William Morris Archive

Peter Wright

I. Political Background, and Narrative of Events

The following narrative has been prepared to assist with the understanding of A Dream of John Ball as related by Morris, and therefore concentrates on the immediate antecedents and early course of the revolt in Kent, while dealing in less detail with events in London and elsewhere, after the insurgent host reached that city.

In 1381 English politics and society were undergoing considerable strain. Besides the social and economic stresses, especially in the agrarian sector, discussed  in III. below,  that had developed  since the Black Death that in 1349-50 had killed up to half the population, the country was faced with the political instability of a royal minority, Richard II having succeeded his grandfather Edward Ill in 1377, aged only ten. While he was under age, the kingdom was governed in his name by a council of nobles and bishops, along with the Crown's chief ministers, the chancellor and treasurer, supervised by the young king's uncles, of whom John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, was the most prominent. Other uncles, Edmund, earl of Cambridge  (later duke of York), and Thomas, earl of Buckingham (later duke of Gloucester), led mostly unsuccessful military expeditions in the latest phase of the Hundred Years' War with France, campaigning in which had resumed, after a truce expired, in mid 1377.

During Edward's last years the English had lost to a revived French monarchy most of the lands in Aquitaine (Southwest France) that had been ceded to Edward in 1360. (Morris had in the 1850s portrayed one imagined episode in that defeat in 'Sir Peter Harpdon's  End'.) To pay for the fighting the propertied classes which dominated Parliament had experimented in the 1370s, instead of the customary 'tenths and fifteenths' levied on their 'moveable' wealth, with new kinds of taxes which spread the burden of paying for the war over a wider, and poorer, range of the population. The revolts of June 1381 were initially occasioned by the third imposition in four years of such poll taxes.

The first poll tax, ordered  in 1377, was at the rate of 4d. (one groat) per head on all adults; the second, in 1379, was on a tariff elaborately graduated by rank and wealth; the third imposed in 1380 was set, however, at 12d. on every adult, aged over fifteen. This was met with widespread evasion: the number of taxpayers reported as liable to pay over the whole country was on average a third less than the government would have expected on the basis of the figures for the population of 1377. So in the spring of 1381 new special commissions,  including royal officials and not merely the local men who usually gathered the 'fifteenth',  were issued to enforce the collection of the unpaid tax, especially  in many counties in  Eastern England.

These commissioners met with violent resistance that May in some villages in Southern Essex, which asserted that they had already paid all the tax they owed. Their people attacked and put to flight, first the tax collectors (the 'poll-groat bailiffs' whom Morris mentions) and then the judge sent to punish that resistance. During the first week of June disturbances spread through the Thames-side parishes of Essex and across the river into Northwest Kent. Now the objectives of the rioters began to extend beyond the poll tax and its enforcers to the manorial system  by which lords extracted money and  labour from their unfree tenants, and there was widespread destruction of the court rolls and other records in which those tenants' obligations were written down.

The peasants' demands, as eventually laid before the king at London in mid-June, included universal release of the unfree from serfdom, the abolition of all lordship save that of the king himself, and the letting of all previously unfree holdings at a fixed rent of 4d. per acre, besides freedom of contract for wage-earners, and the virtual disendowment of the church (probably inspired by John Ball, who had been preaching such a programme for many years). There was, however, no suggestion, except by implication in the sermon ascribed to Ball by Froissart, of any communal ownership of the land or other property, nor indeed that lay landowners be deprived of their estates. Accordingly few of the feudal aristocracy, nobles or gentry, became direct victims of physical violence.

The main objects of the peasants' attacks were the persons and property of the poll tax enforcers; the lawyers and other officers, and the regular jurors, of the royal courts, involved both in upholding manorial rights, and in holding down wages as required by statute since the Black Death of 1349; and the 'traitors'  held responsible for the misgovernment of the kingdom while King Richard II was under age, and in particular for ill success in the French war, for which such heavy taxes had been levied and apparently wasted. Chief among such 'traitors' were reckoned, besides John of Gaunt himself, the chancellor, Simon Sudbury, archbishop of Canterbury; and the treasurer, Robert Hales, English Prior of the Knights Hospitaller. Accordingly the residences  of the duke, the archbishop, and the Hospitallers were among those singled out by the rebels for attack and destruction.

By 6 June the gathering of peasants in western Kent had reached a 'critical mass'. That day, to liberate an imprisoned serf, they attacked, and after a brief resistance captured, Rochester castle, whose constable (governor), Sir John Newton, was soon employed to bear the rebels' messages to the king at London. On 8 June they occupied Maidstone where (then or possibly on 11 June)  they released  from the archbishop's prison John Ball, who had been shut up there to restrain his subversive preaching. There, too,  Wat Tyler  of Maidstone emerged as their most prominent leader.  Many,  including Tyler, then marched eastward to Canterbury, which they entered on 10 June, allegedly intending to replace Sudbury with Ball as its archbishop. They  then returned  rapidly  towards London, presumably along Watling  Street. By 12 June the mass of Kentish peasants had assembled on Blackheath, the high ground above Greenwich, where  according to one chronicle John Ball preached to them on tl1e text claiming complete equality in the time of Adam and Eve. From there they sent Newton to the king, by then installed with his court at the Tower of London, to invite him to come and discuss  their demands.

The government was not in a position to resist them by force: the usual English method  of raising  an army, which combined the well-born retainers of lords and knights as 'men-at-arms' with archers levied from the communities of the shires, was impracticable, since in most of the shires around London the common people, if they had not actually joined the rebellion, might be suspected of sympathising with it, while the gentry of the area, taken by surprise and isolated, were lying  low or had fled. The Crown's only organised force,  commanded by the earl of Cambridge, was far away at Plymouth, about to sail to fight in Portugal, and apparently set sail thither in haste  before they could  be attacked or seduced  by supposed rebels in the West Country. At London the government only had available the armed members of the households of the king and the few lords and knights  in his company, at most a few hundred  men. So the court  decided to temporise and negotiate. Probably on 13 June, the king and his chief advisers rowed down the Thames towards Greenwich to meet the peasants, but did not dare to land to speak with them, for fear of the multitude gathered there by the riverside.

Thereupon the peasants marched upon London. The court had probably expected that William Walworth, then mayor of London, and his aldermen, drawn from the wealthier citizens, would be able to keep closed  the city gates that opened  onto  London  Bridge.  But, whether under  pressure from some of the city's poorer  inhabitants, or, as was later alleged, by collusion with aldermen who favoured the rebels,  those gates  were opened and the men of Kent broke into the city, and were joined by many of its people.

Meanwhile the gathered rebels from Essex had assembled just east of the city walls. Later on 13 June, and the next two days, several 'traitors' were killed within the city, usually by beheading, and the Londoners who had joined the rebels  massacred many Flemish immigrants (their rivals  for work and wages), while Gaunt's sumptuous palace of the Savoy, off the Strand, was sacked and burnt down, and other dwellings of supposed 'traitors' were also fired. No immediate resistance was shown to them, the court  not venturing on a night attack on those  who had entered the city. On 14 June King Richard emerged from the Tower to meet the men of Essex  at Mile End, somewhat further east, where he conciliated them by promising to give their communities charters granting freedom from bondage, along with pardon, many  of which  were issued  over the next two days. The  peasants from that county then began to move homewards.

