AS WE APPROACH FOUR DAYS of national events to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee it seems worth pointing out that today (30 May) marks the anniversary of the beginning of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381.
At that time, the population had been devastated by a pandemic, peasants lived under a system of serfdom in which landlords dominated their lives, and wages were artificially suppressed. The imposition of a poll tax was the last straw, and starting in Essex, people began refusing to pay.
The revolt spread and the peasants marched on London, under the leadership of Wat Tyler. It ended when the peasants received assurances from the teenage King Richard II that he would abolish serfdom. But the King did not keep his promise, and serfdom continued. Wat Tyler was executed.
With saturation coverage in much of the media the Platinum Jubilee may dominate the coming week. For any individual to spend seventy years in one role is certainly remarkable. It is even more remarkable when for seventy years in the public gaze, that person has consistently behaved with dignity and decorum. But it would be false to pretend that irrespective of the individual, the role itself, the institution of the monarchy, is politically neutral.
There is much to be said for continuity and tradition, but if they serve to preserve an increasingly unsatisfactory status quo, they at least need to be questioned. So as we consider the institution being celebrated through the Jubilee, and the values it represents, it might be interesting and healthy to, at least for a moment, look at them through the lens of the Peasants’ Revolt.
A leading figure in the Revolt was John Ball. A Catholic priest who preached a radical message of social equality, Ball had been imprisoned several times, but was freed by peasants when the revolt began. He then delivered the open-air sermon for which he is best remembered, which included these words:
“When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, He would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.”
Shortly afterwards, Ball was arrested yet again, and in July 1381 he was hanged, drawn and quartered, in the presence of the King.
On a planet that is hurtling towards destruction, in a global economy which sees one billionaire created every 30 hours while millions fall into extreme poverty, and in a country where a Prime Minister who doesn’t like the rules simply ignores or rewrites them, the least we can do is to question the values and the institutions that got us to this point, and wonder if we cannot do better.
As the late Tony Benn said, there are questions we always need to ask of people who hold power. “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?”
The Commission on Political Power has published a very timely ‘options paper’ on the Head of State. It highlights the fact that: “Theoretically, the head of state possesses a number of prerogative powers which act as a check on the executive branch of our political system – specifically the prime minister who heads an elected government. Practically, however, these royal prerogative powers are not used – which leaves a vacuum on any constriction of executive power.”
With the Prime Minister showing worryingly authoritarian tendencies, thinking about this issue may be long overdue.
So, in a country where so many people are exhausted and struggling, an extra bank holiday will always be appreciated, and it’s to be hoped that as many people as possible enjoy the long weekend. But precisely because so many people are struggling in a wealthy country, it seems only sensible that, whilst we may respect and admire the long and remarkable contribution of Queen Elizabeth II, we don’t unquestioningly accept the values and the institutions the occasion represents.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden