Like many of my fellow social historians, I love a good rebellion.
Who wouldn’t? Most of history is about the rich and the powerful screwing the rest of us. Rebellions are the moments when ordinary people get to fight back.
And let’s be honest about this: all of us, if we found ourselves in a situation involving a room, an agricultural implement, and David Cameron’s bum, would be massively tempted to engage in a bit of up-shoving.
But the sad fact is, most of history’s great rebellions have been a shambles, not least in their tendency to end in streets running with blood*. The authorities, pretty much, always win (unless, weirdly, you sue them).
Here, then, are six of the worst.
You Dirty Norman Bastard. The Revolt of the North, 1069.
Nobody likes being conquered, not least by someone who was actually called ‘The Bastard’. Shortly after the Battle of Hastings the North decided that the Norman was a Moron, and rose in revolt, so William, realising that he was, indeed, living in the Middle Ages, decided to get Medieval on the North’s ass.
He launched something called the ‘The Harrying of the North’, which apparently didn’t involve him repopulating the area with ginger princes. It was, however, so nasty that it resulted in us northerners eating each other for a bit, possibly because William had deliberately destroyed all the Greggs.
We did manage to get our own back, though. When the King’s men turned up in 1086 hoping to tax for North for his ‘Domesday Book’, it turned out we were all still dead. Joke’s on you, Willy!
If you don’t Aske, you don’t get. The Pilgrimage of Grace, 1536.
As they say in Norman French plus ca change, plus le North etre still une bunch of rowdy bastards. So, nearly five centuries later, like an angry whack-a-mole after too many John Smiths, the region was in rebellion again.
This time it all began with some loutish behaviour Louth, Lincolnshire, which included some lynchings. Not wanting to miss out on all the fun, the people of Yorkshire then assembled en masse and occupied, er, Pontefract. Their grievance? Henry VIII’s attempt to dissolve the monasteries, an idea which everyone in the North hated because they all liked the National Trust teashop at Fountains Abbey. But there were also rent rises, and rumours of a tax on horny cattle. (This is actually true – sort of)
Things were going swimmingly for the rebels until their leader, a one-eyed barrister called Robert Aske, was invited down to spend Christmas with the King.
Presumably imagining that he and Henry would have a lovely day sipping sherry and watching the Dr Who Christmas Special, and that there was absolutely 100 per cent no risk of him being hung, drawn and quartered, he went along.
This resulted in him being hung, drawn and quartered.
Norfolkin’ Chance. Kett’s Rebellion, 1549.
Jump forward a few years to 1549 and Tudor England was still a rubbish place to be not-the-king.
Fretting about rising rents, enclosure, and the fact that all the local gentry were arseholes, a group of Norfolk grumblers rose up and seized Norwich, then a moderately important town. Here, they expertly trolled the authorities – by doing their job properly for them.
They ran courts, made proclamations, even had sermons from something called the ‘Oak of Reformation’, which surprisingly wasn’t an overpriced gastro-pub, but an actual tree. They then set up a camp and hung out for a bit. In fact, the whole thing was really just one organic shisha tent away from being the most middle-class music festival in history.
Things got really tetchy, though, when the King’s army showed up. There was a stand-off in a valley called Dussindale. A young lad on the rebel side bared his buttocks to the King’s soldiers, and they responded by shooting him in the bum. Then, to prove that the march of history defeats itself, first with an arse, and then with a tragedy, the King’s men refused to see the funny side, and had a massacre.
The Fence Offensive. The Midlands Rising, 1607.
A couple of generations later, the self-same issues were still peeving the Midland peasantry. A rebellion in Oxfordshire in 1596 had fallen flat, mostly because its leaders misread the polling data and underestimated the number of shy enclosers. But villages were still being pulled down, fences were going up. Prices of organic sausages were rising, and in one particularly cruel and unusual act, the government declared that people were no longer allowed to leave Leicester.
Then the harvest failed.
The ensuing kerfuffle was led by a chap called ‘Captain Pouch’, who – despite sounding like an Aussie Rules kangaroo mascot – caused the government some serious consternation, not least because his eponymous bag was supposed to make him invulnerable to bullets.
Eventually, though, he was nabbed, whereupon the authorities opened his pouch and discovered it contained nothing but a piece of mouldy cheese. This, though disgusting, was hardly likely to bring down the state. But they hung him anyway.
Can you dig it? Not quite yet. The Levellers and the Diggers, 1640s.
Forty years later, in the wake of the Civil War, English people started having all sorts of crazy ideas, such as that Jesus was about to return, or that people in Manchester should be given the vote.
One bunch of such loons were the Levellers: pissed off soldiers and angry Londoners who thought that there should be more democracy and fewer kings. Sadly, though, they achieved precisely naff-all.
Despite having weapons-training, access to the printing press, and a monopoly on the colour green, all they managed was a couple of half-arsed mutinies. In one of these, their key act of rebellion was to turn up with a political tract stuffed in their hats. Taking the obvious course of action, Cromwell just rode past them and plucked the papers out. It was probably the shortest, and worst, fancy-dress party in history. Not really knowing what to do next, the rebels mostly went home, leaving their leaders to spend the next few years writing sulky letters to the Guardian and pretending to like Billy Bragg.
Things didn’t quite end there. A splinter group, calling themselves the ‘True Levellers’ or ‘Diggers’, decided to go full Jeremy Corbyn. They tried to set up a communist utopia in Surrey, of all places, but by that time no-one really gave a shit, so after a gentle prodding from the military (and some upset locals) they all went home. Their leader went on to become a businessman.
The final humiliations came in the modern day. The site of the Diggers’ commune is now one of the most expensive private estates in England. Meanwhile, the Levellers that most people have actually heard of are a mediocre punk band who went so long without washing that one of them grew a violin.
Foxy Music. The Countryside Alliance, 1997-present day.
This lot, though, are the most useless of all.
Whereas generations of disgruntled peasants have tried, and usually failed, to protect themselves from bad governments and the gittish behaviour of the powerful, the Countryside Alliance is really about giving rich landowners the right to kill animals in the weirdest way possible.
Arguing that fox hunting is lovely because it brings people together, makes money, and is an old tradition is – of course – about as sensible as defending human sacrifice on the grounds that it boosts the wicker industry. Still, this sufficed to galvanize enough lunatics, landowners and shit musicians to organize – in 2002 – what was then the largest march in history. Yes, that’s right, our largest ever protest was not about democracy, or peace, or the cancellation of Firefly, it was about killing animals. Well done England.
The march did, of course, unite Iain Duncan Smith with Vinnie Jones, which would’ve made for a great cage-fight, but it achieved precisely nothing. Except perhaps the breaking of the London horseshit record (trodden and spoken).