The story of two priests
The year 1381 will always be remembered for the uprising known as the Peasants Revolt, in which the peasants rose up against a series of Poll Taxes, which had been introduced. These taxes pitted the will of the king against the people, lighting the fire of rebellion. Two of the key players in this story were priests, whose status and views would be brought together in this bloody uprising. Neither would survive the year! The first, a preacher called John Ball, and the other, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Theobald.
John Ball, was born in Peldon around 1330, and trained 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 Church on East Hill. John preached against the Feudal System, calling for equality in all people, speaking out against the divide of rich versus poor. By 1364 he had been excommunicated and was forbidden to preach in church, opting instead to preach outside them or in the street. With his change in status, he embarked upon the life of a travelling preacher, to spread his message to the people. His preaching’s often brought him into conflict with the church and he was regularly imprisoned for being outspoken.
Simon Theobald was born in Sudbury around the year 1316, and was a career priest, becoming one of the chaplains to Pope Innocent VI in Rome. Whilst working for the pope, he was sent to England to persuade Edward III, to start peace negotiations with France in order to end the conflict which had begun in 1337. As a reward for his services, Simon was appointed bishop of London by Innocent VI in 1361 later becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 1375, crowning Richard 111 in 1377.
England was still at war with France, which was expensive, and the country didn’t have enough money to pay for it. In 1377 a Poll Tax was introduced at a flat rate of 4d for ordinary workers rising to 20 shillings for wealthy merchants. The yield from this rate wasn’t enough to pay for this war, so in 1379 another Poll Tax was introduced. Again, this tax didn’t raise enough money either. In 1380, a third poll tax was introduced with a flat rate of 12d per person, which for many tenant farmers and workers was unaffordable. This in turn lead to tax avoidance by the people, who began to rise up against their king and the newly appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, Simon Theobald.
This news gave John Ball more to preach about, and became more outspoken with his words, speaking out against this unfair system as he toured Kent. Naturally, this brought him into conflict with the bishops who had him imprisoned, this time in Maidstone. Ball’s preaching had been noticed by a man called Watt Tyler, who thought this system to be too unfair and set about rising the people to march on London, protesting against this tax. Tyler and Ball, set about a series of events, which would bring them into direct conflict with the establishment and bring about their own deaths within weeks!
The rebel army marched upon London where they met the King, who listened to their demands. On 14th June, they stormed the Tower of London, entering St. Johns Chapel in the White Tower where Simon was at Prayer. He was dragged from there and up onto Tower Hill where he was beheaded by eight strokes of the axe! His head was spiked on London Bridge for all to see. The following day, Tyler’s head was displayed there also.
Meanwhile John Ball had slipped away but was caught a few weeks later in Coventry. He was taken for trial at St. Albans, confessing to all the charges against him and sentenced to a traitor’s death of hanging, drawing and quartering. He died on 15th July outside St. Alban’s Abbey in front of a large crowd, including the king.
Following the revolt, Simon’s body was taken to Canterbury where it was buried with great ceremony at the cathedral. But instead of a head they buried him with a cannon ball, because Simon’s head had been taken and returned to Sudbury his family home. His skull can still be seen today in the vestry of St. Gregory’s Church.
John Ball is remembered in Colchester by a simple wooden plaque on the east wall inside the church of St. James on East Hill. The inscription reads: sometime preacher of this church who died on 15th July 1381. Colchester should remember John Ball, for standing up for what he believed in and honour his memory within the town.