Can We See Parallels Between the Peasant’s Revolt and the Covid-19 Pandemic?

Dan Dodman

4 mins

14 Jul 2020

The word “unprecedented” has become commonplace in conversations about the City during the Coronavirus crisis.

Even the wisest and oldest heads in the firms and businesses that make up the Square Mile are struggling to think of a time when the normally busy streets have been so completely abandoned. Their usual inhabitants are instead crouched over kitchen tables or sat in home offices balancing children in one hand and conference calls in the other.

The City is not entirely empty. Curious tourists still wander around accompanied by bikes, a lot of bikes, which appear to have taken over as the primary way of getting around. Some areas still seem like a normal city – albeit one having an off-day – but as you reach the deepest darkest part of the Square Mile things change very quickly. The normally busy offices and sandwich bars feel abandoned.

Many people will question whether the way we did business six short months ago can ever really return. The City has, however, survived tumultuous periods – emerging different but not diminished – many times.

My daily exercise last week was not spent on the rowing machine, but instead dragging my old 1957 film camera around the empty streets of London considering some of its more unusual historical landmarks.(Credit: Own Work).

Smithfield Market and the Peasants’ Revolt

Central London’s trade came under threat on 13 June 1381, in the fields outside the City walls, the Smith Fields.

A significant section of the population, frustrated at a social system that was actively prejudiced against them, broke into London and began running amok.

The reasons for the Peasants’ Revolt are multifaceted. They range from the socio-economic impacts of one of the worst global pandemics in history (the Black Death killed an estimated 50 percent of England’s population) to war, over taxation, perceived government mismanagement of various crises, and frustration at the system of serfdom that kept those subjected to it in poverty.

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The rebels had lists of people they wanted fourteen-year-old King Richard II to hand over for execution. They wandered the streets looking to enact vengeance where they could. Clerkenwell Priory was destroyed. Temple was attacked and its contents burned.

Most audaciously, the rebels waited until the King had left to negotiate with their leaders at Mile End before entering the Tower of London. There they found key members of the King’s entourage, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and the treasurer, and beheaded them.

Smithfield Market (Credit: Own Work).

By this point, the King had agreed to many of the rebels’ demands and was disappointed that they had refused to disperse. He met the rebels and their leader, Wat Tyler, outside of the City walls, at Smithfield, to protest at the fact they were still plaguing the City.

The exact details of the events here are somewhat patchy but it seems that Tyler was over familiar with the King. He asked for water and then (in what always seems a somewhat incredibly bullish move):

“rinsed his mouth in a very rude and disgusting fashion before the King’s face”.

There was a scuffle and the Lord Mayor of London stabbed Tyler before another of the King’s servants joined in on the act. Tyler was severally injured but, in the general commotion, ended up in a hospital for the poor before being dragged back to Smithfield and beheaded.

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The King remarkably managed to defuse the situation and persuade the rebels to disperse. Without their leader, the movement quickly fell apart. King Richard then quickly clamped down on the rising, reversed his promises and rounded up and executed the key leaders of the revolt.

The historiography of the revolt is particularly rich. Some claim that it was a proto-Marxist movement. Others have suggested that it had lasting significance in changing the practice of serfdom and more still have stated that it did very little indeed.

Whatever the historical truth, it is still remembered in the small square in front of St Barts. A plaque there features a particularly poignant quote from John Ball, a priest in the leadership of the rising who would later be hung, drawn and quartered in front of the King:

“Things cannot go on well in England, nor ever will, until everything shall be in common when there shall neither be vassal or Lord and all distinctions levelled.”

Plaque commemorating the Revolt at St Barts (Credit: Own Work).

The parallels between this event and our current time are so obvious that it’s almost trite to draw them. A major biological catastrophe changing our daily lives, government advisers that spend more time in castles than serving the people and an important part of our society so disenfranchised by the establishment that they seek to topple pillars that maintain the social order.

Some things do not change, although perhaps they ought to.

Regardless, the City has endured, despite the bloodshed of those few days in June. It was eerie to stand in the middle of the normally bustling Smithfield area with only the shadows of the past for company.

Dan Dodman is a partner in Goodman Derrick’s commerical litigation team where he specialises in civil fraud and shareholder disputes. When not working, Dan has spent most of lockdown being taught about dinosaurs by his son and tinkering with his (growing) collection of film cameras.