Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ball, John (d.1381)

791391Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 03 — Ball, John (d.1381)1885James Gairdner

BALL, JOHN (d. 1381), priest, fomented the insurrection of Wat Tyler. Very little is known of his previous career, except that he had been preaching for twenty years and had been three times committed to the archbishop of Canterbury's prison for his indiscreet utterances. He was probably, therefore, over forty years of age when he became so conspicuous in history. His career seems to have commenced at York, where, he tells us, he was St. Mary's priest—probably attached to the abbey of St. Mary's. Afterwards he removed to Colchester. He was certainly living in Essex in the year 1366, when the dean of Bocking was ordered to cite him to appear before the archbishop of Canterbury, and to forbid persons attending his preaching (Wilkins, iii. 64). And ten years later we meet with an order for his arrest as an excommunicated person addressed to some of the clergy in the neighbourhood of Colchester (Patent Roll, 50 Edw. III. p. 2. m. 8 in dorso). All, however, had little effect; for, according to Walsingham, he preached things which he knew to be agreeable to the vulgar. His doctrines were in great part those of Wycliffe, especially about the right of withholding tithes from unworthy clergymen. But he added some of his own, among which (if it be not an exaggeration of his enemies) was the extraordinary opinion that no one was fit for the kingdom of God who was not born in matrimony. His popularity, however, was no doubt mainly due to his advocacy of the claims of bondsmen to be put on terms of equality with the gentry.

There was at that time a growing dissatisfaction with the laws which subjected the villeins to forced labour. 'We are all come,' they said, 'from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve. How can the gentry show that they are greater lords than we? Yet they make us labour for their pleasure.' It was this feeling that produced the insurrection of Wat Tyler, which broke out in June 1381. Ball was at that time lodged in the archbishop's prison at Maidstone, to which he had been committed probably about the end of April, as on the 26th of that month the archbishop issued a writ to his commissary to denounce him as an excommunicate (Wilkins, iii. 152). Formerly, it seems, he had been excommunicated by Archbishop Islip, and the sentence had never been annulled; yet, in defiance of all authority, he had gone about preaching in churches, churchyards, and market-places. It does not appear whether Islip was the archbishop who, according to Froissart, thought it was enough to chastise him with two or three months' imprisonment, and had the weakness to release him again. He excited the people not only by his preaching, but by a number of rhyming letters which passed about the country, some curious specimens of which have been preserved by Knighton and Walsingham. When committed to prison by Archbishop Sudbury he is said to have declared that he would be delivered by 20,000 friends. The prophecy was fulfilled; for, on the breaking out of the rebellion in Kent, one of the first acts of the insurgents was to deliver him from Maidstone gaol, whence they carried him in triumph to Canterbury. Here he expected to have met the archbishop who had committed him to prison, but he was then in London, where he was afterwards murdered by the rebels. The host then turned towards London, and as at Canterbury so also at Rochester, they met with an enthusiastic reception. At Blackheath, Ball preached to them from the famous text—

When Adam dalf, and Eve span,
Wo was thanne a gentilman? —

in which, as distinctly alleged by contemporary writers, he incited the multitude to kill all the principal lords of the kingdom, the lawyers, and all whom they should in future find to be destructive to the common weal. The project was clearly to set up a new order of things founded on social equality — a theory which in the whole history of the middle ages appears for the first and last time in connection with this movement. The existing law and all its upholders were looked upon as public enemies, and every attorney's house was destroyed on the line of march. The Marshalsea prison was demolished and all the prisoners set free. John of Gaunt's magnificent palace, the Savoy, was burned to the ground. The rebels took possession of London and compelled the king and his mother to take refuge in the Tower. Nor were they safe even there from molestation, as the reader of history knows. John Ball is mentioned among those who rushed in when the Tower gates were thrown open, when Archbishop Sudbury was seized and beheaded just after saying mass before the king. But the reign of violence was short-lived. The great body of the rebels deserted their leaders and went home on a promise of pardon, but a considerable number still remained when Tyler had his celebrated interview with the King at Smithfield. At that interview Ball was present, and probably saw his leader fall under the sword of Sir William Walworth. He afterwards fled to the midland counties and was taken at Coventry—'hidden in an old ruin,' says Froissart. He was brought before the king at St. Albans, where he was sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered as a traitor. The sentence seems to have been promptly carried out, and the king himself witnessed its execution at St. Albans on 15 July. The four quarters, after the barbarous fashion of those days, were sent to four different towns to be publicly exhibited.

[Walsingham's Historia Anglicana, il. 32-34; Knighton (in Twysden's Scriptores Decem), 2633-8; Froissart (Johnes's Translation), ii. 460-80. In Maurice's 'English Popular Leaders,' vol. ii., a slight memoir of Ball is given, in which a more favourable view is taken of his character.]

J. G.