Peasants' Revolt: The time when women took up arms
- 14 June 2012
- From the section Magazine
Until now the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 is largely believed to have been led by a mob of rebel men, but new research shows women played an important role in orchestrating violence against the government.
Today people are used to the idea of women being in the military. Some are already pressing for the right to fight on the front line.
And women fighting as insurgents has been a fact of conflicts from Vietnam to Sri Lanka.
But there's a growing feeling historians have overlooked their role in medieval rebellions like 1381's Peasants Revolt.
On 14 June 1381, rebels dragged Lord Chancellor Simon of Sudbury from the Tower of London and brutally beheaded him. Outraged by his hated poll tax, the insurgents had stormed into London looking for him, plundering and burning buildings as they went.
It was the leader of the group who arrested Sudbury and dragged him to the chopping block, ordering that he be beheaded.
Her name was Johanna Ferrour.
In court documents she was described as "chief perpetrator and leader of rebellious evildoers from Kent". She also ordered the death of the treasurer, Robert Hales.
As well as leading the rebels into London, she was charged with burning the Savoy Palace - the grandest townhouse in London at the time - and stealing a chest of gold from a duke.
So why are women like Ferrour largely hidden from popular history, yet charismatic rebel leaders such as the "mad priest" John Ball and Wat Tyler dominate in the history books?
Some historians now suggest that sexist attitudes permeated medieval history. By translating Latin court records, Sylvia Federico, Associate Professor of English at Bates College, was able to establish that women were often at the heart of the revolt.
From records held at the National Archives in Kew she discovered they did "almost everything" that men did - they incited crowds, chased their enemies and marched into London alongside the men.
"They were not shy to pick up staffs, sticks, and staves and wield them against perceived oppressors," says Federico.
One female leader was accused of encouraging a group to attack the prison at Maidstone in Kent, another of leading rebels to plunder a number of mansions, leaving servants too scared to return.
Theft, looting, and intimidation of neighbours were further charges. But criminal acts like this were hardly noted because of skewed history, says Federico.
Medieval women were seen by contemporaneous chroniclers and later historians as housewives and mothers and not deemed political. If their role in the conflict had been more widely recognised, the revolt might have seemed more trivial, Federico argues.
"The frequency and significance of women's participation is striking compared with scholars' silence on the topic."
Historian and author Dr John Ridgard is also frustrated that there are so few studies on the lives of medieval peasant women.
Despite this, he found reference to 70 women rebels in Suffolk alone. Female rebels were certainly in the minority, a mere 4% in Suffolk, but they nevertheless played a significant role, says Federico.
There were a few women who took leading roles during the revolt but the majority were there as part of the general mob.
The beheading of the Chief Justice John Cavendish for example, came about after a woman - Katherine Gamen - untied the boat he hoped to escape in. Court records state that the mob then "seized upon him".
Ridgard remarks that "two of the men most hated by the general population of England - Sudbury and Cavendish - were both brought to 'natural justice' by women".
The poll tax of 1380, which sparked the revolt, was much tougher on married women as they were taxed separately from their husbands, regardless of their income or employment status.
But although women were at the heart of the violence and charged with many of the same crimes as men, Ridgard has found no records of women being executed, or punished as harshly.
Historian and presenter Michael Wood says it should come as no surprise that "strong minded local characters were just as articulate and vociferous [as men] in pushing the peasants' claims".
But it is surprising, says Wood, that women were involved in the more shocking acts of violence, and it demonstrates their hatred for "the figureheads of an unjust government".
It must be remembered, he adds, that events like the revolt are usually only told from the perspective of the ruling class and the victors.
"It's a part of history that has remained unwritten for a long time. It's not just the Peasants' Revolt, it's the whole of our history."
The axe mark on Simon of Sudbury's head is still clearly visible on his skull, which remains on display in his home town as a permanent reminder of the revolt.
But as for the woman who played a vital role in his murder, there is no evidence she was ever convicted.