The Letters of John Ball

There are letters attributed to John Ball in the chronicles of Thomas Walsingham and Henry Knighton, which, alongside the famous Adam and Eve couplet, are tellingly recorded in English. They contain what appears to be coded references and allusions to Piers Plowman (an online critical edition of which is available here), as well as potential clues to the thinking of Ball, or those in similar circles, at the time of the uprising. The versions quoted here are from R.B. Dobson (ed.), The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, 380-83, but see also G. H. Martin (ed.), Knighton’s Chronicle 1337-1396 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) and John Taylor, Wendy R. Childs, and Leslie Watkiss (eds.), The St Albans Chronicle: The Chronica maiora of Thomas Walsingham: Volume I 1376-1394 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

Walsingham (Chronica maiora 548–549):

Moreover, he had sent a certain letter, full of obscurities, to the leaders of the commons in Essex, encouraging them to finish what they had begun. Afterwards this letter was found in the tunic of a man who was to be hanged for his share in the disturbances, and it ran as follows:

‘lohon Schep, som tyme Seynte Marie prest of York, and now of Colchestre, greteth wel lohan Nameles, and lohan the Mullere, and lohon Cartere, and biddeth hem that thei bee war of gyle in borugh, and stondeth togidre in Godes name, and biddeth Peres Ploughman go to his werk, and chastise wel Hobbe the Robbere, and taketh with yow lohan Trewman, and alle hiis felawes, and no mo, and loke schappe you to on heued, and no mo.

lohan the Mullere hath ygrounde smal, smal, smal;

The Kynges sone of heuene schal paye for al.

Be war or ye be wo;

Knoweth your freend fro your foo;

Haueth ynow, and seith “Hoo”;

And do wel and bettre, and fleth synne.

And seketh pees, and hold you therinne;

And so biddeth lohan Trewman and alle his felawes.’

John Ball confessed that he had written this letter and sent it to the commons; and he admitted that he had written many others. Therefore, as we have said, he was hanged, drawn and beheaded at St Albans on 15 July in the king’s presence; and the four quarters of his corpse were sent to four cities in the kingdom.

Knighton (Chronicle 174–175; 220–225):

Exemplar of a Letter of John Ball

Jon Balle gretyth yow wele alle and doth yowe to understande, he hath rungen youre belle. Nowe ryght and myght, wylle and skylle. God spede every ydele. Nowe is tyme. Lady helpe to Ihesu thi sone, and thi sone to his fadur, to make a gode ende, in the name of the Trinite of that is begunne amen, amen, pur charite, amen.

First Letter of John Balle

John Balle seynte Marye prist gretes wele alle maner men and byddes hem in the name of the Trinite, Fadur, and Sone and Holy Gost stonde manlyche togedyr in trewthe, and helpez trewthe, and trewthe schal helpe yowe. Now regnith pride in pris, and covetys is hold wys, and leccherye withouten shame and glotonye withouten blame. Envye regnith with tresone, and slouthe is take in grete sesone. God do bote, for nowe is tyme amen.

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