It is perhaps poignant that I am writing the blog about my arriving in Dartford back in March, following the aftermath of the London and England-wide riots in August, or perhaps in the lull in between them with the impending Notting Hill Carnival, as Dartford was the place that I first learned about The Peasant’s Revolt when I lived there back in 1992 – and there are perhaps some interesting parallels between the riots of then and now.
The Quiet Dartford High Street of the Modern Day
The Peasant’s Revolt was a time of civil unrest that occurred in the same time period when the pilgrimages to Canterbury were taking place that serve as the backdrop to The Canterbury Tales.
The evident link to the riots is through a pub in Dartford that is named after the leader of The Peasant’s Revolt, one Wat Tyler, and ceremoniously has a plaque on the side of it that refers to him.
The riots were against Richard II’s poll tax in 1381, which was levied to cover the costs of wars with France – much like how a significant proportion of taxes paid has presumably gone to fund costs of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places nowadays.
An interesting parallel between The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, and the riots that have “kicked off” now, is how the ones in the fourteenth century supposedly began as the result of a civil incident, much like the ones have done now with the police shooting Mark Duggan.
There probably is more of a clear-cut case of civil impropriety, however, with the cause of the riots back in 1381. The ones back then reputedly began as a result of how the daughter of John Tyler (who may or may not have been the same person as Wat Tyler) was indecently assaulted by a tax assessor when he aimed to prove that Tyler’s daughter was old enough for tax to be paid for her, but in an inappropriate way. Wat Tyler was alerted to this, from where he was working locally, by hearing (or hearing about) the screams of his wife and daughter. He, literally, then came back and beat the brains of the inspector out with a tiling hammer.
In a way, perhaps not unlike that depicted in the movie “Braveheart”, this vigilante act led to Wat Tyler somehow coming to lead the rebels (although there are many other accounts that list others who were perhaps just as active and righteous, but possibly with less cause?) – but it also led to a widespread rampage against civil authority that went from Essex and Kent to London, resulting in the killing of many officials as well as sacking of both Canterbury and Rochester, and even to the rebels taking The Tower of London. It only ended when the king agreed to meet the leaders of the revolt at Smithfield. outside the walls of the city. This was where Wat Tyler was murdered (by no less than the Lord Mayor of London himself) and the crowds were able to be dispersed in the ensuing confusion (presumably by soldiers, although some accounts I’ve now read say by the young 14 year old king himself).
Interestingly, Richard II did declare a general amnesty six months later, on 14 December 1381, for all those who had taken part in the revolt – by which time all ring-leaders had been rounded up and either hanged or imprisoned. The poll tax was also withdrawn, however in many cases peasants lost the rights they had won from the Lords of the Manor. These rights had been won since the time of the Black Death reduced the labour force available to the Lords, much as World War I and II did with available working population of healthy males in the twentieth century, and so the Lords had been compelled then to start paying peasants to work their land, as well as grant them plots or allotments of their own in a few cases in lieu of payment. However the labour shortage in the fourteenth century was still such that many peasants did manage to regain or retain their new-found rights to ownership and financial independence over subsequent years.
Now this is not necessarily the same background to the riots we have just had here in 2011, nor circumstances with how the protests against the shooting of Mark Duggan have led to the recent riots in Tottenham, Croydon and elsewhere around London, Birmingham as well as other cities in England – however there are interesting links when you start to look at the crisis that the country was in at the time back in 1380 – and why Richard II chose to levy a poll tax for covering the cost of wars, let alone other national debts, but was unsuccessful in doing so.
After all, the common person had just started to gain a taste for the opportunity to acquire little luxuries for themselves – and so had started to enjoy independence that they had never had before. Freedom, in other words….
So this poll tax would have been seen as a threat to those peasants who had only just been granted opportunity to acquire as well as work their own land from the Church or the Lords of The Manor – which is perhaps analogous to people nowadays being accepted for a place to live in a Council Estate if on the lowest wage level (or even benefits), or those being accepted for a mortgage to buy their own place who have become better off (and the latter, as I understand it, was only something worked out in only relatively recent times under Margaret Thatcher’s Government).
Then there were those who were now (in the fourteenth century) simply just being paid for their work on the Lord’s manor, as a result of The Black Death reducing the fourteenth century English labour force so drastically, but who still had little income yet to spare to pay any additional taxes for war-mongering. Certainly a poll tax wasn’t the answer back then for them, nor for the new class of tenant farmer or the increasingly successful tradespeople like Wat Tyler and others.
So much as it was the same with how a poll tax wasn’t acceptable in Margaret Thatcher’s time either – nor, in case David Cameron and George Osborne might naively be thinking about it now, in my view would it be here now, in current day, twenty first century Britain.
So another both corporate and socially friendly solution must be found for dealing with the mounting debt now before it topples any more businesses, as much as hurt any more citizens of the new, supposedly free world struggling to find their financial independence as well as freedom to choose the lifestyle they want through good honest hard work or smart professional and trade enterprises.
Whatever the economic and political parallels may be between now and then, the wars and riots of the fourteenth century were happening at the time that Geoffrey Chaucer was either making the pilgrimage to Canterbury, or writing The Canterbury Tales – and so perhaps the tales were as much written by him back then to highlight the need for morality, as well as provide parables that showed more practical consequences for what happens to those who choose to not have any morals (as some of the rioting peasants did in looting in much the same way then, as has been done today). Certainly they serve to show there are ways other than necessarily relying on vengance being meted out by either The Church or the State as could be expected to happen in those times, as well as actual as much as meta-physical consequences for any bad or negative behaviour or actions.
Still, it is probably even more poignant that The Canterbury Tales were written in the context of travellers telling tales when on a pilgrimage to see the remains of a saint who supposedly inspired them – when that saint himself was one murdered by king’s officials as a result of him resisting the king and then subsequently being canonised by The Pope, essentially for standing up to the king. But then that man was also made a saint (posthumously) by the Pope, like a King knights a lord, as much for validating Papal authority over the State as for self-righteous care for the common people or the common good – so who’s to say that either The Church or The State was right in how they sought to guide or control the common folk on their lands back then, any moreso than they are capable of doing so now under a constitutional monarchy which allows voters a right to choose a philosophical way, rather than a practical means, for how taxes drawn from their hard-earned income are spent.
Hopefully this year’s Notting Hill Carnival will still be a relatively happy and peaceful celebration of diversity as it has been for the past ten years or more, but also demonstrably show fairness of the modern day Civil and Central Government authorities in managing both freedom and security of the common people as well upholding freedoms of speech and expression as well as legitimate rights to protest.
Moreover, while we don’t have The Church to contend with any more in controlling individual rights and freedoms here in the UK (although some religions still endeavour to do that with their congregation), perhaps we can now start to hold on to a general, standard set of morals as well as belief in a greater good, rather than feel any need to descend into looting, muggings and other forms of anarchy at the first opportunity. If so, then something good will have arisen out of this latest state of civil unrest – and so remove one of the risks likely to return Britain back to being like a fourteenth century feudal state.