On a hill outside Blackheath, just to the south of London, a hedge priest called John Ball is preaching to a massive crowd of peasants. When Adam delved and Eve span, he asked, who was then the Gentleman? What a great question. So why are there thousands of peasants sitting on a hill outside London?
The Great Revolt, 1381
The Peasants Revolt, or Great Revolt, probably had many causes, large and small; but two stand out. The first go back to the Black Death, and impact that had on England's social fabric – a dearth of unskilled labour that gave much greater economic power to the peasants. And yet in many areas the social elite, including Edward III, used their poer to repress and block that changes as much as they could. The Peasants Revolt was at least partly a symptom of those social and economic changes. The other was simple – an unfair and over exacting Poll Tax, 3 groats per person, with no allowance made for the poor.
In May 1381, the whole thing started with the refusal of the villagers of Fobbing to accept the Poll Tax. From there it spread through Essex and Kent, until two leaders emerged – Wat Tyler and John Ball. John Ball was a social and religious revolutionary. Like many social and religious revolutionaries, it's unlikely his tory is going to have a good ending. But he popularised an immortal couplet:
When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman?
By 'eck, that packs a punch. And in 1381 on a hill at Blackheath, it roused a crowd of peasants 10,000 or more strong as they waited for the king, 14 year old Richard II, to meet them.
Blackheath, 13th June 1381
Richard came to meet the rebels. He had no choice – all the military strength of the nation was all over the place – John of Gaunt in Scotland, Thomas of Woodstock in France, Edmund of Langley at Plymouth. But the rebels demands were hideous – Archbishop Sudbury, Treasurer Robert Hales, John of Gaunt – they were traitors and must be executed, before all the English peasants were freed.
The showdown at London Bridge
Richard couldn't accept – and turned his barge around and returned to the Tower. The rebels were enraged – and swept into Southwark, sacked the place, then marched onto London Bridge to get access to London. The Mayor of London, William Walworth, and his militia was all that stood in the way.