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1381: John Ball, radical priest

July 15th, 2016 Headsman

Radical priest John Ball was hanged, drawn, and quartered on this St. Swithin’s Day in 1381 for the edification of the 14-year-old king whom he had very nearly deposed.

The wandering “hedge priest” Ball emerged out of St. Albans in the heart of the calamitous fourteenth centry spitting class leveling to rapt audiences of aggrieved peasants. He paid the price with at least three stints in prison. In 1366, an edict forbade his would-be flock from hearing his seditious theology demanding clerical poverty and (so complained the Archbishop of Canterbury) “putting about scandals concerning our own person, and those of other prelates and clergy.”*

But there was a reason that Ball’s illicit sermons could command such attention, and ordering him to shut up was mere whistling past the graveyard.

Ravaged by war and plague and heavy-handed wage suppression, England’s seething 99% broke into rebellion in June 1381.

Wat Tyler’s rebellion was one of the most spectacular risings England ever saw, and one of the first acts of peasants marching on London was to liberate Ball from ecclesiastical custody in Maidstone.

Ball preached to his rescuers at Blackheath, coining his great egalitarian slogan-couplet, “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?”

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

They came breathtakingly close to accomplishing it.

For a few days that pregnant June the rebels controlled London, even putting to death the Archbishop of Canterbury and mounting his head on London Bridge — and Ball the “mad priest” stood in leadership alongside Wat Tyler and Jack Straw. Peasant rebellions are usually destined to end horribly; maybe this was one always was too, but it achieved very much more — terrifyingly much, to England’s ruling class — than previous other disturbances by the pitchfork crowd. By appearances, Wat Tyler and John Ball and the rest were within an ace of overturning England’s feudal hierarchy. Certainly they had the opportunity to slay young king Richard II, whose courage in command at this moment might have saved the crown to be taken from his descendants. During face-to-face negotiations between Richard and Wat Tyler himself, the rude peasant was murdered — and Richard acted smartly to bluff his villeins into marching away at a moment when they could easily have turned regicidal.

The beheaded movement was soon dislodged from London, and while promises of mercy (not always observed) did for the mass of rebels, those in its leadership could never hope for the same — least of all a career rabble-rouser. Ball was hunted down in hiding, and this time would be indulged no ecclesiastical detention: instead, his head replaced the Archbishop of Canterbury’s on London Bridge.

Wat Tyler’s name attaches to the rebellion, but for posterity it is the words of Ball, few as have survived for us, that describe its aims in something like its own voice.

Those words still make for a powerfully current critique in our own oligarchical age. When in 2015 a marker was unveiled commemorating the peasants’ rebellion, it was done on this anniversary of John Ball’s execution — and with a summons to equality he issued that has never yet been answered.

Things cannot go on well in England nor ever will until everything shall be in common. When there shall be neither Vassal nor Lord and all distinctions levelled.

* Ball’s radicalism also helped turn English elites against the religious reforms sought by John Wycliffe, who was still alive during the 1381 peasants’ rebellion.

** In the early 20th century, socialist priest Conrad Noel had a marker with the same words hung at Thaxted Parish Church, where it can still be seen today.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Treason

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One thought on “1381: John Ball, radical priest”

  1. JCF says:

    “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?”

    My mom used to tell me this one (but I didn’t know the origin). Memory eternal, Holy John Ball.

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