Your RDA of Irony

Incompetent Bureaucrats and Overachieving Fleas

June 14, 1381: The Chancellor of England Overestimates His Popularity

Simon of Sudbury really was an innocuous, well-meaning sort. In our day, he would have found fulfillment as a vice president of human resources. Unfortunately, he did not live in an innocuous, well-meaning time. The 14th century was anything but. However, Simon’s ineffectuality was his charm.

John of Gaunt liked the hapless and affable English cleric. The Duke was a critic of the Church, practically a Proto-Protestant, and it suited his heretical proclivities to have the passive Simon as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Simon also seemed the Duke’s ideal candidate for Chancellor of England. The compliant Simon would do the bidding of his royal patrons, levy another poll tax (the third) on the peasantry and try to reestablish a strict application of serfdom. But the serfs were not as compliant as Simon was.

The Bubonic Plague had turned out to be quite a liberal development. Half of the peasantry had died, and the survivors realized that their luck also extended to supply and demand. The supply of labor was now limited, so it could exact greater demands from the nobility. The peasants might now expect to be treated as well as the livestock. Some even demanded the end of serfdom. Of course, the nobility resisted. It tried to reimpose the legal shackles on the peasantry. The monarchy thought that additional taxes might restrain the peasants’ upward aspirations. Instead, those taxes incited a peasant revolt in 1381.

A peasant horde terrorized the nobility, swept aside the barely organized resistance and marched on London. Ransacking the capital, the peasants destroyed government offices and killed any bureaucrats they captured. Simon of Sudbury was among them. Being an Archbishop, he thought that the mob might show some deference to him. His head was ripped off. (Would I be so cruel as to call that deed a head tax?)  

The mob demanded an audience with the young king, Richard II. In what turned out to be the high point of an otherwise abysmal reign, the royal youth confronted the mob and demonstrated a majesty and courage that impressed his subjects. He addressed the peasants, representing himself as their advocate and leader, and promising to fulfill their demands. Awed and gratified, the mob dispersed and returned to their homes. Richard really had no intention of honoring those promises but he didn’t have the power to reestablish the status quo either. For all practical purposes, serfdom had ended in England.

Leave a Reply