England, Arise

Written by Juliet Barker
Review by Cassandra Clark

This is a thrillingly readable and a meticulously researched account of what the Victorians misnamed the Peasants’ Revolt, that great rising of public feeling against the rulers who were bleeding England dry in the name of the fourteen year old King Richard II. More correctly, as Barker conclusively shows, that time of public turbulence in 1381 should be referred to as The Great Revolt, its participants drawn from all levels of society and regions. Its doomed leaders, Wat Tyler, John Balle and Jack Straw, whose names have passed into folklore, were not the men official accounts would have us believe, and Barker shows how some of the famous speeches appear to be no more than fabrications by the ruling elite. She consistently rips away other myths to reveal the flimsy evidence they are based on and shows more plausible readings.

The prose is never dull, and her detailed use of primary sources illuminates the conditions of ordinary men and women before the touch-paper of the punitive third poll tax set the country alight. What is most startling is how Barker convincingly puts forward the thesis that the young king was in accord with his peoples’ wishes. In this rich and detailed account she describes the causes, the events and the brutal aftermath of the revolt. It deserves to become a classic.