Meanwhile, still on 14 June, some  of the rebels,  interpreting in their own fashion  the king's permission to seize, and perhaps punish,  'traitors', had thrust their way into the Tower, where they seized the chancellor and treasurer, and executed them, with three others, on Tower Hill. A large body of rebels  under  Tyler, probably from Kent, still held together, and on 15 June the king with a small  escort  met them, apparently by arrangement, on Smithfield northwest of the city, where he sought to placate them by ostensibly granting the probably increased demands that Tyler then put forward. But the king could not thus persuade Tyler to call on his men to disperse.

An altercation followed, variously reported, in which Tyler allegedly showed  insolence to the king or his entourage. Mayor Walworth then attempted to arrest Tyler and wounded him, his death blow being struck by an esquire in the royal  escort, whereupon Tyler's followers began to bend their bows against the royal party. The young king bravely rode towards their ranks, trading on the respect that they still felt for his royal office by putting himself forward  as their  'captain' in Tyler's place; he was soon saved from his peril  by the arrival of well-armed parties of the wealthier citizens, probably already alerted to await the mayor's summons. The disheartened rebels, spared  attack, were then escorted under guard back through the city towards their  Kentish homes.

Following the rebels' entry into London, rumors of their success had spread throughout the Eastern counties, from Essex and Hertfordshire into Cambridgeshire, Suffolk,  and Norfolk, leading to widespread disorder and challenges to established authority. As already in Kent, there was much score-settling, extortion, and plundering, sometimes for personal gain, by individuals and small bands; the violence involved often culminated in arson, sometimes in slaying.

There were also more collective attacks, particularly on ecclesiastical  corporations, such as the university at Cambridge, and the abbeys at Bury St. Edmunds and St. Albans: such monasteries were often especially  reluctant to concede freedom to their tenants, whether peasants or townsmen. At St. Albans, from 15 June, the townsmen, led by William Grindecobbe, used threats of violent intervention by Tyler to back up the demands  which they made, assailing the abbey's  property, for a relaxation of the abbey's control of their economic activities; the abbot, not supported  by any armed force, had to negotiate  and eventually yielded for a time.

The commons of Norfolk gathered under Geoffrey Litster, a Norwich dyer, on 17 June seized that city, where he humiliated captured knights by making them serve him at table. In turn news of Tyler's death and his men's submission spread through those counties, helping the government gradually to reassert control. Gentry from the Home Counties rallied round the king, enabling him, after perhaps encamping on Blackheath to threaten Kent, to march in force through Essex and Hertfordsbire; he formally cancelled the charters freeing the serfs on 2 July. A band of Essex peasants who had wanted to retain the freedom promised them was defeated and scattered by Buckingham at Billericay on 28 June, as was the main band of those in Norfolk at North Walsham about 26 June; in both cases their improvised entrenchments and barricades were apparently overcome by cavalry charges.

The repression that followed was relatively mild for the period, by comparison, for instance, with the indiscriminate  slaughter and ravaging with which the knighthood of Northern  France had taken revenge on their peasantry, when they rose in the Jacquerie of May-June 1358, recalled by Morris in 'Concerning Geoffray Teste Noire' (lines 96-120). Apparently some leaders, including Jack Straw, were summarily executed at London in mid June, and John Ball himself, taken in flight at Coventry, was tried and put to death at St. Albans, while the king was there, on 15 July.

Despite the suggestion in the English chronicles that the new Chief Justice, Robert Tresilian,  presided over 'bloody assizes' throughout the rebel counties, the rebels'  trials were handled by the normal legal procedures, so that they were indicted and tried  by local juries. Only a minority even of those accused suffered death; barely 100 hangings were reported in the surviving (incomplete)  legal records, and almost 300 former rebels (half Londoners) notorious enough to be excluded from the general pardon offered in the following  parliament of 1381-82, were presumably then alive and probably at large. Most offenders, even those convicted of serious offences, got off with paying fines, or buying the pardon thus offered. The possessing classes had, however, been sufficiently alarmed by the rising to refrain from further attempts to extend taxation to the labouring classes, while the decline of serfdom, already in progress for economic reasons, continued.

Further Reading

The medieval evidence for the revolt is available in The Peasants' Revolt of 1381, ed. R.B. Dobson (1970), which contains, in translation, extensive extracts, organised by date and topic, from the medieval chronicles covering the period of the Revolt, with a selection of the documents which supplement those narratives. Morris's own principal source, Lord Berners's translation of Froissart's Chronicles, originally published 1523-25, was reprinted in the original spelling in the Tudor Translation series, ed. W.P. Ker, (6 vols. 1901-3, repr, 8 vols. 1927-28). A selection  in modernised spelling, the pages from which covering the Revolt are reproduced with this edition, was edited by G. C. Macaulay (1895). Morris might also have looked at the complete translation by Thomas Johnes, orig. published by his Hafod Press, 1803-10, which used some manuscripts. (A reprint of 1839 has been consulted for this edition.)  But though Morris could read medieval French, he will not have thought it necessary, since he was writing a tale, not a history, to study the 19th-century editions of the French text of Froissart based, not like Berners on the early printed versions, but on manuscripts, issued in France (ed. S. Luce others, 1869 onwards) and Belgium (ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove, 1867-77), on which modern translations,  such as those in Penguin Classics, are based. (Chapter numbering in such editions also varies from those in Berners  and Johnes.)

The most recent study of the Revolt by itself is still The English Rising of 1381, ed. R.H. Hilton and T. H. Aston (1981). Fuller accounts of the course of the Revolt can be found in M. McKisack, The Fourteenth Century, 1307-1399  (1959), pp. 406-23; G. Harris, Shaping the Nation 1360-1461 (2005), pp. 229-34, 447-49; and  N. Saul, Richard II (1997),  pp. 56-82. The French War is related in detail by J. Sumption, The Hundred Years'  War, II, Trial by Fire (1999), incl. chap. vii, pp. 327-36, covering the Jacquerie, and chaps. vii, x, and xi, on the Free Companies, also discussed in Sumption, Divided Houses (2009), vol. 3, chap. xiv; chaps. ix and x treat the English revolt and contemporary risings in Flanders  and France. The king's most prominent uncle's career is described  in A. Goodman, John of Gaunt (1995), and English fighting practises of the 14th century in M. Prestwich, Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages: The English Experience (1996).      

II. Comparison  of Morris's Narrative with Events as Now Understood by Historians

In writing A Dream of John Ball Morris was not engaged, as a historian would be, in producing an accurate  reconstruction  of the events of June 1381, using all available sources for that purpose. Rather he was creating a political fable to instruct and inspire Socialists, enfolded in a lively narrative, based on one particular source, Froissart's  chronicle, that he had known and loved since the 1850s, and supplementing it from his wider general knowledge, gathered over thirty years, of medieval society, to make his tale plausible. Nevertheless the discrepancies, first carefully noted by Margaret Grennan  in 1945 [[WMMR pp. 98 and following]], between his narrative  and that established  by later research cast interesting  light on his interpretation of the Revolt, and his adjusting the story to fit his political agenda of the 1880s. This discussion treats both of the events actually reported in A Dream, and of the future developments suggested  in Jack Straw's 'plan of campaign' for the peasants [[JB pp. 234-35]] or prophesied by the Dreamer to the priest in the church [[JB p. 247 and following]], along with Morris's narratives of 1884 and 1888 in "The Lord Mayor's Show" and Watt Tyler" [WMH pp. 132-36, 141-42] of events at London, which he presumably had in mind when writing his tale.

