given some information on living conditions in England at that time: the feudal system and why it was starting to break down, the effects of the plague on the population, the differences and similarities between rural and urban societies, and the types of employment people could expect to find. The author also tries to dispel some popular perceptions of medieval life, suggesting that literacy levels were higher than we tend to think and that travel from one place to another was much more common. People were becoming increasingly literate and well informed but still had little say in how the country was run. All of these things may have contributed to the circumstances that led to the revolt.
I loved reading about the lifestyles of medieval people, but the part of the book dealing with the revolt itself was actually of less interest to me. I found it too detailed for the general reader, describing countless incidents that occurred in each county and giving names of dozens of individuals who rebelled and who they were rebelling against. I didn’t feel that I really needed all of this information and it quickly started to become repetitive. The book does seem to be very sympathetic towards the rebels. At first I thought this was fair but as I read one account after another of their burning and looting, stealing from churches and plundering palaces, beheading the Archbishop and Chancellor, storming prisons, destroying legal documents and murdering Flemish immigrants, I wasn’t so sure!
The only individual name I had ever heard of in connection with the revolt (or the only one whose name has stuck in my mind, at least) was Wat Tyler, but it seems that Wat Tyler played a much smaller part in the revolt than I had imagined. He and two other names commonly associated with the period – Jack Straw and John Balle – are each given their own appendix at the end of the book, but there were many, many other participants in the revolt whose roles are also discussed throughout the text. The reaction of Richard II and the way he tried to respond to the rebels is examined too, and the final chapters of the book look at the aftermath and consequences of the revolt.
England, Arise was a fascinating read and I do recommend it but, as I didn’t find the actual revolt as interesting to read about as I’d hoped, I think a more general social history of the 14th century would probably have been a better choice for me. I would still like to read Juliet Barker’s biography of the Brontës, though – it’s only the length that has been putting me off that one!
I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.