Upon becoming leader of the rebels, Wat Tyler’s first act was to storm Maidstone Prison and release a preacher known as John Ball. We know far more about Ball than his liberator, and it is no surprise that Tyler acted so decisively on his behalf. Ball was born in the abbey town of St Albans, Hertfordshire, and had a reputation spanning two decades for rabble-rousing and heresy. His inspirational speeches and sermons were the perfect counterpart to Tyler’s actions and strategies, raising the rebels to fever pitch with litanies of aristocratic corruption and evil so that they followed Tyler’s instructions.
Ball’s sermons, usually preached in churchyards and other public places rather than in churches, railed against the corruption of the ecclesiastical establishment, the staggering inequalities in 14th-century society, and the brutal excesses of the upper classes against the powerless and impoverished. His radical views had brought him to the attention of Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who excommunicated and imprisoned him, and in 1366 it was even made illegal for anyone to hear Ball preach. This adversity, however, simply served to make Ball even more of a maverick in thought, and he simply developed a thoroughly revolutionary ideology.
Essentially, by 1381 Ball had decided that all forms of lordship had to end, including both church and lay society. The strict hierarchy of medieval England which such views challenged relied upon lordship by ownership of land, and was seen as a divine imitation of the orders of angels and saints in heaven. Opposing the system, therefore, was not merely treasonous but heretical. Most dangerous of all, in June 1381, Ball was not merely a revolutionary (and incredibly modern) thinker but a gifted orator, who had the nous vigorously to communicate his message to an already fired-up group of rebels.
Some of Ball’s letters and sermons have survived in chronicles, most famously the speech he gave to the rebels at Blackheath recorded by Froissart: ‘when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men… And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty’. Ball was way ahead of his time.
Although such words were effective in inspiring the rebels, it would be a mistake to say that Ball’s beliefs were shared by all. In fact, the demands of the rebellion were mostly conservative, and did not call for an end to lordship entirely, only for the corrupt and cruel to be removed and punished. Many of the demands, as we shall later see in detail, were realistic, and just asked for a fairer deal for everyone and a protection of the rights to free labour, with an end to the legally-enforced serfdom that came in after the Black Death.