If, as it would appear, John Ball, the visionary social reformer, who first raised the standard of revolt against injustice and tyranny, was born in Peldon, may not Peldon have contributed in the fourteenth century, the greatest of all Essex sons?
So asks Kay Gilmour in her manuscript Peldon Village Over The Marshes of the man who was to be one of the leaders of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt.
It is believed that John Ball was born in Peldon circa 1330 and at about the age of 19 went up to York to train in
the priesthood at St. Mary's Benedictine Abbey in York, which had a connection to St. John's Abbey in Colchester. He
returned to Colchester around the year 1360 and was one of the priests at St James the Great Church on East Hill. He
was never parish priest at St James, another clergyman with the same name, and possibly related, was an incumbent there. The separate identity of this other John Ball is confirmed by church records that report his death in 1394, thirteen years after the death of the rebel John Ball. Peldon's John Ball was a parochial chaplain, equivalent to a curate's assistant, and his involvement with St James has been, in modern times, proudly commemorated with a simple wooden plaque on the south wall of the church along with a display of articles and pamphlets. The plaque reads
IN MEMORY OF
at this church. Co-leader
of the peasants' revolt
Executed at St. Albans
on 15th July, 1381
A modern carved wooden relief commemorating John Ball in St. James' Church, East Hill, Colchester
It is believed John Ball lived in the Dutch quarter and his name is also remembered in the name John Ball Walk.
His origins in Peldon are indicated by entries in Colchester's Court Rolls. On 31st May 1350 a John Balle, son of William Balle of Peldon signed a document releasing to his widowed mother, Joan, some property held by him between East Stockwell Street and West Stockwell Street in Colchester.
The transference of the property could not take place until he came of age but it is recorded at the Hundred Court held on 30th January 1352, two years later, that Joan, widow of William Balle of Peldon produced a charter before the bailiffs, which John, son and heir, coming of age and being admitted tenant, acknowledged. The charter was as follows
Grant by John, son and heir of William Balle of Peldon, to Joan his mother, of a tenement in Colchester between Estockwellstreet and West Stockwellstreet for life
Six months later, on 23rd July 1352, at the same Court, Joan granted this tenement, (described as being in St Martin's Parish, Colchester) to Thomas of Nayland.
Following his ordination, John Ball clearly returned to Colchester. In his own writings, he refers to himself
as sometime Saint Mary priest of York and now of Colchester.
Much as St James's church celebrates Ball's connection with the church now, it was a different matter then and his post at the church did not last long.
In 1364 it is recorded that he was ex-communicated by Simon of Sudbury, Bishop of London and subsequently The Archbishop of Canterbury.
In 1366, the Dean of Bocking was ordered to cite him to appear before the Archbishop of Canterbury, and to forbid people to attend his preaching.
Ten years later, there was an order for his arrest as an excommunicate priest, addressed to some of the clergy in the neighbourhood of Colchester Rev Brian Bird A Colchester Rebel
His inflammatory sermons and letters led to him being forbidden to preach in churches, instead preaching outside them or in the street. He embarked upon the life of a travelling preacher, to spread his message to the people. His preaching often brought him into conflict with the church and he was regularly imprisoned for being outspoken. He spoke out against the feudal system and serfdom, preaching equality for all and it is believed it was in Colchester where he began organising resistance with Wat Tyler, another leader of the Peasants' Revolt. Wat Tyler Way in the Dutch Quarter commemorates Tyler's connection with Colchester.
Another entry in the Colchester Court Rolls of 11th May 1377 tells us that John Ball was living in East Street along with a fellow chaplain, John Proude. They had made a complaint against their landlord, William Crabbe, whom they accused of entering their house and, by force, removing some of their belongings in lieu of unpaid rent.
On 9th August 1377 the Court Rolls record that John was assaulted by two men who pleaded that they did so in self-defence.
