Medieval Historians and John Ball (Classroom Activity)

John Ball was born in St Albans in about 1340. Twenty years later he was working as a priest in York. He eventually became the priest St James' Church in Colchester. 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 the church.

Ball now had no fixed job or home and he became a travelling priest and gave sermons, whenever he found "a few people ready to listen, by the roadside, on a village green or in a market place, he would pour forth fiery words against the evils of the day and particularly the sins of the rich." John Ball was highly critical of the way the church taxed people and urged them not to pay their tithes. He also believed that the Bible should be published in English.

While preaching in Norfolk, Henry le Despenser, the Bishop of Norwich, ordered the imprisonment of John Ball. After he was released he began touring Essex and Kent. During this time he became known as the "mad priest of Kent". He was released but it was not long before he was once again back in prison.

In 1379 Richard II called a parliament to raise money to pay for the continuing war against the French. After much debate it was decided to impose another poll tax. This time it was to be a graduated tax, which meant that the richer you were, the more tax you paid. For example, the Duke of Lancaster and the Archbishop of Canterbury had to pay £6.13s.4d., the Bishop of London, 80 shillings, wealthy merchants, 20 shillings, but peasants were only charged 4d.

The proceeds of this tax was quickly spent on the war or absorbed by corruption. In 1380, Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggested a new poll tax of three groats (one shilling) per head over the age of fifteen. "There was a maximum payment of twenty shillings from men whose families and households numbered more than twenty, thus ensuring that the rich paid less than the poor. A shilling was a considerable sum for a working man, almost a week's wages. A family might include old persons past work and other dependents, and the head of the family became liable for one shilling on each of their 'polls'. This was basically a tax on the labouring classes."

The peasants felt it was unfair that they should pay the same as the rich. They also did not feel that the tax was offering them any benefits. For example, the English government seemed to be unable to protect people living on the south coast from French raiders. Most peasants at this time only had an income of about one groat per week. This was especially a problem for large families.

John Ball toured Kent giving sermons attacking the poll tax. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, heard about this he gave orders that Ball should not be allowed to preach in church. Ball responded by giving talks on village greens. The Archbishop now gave instructions that all people found listening to Ball's sermons should be punished. When this failed to work, Ball was arrested and in April 1381 he was sent to Maidstone Prison. At his trial it was claimed that Ball told the court he would be "released by twenty thousand armed men". Ball was later accused of being the main figure responsible for the Peasants' Revolt that took place that summer.

Primary Sources

(Source 1) Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, John Ball (1938) Chelmsford County Hall

(Source 1) Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, John Ball (1938)
Chelmsford County Hall

(Source 2) John Ball, quoted by Jean Froissart, Chronicles (c. 1395)

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".

(Source 3) Henry Knighton, Chronicles (c. 1390)

At this time flourished master John Wycliffe, rector of the church of Lutterworth in the county of Leicestershire. He was a most eminent doctor of theology in those days, unrivalled in scholastic disciplines and held as second to none in philosophy. He especially strove to surpass the talents of others by the subtlety of his learning and the depth of his intelligence, and to produce opinions at variance with those of other men. He introduced many beliefs into the church which were condemned by the catholic doctors of the church, as will appear later.

John Wycliffe had as his precursor John Ball, just as Christ's precursor was John the Baptist. Ball prepared the way for Wycliffe's opinions and, as is said, disturbed many with his own doctrines, as I have already mentioned.... Now on his appearance Master John Wycliffe had John Ball to prepare the way for his pernicious findings. The latter was the real breaker of the unity of the church, the author of discord between the laity and clergy, the indefatigable sower of illicit doctrines and the disturber of the Christian church.

For many years John Ball had preached in a foolish manner, mixing evil with the good word of God, and had become popular with the ignorant people.

He strongly attacked the wealth and authority of the Church and deliberately stirred people up against churchmen. He darkened the area for many years and so he was tried and convicted by the clergy, who imprisoned him for life in Maidstone gaol.

But the rebels broke into the prison and brought him out and made him go with them, since they wanted to make him an archbishop.


