The English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 has a continuously re-envisioned history. An event with the appeal of an extraordinary and dramatic social revolution cannot hide from interpretation and narration. The story was once solely reliant on a handful of narratives written by contemporary or near-contemporary writers, but since the 19th century historians have relied also on official records created at the time of the rebellion, which seemed to promise a less biased and more objective view. The textual sources themselves change over time.
This is an account of one archival source, a petition to King Richard II, which has been absent from history, trapped in the clutches of its custodial practices, and in the assumption of its non-existence. The petition provides one small but authentic view of the aims and demands behind the revolt. Since the revolutionaries of the 14th century largely spoke through their actions very little documentary evidence otherwise remains.
Clearly the attacks on local and royal power and the march into London that summer were a reaction to a poll tax, the agents of its collection, and dissatisfaction with the feudal relations between landlord and tenant. England was by this time a variously literate society, but not one where political differences would be articulated in a public sphere. Most of the population of course were not reading and writing, but by this time those who we would consider by our standards illiterate, were aware of documents and their power.1 Still, there are no surviving manifestos or like documents which communicate directly their motivations. It is many decades after the 1381 revolt that we first find surviving writings which articulate the demands of popular rebellion in England, Cade’s rebellion in 1450. [Dobson, 337]
The voice of the 1381 rebels has been provided by the enigmatic poems attributed to the renegade priest John Ball which were found on a rebel at his execution. These scraps of unknown provenance, transcribed into a 14th century chronicle, have been widely used as original sources for an understanding of the thinking at the root of the rebellion. The medieval chronicle accounts of the rising provide partial glimpses of the demands articulated by the participants, but these are muted second-hand reports, largely dismissive of the grievances held by the rebels. The subjects who arrived at London wishing to speak directly to the king have in these accounts been reduced to a monstrous mob. Limited though the chronicle narratives are, they do describe or imply acts of petitioning in the relation between crown and subjects. So the rebellion may have included the production of quite numerous documents, addressed to the king and articulating the grievances of the lower classes. Recently provided records created by the royal government at the time of the rebellion provide more substantial proof.
For the most part the surviving judicial records are court rolls created in the aftermath of the major events of the revolt, summarizing the proceedings against the rebels. But there is one record of a piece of writing by non-governmental participants. In a file kept by the Court of King’s Bench is a lower court record which contains a very brief but articulate petition:
We the commons beseech of the special grace of our Lord the King that no-one should pay annually for customary land more than 4d an acre or 2d for half an acre or a halfpenny for a rood, with or without buildings, for all services and demands, and also we beseech that if less was paid it should remain as it was before this time. We also beseech that no court should be held in any vill apart from the leet of the Lord King annually and for ever. And also we beseech that if any thief, traitor or malefactor against the peace be captured in any vill, that you will give us a law by which he will be chastised.2
This is an English translation from the court roll transcription in Latin of a document likely written in English. It was presented to a court, one of many specially commissioned to extinguish the rebellion, by a man named John Preston, who took responsibility for writing it. He must of had the support of at least some portion of his village community, judging by the content. It has the ring of being composed by committee. He was questioned by the court, he did not name names, he was executed. The petition’s concerns are communal but Preston was the one who suffered the consequence of its production.
Not much is known about Preston, but perhaps the petition itself can tell us something of its creator. Although it’s tone is respectful there are details of its composition which make it a very abnormal petition. Both its form and content reveal a displacement of the structure of government. Most petitions at this time were not written in English but in French, the language of the courts and political society. This is just one indication of its rebellious character. The traditional petition to the king was not written in the first person, as is Preston’s, but in the third person, a relic of the historically oral nature of supplication. [Ormrod, Murmer, 137] Take for instance the opening words of these three contemporary petitions, translated into modern English:
“To our lord the king and his wise parliament, the commons show and request that…” [Dobson, 72]
“To our lord the king and the council of parliament, the commons of the realm show that…” [Dobson, 76]
“To their very dear, honourable and rightful lord, the poor tenants of Bocking pray to your lordship for grace and remedy, that…” [Dobson, 78]
The first two examples are parliamentary, and come from the parliamentary Commons, the evolving body of lesser gentry representing the landholding interests of their shires and towns. The third is a rare survival presented to a manorial landlord. Although slight variations on the formulaic “Plese a nostre sieur le Roy …” are normal, Preston’s construction is entirely inappropriate. The appropriate formula is either deliberately rejected, which seems foolhardy, or simply outside the consciousness of the writer; whoever was responsible for its composition was so alienated from the centre of power that the more appropriate composition was unknown. Not that it would have saved his neck, but clearly Preston had little exposure to the ars notoria. The petition’s opening is in the form of a declaration. Rather than giving first place to the king, the missing inscription is replaced by an anti-formulaic, politically impossible, collective superscription of the commons.3
A construction like this would be quite familiar to someone who came to the court experienced as a jury member. The jury at this time was already an old institution, an important mechanism of local law and order, an integral part of manor courts, hundred courts, and royal inquisitions and eyres. It served a different function than it does today. Rather than asked to judge evidence, the role of the jury, under oath, was to present to the courts local crimes and accusations which it had knowledge of. The juries’ declarative presentments were then written into the official court roll.4 Preston’s petition sounds like the presentment of a local jury.