In 1377 a Poll Tax was introduced to raise money for a new army in the war with France, and every lay person over 14 who was not a beggar had to pay a groat (4d) to the Crown. The yield from this rate didn't produce enough to pay for the war with France, so in 1379 another Poll Tax was introduced. Again, this tax didn't raise enough money. In 1381, a third poll tax was introduced with a flat rate of 12d per person on the entire population over the age of 15, which for many tenant farmers and labourers was unaffordable and led to tax avoidance. Meanwhile, attempts to restore feudal conditions in rural areas caused much discontent amongst agricultural workers. The simmering resentment felt by the labouring class just needed a spark to light the fire.
That catalyst was the visit by a King's official, John Bampton, to Brentwood on 30th May 1381 to assess why the expected revenue from taxes was less than expected. Upon demanding payment from the men of Fobbing, Stanford le Hope and Corringham, Bampton was told they had already paid; the angry mob then stoned the commissioner and his men, driving them out of the town. The man subsequently sent in to investigate the incident and punish the rioters, Sir Robert Belknap, arriving on Whit Sunday, 2nd June, was also sent packing.
This event was the trigger of what became a mass uprising known as The Peasants' Revolt. As David Stephenson writes in Essex Aflame 1381
Essex men formed both the head and the backbone of the peasant army which rose in arms against royal taxes imposed by Richard II
Groups of peasants, soldiers, and tradespeople from all over the country, especially the South East, started to head for London to make demands for reform and protest against taxes. They had utmost faith in the teenage King Richard and went in the expectation he would listen to their demands. It was his government and church officials they considered as corrupt and at the root of the problem and many of these were sought out and attacked during the uprising.
At this time, John Ball was incarcerated in the Archbishop's prison at Maidstone having been arrested in April, accused of seditious preaching in Kent. He was released on 7th June by some of the rebels marching on London.
By the evening of 12th June an estimated contingent of 10,000 from Kent was encamped at Blackheath while several thousand Essex men had assembled on fields at Mile End.
John Ball's most famous speech at Blackheath on 12th June 1381 told how the bondage and servitude of man was contrary to God's will
When Adam delved and Eve span who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.
An image from the Chronicles of Froissart showing John Ball preaching
The story of the events in the Peasants' Revolt march on London has been retold many times and further reading is given at the end.
The march on London was only part of this grass roots uprising. All over the county, gangs set about destroying records of manorial courts, which recorded the unfree status of so many of the peasants. On 10th June 1381 there were attacks on properties of royal officials, including Cressing Temple and Coggeshall. A mob attacked St Johns Abbey in Colchester. Here in Peldon on 12th June
A more unusual victim was Edmund De La Mare, whose house at Peldon on the Northern shore of the Blackwater estuary
was broken into by a company of rebels led by Ralph atte Wode of Bradwell there they 'despoiled him of all his goods
and chattels' but also carried off a 'writ patent of the King with all the muniments touching the office of Admiral
upon the sea' Instead of burning the writ, however, they stuck it on a pitchfork and allegedly had it carried before
them all the way to London for the meeting with the King at Mile End, and then back to Peldon again. This was clearly
a symbolic action, perhaps intended to show that Ralph atte Wode had claimed the office of admiral from De La Mare.
Juliet Barker England Arise: The People, the King and the Great Revolt of 1381
Edmund (De La Mare) may have been a target simply as a minister of the government responsible for the poll tax, though he may also have been held accountable for the vulnerability of the channel ports to naval attack. R H C Davis Studies in Medieval History
Juliet Barker surmises that Ralph atte Wood was in fact from Bradwell on Sea, not the Bradwell near Braintree, and being in a coastal village had crossed swords with Edmund de La Mare before
over the seizure of his boats or their cargo, or because he had been prevented from carrying out his trade by the French ships which plagued the South East coast. Whether his reasons were personal or political he received a pardon on 20th April 1382 but when he produced it before the court to secure his release he was recommitted to prison while consideration was given as to whether his action in assuming royal office to himself put him outside the scope of the general amnesty.
The Court Rolls of the Abbey of St John's in Colchester and those of the Wivenhoe Manor were burned by the rebels.
In the Leger of St John's Abbey, Colchester, an entry dated 1440 refers to the
'removed' documents or 'rolls' rotula removata pertaining to Peldon. Surely these were the documents burned in
the attack on the abbey during the Peasants' Revolt? To replace the lost information from those documents, the most
senior men of the local Hundred, with the longest and most reliable memories, were called upon to assist.