(4) Thomas Walsingham, The History of England (c. 1420)

For twenty years and more Ball had been preaching continually in different places such things as he knew were pleasing to the people, speaking ill of both ecclesiastics and secular lords, and had rather won the goodwill of the common people than merit in the sight of God. For he instructed the people that tithes ought not to be paid to an incumbent unless he who should give them were richer than the rector or vicar who received them; and that tithes and offerings ought to be withheld if the parishioner were known to be a man of better life than his priest; and also that none were fit for the Kingdom of God who were not born in matrimony. He taught, moreover, the perverse doctrines of the perfidious John Wycliffe, and the insane opinions that he held, with many more that it would take long to recite.

Therefore, being prohibited by the bishops from preaching in parishes and churches, he began to speak in streets and squares and in the open fields. Nor did he lack hearers among the common people, whom he always strove to entice to his sermons by pleasing words, and slander of the prelates. At last he was excommunicated as he would not desist and was thrown into prison, where he predicted that he would be set free by twenty thousand of his friends. This afterwards happened in the said disturbances, when the commons broke open all the prisons, and made the prisoners depart.

And when he had been delivered from prison, he followed them, egging them on to commit greater evils, and saying that such things must surely be done. And, to corrupt more people with his doctrine, at Blackheath, where two hundred thousand of the commons were gathered together, he began a sermon in this fashion: "When Adam delved, and Eve span, who was then a gentleman."

And continuing his sermon, he tried to prove by the words of the proverb that he had taken for his text, that from the beginning all men were created equal by nature, and that servitude had been introduced by the unjust and evil oppression of men, against the will of God, who, if it had pleased Him to create serfs, surely in the beginning of the world would have appointed who should be a serf and who a lord. Let them consider, therefore, that He had now appointed the time wherein, laying aside the yoke of long servitude, they might, if they wished, enjoy their liberty so long desired. Wherefore they must be prudent, hastening to act after the manner of a good husbandman, tilling his field, and uprooting the tares that are accustomed to destroy the grain; first killing the great lords of the realm, then slaying the lawyers, justices and jurors, and finally rooting out everyone whom they knew to be harmful to the community in future. So at last they would obtain peace and security, if, when the great ones had been removed, they maintained among themselves equality of liberty and nobility, as well as of dignity and power.

And when he had preached these and many other ravings, he was in such high favour with the common people that they cried out that he should be archbishop and Chancellor of the kingdom, and that he alone was worthy of the office, for the present archbishop was a traitor to the realm and the commons, and should be beheaded wherever he could be found.

John Ball

(Source 5) John Ball at Mile End from Jean Froissart, Chronicles (c. 1470)

(Source 6) Anonimalle Chronicle of St Mary's (c 1381)

The common people had as their leader a chaplain of evil disposition 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.


(Source 7) Jean Froissart, Chronicles (c. 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.

The wretched men of London began to rebel and meet together. They then sent messages to the other rebels that they ought to come to London, where they would find the city open to receive them and many supporters. They said that they would bring so much pressure on the King that all bondmen would be made free.

This promise excited the rebels of Kent, Essex, Sussex and Bedford and so they came towards London. They numbered sixty thousand and their leader was called Wat Tyler and he had Jack Straw and John Ball with him. These were the leaders, but the chief one was Wat Tyler, who was a tiler of roofs and a low person.

(8) Thomas Walsingham, The History of England (c. 1420)

On Saturday 13 July Robert Tresilian sentenced John Ball, after hearing of his scandalous and confessed crimes, so drawing, hanging, beheading, disembowelling and - to use the common words - quartering: he had been taken by the men of Coventry and on the previous day brought to St Albans and into the presence of the king whose majesty he had insulted so gravely. His death was postponed until the following Monday by the intervention of Lord William Courtenay, bishop of London, who obtained a short deferment so that Ball could repent for the sake of his soul.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Explain the views held by John Ball. Which source in this unit was the most useful to you in answering this question?

Question 2: Who was blamed for John Ball's unusual beliefs?

Question 3: Did the authors of sources 3, 4, 6 and 7 agree with the opinions expressed by John Ball? Select passages from the sources to support your answer.

Question 4: Do you think the artists who produced sources 1 and 5 provide an accurate portrait of John Ball?

Question 5: Did John Ball want rapid or gradual change? Did he want these changes to be local or national?

Question 6: How was John Ball punished for his role in the Peasants' Revolt? Why was the punishment delayed?

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.