A rare surviving example from 1461 will illustrate. Attached to a parchment roll of the Peterborough Abbey leet court is a sheet of paper with the juries’ original English version of its presentments. It begins, a little grandly: “We all, the great inquest of oure soueryn lord kyng, present & conferme …”, going on to list a series of crimes and complaints. Half of what this jury brings to the attention of the abbot’s steward is left off of the resulting court roll. The steward of the manor simply filters out many of the concerns expressed by the local tenants. [Bateson, 526] The rhetoric of the document slips back and forth between accusation and supplication. They complain, pray and beseech, as well as present crimes and infractions. Our understanding of the origin of the petition supplied by Preston becomes a lot richer when it is compared to this later document, an accidental survival of an ancillary record created by the jury.
But its bold petitionary quality is also clear. It jumps straight into the articulation of remedies which are precise, and brief, without the baggage of argumentative exposition. The first request is a detailed elaboration of one of the demands made at Mile End recorded in the Anonimalle Chronicle. It would effectively remove the compulsory exaction by lords of labour duties from their customary tenants. The second request does not seem to be reported elsewhere in the same form. It implies the freedom of villagers from the judicial jurisdiction of their lord. The leet court Preston refers to was a manor court, but a jurisdiction provided by the crown based on the ancient self-government structure of tithing group and frankpledge. The last request sounds like the similar “cryptic demand of the rebels in Smithfield in London to remove all laws but the law of Winchester”. [Eiden, Social, 437] This has been interpreted “as an appeal to Edward I’s Statute of Winchester (1285) which assigned a greater responsibility in the keeping of law and order to local communities.” [Eiden, Social, 437] Clearly Preston’s petition backs up this interpretation.
Preston’s hybrid form, so close to the modern verdict form of “We the jury … find …” identifies Preston as likely to have served as a jury member, or active in a manorial or hundred court in some function. Its communal authorship seems very likely. In attending the commission’s court Preston was probably used to acting dangerously. As Christopher Dyer says in his discussion of the lordly control of tenants: “the seigneurial courts were somewhat ambiguous institutions, which depended on the participation of tenants who presented offenders, fixed penalties, and collected dues. These petty officials can be seen ideally as performing a mediating role, moderating the harshness of the lord’s rule, and making the regime more acceptable to their neighbors. In reality, especially in a period of heightened tension, the officials found themselves assailed on all sides.” [Dyer, 32]
Preston’s experiment should also be seen in the context of new relationships developing between Parliament and people. I doubt Preston and his community could have been unaware that their self-identification as the commons in a royally commissioned court was a provocative rejection of the claim by the parliamentary Commons to represent the commonality of England. Preston’s petition is written at a time when parliamentary procedures see developments in petitioning methods and forms. For instance, in the 1380’s it is not just members of parliament which deliver, sponsor or create petitions for king and council to consider, but the Commons itself is beginning to be petitioned. [Rayner, Forms, 213-14] Historians have wondered at the meaning of a oft-occurring phrase used by the rebels as reported by the chroniclers: their self-identification amongst each other as the “true commons” has largely been interpreted as the loyal commons. But this petition supports a less widely held opinion, that the popular belief in a “true commons” was a rejection of the parliamentary Commons’ claim to represent the people.
So, in the late summer of 1381, in the confusion of local and central court practices when the king is re-creating his authority in the countryside, duty becomes rebellion. We have written requests to the king, made in a traditional but inappropriate form, by a local representative who is isolated from the court idiom. The document was a sign of treason and treated as such. It was however caught in the flow of information between the crown and its agents: transcribed into an official record of the royally commissioned court to which Preston brought it. These records were then transferred to the superior court of King’s Bench and became part of its recorda file for that year.