Walteri Tibenham de Langeho, Johannis Badcok de Abburton, Johannis Marchond senioris, de Peldon etc were
asked to list those lands from which the Rector of Peldon received tithes. By consulting other tenants they were able
to list tenements, lands, meadows, grassland and pastures in Peldon and Pete; the leger gives a long list of field names.
The burning and destruction of West Mersea, Fingringhoe and Pete Hall's Manorial documents is recorded very much
later in a document in Norman-French which was shown to Colchester historian Gurney Benham around 1913. He
transcribed the indenture between John de Ramsey, Prior of Mersey, and his tenants, and assessed its
handwriting was of the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century.
Pete Manor (often spelt Peet) owned property and land in Peldon; there were two other Peldon Manors, Peldon Hall Manor and Peldon Rectory Manor.
Whereas the said tenants have burnt and destroyed all the Rolls, Domesdayes, and valuations (Domesdayes et Extents)
and every manner of other evidences by which the said Prior and his officers (Ministers) ought to distrain and raise
the rent (lever la Rent), and the ancient customs and Services due to the Prior of Mersey, that the said tenants
shall at their own proper cost (a leur propre Costages) between this and the feast of Christmas next, assemble either all at one time, or on two or three times, according to their best advice, and shall have with them one Clerk or two, at the choice of the Prior, and at their own proper cost shall cause to be made a new valuation (un novell extent) well and loyally (bien et loialement) of all the ancient customs, rents, and services and all other manner of thing whatsoever in acknowledgment of the ancient right belonging to his Priory called Mersey, and shall deliver the said valuation to the said Prior or to his Council. And the said tenants shall perform well and rightly all the ancient Customs and Services at the periods due and assigned by the said Prior over his officers and shall well and loyally pay their rent to the said Prior or his officers at the due periods, without withholding or refusing the said rights or any of them.
Essex Archaeological Society Volume XIII Part IV Gurney Benham
The document referred to as being commissioned here is likely to be the original from which was copied the existing
Custumal for West Mersea, Fingringhoe and Pete dated 1497 kept at the Essex Record Office D/DU 491/22
Such a major event in our history, (some see it as a defining moment), was to last just over a month and many, including its leaders were killed. John Ball, who had fled to Coventry was arrested on 13th July and hung drawn and quartered on 15th July 1381 at St Albans. By November that year over 1,500 rebels had been killed.
Although the Revolt's demands were not met, this grass roots movement was part of a process of breaking up feudalism. It championed the working man and the desire for freedom and equality which are at the heart of today's democracy. In the Poll tax protests of the 1980s, 600 year later, the Peasants' Revolt was a potent symbol for the political left.
On July 15th 1981, the 600th anniversary of John Ball's death a plaque was erected in the Dutch Quarter, Colchester on the wall of a house believed to have been where John Ball lived. This was later removed at the request of the home owner and lost for some time. Then, found by the Civic Society and restored by stonemasons, it was re-erected on a purpose-built stand. The unveiling of this plaque on 15th July 2017 tied in with a day's events to celebrate John Ball's life. Moves are afoot to have a John Ball statue in Colchester.
Peldon History project
Réville, André (1898) Étude sur le Soulèvement de 1381 dans les Comtés de Hertford, de Suffolk et de Norfolk (in French). Paris: A. Picard and sons. OCLC 162490454.
"Essex Aflame" David Stephenson (article in Essex Countryside)
"A Colchester Rebel" Rev Brian Bird
"Peldon Village Over the Marshes" Kay Gilmour
"Studies in Medieval History" R H C Davis
"The Great Revolt of 1381" by Charles Oman
"England Arise: The People, the King and the Great Revolt of 1381" by Juliet Barker
The Leger Book of St John's Abbey, Colchester by Rev Canon J L Fisher. Essex Archaeological Society Transactions New Series 24 pp 77 -127
Dictionary of World Biography: the Middle Ages
wikimedia.org - photograph of Colchester plaque to John Ball by Rosemary Jewers