"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."

These famous words, uttered by a character in Shakespeare’s play Henry VI (Henry VI lived from 1421-1471), are spoken as a whimsical but deadly true strategy to eliminate impediments to a successful rebellion.

Indeed, even by the 14th Century, lawyers had become important beacons of order in society – a status which soon brought mortal danger.

England

In June of 1381, the peasants of England revolted in a violent protest against more taxes. When the occasional tax collector was killed, the rich nobles sent in teams of lawyers backed-up by the nobles’ protégés: knights and other medieval warriors. A quick beheading and the roving group of law officers moved onto the next town.

Before long, lawyers and judges – in England and France – became associated with the enforcement of despised and irrepressible taxation.

A 1381 English tax was imposed on anyone over fifteen and was raised to finance a military expedition to Spain. For the English peasants, called "villeins", this tax was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

A legal system which they saw enforced and championed by lawyers and judges, held them in subject to their land-lords and a comprehensive absence of substantial legal rights.

In an article called The English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, Kim Milone wrote:

"Life for the revolutionary peasants was structured by feudal ties and obligations. The villein was tied to the soil until he could buy his freedom. He lived in a wattle and daub hut with his family and animals on a floor of mud. Work began at dawn on his few (often separated) strips of land; he was obligated to work on his lord's land three days a week, tend and shear his sheep, feed his swine, and sow and reap his crops. Even the peasant's private family life was regulated. Villeins (could) not marry their daughters ... without the personal approval of the bailiff. The reeve, a village official ostensibly elected by the people, usually sided with his superiors instead of administering true justice for the peasant."

The villeins saw the law as their enemy.

John Ball Adding fuel to fire, by the time of the Peasant's Revolt, the hated Statute of Labourers had been in place for 30 years. That 1351 law prevented the peasants from taking advantage of supply and demand in the aftermath of the Black Death, by freezing wages and forcing peasants to accept whatever work their landlord gave them.

The two-tiered medieval justice system is well-exemplified by an event documented in the life of King Sigismund of Hungary who visited Paris in the 1387. He made a courtesy appearance in the gallery of the courts of justice and observed one man lose a case merely because of the stated reason that the defendant was a knight and the plaintiff not. The Hungarian King astonished onlookers and registered his objection to the kangaroo court by interrupting the proceedings and calling the plaintiff to him, whereupon, exercising his royal powers, he knighted the startled Frenchman on the spot.

When the taxation returns were counted in England, the initiative had fallen short so the collectors were sent out again, to again knock on doors to take inventory and collect.

Villages in Essex revolted first.

When judge John Belknap tried to reason with the peasants, he was chased out of Brentwood while, by some reports, two of his officers were killed.

The mob moved Kent, under the haphazard leadership of Wat Tyler – a decorated veteran of the wars against France (especially the historic victory at Poithiers in 1356, when the French King had been made prisoner).

The villeins seized the town of Canterbury and freed their imprisoned ideological leader, the controversial priest John Ball (pictured).

According to one translation of the Latin Historia Anglicana, a history written by Benedictine monk Thomas Walsingham, a contemporary of the period, Ball reportedly preached:

"When Adam dalf, and Eve span, who was thanne a gentilman? From the beginning all men were created equal by nature, and that servitude had been introduced by the unjust and evil oppression of men, against the will of God, who, if it had pleased Him to create serfs, surely in the beginning of the world would have appointed who should be a serf and who a lord.

Ball then urged the peasants to

"... uprooting the tares that are accustomed to destroy the grain; first killing the great lords of the realm, then slaying the lawyers, justices and jurors, and finally rooting out everyone whom they knew to be harmful to the community in future."

Moving towards London, the rioters aimed their fury at institutions and those who personify the law, opening prisons, and destroying any place holding judicial records.

As Milone wrote:

"This is significant because these documents registered the rights of the serfs and tenants as well as obligations."

Some unlucky landlords were found and quickly beheaded.

