A DREAM OF JOHN BALL
THE MEN OF KENT
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
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
orchard-land, 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 brand-new, 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
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
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 frame-work 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 them.
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 girdle.
"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 grinned.
"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
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
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.
THE MAN FROM ESSEX
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 white-bearded. 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-a-dozen bill-hooks that looked made more for war
than for hedge-shearing, 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
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 move.
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
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
"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
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
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 hand-breadths 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?"
THEY MEET AT THE CROSS
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 new-comers, "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
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 words:
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 me.
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.
THE VOICE OF JOHN BALL
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 myself:
"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
"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
"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 earth?"
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
"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."
THEY HEAR TIDINGS OF BATTLE AND MAKE THEM READY
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 trysting-place, 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-a-thump 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
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 grey-goose fly
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
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
"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-at-arms 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.
THE BATTLE AT THE TOWNSHIP'S END
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 blowing.
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
"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 a-horseback, 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 arm.
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
"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 back."
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 it.
"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 broad-shouldered
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 trumpet.
"They are come to summon us. Wilt thou that he speak, Jack?" said Will
"Nay," said the other; "yet shall he have warning first. Shoot when my
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 thee——"
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
"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 men-at-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 hit.
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!
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 mercy.
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-at-arms (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 souls!"
He fell a-musing; but I said, "And of our Fellowship were any slain?"
"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 more."
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 shadows.
MORE WORDS AT THE CROSS
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 happy.
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 over-burdensome maybe
shall that seem to you, a few and a feeble people.
"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
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 yoke-beasts—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
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
"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 well!
"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
"Yea," said I, "if ye come to Will Green's house, for thither am I
"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.
SUPPER AT WILL GREEN'S
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
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
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
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
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,
"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."
BETWIXT THE LIVING AND THE DEAD
We entered the church through the south porch under a round-arched 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 house.
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 hell.
"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
"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
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 way."
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 life.'"
"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
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.
TWO TALK OF THE DAYS TO COME
"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
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 betide?"
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
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 befall."
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 answered:
"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 three."
"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
"How mean you?" said John Ball: "shall all men be villeins again?"
"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
"Nay, that cannot be; thou art talking riddles," said he; "for how
shall a woodwright make a chest without the wood and the tools?"
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
"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 over?"
"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 himself."
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.
HARD IT IS FOR THE OLD WORLD TO SEE THE NEW
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; 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?"
"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
"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
"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 it."
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.
ILL WOULD CHANGE BE AT WHILES WERE IT NOT FOR
THE CHANGE BEYOND THE CHANGE
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 spring-staves 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
"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 labour."
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
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
"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 come."
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 will.
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 "play."