Nationalism & Citizenship

Working-Class Medievalism

The story of class relations in nineteenth-century Britain is abundantly traumatic. The century that began with the French Revolution ringing in its ears and finished with the devastation of the Boer War saw slow, grinding change and hardening political standpoints. It was a period of violence, inter-class resentment, slow progress and wide-ranging, immense upheaval. Yet, while the working class watched their hellish, polluted poverty and subjugated ignorance improve with frustrating, glacial speed, the upper classes observed with equal horror their centuries-old control slowly evaporating. Between them an increasingly educated, enlightened and aware liberal and Whiggish middle class despaired at the inequality so evidently widened by the invisible hand of capitalism.

For many despairing and nostalgic commentators on all sides the path to an improved future lay in the preindustrial past – specifically the medieval past of a ‘Merrie England’. For the ruling classes the medieval period was a time of reassuring, hierarchical feudalism, a system based on what they saw as the ‘proper’ ordering of society where the wealthy prospered while the poor laboured the land. This vision was the focus at the Eglinton Tournament of 1839 where members of the Tory elite dressed as medieval knights in an effort to reassert their chivalric, and dominant, role of days gone by.

Eglinton Tournament of 1839 by James Henry Nixon (1839). Public domain.

For the working class, however, the medieval resonated with a natural, instinctive egalitarianism of Saxon democracy unsullied by the domination and control of the Norman Yoke; an England the way it was meant to be, and how it could be once again. For instance, in an 1857 copy of the periodical The British Workman attention was given to the medieval king Alfred the Great as a wise, egalitarian leader, acting for the natural order of England. Working-class medievalism celebrated the concept not of hierarchy – as taught by the upper classes – but of a lost age of Saxon wisdom and universal ‘rights’.

Ultimately the route of nineteenth century English working-class medievalism ended with William Morris’ 1888 work A Dream of John Ball. This novel – about the radical priest who led the popular 1381 uprising later dubbed the Peasants’ Revolt – saw Morris imply that English Socialism was different from continental Marxism. This, however, represented the pinnacle of working-class medievalism; changing earlier radical and potentially violent working-class forces into more moral arguments about how society could be more equal. 

An illustration of the priest John Ball (“Jehã Balle”) on a horse encouraging Wat Tyler’s rebels (“Waultre le tieulier”) of 1381, from a ca. 1470 manuscript of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles in the British Library. Public domain.

Writing in the 1880s William Morris may have even obsessed over Ball as a medieval English proto-Marxist whose words built solid philosophical foundations for social transformation. But in the first half of the century, Ball hardly got a look in. Chartists (the working-class movement demanding political reform from 1830-1850) were far more likely to fixate on Ball’s rebellious friend Wat Tyler, even referred to in a Chartist song of 1853 as ‘Our Saxon Thor’[i], who reacted to the Poll Tax not with metaphysical rhetoric but with a fatal swing of the hammer towards a tax collector’s head. By charting the evolution of this plebeian medievalism we can see the manner in which working-class historic consciousness, self-identity and politics evolved.

One early and fascinating example of early nineteenth century working-class medievalism was the Queen Caroline Affair of 1821. Caroline of Brunswick was cousin and wife to George IV. The couple quickly separated with public ridicule directed towards Caroline who, accused of infidelity, fled to exile in northern Italy. It was only in 1820, following the death of George III and the accession of her husband, that Caroline returned. While Loyalists questioned her morals and defamed her with accusations of heavy drinking and infidelity, radicals considered her treatment at the time of the Six Acts – the laws passed after the Peterloo Massacre to control radical protest – to be emblematic of the abuse of power by the British elite.As the date for George’s coronation approached, Caroline became totemic of the radical cause.

The polarised wealthy elite and the working classes were both drawing on medieval history for inspiration and both groups offered competing renderings of what it meant to be medieval and, by extension, truly English. George’s outrageously ostentatious coronation was an object lesson in how medieval imagery was increasingly used by the elite to assert Hanoverian connections to the throne of England and his preference for medieval deference. At the same time, working-class radicals also mounted their white chargers – quite literally.

