This is a little square in St Albans, a town about thirty miles north of London.
It was at one time the Roman town of Verulamium, later named in honour of Alban, the first British saint. The story goes that he sheltered a man and was impressed by his faith, which was forbidden under Roman rule. When the search was on for his guest, he refused to give him up, and Alban was executed in his place, effectively for refusing to be the instrument of someone else’s pain.
And this is what at one time was the gate of a Benedictine Monastery, destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries, as that event is known.
Inside the gate there is a plaque that reads:
THE GREAT GATEWAY OF THE MONASTERY
Was Erected in the 1360s and Besieged in 1381 by the Insurgents in the Peasants Revolt. The Third Printing Press in England is said to have been Housed Here in 1479. From 1553 till 1869 it was the Local Prison Since 1871 it has Formed part of St. ALBANS SCHOOL
That leads me to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. I have written elsewhere about it because it is unique.
There were revolts going on in continental Europe throughout all this period. But England was a case apart.
Everyone will say that English society always rides the changes in economics, social obligations, and social structure without revolution, and sails on. There is one exception, and that is the Peasants’ Revolt on 1381.
The reasons usually given for the rebellion are the poll taxes that were imposed. A poll tax is a straight tax. It does not relate to ownership of a property or a business. It is a tax upon existence.
Another reason given for the rebellion was a complaint about the high life that the church and the court hangers-on were living at the peasants’ expense.
What brought the situation to a head was that the population had been reduced – maybe by as much as 40% – by the Black Death that reached Britain in the 1350s.
With gaps in the towns and the countryside, prices rose and a new kind of tenant farmer appeared – people who had the money to step in to take up vacant tenancies from the rural landlords.
Hitherto, tenancies were feudal – obligations of security in exchange for service.
The new tenants didn’t want any of that. They wanted and got a simple exchange of occupation of the land in the return for rent paid as money.
Villeins and Fedualism
That status put them at odds with the villeins, or peasants, who were bound to the land and one step up from slaves.. That difference risked a wholesale breach in the social fabric of the countryside.
But the new taxes also exposed another threat to stability, namely that rising prices meant things were going well for some, and that the poll tax hit them at a time of rising expectations.
Add to that another factor, the failure by the authorities to protect the population. Britain was at war with France in what is known as The Hundred Years’ War. The war was a war with gaps – a series of conflicts that lasted from 1337 to 1453.
On the English side was the House of Plantagenet, rulers of the Kingdom of England. They claimed the right to rule the Kingdom of France and were opposed by the French House of Valois.
The conflict is not so surprising. The English kings were originally Norman, and held lands in France. In some ways it was a family quarrel.
The peasants’ complaint was that French and Castilian ships came up the Thames regularly and carried out brutal tip-and-run raids, and seemingly without fear of reprisal.
And then came the poll tax, a tax imposed by the King to finance his wars. Not everyone was liable to pay (beggars, for example, were exempt), but with rising prices after the Black Death, people who had been outside the taxation net in earlier times were now caught in it.
So those were the complaints – rich people and the clergy living high on the hog, and failing to protect the populace. And it happened just when things were getting better economically.
When Adam Delved And Eve Span
During the Peasant’s Revolt, the priest John Ball asked, rhetorically, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” He meant, of course, ‘Who made you the boss?’
But of course, anyone who wants to grab the crown is free to do it if they can.
A Marxist would say that in the 1380s the clergy was the mouthpiece for the propaganda of the ‘proper’ order. Which is why the clergy and the local dignitaries were a prime target of the mobs that sprang up, simultaneously in different parts of England.
The revolt was bloody, with many killed by the mobs and many executed by the authorities. And here at the Gate of the former monastery of St Albans, I may have been standing where the rebels stood.
Across the park from the gate is the cathedral. It was dark inside (no surprise there) so I propped my camera to steady it and took this shot.
The building is, apparently, the longest established major place of worship in Britain. It was originally an abbey. Then came the dissolution of the monasteries and it became a parish church. It was not made a cathedral until 1877. And that explains why St Albans is not a city.
There was a time when all places that had the seat of a bishop – in other words, a cathedral – were made cities en masse by the King. But that elevation in status was long gone by the time St Albans Cathedral became a cathedral.