Sunday, October 21, 2007



I. The Men of Kent
II. The Man from Essex
III. They Meet at the Cross
IV. The Voice of John Ball
V. They hear Tidings of Battle and make them Ready
VI. The Battle at the Township's End
VII. More Words at the Cross
VIII. Supper at Will Green's
IX. Betwixt the Living and them Dead
X. Those Two Talk of the Days to Come
XI. Hard it is for the Old World to see the New
XII. Ill would Change be at Whiles were it not for the
Change beyond the Change
Sometimes I am rewarded for fretting myself so much about present
matters by a quite unasked-for pleasant dream. I mean when I am
asleep. This dream is as it were a present of an architectural
peep-show. I see some beautiful and noble building new made, as
it were for the occasion, as clearly as if I were awake; not
vaguely or absurdly, as often happens in dreams, but with all the
detail clear and reasonable. Some Elizabethan house with its
scrap of earlier fourteenth-century building, and its later
degradations of Queen Anne and Silly Billy and Victoria,
marring but not destroying it, in an old village once a clearing
amid the sandy woodlands of Sussex. Or an old and unusually
curious church, much churchwardened, and beside it a fragment of
fifteenth-century domestic architecture amongst the not
unpicturesque lath and plaster of an Essex farm, and looking
natural enough among the sleepy elms and the meditative hens
scratching about in the litter of the farmyard, whose trodden
yellow straw comes up to the very jambs of the richly carved
Norman doorway of the church. Or sometimes 'tis a splendid
collegiate church, untouched by restoring parson and architect,
standing amid an island of shapely trees and flower-beset
cottages of thatched grey stone and cob, amidst the narrow
stretch of bright green water-meadows that wind between the
sweeping Wiltshire downs, so well beloved of William Cobbett. Or
some new-seen and yet familiar cluster of houses in a grey
village of the upper Thames overtopped by the delicate tracery
of a fourteenth-century church; or even sometimes the very
buildings of the past untouched by the degradation of the sordid
utilitarianism that cares not and knows not of beauty and
history: as once, when I was journeying (in a dream of the night)
down the well-remembered reaches of the Thames betwixt Streatley
and Wallingford, where the foothills of the White Horse fall back
from the broad stream, I came upon a clear-seen mediaeval town
standing up with roof and tower and spire within its walls, grey
and ancient, but untouched from the days of its builders of old.
All this I have seen in the dreams of the night clearer than I
can force myself to see them in dreams of the day. So that it
would have been nothing new to me the other night to fall into an
architectural dream if that were all, and yet I have to tell of
things strange and new that befell me after I had fallen asleep.
I had begun my sojourn in the Land of Nod by a very confused
attempt to conclude that it was all right for me to have an
engagement to lecture at Manchester and Mitcham Fair Green at
half-past eleven at night on one and the same Sunday, and that I
could manage pretty well. And then I had gone on to try to make
the best of addressing a large open-air audience in the costume I
was really then wearing--to wit, my night-shirt, reinforced for
the dream occasion by a pair of braceless trousers. The
consciousness of this fact so bothered me, that the earnest faces
of my audience--who would NOT notice it, but were clearly
preparing terrible anti-Socialist posers for me--began to fade
away and my dream grew thin, and I awoke (as I thought) to find
myself lying on a strip of wayside waste by an oak copse just
outside a country village.
I got up and rubbed my eyes and looked about me, and the
landscape seemed unfamiliar to me, though it was, as to the lie
of the land, an ordinary English low-country, swelling into
rising ground here and there. The road was narrow, and I was
convinced that it was a piece of Roman road from its
straightness. Copses were scattered over the country, and there
were signs of two or three villages and hamlets in sight besides
the one near me, between which and me there was some orchardland,
where the early apples were beginning to redden on the
trees. Also, just on the other side of the road and the ditch
which ran along it, was a small close of about a quarter of an
acre, neatly hedged with quick, which was nearly full of white
poppies, and, as far as I could see for the hedge, had also a
good few rose-bushes of the bright-red nearly single kind, which
I had heard are the ones from which rose-water used to be
distilled. Otherwise the land was quite unhedged, but all under
tillage of various kinds, mostly in small strips. From the other
side of a copse not far off rose a tall spire white and brandnew,
but at once bold in outline and unaffectedly graceful and
also distinctly English in character. This, together with the
unhedged tillage and a certain unwonted trimness and handiness
about the enclosures of the garden and orchards, puzzled me for a
minute or two, as I did not understand, new as the spire was, how
it could have been designed by a modern architect; and I was of
course used to the hedged tillage and tumbledown bankrupt-looking
surroundings of our modern agriculture. So that the garden-like
neatness and trimness of everything surprised me. But after a
minute or two that surprise left me entirely; and if what I saw
and heard afterwards seems strange to you, remember that it did
not seem strange to me at the time, except where now and again I
shall tell you of it. Also, once for all, if I were to give you
the very words of those who spoke to me you would scarcely
understand them, although their language was English too, and at
the time I could understand them at once.
Well, as I stretched myself and turned my face toward the
village, I heard horse-hoofs on the road, and presently a man and
horse showed on the other end of the stretch of road and drew
near at a swinging trot with plenty of clash of metal. The man
soon came up to me, but paid me no more heed than throwing me a
nod. He was clad in armour of mingled steel and leather, a sword
girt to his side, and over his shoulder a long-handled bill-hook.
His armour was fantastic in form and well wrought; but by this
time I was quite used to the strangeness of him, and merely
muttered to myself, "He is coming to summon the squire to the
leet;" so I turned toward the village in good earnest. Nor,
again, was I surprised at my own garments, although I might well
have been from their unwontedness. I was dressed in a black
cloth gown reaching to my ankles, neatly embroidered about the
collar and cuffs, with wide sleeves gathered in at the wrists; a
hood with a sort of bag hanging down from it was on my head, a
broad red leather girdle round my waist, on one side of which
hung a pouch embroidered very prettily and a case made of hard
leather chased with a hunting scene, which I knew to be a pen and
ink case; on the other side a small sheath-knife, only an arm in
case of dire necessity.
Well, I came into the village, where I did not see (nor by this
time expected to see) a single modern building, although many of
them were nearly new, notably the church, which was large, and
quite ravished my heart with its extreme beauty, elegance, and
fitness. The chancel of this was so new that the dust of the
stone still lay white on the midsummer grass beneath the carvings
of the windows. The houses were almost all built of oak framework
filled with cob or plaster well whitewashed; though some had
their lower stories of rubble-stone, with their windows and doors
of well-moulded freestone. There was much curious and
inventive carving about most of them; and though some were old
and much worn, there was the same look of deftness and trimness,
and even beauty, about every detail in them which I noticed
before in the field-work. They were all roofed with oak
shingles, mostly grown as grey as stone; but one was so newly
built that its roof was yet pale and yellow. This was a corner
house, and the corner post of it had a carved niche wherein stood
a gaily painted figure holding an anchor--St. Clement to wit, as
the dweller in the house was a blacksmith. Half a stone's throw
from the east end of the churchyard wall was a tall cross of
stone, new like the church, the head beautifully carved with a
crucifix amidst leafage. It stood on a set of wide stone steps,
octagonal in shape, where three roads from other villages met and
formed a wide open space on which a thousand people or more could
stand together with no great crowding.
All this I saw, and also that there was a goodish many people
about, women and children, and a few old men at the doors, many
of them somewhat gaily clad, and that men were coming into the
village street by the other end to that by which I had entered,
by twos and threes, most of them carrying what I could see were
bows in cases of linen yellow with wax or oil; they had quivers
at their backs, and most of them a short sword by their left
side, and a pouch and knife on the right; they were mostly
dressed in red or brightish green or blue cloth jerkins, with a
hood on the head generally of another colour. As they came
nearer I saw that the cloth of their garments was somewhat
coarse, but stout and serviceable. I knew, somehow, that they
had been shooting at the butts, and, indeed, I could still hear a
noise of men thereabout, and even now and again when the wind set
from that quarter the twang of the bowstring and the plump of the
shaft in the target.
I leaned against the churchyard wall and watched these men,
some of whom went straight into their houses and some loitered
about still; they were rough-looking fellows, tall and stout,
very black some of them, and some red-haired, but most had hair
burnt by the sun into the colour of tow; and, indeed, they were
all burned and tanned and freckled variously. Their arms and
buckles and belts and the finishings and hems of their garments
were all what we should now call beautiful, rough as the men
were; nor in their speech was any of that drawling snarl or thick
vulgarity which one is used to hear from labourers in
civilisation; not that they talked like gentlemen either, but
full and round and bold, and they were merry and good-tempered
enough; I could see that, though I felt shy and timid amongst
One of them strode up to me across the road, a man some six feet
high, with a short black beard and black eyes and berry-brown
skin, with a huge bow in his hand bare of the case, a knife,
a pouch, and a short hatchet, all clattering together at his
"Well, friend," said he, "thou lookest partly mazed; what tongue
hast thou in thine head?"
"A tongue that can tell rhymes," said I.
"So I thought," said he. "Thirstest thou any?"
"Yea, and hunger," said I.
And therewith my hand went into my purse, and came out again with
but a few small and thin silver coins with a cross stamped on
each, and three pellets in each corner of the cross. The man
"Aha!" said he, "is it so? Never heed it, mate. It shall be a
song for a supper this fair Sunday evening. But first, whose man
art thou?"
"No one's man," said I, reddening angrily; "I am my own master."
He grinned again.
"Nay, that's not the custom of England, as one time belike it
will be. Methinks thou comest from heaven down, and hast had
a high place there too."
He seemed to hesitate a moment, and then leant forward and
whispered in my ear: "John the Miller, that ground small,
small, small," and stopped and winked at me, and from between my
lips without my mind forming any meaning came the words, "The
king's son of heaven shall pay for all."
He let his bow fall on to his shoulder, caught my right hand in
his and gave it a great grip, while his left hand fell among the
gear at his belt, and I could see that he half drew his knife.
"Well, brother," said he, "stand not here hungry in the highway
when there is flesh and bread in the Rose yonder. Come on."
And with that he drew me along toward what was clearly a tavern
door, outside which men were sitting on a couple of benches and
drinking meditatively from curiously shaped earthen pots glazed
green and yellow, some with quaint devices on them.
I entered the door and started at first with my old astonishment,
with which I had woke up, so strange and beautiful did this
interior seem to me, though it was but a pothouse parlour. A
quaintly-carved side board held an array of bright pewter pots
and dishes and wooden and earthen bowls; a stout oak table went
up and down the room, and a carved oak chair stood by the
chimney-corner, now filled by a very old man dim-eyed and whitebearded.
That, except the rough stools and benches on which the
company sat, was all the furniture. The walls were panelled
roughly enough with oak boards to about six feet from the floor,
and about three feet of plaster above that was wrought in
a pattern of a rose stem running all round the room, freely and
roughly done, but with (as it seemed to my unused eyes) wonderful
skill and spirit. On the hood of the great chimney a huge rose
was wrought in the plaster and brightly painted in its proper
colours. There were a dozen or more of the men I had seen coming
along the street sitting there, some eating and all drinking;
their cased bows leaned against the wall, their quivers hung on
pegs in the panelling, and in a corner of the room I saw half-adozen
bill-hooks that looked made more for war than for hedgeshearing,
with ashen handles some seven foot long. Three or four
children were running about among the legs of the men, heeding
them mighty little in their bold play, and the men seemed little
troubled by it, although they were talking earnestly and
seriously too. A well-made comely girl leaned up against the
chimney close to the gaffer's chair, and seemed to be in
waiting on the company: she was clad in a close-fitting gown of
bright blue cloth, with a broad silver girdle daintily wrought,
round her loins, a rose wreath was on her head and her hair hung
down unbound; the gaffer grumbled a few words to her from time to
time, so that I judged he was her grandfather.
The men all looked up as we came into the room, my mate leading
me by the hand, and he called out in his rough, good-tempered
voice, "Here, my masters, I bring you tidings and a tale; give it
meat and drink that it may be strong and sweet."
"Whence are thy tidings, Will Green?" said one.
My mate grinned again with the pleasure of making his joke once
more in a bigger company: "It seemeth from heaven, since this
good old lad hath no master," said he.
"The more fool he to come here," said a thin man with a grizzled
beard, amidst the laughter that followed, "unless he had the
choice given him between hell and England."
"Nay," said I, "I come not from heaven, but from Essex."
As I said the word a great shout sprang from all mouths at once,
as clear and sudden as a shot from a gun. For I must tell you
that I knew somehow, but I know not how, that the men of Essex
were gathering to rise against the poll-groat bailiffs and the
lords that would turn them all into villeins again, as their
grandfathers had been. And the people was weak and the lords
were poor; for many a mother's son had fallen in the war in
France in the old king's time, and the Black Death had slain a
many; so that the lords had bethought them: "We are growing
poorer, and these upland-bred villeins are growing richer, and
the guilds of craft are waxing in the towns, and soon what will
there be left for us who cannot weave and will not dig? Good it
were if we fell on all who are not guildsmen or men of free
land, if we fell on soccage tenants and others, and brought both
the law and the strong hand on them, and made them all villeins
in deed as they are now in name; for now these rascals make more
than their bellies need of bread, and their backs of homespun,
and the overplus they keep to themselves; and we are more worthy
of it than they. So let us get the collar on their necks again,
and make their day's work longer and their bever-time shorter, as
the good statute of the old king bade. And good it were if the
Holy Church were to look to it (and the Lollards might help
herein) that all these naughty and wearisome holidays were done
away with; or that it should be unlawful for any man below the
degree of a squire to keep the holy days of the church, except in
the heart and the spirit only, and let the body labour meanwhile;
for does not the Apostle say, `If a man work not, neither should
he eat'? And if such things were done, and such an estate of
noble rich men and worthy poor men upholden for ever, then would
it be good times in England, and life were worth the living."
All this were the lords at work on, and such talk I knew was
common not only among the lords themselves, but also among their
sergeants and very serving-men. But the people would not abide
it; therefore, as I said, in Essex they were on the point of
rising, and word had gone how that at St. Albans they were
wellnigh at blows with the Lord Abbot's soldiers; that north away
at Norwich John Litster was wiping the woad from his arms, as who
would have to stain them red again, but not with grain or madder;
and that the valiant tiler of Dartford had smitten a poll-groat
bailiff to death with his lath-rending axe for mishandling a
young maid, his daughter; and that the men of Kent were on the
Now, knowing all this I was not astonished that they shouted at
the thought of their fellows the men of Essex, but rather
that they said little more about it; only Will Green saying
quietly, "Well, the tidings shall be told when our fellowship is
greater; fall-to now on the meat, brother, that we may the sooner
have thy tale." As he spoke the blue-clad damsel bestirred
herself and brought me a clean trencher--that is, a square piece
of thin oak board scraped clean--and a pewter pot of liquor. So
without more ado, and as one used to it, I drew my knife out of
my girdle and cut myself what I would of the flesh and bread on
the table. But Will Green mocked at me as I cut, and said,
"Certes, brother, thou hast not been a lord's carver, though but
for thy word thou mightest have been his reader. Hast thou seen
Oxford, scholar?"
A vision of grey-roofed houses and a long winding street and the
sound of many bells came over me at that word as I nodded "Yes"
to him, my mouth full of salt pork and rye-bread; and then I
lifted my pot and we made the clattering mugs kiss and I drank,
and the fire of the good Kentish mead ran through my veins and
deepened my dream of things past, present, and to come, as I
said: "Now hearken a tale, since ye will have it so. For last
autumn I was in Suffolk at the good town of Dunwich, and thither
came the keels from Iceland, and on them were some men of
Iceland, and many a tale they had on their tongues; and with
these men I foregathered, for I am in sooth a gatherer of tales,
and this that is now at my tongue's end is one of them."
So such a tale I told them, long familiar to me; but as I told it
the words seemed to quicken and grow, so that I knew not the
sound of my own voice, and they ran almost into rhyme and measure
as I told it; and when I had done there was silence awhile, till
one man spake, but not loudly:
"Yea, in that land was the summer short and the winter long; but
men lived both summer and winter; and if the trees grew ill and
the corn throve not, yet did the plant called man thrive and do
well. God send us such men even here."
"Nay," said another, "such men have been and will be, and belike
are not far from this same door even now."
"Yea," said a third, "hearken a stave of Robin Hood; maybe that
shall hasten the coming of one I wot of." And he fell to singing
in a clear voice, for he was a young man, and to a sweet wild
melody, one of those ballads which in an incomplete and degraded
form you have read perhaps. My heart rose high as I heard him,
for it was concerning the struggle against tyranny for the
freedom of life, how that the wildwood and the heath, despite of
wind and weather, were better for a free man than the court and
the cheaping-town; of the taking from the rich to give to the
poor; of the life of a man doing his own will and not the
will of another man commanding him for the commandment's sake.
