Co-editors: Seán Mac Mathúna • John Heathcote
Consulting editor: Themistocles Hoetis
Field Correspondent: Allen Hougland


The 1381 Poll Tax rebellion
Seán Mac Mathúna

Deptford Bridge - Read more about the history connected with this site:

John Ball and the Peasants' Revolt

Jack Cade and the Kentish Revolt of 1450

An Gof and the Cornish rebels in Deptford, 1497


When Adam delved and Eve span Who was then the gentleman?
When Adam delved and Eve span, Spur if thou wilt speed,
Where was then the pride of man that now mars his meed?


My Good Citizens: Things will never go well in England - no shall they ever - until all things be held in common, and the lords are no greater masters than ourselves - John Ball, one of the leaders of the 1381 revolt (along with Wat Tyler, above), who was executed in 1381
See also Medieval Source book: Anonimalle Chronicle: English Peasants' Revolt 1381

The bridge over the River Ravensbourne at Deptford bridge has seen three major rebellions pass over it: The first of which was the Poll tax revolt in 1381, when Wat Tyler, the radical priest John Ball and Jack Straw led 60,000 of people down from Blackheath Hill across the bridge at Deptford Broadway and up the Old Kent Road into London in 1381.13 Ball is described by Christopher Hampton in A Radical Reader as a "poor priest", who was preaching "his revolutionary creed of equality" for at least 25 years before the rebellion in 1381. In 1366, for example, he was brought before Archbishop Langham of Canterbury and forbidden to preach; that in 1376, an order was made for his arrest as an excommunicated priest, and that he was imprisoned several times. At the time of the uprising in 1381, he was in prison in Maidstone, Kent. He was one of the earliest liberation theologians, advocating justice for the poor. At this time, the people of England were nothing more than serfs bonded to the land. The Poor Laws at the time were noted for their harshness as they divided the people into "study beggars" and the "undeserving poor". This was the time of Norman feudalism when England was little than a theocracy ruled by Kings who believed they ruled by divine right of God. One of John Ball's sermons was recorded in Froissart, Chronicles 1, pp640-641, which is reproduced in A Radical Reader:

The killing of Wat Tyler - court version


There was a custom in England, still kept in divers countries, that the noblemen hath great licence over the commons, and keepeth them in bondage: that. is to say, their tenants were forced to labour the lord's lands, to gather and bring home their corn, some to thresh and to fan and . . . to make their hay, and to hew their wood and bring it home; all these things they owe as services. And there are more of these people in England than in any other realm: thus the noblemen and prelates are served by them, and especially in the county of Brendpest [Kent and Essex], Sussetter [Sussex], and Bedford. These unhappy people from the above countries began to stir against their masters, because they said they were kept in great bondage. And at the beginning of the world, they said, there were no bondmen. Therefore they maintained that no one ought to be bound unless he had committed treason, as Lucifer did against God. But they said they had done no such thing, for they were neither angels nor spirits, but men formed in the likeness of their lords, and asked why they should be so kept under like beasts, which they said they would no longer suffer, but would all be equal; and if they laboured or did anything for their lords, they would have wages for it. And of this opinion was a foolish priest in the county of Kent, called John Ball, who for his rash words had been three times in the Bishop of Canterbury's prison. For this priest used often on Sundays after mass, when the people were coming out of the church, to go into the cloister and preach, and assembling the people about him, would say this:

'My good people, things cannot go well in England, nor ever shall, till everything be made common, and there are neither villeins nor gentlemen, but we shall all be united together, and the lords shall be no greater masters than ourselves. What have we deserved that we should be kept thus enslaved? We are all descended from one father and mother, Adam and Eve. What reasons can they give to show that they are greater lords than we, save by making us toil and labour, so that they can spend? They are clothed in velvet and soft leather furred with ermine, while we wear coarse cloth; they have their wines, spices and good bread, while we have the drawings of the chaff, and drink water. They have handsome houses and manors, and we the pain and travail, the rain and wind, in the fields. And it is from our labour that they get the means to maintain their estates. We are called their slaves, and ;f we do not serve them readily, we are beaten. And we have no sovereign to whom we may complain, or who will hear us, or do us justice. Let us go to the King, he is young, and tell him of our slavery; and tell him we shall have it otherwise, or else we will provide a remedy ourselves. And if we go together, all manner of people that are now in bondage will follow us, with the intent to be made free. And when the King sees us, we shall have some remedy, either by justice or otherwise.'

