Who was John Ball?
If there is one truth at the core of our society, one thing we can all point to and, regardless of political persuasion or background agree, it is perhaps we should all be seen as equal.
Equal opportunities, equal rights, equal before the law, we are all, despite our great differences of means and outlook, equal.
Or at least we hope we are.
Of course, it’s an illusion. Of course, there is difference, but we like to think our society is a meritocracy and anyone with hard work and will can achieve, and crucially can expect, to be treated as equals to those with a different starting point.
It wasn’t always so.
For many hundreds of years of recorded history, and goodness' knows how many of unrecorded prehistory before, some have shamelessly dominated while others have toiled, suffered and lived lives that were, as Thomas Hobbes once wrote, ‘nasty, brutish and short’.
Some would, of course, argue this situation has not changed as much as it should have done.
Although we should be wary of the rather Victorian tendency of seeing history as a story of unbroken progress, of things getting better, there are within English history key figures who stand out in the fight for equality, for fairness; Keir Hardie, Emmeline Pankhurst, Emily Davison, William Morris, Olaudah Equiano, Gerard Winstanley, John Lilburne, Thomas More, William Langland and, of course, right back at the start and long before all the rest, Colchester’s own John Ball.
Most people in the street might say mention Oliver Cromwell when asked who tried to carry out a revolution in this country but Cromwell was no revolutionary, or at least not in the modern social sense.
When asked at Putney in 1647 if all men could have the vote his response was almost derisory.
"The franchise," he said, should only be given to “those with a stake in the country”. By which he meant the wealthy.
No, the only person to lead a revolution, and certainly the first person in English history to argue all men should be treated equally was John Ball and I believe we don’t make nearly enough fuss of this great-grandfather of English socialism.
Ball was born in Peldon, and trained to be a priest in York before returning to Colchester.
While preaching at St James the Great in East Hill he made a name for himself as a troublemaker who would not maintain the statue quo.
He just believed all people should be treated equally – radical stuff for the fourteenth century.
Almost certainly his experiences of the Black Death as a boy would have influenced his development and his observations of the poor treatment of the workers who survived the plague only to be paid the same wage as before sharpened his political intolerance.
So much so that by 1381 this tub-thumper was not only ex-communicated and banned from public speaking but was also locked up on the orders of the Archbishop of Canterbury and King Edward III.
When the peasantry of England eventually decided it could take no more and rebelled, one of its first actions was to release Ball who was to become their ideological leader. He was to be made Archbishop in a radical, egalitarian overhaul of the established church.
In his sermon at Blackheath, this son of Colchester gave the first ever call for equality in English history.
“When Adam delved and Eve span,” he said, “who was then the Gentleman?”
In another speech, he added: ‘Things cannot go on well in England, nor ever will until everything shall be in common, when there shall be neither vassal nor lord, and all distinctions levelled; when the lords shall be no more masters than ourselves.”
This was and is radical stuff. He questioned why there should even be rich and poor. Five hundred years later a German named Marx would ask the exact same thing – but he, of course, is much more widely remembered.
The Peasants’ Revolt was betrayed by Richard II who went back on his word and cursed the rustics who had dared to seek equality and were as a consequence ‘not worthy to live’. Ball was tracked down and in the presence of the king himself hung drawn and quartered.
But despite what must have seemed like failure in 1381, I believe Ball started a flame in this country of equality, a desire to see fairness and for all to be treated alike.
This very English ideal which now spreads around the world was begun in the mind of a priest from Colchester who was the first person in western recorded history to call for social equality.
If you would like to know more of John Ball and his radical politics follow the link below to watch Melvyn Bragg's excellent documentary about his life. On this page you can also download a copy of an excellent booklet on John Ball published in 1981 by Colchester local historian Brian Bird. At present this is the only book dedicated to John Ball - something the John Ball Society is seeking to rectify.
You might also like to know that the one image we have of Ball, the one extensively used on this website, is from the Froissart Chronicles kept in the British Library. Painted nearly 100 years after the Peasants' Revolt the image is unlikely to be a faithful representation of John Ball.