The men all listened eagerly, and at whiles took up as a refrain
a couplet at the end of a stanza with their strong and rough, but
not unmusical voices. As they sang, a picture of the wild-woods
passed by me, as they were indeed, no park-like dainty glades and
lawns, but rough and tangled thicket and bare waste and heath,
solemn under the morning sun, and dreary with the rising of the
evening wind and the drift of the night-long rain.
When he had done, another began in something of the same strain,
but singing more of a song than a story ballad; and thus much I
remember of it:
The Sheriff is made a mighty lord,
Of goodly gold he hath enow,
And many a sergeant girt with sword;
But forth will we and bend the bow.
We shall bend the bow on the lily lea
Betwixt the thorn and the oaken tree.
With stone and lime is the burg wall built,
And pit and prison are stark and strong,
And many a true man there is spilt,
And many a right man doomed by wrong.
So forth shall we and bend the bow
And the king's writ never the road shall know.
Now yeomen walk ye warily,
And heed ye the houses where ye go,
For as fair and as fine as they may be,
Lest behind your heels the door clap to.
Fare forth with the bow to the lily lea
Betwixt the thorn and the oaken tree.
Now bills and bows I and out a-gate!
And turn about on the lily lea!
And though their company be great
The grey-goose wing shall set us free.
Now bent is the bow in the green abode
And the king's writ knoweth not the road.
So over the mead and over the hithe,
And away to the wild-wood wend we forth;
There dwell we yeomen bold and blithe
Where the Sheriff's word is nought of worth.
Bent is the bow on the lily lea
Betwixt the thorn and the oaken tree.
But here the song dropped suddenly, and one of the men held up
his hand as who would say, Hist! Then through the open window
came the sound of another song, gradually swelling as though sung
by men on the march. This time the melody was a piece of the
plain-song of the church, familiar enough to me to bring back to
my mind the great arches of some cathedral in France and the
canons singing in the choir.
All leapt up and hurried to take their bows from wall and corner;
and some had bucklers withal, circles of leather, boiled and then
moulded into shape and hardened: these were some two handbreadths
across, with iron or brass bosses in the centre. Will
Green went to the corner where the bills leaned against the wall
and handed them round to the first-comers as far as they would
go, and out we all went gravely and quietly into the village
street and the fair sunlight of the calm afternoon, now beginning
to turn towards evening. None had said anything since we
first heard the new-come singing, save that as we went out of the
door the ballad-singer clapped me on the shoulder and said:
"Was it not sooth that I said, brother, that Robin Hood should
bring us John Ball?"
The street was pretty full of men by then we were out in it, and
all faces turned toward the cross. The song still grew nearer
and louder, and even as we looked we saw it turning the corner
through the hedges of the orchards and closes, a good clump of
men, more armed, as it would seem, than our villagers, as the low
sun flashed back from many points of bright iron and steel. The
words of the song could now be heard, and amidst them I could
pick out Will Green's late challenge to me and my answer; but as
I was bending all my mind to disentangle more words from the
music, suddenly from the new white tower behind us clashed out
the church bells, harsh and hurried at first, but
presently falling into measured chime; and at the first sound of
them a great shout went up from us and was echoed by the newcomers,
"John Ball hath rung our bell!" Then we pressed on, and
presently we were all mingled together at the cross.
Will Green had good-naturedly thrust and pulled me forward, so
that I found myself standing on the lowest step of the cross, his
seventy-two inches of man on one side of me. He chuckled while I
panted, and said:
"There's for thee a good hearing and seeing stead, old lad. Thou
art tall across thy belly and not otherwise, and thy wind,
belike, is none of the best, and but for me thou wouldst have
been amidst the thickest of the throng, and have heard words
muffled by Kentish bellies and seen little but swinky woollen
elbows and greasy plates and jacks. Look no more on the ground,
as though thou sawest a hare, but let thine eyes and thine
ears be busy to gather tidings to bear back to Essex--or heaven!"
I grinned good-fellowship at him but said nothing, for in truth
my eyes and ears were as busy as he would have them to be. A
buzz of general talk went up from the throng amidst the regular
cadence of the bells, which now seemed far away and as it were
that they were not swayed by hands, but were living creatures
making that noise of their own wills.
I looked around and saw that the newcomers mingled with us must
have been a regular armed band; all had bucklers slung at their
backs, few lacked a sword at the side. Some had bows, some
"staves"--that is, bills, pole-axes, or pikes. Moreover, unlike
our villagers, they had defensive arms. Most had steel-caps on
their heads, and some had body armour, generally a "jack," or
coat into which pieces of iron or horn were quilted; some had
also steel or steel-and-leather arm or thigh pieces. There were
a few mounted men among them, their horses being big-boned
hammer-headed beasts, that looked as if they had been taken from
plough or waggon, but their riders were well armed with steel
armour on their heads, legs, and arms. Amongst the horsemen I
noted the man that had ridden past me when I first awoke; but he
seemed to be a prisoner, as he had a woollen hood on his head
instead of his helmet, and carried neither bill, sword, nor
dagger. He seemed by no means ill-at-ease, however, but was
laughing and talking with the men who stood near him.
Above the heads of the crowd, and now slowly working towards the
cross, was a banner on a high-raised cross-pole, a picture of a
man and woman half-clad in skins of beasts seen against a
background of green trees, the man holding a spade and the woman
a distaff and spindle rudely done enough, but yet with a certain
spirit and much meaning; and underneath this symbol of the
early world and man's first contest with nature were the written
When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman?
The banner came on and through the crowd, which at last opened
where we stood for its passage, and the banner-bearer turned and
faced the throng and stood on the first step of the cross beside
A man followed him, clad in a long dark-brown gown of coarse
woollen, girt with a cord, to which hung a "pair of beads" (or
rosary, as we should call it to-day) and a book in a bag. The
man was tall and big-boned, a ring of dark hair surrounded his
priest's tonsure; his nose was big but clear cut and with wide
nostrils; his shaven face showed a longish upper lip and a big
but blunt chin; his mouth was big and the lips closed firmly; a
face not very noteworthy but for his grey eyes well opened and
wide apart, at whiles lighting up his whole face with a
kindly smile, at whiles set and stern, at whiles resting in that
look as if they were gazing at something a long way off, which is
the wont of the eyes of the poet or enthusiast.
He went slowly up the steps of the cross and stood at the top
with one hand laid on the shaft, and shout upon shout broke forth
from the throng. When the shouting died away into a silence of
the human voices, the bells were still quietly chiming with that
far-away voice of theirs, and the long-winged dusky swifts, by no
means scared by the concourse, swung round about the cross with
their wild squeals; and the man stood still for a little, eyeing
the throng, or rather looking first at one and then another man
in it, as though he were trying to think what such an one was
thinking of, or what he were fit for. Sometimes he caught the
eye of one or other, and then that kindly smile spread over his
face, but faded off it into the sternness and sadness of a man
who has heavy and great thoughts hanging about him.
But when John Ball first mounted the steps of the cross a lad at
some one's bidding had run off to stop the ringers, and so
presently the voice of the bells fell dead, leaving on men's
minds that sense of blankness or even disappointment which is
always caused by the sudden stopping of a sound one has got used
to and found pleasant. But a great expectation had fallen by now
on all that throng, and no word was spoken even in a whisper, and
all men's hearts and eyes were fixed upon the dark figure
standing straight up now by the tall white shaft of the cross,
his hands stretched out before him, one palm laid upon the other.
And for me, as I made ready to hearken, I felt a joy in my soul
that I had never yet felt.
SO now I heard John Ball; how he lifted up his voice and said:
"Ho, all ye good people! I am a priest of God, and in my day's
work it cometh that I should tell you what ye should do, and what
ye should forbear doing, and to that end I am come hither: yet
first, if I myself have wronged any man here, let him say wherein
my wrongdoing lieth, that I may ask his pardon and his pity."
A great hum of good-will ran through the crowd as he spoke; then
he smiled as in a kind of pride, and again he spoke:
"Wherefore did ye take me out of the archbishop's prison but
three days agone, when ye lighted the archbishop's house for
the candle of Canterbury, but that I might speak to you and
pray you: therefore I will not keep silence, whether I have done
ill, or whether I have done well. And herein, good fellows and
my very brethren, I would have you to follow me; and if there be
such here, as I know full well there be some, and may be a good
many, who have been robbers of their neighbours (`And who is my
neighbour?' quoth the rich man), or lechers, or despiteful
haters, or talebearers, or fawners on rich men for the hurt of
the poor (and that is the worst of all)--Ah, my poor brethren who
have gone astray, I say not to you, go home and repent lest you
mar our great deeds, but rather come afield and there repent.
Many a day have ye been fools, but hearken unto me and I shall
make you wise above the wisdom of the earth; and if ye die in
your wisdom, as God wot ye well may, since the fields ye wend to
bear swords for daisies, and spears for bents, then shall ye be,
though men call you dead, a part and parcel of the living
wisdom of all things, very stones of the pillars that uphold the
joyful earth.
"Forsooth, ye have heard it said that ye shall do well in this
world that in the world to come ye may live happily for ever; do
ye well then, and have your reward both on earth and in heaven;
for I say to you that earth and heaven are not two but one; and
this one is that which ye know, and are each one of you a part
of, to wit, the Holy Church, and in each one of you dwelleth the
life of the Church, unless ye slay it. Forsooth, brethren, will
ye murder the Church any one of you, and go forth a wandering man
and lonely, even as Cain did who slew his brother? Ah, my
brothers, what an evil doom is this, to be an outcast from the
Church, to have none to love you and to speak with you, to be
without fellowship! Forsooth, brothers, fellowship is heaven,
and lack of fellowship is hell: fellowship is life, and lack
of fellowship is death: and the deeds that ye do upon the earth,
it is for fellowship's sake that ye do them, and the life that is
in it, that shall live on and on for ever, and each one of you
part of it, while many a man's life upon the earth from the earth
shall wane.
"Therefore, I bid you not dwell in hell but in heaven, or while
ye must, upon earth, which is a part of heaven, and forsooth no
foul part.
"Forsooth, he that waketh in hell and feeleth his heart fail him,
shall have memory of the merry days of earth, and how that when
his heart failed him there, he cried on his fellow, were it his
wife or his son or his brother or his gossip or his brother sworn
in arms, and how that his fellow heard him and came and they
mourned together under the sun, till again they laughed together
and were but half sorry between them. This shall he think on in
hell, and cry on his fellow to help him, and shall find that
therein is no help because there is no fellowship, but every
man for himself. Therefore, I tell you that the proud,
despiteous rich man, though he knoweth it not, is in hell
already, because he hath no fellow; and he that hath so hardy a
heart that in sorrow he thinketh of fellowship, his sorrow is
soon but a story of sorrow--a little change in the life that
knows not ill."
He left off for a little; and indeed for some time his voice had
fallen, but it was so clear and the summer evening so soft and
still, and the silence of the folk so complete, that every word
told. His eyes fell down to the crowd as he stopped speaking,
since for some little while they had been looking far away into
the blue distance of summer; and the kind eyes of the man had a
curious sight before him in that crowd, for amongst them were
many who by this time were not dry-eyed, and some wept outright
in spite of their black beards, while all had that look as if
they were ashamed of themselves, and did not want others to
see how deeply they were moved, after the fashion of their race
when they are strongly stirred. I looked at Will Green beside
me: his right hand clutched his bow so tight, that the knuckles
whitened; he was staring straight before him, and the tears were
running out of his eyes and down his big nose as though without
his will, for his face was stolid and unmoved all the time till
he caught my eye, and then he screwed up the strangest face, of
scowling brow, weeping eyes, and smiling mouth, while he dealt me
a sounding thump in the ribs with his left elbow, which, though
it would have knocked me down but for the crowd, I took as an
esquire does the accolade which makes a knight of him.
But while I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose
the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in
spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what
they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant
under another name--while I pondered all this, John Ball began to
speak again in the same soft and dear voice with which he had
left off.
"Good fellows, it was your fellowship and your kindness that took
me out of the archbishop's prison three days agone, though God
wot ye had nought to gain by it save outlawry and the gallows;
yet lacked I not your fellowship before ye drew near me in the
body, and when between me and Canterbury street was yet a strong
wall, and the turnkeys and sergeants and bailiffs.
"For hearken, my friends and helpers; many days ago, when April
was yet young, I lay there, and the heart that I had strung up to
bear all things because of the fellowship of men and the blessed
saints and the angels and those that are, and those that are to
be, this heart, that I had strung up like a strong bow, fell into
feebleness, so that I lay there a-longing for the green
fields and the white-thorn bushes and the lark singing over
the corn, and the talk of good fellows round the ale-house bench,
and the babble of the little children, and the team on the road
and the beasts afield, and all the life of earth; and I alone all
the while, near my foes and afar from my friends, mocked and
flouted and starved with cold and hunger; and so weak was my
heart that though I longed for all these things yet I saw them
not, nor knew them but as names; and I longed so sore to be gone
that I chided myself that I had once done well; and I said to
"Forsooth, hadst thou kept thy tongue between thy teeth thou
mightest have been something, if it had been but a parson of a
town, and comfortable to many a poor man; and then mightest thou
have clad here and there the naked back, and filled the empty
belly, and holpen many, and men would have spoken well of thee,
and of thyself thou hadst thought well; and all this hast
thou lost for lack of a word here and there to some great
man, and a little winking of the eyes amidst murder and wrong and
unruth; and now thou art nought and helpless, and the hemp for
thee is sown and grown and heckled and spun, and lo there, the
rope for thy gallows-tree!--all for nought, for nought.
"Forsooth, my friends, thus I thought and sorrowed in my
feebleness that I had not been a traitor to the Fellowship of the
Church, for e'en so evil was my foolish imagination.
"Yet, forsooth, as I fell a-pondering over all the comfort and
help that I might have been and that I might have had, if I had
been but a little of a trembling cur to creep and crawl before
abbot and bishop and baron and bailiff, came the thought over me
of the evil of the world wherewith I, John Ball, the rascal
hedge-priest, had fought and striven in the Fellowship of the
saints in heaven and poor men upon earth.
"Yea, forsooth, once again I saw as of old, the great treading
down the little, and the strong beating down the weak, and cruel
men fearing not, and kind men daring not, and wise men caring
not; and the saints in heaven forbearing and yet bidding me not
to forbear; forsooth, I knew once more that he who doeth well in
fellowship, and because of fellowship, shall not fail though he
seem to fail to-day, but in days hereafter shall he and his work
yet be alive, and men be holpen by them to strive again and yet
again; and yet indeed even that was little, since, forsooth, to
strive was my pleasure and my life.
"So I became a man once more, and I rose up to my feet and went
up and down my prison what I could for my hopples, and into my
mouth came words of good cheer, even such as we to-day have sung,
and stoutly I sang them, even as we now have sung them; and then
did I rest me, and once more thought of those pleasant fields
where I would be, and all the life of man and beast about
them, and I said to myself that I should see them once more
before I died, if but once it were.
"Forsooth, this was strange, that whereas before I longed for
them and yet saw them not, now that my longing was slaked my
vision was cleared, and I saw them as though the prison walls
opened to me and I was out of Canterbury street and amidst the
green meadows of April; and therewithal along with me folk that I
have known and who are dead, and folk that are living; yea, and
all those of the Fellowship on earth and in heaven; yea, and all
that are here this day. Overlong were the tale to tell of them,
and of the time that is gone.
"So thenceforward I wore through the days with no such faint
heart, until one day the prison opened verily and in the
daylight, and there were ye, my fellows, in the door--your faces
glad, your hearts light with hope, and your hands heavy with
wrath; then I saw and understood what was to do. Now, therefore,
do ye understand it!"
His voice was changed, and grew louder than loud now, as he cast
his hands abroad towards that company with those last words of
his; and I could feel that all shame and fear was falling from
those men, and that mere fiery manhood was shining through their
wonted English shamefast stubbornness, and that they were moved
indeed and saw the road before them. Yet no man spoke, rather
the silence of the men-folk deepened, as the sun's rays grew more
level and more golden, and the swifts wheeled about shriller and
louder than before.
Then again John Ball spoke and said, "In good sooth, I deem ye
wot no worse than I do what is to do--and first that somewhat we
shall do--since it is for him that is lonely or in prison to
dream of fellowship, but for him that is of a fellowship to do
and not to dream.
"And next, ye know who is the foeman, and that is the proud man,
the oppressor, who scorneth fellowship, and himself is a world to
himself and needeth no helper nor helpeth any, but, heeding no
law, layeth law on other men because he is rich; and surely every
one that is rich is such an one, nor may be other.
