Medieval illustration of John Ball encouraging Wat Tyler's rebels
|Died||15 July 1381 (aged 42/43)
|Known for||Peasants' Revolt|
He was born and lived in St. Albans, Hertfordshire, later moving to Norwich and then to Colchester during the Black Death. He also lived in Kent at the time of the 1381 rebellion. What is recorded of his adult life comes from hostile sources liable to exaggerate his political and Christian radicalism. He is said to have gained considerable fame as a roving preacher—a "hedge priest" without a parish or any cure linking him to the established order—by expounding the doctrines of John Wycliffe, and especially by his insistence on social equality.
His utterances brought him into conflict with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and he was thrown in prison on several occasions. He also appears to have been excommunicated; owing to which, in 1366 it was forbidden for anyone to hear him preach. These measures, however, did not moderate his opinions, nor diminish his popularity; his words had a considerable effect in fomenting a riot which broke out in June 1381. The chroniclers were convinced of widespread conspiracy implanted before the spontaneous uprising occurred, with the watchword "John the Miller grinds small, small, small" and the response "The King's son of heaven shall pay for all."
At the time that the uprising began, Ball was imprisoned at the Archbishop's Palace in Maidstone, Kent. He was released by the Kentish rebels. He preached to them at Blackheath (the insurgents' gathering place near Greenwich) in an open-air sermon that included the following:
Ball's famous first line "When Adam dug, and Eve span" was drawn from an earlier source, such as a poem on death in the Lincoln Thornton Manuscript. Some sources, unsympathetic to Ball, assert that he urged his audience to kill the principal lords of the kingdom and the lawyers, and that he was afterwards among those who rushed into the Tower of London to seize Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury. But Ball does not appear in most accounts after his speech at Blackheath.
When the rebels had dispersed, Ball was taken prisoner at Coventry, given a trial in which, unlike most, he was permitted to speak, and hanged, drawn and quartered at St Albans in the presence of King Richard II on 15 July 1381, his head subsequently stuck on a pike on London Bridge. Ball, who was called by Froissart "the mad priest of Kent," seems to have possessed the gift of rhyme. He voiced the feelings of a section of the discontented lower orders of society at that time, who chafed at villeinage and the lords' rights of unpaid labour, or corvée.
Ball and perhaps many of the rebels who followed him found some resonance between their ideas and goals and those of Piers Plowman, a key figure in a contemporary poem putatively by one William Langland. Ball put Piers and other characters from Langland's poem into his cryptically allegorical writings which may be prophecies, motivating messages, and/or coded instructions to his cohorts. This may have enhanced Langland's real or perceived radical and Lollard affinities as well as Ball's.
Ball appears as a character in the anonymous play "Jack Straw," published in London in 1593, which deals with the events of the Peasants' Revolt.
William Morris wrote a short story called 'Two extracts from a dream of John Ball', which was serialised in the Commonweal between November 1886 and February 1887. It was published in book form in 1888.
English songwriter Sydney Carter wrote an eponymously titled song about Ball which has been recorded by a number of artists.
There is a steep hill on the A5199 in Leicestershire, between Shearsby and Husbands Bosworth, which is colloquially called 'John Ball Hill'.
A tower chapel at the parish church of Thaxted in Essex was dedicated to John Ball under the Anglo-Catholic socialist vicar, Fr Conrad Noel (1910–1942).
The Bedfordshire on Sunday, a free local newspaper based in Bedford, runs a weekly column by a fictional journalist called John Ball's Diary, which features behind the scenes life in the office of the newspaper. The column is written by all the members of the editorial staff.
Ball made a star appearance in the Newbery Medal-winning 2002 novel, Crispin: The Cross of Lead. He was a priest, as he usually is, and was assisting a character by the name of Bear in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.
John Ball is referenced several times in T.H. White's The Once and Future King, most prominently in the fourth book, The Candle in the Wind. In the final chapter (Fourteen) King Arthur muses on his failure to unite England. King Arthur tries to understand what forces are at work that make mankind fight wars and references the "communism" of John Ball as a precursor to Mordred's Thrashers.
"When Adam dalf, and Eve span, who was thanne a gentilman? 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" and Ball ended by recommending "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."