Hardcover, 384 Pages, Publication Date October 2nd 2014, Little Brown UK
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I probably should declare a prior interest in this work- I am a great fan of the author and I read Conquest and Agincourt and loved them both. England Arise! Is different, being devoted to the non-military subject of the so called ‘Peasant’s Revolt’. However, in one of the many challenges posed to traditional interpretations, the event is here called ‘The Great Revolt’ as it was known by contemporaries.
Why? One reason perhaps was because many who took part were not ‘peasants’ according to the modern understanding of the term- but waged workers, craftspeople and tradesmen- those who might own land and even the middling classes. Forget the traditional Monty-Pythonesque notion of malnourished, mud wallowing rustics struggling to eke out a meagre existence outside their hovels. As the first chapters exploring the ‘world’ in which the revolt took place reveal, many agricultural workers had a surplus which could be sold at the popular markets which sprang up all over Medieval England.
Even the inhabitants of the cities did not inhabit filthy streets that were nothing more than rat-infested cesspools. “The idea that medieval people never washed is a nineteenth century fallacy”. Furthermore accounts of the city of London “being overrun with rats, pigs wondering out of control through streets awash with human and animal excrement, where household flung their waste” are, in the words of the author “a huge exaggeration”. Indeed, such accounts are based largely on complaints made to city authorities.
Following the exploration of the socio-political and economic background follows a ‘blow by blow’ account of the revolt itself in various counties and areas. The idea that the event was nothing more than a blood-soaked descent into violent anarchy is refuted, but one could almost feel that the content of the next few chapters justified such an official position.
These essentially recount continuous rounds of beheadings, raids and burning with ‘so and so went to such and such a place, burned the records, seized and killed this person- later tried and executed’. This violence, the author argues, was largely targeted against so called ‘traitors’ by men who believed themselves to be loyal to the King and even enacting his wishes.
Their grievances resulted in large part from unjust and excessive taxation and the exactions of villainy. The King- it is asserted contrary to traditional interpretations- actually sympathised with and even supported the rebels cause. He was, allegedly, forced to abandon it in parliament- even by the commons in parliament itself.
In later centuries, the legacy of the revolt would be hijacked by those wishing to present the event or key figures as proto-socialist in persuasion, or to support their revolutionary ideals. In reality, they do not fit into either category- for those involved did not seek the redistribution of property or the creation of an autonomous republic, but their true legacy was of Englishmen fighting for rights.
Altogether, England Arise, was a fascinating and readable new study of the revolt, useful for those unfamiliar with key themes, issues and events. My only complaints were that there did seem to be a few historical errors (I believe Edmund of Langley, Duke of York was described as the youngest son of Edward III when he was actually the second youngest), and perhaps the occasional hint of modern judgement. Also, I personally found the chapters chronicling the revolt a little tedious or hard-going at times. Did not enjoy it was much as Agincourt, but generally a very interesting and worthwhile book.
I received an electronic copy of this book from Netgalley and Little Brown in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are my own.