"Forsooth, in the belly of every rich man dwelleth a devil of
hell, and when the man would give his goods to the poor, the
devil within him gainsayeth it, and saith, `Wilt thou then be of
the poor, and suffer cold and hunger and mocking as they suffer,
then give thou thy goods to them, and keep them not.' And when
he would be compassionate, again saith the devil to him, `If thou
heed these losels and turn on them a face like to their faces,
and deem of them as men, then shall they scorn thee, and evil
shall come of it, and even one day they shall fall on thee to
slay thee when they have learned that thou art but as they be.'
"Ah, woe worth the while! too oft he sayeth sooth, as the wont of
the devil is, that lies may be born of the barren truth; and
sooth it is that the poor deemeth the rich to be other than he,
and meet to be his master, as though, forsooth, the poor were
come of Adam, and the rich of him that made Adam, that is God;
and thus the poor man oppresseth the poor man, because he feareth
the oppressor. Nought such are ye, my brethren; or else why are
ye gathered here in harness to bid all bear witness of you that
ye are the sons of one man and one mother, begotten of the
As he said the words there came a stir among the weapons of the
throng, and they pressed closer round the cross, yet with held
the shout as yet which seemed gathering in their bosoms.
And again he said:
"Forsooth, too many rich men there are in this realm; and yet if
there were but one, there would be one too many, for all should
be his thralls. Hearken, then, ye men of Kent. For overlong
belike have I held you with words; but the love of you
constrained me, and the joy that a man hath to babble to his
friends and his fellows whom he hath not seen for a long season.
"Now, hearken, I bid you: To the rich men that eat up a realm
there cometh a time when they whom they eat up, that is the poor,
seem poorer than of wont, and their complaint goeth up louder to
the heavens; yet it is no riddle to say that oft at such times
the fellowship of the poor is waxing stronger, else would no man
have heard his cry. Also at such times is the rich man become
fearful, and so waxeth in cruelty, and of that cruelty do people
misdeem that it is power and might waxing. Forsooth, ye are
stronger than your fathers, because ye are more grieved than
they, and ye should have been less grieved than they had ye been
horses and swine; and then, forsooth, would ye have been stronger
to bear; but ye, ye are not strong to bear, but to do.
"And wot ye why we are come to you this fair eve of holiday? and
wot ye why I have been telling of fellowship to you? Yea,
forsooth, I deem ye wot well, that it is for this cause, that ye
might bethink you of your fellowship with the men of Essex."
His last word let loose the shout that had been long on all men's
lips, and great and fierce it was as it rang shattering through
the quiet upland village. But John Ball held up his hand, and
the shout was one and no more.
Then he spoke again:
"Men of Kent, I wot well that ye are not so hard bested as those
of other shires, by the token of the day when behind the screen
of leafy boughs ye met Duke William with bill and bow as he
wended Londonward from that woeful field of Senlac; but I have
told of fellowship, and ye have hearkened and understood what the
Holy Church is, whereby ye know that ye are fellows of the
saints in heaven and the poor men of Essex; and as one day the
saints shall call you to the heavenly feast, so now do the poor
men call you to the battle.
"Men of Kent, ye dwell fairly here, and your houses are framed of
stout oak beams, and your own lands ye till; unless some accursed
lawyer with his false lying sheepskin and forged custom of the
Devil's Manor hath stolen it from you; but in Essex slaves they
be and villeins, and worse they shall be, and the lords swear
that ere a year be over ox and horse shall go free in Essex, and
man and woman shall draw the team and the plough; and north away
in the east countries dwell men in poor halls of wattled reeds
and mud, and the north-east wind from off the fen whistles
through them; and poor they be to the letter; and there him whom
the lord spareth, the bailiff squeezeth, and him whom the bailiff
forgetteth, the Easterling Chapman sheareth; yet be these
stout men and valiant, and your very brethren.
"And yet if there be any man here so base as to think that a
small matter, let him look to it that if these necks abide under
the yoke, Kent shall sweat for it ere it be long; and ye shall
lose acre and close and woodland, and be servants in your own
houses, and your sons shall be the lords' lads, and your
daughters their lemans, and ye shall buy a bold word with many
stripes, and an honest deed with a leap from the gallows-tree.
"Bethink ye, too, that ye have no longer to deal with Duke
William, who, if he were a thief and a cruel lord, was yet a
prudent man and a wise warrior; but cruel are these, and
headstrong, yea, thieves and fools in one--and ye shall lay their
heads in the dust."
A shout would have arisen again, but his eager voice rising
higher yet, restrained it as he said:
"And how shall it be then when these are gone? What else shall
ye lack when ye lack masters? Ye shall not lack for the fields
ye have tilled, nor the houses ye have built, nor the cloth ye
have woven; all these shall be yours, and whatso ye will of all
that the earth beareth; then shall no man mow the deep grass for
another, while his own kine lack cow-meat; and he that soweth
shall reap, and the reaper shall eat in fellowship the harvest
that in fellowship he hath won; and he that buildeth a house
shall dwell in it with those that he biddeth of his free will;
and the tithe barn shall garner the wheat for all men to eat of
when the seasons are untoward, and the rain-drift hideth the
sheaves in August; and all shall be without money and without
price. Faithfully and merrily then shall all men keep the
holidays of the Church in peace of body and joy of heart. And
man shall help man, and the saints in heaven shall be glad,
because men no more fear each other; and the churl shall be
ashamed, and shall hide his churlishness till it be gone, and he
be no more a churl; and fellowship shall be established in heaven
and on the earth."
He left off as one who had yet something else to say; and,
indeed, I thought he would give us some word as to the trystingplace,
and whither the army was to go from it; because it was now
clear to me that this gathering was but a band of an army. But
much happened before John Ball spoke again from the cross, and it
was on this wise.
When there was silence after the last shout that the crowd had
raised a while ago, I thought I heard a thin sharp noise far
away, somewhat to the north of the cross, which I took rather for
the sound of a trumpet or horn, than for the voice of a man or
any beast. Will Green also seemed to have heard it,
for he turned his head sharply and then back again, and looked
keenly into the crowd as though seeking to catch some one's eye.
There was a very tall man standing by the prisoner on the horse
near the outskirts of the crowd, and holding his bridle. This
man, who was well-armed, I saw look up and say something to the
prisoner, who stooped down and seemed to whisper him in turn.
The tall man nodded his head and the prisoner got off his horse,
which was a cleaner-limbed, better-built beast than the others
belonging to the band, and the tall man quietly led him a little
way from the crowd, mounted him, and rode off northward at a
smart pace.
Will Green looked on sharply at all this, and when the man rode
off, smiled as one who is content, and deems that all is going
well, and settled himself down again to listen to the priest.
But now when John Ball had ceased speaking, and after another
shout, and a hum of excited pleasure and hope that followed it,
there was silence again, and as the priest addressed himself to
speaking once more, he paused and turned his head towards the
wind, as if he heard something, which certainly I heard, and
belike every one in the throng, though it was not over-loud, far
as sounds carry in clear quiet evenings. It was the thump-athump
of a horse drawing near at a hand-gallop along the grassy
upland road; and I knew well it was the tall man coming back with
tidings, the purport of which I could well guess.
I looked up at Will Green's face. He was smiling as one pleased,
and said softly as he nodded to me, "Yea, shall we see the greygoose
fly this eve?"
But John Ball said in a great voice from the cross, "Hear ye the
tidings on the way, fellows! Hold ye together and look to your
gear; yet hurry not, for no great matter shall this be. I wot
well there is little force between Canterbury and Kingston,
for the lords are looking north of Thames toward Wat Tyler and
his men. Yet well it is, well it is!"
The crowd opened and spread out a little, and the men moved about
in it, some tightening a girdle, some getting their side arms
more within reach of their right hands, and those who had bows
stringing them.
Will Green set hand and foot to the great shapely piece of
polished red yew, with its shining horn tips, which he carried,
and bent it with no seeming effort; then he reached out his hand
over his shoulder and drew out a long arrow, smooth, white,
beautifully balanced, with a barbed iron head at one end, a horn
nock and three strong goose feathers at the other. He held it
loosely between the finger and thumb of his right hand, and there
he stood with a thoughtful look on his face, and in his hands one
of the most terrible weapons which a strong man has ever
carried, the English long-bow and cloth-yard shaft.
But all this while the sound of the horse's hoofs was growing
nearer, and presently from the corner of the road amidst the
orchards broke out our long friend, his face red in the sun near
sinking now. He waved his right hand as he came in sight of us,
and sang out, "Bills and bows! bills and bows!" and the whole
throng turned towards him and raised a great shout.
He reined up at the edge of the throng, and spoke in a loud
voice, so that all might hear him:
"Fellows, these are the tidings; even while our priest was
speaking we heard a horn blow far off; so I bade the sergeant we
have taken, and who is now our fellow-in-arms, to tell me where
away it was that there would be folk a-gathering, and what they
were; and he did me to wit that mayhappen Sir John Newton was
stirring from Rochester Castle; or, maybe, it was the sheriff
and Rafe Hopton with him; so I rode off what I might towards
Hartlip, and I rode warily, and that was well, for as I came
through a little wood between Hartlip and Guildstead, I saw
beyond it a gleam of steel, and lo in the field there a company,
and a pennon of Rafe Hopton's arms, and that is blue and thereon
three silver fish: and a pennon of the sheriff's arms, and that
is a green tree; and withal another pennon of three red kine, and
whose they be I know not.[1]
[1] Probably one of the Calverlys, a Cheshire family, one of whom
was a noted captain in the French wars.
"There tied I my horse in the middle of the wood, and myself I
crept along the dyke to see more and to hear somewhat; and no
talk I heard to tell of save at whiles a big knight talking to
five or six others, and saying somewhat, wherein came the words
London and Nicholas Bramber, and King Richard; but I saw that of
men-at-arms and sergeants there might be a hundred, and of
bows not many, but of those outland arbalests maybe a fifty; and
so, what with one and another of servants and tipstaves and lads,
some three hundred, well armed, and the men-at-arms of the best.
Forsooth, my masters, there had I been but a minute, ere the big
knight broke off his talk, and cried out to the music to blow up,
`And let us go look on these villeins,' said he; and withal the
men began to gather in a due and ordered company, and their faces
turned hitherward; forsooth, I got to my horse, and led him out
of the wood on the other side, and so to saddle and away along
the green roads; neither was I seen or chased. So look ye to it,
my masters, for these men will be coming to speak with us; nor is
there need for haste, but rather for good speed; for in some
twenty or thirty minutes will be more tidings to hand."
By this time one of our best-armed men had got through the throng
and was standing on the cross beside John Ball. When the
long man had done, there was confused noise of talk for a while,
and the throng spread itself out more and more, but not in a
disorderly manner; the bowmen drawing together toward the
outside, and the billmen forming behind them. Will Green was
still standing beside me and had hold of my arm, as though he
knew both where he and I were to go.
"Fellows," quoth the captain from the cross, "belike this stour
shall not live to be older than the day, if ye get not into a
plump together for their arbalestiers to shoot bolts into, and
their men-at-arms to thrust spears into. Get you to the edge of
the crofts and spread out there six feet between man and man, and
shoot, ye bowmen, from the hedges, and ye with the staves keep
your heads below the level of the hedges, or else for all they be
thick a bolt may win its way in."
He grinned as he said this, and there was laughter enough in
the throng to have done honour to a better joke.
Then he sung out, "Hob Wright, Rafe Wood, John Pargetter, and
thou Will Green, bestir ye and marshal the bowshot; and thou
Nicholas Woodyer shall be under me Jack Straw in ordering of the
staves. Gregory Tailor and John Clerk, fair and fine are ye clad
in the arms of the Canterbury bailiffs; ye shall shine from afar;
go ye with the banner into the highway, and the bows on either
side shall ward you; yet jump, lads, and over the hedge with you
when the bolts begin to fly your way! Take heed, good fellows
all, that our business is to bestride the highway, and not let
them get in on our flank the while; so half to the right, half to
the left of the highway. Shoot straight and strong, and waste no
breath with noise; let the loose of the bowstring cry for you!
and look you! think it no loss of manhood to cover your bodies
with tree and bush; for one of us who know is worth a hundred
of those proud fools. To it, lads, and let them see what the
grey goose bears between his wings! Abide us here, brother John
Ball, and pray for us if thou wilt; but for me, if God will not
do for Jack Straw what Jack Straw would do for God were he in
like case, I can see no help for it."
"Yea, forsooth," said the priest, "here will I abide you my
fellows if ye come back; or if ye come not back, here will I
abide the foe. Depart, and the blessing of the Fellowship be
with you."
Down then leapt Jack Straw from the cross, and the whole throng
set off without noise or hurry, soberly and steadily in outward
seeming. Will Green led me by the hand as if I were a boy, yet
nothing he said, being forsooth intent on his charge. We were
some four hundred men in all; but I said to myself that without
some advantage of the ground we were lost men before the men-atarms
that long Gregory Tailor had told us of; for I had not
seen as yet the yard-long shaft at its work.
We and somewhat more than half of our band turned into the
orchards on the left of the road, through which the level rays of
the low sun shone brightly. The others took up their position on
the right side of it. We kept pretty near to the road till we
had got through all the closes save the last, where we were
brought up by a hedge and a dyke, beyond which lay a wide-open
nearly treeless space, not of tillage, as at the other side of
the place, but of pasture, the common grazing ground of the
township. A little stream wound about through the ground, with a
few willows here and there; there was only a thread of water in
it in this hot summer tide, but its course could easily be traced
by the deep blue-green of the rushes that grew plenteously in the
bed. Geese were lazily wandering about and near this brook, and
a herd of cows, accompanied by the town bull, were feeding on
quietly, their heads all turned one way; while half a dozen
calves marched close together side by side like a plump of
soldiers, their tails swinging in a kind of measure to keep off
the flies, of which there was great plenty. Three or four lads
and girls were sauntering about, heeding or not heeding the
cattle. They looked up toward us as we crowded into the last
close, and slowly loitered off toward the village. Nothing
looked like battle; yet battle sounded in the air; for now we
heard the beat of the horse-hoofs of the men-at-arms coming on
towards us like the rolling of distant thunder, and growing
louder and louder every minute; we were none too soon in turning
to face them. Jack Straw was on our side of the road, and with a
few gestures and a word or two he got his men into their places.
Six archers lined the hedge along the road where the banner of
Adam and Eve, rising above the grey leaves of the apple-trees,
challenged the new-comers; and of the billmen also he kept a good
few ready to guard the road in case the enemy should try to
rush it with the horsemen. The road, not being a Roman one, was,
you must remember, little like the firm smooth country roads that
you are used to; it was a mere track between the hedges and
fields, partly grass-grown, and cut up by the deep-sunk ruts
hardened by the drought of summer. There was a stack of fagot
and small wood on the other side, and our men threw themselves
upon it and set to work to stake the road across for a rough
defence against the horsemen.
What befell more on the road itself I had not much time to note,
for our bowmen spread themselves out along the hedge that looked
into the pasture-field, leaving some six feet between man and
man; the rest of the billmen went along with the bowmen, and
halted in clumps of some half-dozen along their line, holding
themselves ready to help the bowmen if the enemy should run up
under their shafts, or to run on to lengthen the line in case
they should try to break in on our flank. The hedge in front of
us was of quick. It had been strongly plashed in the past
February, and was stiff and stout. It stood on a low bank;
moreover, the level of the orchard was some thirty inches higher
than that of the field. and the ditch some two foot deeper than
the face of the field. The field went winding round to beyond
the church, making a quarter of a circle about the village, and
at the western end of it were the butts whence the folk were
coming from shooting when I first came into the village street.
Altogether, to me who knew nothing of war the place seemed
defensible enough. I have said that the road down which Long
Gregory came with his tidings went north; and that was its
general direction; but its first reach was nearly east, so that
the low sun was not in the eyes of any of us, and where Will
Green took his stand, and I with him, it was nearly at our backs.
Our men had got into their places leisurely and coolly enough,
and with no lack of jesting and laughter. As we went along the
hedge by the road, the leaders tore off leafy twigs from the low
oak bushes therein, and set them for a rallying sign in their
hats and headpieces, and two or three of them had horns for
Will Green, when he got into his place, which was thirty yards
from where Jack Straw and the billmen stood in the corner of the
two hedges, the road hedge and the hedge between the close and
field, looked to right and left of him a moment, then turned to
the man on the left and said:
"Look you, mate, when you hear our horns blow ask no more
questions, but shoot straight and strong at whatso cometh towards
us, till ye hear more tidings from Jack Straw or from me. Pass
that word onward."
