Thursday, 23 November 2017

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 4 - "Now is the Time," by Melvyn Bragg

The Black Death, which swept through Europe between 1346 and 1353, was one of the most devastating epidemics in human history, killing between 30% and 60% of the continent's population. In crowded cities, such as London, the figure may well have been higher. The shortage of labour pushed wages up, both in the cities and in the countryside, and the attempts of governments, including that of King Edward III in England, to use legislation to keep wages low, and keep peasants tied to the land, unsurprisingly failed (unsurprising, that is, for anyone who has a modern understanding of economics). Of those who survived, many did well, taking over land that had belonged to their dead relatives (and, sometimes, land that had belonged to other people's dead relatives). Families in the countryside sent their sons to the cities, apprenticing them into trades that their own parents could never have afforded for them. The children of peasants became City goldsmiths and vintners: some of their grandchildren would become university-trained lawyers, working in the City whilst their wives managed their estates. 

When the young Richard II succeeded his grandfather, Edward III, as King, he inherited a kingdom in economic turmoil. Decades of war with France, brought to an abrupt curtailment by the pestilence that had scythed down thousands of fighting men on both sides, had left, in their wake, a mountain of debts. Richard's government responded by imposing poll taxes: four pence for everyone over fourteen years of age in 1377; three pence for everyone over the age of sixteen in 1379; an average of twelve pence per person in 1381, supposedly linked to the individual's ability to pay, but this qualification was often ignored. When high-handed royal officials attempted to collect the taxes by force, they met resistance, not, for the most part, from "peasants," but from literate community leaders and small-scale landowners, men cut from the same mould as Geoffrey Chaucer's Reeve and Franklin.

The "Peasants' Revolt" of 1381 is thus miss-named: its leaders were not peasants (even if their grandparents had been) but yeomen and artisans. The men of Kent, led by Walter ("Wat") Tyler (who probably was a tiler by trade), and the men of Essex, led by the priest, John Ball, converged at Rochester, and marched on London in June of that year, determined to gain redress from the King. They seem to have had at least some support from Londoners, who joined them in burning the palaces of the King's hated advisers. Xenophobia also played its part, the homes and workshops of Flemish weavers targeted by London apprentices.

The meeting of John Ball (mounted, at right) and Wat Tyler (in red, at left) at Rochester, from the Chroniques of John Froissart, 1470, British Library Royal MS 18E I f165 v (image is in the Public Domain).

Melvyn Bragg's novel, Now is the Time, follows the course of the revolt as the rebels march towards, and into London, and afterwards, as they are hunted down, and their leaders executed. It is a novel of multiple viewpoints, including those of Tyler and Ball, and that of the King's mother, Princess Joan.

"After Tyler and the men had gone to the Thames, John Ball stood on a mound sufficiently high above the crowd ... The priest's stillness brought a responding quiet among the massed congregation. The spot was some distance from the Corpus Christi Fair, which had begun in innocent gaiety as if nothing at all unusual was happening, He began: 'When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?' His words sang across the heath, reaching many of the gathered multitude. It was a couplet he had used before, a simple couplet easily remembered, Inside its simplicity was the promise of a new life. In those few words his congregation were back with the firstborn of God, in the Garden of Eden ... In their rebel state of hope, apprehension, hunger, longing and frustration, they were ready to be captured by the spell of this man. Then the words, repeated with all his strength, rang like the peals of a bell and they were taken up and chanted back to him by the eager thousands ... "

Richard II addressing a deputation of the rebels from a ship at Greenwich on 12th June, 1381, from the Chroniques of Jean Froissart, 1401-1500, Bibliotheque Nationale de France (image is in the Public Domain). 

"Tyler looked over to the city, smitten by its grandeur. It shimmered in the heat of the June day, he thought. It glowed, like, he imagined, the Holy City of Jerusalem. Such a Tower, so many steeples, such a number of boats on the snaking Thames, and the bridge across it crammed with workshops, merchants, taverns, butchers, bakeries ... Walter Tyler had told the rebels, 'This will be ours.' And John Ball, unmoved by the romance of the place that had captivated Tyler, had said, 'There is the city of all wickedness, which must be brought down."

The Chapel of the White Tower, where Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Robert Hales, Lord High Treasurer, two of Richard II's most detested advisers, were seized by the rebels on 14th June, 1381, and led to execution. Photo: Crux (licensed under CCA).

"Late on that hot June afternoon, on Corpus Christi Day, the Savoy Palace was to be erased. Fire and the axe were the chief weapons. Some of the rebels, once over the bridge, fed and plied with unaccustomed wine - peeled off down Fleet Street. They broke open the Fleet Prison. By now some of the most vicious gangs in London, those who had just escaped hanging, were reassembling and they saw heaven in the anarchy on the streets. Man of the people of London who were on the side of the rebellion had scores to settle and now was the time. Moneylenders could be threatened, grievances addressed, bad neighbours attacked. Robbery could seem like sympathy with the rebellion. The law began to crumble."

The meeting of Richard II with the rebels at Smithfield, on 15th June, 1381. On the left, the Lord Mayor of London, William Walworth slays Wat Tyler. On the right, the King leads the rebels towards Clerkenwell Priory, allowing Walworth to secure the gates of the City of London. British Library, Royal MS 18E i-ii, f.175 (image is in the Public Domain).

Saint John's Gate, Clerkenwell Priory, 1880. Photo: Henry Dixon, British Library (image is in the Public Domain).

The rebellion was suppressed, its leaders executed. Peasants, the King insisted, would remain peasants. Yet no more poll taxes were levied, and, for all the words of the King and his advisers, the age of Feudalism was over. The "True Commons of England," in whose name the rebellion had been undertaken, were coming into their own, whether in the City, the market towns, or the countryside.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. It doesn't appear to be available on Amazon.

  2. Amazon websites have been doing some odd things in the last week or two! It's certainly available on, and there appear to be "marketplace" copies (new and used) on

  3. Thanks, Mark. I'll take another look.