Summer Of Blood: England’s First Revolution, by Dan Jones
I found this book to be a compelling look at an attempted revolution in England, one which has been a context to numerous other readings I have done, and a troubling book as well. This is, interestingly enough, the author’s first book, and its occurrence towards the end of the reign of the Plantagenet dynasty makes this book what started him on his quest to write about the goings on of that time in England. It is an auspicious beginning; edited for publication in America, this book is a detailed and compelling read about a time in English history when the commons, for the first time, rose up seeking political change and terrifying the existing social elites. My own feelings about that are mixed, as this author demonstrates the brutality by which the revolution was crushed, the exploitation that led to the uprising in the first place, and the brutality and bloodthirstiness of the revolutionaries themselves. This is a book that leaves one feeling charitable towards very few people, as there are no heroes to be found here, only villains of one stripe or another, characters of various shades of dark gray to black. Fortunately, the author is not clear on who he favors and so the reader is left to figure out what they feel themselves about these times.
This short book of just over 200 pages is divided into three parts and 22 short chapters, along with a preface, introduction, and epilogue that provide some context to the uprising of 1381. Part I sets up the revolt, looking at the Parliament and its voting on various taxes to pay for the insatiable Plantagenet appetite for treasure to engage in foreign wars in France and Spain (1), the problematic nature of the unpopular John of Gaunt (2), the troublesome and immoral way in which those onerous taxes were collected (3), the uprising in Kent and Essex started through local village leadership (4), and the rise of John Ball and Wat Tyler during the beginning of the revolt (5). After that, Part II focuses on the peak of the revolt as it took place in London during the summer of 1381, looking at the initial meeting between King Richard II and the peasants on Blackheath (6), the troubling nature of the “true commons (7), the crossing of the peasants into London (8), the first fires against supposed tyrants (9), the state of the king and others under siege (10), the war council that decided to appease (11), the negotiations at mile end (12), the seizure of some of the king’s counselors in the tower (13), the various murders committed by the rustics against Flemish foreigners and others (14), the crisis of Richard II’s reign being in jeopardy (15), the agreement to meet at Smithfield (16), and the showdown that led to Wat Tyler’s death and the disbursing of the crowd (17). The third and last part of the book focuses on the bloody retribution (18), part of it led by the martial Bishop Dispenser (19) and the counter-terror (20) in areas mostly over the southern part of England up to Norwich (21) that put enough fear in the heart of the ordinary people that Richard’s vengeance (22) became a danger to the well-being of England and required a general pardon in the next Parliament.
Again, this is a book that leaves the reader with no heroes. Those who might cheer on the mobs of violent peasants might find less to cheer if they realized those mobs were quite intent on pursuing their own vendettas as well as murdering innocent foreigners. Nor do the elites come off well here, engaged in their own private disputes, sometimes craven and cowardly when it comes to resisting mob rule, and lacking any kind of mercy and charity when their superior training and discipline proved victorious. Nor do the royal elites, like Richard II and Lancaster, come off well with their intense exploitation of the commonwealth in order to obtain enough money to engage in ruinously expensive foreign wars. Indeed, this book can be said to be a harshly anti-imperial book in the way it discusses the miseries that are brought to ordinary people through the efforts of militaristic elites to project force abroad. The only people one feels sympathetic for are those innocent who feel the terror of violence being directed first this way and that, or who are naive enough to expect the elites of the fourteenth century to respond to articulate petitions for the redress of social wrongs. Is it so naive to seek for the same thing here and now?