Then he looked at me and said:
"Now, lad from Essex, thou hadst best sit down out of the way at
once: forsooth I wot not why I brought thee hither. Wilt thou
not back to the cross, for thou art little of a fighting-man?"
"Nay," said I, "I would see the play. What shall come of it?"
"Little," said he; "we shall slay a horse or twain maybe. I will
tell thee, since thou hast not seen a fight belike, as I have
seen some, that these men-at-arms cannot run fast either to the
play or from it, if they be a-foot; and if they come on ahorseback,
what shall hinder me to put a shaft into the poor
beast? But down with thee on the daisies, for some shot there
will be first."
As he spoke he was pulling off his belts and other gear, and
his coat, which done, he laid his quiver on the ground, girt him
again, did his axe and buckler on to his girdle, and hung up his
other attire on the nearest tree behind us. Then he opened his
quiver and took out of it some two dozen of arrows, which he
stuck in the ground beside him ready to his hand. Most of the
bowmen within sight were doing the like.
As I glanced toward the houses I saw three or four bright figures
moving through the orchards, and presently noted that they were
women, all clad more or less like the girl in the Rose, except
that two of them wore white coifs on their heads. Their errand
there was clear, for each carried a bundle of arrows under her
One of them came straight up to Will Green, and I could see at
once that she was his daughter. She was tall and strongly made,
with black hair like her father, somewhat comely, though no great
beauty; but as they met, her eyes smiled even more than her
mouth, and made her face look very sweet and kind, and the smile
was answered back in a way so quaintly like to her father's face,
that I too smiled for goodwill and pleasure.
"Well, well, lass," said he, "dost thou think that here is Crecy
field toward, that ye bring all this artillery? Turn back, my
girl, and set the pot on the fire; for that shall we need when we
come home, I and this ballad-maker here."
"Nay," she said, nodding kindly at me, "if this is to be no
Crecy, then may I stop to see, as well as the ballad-maker, since
he hath neither sword nor staff?"
"Sweetling," he said, "get thee home in haste. This play is but
little, yet mightest thou be hurt in it; and trust me the time
may come, sweetheart, when even thou and such as thou shalt hold
a sword or a staff. Ere the moon throws a shadow we shall be
She turned away lingering, not without tears on her face,
laid the sheaf of arrows at the foot of the tree, and hastened
off through the orchard. I was going to say something, when Will
Green held up his hand as who would bid us hearken. The noise of
the horse-hoofs, after growing nearer and nearer, had ceased
suddenly, and a confused murmur of voices had taken the place of
"Get thee down, and take cover, old lad," said Will Green; "the
dance will soon begin, and ye shall hear the music presently."
Sure enough as I slipped down by the hedge close to which I had
been standing, I heard the harsh twang of the bow-strings, one,
two, three, almost together, from the road, and even the whew of
the shafts, though that was drowned in a moment by a confused but
loud and threatening shout from the other side, and again the
bowstrings clanged, and this time a far-off clash of arms
followed, and therewithal that cry of a strong man that comes
without his will, and is so different from his wonted voice that
one has a guess thereby of the change that death is. Then for a
while was almost silence; nor did our horns blow up, though some
half-dozen of the billmen had leapt into the road when the bows
first shot. But presently came a great blare of trumpets and
horns from the other side, and therewith as it were a river of
steel and bright coats poured into the field before us, and still
their horns blew as they spread out toward the left of our line;
the cattle in the pasture-field, heretofore feeding quietly,
seemed frightened silly by the sudden noise, and ran about tail
in air and lowing loudly; the old bull with his head a little
lowered, and his stubborn legs planted firmly, growling
threateningly; while the geese about the brook waddled away
gobbling and squeaking; all which seemed so strange to us along
with the threat of sudden death that rang out from the bright
array over against us, that we laughed outright, the most of
us, and Will Green put down his head in mockery of the bull and
grunted like him, whereat we laughed yet more. He turned round
to me as he nocked his arrow, and said:
"I would they were just fifty paces nigher, and they move not.
Ho! Jack Straw, shall we shoot?"
For the latter-named was nigh us now; he shook his head and said
nothing as he stood looking at the enemy's line.
"Fear not but they are the right folk, Jack," quoth Will Green.
"Yea, yea," said he, "but abide awhile; they could make nought of
the highway, and two of their sergeants had a message from the
grey-goose feather. Abide, for they have not crossed the road to
our right hand, and belike have not seen our fellows on the other
side, who are now for a bushment to them."
I looked hard at the man. He was a tall, wiry, and broadshouldered
fellow, clad in a handsome armour of bright steel that
certainly had not been made for a yeoman, but over it he had a
common linen smock-frock or gabardine, like our field workmen
wear now or used to wear, and in his helmet he carried instead of
a feather a wisp of wheaten straw. He bore a heavy axe in his
hand besides the sword he was girt with, and round his neck hung
a great horn for blowing. I should say that I knew that there
were at least three "Jack Straws" among the fellowship of the
discontented, one of whom was over in Essex.
As we waited there, every bowman with his shaft nocked on the
string, there was a movement in the line opposite, and presently
came from it a little knot of three men, the middle one on
horseback, the other two armed with long-handled glaives; all
three well muffled up in armour. As they came nearer I could see
that the horseman had a tabard over his armour, gaily embroidered
with a green tree on a gold ground, and in his hand a
"They are come to summon us. Wilt thou that he speak, Jack?"
said Will Green.
"Nay," said the other; "yet shall he have warning first. Shoot
when my horn blows!"
And therewith he came up to the hedge, climbed over, slowly
because of his armour, and stood some dozen yards out in the
field. The man on horseback put his trumpet to his mouth and
blew a long blast, and then took a scroll into his hand and made
as if he were going to read; but Jack Straw lifted up his voice
and cried out:
"Do it not, or thou art but dead! We will have no accursed
lawyers and their sheep-skins here! Go back to those that sent
But the man broke in in a loud harsh voice:
"Ho! YE PEOPLE! what will ye gathering in arms?"
Then cried Jack Straw:
"Sir Fool, hold your peace till ye have heard me, or else we
shoot at once. Go back to those that sent thee, and tell them
that we free men of Kent are on the way to London to speak with
King Richard, and to tell him that which he wots not; to wit,
that there is a certain sort of fools and traitors to the realm
who would put collars on our necks and make beasts of us, and
that it is his right and his devoir to do as he swore when he was
crowned and anointed at Westminster on the Stone of Doom, and
gainsay these thieves and traitors; and if he be too weak, then
shall we help him; and if he will not be king, then shall we have
one who will be, and that is the King's Son of Heaven. Now,
therefore, if any withstand us on our lawful errand as we go to
speak with our own king and lord, let him look to it. Bear back
this word to them that sent thee. But for thee, hearken, thou
bastard of an inky sheep-skin! get thee gone and tarry not;
three times shall I lift up my hand, and the third time look to
thyself, for then shalt thou hear the loose of our bowstrings,
and after that nought else till thou hearest the devil bidding
thee welcome to hell!"
Our fellows shouted, but the summoner began again, yet in a
quavering voice:
"Ho! YE PEOPLE! what will ye gathering in arms? Wot ye not that
ye are doing or shall do great harm, loss, and hurt to the king's
He stopped; Jack Straw's hand was lowered for the second time.
He looked to his men right and left, and then turned rein and
turned tail, and scuttled back to the main body at his swiftest.
Huge laughter rattled out all along our line as Jack Straw
climbed back into the orchard grinning also.
Then we noted more movement in the enemy's line. They were
spreading the archers and arbalestiers to our left, and the menat-
arms and others also spread some, what under the three
pennons of which Long Gregory had told us, and which were plain
enough to us in the dear evening. Presently the moving line
faced us, and the archers set off at a smart pace toward us, the
men-at-arms holding back a little behind them. I knew now that
they had been within bowshot all along, but our men were loth to
shoot before their first shots would tell, like those half-dozen
in the road when, as they told me afterwards, a plump of their
men-at-arms had made a show of falling on.
But now as soon as those men began to move on us directly in
face, Jack Straw put his horn to his lips and blew a loud rough
blast that was echoed by five or six others along the orchard
hedge. Every man had his shaft nocked on the string; I watched
them, and Will Green specially; he and his bow and its string
seemed all of a piece, so easily by seeming did he draw the nock
of the arrow to his ear. A moment, as he took his aim, and
then--O then did I understand the meaning of the awe with
which the ancient poet speaks of the loose of the god Apollo's
bow; for terrible indeed was the mingled sound of the twanging
bowstring and the whirring shaft so close to me.
I was now on my knees right in front of Will and saw all clearly;
the arbalestiers (for no long-bow men were over against our
stead) had all of them bright headpieces, and stout body-armour
of boiled leather with metal studs, and as they came towards us,
I could see over their shoulders great wooden shields hanging at
their backs. Further to our left their long-bow men had shot
almost as soon as ours, and I heard or seemed to hear the rush of
the arrows through the apple-boughs and a man's cry therewith;
but with us the long-bow had been before the cross-bow; one of
the arbalestiers fell outright, his great shield clattering down
on him, and moved no more; while three others were hit and were
crawling to the rear. The rest had shouldered their bows and
were aiming, but I thought unsteadily; and before the
triggers were drawn again Will Green had nocked and loosed, and
not a few others of our folk; then came the wooden hail of the
bolts rattling through the boughs, but all overhead and no one
The next time Will Green nocked his arrow he drew with a great
shout, which all our fellows took up; for the arbalestiers
instead of turning about in their places covered by their great
shields and winding up their cross-bows for a second shot, as is
the custom of such soldiers, ran huddling together toward their
men-at-arms, our arrows driving thump-thump into their shields as
they ran: I saw four lying on the field dead or sore wounded.
But our archers shouted again, and kept on each plucking the
arrows from the ground, and nocking and loosing swiftly but
deliberately at the line before them; indeed now was the time for
these terrible bowmen, for as Will Green told me afterwards they
always reckoned to kill through cloth or leather at five
hundred yards, and they had let the cross-bow men come nearly
within three hundred, and these were now all mingled and muddled
up with the men-at-arms at scant five hundred yards' distance;
and belike, too, the latter were not treating them too well, but
seemed to be belabouring them with their spear-staves in their
anger at the poorness of the play; so that as Will Green said it
was like shooting at hay-ricks.
All this you must understand lasted but a few minutes, and when
our men had been shooting quite coolly, like good workmen at
peaceful work, for a few minutes more, the enemy's line seemed to
clear somewhat; the pennon with the three red kine showed in
front and three men armed from head to foot in gleaming steel,
except for their short coats bright with heraldry, were with it.
One of them (and he bore the three kine on his coat) turned round
and gave some word of command, and an angry shout went up
from them, and they came on steadily towards us, the man with the
red kine on his coat leading them, a great naked sword in his
hand: you must note that they were all on foot; but as they drew
nearer I saw their horses led by grooms and pages coming on
slowly behind them.
Sooth said Will Green that the men-at-arms run not fast either to
or fro the fray; they came on no faster than a hasty walk, their
arms clashing about them and the twang of the bows and whistle of
the arrows never failing all the while, but going on like the
push of the westerly gale, as from time to time the men-at-arms
shouted, "Ha! ha! out! out! Kentish thieves!"
But when they began to fall on, Jack Straw shouted out, "Bills to
the field! bills to the field!"
Then all our billmen ran up and leapt over the hedge into the
meadow and stood stoutly along the ditch under our bows, Jack
Straw in the forefront handling his great axe. Then he cast it
into his left hand, caught up his horn and winded it loudly. The
men-at-arms drew near steadily, some fell under the arrow-storm,
but not a many; for though the target was big, it was hard, since
not even the cloth-yard shaft could pierce well-wrought armour of
plate, and there was much armour among them. Withal the
arbalestiers were shooting again, but high and at a venture, so
they did us no hurt.
But as these soldiers made wise by the French war were now
drawing near, and our bowmen were casting down their bows and
drawing their short swords, or handling their axes, as did Will
Green, muttering, "Now must Hob Wright's gear end this play"--
while this was a-doing, lo, on a sudden a flight of arrows from
our right on the flank of the sergeants' array, which stayed them
somewhat; not because it slew many men, but because they began to
bethink them that their foes were many and all around them;
then the road-hedge on the right seemed alive with armed men, for
whatever could hold sword or staff amongst us was there; every
bowman also leapt our orchard-hedge sword or axe in hand, and
with a great shout, billmen, archers, and all, ran in on them;
half-armed, yea, and half-naked some of them; strong and stout
and lithe and light withal, the wrath of battle and the hope of
better times lifting up their hearts till nothing could withstand
them. So was all mingled together, and for a minute or two was a
confused clamour over which rose a clatter like the riveting of
iron plates, or the noise of the street of coppersmiths at
Florence; then the throng burst open and the steel-clad sergeants
and squires and knights ran huddling and shuffling towards their
horses; but some cast down their weapons and threw up their hands
and cried for peace and ransom; and some stood and fought
desperately, and slew some till they were hammered down by
many strokes, and of these were the bailiffs and tipstaves, and
the lawyers and their men, who could not run and hoped for no
I looked as on a picture and wondered, and my mind was at strain
to remember something forgotten, which yet had left its mark on
it. I heard the noise of the horse-hoofs of the fleeing men-atarms
(the archers and arbalestiers had scattered before the last
minutes of the play), I heard the confused sound of laughter and
rejoicing down in the meadow, and close by me the evening wind
lifting the lighter twigs of the trees, and far away the many
noises of the quiet country, till light and sound both began to
fade from me and I saw and heard nothing.
I leapt up to my feet presently and there was Will Green before
me as I had first seen him in the street with coat and hood and
the gear at his girdle and his unstrung bow in his hand; his face
smiling and kind again, but maybe a thought sad.
"Well," quoth I, "what is the tale for the ballad-maker?"
"As Jack Straw said it would be," said he, "`the end of the day
and the end of the fray;'" and he pointed to the brave show of
the sky over the sunken sun; "the knights fled and the sheriff
dead: two of the lawyer kind slain afield, and one hanged: and
cruel was he to make them cruel: and three bailiffs knocked on
the head--stout men, and so witless, that none found their brains
in their skulls; and five arbalestiers and one archer slain, and
a score and a half of others, mostly men come back from the
French wars, men of the Companions there, knowing no other craft
than fighting for gold; and this is the end they are paid for.
Well, brother, saving the lawyers who belike had no souls, but
only parchment deeds and libels of the same, God rest their
He fell a-musing; but I said, "And of our Fellowship were any
"Two good men of the township," he said, "Hob Horner and
Antony Webber, were slain outright, Hob with a shaft and Antony
in the hand-play, and John Pargetter hurt very sore on the
shoulder with a glaive; and five more men of the Fellowship slain
in the hand-play, and some few hurt, but not sorely. And as to
those slain, if God give their souls rest it is well; for little
rest they had on the earth belike; but for me, I desire rest no
I looked at him and our eyes met with no little love; and I
wondered to see how wrath and grief within him were contending
with the kindness of the man, and how clear the tokens of it were
in his face.
"Come now, old lad," said he, "for I deem that John Ball and Jack
Straw have a word to say to us at the cross yet, since these men
broke off the telling of the tale; there shall we know what we
are to take in hand to-morrow. And afterwards thou shalt eat and
drink in my house this once, if never again "
So we went through the orchard closes again; and others were
about and anigh us, all turned towards the cross as we went over
the dewy grass, whereon the moon was just beginning to throw
I got into my old place again on the steps of the cross, Will
Green beside me, and above me John Ball and Jack Straw again.
The moon was half-way up the heavens now, and the short summer
night had begun, calm and fragrant, with just so much noise
outside our quiet circle as made one feel the world alive and
We waited silently until we had heard John Ball and the story of
what was to do; and presently he began to speak.
"Good people, it is begun, but not ended. Which of you is hardy
enough to wend the road to London to-morrow?"
"All! All!" they shouted.
"Yea," said he, "even so I deemed of you. Yet forsooth
hearken! London is a great and grievous city; and mayhappen when
ye come thither it shall seem to you overgreat to deal with, when
ye remember the little townships and the cots ye came from.
"Moreover, when ye dwell here in Kent ye think forsooth of your
brethren in Essex or Suffolk, and there belike an end. But from
London ye may have an inkling of all the world, and overburdensome
maybe shall that seem to you, a few and a feeble
"Nevertheless I say to you, remember the Fellowship, in the hope
of which ye have this day conquered; and when ye come to London
be wise and wary; and that is as much as to say, be bold and
hardy; for in these days are ye building a house which shall not
be overthrown, and the world shall not be too great or too little
to hold it: for indeed it shall be the world itself, set free
from evil-doers for friends to dwell in."
