Stephen Basdeo, The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler. Barnsley: Pen and Sword History, 2018. ISBN: 978-1526709790. Hardcover £19.99; $34.95. 261 pp.
Reviewed by Clare A. Simmons
The Ohio State University
To this day, descriptions of the coat of arms of the City of London insist that the red sword or dagger in the first quarter of the cross of St. George is not the weapon that the Mayor of London William Walworth used to kill Wat Tyler at Smithfield. Although little historically is known of this key figure in the Great Revolt of 1381, Wat Tyler retains some presence in English collective memory. In The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler Stephen Basdeo traces the afterlife of Wat Tyler as a symbol of popular resistance from the early modern era to the present. As the Preface states, this is not a work of medieval history, attempting to recover the “authentic” Wat Tyler, but a study of how the legend of Wat Tyler has been reworked and reused over the centuries in popular culture, visual art, literature, and polemical writing. As such it provides a useful case study demonstrating how a small supply of historical data can create a powerful cultural icon adaptable to different social and political contexts.
The first chapter covers the Great Revolt, which, as Basdeo notes, was not simply a matter of discontented “peasants” but a far more complex social movement; and what is known of Wat Tyler’s leadership of it. Basdeo does well in disambiguating Wat from other figures in the movement, including the shadowy Jack Straw, but his central interest is in the emergence of Wat Tyler as a folk hero. A story recurring frequently in later reimaginings depicts Wat as killing a tax-collector who attempted a sexual assault on his under-age daughter. As Basdeo remarks, this story is not found in the earliest accounts of the revolt, the first written version being found in the late Elizabethan chronicles of John Stow, where the name of the girl’s father is given as John Tiler or Tylar. It may be over-bold to declare this Stow’s “invention” (28), however, since by this time the revolt and Wat Tyler apparently had legendary status, Stow himself taking pains to refute the story about the arms of the City of London. Basdeo also passes over a detail recorded by some of the earliest chronicles that may have contributed to Wat’s status as a popular hero, namely, that after Walworth and his retainers had mortally wounded Wat, his companions took him to a nearby refuge; Walworth had him dragged out and beheaded without trial at Smithfield. Subsequent chapters move chronologically through representations of Wat Tyler. Chapter Two points out that the generally sympathetic depiction of the rebel leader (here named Jack Straw) and the teachings of John Ball in the 1593 play The Life and Death of Iacke Straw, A Notable Leader in England is “quite daring” at a time of heavy censorship (41). The few other depictions in the Early Modern period, though, tend to portray Wat and his fellow rebels as violating natural hierarchy and hence receiving their “Just Reward” (the title of one of the Civil War era retellings). Eighteenth-century versions generally took a similar approach; although perhaps some readers or audience members may have taken pleasure in seeing the status quo challenged, ultimately the fates of Wat Tyler and John Ball serve as a moral lesson to all tempted to join the “Mob” and disrupt the social order. Basdeo pinpoints the Romantic period as the time when Wat Tyler became an icon of rebellion against political oppression. Paintings by James Northcote and Jean Francis Rigaud, popularized through engravings reproduced in this volume, show a muscular, heroic Wat defending his rights and dying a martyr for the people. Wat Tyler became a locus for contrasting historical interpretation between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. Refreshingly, Robert Southey’s 1794 play, often mentioned as the embarrassing proof of Southey’s abandonment of the radical cause but seldom read in detail, is here analyzed for its content. Even though Southey found himself in an awkward position when radicals published his Wat Tyler in 1817, Basdeo with some justification sees Southey’s and Paine’s characterization of him as the turning point when Wat Tyler becomes “the symbol of a man who stood up to tyranny and fought for political rights” (101).
The following chapter, on “Radicalism and Chartism,” provides significant examples of occasions when Wat Tyler’s name was invoked, either positively or negatively, as the British people campaigned for the right to vote. At a time of new interest in the medieval period, Wat Tyler becomes both in ballads and polemical writing a martyred hero, the Chartists representing William Walworth not as the man who saved London from brutish rebels, but “the man who murdered Wat Tyler” (118). The chapter ends with an analysis of Pierce Egan the Younger’s Wat Tyler; or, The Rebellion of 1381: in this novel the conception of history is indebted to Sir Walter Scott, yet “Anglo-Saxons” provide a means of a sympathetic representation of Chartist concerns. Egan’s novels were published at a penny an episode, as were most of the other Chartist-era novels discussed in Chapter Six; hardly surprisingly, authors of works featuring Robin Hood were also inclined to find another popular hero in Wat Tyler. Although the “Wat Tyler” novels will be unfamiliar to many readers, this chapter contains perhaps a little too much plot summary. All the same, it makes the valid point that in the later Victorian period, the historical novel became increasingly a moral teaching tool for young people, and the radical tinge to the depiction of the events of 1381 began to fade. Still, as recently as the 1980s, when the Thatcher government replaced local property taxes with a “Community Tax” based on numbers, the public dubbed it a poll tax, protesters even adopting the slogan “AVENGE WAT TYLER” (169). The 1980s “poll tax” protests, like the Chartist movement of a century and a half earlier, demonstrate that the medieval past may be invoked not simply to maintain the status quo but also to claim civil rights.
This book should appeal to scholars of medievalism, to those interested in English folk-traditions, and to the general reader: the writing, although not always elegant, is free from jargon and historical contexts are explained simply but relevantly. For a modestly-priced volume, it contains an impressive number of well-analyzed illustrations and includes an appendix of ballads and other verse about Wat Tyler, bringing to life (or at least to the imagination) a man both historical and legendary.