1. The Causes of the Revolt.

In using Froissart as his principal source Morris was better enabled to present the rising as chiefly caused through class conflict as understood  in Marxist theory, provoked by the oppression of the peasantry by their feudal lords, standing in for Victorian  capitalists. Froissart treats the exaction of labour services from tenants by such lords as the main ground for their susceptibility  to Ball's egalitarian preaching. His supposition that there were legally more of such serfs 'in England than in any other realm'  may have been justified by his own experience: over much of western  Europe, including Northern France and Western Germany, the direct exploitation of the peasantry through working on their lords' demesnes had been gradually superseded from the 12th century by payment of rents, coupled with tenants, though personally free, being required to use, and pay for using, communal facilities such as mills and bakeries in their lords' possession, a system of exactions that in France survived to be resented and abolished as 'feudal' at the French Revolution. Froissart thought, wrongly, that personal serfdom  was as common in Kent as elsewhere  in England [[see note to JB p. 218]], which lets Morris show his Kentish villagers, though he admits they are more prosperous than those north of the Thames, still sharing a common cause in the struggle for freedom from serfdom.

Also Froissart says nothing (and Walsingham  very little) of the poll tax as the immediate occasion of the revolt, nor much about the popular resentment of the recent, wasted heavy taxation. At most he reports the rebels as seeking an account from the archbishop-chancellor of the 'riches' thus levied from them. So Morris too can avoid mentioning those taxes, apart from passing references [[e.g. JB p. 205]] to the 'poll-groat bailiffs', one of whom the 'valiant tiler of Dartford' has slain for 'mishandling' his daughter. (Reports were already current in 1381 of such tax-collectors threatening to molest girls, presumably on the pretext of checking their sexual maturity, (Dobson  PR p. 135), but the legend of the Dartford tiler, whom Morris only in 1888 definitely identified with Wat Tyler (WMH p. 141) was only put into circulation  by John Stow shortly before 1600: Dobson PR p. 395 n. (Morris might reasonably  have argued that by mid June, the time that he was portraying,  it was freedom from lordship that was the focus of interest for such villagers as he was describing, even in Kent, and certainly elsewhere.) However, Froissart does make clear the peasants' hatred of, and attacks on, men of the law, giving Morris good ground [[JB pp. 46, 58]]  for putting lawyers and their hangers-on among their enemies in the battle outside the village.

2. The Course of the Revolt in Kent.

Having no detailed information from chronicles  or documents about the development  of the rising in early June in Kent or Essex, Morris follows Froissart in beginning his narrative of the peasants' movements with their occupation of Canterbury on 10 June, ignoring what had already happened  in west Kent. He naturally supposed that the archbishop's prison where Ball was confined was at his ostensible headquarters at that city, not, as Knighton indicates (Dobson PR p. 136), at Maidstone, a west Kent town under the archbishop's lordship. Morris was probably encouraged in placing Ball at Canterbury by Froissart's suggestion that the archbishop was being sought there at Ball's suggestion. (The archbishop did have a palace at Canterbury, close to the cathedral, which Froissart reports as being plundered (Dobson  PR p. 140) and Morris supposes to have been  fired [[JB p. 27]], but his more important base was then, as now, at Lambeth.) Morris correctly guesses that there was some plundering of Canterbury's town hall (cf. Dobson PR p. 146), a possible source for the shining armor stripped from its magistrates, the two bailiffs, to be worn by two men stationed with the peasants' banner. [[JB p. 44]]

As Margaret Grennan also notes [[WMMR p. 100]], Morris, like Froissart, puts the rebel attack on Rochester castle, and their capture of Sir John Newton, to whose mission to the king, foreseen for Morris by Jack Straw [[JB p. 70]], the chronicler devotes so much space, on their march westward from Canterbury, the only one that Morris knows of, not on its actual date of 6 June. Thus for Morris's villagers Newton and his presumed garrison are still on that Wednesday a potential danger. [[JB p. 44]]. (Actually most English castles at that time would have contained few fighting men, their occupants serving usually as gaolers or virtual caretakers, rather than providing a viable military force for action outside.) So Morris is able to place the village where his tale is set a little east of the Medway and on the near side of Rochester; and he shows fresh numbers of insurgents still coming in on the evening after the battle, and expecting to march with the villagers on the morrow for Blackheath and London, following the 'pilgrimage  road', the main one between London and Canterbury, along which not long after Chaucer sent his imagined pilgrims riding. [[JB pp. 70-72]] (This is not to be confused with the 'Pilgrims' Way, a route from Hampshire to Canterbury along the ridge of the North Downs.)

Morris's most striking, and deliberate, divergence from the recorded course of the revolt, as Margaret Grennan notices, [[WMMR  pp. 98-9]]  is in inventing the substantial fight 'at the town's end', for which even Froissart provides no support. There is no record of any attempt to organise armed resistance to the banded peasants anywhere in southern England before Tyler's killing. Even thereafter the first effective attacks on them outside London were those led by the bishop of Norwich, who was able to levy a small force west of the Fens beyond the areas affected by the Revolt. Morris allows indeed his John Ball to admit [[JB p. 42]] that there is 'little force between Canterbury and Kingston' (on Thames, south-west of London), though suggesting that the court was concentrating  its troops to face the Essex rebels. Morris has conjured out of thin air a force of 300 to provide his peasants with a victory vividly and satisfactorily exemplifying the successful violence sometimes needed in revolutionary struggles. (For his probable sources for the course of the fighting, see [[note VII on Battle]]).  Even the leadership  of the opposing force, the sheriff who is killed and the two knights, is largely fictitious.

One surprising element of Morris's narrative is his almost complete omission, (cf. Grennan WMMR p. 99), of the Kentish peasants' most famous leader Wat Tyler, whom Froissart regularly names as the first of a threefold leadership, with Jack Straw and John Ball, of the rising in that county, and at London: eg Dobson PR pp. 138-39, 188, 191-93.  Morris only mentions him in the Dream, [[JB p. 42]] with no support from any record, as heading rebels in Essex, though in his articles in Commonweal he does full justice to Tyler's prominence in the closing days of the Revolt. As for Morris's suggestion  that 'Jack Straw' was an assumed name for the peasant leader of his story, there is some slight evidence  for the separate existence of an actual individual of that name (cf. Dobson, PR pp. 147, 171,  206, 308, 366), even though few distinct actions are ascribed to him. (But for a proposal that 'Jack Straw' was indeed a 'masonic' name of a member or dependent of a minor Kent gentry family, see M. V. Clarke, Fourteenth Century  Studies (1937), pp. 95-97.)

3. Chronology.

Morris may initially have been uncertain about the actual timing of the rising within 1381. In Froissart he will have seen events only set out as occurring from a Monday to a Saturday around the feast of Corpus Christi. Morris did not, like present-day historians, have the handbooks which help them rapidly to convert from the customary medieval dating by weekdays related to holy days to the modem system using days of the month. Moreover Corpus Christi is the latest in the series of holy feasts moveable with the date of Easter; it was fixed for the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday (the second after Whitsun), by Pope Urban IV only in 1264, and can fall on any date from 21 May to 24 June. Being devoted to the corporeal  presence of Christ in the sacrament, it was excluded  from the Anglican version of that cycle of feasts (it was not included in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer), and although some Anglo-Catholics, heirs of the Oxford Movement, may have honoured it in the late 19th century, Morris, brought up in a zealously  Protestant  household, would not have internalised, when young, its likely dating even to a particular month, as he might have done for Easter or Whitsun. So it is not snrprising that, in his first version of A Dream, in Commonweal, 1886-87, he placed the Revolt in late summer, and had to alter references to flowers then in season to ones appearing  in June when revising his text for publication in book form. Also Morris did not look carefully enough at Walsingham to notice the calendar dates in June/July there recorded for documents issued by the royal chancery, according to its normal practice.