He ceased awhile, but they hearkened still, as if something
more was coming. Then he said:
"To-morrow we shall take the road for Rochester; and most like it
were well to see what Sir John Newton in the castle may say to
us: for the man is no ill man, and hath a tongue well-shapen for
words; and it were well that we had him out of the castle and
away with us, and that we put a word in his mouth to say to the
King. And wot ye well, good fellows, that by then we come to
Rochester we shall be a goodly company, and ere we come to
Blackheath a very great company; and at London Bridge who shall
stay our host?
"Therefore there is nought that can undo us except our own selves
and our hearkening to soft words from those who would slay us.
They shall bid us go home and abide peacefully with our wives and
children while they, the lords and councillors and lawyers,
imagine counsel and remedy for us; and even so shall our own
folly bid us; and if we hearken thereto we are undone indeed;
for they shall fall upon our peace with war, and our wives and
children they shall take from us, and some of us they shall hang,
and some they shall scourge, and the others shall be their yokebeasts--
yea, and worse, for they shall lack meat more.
"To fools hearken not, whether they be yourselves or your foemen,
for either shall lead you astray.
"With the lords parley not, for ye know already what they would
say to you, and that is, `Churl, let me bridle thee and saddle
thee, and eat thy livelihood that thou winnest, and call thee
hard names because I eat thee up; and for thee, speak not and do
not, save as I bid thee.'
"All that is the end of their parleying.
"Therefore be ye bold, and again bold, and thrice bold! Grip the
bow, handle the staff, draw the sword, and set on in the name of
the Fellowship!"
He ended amid loud shouts; but straight-way answering shouts
were heard, and a great noise of the winding of horns, and I
misdoubted a new onslaught; and some of those in the throng began
to string their bows and handle their bills; but Will Green
pulled me by the sleeve and said:
"Friends are these by the winding of their horns; thou art quit
for this night, old lad." And then Jack Straw cried out from the
cross: "Fair and softly, my masters! These be men of our
Fellowship, and are for your guests this night; they are from the
bents this side of Medway, and are with us here because of the
pilgrimage road, and that is the best in these parts, and so the
shortest to Rochester. And doubt ye nothing of our being taken
unawares this night; for I have bidden and sent out watchers of
the ways, and neither a man's son nor a mare's son may come in on
us without espial. Now make we our friends welcome. Forsooth, I
looked for them an hour later; and had they come an hour
earlier yet, some heads would now lie on the cold grass which
shall lie on a feather bed to-night. But let be, since all is
"Now get we home to our houses, and eat and drink and slumber
this night, if never once again, amid the multitude of friends
and fellows; and yet soberly and without riot, since so much work
is to hand. Moreover the priest saith, bear ye the dead men,
both friends and foes, into the chancel of the church, and there
this night he will wake them: but after to-morrow let the dead
abide to bury their dead!"
Therewith he leapt down from the cross, and Will and I bestirred
ourselves and mingled with the new-comers. They were some three
hundred strong, clad and armed in all ways like the people of our
township, except some half-dozen whose armour shone cold like ice
under the moonbeams. Will Green soon had a dozen of them by the
sleeve to come home with him to board and bed, and then I lost
him for some minutes, and turning about saw John Ball
standing behind me, looking pensively on all the stir and merry
humours of the joyous uplanders.
"Brother from Essex," said he, "shall I see thee again to-night?
I were fain of speech with thee; for thou seemest like one that
has seen more than most."
"Yea," said I, "if ye come to Will Green's house, for thither am
I bidden."
"Thither shall I come," said he, smiling kindly, "or no man I
know in field. Lo you, Will Green looking for something, and
that is me. But in his house will be song and the talk of many
friends; and forsooth I have words in me that crave to come out
in a quiet place where they may have each one his own answer. If
thou art not afraid of dead men who were alive and wicked this
morning, come thou to the church when supper is done, and there
we may talk all we will."
Will Green was standing beside us before he had done, with
his hand laid on the priest's shoulder, waiting till he had
spoken out; and as I nodded Yea to John Ball he said:
"Now, master priest, thou hast spoken enough this two or three
hours, and this my new brother must tell and talk in my house;
and there my maid will hear his wisdom which lay still under the
hedge e'en now when the bolts were abroad. So come ye, and ye
good fellows, come!"
So we turned away together into the little street. But while
John Ball had been speaking to me I felt strangely, as though I
had more things to say than the words I knew could make clear: as
if I wanted to get from other people a new set of words.
Moreover, as we passed up the street again I was once again
smitten with the great beauty of the scene; the houses, the
church with its new chancel and tower, snow-white in the
moonbeams now; the dresses and arms of the people, men and women
(for the latter were now mixed up with the men); their grave
sonorous language, and the quaint and measured forms of speech,
were again become a wonder to me and affected me almost to tears.
I walked along with the others musing as if I did not belong to
them, till we came to Will Green's house. He was one of the
wealthier of the yeomen, and his house was one of those I told
you of, the lower story of which was built of stone. It had not
been built long, and was very trim and neat. The fit of wonder
had worn off me again by then I reached it, or perhaps I should
give you a closer description of it, for it was a handsome
yeoman's dwelling of that day, which is as much as saying it was
very beautiful. The house on the other side of it, the last
house in the village, was old or even ancient; all built of
stone, and except for a newer piece built on to it--a
hall, it seemed--had round arches, some of them handsomely
carved. I knew that this was the parson's house; but he was
another sort of priest than John Ball, and what for fear, what
for hatred, had gone back to his monastery with the two other
chantrey priests who dwelt in that house; so that the men of the
township, and more especially the women, were thinking gladly how
John Ball should say mass in their new chancel on the morrow.
Will Green's daughter was waiting for him at the door and gave
him a close and eager hug, and had a kiss to spare for each of us
withal: a strong girl she was, as I have said, and sweet and
wholesome also. She made merry with her father; yet it was easy
to see that her heart was in her mouth all along. There was a
younger girl some twelve summers old, and a lad of ten, who were
easily to be known for his children; an old woman also, who had
her livelihood there, and helped the household; and moreover
three long young men, who came into the house after we had sat
down, to whom Will nodded kindly. They were brisk lads and
smart, but had been afield after the beasts that evening, and had
not seen the fray.
The room we came into was indeed the house, for there was nothing
but it on the ground floor, but a stair in the corner went up to
the chamber or loft above. It was much like the room at the
Rose, but bigger; the cupboard better wrought, and with more
vessels on it, and handsomer. Also the walls, instead of being
panelled, were hung with a coarse loosely-woven stuff of green
worsted with birds and trees woven into it. There were flowers
in plenty stuck about the room, mostly of the yellow blossoming
flag or flower-de-luce, of which I had seen plenty in all the
ditches, but in the window near the door was a pot full of those
same white poppies I had seen when I first woke up; and the table
was all set forth with meat and drink, a big salt-cellar of
pewter in the middle, covered with a white cloth.
We sat down, the priest blessed the meat in the name of the
Trinity, and we crossed ourselves and fell to. The victual was
plentiful of broth and flesh-meat, and bread and cherries, so we
ate and drank, and talked lightly together when we were full.
Yet was not the feast so gay as might have been. Will Green had
me to sit next to him, and on the other side sat John Ball; but
the priest had grown somewhat distraught, and sat as one thinking
of somewhat that was like to escape his thought. Will Green
looked at his daughter from time to time, and whiles his eyes
glanced round the fair chamber as one who loved it, and his kind
face grew sad, yet never sullen. When the herdsmen came into the
hall they fell straightway to asking questions concerning those
of the Fellowship who had been slain in the fray, and of their
wives and children; so that for a while thereafter no man
cared to jest, for they were a neighbourly and kind folk, and
were sorry both for the dead, and also for the living that should
suffer from that day's work.
So then we sat silent awhile. The unseen moon was bright over
the roof of the house, so that outside all was gleaming bright
save the black shadows, though the moon came not into the room,
and the white wall of the tower was the whitest and the brightest
thing we could see.
Wide open were the windows, and the scents of the fragrant night
floated in upon us, and the sounds of the men at their meat or
making merry about the township; and whiles we heard the gibber
of an owl from the trees westward of the church, and the sharp
cry of a blackbird made fearful by the prowling stoat, or the
far-off lowing of a cow from the upland pastures; or the hoofs of
a horse trotting on the pilgrimage road (and one of our watchers
would that be).
Thus we sat awhile, and once again came that feeling over me of
wonder and pleasure at the strange and beautiful sights, mingled.
with the sights and sounds and scents beautiful indeed, yet not
strange, but rather long familiar to me.
But now Will Green started in his seat where he sat with his
daughter hanging over his chair, her hand amidst his thick black
curls, and she weeping softly, I thought; and his rough strong
voice broke the silence.
"Why, lads and neighbours, what ails us? If the knights who fled
from us this eve were to creep back hither and look in at the
window, they would deem that they had slain us after all, and
that we were but the ghosts of the men who fought them. Yet,
forsooth, fair it is at whiles to sit with friends and let the
summer night speak for us and tell us its tales. But now,
sweetling, fetch the mazer and the wine."
"Forsooth," said John Ball, "if ye laugh not over-much now, ye
shall laugh the more on the morrow of to-morrow, as ye draw
nearer to the play of point and edge."
"That is sooth," said one of the upland guests. "So it was seen
in France when we fought there; and the eve of fight was sober
and the morn was merry."
"Yea," said another, "but there, forsooth, it was for nothing ye
fought; and to-morrow it shall be for a fair reward."
"It was for life we fought," said the first.
"Yea," said the second, "for life; and leave to go home and find
the lawyers at their fell game. Ho, Will Green, call a health
over the cup!"
For now Will Green had a bowl of wine in his hand. He stood up
and said: "Here, now, I call a health to the wrights of Kent who
be turning our plough-shares into swords and our pruning-hooks
into spears! Drink around, my masters!"
Then he drank, and his daughter filled the bowl brimming again
and he passed it to me. As I took it I saw that it was of
light polished wood curiously speckled, with a band of silver
round it, on which was cut the legend, "In the name of the
Trinity fill the cup and drink to me." And before I drank, it
came upon me to say, "To-morrow, and the fair days afterwards!"
Then I drank a great draught of the strong red wine, and passed
it on; and every man said something over it, as "The road to
London Bridge!" "Hob Carter and his mate!" and so on, till last
of all John Ball drank, saying:
"Ten years hence, and the freedom of the Fellowship!" Then he
said to Will Green: "Now, Will, must I needs depart to go and
wake the dead, both friend and foe in the church yonder; and
whoso of you will be shriven let him come to me thither in the
morn, nor spare for as little after sunrise as it may be. And
this our friend and brother from over the water of Thames, he
hath will to talk with me and I with him; so now will I take
him by the hand: and so God keep you, fellows!"
I rose to meet him as he came round the head of the table, and
took his hand. Will Green turned round to me and said:
"Thou wilt come back again timely, old lad; for betimes on the
morrow must we rise if we shall dine at Rochester."
I stammered as I yea-said him; for John Ball was looking
strangely at me with a half-smile, and my heart beat anxiously
and fearfully: but we went quietly to the door and so out into
the bright moonlight.
I lingered a little when we had passed the threshold, and looked
back at the yellow-lighted window and the shapes of the men that
I saw therein with a grief and longing that I could not give
myself a reason for, since I was to come back so soon. John Ball
did not press me to move forward, but held up his hand as if to
bid me hearken. The folk and guests there had already shaken
themselves down since our departure, and were gotten to be
reasonably merry it seemed; for one of the guests, he who had
spoken of France before, had fallen to singing a ballad of the
war to a wild and melancholy tune. I remember the first rhymes
of it, which I heard as I turned away my head and we moved on
toward the church:
"On a fair field of France
We fought on a morning
So lovely as it lieth
Along by the water.
There was many a lord there
Mowed men in the medley,
'Midst the banners of the barons
And bold men of the knighthood,
And spearmen and sergeants
And shooters of the shaft."
We entered the church through the south porch under a roundarched
door carved very richly, and with a sculpture over the
doorway and under the arch, which, as far as I could see by the
moonlight, figured St. Michael and the Dragon. As I came into
the rich gloom of the nave I noticed for the first time that I
had one of those white poppies in my hand; I must have taken it
out of the pot by the window as I passed out of Will Green's
The nave was not very large, but it looked spacious too; it was
somewhat old, but well-built and handsome; the roof of curved
wooden rafters with great tie-beams going from wall to wall.
There was no light in it but that of the moon streaming
through the windows, which were by no means large, and were
glazed with white fretwork, with here and there a little figure
in very deep rich colours. Two larger windows near the east end
of each aisle had just been made so that the church grew lighter
toward the east, and I could see all the work on the great screen
between the nave and chancel which glittered bright in new paint
and gilding: a candle glimmered in the loft above it, before the
huge rood that filled up the whole space between the loft and the
chancel arch. There was an altar at the east end of each aisle,
the one on the south side standing against the outside wall, the
one on the north against a traceried gaily-painted screen, for
that aisle ran on along the chancel. There were a few oak
benches near this second altar, seemingly just made, and well
carved and moulded; otherwise the floor of the nave, which was
paved with a quaint pavement of glazed tiles like the crocks
I had seen outside as to ware, was quite clear, and the shafts of
the arches rose out of it white and beautiful under the moon as
though out of a sea, dark but with gleams struck over it.
The priest let me linger and look round, when he had crossed
himself and given me the holy water; and then I saw that the
walls were figured all over with stories, a huge St. Christopher
with his black beard looking like Will Green, being close to the
porch by which we entered, and above the chancel arch the Doom of
the last Day, in which the painter had not spared either kings or
bishops, and in which a lawyer with his blue coif was one of the
chief figures in the group which the Devil was hauling off to
"Yea," said John Ball, "'tis a goodly church and fair as you may
see 'twixt Canterbury and London as for its kind; and yet do I
misdoubt me where those who are dead are housed, and where those
shall house them after they are dead, who built this house
for God to dwell in. God grant they be cleansed at last;
forsooth one of them who is now alive is a foul swine and a cruel
wolf. Art thou all so sure, scholar, that all such have souls?
and if it be so, was it well done of God to make them? I speak
to thee thus, for I think thou art no delator; and if thou be,
why should I heed it, since I think not to come back from this
I looked at him and, as it were, had some ado to answer him; but
I said at last, "Friend, I never saw a soul, save in the body; I
cannot tell."
He crossed himself and said, "Yet do I intend that ere many days
are gone by my soul shall be in bliss among the fellowship of the
saints, and merry shall it be, even before my body rises from the
dead; for wisely I have wrought in the world, and I wot well of
friends that are long ago gone from the world, as St. Martin, and
St. Francis, and St. Thomas of Canterbury, who shall speak
well of me to the heavenly Fellowship, and I shall in no wise
lose my reward."
I looked shyly at him as he spoke; his face looked sweet and calm
and happy, and I would have said no word to grieve him; and yet
belike my eyes looked wonder on him: he seemed to note it and his
face grew puzzled. "How deemest thou of these things?" said he:
"why do men die else, if it be otherwise than this?"
I smiled: "Why then do they live?" said I.
Even in the white moonlight I saw his face flush, and he cried
out in a great voice, "To do great deeds or to repent them that
they ever were born."
"Yea," said I, "they live to live because the world liveth." He
stretched out his hand to me and grasped mine, but said no more;
and went on till we came to the door in the rood-screen; then he
turned to me with his hand on the ring-latch, and said, "Hast
thou seen many dead men?"
"Nay, but few," said I.
"And I a many," said he; "but come now and look on these, our
friends first and then our foes, so that ye may not look to see
them while we sit and talk of the days that are to be on the
earth before the Day of Doom cometh."
So he opened the door, and we went into the chancel; a light
burned on the high altar before the host, and looked red and
strange in the moonlight that came through the wide traceried
windows unstained by the pictures and beflowerings of the
glazing; there were new stalls for the priests and vicars where
we entered, carved more abundantly and beautifully than any of
the woodwork I had yet seen, and everywhere was rich and fair
colour and delicate and dainty form. Our dead lay just before
the high altar on low biers, their faces all covered with linen
cloths, for some of them had been sore smitten and hacked in the
fray. We went up to them and John Ball took the cloth from
the face of one; he had been shot to the heart with a shaft and
his face was calm and smooth. He had been a young man fair and
comely, with hair flaxen almost to whiteness; he lay there in his
clothes as he had fallen, the hands crossed over his breast and
holding a rush cross. His bow lay on one side of him, his quiver
of shafts and his sword on the other.
John Ball spake to me while he held the corner of the sheet:
"What sayest thou, scholar? feelest thou sorrow of heart when
thou lookest on this, either for the man himself, or for thyself
and the time when thou shalt be as he is?"