Thus John Ball said on Sundays, when the people issued out of the churches in the villages. For which many of the common people loved him, and such as intended no good said how he told the truth. And so they. would murmur to each other in the fields and in the roadways, as they came together, affirming the truth that John Ball spoke . . . Of his words and deeds there were much people in London informed, such as had great envy of them that were rich and such as were noble: and then they began to speak among them and said: 'How England was right evil governed and how that gold and silver was taken from them by them that were named noblemen.' So these unhappy men of London began to rebel and assembled together, and sent word to the foresaid countries that they should come to London and bring their people with them, promising them how they should find London open to receive them, and the commons of the city to be of the same accord, saying how they would do so much to the King, that there should not be one bondman in all England.

The rebels had first gathered on around the mound and ancient assembly point known today as Whitefield's Mount. This used to be called Wat Tyler's Mound, as this was the place where he and other revolutionary leaders gathered to speak to the assembled protesters. As Blackheath Common had been used for Church revivalist meetings in the 18th century by both Wesley and Whitefield, it was decided to rename the mound after him.14 Gale speculates that the Wat Tyler's Mound may have been in remote antiquity a prehistoric Gorsedd (Great Seat). As with similar sites in London (such as Kennington Common and Parliament Hill), people had the right to hold public meetings.

Presumably, it was here that other revolutionaries such as Jack Cade and the Cornish rebel Michael Joseph also spoke. According to Christopher Hampton writing in A Radical Reader: The Struggle for Change in England 1381&endash;1914, Tyler had demanded at Smithfield:

That there should be only one bishop in England and only one prelate, and all the lands and tenements now held by them should be confiscated, and divided among the commons, only reserving for them a reasonable sustenance. And he demanded that there should be no more villeins in England, and no serfdom or villeinage, but that all men should be free and of one condition . . .(Anonimalle Chronicle)

After marching up to London and executing the Prime Minister (the Archbishop of Canterbury) and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the rebels marched on the Strand and burnt down the Savoy - not before throwing out the Poll Tax records into the street and burning them.

However, Tyler was later stabbed during a meeting with the King by William Walworth, and later dragged to Smithfield's and executed. Soon afterwards, Ball and Straw were also executed, and hundreds more are believed to have been executed in the aftermath of the rebellion. Ball's last words were:

Fellow-citizens, whom now a scant liberty has relieved from long oppression, stand firm while you may, and fear nothing for my punishment, since I would die in the cause of the liberty we have won, if it is now my fate to die, thinking myself happy to be able to finish my life by such a martyrdom.

After the rebellion was over, the rebels were told:

Oh miserable men, hateful both to land and sea, unworthy even to live, you ask to be put on an equality with your lords! You should certainly have been punished with the vilest death, if we had not determined to observe the things which had been decreed towards your messengers. But because you have come in the character of messengers you shall not die at once, but shall enjoy your life that you may truly announce our answer to your fellows.

Take back then this answer from the king: Serfs you were and serfs you are; you shall remain in bondage, not such as you have hitherto been subject to, but incomparably viler. For so long as we live and rule by God's grace over this kingdom we shall use our sense, our strength and our property so to teach you, that your slavery may be an example to posterity, and that those who live now and hereafter, who may be like you, may always have before their eyes and as it were in a glass, your misery and reasons for cursing you, and the fear of doing things like those which you have done.


Picture by David Somerset, 1997

Wat Tyler is only remembered by Wat Tyler Road on Blackheath Common (see above). Walworth, however, had part of London named after him - Walworth in South London. The knife that stabbed him is presently in the Masonic Fishmongers Hall near Southwark Bridge in the City of London.

Another of Deptford's famous revolutionaries was Thomas Whyche, the parish priest who was burnt at the stake in 1362 for being a Lollard - these were priests whose only crime was often that they had translated the Bible into common English. He is remembered in a plaque in Deptford Church.

The struggle for democracy in Britain began with Wat Tyler's revolt in 1381 - it would take almost 500 years for the people to gain the right to vote - a process which begun in 1832 and was only completed in 1928 when - thanks to the collective efforts of the Chartists and the Suffragettes - when women and men were fully franchised. However, despite centuries of struggle, Britain is still without an elected head of state, a written constitution or a proper Bill of Rights.

© 1998