WHILE I was away they impatiently celebrated the six hundredth anniversary of the Peasants' Revolt in Britain. It makes a lovely turning point in history though it does not seem to have changed much.
It was led by a craftsman called Wat Tyler who was stabbed to death by the Lord Mayor of London in front of the King. Now, there's a death for you! Especially for a person of the common sort.
One of the heroes to come out of this primitive rebellion was a priest called John Ball. To commemorate him the Archbishop of Canterbury celebrated the Eucharist and the Labour Party canonised him.
He preached to the mob and he wrote a couplet which is about the fourth best remembered quotation in British History,
coming after Queen Victoria's, "We are not amused." And Nelson's, "Kiss me Hardy". -When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?"
He is recalled as an early Protestant, a prow-Socialist, a Christian who expressed the basic quality of all Christians before God, and a Catholic who protested against the temporal abuse of the Church.
One of the best magazines in Britain is The Spectator — even though it includes occasional and irrational attacks on the Catholic Church and its dignitaries which tend to be more mitre than offensive. But an admirable journalist and researcher, Richard West, wrote four articles on the revolt.
Now one does not expect a cross and hungry mob of unlettered medieval peasants to behave with the sensibility of a Mr Michael Foot or the charity of a Dr Barnado or the reasonableness of an Oxford professor of philosophy. They were bound to be rough and sweaty and given to enthusiasms that blew like catspaws of wind across water.
John Ball seems to have been a sour man even in this sour mob.
The mob, with his blessing, dragged the Archbishop of Canterbury. the then one, out of the chapel in the Tower of London where he had been at prayer and in refuge and cut off his head.
They had a splendid English time attacking foreigners and government officials. The second in command was Jack Straw.
There is a fine public house named "Jack Straw's Castle" on Hampstead Heath. He was hanged, drawn and quartered. Ball had been a prison several times. Later it was written of him "a chaplain of evil disposition named Sir John Balle, who advised them to get rid of all the lords, archbishops, bishops, abbots and priors as well as most of the monks and canons so there should be no bishops in England except for one archbishop, namely himself ... "He gets a passing reference of some horror in Chaucer, who was himself critical of the ecclesiastical Establishment.
Simon of Sudbury was a genuinely good man and is buried in Gothic Splendour next to the high altar at Canterbury. His head, however, is missing from his tomb.
Ball -was executed. He is a somewhat strange character to choose as a national hero, but then nations do not get the heroes they deserve, only the ones that they fashion in what they imagine to be their own image.
The King, Richard, who had one moment of glory when he personally faced the rebels, died as a prisoner of his nobles. It was a good period for architecture and the peasantry, thinned out by the Black Death, never had it so good. I cannot find anything good to write about Fr Ball.