As to the internal chronology of Morris's  tale, its details begin implicitly with the liberation of John Ball from his prison at Canterbury which Morris, following Froissart's accurate dating for the rebels' arrival there, will have assumed to be on a Monday, and which is twice stated [[JB pp. 27, 31]] to have been 'three days agone' at the time of his speech to the villagers. Ball also sets that speech [[JB p. 36]] on 'this fair eve of holiday', which presumably is to be taken as the day before the Thursday of Corpus Christi, the three days since his release being taken as inclusive. So Morris only allows three more days for the whole tumultuous series of events in Kent and at London, culminating in Tyler's killing at Smithfield, which Morris knew in 1884 [[WMH p. 135]] was on the following Saturday. Margaret Grennan, [[WMMR p. 100]], wisely notes the difference of timing: on that Wednesday, historically 12 June, Ball should have been preaching to the massed peasants at Blackheath, or on the way thither, not speaking at the cross of a single Kentish village. She also sees [[cf. JB pp. 13-14]] that the narrator could hardly have then been aware of the impending risings at St. Albans and Norwich, which only broke out after the rebels entered London on the Thursday.

4. Further developments in the Revolt

Morris's Jack Straw expects the peasants to have little difficulty in penetrating across London Bridge. Froissart will have shown him that the commoners within the city forced the gates onto it to be opened for them, [[cf. JB p. 95]] though Morris does not follow that author in suggesting that the peasants' march on London was actively incited by any Londoners: Dobson, PR pp. 137-39. Froissart may have supposed this from his experience of the domination of the Flemish countryside by the great commercial cities there. Morris shows also [[JB pp. 59-60, 70-71]] his awareness of the rebels'  prime object being a direct appeal to the king for a remedy for their oppression  by intermediate authorities, combined with repeated affirmations of loyalty to him, sufficiently shown in Froissart, as in other chronicles. The tale's Jack Straw is, rightly, rather more sceptical of the sincerity of any concessions ('soft words') that might be offered to the people, and almost foreseeing  of the defeat that they were to suffer from trusting in the promises made to them by or for the king. The Dreamer too tells John Ball that it will be through 'lack of knowledge' that after an apparent  victory they will be 'cozened and betrayed when their captains are slain' and their project defeated.  [[JB pp. 98-99]]

In his actual narratives of the sequel in 1884 and 1888 Morris is clearly scornful of the 'immaterial  guarantees', and the 'lies and empty promises' with which the peasants were beguiled, [[WMH pp. 134, 136]] and claims that Tyler was treacherously assassinated. He is not entirely correct about the circumstances of Tyler's killing, apparently following Thorold Rogers's (mis)understanding (cf. Six Centuries, pp. 256-62) of Froissart's text (that the royal party was riding 'without London') to assume that the king was trying to quit the city when he accidentally  encountered Tyler's men at Smithfield [[WMH p. 142]]. But it is clear that the government did not intend to keep whatever carefully qualified promises it had made to induce the peasants to disperse, and proposed, having persuaded them to leave London, to arrest and execute their leaders, even though Tyler's actual killingmay not have been plotted in advance. Morris might have known from Green that in the subsequent  parliament the king's  council acquiesced in the lords'  insistence that the king was not entitled without their consent to set free men who were their property.

5. John Ball's message: history into myth?

How far is Morris's presentation of his priest as a prophet of social and economic equality, and even of a communist society, potentially accurate? The early accounts of Ball, that give any detail of his teaching (Dobson PR pp. 128, 374) emphasise his hostility to the higher, propertied clergy and desire to abolish their ranks, leaving only one bishop for the whole kingdom, who, his enemies claimed,  was to be Ball himself, and to have their property divided among the people, allowing the surviving priests and monks a bare subsistence while they lived: cf. Dobson PR pp. 164-5. Ball also apparently said that people need only pay tithes to their priests if they were both poorer than, and morally superior to, the tithe-payers. Such emphasis on apostolic poverty and moral goodness as required qualifications for the clergy had been developed by the 'Spiritual' party among the Franciscan friars since the late 13th century, and was to be vigorously taken up, along with programmes  to disendow the church, by the Lollards from the 1390s. Ball's opponents did not hesitate to brand him, probably wrongly, as a follower of the Lollards' 'founder' John Wycliffe: Dobson PRpp. 374-78. But advocacy by Ball of equality among the whole people, including the laity, and even of community of property is reported only by Walsingham in his account of Ball's Blackheath sermon (Dobson,  PR p. 375), and by Froissart in the account, in whose wording Morris so much delighted, of Ball's  supposed preaching to the people before the Revolt broke out.

The idea that there had been no individual ownership in Paradise before the Fall, and presumably just after it when the first man and woman were delving and spinning for themselves, was a commonplace of Christian doctrine, and had been since the early church: private property, sharing out unequally what would naturally otherwise have been available in common for the whole of humanity, along with actual slavery, was considered a result of, and a remedy for, sin, preventing the disputes that might arise among self-regarding  men. But those with possessions were required to be generous in their giving those without. Any attempt to restore, in the actual condition of humanity since the Fall, such a theoretical equality would have been thought undesirable, even heretical. William Langland, indeed, in Piers Plowman, (B text, passus B, lines 270-72; probably written in the late 1370s) alleges that some friars in his time were putting forward, on the basis of fragments of classical philosophy,  the doctrine (which he rejected) 'that all things under heaven ought to be in common' (spelling modernised), so the idea ascribed to John Ball that 'everything  be common' was clearly in circulation  at that time.

Ball's main emphasis in both chroniclers' reports, however, is on the abolition of the artificial inequality between lords and serfs, men 'created equal by nature'. His affecting contrast, as described by Froissart, between the luxury of the rich and the miseries of the enserfed poor, was indeed also a commonplace of the pulpit at that time (See Owst, Literature and Pulpit, pp. 287-307), when the most orthodox preachers rebuked the rich for their unfeeling enjoyment of a life supported through oppressing or neglecting poor folk equally descended from Adam, the rich not being the product of a separate creation. [[cf JB p. 36]]. Morris would also have found in Chaucer's  Parson's  Tale, if he read that poet's prose as well his verse, an assertion, (linked to rebukes, that Chaucer apparently added to his source, of lords who exploited  their 'bondmen'), that lords and 'churls'  came from the same 'seed': Chaucer, Works, ed. F.N. Robinson (1957), p. 252. (The preachers cited by Owst are English; but Froissart could probably have heard similar sermons in the churches of France or Flanders, enabling him to flesh out in biting words whatever reports he had heard of Ball's preaching.) The difference between John Ball and such conventional preachers is that they expected the heavy retribution that would befall the unjust rich men to happen in the next life, or at the Last Judgement, whereas Ball, if correctly reported, envisaged  it as capable of being achieved in the present life by an actual equalisation of social conditions.  Possibly he was led on by enthusiasm in the face of the apparent collapse of seigniorial authority in Southern England in June 1381 to extend his previous ambition for levelling in the church to the whole of society.