I said, "Nay, I feel no sorrow for this; for the man is not here:
this is an empty house, and the master has gone from it.
Forsooth, this to me is but as a waxen image of a man; nay, not
even that, for if it were an image, it would be an image of the
man as he was when he was alive. But here is no life nor
semblance of life, and I am not moved by it; nay, I am more
moved by the man's clothes and war-gear--there is more life in
them than in him."
"Thou sayest sooth," said he; "but sorrowest thou not for thine
own death when thou lookest on him?"
I said, "And how can I sorrow for that which I cannot so much as
think of? Bethink thee that while I am alive I cannot think that
I shall die, or believe in death at all, although I know well
that I shall die--I can but think of myself as living in some new
Again he looked on me as if puzzled; then his face cleared as he
said, "Yea, forsooth, and that is what the Church meaneth by
death, and even that I look for; and that hereafter I shall see
all the deeds that I have done in the body, and what they really
were, and what shall come of them; and ever shall I be a member
of the Church, and that is the Fellowship; then, even as now."
I sighed as he spoke; then I said, "Yea, somewhat in this fashion
have most of men thought, since no man that is can conceive of
not being; and I mind me that in those stories of the old Danes,
their common word for a man dying is to say, `He changed his
"And so deemest thou?"
I shook my head and said nothing.
"What hast thou to say hereon?" said he, "for there seemeth
something betwixt us twain as it were a wall that parteth us."
"This," said I, "that though I die and end, yet mankind yet
liveth, therefore I end not, since I am a man; and even so thou
deemest, good friend; or at the least even so thou doest, since
now thou art ready to die in grief and torment rather than be
unfaithful to the Fellowship, yea rather than fail to work thine
utmost for it; whereas, as thou thyself saidst at the cross, with
a few words spoken and a little huddling-up of the truth, with a
few pennies paid, and a few masses sung, thou mightest have
had a good place on this earth and in that heaven. And as thou
doest, so now doth many a poor man unnamed and unknown, and shall
do while the world lasteth: and they that do less than this, fail
because of fear, and are ashamed of their cowardice, and make
many tales to themselves to deceive themselves, lest they should
grow too much ashamed to live. And trust me if this were not so,
the world would not live, but would die, smothered by its own
stink. Is the wall betwixt us gone, friend?"
He smiled as he looked at me, kindly, but sadly and shamefast,
and shook his head.
Then in a while he said, "Now ye have seen the images of those
who were our friends, come and see the images of those who were
once our foes."
So he led the way through the side screen into the chancel aisle,
and there on the pavement lay the bodies of the foemen, their
weapons taken from them and they stripped of their armour,
but not otherwise of their clothes, and their faces mostly, but
not all, covered. At the east end of the aisle was another
altar, covered with a rich cloth beautifully figured, and on the
wall over it was a deal of tabernacle work, in the midmost niche
of it an image painted and gilt of a gay knight on horseback,
cutting his own cloak in two with his sword to give a cantle of
it to a half-naked beggar.
"Knowest thou any of these men?" said I.
He said, "Some I should know, could I see their faces; but let
them be."
"Were they evil men?" said I.
"Yea," he said, "some two or three. But I will not tell thee of
them; let St. Martin, whose house this is, tell their story if he
will. As for the rest they were hapless fools, or else men who
must earn their bread somehow, and were driven to this bad way of
earning it; God rest their souls! I will be no tale-bearer, not
even to God."
So we stood musing a little while, I gazing not on the dead men,
but on the strange pictures on the wall, which were richer and
deeper coloured than those in the nave; till at last John Ball
turned to me and laid his hand on my shoulder. I started and
said, "Yea, brother; now must I get me back to Will Green's
house, as I promised to do so timely."
"Not yet, brother," said he; "I have still much to say to thee,
and the night is yet young. Go we and sit in the stalls of the
vicars, and let us ask and answer on matters concerning the
fashion of this world of menfolk, and of this land wherein we
dwell; for once more I deem of thee that thou hast seen things
which I have not seen, and could not have seen." With that word
he led me back into the chancel, and we sat down side by side in
the stalls at the west end of it, facing the high altar and the
great east window. By this time the chancel was getting dimmer
as the moon wound round the heavens; but yet was there a
twilight of the moon, so that I could still see the things about
me for all the brightness of the window that faced us; and this
moon twilight would last, I knew, until the short summer night
should wane, and the twilight of the dawn begin to show us the
colours of all things about us.
So we sat, and I gathered my thoughts to hear what he would say,
and I myself was trying to think what I should ask of him; for I
thought of him as he of me, that he had seen things which I could
not have seen.
"Brother," said John Ball, "how deemest thou of our adventure? I
do not ask thee if thou thinkest we are right to play the play
like men, but whether playing like men we shall fail like men."
"Why dost thou ask me?" said I; "how much further than beyond
this church can I see?"
"Far further," quoth he, "for I wot that thou art a scholar and
hast read books; and withal, in some way that I cannot name, thou
knowest more than we; as though with thee the world had lived
longer than with us. Hide not, therefore, what thou hast in
thine heart, for I think after this night I shall see thee
no more, until we meet in the heavenly Fellowship."
"Friend," I said, "ask me what thou wilt; or rather ask thou the
years to come to tell thee some little of their tale; and yet
methinks thou thyself mayest have some deeming thereof."
He raised himself on the elbow of the stall and looked me full in
the face, and said to me: "Is it so after all that thou art no
man in the flesh, but art sent to me by the Master of the
Fellowship, and the King's Son of Heaven, to tell me what shall
be? If that be so tell me straight out, since I had some deeming
hereof before; whereas thy speech is like ours and yet unlike,
and thy face hath something in it which is not after the fashion
of our day. And yet take heed, if thou art such an one, I fear
thee not, nay, nor him that sent thee; nor for thy bidding, nor
for his, will I turn back from London Bridge but will press on,
for I do what is meet and right."
"Nay," said I, "did I not tell thee e'en now that I knew life but
not death? I am not dead; and as to who hath sent me, I say not
that I am come by my own will; for I know not; yet also I know
not the will that hath sent me hither. And this I say to thee,
moreover, that if I know more than thou, I do far less; therefore
thou art my captain and I thy minstrel."
He sighed as one from whom a weight had been lifted, and said:
"Well, then, since thou art alive on the earth and a man like
myself, tell me how deemest thou of our adventure: shall we come
to London, and how shall we fare there?"
Said I, "What shall hinder you to come to London, and to fare
there as ye will? For be sure that the Fellowship in Essex shall
not fail you; nor shall the Londoners who hate the king's uncles
withstand you; nor hath the Court any great force to meet you in
the field; ye shall cast fear and trembling into their hearts."
"Even so, I thought," said he; "but afterwards what shall
Said I, "It grieves my heart to say that which I think. Yet
hearken; many a man's son shall die who is now alive and happy,
and if the soldiers be slain, and of them most not on the field,
but by the lawyers, how shall the captains escape? Surely thou
goest to thy death."
He smiled very sweetly, yet proudly, as he said: "Yea, the road
is long, but the end cometh at last. Friend, many a day have I
been dying; for my sister, with whom I have played and been merry
in the autumn tide about the edges of the stubble-fields; and we
gathered the nuts and bramble-berries there, and started thence
the missel-thrush, and wondered at his voice and thought him big;
and the sparrow-hawk wheeled and turned over the hedges and the
weasel ran across the path, and the sound of the sheep-bells came
to us from the downs as we sat happy on the grass; and she
is dead and gone from the earth, for she pined from famine after
the years of the great sickness; and my brother was slain in the
French wars, and none thanked him for dying save he that stripped
him of his gear; and my unwedded wife with whom I dwelt in love
after I had taken the tonsure, and all men said she was good and
fair, and true she was and lovely; she also is dead and gone from
the earth; and why should I abide save for the deeds of the flesh
which must be done? Truly, friend, this is but an old tale that
men must die; and I will tell thee another, to wit, that they
live: and I live now and shall live. Tell me then what shall
Somehow I could not heed him as a living man as much as I had
done, and the voice that came from me seemed less of me as I
"These men are strong and valiant as any that have been or shall
be, and good fellows also and kindly; but they are simple,
and see no great way before their own noses. The victory shall
they have and shall not know what to do with it; they shall fight
and overcome, because of their lack of knowledge, and because of
their lack of knowledge shall they be cozened and betrayed when
their captains are slain, and all shall come to nought by
seeming; and the king's uncles shall prevail, that both they and
the king may come to the shame that is appointed for them. And
yet when the lords have vanquished, and all England lieth under
them again, yet shall their victory be fruitless; for the free
men that hold unfree lands shall they not bring under the collar
again, and villeinage shall slip from their hands, till there be,
and not long after ye are dead, but few unfree men in England; so
that your lives and your deaths both shall bear fruit."
"Said I not," quoth John Ball, "that thou wert a sending from
other times? Good is thy message, for the land shall be
free. Tell on now."
He spoke eagerly, and I went on somewhat sadly: "The times shall
better, though the king and lords shall worsen, the Gilds of
Craft shall wax and become mightier; more recourse shall there be
of foreign merchants. There shall be plenty in the land and not
famine. Where a man now earneth two pennies he shall earn
"Yea," said he, "then shall those that labour become strong and
stronger, and so soon shall it come about that all men shall work
and none make to work, and so shall none be robbed, and at last
shall all men labour and live and be happy, and have the goods of
the earth without money and without price."
"Yea," said I, "that shall indeed come to pass, but not yet for a
while, and belike a long while."
And I sat for long without speaking, and the church grew
darker as the moon waned yet more.
Then I said: "Bethink thee that these men shall yet have masters
over them, who have at hand many a law and custom for the behoof
of masters, and being masters can make yet more laws in the same
behoof; and they shall suffer poor people to thrive just so long
as their thriving shall profit the mastership and no longer; and
so shall it be in those days I tell of; for there shall be king
and lords and knights and squires still, with servants to do
their bidding, and make honest men afraid; and all these will
make nothing and eat much as aforetime, and the more that is made
in the land the more shall they crave."
"Yea," said he, "that wot I well, that these are of the kin of
the daughters of the horse-leech; but how shall they slake their
greed, seeing that as thou sayest villeinage shall be gone?
Belike their men shall pay them quit-rents and do them service,
as free men may, but all this according to law and not
beyond it; so that though the workers shall be richer than they
now be, the lords shall be no richer, and so all shall be on the
road to being free and equal."
Said I, "Look you, friend; aforetime the lords, for the most
part, held the land and all that was on it, and the men that were
on it worked for them as their horses worked, and after they were
fed and housed all was the lords'; but in the time to come the
lords shall see their men thriving on the land and shall say once
more, `These men have more than they need, why have we not the
surplus since we are their lords?' Moreover, in those days shall
betide much chaffering for wares between man and man, and country
and country; and the lords shall note that if there were less
corn and less men on their lands there would be more sheep, that
is to say more wool for chaffer, and that thereof they should
have abundantly more than aforetime; since all the land they
own, and it pays them quit-rent or service, save here and there a
croft or a close of a yeoman; and all this might grow wool for
them to sell to the Easterlings. Then shall England see a new
thing, for whereas hitherto men have lived on the land and by it,
the land shall no longer need them, but many sheep and a few
shepherds shall make wool grow to be sold for money to the
Easterlings, and that money shall the lords pouch: for, look you,
they shall set the lawyers a-work and the strong hand moreover,
and the land they shall take to themselves and their sheep; and
except for these lords of land few shall be the free men that
shall hold a rood of land whom the word of their lord may not
turn adrift straightway."
"How mean you?" said John Ball: "shall all men be villeins
"Nay," said I, "there shall be no villeins in England."
"Surely then," said he, "it shall be worse, and all men save
a few shall be thralls to be bought and sold at the cross."
"Good friend," said I, "it shall not be so; all men shall be free
even as ye would have it; yet, as I say, few indeed shall have so
much land as they can stand upon save by buying such a grace of
their masters."
"And now," said he, "I wot not what thou sayest. I know a
thrall, and he is his master's every hour, and never his own; and
a villein I know, and whiles he is his own and whiles his lord's;
and I know a free man, and he is his own always; but how shall he
be his own if he have nought whereby to make his livelihood? Or
shall he be a thief and take from others? Then is he an outlaw.
Wonderful is this thou tellest of a free man with nought whereby
to live!"
"Yet so it shall be," said I, "and by such free men shall all
wares be made."
"Nay, that cannot be; thou art talking riddles," said he;
"for how shall a woodwright make a chest without the wood and the
Said I, "He must needs buy leave to labour of them that own all
things except himself and such as himself."
"Yea, but wherewith shall he buy it?" said John Ball. "What hath
he except himself?"
"With himself then shall he buy it," quoth I, "with his body and
the power of labour that lieth therein; with the price of his
labour shall he buy leave to labour."
"Riddles again!" said he; "how can he sell his labour for aught
else but his daily bread? He must win by his labour meat and
drink and clothing and housing! Can he sell his labour twice
"Not so," said I, "but this shall he do belike; he shall sell
himself, that is the labour that is in him, to the master that
suffers him to work, and that master shall give to him from out
of the wares he maketh enough to keep him alive, and to
beget children and nourish them till they be old enough to be
sold like himself, and the residue shall the rich man keep to
John Ball laughed aloud, and said: "Well, I perceive we are not
yet out of the land of riddles. The man may well do what thou
sayest and live, but he may not do it and live a free man."
"Thou sayest sooth," said I.
He held his peace awhile, and then he said: "But no man selleth
himself and his children into thraldom uncompelled; nor is any
fool so great a fool as willingly to take the name of freeman and
the life of a thrall as payment for the very life of a freeman.
Now would I ask thee somewhat else; and I am the readier to do so
since I perceive that thou art a wondrous seer; for surely no man
could of his own wit have imagined a tale of such follies as thou
hast told me. Now well I wot that men having once shaken
themselves clear of the burden of villeinage, as thou sayest we
shall do (and I bless thee for the word), shall never bow
down to this worser tyranny without sore strife in the
world; and surely so sore shall it be, before our valiant sons
give way, that maids and little lads shall take the sword and the
spear, and in many a field men's blood and not water shall turn
the gristmills of England. But when all this is over, and the
tyranny is established, because there are but few men in the land
after the great war, how shall it be with you then? Will there
not be many soldiers and sergeants and few workers? Surely in
every parish ye shall have the constables to see that the men
work; and they shall be saying every day, `Such an one, hast thou
yet sold thyself for this day or this week or this year? Go to
now, and get thy bargain done, or it shall be the worse for
thee.' And wheresoever work is going on there shall be
constables again, and those that labour shall labour under the
whip like the Hebrews in the land of Egypt. And every man that
may, will steal as a dog snatches at a bone; and there again
shall ye need more soldiers and more constables till the land is
eaten up by them; nor shall the lords and the masters even be
able to bear the burden of it; nor will their gains be so great,
since that which each man may do in a day is not right great when
all is said."
"Friend," said I, "from thine own valiancy and high heart thou
speakest, when thou sayest that they who fall under this tyranny
shall fight to the death against it. Wars indeed there shall be
in the world, great and grievous, and yet few on this score;
rather shall men fight as they have been fighting in France at
the bidding of some lord of the manor, or some king, or at last
at the bidding of some usurer and forestaller of the market.
Valiant men, forsooth, shall arise in the beginning of these evil
times, but though they shall die as ye shall, yet shall not their
deaths be fruitful as yours shall be; because ye, forsooth, are
fighting against villeinage which is waning, but they shall
fight against usury which is waxing. And, moreover, I have been
telling thee how it shall be when the measure of the time is
full; and we, looking at these things from afar, can see them as
they are indeed; but they who live at the beginning of those
times and amidst them, shall not know what is doing around them;
they shall indeed feel the plague and yet not know the remedy; by
little and by little they shall fall from their better
livelihood, and weak and helpless shall they grow, and have no
might to withstand the evil of this tyranny; and then again when
the times mend somewhat and they have but a little more ease,
then shall it be to them like the kingdom of heaven, and they
shall have no will to withstand any tyranny, but shall think
themselves happy that they be pinched somewhat less. Also
whereas thou sayest that there shall be for ever constables and
sergeants going to and fro to drive men to work, and that
they will not work save under the lash, thou art wrong and it
shall not be so; for there shall ever be more workers than the
masters may set to work, so that men shall strive eagerly for
leave to work; and when one says, I will sell my hours at such
and such a price, then another will say, and I for so much less;
so that never shall the lords lack slaves willing to work, but
often the slaves shall lack lords to buy them."
"Thou tellest marvels indeed," said he; "but how then? if all the
churls work not, shall there not be famine and lack of wares?"
