119 When Adam delved and Eve Span…

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?


119 When Adam Delved and Eve Span

The Great Revolt, 1381

John BallThe 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 II meets rebels at BlackheathThe rebels had a code – they were the true commons, not those who called themselves the commons in Parliament. And Richard, the king, would save them from servitude. 

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. 

14 thoughts on “119 When Adam delved and Eve Span…

  1. Finally, some rebellious spirit. As an American I do enjoy hearing of those snobby aristocrats getting a good kicking. Keep up the good work.

    1. You’re not an American. You’re a citizen of the USA which is not the same as America. I don’t know what you mean by ‘finally’ as this happened in 1381. And if you’re interested in freedom pay attention to your President Trump and the Electoral College set up to protect white slave owners

  2. Only recently discovered you, and so am “only” up to Episode 50. Just wanted to say I enjoy it immensely, and was subsequently inspired to read Asbridge’s history of the Crusades. It’s a great read. Why does any one need Game of Thrones when the history of Outremer is so rife with battle, intrigue, and drama?
    Take care.

  3. Yay! It’s taken some time, hasn’t it? And Josh, yes, you are absolutely right – the story of Outremer is just remarkable. Just got given a new book myself on the Crusades, which gives me a difficult dilemna; for 3 years I have read NO BOOKS not related to a future podcast. Slightly scary. So can I afford to read a book about a period I have already passed?

  4. I know it’s been 4 years and I’m behind but I need to thank you for this episode – whilst picketing outside Oxford’s Exam School for the current pension dispute, I spotted a sign with the glorious John Ball quote. Having listened to this podcast and the next, I could strike a reasonably informed conversation with the sign-holder which earned me about 1000 Humanities points (being a science person myself) and a truly uncountable number of Proper Revolutionary points.

    1. It’s an immortal line! There must be some equivalent scientific equation you could use in response? I could do with a few science point myself…!

      1. Not sure if it would count for science points, but it turns out that immunologists are easily horrified if you suggest that a continent-wide pandemic that wipes out one third of the workforce may strengthen our bargaining position.

  5. Sir
    Only yesterday I found I’ve been listening to you at 1.25 x normal speed which was making you sound like one too many coffees. Does make the history rollick along though.
    I’m only at this episode so you may cover this later, but can you explain the money? We have silver coins and pennies but also pounds and marks – why was there a unit called a mark and was there a mark coin? And now groats; same questions. When and how do we get to good old pounds shillings and pence?
    Thanks and keep up the good work.

    1. Hi Martin, and I cannot imagine how anyone could cope with listening to me at 1.25 speed – i’m constantly told to slow down as it is!
      Pounds shillings and pence were in operation possibly from the time of Offa, though I could be wrong, based on a Roman system. In terms of coins though; pounds and marks (2/3rds of a pound) were accounting measures only, since a pound or a mark would have been far too much value for a coin. So penny is the main unit for coins, and other demoninations turn up at various times; the groat (4d) appears under Edward I I think.. A bit chaotic!

  6. ‘All things bright and beautiful’ must’ve driven Engels into a fit as he passed by church windows.

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