It should he noted too that some narrative accounts of the Revolt, composed by men panicked at a sudden breakdown of the order in which they were dominant, and including a confession fathered on Jack Straw [Dobson PR pp. 364-6], ascribe to the rebels a project, not confirmed  by their reported demands or actual recorded actions, for  the violent annihilation of all their social superiors both lay and clerical: e.g. Dobson PR pp. 131, 136, 177, 375. Froissart too (Dobson  PR p. 141), comparing the English revolt with the contemporaneous urban ones in Flanders and France, supposes that it would have resulted in the destruction  of the noble class whom he admired. It would not therefore be unreasonable for Morris to present the peasants under Ball's influence as aiming at a state of substantial social equality, with no ranks or wealth above those of peasant and craftsman, though not at such a condition of actual communal possession, as Ball's final words [[JB p. 40]] might imply.

III. Medieval English 'Feudalism' and its Fate.
The Social and Economic Background, and How Morris Partly Misunderstood It

Morris based his interpretation of the historical processes behind his tale partly on standard Marxist theories of historical development, which were founded for pre-modern times on those of the political economists. They had combined some knowledge of surviving ancient law and current legal practice with a modest amount of original evidence and much theorising derived from what seemed likely to have happened: see Adam Smith's account of the 'feudal system' and its decline in his Wealth of Nations, bk. iii, chaps. 2 and 4. From such sources comes Morris's  basic analysis of the social changes [[see p. 101 para. 4]] that converted the 'thrall' always immediately subject to his master's  will, (1) into a villein, still in Morris's eyes possessed by his lord, but now attached to a plot of land which he cultivated for his subsistence. (Morris exaggerates [[p. 99 last para.]] the proportion that the lord took of the produce of villeins' holdings, which did not leave them merely with the minimum needed for food and shelter.)

The economists' concept of 'feudalism' was partly due to their 'invention' of an 'ideal type' of a 'natural economy', in which, in the absence of a considerable circulation of coined money suitable for daily spending, kings and rulers had to reward those who fought or prayed for them, warriors and monks, with landed estates to support them. In turn the lords of such estates took revenue from the peasants working the land partly in renders in kind (food etc.), partly in labour to cultivate the demesne, the part of those estates that the lords kept in hand. (Nominally lords granted holdings to tenants for such services;  in practice they let them remain in occupation.) This system is reckoned in the Marxist theory of history as the 'feudal  mode of production'.

In the mid 12th century renders in kind had largely ceased in England, leaving lords to extract their peasant tenants' 'surplus' through cash rents of many types, and through labour services. The relation between them was affected, and the burden on those tenants reckoned unfree aggravated,  by the legal reforms introduced by the king from the 12th century, intended to protect freeholders from oppression by their lords. The royal judges,  unwilling to interfere too much with manorial lords' control of their men (See P.R. Hyams, Kings, Lords & Peasants in Medieval England (1980)), chose to restrict the protection of the new common law to those tenants, alone thenceforth considered free (2), who paid for their land mainly by cash rents, while treating as unfree all peasants who rendered for their holdings chiefly regular and heavy work, usually of two to four days a week, (3) besides various humiliating obligations such as paying 'fines' when their daughters married or were incontinent, or to be allowed to leave the manor.

The lawyers considered  such villeins (like slaves under Roman law) along with their possessions, to be their lords'  property, and subject to whatever exactions a lord chose to impose, only restrained by prudence and what weight he might allow to the custom of each manor. The lord was entitled to levy a 'tallage' on his villeins' goods whenever he wished, and could demand 'entry fines', to permit them to succeed to their parents' holding, at arbitrary levels. (In practice such 'entry fines,' steadily raised during the 13th century as a rising population increased the demand for land, and for corn which lords could profitably supply by directly farming their demesnes, along with other dues demanded in money, were probably more of a drain on villeins' resources than actual labour services,  often controlled by custom.)

It was against the continuation or, as Morris supposed, revival, of this system of exactions that the peasants were rising in 1381, when making their main demand that the king grant them their freedom. Morris took his view of actual developments in the 14th century from Thorold Rogers, whose History of Agriculture and Prices in England, which he had acquired in 1884  and read  with interest, (4) would have in the 1880s have represented  the most recent scholarship.  From Rogers's discussion of the causes of the Revolt, in vol. i (1866), chap. iv, esp. pp. 77-82, he could well have concluded, as  J.R. Green did, that by the mid 14th century most peasants had had their labour services permanently 'commuted' for money rents, (5)  while the manorial lords had abandoned direct cultivation of their demesnes, so that any attempt to reclaim such services amounted to turning peasants  'into villeins again' like their grandfathers  [[p. 204 para. 5]], arousing justifiable resistance.

In Six Centuries of Work and Wages (publ. 1884) chaps. vii and ix (esp. pp. 215-19, 226-30, 233-37, 253-54), Rogers repeated that interpretation, suggesting that, following the great famine of the mid 1310's, the lords had by the mid 1320s proved willing to commute all their villeins' labour services for cash rents permanently, making them virtually free, and likely to resent any attempt to return to exacting such services, following the rise in wages caused by the fall in population resulting from the Black Death.(6) Actually on many larger manors direct management of the demesnes was still in practise in the 1350s and 1360s, and lords continued to expect the customary services. Sometimes where lords had, in the 13th century, often allowed works to be commuted in practice, spending the proceeds on hired labour whose wages were held down by a then increasing population, they might be induced by the rise in wages that had followed the Black Death to demand, more frequently, apparently costless labour services,  which would have looked to those subjected to such burdens like a revival of villeinage.(7)

It was not until the 1370s or later that lords, partly faced with passive resistance from their unfree tenants, including 'go-slows' and wilful absenteeism, and partly with declining corn prices, began permanently to lease out their demesnes and to grant their villeins' holdings at cash rents in lieu of all services. (Effectively Rogers was correct about the direction of such economic change, but he dated its occurrence about fifty years too early.) By the mid 15th century most country folk were treated as personally free, as townsmen had long been, having escaped the burdens attached to descent from ancestors who were 'bondmen by blood', and becoming "free men' holding  'unfree lands' (i.e, ex ­villein holdings). [[ cf. p. 97 last para. ]].

Morris may have exaggerated, both in John  Ball's speech and in reporting the battle against the knights, the amount of class hostility against the nobility and gentry or between rich and poor, as such, that was involved in the revolt, and the extent of the social revolution that was desired. In the French Jacquerie of 1358 the peasants had directed their anger at the nobles as a class, possibly committing atrocities on them and their families like those so vividly described by Froissart. (Froissart, tr. Berners, bk. i, chap. 182; cf. 'Concerning Geoffray  Teste Noir'; stanzas 25-29), besides destroying many of their castles. (They were partly angered  by those nobles' failure, while still exacting wealth from the countryside individually and as part of the royal forces, to perform their traditional duty of protecting the land from invaders.)

In England  in 1381 the peasants had three main types of victim whom they sought to execute.

1. The 'traitors', meaning first the royal ministers who had failed to govern the kingdom properly, and those associated with them, though the term,  and the penalty, was also apparently applied to people who refused to join the revolt: e.g. Dobson PR pp. 127, 132.

2. In London, Flemings and other foreigners,  disliked probably for the same reasons as 'immigrant workers'  are nowadays. (This was probably  instigated by Londoners.)

3. All agents of the law from judges down to gaolers and court officers. Morris fully reflects this in the frequent denunciation of lawyers and their 'sheepskins' in his tale.

