The following review appeared in edition 160 of Ripperologist magazine.
THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF A REBEL LEADER: WAT TYLER
Pen & Sword History, 2018 www.pen-and-sword.co.uk www.gesteofrobinhood.com hardcover & ebook 184pp; illus; appendices; biblio; index ISBN:1526709791 £19.99 hardcover & £11.51 ebook
The year is 1381 and the ordinary people are suffering. Adding to the poverty, Black Death, and the effects of war, was the Poll Tax, a tax to which large numbers strongly objected and against which they rose in rebellion. Thousands of men, armed with whatever they could get hold of, marched through Kent, to London where they confronted the young King Richard II with their grievances. At their head was a man whose name would live down the succeeding generations, invoked whenever the people wanted to inspire fear in the authorities – Wat Tyler.
On 6 June 1381 several thousand rebels attacked and took Rochester Castle, releasing the prisoners held there. They then swept on to Maidstone where for some reason they beheaded and looted the house of a landowner named John Southalle before attacking the town gaol, among the prisoners they released being a radical and dangerous priest named John Ball, who had been imprisoned for life. What interests me about this event, apart from the story itself and the later literary use of Tyler’s name, is a tradition that Wat Tyler belonged to Maidstone and that he led the rebellious peasants into ‘the town by a path long after known as Tyler’s Lane.’
Now, towards the end of the 18th century this path was undergoing development, or at least one side of it was. There was already a pub there and next to it a row of terraced houses would soon be built. The pub was called the Union Flag to celebrate the recent union of England and Scotland and Tyler’s Lane was renamed Union Street after it. The pub would later be renamed Style and Wynch and I spent more happy hours in it than I should have done.
So, who was this rebel leader Wat Tyler?
Well, that’s pretty much the point; we don’t know. We don’t know a great deal about Wat Tyler at all. It’s not even certainly known that he was from Maidstone or that Wat Tyler was his real name. What we do know is that the rebellion he led was very far from bloodless, but that his amateur army was exceedingly well trained, and that Tyler presented the peoples’ grievances to the boy-king Richard and received his agreement to many. And that like so many since and probably before, he quickly came to a sticky end when killed, most likely treacherously, by the Lord Mayor of London. The rebellion fizzled out, a failure in every way except one: Tyler and his ‘lieutenants’, John Ball and Jack Straw, enjoyed a post-medieval literary afterlife, Tyler’s name usually invoked at times of trouble and strife, a warning to the established order of how insecure they really are.
And that’s what Stephen Basdeo’s book is all about – the literary Wat Tyler. There’s quite a small library of books about the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, one of the most recent being Dan Jones’s excellent Summer of Blood, but Basdeo’s contribution to the subject doesn’t tell the story (except in one compact chapter), but instead looks at how the story has been interpreted and used over the years, roughly since the late 1500s through to the present. Such literary analysis isn’t to everybody’s taste, but it is interesting to trace how stories like Wat Tyler, Robin Hood, or even Jack the Ripper begin with the truth and quickly take on all the trappings of the mythic.
One thing: Basdeo writes that ‘there have been, to my knowledge, no cinematic portrayals of the events of 1381,’ then references ‘an interesting American educational film entitled Medieval England: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 which appeared in 1969 and starred Anthony Hopkins as Wat Tyler. It’s available to view on-line – www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVXGzXSQChA – and it also featured Edward Fox, Mike Pratt (who you should know as Jeff Randall in Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), and as Richard the boy-king, a distinguished Ripperologist!
Review by Paul Begg.