I bet more people know the name Wat Tyler and what he did than know anything significant about Richard II’s reign – despite the fact one was a King of England and one a lowly working man at a time when the commoners had little rights and no power.
I can also say confidently that more people have heard the famous phrase preached by John Ball –‘When Adam delved and Eve span/Who was then the gentleman?’ – than any sayings of the boy king. Yet the former was another low-born man who incurred the wrath of the Church in England so much that he was excommunicated at a time when everyone believed in heaven and hell.
These two men may have met bloody ends at the hands of the rich and powerful, but they earned their place in history as leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, which eventually saw an end to serfdom and a 600-year absence of any poll tax. Like Magna Carta before it, and the demands of the Chartists and Suffragettes hundreds of years later, people have a history of rebelling against the establishment.
That’s what happened in 2016: it was a year of the backlash against a political class in the UK who many people felt were self-serving and not governing in the best interests of the country as a whole.
And, rather like in 1381, the results of the people’s anger was initially ignored once the powerful felt they had taken back control of the reins.
In 2016 and since, the powerful are not the monarchy or the landed gentry, but members of the House of Commons and civil servants in Whitehall who, like Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury who secured so much of the peasants’ wrath, were caught completely off guard by the ferocity of the ‘little people’. He was so secure in his life of luxury and privilege he had lost touch with the lives of ordinary people.
As we saw at the weekend, our political classes still believe they know best and they can ignore the wishes of the people they purport to represent – and who pay their wages. As they gathered in Westminster on a Saturday, full of self-pity for having to work at the weekend, they had the chance to show that they had learned the lessons of the last two and a half years by voting for a deal which would at least start the process of Brexit. After the recent weeks of court cases, blocked general elections and every political lever being pulled to stop the democratic wish of the people making its way onto the statute book, they decided once again to ignore the clamour of the crowds calling for fairness and justice – and voted for more delays.
The peasants in 1381 were incited into action by a poll tax of 4 pence for every person in the country aged over 15, regardless of income, which was needed to fund the disastrous fighting in France. They were furious that their leaders, the same group who had legislated to stop wages rising after the Black Death when there was a huge increase in demand for labourers to work the land, could expect the villeins to pay exactly the same amount as the Lord of the Manor.
The response to the revolt in the month of June so many years ago was for a leader to promise to deliver what the people had demanded, and then to renege.
Just as we saw over 80 per cent of MPs elected in 2017 on manifestos committing to deliver on Brexit, Richard II and his council wrote charters for the rebels, granting an end to serfdom – which were then ignored.
Just as we had a Prime Minister who said she would deliver on Brexit and then came back with a Treaty which was worse than remaining an EU member, they had a King who said he had their interests at heart, who then exacted bloody revenge on participants to whom he had promised mercy.
We are of course past the times when angry, baying mobs break into castles, free prisoners and drag ministers to Cheapside to be summarily beheaded. But it seems we have not progressed to a system of government where those in power listen to the people.
And whilst we may not nail mitres to decapitated heads and parade them around the City of London, the mood in the country is one of anger – anger that it is a minority of better-off citizens rather than the lowly masses whose opinions and wishes seem to matter; the view from the commons is that they are not represented by those in the House of Commons.
And so, having entered another week of politics in Westminster, where the Prime Minister will try to get his deal passed and where Labour will presumably table an amendment for a second referendum, do we dare to hope that they have listened to the uproar in the country? Or are we to assume that they will, like Richard and his councillors, ignore the uprising of the people and carry on as they wish?
Back in the 1980s it was an advisor called Oliver Letwin who almost single-handedly championed the hated poll tax, which provoked an angry backlash up and down the country.
In 2019 it was the same Letwin, now Sir Oliver, who once again had his fingerprints all over policy designed to appeal to the powerful at the expense of the public.
It seems George Santayana was right: those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
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