But the peasants very seldom directed personal  violence against members of the landed aristocracy, except a few in government service, or even attacked their houses, save for those of men in classes 1 and 3 above. Rather than manor houses the insurgents burnt manor court rolls containing the evidence of their servitude: cf. Hilton & Aston, English Rising of 1381, pp. 12-14. Despite the assertions by alarmed chroniclers (e.g. Dobson PRpp. 364-66) that the rebels intended to exterminate their rulers, their actual demands, when recorded, entailed not social equality in itself, but the end of the coercive powers of their lords, whether over unfree men through their courts, or as justices enforcing restrictions on wages. They may indeed have envisaged continuing to pay some form of (low) rent to lords instead of services: cf. Dobson PR, pp. 161, 164-5, 180, 183. What those peasants who rebelled actually resented was probably not a widespread and co-ordinated attempt by the lords to reimpose an antiquated  system of serfdom, still less, as supposed by Morris in the inflammatory rhetoric of [[p. 218 last paras.]], to worsen their existing condition, but the hindrances that the lords' remaining legal powers provided to their tenants' ability to better their condition within the new economic context.

Ball's speech with its contrast of rich and poor,(8) rather than of lord and subjected tenant, is indeed more appropriate to the relation between capitalist and workman of Morris's own time. The characteristic vices of the medieval nobles were pride and wrath, not avarice; some of them would probably have despised the self-centredness and the anxiety about future prosperity ascribed to an imagined rich man. [[ p. 35 last para-36 ]] (A lord's likely scorn for the peasantry is better expressed in [[ p.71 last para 6.]].

Nevertheless there was a real difference between the English rising of 1381 and contemporary ones, of wbich Morris knew from Froissart's reports, and wrote in his lecture on the Revolt of Ghent. (The chronicler  himself saw a parallel danger from all those revolts to the aristocracy, whom he admired.) The resistance in 1380-82 of the people of Paris and other northern French cities, reluctantly led by their wealthier fellow-citizens, to the re-imposition without due consent of the heavy taxes exacted by the French Crown to pay for its wars since the 1360s, was largely caused by objection to an uncustomary demand for their money. The longer-lasting revolt by the men of Ghent, 1378-85, strongly supported by some of its poorer guilds, was essentially in defence of the sectional interests of that city against other Flemish cities, and even against craftsmen working in the surrounding  countryside. Both these movements were chiefly intended to preserve rights within the existing structures of society. By contrast the English insurgents were able to envisage a great, if not total, social transformation with the abolition of lordly authority. It is remarkable that proposals for such extensive change could be developed in barely ten days between the outbreak of opposition to a particular tax and the arrival of the peasant host at London. Who had the imagination to suggest them, Ball, Tyler, or some unknown colleague, we shall never know.

In the concluding chapters of A Dream, Morris, while noticing the 'false dawn' of the nominal end of villeinage, emphasises such developments of the 15th and 16th centuries, less favourable for the ordinary working man, as the conversion of arable land into pasture and the consequent driving from the land of many of the rural population. He then leaps rapidly in Chapter XI from that period to the culmination of industrial capitalism in the 19th century with its nominally free, but propertyless, class of workers, faced and exploited by the possessors of a monopoly of the means of production, to whom they are forced to sell their labor at their employers'  price, according to the regular Marxist analysis of capitalism. (Morris knew, as appears in his chapters on Socialism published in 1886 (WMH pp. 153-68), that there was more complexity in the development from 'feudalism' to his own time, but has not thought it necessary to discuss details in this fable.) He does also allow himself to reveal to his medieval priest some glimpses of the irony, often emphasised in his Socialist lectures, by which the multiplication of manufactured goods and the speeding of transport, both by mechanical means, have not eradicated poverty, but allowed it to be continued in the midst of ostensible abundance through the persistence of inequality, for which the revolution prophesied in his closing pages is shown as the only hopeful remedy.

Notes to III, "Medieval English 'Feudalism' and Its Fate:

(1) Morris uses the originally Norse word 'thrall' for a servile status that Marxists find principally in classical antiquity; but he was fan1iliar with the thralls working for the farmers in Icelandic sagas, and may have known that such personal slavery survived  in England until at least 1100: many slaves (servi) are recorded in Domesday Book.

(2) These are the 'men of free land', [[p. 15 para 1]] paying 'quit-rents' [[ p. 98 para 4]] whom Morris occasionally mentions. He probably underestinlated the proportion of peasants who enjoyed the benefits of such freedom. E. Kosmmsky, Studies in the Agrarian History of England in the 13th Century (tr. 1956), still the most widely based study of the balance between freedom and villeinage, concluded, on pp. 203-206, that about 40% of peasants and their holdings were then free. But they were on average less well-off than villeins with standard holdings (of 10-15 up to 30 a.) supporting a family, whose economic welfare depended as much on the amount of land they occupied as on their legal disabilities. Freeholdings could easily be broken up by sales or division among a man's children, whereas lords tended to keep villein ones intact to make it easier to draw services from them.

(3) Both unfree and sometimes free tenants had to provide extra work during harvest.

(4) Collected Letters, ed. Kelvin, vol. ii (1), p. 264.

(5) Commutation worked rather differently. Individual lords had indeed often converted  particular unfree holdings to paying cash rents permanently. But normally labour services were only commuted on a day-by-day basis, usually for l-4d. each, within individual accounting years, not continuously, whenever  the lord, or the manager of his manor, did not require them. The practice enabled lords to profit from such services  even when they did not use them.

(6) Rogers also suggests (Six Centuries, pp. 250-51) that the 'poor priests' then believed to have been organised by John Wycliffe to spread his heretical doctrines might have served as undercover 'liaison agents' for the revolt, preaching on Biblical grounds economic equality and 'religious  Socialism'. If Morris read this, it might have seemed further justification  for his portrayal of Ball as a missionary of revolt and champion of communism. (Modem historians of Lollardy, unlike Victorian ones and some medieval chroniclers, doubt that Wycliffe had formed any such group of missionaries by 1381, if at all. His doctrines were not preached, initially by some zealous academic disciples, outside Oxford until about 1380, and early Lollard preaching has only been traced in the surviving records in Midland and Welsh border counties, well away from the heartlands of the Revolt.)

(7) For recent opinion on this supposed 'seigniorial reaction' in the late 14th century, see Cambridge Agrarian History of England and Wales, vol. iii, 1348-1500,  ed. E. Miller (1991), pp. 760-68.

(8) For how Morris may have been misled by the eloquence of the speech that Froissart provided for Ball, see  [[ Comparison,  section 5 ]].

Further Reading

The current scholarly view of the manorial system as practised in 13th-century England and the relations of lords and tenants appears in E. Miller & J. Hatcher, Medieval England:  Rural Change, 1086-1348 (1978), esp. pp. 111--239. Developments from 1350 are dealt with in the Cambridge Agrarian History of England and Wales, III, 1348-1500, ed. E. Miller (1991); chap. 8 discusses the social and economic background to the Peasants'  Revolt. E.B. Fryde, Peasants and Landlords  in Late Medieval England (1996) and C. Dyer, An Age of Transition? (2007) cover subsequent agrarian changes to about 1500. A more Marxist scholarly view of English social relations, which Morris would probably have shared, is given by Rodney Hilton, Bondmen  Made Free (1973), and The English Peasantry in the Later Middle Ages (1975). The European background to lord-peasant relations, for comparison with those in England, can be found in the Cambridge Economic History of Europe, I: The Agrarian Life of the Midle Ages, ed. M. M. Postan (1966), or G. Duby, Rural Economy and County Life in the Medieval West (1968).

