By Eleisha Rae Kennedy
You might say that the mid-fourteenth century was not exactly the easiest time to be alive. England’s population had been battered by the Black Death that swept through Europe and conflict continued throughout the century due to the country’s involvement in the Hundred Years War.
As usual, the poorer classes bore the brunt of England’s misfortunes. After the Black Death, a law called the Statute of Labourers was passed in 1351, which fixed maximum wages for peasants to stop them taking advantage of the labour shortage and asking for more money. A popular move? Nope, especially as prices continued to rise but wages did not follow, equalling hungry peasants.
Ongoing war had also left the coffers empty and so the king’s uncle, John of Gaunt, decides to do a bit of fundraising and introduces the dreaded Poll Tax, which the peasants also had to contribute to.
It goes without saying that English country life had been well and truly disrupted. Folk had decided enough was enough and so in 1381, the good men and women of the countryside embarked on the first great rebellion in England’s history: The Peasant’s Revolt.
Note that I said the “good men and women”. Because the women of the lower classes didn’t sit at home doing the washing while the men wreaked havoc on the country. They marched with the men, they incited violence, they stole and looted, they brandished sticks and staves and some even led the rebels. However, it seems that chroniclers and historians have largely left the ladies out of the story and all we hear about is Wat Tyler and other charismatic male figures, like the priest John Ball.
Why wouldn’t women participate in this huge public uprising? The abusive tax and labour regulations affected them too, in fact, some were even harsher on the women. When the poll tax came into play in 1380, married women were taxed separately from their husbands, with no regard for income at all.
Thankfully, one scholar is taking a closer look at how involved women were in the Peasant’s Revolt. Sylvia Federico has actually studied judicial records of the time, as well as chronicles and poetry of the following decade, to get a better sense of what was going on. In doing so, she has discovered that just as the exact causes and motives for the rebellion are difficult to identify, the roles of women are equally as varied. Whilst most women helped the men, which was crucial of course, some were also leaders, such as Johanna Ferrour, described in court documents as “chief perpetrator and leader of rebellious evildoers from Kent”.
Johanna marched on London with the rebels of Kent and Essex where she led an angry mob to burn down the Savoy Palace, home of the hated John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Before torching the mansion, she made off with one of the Duke’s chests containing £1000, which she crossed the Thames with over to Southwark and divided up the plunder with other rebels.
But that’s not all! The next day, while Wat Tyler was at his famous meeting with Richard II at Mile End, demanding the end to serfdom and forced labour, Johanna leads another violent expedition to the Tower of London, where she seizes the Chancellor Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as the Treasurer Sir Robert Hales and orders their execution.
It is also quite remarkable that Johanna, and many other women who participated in incredibly harsh and violent acts, don’t appear to have been convicted for the crimes they were charged with, and there is no evidence of severe punishment for women who took part. So even the justice system renders them invisible. Federico believes the absence of the ladies from the history books is a desire to see the Revolt as a political movement, which women, thought of as sexual, domestic, personal bodies, would disqualify it from being such a movement. Was it so unimaginable to include women as real participants and influential figures in the rebellion, because they were too personal? Maybe the powers that be were too afraid of the social structure being shook up by these kick-ass women! In any case, as academics continue to revisit big moments like this, we’ll gain a better understanding of women’s role in history.
About the Author:
Eleisha Rae Kennedy is an Art Historian who grew up in Southern Spain but has called London home for around 7 years. She first started giving guided tours of London 6 years ago and it has become her passion. So much so, that she recently founded Rebel Tours, a walking tour company with friend and colleague Charlotte. Rebel Tours focuses on London’s radical history as well as those stories that have been forgotten or silenced by history.
When she’s not giving tours, she’s probably hanging out with the Rebel Tours mascot, Gwen the gorgeous staffy.