You may have heard of Wat Tyler and the Peasants` Revolt of 1381, but it is unlikely that you will know the name John Ball and his connections to the uprising as he has all but disappeared from history.
Few facts are known about John Ball`s early life, with some historians claiming that he was born in Peldon, near Colchester, and other sources giving his birthplace as St Albans. His date of birth is equally vague, though is assumed to be some time between 1338 and 1340. Twenty years later he was said to be working as a priest in York, before moving to Norwich and then becoming the priest at St James` Church in Colchester.
It was during this period that Ball`s radical thinking first emerged. He believed that it was fundamentally wrong that some people in England were extremely rich, while the majority were very poor. His sermons criticizing the feudal system and the way the Church taxed people caused his local bishop to dismiss him in 1366, and he became a travelling preacher, giving sermons to anyone who would listen. Periods of imprisonment followed as Ball repeated his tirades against authority: “Why are those whom we call lords, masters over us?….At the beginning we were all created equal.”
At the same time England was going through a difficult period. Historians estimate that the Black Death caused the population to shrink by 30-50%, leaving fields unworked, food shortages and price rises. Wage levels were capped and many peasants left their feudal homes to find work in the cities. However, any that were caught were sent back to their villages and were severely punished, along with their families. Then in 1377 King Edward III introduced a Poll Tax of fourpence on everyone over the age of fourteen to help pay for the war against the French. This was still not enough and in 1380 a new tax of one shilling per head was proposed, and was seen as effectively a tax on the labouring classes as everyone paid the same, rich or poor.
John Ball had continued his preaching against these taxes and was imprisoned at Maidstone in April 1381. Villagers in Essex and Kent refused to pay their Poll Tax and began to join together under the leadership of Wat Tyler, a former soldier. Tyler marched to Maidstone and released Ball, who now became a figurehead of the revolt. Around 30,000 peasants set off for London to air their grievances with the new King, Richard II. At Blackheath Ball gave a sermon repeating his criticism of the way society was governed: “From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust servitude of naughty men….the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty”.
In June, 1381, as a group of rebels stormed the Tower of London, Richard II rode to Mile End to meet with other peasants, and initially agreed to many of their demands. At a further meeting at Smithfield Wat Tyler drew his dagger to avenge an insult from one of Richard`s courtiers but was overpowered and was fatally wounded in front of his followers. Richard came forward and spoke again to the rebels, eventually persuading them to return home peacefully.
With the Peasants` Revolt now effectively over government soldiers visited the villages of Essex and Kent, rounding up and executing the ringleaders. The King`s men were on the look out for John Ball and he was eventually caught in Coventry, before being taken to St Albans to stand trial in front of King Richard. In court Ball freely admitted to the charges against him and proudly confirmed his revolutionary faith. He was sentenced to death, offered the chance to repent and save his soul, but refused, and he was hung, drawn and quartered two days later on 15th July, 1381. John Ball`s head was stuck on a pike and displayed on London Bridge, while each part of his quartered body was put on show at four different towns.
The trial of John Ball was held in the Moot Hall in St Albans, and until recently it was believed that this was the building which is now occupied by W.H. Smith on the corner of Market Place and Upper Dagnall Street in St Albans. However, that building has now been dated to the late sixteenth century and further research shows that the Moot Hall actually stood on the site of the current Town Hall, situated just across the road. The original Moot Hall was demolished in 1832 to make way for a new Town Hall building and no traces are thought to remain. However, with the on-going redevelopment of the Georgian Grade II Listed Town Hall building to form the new St Albans Museum and Gallery who knows what the builders and archaeologists might find?
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This article is part of our Celebrating St Albans History series. You can view all our historical facts on our Celebrating St Albans History page.