IV.  Medieval and Later Sources for Morris's Narrative

The main previous  discussion of the works that Morris used in writing A Dream of John Ball is in Margaret Grennan's William Morris, Medievalist and Revolutionary,  chap. iv, esp. pp. 92-93. However, she may have been a little optimistic in her listing of books that Morris consulted while actually writing his tale, as distinct from material derived from his accumulated knowledge about medieval civilisation. (N.B. The St. Albans Chronicle that she states that Morris owned was not any of the monastic chronicles  produced at that abbey, but a late reprint, issued by Wynkyn de Warde in 1520, of  a version originally printed at St. Albans in 1485 of the edition published  in 1480 by William Caxton of the 'Brut', the standard national  history in English at that period: see Letters, vol. iv, p. 432; H. S. Bennett, English Books and Readers, 1471-1558,  pp. 126, 248-29.)

The story that Morris tells of the events of May and June 1381 depends almost entirely on the contemporary chronicles, mostly monastic in origin, though two important ones were by secular clerks, covering the period. He was writing just too early to learn anything from the researches undertaken by historians in the 1890s and later, listed [[ Grennan, WMMR]] p. 88) into the judicial and manorial records for the revolt: knowledge of the casual violence and greed shown by many of the rebels would have impaired his portrayal of a largely idealistic movement. Some of those records had already been published for Kent in 1860-61 and a few for Essex in 1878, but Morris would hardly have thought it necessary to search the local antiquarian  journals that contain them.

Of the four main chronicles covering the revolt, that which gives the fullest account of the initial outbreaks in Essex and Kent is the Anonimalle Chronicle, a narrative written in French, proably by a clerk working at London and close to the royal court, and later inserted into a chronicle kept at St. Mary's abbey, York; it was not published for 1381 until 1898, nor in full until 1927. Its contents for June 1381 were, however, available in an English version in John Stow's Chronicles of England, originally published  in 1580 and revised by Stow down to his death in 1605, of which Morris owned a copy when he died in 1896: Letters vol. iv, p. 433; revised edition as Annales published in 1605: 1631 edn. used  here.

(Stow used that account to describe the peasants' movements down to their entry into London on 13 June and the night that followed, after which he largely switched to using Thomas Walsingham's chronicle [see below] for the events of 14-15 June, including  the peasants' entry into the Tower and the killing of the archbishop, down to Tyler's slaying at Smithfield, to which he added a few details from the Anonimalle Chronicle, of how the mayor finished Tyler off. Stow also included, after telling of the Norfolk revolt, an account from Walsingham of Ball's  sermon at Blackheath.)  Morris had presumably acquired that volume as a specimen of early printing, not for historical investigation; he certainly made no use of information in it for A Dream.

Neither is Morris likely to have made direct use of the chronicle, written at Leicester abbey by its canon, Henry Knighton, notable for copying five of the 'propaganda letters' written, some probably by John Ball, to spread the rebels' gospel. The only version of Knighton available in 1886-88 was one, probably not easily accessible, included in a compilation of chronicles  published in 1652. (For dates of publication of the relevant chronicles, see C. Gross, Bibliography of English History to 1485, ed. E. B. Graves (1975), nos. 1124, 2787, 2874, 2912, 2976.)

The second volume of Knighton, covering 1381, of the Victorian  edition  in the Rolls Series was not issued until 1895. Morris, moreover, ignores Knighton's clear statement that John Ball was in prison at Maidstone when released. He probably nevertheless became aware of those letters from the extracts from them cited in the account of the Peasants'  Revolt in J. R. Green's Short History of the English People, (in chapter v, section 4), first published in the 1870s, then the most recent compendious history of England. It was from the fourth letter, the first in Green's anangement, that Morris drew the phrase, 'John  Ball hath rung our bell', with which the people greet the priest before his preaching. [[JB p. 21]] (Most of those letters were also printed in Stow's Annales, but he left out the one about Ball's bell ringing.) Just possibly Morris's suggestion that 'Jack  Straw' was a nom de guerre used by several rebel leaders [[JB p. 57]] might be derived indirectly from Knighton's idea that Wat Tyler was also known as Jack Straw.

Morris may bave looked briefly, if be did not learn of its contents indirectly, at the work of Thomas Walsingham, whose chronicles, part of the distinguished  series composed from the 13th century at St. Albans abbey, cover in detail five decades from the 1370s onwards. (In his Earthly Paradise Morris had alluded to Walsingham's most distinguished predecessor as chronicler there, Matthew Paris: see The Earthly Paradise, ed. F.S. Boos, vol. ii, pp. 100-101). Of Walsingham's two accounts, telling essentially the same story for 1381, the longer version in the Historia Anglicanahad been printed in 1863-64, the slightly abbreviated Chronicon Anglie in 1874, both in the Rolls Series.

Morris may have concentrated on Walsingham's description of John Ball's execution and preaching, supposedly to 200,000 peasants assembled at Blackheath, a sermon parallel to those preceding the Revolt that Morris found in Froissart. That sermon is immediately followed in Walsingham's text by a version of a single letter, which Ball admitted writing; its concluding verses contain two lines much closer than the parallel ones in Knighton to the phrases exchanged  by Will Green and the Dreamer [[JB chap. 1, p. 10]] as watchwords to prove their mutual allegiance to the revolt. (In Knighton, followed by Green, the Miller is called Jack, not John, and his grinding involves only two 'smalls'.)

Morris also follows Walsingham in A Dream, as in his Socialist history of 1886 (see WMH p. 151), in giving the Norfolk rebel the first name of John, not 'Guilliam', as in Froissart, nor Geoffrey, his historically recorded one. He also possibly found in Walsingham the alternative surname, given in his article of 1884 [[WMH p. 135 ]], of Cavendish for the squire Standish who ran Wat Tyler through: a judge killed by the rebels in Suffolk in June 1381 was called Cavendish. Most notably it was Walsingham who recorded, in the original medieval English wording, the couplet asserting human equality just after the Fall, which he claimed to have been Ball's text for his preaching at Blackheath, and which Morris used as the motto on his peasants' banner. [[JB p. 24]] (The actual couplet, a pithy abbreviation of verses already in circulation, (see G. R. Owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England (1981 edn.), p. 291), would probably have been known to Morris from any one of numerous accounts of the Revolt; cf. Dobson PRp. 396.)

Otherwise, however, Morris may not have studied Walsingham very attentively, or he would have seen, for instance, that the abbot of St. Albans had no soldiers for its townsmen to fight, and that Litster's  deeds were not so bloodstained as Morris implies. [[JB chap. II p. 15]] Walsingham, moreover, furnishes little detail of place or time about the peasants'  rising in Kent, beyond indicating that it was originally aroused by messages from the insurgents in Essex.

For a fuller description of events in Kent Morris turned to the lively, but not always (for English affairs) reliable, story in Froissart, for which he mostly used Lord Berners's well-flavoured  English translation of the 1520s, though he may also have looked at Thomas Johnes's translation originally published 1803-10: thus for the commander  of Rochester castle Morris gives, like Johnes, the correct surname of Newton, whereas Berners, translating from a French text which often garbles English names, styled him 'Moton': cf. Grennan WMMR p. 100. When writing his vindication of Wat Tyler in 1884, [[WMH pp. 132-36]] Morris must have had before him Berners's  version, whose narrative he faithfully followed, sometimes quoting it word for word; initially he even copied the antiquated  spelling of its Tudor printing, though later modernising it.