"Famine enough," said I, "yet not from lack of wares; it shall be
clean contrary. What wilt thou say when I tell thee that in the
latter days there shall be such traffic and such speedy travel
across the seas that most wares shall be good cheap, and bread of
all things the cheapest?"
Quoth he: "I should say that then there would be better
livelihood for men, for in times of plenty it is well; for then
men eat that which their own hands have harvested, and need
not to spend of their substance in buying of others. Truly, it
is well for honest men, but not so well for forestallers and
regraters;[2] but who heeds what befalls such foul swine, who
filch the money from people's purses, and do not one hair's turn
of work to help them?"
[2] Forestaller, one who buys up goods when they are cheap, and
so raises the price for his own benefit; forestalls the due and
real demand. Regrater, one who both buys and sells in the same
market, or within five miles thereof; buys, say a ton of cheese
at 10 A.M. and sells it at 5 P.M. a penny a pound dearer without
moving from his chair. The word "monopolist" will cover both
species of thief.
"Yea, friend," I said, "but in those latter days all power shall
be in the hands of these foul swine, and they shall be the rulers
of all; therefore, hearken, for I tell thee that times of plenty
shall in those days be the times of famine, and all shall pray
for the prices of wares to rise, so that the forestallers and
regraters may thrive, and that some of their well-doing may
overflow on to those on whom they live."
"I am weary of thy riddles," he said. "Yet at least I hope that
there may be fewer and fewer folk in the land; as may well be, if
life is then so foul and wretched."
"Alas, poor man!" I said; "nor mayst thou imagine how foul and
wretched it may be for many of the folk; and yet I tell thee that
men shall increase and multiply, till where there is one man in
the land now, there shall be twenty in those days--yea, in some
places ten times twenty."
"I have but little heart to ask thee more questions," said he;
"and when thou answerest, thy words are plain, but the things
they tell of I may scarce understand. But tell me this: in those
days will men deem that so it must be for ever, as great men even
now tell us of our ills, or will they think of some remedy?"
I looked about me. There was but a glimmer of light in the
church now, but what there was, was no longer the strange
light of the moon, but the first coming of the kindly day.
"Yea," said John Ball, "'tis the twilight of the dawn. God and
St. Christopher send us a good day!"
"John Ball," said I, "I have told thee that thy death will bring
about that which thy life has striven for: thinkest thou that the
thing which thou strivest for is worth the labour? or dost thou
believe in the tale I have told thee of the days to come?"
He said: "I tell thee once again that I trust thee for a seer;
because no man could make up such a tale as thou; the things
which thou tellest are too wonderful for a minstrel, the tale too
grievous. And whereas thou askest as to whether I count my
labour lost, I say nay; if so be that in those latter times (and
worser than ours they will be) men shall yet seek a remedy:
therefore again I ask thee, is it so that they shall?"
"Yea," said I, "and their remedy shall be the same as thine,
although the days be different: for if the folk be enthralled,
what remedy save that they be set free? and if they have tried
many roads towards freedom, and found that they led no-whither,
then shall they try yet another. Yet in the days to come they
shall be slothful to try it, because their masters shall be so
much mightier than thine, that they shall not need to show the
high hand, and until the days get to their evilest, men shall be
cozened into thinking that it is of their own free will that they
must needs buy leave to labour by pawning their labour that is to
be. Moreover, your lords and masters seem very mighty to you,
each one of them, and so they are, but they are few; and the
masters of the days to come shall not each one of them seem very
mighty to the men of those days, but they shall be very many, and
they shall be of one intent in these matters without knowing it;
like as one sees the oars of a galley when the rowers are
hidden, that rise and fall as it were with one will."
"And yet," he said, "shall it not be the same with those that
these men devour? shall not they also have one will?"
"Friend," I said, "they shall have the will to live, as the
wretchedest thing living has: therefore shall they sell
themselves that they may live, as I told thee; and their hard
need shall be their lord's easy livelihood, and because of it he
shall sleep without fear, since their need compelleth them not to
loiter by the way to lament with friend or brother that they are
pinched in their servitude, or to devise means for ending it.
And yet indeed thou sayest it: they also shall have one will if
they but knew it: but for a long while they shall have but a
glimmer of knowledge of it: yet doubt it not that in the end they
shall come to know it clearly, and then shall they bring about
the remedy; and in those days shall it be seen that thou
hast not wrought for nothing, because thou hast seen beforehand
what the remedy should be, even as those of later days have seen
We both sat silent a little while. The twilight was gaining on
the night, though slowly. I looked at the poppy which I still
held in my hand, and bethought me of Will Green, and said:
"Lo, how the light is spreading: now must I get me back to Will
Green's house as I promised."
"Go, then," said he, "if thou wilt. Yet meseems before long he
shall come to us; and then mayst thou sleep among the trees on
the green grass till the sun is high, for the host shall not be
on foot very early; and sweet it is to sleep in shadow by the sun
in the full morning when one has been awake and troubled through
the night-tide."
"Yet I will go now," said I; "I bid thee good-night, or rather
Therewith I half rose up; but as I did so the will to depart left
me as though I had never had it, and I sat down again, and heard
the voice of John Ball, at first as one speaking from far away,
but little by little growing nearer and more familiar to me, and
as if once more it were coming from the man himself whom I had
got to know.
He said: "Many strange things hast thou told me that I could not
understand; yea, some my wit so failed to compass, that I cannot
so much as ask thee questions concerning them; but of some
matters would I ask thee, and I must hasten, for in very sooth
the night is worn old and grey. Whereas thou sayest that in the
days to come, when there shall be no labouring men who are not
thralls after their new fashion, that their lords shall be many
and very many, it seemeth to me that these same lords, if they be
many, shall hardly be rich, or but very few of them,
since they must verily feed and clothe and house their thralls,
so that that which they take from them, since it will have to be
dealt out amongst many, will not be enough to make many rich;
since out of one man ye may get but one man's work; and pinch him
never so sorely, still as aforesaid ye may not pinch him so
sorely as not to feed him. Therefore, though the eyes of my mind
may see a few lords and many slaves, yet can they not see many
lords as well as many slaves; and if the slaves be many and the
lords few, then some day shall the slaves make an end of that
mastery by the force of their bodies. How then shall thy
mastership of the latter days endure?"
"John Ball," said I, "mastership hath many shifts whereby it
striveth to keep itself alive in the world. And now hear a
marvel: whereas thou sayest these two times that out of one man
ye may get but one man's work, in days to come one man shall
do the work of a hundred men--yea, of a thousand or more: and
this is the shift of mastership that shall make many masters and
many rich men."
John Ball laughed. "Great is my harvest of riddles to-night,"
said he; "for even if a man sleep not, and eat and drink while he
is a-working, ye shall but make two men, or three at the most,
out of him."
Said I: "Sawest thou ever a weaver at his loom?"
"Yea," said he, "many a time."
He was silent a little, and then said: "Yet I marvelled not at
it; but now I marvel, because I know what thou wouldst say. Time
was when the shuttle was thrust in and out of all the thousand
threads of the warp, and it was long to do; but now the springstaves
go up and down as the man's feet move, and this and that
leaf of the warp cometh forward and the shuttle goeth in one
shot through all the thousand warps. Yea, so it is that this
multiplieth a man many times. But look you, he is so multiplied
already; and so hath he been, meseemeth, for many hundred years."
"Yea," said I, "but what hitherto needed the masters to multiply
him more? For many hundred years the workman was a thrall bought
and sold at the cross; and for other hundreds of years he hath
been a villein--that is, a working-beast and a part of the stock
of the manor on which he liveth; but then thou and the like of
thee shall free him, and then is mastership put to its shifts;
for what should avail the mastery then, when the master no longer
owneth the man by law as his chattel, nor any longer by law
owneth him as stock of his land, if the master hath not that
which he on whom he liveth may not lack and live withal, and
cannot have without selling himself?"
He said nothing, but I saw his brow knitted and his lips
pressed together as though in anger; and again I said:
"Thou hast seen the weaver at his loom: think how it should be if
he sit no longer before the web and cast the shuttle and draw
home the sley, but if the shed open of itself and the shuttle of
itself speed through it as swift as the eye can follow, and the
sley come home of itself; and the weaver standing by and
whistling The Hunt's Up! the while, or looking to half-a-dozen
looms and bidding them what to do. And as with the weaver so
with the potter, and the smith, and every worker in metals, and
all other crafts, that it shall be for them looking on and
tending, as with the man that sitteth in the cart while the horse
draws. Yea, at last so shall it be even with those who are mere
husbandmen; and no longer shall the reaper fare afield in the
morning with his hook over his shoulder, and smite and bind and
smite again till the sun is down and the moon is up; but he
shall draw a thing made by men into the field with one or two
horses, and shall say the word and the horses shall go up and
down, and the thing shall reap and gather and bind, and do the
work of many men. Imagine all this in thy mind if thou canst, at
least as ye may imagine a tale of enchantment told by a minstrel,
and then tell me what shouldst thou deem that the life of men
would be amidst all this, men such as these men of the township
here, or the men of the Canterbury gilds."
"Yea," said he; "but before I tell thee my thoughts of thy tale
of wonder, I would ask thee this: In those days when men work so
easily, surely they shall make more wares than they can use in
one countryside, or one good town, whereas in another, where
things have not gone as well, they shall have less than they
need; and even so it is with us now, and thereof cometh scarcity
and famine; and if people may not come at each other's
goods, it availeth the whole land little that one country-side
hath more than enough while another hath less; for the goods
shall abide there in the storehouses of the rich place till they
perish. So if that be so in the days of wonder ye tell of (and I
see not how it can be otherwise), then shall men be but little
holpen by making all their wares so easily and with so little
I smiled again and said: "Yea, but it shall not be so; not only
shall men be multiplied a hundred and a thousand fold, but the
distance of one place from another shall be as nothing; so that
the wares which lie ready for market in Durham in the evening may
be in London on the morrow morning; and the men of Wales may eat
corn of Essex and the men of Essex wear wool of Wales; so that,
so far as the flitting of goods to market goes, all the land
shall be as one parish. Nay, what say I? Not as to this
land only shall it be so, but even the Indies, and far countries
of which thou knowest not, shall be, so to say, at every man's
door, and wares which now ye account precious and dear-bought,
shall then be common things bought and sold for little price at
every huckster's stall. Say then, John, shall not those days be
merry, and plentiful of ease and contentment for all men?"
"Brother," said he, "meseemeth some doleful mockery lieth under
these joyful tidings of thine; since thou hast already partly
told me to my sad bewilderment what the life of man shall be in
those days. Yet will I now for a little set all that aside to
consider thy strange tale as of a minstrel from over sea, even as
thou biddest me. Therefore I say, that if men still abide men as
I have known them, and unless these folk of England change as,
the land changeth--and forsooth of the men, for good and for
evil, I can think no other than I think now, or behold them other
than I have known them and loved them--I say if the men be still
men, what will happen except that there should be all plenty in
the land, and not one poor man therein, unless of his own free
will he choose to lack and be poor, as a man in religion or such
like; for there would then be such abundance of all good things,
that, as greedy as the lords might be, there would be enough to
satisfy their greed and yet leave good living for all who
laboured with their hands; so that these should labour far less
than now, and they would have time to learn knowledge, so that
there should be no learned or unlearned, for all should be
learned; and they would have time also to learn how to order the
matters of the parish and the hundred, and of the parliament of
the realm, so that the king should take no more than his own; and
to order the rule of the realm, so that all men, rich and
unrich, should have part therein; and so by undoing of evil laws
and making of good ones, that fashion would come to an end
whereof thou speakest, that rich men make laws for their own
behoof; for they should no longer be able to do thus when all had
part in making the laws; whereby it would soon come about that
there would be no men rich and tyrannous, but all should have
enough and to spare of the increase of the earth and the work of
their own hands. Yea surely, brother, if ever it cometh about
that men shall be able to make things, and not men, work for
their superfluities, and that the length of travel from one place
to another be made of no account, and all the world be a market
for all the world, then all shall live in health and wealth; and
envy and grudging shall perish. For then shall we have conquered
the earth and it shall be enough; and then shall the kingdom
of heaven be come down to the earth in very deed. Why lookest
thou so sad and sorry? what sayest thou?"
I said: "Hast thou forgotten already what I told thee, that in
those latter days a man who hath nought save his own body (and
such men shall be far the most of men) must needs pawn his labour
for leave to labour? Can such a man be wealthy? Hast thou not
called him a thrall?"
"Yea," he said; "but how could I deem that such things could be
when those days should be come wherein men could make things work
for them?"
"Poor man!" said I. "Learn that in those very days, when it
shall be with the making of things as with the carter in the
cart, that there he sitteth and shaketh the reins and the horse
draweth and the cart goeth; in those days, I tell thee, many men
shall be as poor and wretched always, year by year, as they are
with thee when there is famine in the land; nor shall any
have plenty and surety of livelihood save those that shall sit by
and look on while others labour; and these, I tell thee, shall be
a many, so that they shall see to the making of all laws, and in
their hands shall be all power, and the labourers shall think
that they cannot do without these men that live by robbing them,
and shall praise them and wellnigh pray to them as ye pray to the
saints, and the best worshipped man in the land shall be he who
by forestalling and regrating hath gotten to him the most money."
"Yea," said he, "and shall they who see themselves robbed worship
the robber? Then indeed shall men be changed from what they are
now, and they shall be sluggards, dolts, and cowards beyond all
the earth hath yet borne. Such are not the men I have known in
my life-days, and that now I love in my death."
"Nay," I said, "but the robbery shall they not see; for have
I not told thee that they shall hold themselves to be free men?
And for why? I will tell thee: but first tell me how it fares
with men now; may the labouring man become a lord?"
He said: "The thing hath been seen that churls have risen from
the dortoir of the monastery to the abbot's chair and the
bishop's throne; yet not often; and whiles hath a bold sergeant
become a wise captain, and they have made him squire and knight;
and yet but very seldom. And now I suppose thou wilt tell me
that the Church will open her arms wider to this poor people, and
that many through her shall rise into lordship. But what
availeth that? Nought were it to me if the Abbot of St. Alban's
with his golden mitre sitting guarded by his knights and
sergeants, or the Prior of Merton with his hawks and his hounds,
had once been poor men, if they were now tyrants of poor men; nor
would it better the matter if there were ten times as many
Houses of Religion in the land as now are, and each with a
churl's son for abbot or prior over it."
I smiled and said: "Comfort thyself; for in those days shall
there be neither abbey nor priory in the land, nor monks nor
friars, nor any religious." (He started as I spoke.) "But thou
hast told me that hardly in these days may a poor man rise to be
a lord: now I tell thee that in the days to come poor men shall
be able to become lords and masters and do-nothings; and oft will
it be seen that they shall do so; and it shall be even for that
cause that their eyes shall be blinded to the robbing of
themselves by others, because they shall hope in their souls that
they may each live to rob others: and this shall be the very
safeguard of all rule and law in those days."
"Now am I sorrier than thou hast yet made me," said he; "for when
once this is established, how then can it be changed?
Strong shall be the tyranny of the latter days. And now meseems,
if thou sayest sooth, this time of the conquest of the earth
shall not bring heaven down to the earth, as erst I deemed it
would, but rather that it shall bring hell up on to the earth.
Woe's me, brother, for thy sad and weary foretelling! And yet
saidst thou that the men of those days would seek a remedy.
Canst thou yet tell me, brother, what that remedy shall be, lest
the sun rise upon me made hopeless by thy tale of what is to be?
And, lo you, soon shall she rise upon the earth."
In truth the dawn was widening now, and the colours coming into
the pictures on wall and in window; and as well as I could see
through the varied glazing of these last (and one window before
me had as yet nothing but white glass in it), the ruddy glow,
which had but so little a while quite died out in the west, was
now beginning to gather in the east--the new day was
beginning. I looked at the poppy that I still carried in my
hand, and it seemed to me to have withered and dwindled. I felt
anxious to speak to my companion and tell him much, and withal I
felt that I must hasten, or for some reason or other I should be
too late; so I spoke at last loud and hurriedly:
"John Ball, be of good cheer; for once more thou knowest, as I
know, that the Fellowship of Men shall endure, however many
tribulations it may have to wear through. Look you, a while ago
was the light bright about us; but it was because of the moon,
and the night was deep notwithstanding, and when the moonlight
waned and died, and there was but a little glimmer in place of
the bright light, yet was the world glad because all things knew
that the glimmer was of day and not of night. Lo you, an image
of the times to betide the hope of the Fellowship of Men.