From Essex to London, eventually numbering 20,000-50,000 (estimates vary), the discontents vented their anger on the homes of lawyers, judges and sheriffs and – if they could find them – the lawyers themselves.

In A Distant Mirror, author Barbara Tuchman wrote:

"Every attorney’s house on the line of march reportedly was destroyed."

In London, the King had no standing militia or police as John Ball and Wat Tyler called upon the mob to "exterminate all great lords, judges and lawyers and gain for all men equal freedom, rank and power."

On June 13th, a number of lawyers were captured and killed in the Temple (London), the "center of the law with all its deeds and records", all also destroyed.

When the 14-year old Richard II heard their demands, on June 14, he was asked to eliminate taxes and all "bonds of servile status".

He agreed to it all, issuing and signing the relevant charters, while nearby but then unknown to the King, further nobles were killed by a stray group of peasants.Death of Wat Tyler

But upon hearing their King agree with them, the larger group of peasants started to disband and drift out of London, returning to their homes.

At a meeting between Tyler and the King, the rebel was killed by the Mayor of London and the son of the chief justice(pictured) after showing insolence to the boy-king (by drinking beer in front of him). Some say that the red knife in the present coat of arms of London represents this deed.

Word of Tyler's death reached some retreating rebel leaders who regrouped and exacted revenge on the chief justice. The Honourable John Cavendish who was found, lynched and beheaded on June 15.

In the background, Richard II and his councilors secretly amassed troops and in July, he convened a Parliament which promptly cancelled all the King’spromises. The lawyers – what was left of them - had the last laugh as they dusted off what was left of their law books and raised the doctrine of duress. The King’s charters were cancelled on the very valid grounds that they had been made under duress.

The hunt was on for the insurgents, with 2,000 killed in a battle at Norsey Wood, near Billericay in Essex.

John Ball was quickly tried and found guilty of treason. He was hung, drawn and quartered on July 15, 1381 in the presence of Richard II.

Before long, the legal revolt was completely suppressed to the regular tone of the executioner’s bell, and with all peasant gains erased. When one group from Essex later meekly approached him about his promises, Richard II dismissed them with the famous remark: "villeins ye are, villeins ye shall remain".

France

Before a year had passed, France, England’s neighbour and with whom it was in the midst of a Hundred Year War, would have its own revolt with lawyers front and center on the Most Wanted list.

It, too, began with a tax – this one on wine and salt – and this too to finance a military expedition (to Italy).

Riots broke out in large towns. In Paris, peasants broke the law by refusing access to tax-collectors who ought to appraise property for the purpose of setting taxes.

The French uprising escalated in Rouen in February of 1382 where some Royal officials and tax collectors were killed in protest. Buildings holding legal records were broken into and all legal documents burned.

Then, the uprising escalated in Paris. Lawyers and notaries were hunted down and official record and legal documents were searched for and destroyed. The Chatelet prison was stormed and prisoners released.

In 1782, France, too, had a young king, Charles VI also 14 at the time. He and his regent opted for negotiation with the rioters but their insincerity discovered when they had tried to issue a void agreement, sealed in red wax and on parchment, instead of the King’s official green seal on silk.

The uprising gained mass appeal and culminated in a battle on November 29, 1382, where the peasants were routed as the nobles used armour to great advantage against the makeshift weaponry of the peasants.

To punish Courtrai (now in Belgium), a town sympathetic to the rebellion and unfortunately close to the battlefield, the cathedral clock was removed and taken to Dijon where it still is, and Courtrai razed. The French army next retook Paris and quelled the rebellion and continued with the repression of the common people.

It would be four hundred years before the descendants of the failed uprising would take the Bastille but the great lawyer hunt was over.

Research and Further Reading

  • Milone, Kim, The English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, New Orleans, LA: Loyola University, The Student Historical Journal, Volume 18, 1987.
  • Tuchman, Barbara, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, (New York: Knopf, 1978), p. 372-383.