Froissart's principal informants may well have been one or more of the knights from the French-speaking southern Netherlands (an area with which the chronicler was closely associated), whom he mentions as being in the king's company at the Tower and elsewhere. (For a possible identity of one of them: see  Froissart, tr. Johnes (1839 edn.), vol. i, p. 663 n.) So his account of developments in and around London, which  Morris used  in 1884, is reasonably accurate for the main outline of events, and provides some vivid, sometimes inconsequential, anecdotes that could only have come from an observer on the spot, such as those about the more than thirty clerks writing out charters of freedom at Mile End, or the tailor who asked Tyler at Smithfield to be paid for sixty doublets sold to the rebels (was Tyler acquiring uniforms for a bodyguard?). But for happenings further afield, Froissart's informants presumably relied on what rumours about them might have reached the city during those days, and  their reports would be less reliable. Since Morris concerns himself in A Dream primarily with events in Kent, his following Froissart leads him into some errors, both of place and date. [See Comparison]

Morris probably also looked, as suggested  above, at J. R. Green's account in his short history; he may have known Green personally in the 1870s through the Eastern Question Association, of which Green was a member: D.N.B. Green's analysis of the social and economic antecedents of the revolt largely follows that of Thorold Rogers, discussed  elsewhere in these comments, while his narrative mainly copies Froissart, though inserting some descriptions from Walsingham of the risings at St. Albans and in Norfolk, and the suppression  of the rebellion in East Anglia. Notably he also makes Jack Straw a leader of a 'party of insurgents' crossing from Essex into Kent to call it to arms, a precedent for Morris showing Jack as heading the men of his Kentish village in battle. Green also copies the customary exaggeration of those chronicles  in the unlikely numbering both of the rebels and the royal troops in tens of thousands.

V.  Morris's Battle Scene and its Antecedents

Grennan WMMR notes (pp. 98-99) that there was no open armed opposition  to the insurgent peasants in Kent (or elsewhere) until after Wat Tyler had been killed, so that Morris's portrayal of the battle between the sheriff's force and the villagers is not only imaginary, but improbable. The government had no organised armed force available anywhere in South-Eastern England: see  [Pol. Narr. para 4]] (For reasons why lords and gentry in the counties did not attempt to resist the rebels on their own, see Hilton & Ashton, English Rising of 1381 (1981), pp. 196-99). Nevertheless Morris was not ready to omit an open fight, symbolising class struggle in a physical form, between the revolutionary  side and their reactionary opponents, such as he related with zest in the four longer of his last romances. Having decided to include such a combat, he probably turned for many of its details to two of the principal battles described by Froissart, beginning with Crècy in 1346: see Froissart,  tr.  Berners,  bk i, chaps. 128-31; Froissart,  tr. Johnes, chaps. 127-130, and ending with Poitiers in 1356: see Froissart, tr. Berners, bk. i, chaps. 160-64; Froissart, tr. Johnes, chaps. 161-63.

His choice of Crècy is probably the reason for his placing 'arbalests' used by crossbowmen, [[p. 46 para 2]], in the sheriff's array. Although English armies had included crossbowmen  in the 13th century, by the mid 14th century the longbow had become the national shot weapon, and crossbows  were probably only used in siege warfare. Many crossbowmen fighting in northern Europe, as Morris would have known from Froissart, were professional soldiers recruited from Genoa, practised in handling their complex weapons, operated mechanically: hence Morris calls them 'outland'. (It is doubtful whether a sheriff could have assembled as many as fifty such fighters in a hurry.) Morris thus begins the fight with an advance by the 'arbalestiers', as the Genoese crossbowmen, hired as mercenaries by the king of France, had been sent out to fire on the English defensive line at Crècy, only to find that their rate of fire was far slower than that of the English longbowmen using strength of arm, (l) (Froissart says that their arrows came as thick as snow), and better able to turn in flight. At Crècy the French knights trying to reach the English lines rode down, and even cut down, the fleeing Genoese who were in their way. Morris lets his crossbowmen off more lightly, with being belaboured  with spear-staves.

After the French attack began, Froissart's account of Crècy dissolves into anecdotes of individual valour, so Morris turns for the sequel to Poitiers, whose course he had already noted in the 1860s:  see his Life and Death of Jason, bk. xvii, lines 22-24. There, as in the Kentish village, the defending English army were arrayed on foot behind hedges with a narrow lane running back through them: see Froissart, tr. Berners, chap. 160. As there, Jack Straw has the hedges lined with archers, with billmen (2) replacing the men-at-arms of Poitiers. As at Poitiers also, the attacking force, though including fully armoured men, dismounts to attack: see Froissart, tr. Berners, chap. 160. (Poitiers was the first battle when the French knights had thus dismounted on a large scale; by the 1360s, as Froissart and other sources show, both English and French armoured men-at-arms regularly dismounted for battle, so their movement on foot may have been less cumbrous than Morris suggests [[p. 49 para 2]].)

The counter-attack ordered by Jack Straw, combined with flights of arrows against the attackers'  flank, resembles the charge led by the Black Prince against the French army coupled with a flank attack under the Captal de Buch (both on horseback), after their assault on the hedge had been repulsed. The end of the fight, with the villagers, though lightly protected, joining in hand-to-hand combat, is not implausible;  Morris may have recalled how at the battle of Auray in 1364: see Froissart, tr. Johnes, bk. i, chap. 227) the English archers, finding that their arrows made little impression on the well armoured French, threw down their bows and assailed the knights, sometimes wifh axes seized from them. (Similar accounts tell of the archers piling in at Poitiers and Agincourt: English Historical Document IV, 1327-1485, ed. A.R. Myers (1969), pp. 99, 213.) The different rate of casualties, 7 against over 40 on the losing side, is also plausible: it was when an army was in flight that its members were most likely to be killed.


(l) Morris may have exaggerated the killing range of the longbow as 300-500 yds. In Charles the Bold (exhibn. cat. ed. S. Marti & others (2009), pp. 322-23), it is estimated as 150-200 metres, only about 250 yds.

(2) Bills were a wooden 'staff  weapon'  terminated  with an axe-like metal blade, cut back into a sharp point, and so fitted both for thrusting and hewing. They were the predecessors of the ornamental halberds and partisans carried formally by royal guardsmen  in the 16th century and later, but being much simpler could probably be hammered out fairly easily by village smiths: cf. the 'bill-hooks' that Will Green has available to hand out as weapons in his house. [[ p. 12, last para]]

List of Abbreviations:

Letters The Collected Letters of William Morris, ed. N. Kelvin, 4 vols. (1984-96)

Works  The Collected Works of William Morris, ed. May Morris, 24 vols. (1910-15)

DNB Dictionary of National Biography

A Dream of John Ball, London: Reeves and Turner, 1888. First edition--accessible on this site through portal page. JB Citations are indicated by chapter and page no.

Dobson, Peasant's Revolt The Peasants' Revolt of 1381, ed. R. B. Dobson (1970); Dobson PR

Froissart, tr. Berners, John Froissart, Chronicles, tr. John, Lord Berners

Froissart, tr. Johnes, John Froissart, Chronicles, tr. T. Johnes, 2 vols. (1839)

Grennan, William Morris M. Grennan, William Morris, Medievalist and Revolutionary (1945, repr. 1970); Grennan WMMR

OED Oxford English Dictionary

William Morris on History, ed. N. Salmon (1996); WMH