These recorda files were where “the humdrum routine of business coram rege finds its due and appointed place … the normal writs of scire facias, jury and mainpernors panels, lists of pledges, original and judicial writs, letters patent and letters close, bills, inquisitions and presentments … including petitions to king and council.” [Davies, 153] The recorda file also contained the official roll of the inferior court’s proceedings. This particular file, with thousands of other records, was stored in the Westminster Abbey Chapter House, a repository for the Court of King’s Bench. Over hundred’s of years of official custody the structural integrity of this archive disintegrated. Files were broken apart, jumbled, sacked and re-sacked. Not until the 1930’s was a real effort made to arrange and describe the resulting mess. [Meekings, 112-122]
However, at that time this particular file along with a number of others was included in a series which hid its true provenance (PRO KB 136/5/29). The natural mess became an artificial one. It was not until the 1960’s and 70’s that archivist C.A.F. Meekings restored this and many other files to their appropriate series’:
“the Recorda was by nature a file of files, with many batches, each batch of from two to a dozen documents which made up the record and process of a case, secured together by left hand sewings in thread or twist. This sewing usually held if the main thong broke and spilled its contents. So archivists from the seventeenth to, alas, the twentieth centuries have used dated, county or court details in records and processes to sort them into quite an array of artificial collections, concealing all reference to their origin as documents from broken King’s Bench Recorda files.” [Meekings, 103]
After Meekings’ reconstruction it became both intellectually and physically available. (The reference of the file is now KB 145/3/6/1.)
The archival history explains how it is only in the last 40 years that the petition of Preston has been used by researchers, but to an amazingly limited extent. Andrew Prescott seems to be the first historian to recognize the value of this humdrum record, describing it in his 1984 study the Judicial Records of the Rising of 1381. In his later essay discussing the sources for the history of the rising he makes a plea on behalf of Preston’s “down-to-earth and common-sense” petition, pointing out its contrast to the only other, more enigmatic, writings of the rebels of 1381 to survive, the letters of John Ball. This late arrival is partly because it was stored in an sack for hundreds of years, but also because “it reflects the long-standing assumption that the literary history of the chroniclers is more important and worthy of preservation than filthy rat-eaten administrative records.” [Prescott, Writing About Rebellion, 15] Probably true, rat-eaten or not.
I think the Preston petition represents one example of many peasant led written petitions created at the time, ignored by the masters, unheard by the record-makers, unseen by the record-keepers. The chronicles all describe or imply a meeting in which the king was presented with written petitions at Mile End. This was where Richard ordered the production by his clerks of numerous charters of manumission, and when most of the crowd gathered there began to return to their homes. I think it is possible to re-imagine the communication of grievances to the king as less mob action, waving pitchforks and screaming for blood, and more bound by tradition and formality. And yet the crowd was also fed up with government procedure. At one point, in a lame attempt to disperse the crowd, Richard, speaking from the height of the Tower of London, assured the assembled that if they presented their grievances in writing, he would respond. Richard’s prevaricating appeal to procedure was rejected and provoked further violence. But perhaps the direction was taken at face value by many who hoped to transcend their immediate conditions and communicate directly to the boy king.
1. See From Memory to Written Record for a good general account of literacy at this time.
2. Prescott, Writing About Rebellion, 13-14. Prescott believes from internal evidence that the original petition was written in English. This is his translation from the original, which was published in 1995 by Herbert Eiden: “Nos communes petimus de speciali gracia domini Regis nostri ut qualibet acre terre native non solvat plus nisi quatuor denarios per annum et dimidum acre terre id et una roda terre id et dimidum roda terre obol’ si sit edificatus vel non pro omnibus serviciis et demandis ac eciam petimus quod minus solvebat quod modo stet in suo robore … Et eciam petimus quod non sit aliqua curia tenta in aliqua villa nisi leta domini Regis per annum in perpetuum. Et eciam petimus quod si sit aliquis latro vel tretor capta in aliqua villa vel malefactor contra pacem ut decernere nobis lex per quam posset castigari …” [original transcribed by Eiden, Herbert. “In der Knechtschaft werdet ihr verharren–” : Ursachen und Verlauf des englischen Bauernaufstandes von 1381. Trier : Verlag Trierer Historische Forschungen, 1995. p. 287 n. 145]
3. These are terms used in diplomatics, the study of the form of archival documents. See Duranti (p 12) or the InterPARES 2 Terminology Database
4. Baker, Chapter 5, “Jury and Pleading.”
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Prescott, Andrew. “Judicial Records of the Rising of 1381,” (Thesis) University of London, Bedford College, 1984.
Prescott, Andrew. “Writing about Rebellion: Using the Records of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.” History Workshop Journal 1998, no. 45 (1998): 1–28.
Rayner, Doris. “The Forms and Machinery of the ‘Commune Petition’ in the Fourteenth Century. Part I.” The English Historical Review 56, no. 222 (April 1, 1941): 198–233.