John Ball

John Ball was born in St. Albans, Hertfordshire. He eventually became the priest St James' Church in Colchester. John Ball believed it was wrong that some people in England were very rich while others were very poor. Ball's church sermons criticising the feudal system upset his bishop and in 1366 he was removed from his post as the priest of St James' Church.

John Ball now became a travelling priest and gave sermons in local churches. While preaching in Norfolk the Bishop of Norwich ordered his imprisonment. After he was released he began touring Essex and Kent. When the Archbishop of Canterbury heard about this he gave orders that John Ball should not be allowed to preach in church. John Ball responded by giving talks on the village green.

The Archbishop of Canterbury now gave instructions that all people found listening to John Ball's sermons should be punished. When this failed to work, John Ball was arrested and sent to Maidstone Prison.

On 7th June, 1381, Ball was rescued from Maidstone Prison by rebels led by Wat Tyler. After ransacking the Archbishop of Canterbury's palace, the rebels began their march on London. When the rebels arrived at Blackheath it was estimated that there were about 30,000 people in Wat Tyler's army.

Ball was with Tyler when he carried out negotiations with Richard II at Mile End on 14th June. The following day Tyler was killed by William Walworth and the rebels, after being granted charters signed by the king, agree to leave London.

An army, led by Thomas of Woodstock, John of Gaunt's younger brother, was sent into Essex to crush the rebels. A battle between the peasants and the King's army took place near the village of Billericay on 28th June. The king's army was experienced and well-armed and the peasants were easily defeated. It is believed that over 500 peasants were killed during the battle.

King Richard with a large army began visiting the villages that had taken part in the rebellion. At each village, the people were told that no harm would come to them if they named the people in the village who had encouraged them to join the rebellion. Those people named as ringleaders were then executed.

The king's officials were instructed to look out for John Ball. He was eventually caught in Coventry. He was found guilty of high treason and was hung, drawn and quartered on 15th July, 1381.

Primary Sources

(A) John Ball, speech made in 1377.

Why are those whom we call lords, masters over us? How have they deserved it? By what right do they keep us enslaved? We are all descended from our first parents, Adam and Eve; how then can they say that they are better than us... At the beginning we were all created equal. If God willed that there should be serfs, he would have said so at the beginning of the world. We are formed in Christ's likeness, and they treat us like animals... They are dressed in velvet and furs, while we wear only cloth. They have wine, and spices and good bread, while we have rye bread and water. They have fine houses and manors, and we have to brave the wind and rain as we toil in the fields. It is by the sweat of our brows that they maintain their high state. We are called serfs, and we are beaten if we do not perform our task... Let us go to see King Richard. He is young, and we will show him our miserable slavery, we will tell him it must be changed, or else we will provide the remedy ourselves. When the King sees us, either he will listen to us, or we will help ourselves. When we are ready to march on London I will send you a secret message. The message is "Now is the time. Stand together in God's name."

(B) Anonimalle Chronicle of St Mary's was written by an unnamed monk in York. Some historians believe the account was based on an interview with William de Pakington, one of King Richard's officials.

The common people had as their leader an evil man named John Ball, who advised them to get rid of all the lords, archbishops, bishops, abbots and priors... and their possessions should be divided among the people.

(C) Thomas Walsingham was a Benedictine monk at St Albans Abbey. His book. The History of England, covered the period 1259 to 1422.

John Ball taught the people that tithes ought not be paid... He also taught the wicked doctrines of the disloyal John Wycliffe.

(D) Jean Froissart was born in France in 1337. In 1360 he came to England to work for the wife of King Edward III. In 1395 he completed his Chronicles which dealt with the history of Europe between 1326 and 1390. Froissart gave a copy of his book to King Richard II in 1395.

A crazy priest in the county of Kent, called John Ball... told the peasants that the nobility should not have great power over the the common people... John Ball had several times been confined in the Archbishop of Canterbury's prison for his absurd speeches... It would have been better had he locked him up for the rest of his life, or even had him executed... for as soon as he was released, he went back to his former errors.

(E) Henry Knighton was the canon of St Mary's Abbey, Leicester. His book, Chronicle Angliae, was a history of England between the 10th century and 1395.

John Ball... the mad priest of Kent... told the people to be like the good husbandman that tilled the ground... and cut away the weeds... that oppress the fruit... First the Archbishop and the great men of the kingdom were to be slain... then lawyers, justices and whosoever they knew to be hurtful to the common people.

1. What does John Ball say about (a) the way the noblemen lived; (b) the way the peasants lived?

2. What does John Ball suggest the peasants should do to end the feudal system?

3. Copy out the chart below in your book. Fill in the empty boxes.

SourceAuthor What John Ball said in his sermonsThe words he uses to express his opinions on John Ball
Aevil man
Btithes ought not to be paid