John Ball and English Radicalism

Among football fans, Ball’s legacy still resonates today

The American and French revolutions were the catalyst for the sympathetic readings of John Ball that emerged in 1790s English radicalism, such as John Baxter’s A New and Impartial History of England, from the Most Early Period of Genuine Historical Evidence to the Present Important and Alarming Crisis (1796). When Robert Southey’s dramatic poem, Wat Tyler (1794), was pirated in 1817 (after the now Poet Laureate had given up on his youthful radicalism), English radicals and social and political reformers had a new authoritative source for understanding Ball as part of their own tradition (on Baxter and Southey see also John Ball in English History). Wat Tyler was not the only source, but it was by far the most influential one in the first half of the nineteenth century. It was regularly used to make allegations of hypocrisy against Southey, including through comparisons with his presentation of Ball.

The economic hardships following the Napoleonic Wars and the introduction of the Corn Laws in 1815 led to waves of mass discontent with reactions ranging from reformist to revolutionary. Protestors took up the memory of the 1381 uprising as a heroic point of comparison worthy of emulation. This was combined with the myth of the Norman Yoke (the idea that Anglo-Saxon liberties were lost with the oppressive Norman Conquest under William the Conqueror/Bastard whose line has effectively ruled and oppressed ever since), with figures like Wat Tyler and Ball seen as part of a historic tradition of English resistance from below seeking to reclaim liberties lost. The famous reformer, the ‘Orator’ Henry Hunt, embraced some of these comparisons, even if he downplayed revolutionary implications. The comparisons were also taken up by John Bagguley and the Manchester and Lancashire radicals in their demands for constitutional reform and in their highlighting of the plight of the workers in the Lancashire cotton industry (e.g., the proposed march of the Blanketeers, March 1817).

Ball would come to the fore in the next wave of nineteenth-century mass protest following the limitations of the Great Reform Act (1832): Chartism and the famous six demands of the People’s Charter of 1838 (universal male suffrage; end of property qualification for MPs; annual elections; voting by secret ballot; payment for MPs; equitable representation of electoral districts). Ball and the story of 1381 were used to attack the middle class, claiming they had betrayed working-class causes, just as the rebels had been betrayed in 1381 and then by historians in their hostile accounts. Ball and 1381 were portrayed as precursors to Chartism and parallels with figures of the mid-nineteenth century were made, such as with the fierce denouncer of factory conditions: Rev. Joseph Rayner Stephens.

The Ball of Southey’s Wat Tyler was a regular (though not the only) reference point who could be used to present Ball as martyr, oppose national military service, and critique established religion as the tool of the ruling class. Illustrations based on Wat Tyler were found in Chartist or sympathetic press, while numerous theatrical performances of Wat Tyler at Chartist social events were noted at the time (see John Ball in Literature and Drama).

Other influential works of the time include Pierce James Egan the Younger’s Wat Tyler; Or, The Rebellion of 1381 (1841 with several reprints) which continued the implicit (and not-so-implicit) paralleling of Ball and 1381 with Chartism.

William Cuffay

Working in the Robin Hood literary tradition, Egan used Ball’s England to look at issues of class relations and constitutionalism from below, promoting a national identity grounded in shared political and cultural ideals rather than ethnic homogeneity. This sort of thinking (again, closely connected with the myth of the Norman Yoke) was taken up in some strands of Chartism, including in contexts featuring the prominent Chartist, William Cuffay, who came from a slave family and received racist attacks in the British press. Such downplaying of lineage, racial, or ethnic backgrounds as markers of English identity, and the stress on the inclusion of different ethnicities and foregrounding of political unity in these understandings of English identity, was also a point of unity with Irish Chartists some of whom could embrace the idea that William the Bastard was the source of division, exclusion, and landlordism.