Yet forsooth, it may well be that this bright day of summer which
is now dawning upon us is no image of the beginning of the day
that shall be; but rather shall that day-dawn be cold and grey
and surly; and yet by its light shall men see things as they
verily are, and no longer enchanted by the gleam of the moon and
the glamour of the dream-tide. By such grey light shall wise men
and valiant souls see the remedy, and deal with it, a real thing
that may be touched and handled, and no glory of the heavens to
be worshipped from afar off. And what shall it be, as I told
thee before, save that men shall be determined to be free; yea,
free as thou wouldst have them, when thine hope rises the
highest, and thou art thinking not of the king's uncles, and
poll-groat bailiffs, and the villeinage of Essex, but of the end
of all, when men shall have the fruits of the earth and the
fruits of their toil thereon, without money and without
price. The time shall come, John Ball, when that dream of thine
that this shall one day be, shall be a thing that men shall talk
of soberly, and as a thing soon to come about, as even with thee
they talk of the villeins becoming tenants paying their lord
quit-rent; therefore, hast thou done well to hope it; and, if
thou heedest this also, as I suppose thou heedest it little, thy
name shall abide by thy hope in those days to come, and thou
shalt not be forgotten."
I heard his voice come out of the twilight, scarcely seeing him,
though now the light was growing fast, as he said:
"Brother, thou givest me heart again; yet since now I wot well
that thou art a sending from far-off times and far-off things:
tell thou, if thou mayest, to a man who is going to his death how
this shall come about."
"Only this may I tell thee " said I; "to thee, when thou
didst try to conceive of them, the ways of the days to come
seemed follies scarce to be thought of; yet shall they come to be
familiar things, and an order by which every man liveth, ill as
he liveth, so that men shall deem of them, that thus it hath been
since the beginning of the world, and that thus it shall be while
the world endureth; and in this wise so shall they be thought of
a long while; and the complaint of the poor the rich man shall
heed, even as much and no more as he who lieth in pleasure under
the lime-trees in the summer heedeth the murmur of his toiling
bees. Yet in time shall this also grow old, and doubt shall
creep in, because men shall scarce be able to live by that order,
and the complaint of the poor shall be hearkened, no longer as a
tale not utterly grievous, but as a threat of ruin, and a fear.
Then shall these things, which to thee seem follies, and to the
men between thee and me mere wisdom and the bond of
stability, seem follies once again; yet, whereas men have so long
lived by them, they shall cling to them yet from blindness and
from fear; and those that see, and that have thus much conquered
fear that they are furthering the real time that cometh and not
the dream that faileth, these men shall the blind and the fearful
mock and missay, and torment and murder: and great and grievous
shall be the strife in those days, and many the failures of the
wise, and too oft sore shall be the despair of the valiant; and
back-sliding, and doubt, and contest between friends and fellows
lacking time in the hubbub to understand each other, shall grieve
many hearts and hinder the Host of the Fellowship: yet shall all
bring about the end, till thy deeming of folly and ours shall be
one, and thy hope and our hope; and then--the Day will have
Once more I heard the voice of John Ball: "Now, brother, I say
farewell; for now verily hath the Day of the Earth come, and
thou and I are lonely of each other again; thou hast been a dream
to me as I to thee, and sorry and glad have we made each other,
as tales of old time and the longing of times to come shall ever
make men to be. I go to life and to death, and leave thee; and
scarce do I know whether to wish thee some dream of the days
beyond thine to tell what shall be, as thou hast told me, for I
know not if that shall help or hinder thee; but since we have
been kind and very friends, I will not leave thee without a wish
of good-will, so at least I wish thee what thou thyself wishest
for thyself, and that is hopeful strife and blameless peace,
which is to say in one word, life. Farewell, friend."
For some little time, although I had known that the daylight was
growing and what was around me, I had scarce seen the things I
had before noted so keenly; but now in a flash I saw all--the
east crimson with sunrise through the white window on my
right hand; the richly-carved stalls and gilded screen work, the
pictures on the walls, the loveliness of the faultless colour of
the mosaic window lights, the altar and the red light over it
looking strange in the daylight, and the biers with the hidden
dead men upon them that lay before the high altar. A great pain
filled my heart at the sight of all that beauty, and withal I
heard quick steps coming up the paved church-path to the porch,
and the loud whistle of a sweet old tune therewith; then the
footsteps stopped at the door; I heard the latch rattle, and knew
that Will Green's hand was on the ring of it.
Then I strove to rise up, but fell back again; a white light,
empty of all sights, broke upon me for a moment, and lo I behold,
I was lying in my familiar bed, the south-westerly gale rattling
the Venetian blinds and making their hold-fasts squeak.
I got up presently, and going to the window looked out on
the winter morning; the river was before me broad between outer
bank and bank, but it was nearly dead ebb, and there was a wide
space of mud on each side of the hurrying stream, driven on the
faster as it seemed by the push of the south-west wind. On the
other side of the water the few willow-trees left us by the
Thames Conservancy looked doubtfully alive against the bleak sky
and the row of wretched-looking blue-slated houses, although, by
the way, the latter were the backs of a sort of street of
"villas" and not a slum; the road in front of the house was sooty
and muddy at once, and in the air was that sense of dirty
discomfort which one is never quit of in London. The morning was
harsh, too, and though the wind was from the south-west it was as
cold as a north wind; and yet amidst it all, I thought of the
corner of the next bight of the river which I could not quite see
from where I was, but over which one can see clear of houses and
into Richmond Park, looking like the open country; and dirty
as the river was, and harsh as was the January wind, they seemed
to woo me toward the country-side, where away from the miseries
of the "Great Wen" I might of my own will carry on a daydream of
the friends I had made in the dream of the night and against my
But as I turned away shivering and downhearted, on a sudden came
the frightful noise of the "hooters," one after the other, that
call the workmen to the factories, this one the after-breakfast
one, more by token. So I grinned surlily, and dressed and got
ready for my day's "work" as I call it, but which many a man
besides John Ruskin (though not many in his position) would call
It is told of Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary--the Alfred the
Great of his time and people--that he once heard (once ONLY?)
that some (only SOME, my lad?) of his peasants were overworked
and under-fed. So he sent for his Council, and bade come
thereto also some of the mayors of the good towns, and some of
the lords of land and their bailiffs, and asked them of the truth
thereof; and in diverse ways they all told one and the same tale,
how the peasant carles were stout and well able to work and had
enough and to spare of meat and drink, seeing that they were but
churls; and how if they worked not at the least as hard as they
did, it would be ill for them and ill for their lords; for that
the more the churl hath the more he asketh; and that when
he knoweth wealth, he knoweth the lack of it also, as it
fared with our first parents in the Garden of God. The King sat
and said but little while they spake, but he misdoubted them that
they were liars. So the Council brake up with nothing done; but
the King took the matter to heart, being, as kings go, a just
man, besides being more valiant than they mostly were, even in
the old feudal time. So within two or three days, says the tale,
he called together such lords and councillors as he deemed
fittest, and bade busk them for a ride; and when they were ready
he and they set out, over rough and smooth, decked out in all the
glory of attire which was the wont of those days. Thus they rode
till they came to some village or thorpe of the peasant folk, and
through it to the vineyards where men were working on the sunny
southern slopes that went up from the river: my tale does not say
whether that were Theiss, or Donau, or what river. Well, I judge
it was late spring or early summer, and the vines but just
beginning to show their grapes; for the vintage is late in those
lands, and some of the grapes are not gathered till the first
frosts have touched them, whereby the wine made from them is the
stronger and sweeter. Anyhow there were the peasants, men and
women, boys and young maidens, toiling and swinking; some hoeing
between the vine-rows, some bearing baskets of dung up the steep
slopes, some in one way, some in another, labouring for the fruit
they should never eat, and the wine they should never drink.
Thereto turned the King and got off his horse and began to climb
up the stony ridges of the vineyard, and his lords in like manner
followed him, wondering in their hearts what was toward; but to
the one who was following next after him he turned about and said
with a smile, "Yea, lords, this is a new game we are playing today,
and a new knowledge will come from it." And the lord
smiled, but somewhat sourly.
As for the peasants, great was their fear of those gay and golden
lords. I judge that they did not know the King, since it was
little likely that any one of them had seen his face; and they
knew of him but as the Great Father, the mighty warrior who kept
the Turk from harrying their thorpe. Though, forsooth, little
matter was it to any man there whether Turk or Magyar was their
over-lord, since to one master or another they had to pay the due
tale of labouring days in the year, and hard was the livelihood
that they earned for themselves on the days when they worked for
themselves and their wives and children.
Well, belike they knew not the King; but amidst those rich lords
they saw and knew their own lord, and of him they were sore
afraid. But nought it availed them to flee away from those
strong men and strong horses--they who had been toiling from
before the rising of the sun, and now it wanted little more than
an hour of noon: besides, with the King and lords was a guard of
crossbowmen, who were left the other side of the vineyard
wall,--keen-eyed Italians of the mountains, straight
shooters of the bolt. So the poor folk fled not; nay they made
as if all this were none of their business, and went on with
their work. For indeed each man said to himself, "If I be the
one that is not slain, to-morrow I shall lack bread if I do not
work my hardest to-day; and maybe I shall be headman if some of
these be slain and I live."
Now comes the King amongst them and says: "Good fellows, which
of you is the headman?"
Spake a man, sturdy and sunburnt, well on in years and grizzled:
"I am the headman, lord."
"Give me thy hoe, then," says the King; "for now shall I order
this matter myself, since these lords desire a new game, and are
fain to work under me at vine-dressing. But do thou stand by me
and set me right if I order them wrong: but the rest of you go
The carle knew not what to think, and let the King stand with his
hand stretched out, while he looked askance at his own lord and
baron, who wagged his head at him grimly as one who says,
"Do it, dog!"
Then the carle lets the hoe come into the King's hand; and the
King falls to, and orders his lords for vine-dressing, to each
his due share of the work: and whiles the carle said yea and
whiles nay to his ordering. And then ye should have seen velvet
cloaks cast off, and mantles of fine Flemish scarlet go to the
dusty earth; as the lords and knights busked them to the work.
So they buckled to; and to most of them it seemed good game to
play at vine-dressing. But one there was who, when his scarlet
cloak was off, stood up in a doublet of glorious Persian web of
gold and silk, such as men make not now, worth a hundred florins
the Bremen ell. Unto him the King with no smile on his face gave
the job of toing and froing up and down the hill with the biggest
and the frailest dung-basket that there was; and thereat the
silken lord screwed up a grin, that was sport to see, and all the
lords laughed; and as he turned away he said, yet so that
none heard him, "Do I serve this son's son of a whore that he
should bid me carry dung?" For you must know that the King's
father, John Hunyad, one of the great warriors of the world, the
Hammer of the Turks, was not gotten in wedlock, though he were a
king's son.
Well, they sped the work bravely for a while, and loud was the
laughter as the hoes smote the earth and the flint stones tinkled
and the cloud of dust rose up; the brocaded dung-bearer went up
and down, cursing and swearing by the White God and the Black;
and one would say to another, "See ye how gentle blood outgoes
churls' blood, even when the gentle does the churl's work: these
lazy loons smote but one stroke to our three." But the King, who
worked no worse than any, laughed not at all; and meanwhile the
poor folk stood by, not daring to speak a word one to the other;
for they were still sore afraid, not now of being slain on the
spot, but this rather was in their hearts: "These great and
strong lords and knights have come to see what work a man may do
without dying: if we are to have yet more days added to our
year's tale of lords' labour, then are we lost without remedy."
And their hearts sank within them.
So sped the work; and the sun rose yet higher in the heavens, and
it was noon and more. And now there was no more laughter among
those toiling lords, and the strokes of the hoe and mattock came
far slower, while the dung-bearer sat down at the bottom of the
hill and looked out on the river; but the King yet worked on
doggedly, so for shame the other lords yet kept at it. Till at
last the next man to the King let his hoe drop with a clatter,
and swore a great oath. Now he was a strong black-bearded man in
the prime of life, a valiant captain of that famous Black Band
that had so often rent the Turkish array; and the King loved him
for his sturdy valour; so he says to him, "Is aught wrong,
"Nay, lord," says he, "ask the headman carle yonder what ails
"Headman," says the King, "what ails these strong knights? Have
I ordered them wrongly?"
"Nay, but shirking ails them, lord," says he, "for they are
weary; and no wonder, for they have been playing hard, and are of
gentle blood."
"Is that so, lord," says the King, "that ye are weary already?"
Then the rest hung their heads and said nought, all save that
captain of war; and he said, being a bold man and no liar:
"King, I see what thou wouldst be at; thou hast brought us here
to preach us a sermon from that Plato of thine; and to say sooth,
so that I may swink no more, and go eat my dinner, now preach thy
worst! Nay, if thou wilt be priest I will be thy deacon. Wilt
thou that I ask this labouring carle a thing or two?"
"Yea," said the King. And there came, as it were, a cloud of
thought over his face.
Then the captain straddled his legs and looked big, and said
to the carle: "Good fellow, how long have we been working here?"
"Two hours or thereabout, judging by the sun above us," says he.
"And how much of thy work have we done in that while?" says the
captain, and winks his eye at him withal.
"Lord," says the carle, grinning a little despite himself, "be
not wroth with my word. In the first half-hour ye did five-andforty
minutes' work of ours, and in the next half-hour scant a
thirty minutes' work, and the third half-hour a fifteen minutes'
work, and in the fourth half-hour two minutes' work." The grin
now had faded from his face, but a gleam came into his eyes as he
said: "And now, as I suppose, your day's work is done, and ye
will go to your dinner, and eat the sweet and drink the strong;
and we shall eat a little rye-bread, and then be working here
till after the sun has set and the moon has begun to cast
shadows. Now for you, I wot not how ye shall sleep nor
where, nor what white body ye shall hold in your arms while the
night flits and the stars shine; but for us, while the stars yet
shine, shall we be at it again, and bethink ye for what! I know
not what game and play ye shall be devising for to-morrow as ye
ride back home; but for us when we come back here to-morrow, it
shall be as if there had been no yesterday and nothing done
therein, and that work of that to-day shall be nought to us also,
for we shall win no respite from our toil thereby, and the morrow
of to-morrow will all be to begin again once more, and so on and
on till no to-morrow abideth us. Therefore, if ye are thinking
to lay some new tax or tale upon us, think twice of it, for we
may not bear it. And all this I say with the less fear, because
I perceive this man here beside me, in the black velvet jerkin
and the gold chain on his neck, is the King; nor do I think he
will slay me for my word since he hath so many a Turk before him
and his mighty sword!"
Then said the captain: "Shall I smite the man, O King? or hath
he preached thy sermon for thee?"
"Smite not, for he hath preached it," said the King. "Hearken to
the carle's sermon, lords and councillors of mine! Yet when
another hath spoken our thought, other thoughts are born
therefrom, and now have I another sermon to preach; but I will
refrain me as now. Let us down and to our dinner."
So they went, the King and his gentles, and sat down by the river
under the rustle of the poplars, and they ate and drank and were
merry. And the King bade bear up the broken meats to the vinedressers,
and a good draught of the archer's wine, and to the
headman he gave a broad gold piece, and to each man three silver
pennies. But when the poor folk had all that under their hands,
it was to them as though the kingdom of heaven had come down to
In the cool of the evening home rode the King and his lords. The
King was distraught and silent; but at last the captain, who
rode beside him, said to him: "Preach me now thine after-sermon,
O King!"
"I think thou knowest it already," said the King, "else hadst
thou not spoken in such wise to the carle; but tell me what is
thy craft and the craft of all these, whereby ye live, as the
potter by making pots, and so forth?"
Said the captain: "As the potter lives by making pots, so we
live by robbing the poor."
Again said the King: "And my trade?"
Said he, "Thy trade is to be a king of such thieves, yet no
worser than the rest."
The King laughed.
"Bear that in mind," said he, "and then shall I tell thee my
thought while yonder carle spake. `Carle,' I thought, `were I
thou or such as thou, then would I take in my hand a sword or a
spear, or were it only a hedge-stake, and bid others do the like,
and forth would we go; and since we would be so many, and with
nought to lose save a miserable life, we would do battle and
prevail, and make an end of the craft of kings and of lords
and of usurers, and there should be but one craft in the world,
to wit, to work merrily for ourselves and to live merrily
Said the captain: "This then is thy sermon. Who will heed it if
thou preach it?"
Said the King: "They who will take the mad king and put him in a
king's madhouse, therefore do I forbear to preach it. Yet it
SHALL be preached."
"And not heeded," said the captain, "save by those who head and
hang the setters forth of new things that are good for the world.
Our trade is safe for many an many a generation."
And therewith they came to the King's palace, and they ate and
drank and slept and the world went on its ways.

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