I have just seen the first of Melvyn Bragg’s documentaries in a two part series called “Radical Lives”. This was about John Ball, a radical priest in England who in 1381 supported the Peasants Revolt. The documentary does a fine job in describing the feudal economic and racist oppression by the scions of the Norman invasion. The original poll tax was levied at this time and the reaction from the peasantry was swift and violent. They rose up and marched on London, sacked the Tower of London and executed several leading government officials. Many of the ideas were, and remain revolutionary based on ideas of universal human rights.
The revolution was, of course suppressed, although equally obviously it returned, although much more rapidly then they might have expected. In 1450, (only seventy years later) John Cade led another bloody uprising from Kent, with if not the same demands, the same causes. It’s not a period of history I have studied much, and also not well represented in the People’s Museum which I recently visited. I am more familiar, although not enough, with the continuing story, when 200 years later as the English Civil War came to an end and those that had paid for the victory in blood and money considered if the proposed new political settlements warranted the cost. The movement is remembered as the Levellers, and it would seem that their main press organ was called “The Moderate”. The use of pamphlets and the press was a new form of politics as reading and writing became mass skills, the effective monopoly on writing withered and the censorship laws became less effective. The Levellers and their fellow travellers were also put down, this time by Cromwell’s Army even though the ideas of Levellers were popular within it; but despite the counter revolution and the military dictatorship, Parliamentary supremacy had won. Another major step, arguably the first towards the rule of law had been taken.
Bragg’s second documentary is about Thomas Paine, an Englishman who played a major part in developing some of the ideas on which the American and French Revolutions were based. His contribution to the American Revolution is such that he is generally considered a founding father, and he served as a National Assembly representative during the French Revolution. Paine was born in England. It these two struggles that the progressed the idea of the rule of, and equality before the law. It cintinued in the US through to the US Civil War and beyond.
The bloody path of anglophone liberty, with a bit of help from the French is much longer than I thought and littered with the bodies of brave, clever and generous men.
Pikes by Mark Coates @flickr (C) All Rights Reserved; permission granted. A Sealed Knot re-enactment.
<rant>These are no longer available on iplayer for regulatory reasons, but I have found a youtube copy, wnder hwo long that’ll be there.</rant>