Similar ideas had a wider impact, including among abolitionists. ‘John Ball’ was a pseudonymous name for James Redpath who moved to America and reported on slavery in the southern states. Redpath saw the name of Ball as particularly useful when talking to slaves because Ball was criticising a certain type of ‘slavery’ and belonged to a revolutionary kind of ‘Britishness’ based on claims about equality rather than limited to the country of Redpath’s birth, Europe, or white America.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the 1381 uprising became naturally and regularly associated with the working class, strikes, trade unionism, protests, unjust taxation, political representation, ideas of liberty and justice, and freedom from slavery, as Ball was understood as the (or one of the) founders of a homegrown socialism. In this context, the reclaiming of Ball and critiquing of the derogatory remarks of chroniclers and historians, continued to be relatively normalised (see also John Ball in English History). According to John Richard Green’s A Short History of the English People (1874), a standard resource in the early labour movement, Ball was one of the ‘socialist peasant leaders’ and through his letters ‘began for England the literature of political controversy’, the predecessor of Milton even. Charles Edmund Maurice (son of the Christian socialist F. D. Maurice and brother-in-law of the social reformer, Octavia Hill) provided even more focus on Ball in his Lives of English Popular Leaders in the Middle Ages: Tyler, Ball, and Oldcastle (1875) and read Ball’s role in the uprising in terms of class struggle and a dialectical reading of English history.

William Morris replaced Southey as the most influential interpreter of Ball after the serialisation and book publication of A Dream of John Ball (1886–1887) where the narrator (effectively Morris himself) goes from the nineteenth-century present back to the fourteenth century to discuss with Ball himself fellowship and the future. Morris’ story foregrounds medieval and (unusually) Catholic aesthetics, alongside themes of failure, martyrdom, and an extended socialist vision of the future. Morris’ effectively provided a Marxist reading of history and an explanation of the transformation from feudalism to capitalism in line with work he had done with Ernest Belfort Bax. Morris had earlier explained ‘who Ball was’ in a letter to the Manchester Guardian:

he preached the enfranchisement of labour as he understood it, and that to him it meant the abolition of serfdom first, and good life to the labourer next…John Ball was murdered by the fleecers of the people many hundred years ago, but indeed in a sense he lives still, though I am but a part, and not the whole of him…Nor will he quite die as long as he has work to do; and I am not yet convinced that even in Manchester he has no work to do…your correspondents’ letters…seem to take for granted that my opinions are eccentric and solitary—died with John Ball in fact; but I can hardly believe them to be so ignorant of current events as not to know that all over Europe Socialism is alive and growing. (Manchester Guardian, 7 October 1884)

By the turn of the twentieth century, Ball via Morris was standard across the different varieties of socialism and left-leaning movements (e.g., Marxist, SDF, Labour, ILP, Fabian, anarchist), and taken up by prominent figures (e.g., Keir Hardie, Beatrice Webb, Clement Attlee). Ball (including Morris’ reading of Ball) was a figure invoked by, or who influenced, suffragettes (including Emily Wilding Davison), a then an obvious reference point before the development of a feminist canon which would include Davison (also understood in martyrological terms).

Ball continued to be labelled ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ and the founding figure of a tradition of English or British radicalism, though Morris’ ‘Catholic’ Ball was typically ignored in favour of a proto-Protestant Ball.  

John Ball: Priest and Prophet of the Peasant’s Revolt
(London: Twentieth Century Press, 1909)

While Morris’ influence continued, interpretations of Ball were updated after the Russian Revolution and the First World War (see also John Ball in Literature and Drama). Competing interpretations of Morris and Ball, led to a damning response from one of the founding members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), Robin Page Arnot, who argued that Morris was being deprived of his revolutionary and Marxist credentials.

Another prominent take on Ball (with influences from Morris) Ball came through the catholicising Anglican vicar of Thaxted, Conrad Noel, who not only wrote about Ball as part of an English socialist tradition but also established the Chapel of the Blessed John Ball Priest and Martyr, all in line with the church’s famed promotion of folk music and morris dancing.  

