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‘Kill all the Gentlemen’—tales of rural revolts

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In his new history of countryside struggles in England, Martin Empson shows how ordinary people have always fought for their rights—and what’s needed for them to win
Issue 2603
An illustration of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt

An illustration of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt

Why write a book about rural struggles now?

Britain is a highly urban, industrialised society so it might seem strange to write about class struggle in the countryside.

But it is important for two main reasons. Firstly many of these struggles are part of our forgotten history—how ordinary men and women fought to protect their rights and improve their lives.

Secondly, the destruction of the commons, land enclosure and the transformation of agriculture into a food system run for profit was resisted at every stage.

Those struggles helped shape today’s world.


It often seems that countryside revolts have great potential, but rarely reach it. What were the barriers to winning real change?

That’s absolutely true. Many of the revolts I write about involved tens of thousands of people. During the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, famously led by Wat Tyler, John Ball and Jack Straw, 50,000 rebels stormed London.

There, together with the capital’s poor, they destroyed symbols of their oppression. They forced King Richard to meet them and grant huge concessions.

But the rebels had illusions in the monarch, symbolised by their oath of allegiance to “King Richard and the true Commons”. They allowed him to regroup his forces and destroy them.

Similar events took place in the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace, when Henry VIII faced a mass rebellion in the north of England.

The state was prepared to use enormous force to defeat the peasantry, yet they looked to the good nature of the king, or local gentry.

To end the appalling oppression and exploitation of the peasantry meant transforming social relations—the destruction of the lords, the gentry and the rich.

The ruling class would not let that happen. And few among the poorest could conceive of things being radically different, so they tended to limit their demands.


How important was religion to the struggles?

Religion was fundamental to how people understood the world. The radical priest John Ball encouraged rebellion using speeches inspired by the Bible.

He helped make famous the phrase, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?” This took the language of the Bible as used by the local priests and made it into a revolutionary critique of society.

Martin Luther and peasants rebellion
Martin Luther and peasants’ rebellion
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Later struggles were often led by religious radicals.

Most of the Tolpuddle Martyrs were Methodists, as was Joseph Arch, who helped set up the first mass rural trade unions and led the “Revolt of the Fields”.

Methodists were used to questioning the world as well as to public speaking, so they were ideal organisers.

Some rebellions were sparked directly by religious changes. In the 16th century, Henry VIII began the English Reformation.

His changes transformed religious practice—including new prayer books, the removal of statues from churches and the dissolution of monasteries.

Ordinary people saw this as a direct assault on their beliefs and their lives.

The money and labour they had donated to the church were taken by the Crown. More importantly they were told their religious identity was blasphemous and the institutions they relied on were taken away.

Sometimes they rebelled to defend their church and their communities.


Your book refers to some protests that specifically involved women. Were women involved in general revolts and uprisings too?

Events like the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt or Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450 were mass affairs involving whole communities.

But the role of women is sometimes hard to see in the historical record.

Despite the tens of thousands who took part in 1381, for instance, we only know of two named women—Katherine Gamen and Margaret Wrighte. They helped catch John De Cavendish, the Crown’s hated representative in Suffolk.

In some later struggles women are much more prominently recorded. The historians JL and Barbara Hammond called 1795 the year of the “revolt of the housewives”. Huge numbers of food riots took place, often initiated and led by women.

Women were at the forefront of protesting against the way that capitalism was transforming food production.

In 1800 in Wolverhampton a crowd of women rolled a dairyman in a ditch after smearing him all over in his butter. They were outraged at the price he was charging.

As capitalist agriculture developed, both men and women were employed but women were increasingly sidelined, except for certain roles.

So the great agricultural trade unions were entirely male, but women were part of strikes.


What about more recent rural organisation?

Early rural workers tended to resist on a local level.

The Swing Revolt that swept England in 1830 saw labourers respond to the threat of unemployment caused by the introduction of machinery.

As each group rose, they inspired others. They won some real improvements, but hundreds were imprisoned and deported, and some hanged. Now they are usually forgotten.

Today the British Labour movement celebrates the Tolpuddle Martyrs annually. This group of men formed a trade union in Dorset in 1834 and were deported to Australia. A massive solidarity campaign by the whole labour movement ensured they were eventually returned.

After Tolpuddle the rural union movement declined until the 1870s, when there was a huge explosion of trade unions and mass strikes.

These waves of strikes were initially very successful, but an offensive by the bosses stopped the workers.

In the early 1880s English agriculture was competing with cheap imports from Russia and the US, which undermined trade unionism and put large numbers on the dole. These strikes were inspirational, and at their height saw alliances with urban workers that created very powerful movements.

But they were often limited by union leaders who saw change as coming through parliament, not mass movements.


What are some of the lasting legacies of the struggles in the countryside?

Making a Marx on history—celebrating 200 years since Karl Marxs birth
Celebrating 200 years since Karl Marx’s birth
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Karl Marx wrote about how capitalism developed through a process of “primitive accumulation”. In the countryside this meant the enclosure of common land and the displacement of millions of people into urban areas.

Those who remained were no longer peasants but workers.

In Britain this meant our agriculture became shaped by capitalist interests very early on. Local food culture was undermined and farming became dominated by big business.

This is in part why agriculture in Britain employs so few people, is unsustainable and why our food industry produces so much unhealthy, processed food.


What lessons should people who want to change the world today take from these struggles?

The first thing is that ordinary people have always fought to improve their lives and often struggles can erupt seemingly out of nowhere.

In 1548 the ruling class had no idea that the following year would see enormous waves of peasant rebellion against religious changes and enclosure.

When Joseph Arch held his first union meeting he had no idea that within months it would have a membership of thousands.

Secondly organisation is always crucial.

Letters from John Ball urging villages to rise as the Peasants’ Revolt began were copied and passed from hand to hand.

Those relationships were the basis of a rebellion that nearly overthrew the monarch.

But organisations— whether networks of peasants, or unions—can only take things so far.

Soon other questions are raised—how to deal with the gentry, whether to rely on union leaders, whether to return to work, and so on.

In social movements today, in the countryside or the city, winning fundamental change requires socialist organisation.

‘Kill all the Gentlemen’ by Martin Empson is on sale at Bookmarks the socialist bookshop for £14.99


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