I’m never sure about getting books by Juliet Barker. Bernard Cornwell recommended her book on Agincourt quite highly, so I obviously began by buying the sequel, Conquest, about the English ruled land in France in the decades after the battle. This wasn’t a glamorous book – England falls, France rises and the kingdom stutters to an ignominious defeat. Barker showed a great head for numbers – money and men were thrown at the kingdom, but never as much as was needed.
Agincourt was a more heroic book, but again Barker carefully separated the myth and the fact, and fleshed out the war with logistics and figures. The attention to detail was interesting to read, but at times hard to push through – although she kept both books fairly concise, they do not feel like a light read.
England, Arise (from 2014), her take on the 1381 “Peasants’ Revolt”, fills a similar role. The myth is one of John Ball, Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and a proto-protestant, proto-communist revolt by the oppressed masses. As ever, it is more complicated than that.
The background to the trouble was one of financial trouble for the kingdom, as it struggled to pay for faltering wars in France – Barker has tread similar ground before, but here she gets to show the effect on the people. In the aftermath of the plague, wages should have increased (and informally did) but this was opposed by restrictive laws and taxes. Corruption was rife. A series of taxes were imposed in an attempt to raise money to continue the wars abroad, but bad organisation and a young king led to increasing resentment against the aristocrats and bureaucrats.
This eventually spilled over into what Barker concludes was a co-ordinated and organised uprising by the men of Kent and Essex, beginning in Brentwood (now better known for TOWIE). There was not a wholesale slaughter, the targets were focussed – officials or landowners seen as greedy or corrupt. In many cases the rebels simply went after the documentation, in an attempt to revoke land grabs or unfair dealings. There was looting of course, but this was no out of control mob.
The young king Richard II met the rebellion and promptly agreed to all their demands, giving them encouragement to continue doing what they believed was the king’s work. He changed his mind some time later, while safely out of harms way. Barker concludes though that his sympathies may have lay closer to the rebels than often portrayed. The revocation came late and only under the direction of his council – this forced retreat may have helped form his later hostility to much of the aristocracy.
The other big names of 1381 play only small roles here. Little is known about Tyler, and less about Jack Straw. John Ball is present, but the best known parts are made up, and the role of religion in the uprising may be overstated by sources later trying to discredit the rebels and religious factions like the Lollards – John Wycliffe, the influential founder of this movement, disapproved of the revolt and was closely linked to many of its targets.
Like her other books, this is an authoritative and detailed account – but sometimes a bit too detailed, and it is easy to get lost in anecdotes or sidetracks about medieval customs and culture. The lack of myth and legend is justified throughout, but does feel a little disappointing – it never really sparks to life. It does, however, probably leave me better prepared to go and read some trashy Hollywood version with all the great speeches and quotes reinserted!