The rise of fascism prompted a flourish of further interest in Ball and the English radical tradition. Communist Party hostility towards Labour, the ILP, and social democrats gave way to the unifying Popular Front strategy against fascism. Homegrown radical traditions were placed at the centre of the cultural life of the nation but they still formed a critique of the alternative narratives of the ruling class. This took the forms of popular theatrical performances, music concerts, and historical or civic pageants (see also John Ball in Literature and Drama and John Ball in Music), with Ball as a key figure (and, again, martyr) in the history of national struggles.

Jack Lindsay brought together Popular Front ideas of pageantry, performance, and culture in relation Englishness in England, My England: A Pageant of the English People (1939). Not only was Ball the key figure in the inauguration of communist ideas in England but those who killed Ball and his like were the ruling class whose descendants were now aiding fascism and creating mass unemployment.

The formation of the popular Left Book Club in 1936 was also important in the Popular Front strategy. Ball featured prominently in perhaps the most famous LBC historical publication, A. L. Morton’s A People’s History of England (1938). And the title page, of course, has a quotation from A Dream of John Ball, appreciating the great transformation in the more distant future despite how the present looks. Another important LBC publication was Nine Days that Shook England (1938) by Hymie Fagan, a CPGB activist from the Jewish East End of London. Nine Days is, as we might expect, a class-based reading of Ball and the presentation of a unified rebellion against the ruling class but, among its numerous contemporary references, it also includes otherwise uncommon concerns (in the reception of Ball) for the fate of Jews.

After the Second World War, there is a notable decline in interest, with Ball’s legacy in the more radical press left to the Daily Worker and then the Morning Star. Nevertheless, Ball turns up in socialist plays and folk music until this day (see John Ball in Literature and Drama and John Ball in Music). A Trotskyite reading of Ball was given in Philip Lindsay and (especially) Reg Groves, The Peasants’ Revolt 1381 (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1950), where Ball effectively becomes the myth of an English anti-Stalin. Groves was involved in the Trotskyite split from the CPGB and was close to Conrad Noel. Noel’s legacy was not straightforward and his successor at Thaxted, Jack Putterill, was sympathetic to the Soviet Union and wrote on Ball the English radical from this perspective (see here for footage of Putterill and his interest in astronomy). Fagan, Morton, and the academic historian Rodney Hilton also maintained a historical materialist tradition from (or sympathetic to) the CPGB.

Two pamphlets from the 600th anniversary

The 600th anniversary of the revolt in 1981 saw a brief resurgence in Ball’s popularity, where different leftist traditions (e.g., CPGB, SWP, anarchists, Labour left, independent leftist, etc.) took their place alongside radical Christians (e.g., Paul Oestreicher, Sydney Carter) and anti-apartheid leaders (e.g., Allan Boesak) in celebrating Ball as one of their own. Sydney Carter also wrote a folk song for the anniversary, ‘Sing John Ball,’ which is arguably the most influential reception of Ball in the past 50 years (see John Ball in Music). The new Poll Tax of 1989/1990 not only prompted riots but a renewed interest in Ball and other rebels against the poll tax just over 600 years earlier.

Image by David Simpkin, available at Spartacus Educational

Aside perhaps from the Morning Star and folk music, Ball is no longer an obvious historic figurehead for the Left, though there are still competing notions of what he represents today. Moreover, Ball and the 1381 uprising, and particularly their emergence in relationship to the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century, has also led to analogies to help interpret the world after Covid-19. Nevertheless, as a rule of thumb, the closer Ball gets to the liberal press (e.g., Guardian) or to the centre of the Labour Party, it is less likely that any violent or revolutionary ideas will be found as Ball has in recent years become associated with parliamentary reform.

There were hints of the old caffienated Ball returning closer to the political mainstream when Jeremy Corbyn was Labour leader —Corbyn himself wrote the foreword to Sean Michael Wilson and Robert Brown’s The Many Not the Few: An Illustrated History of Britain Shaped by the People (2019) which presents a fictional a discussion between a veteran trade unionist, Joe, and his granddaughter, Arushi, discussing the British radical and socialist tradition.

A summary does not, of course, do justice to the details and contexts of this story so, as ever, for a fuller account with critical analysis, see Spectres of John Ball.

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