On 12 January 1821, the Lord Mayor of London led a procession through the streets of the city so large, so colourful and so full of people dressed in full suits of armour that it was said the Strand was impassable for several hours. Reports from the time described the procession as ‘immense’, ‘superb’ and ‘ancient’. Shortly thereafter, the Morning Chronicle wrote that the Brass Founders – one of the Livery Companies of London known for their philanthropy and defence of the working class  – paid close attention to mediaeval imagery during the procession. Their number included ‘A knight, accoutred cap-a-pie, scale armour, on horseback, with four attendants.’ Also ‘Two knights in steel armour, mounted on chargers, with six attendants.’ The procession also included an ‘Ancient knight on horseback attired in a most superb suit of silver-plated steel cuirass Armour, attended by four Armed Esquires.

While the procession of the Brass Founders no doubt served as a simple spectacle there was, at its core, nothing coincidental about the choice of dress. The procession was marching in chivalric defence of the honour of the wronged Queen Caroline and chose the explicit knightly attire to emphasise the valiant characteristics of the medieval and to appropriate these for the radical and working-class cause. Here was a distinct rendering of medievalism that cast the working-class protesters as ‘knights errant’. If there was a personification of Englishness it was to be a radical in defence of his queen, country and people.

However, having first used medievalism for their purposes, the elite took a dim view of this working-class use of the ancient to assert their vision of English chivalry. The satirical, Royalist and deeply sexist illustration entitled ‘Carrying coals to Newcastle’ is noteworthy for a number of reasons. The slogan at the bottom reads: “Why look’ye Mrs Brasier!” I don’t know in what quantities you sell brass “at” Como”—But when you come “from” abroad, & ask a thinking people “to believe Black is White—D . . . me but you’re a Wholesale Dealer!!!”

‘Sell your brass at Como’ references Villa d’Este, Caroline’s residence at Lake Como in northern Italy. The implication seeks to connect Caroline, accused by George of adultery, with the rhyming slang ‘Brass Flute’ or often just ‘Brass’ meaning prostitute. This is emphasised by the banners reading ‘blow thy sounding horns’ (flutes) and another banner reading ‘Star of Como [Caroline], Brass is a job to thee.’ This helps to explain the cartoon’s title ‘Carrying Coals to Newcastle’ – the popular saying indicating taking something to its place of origin; here ‘brass’ or prostitution is, in the eyes of the author, being taken ‘home’ to Caroline. The protesting working-class chivalric marchers are also ridiculed. They are marching to a ‘humdrum’, while their Romanesque standard reads ‘Dimma Dimma’ questioning the intelligence of the protesters. 

Another much more subtle feature is the sign the protesters are marching past. The procession is following the signs to Caroline’s home at Brandenburgh House – the home of Queen Caroline and missing the turning to, very specifically, Turnham Green, the location for the skirmish in the early phase of the English Civil War when Charles I’s royalist forces were repelled from London, never to return. The artist, Theodore Lane, appears to be suggesting that the protesters are not only risible but are making a strategic error in supporting the diversionary Caroline against their true objective of a substantive attack against the crown. 

It is certainly the case that the plebeian medievalists of January 1821 faced a choice between an interpretation of medievalism as an opportunity for masculine, chivalric romanticism or a more radical retelling of a rebellious medieval past. The effect of the Theodore Lane artwork, among other portrayals, was to ridicule and to belittle not just Caroline and her supporters but also the manner in which these working-class radical figures sought to appropriate the medieval history of England for their own political ends. In the decades that would follow the elite retained the chivalric interpretation of medievalism for their own nostalgia, but the working-class looked elsewhere in the pages of medieval history books for their own history ‘from below’ to explain and justify their cause. The journey to nostalgic socialist visions of Wat Tyler and John Ball had begun.

Radical Objects: The Peasants’ Revolt Badge. History Workshop.

Since the nineteenth century the forms of politicised medievalism have continued and the many faces of the period have multiplied. The medievalism of ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ or other role playing games, inflected by issues of race and nationalism, are very different from the medievalism of Marsellus Wallace who famously threatened to ‘get medieval’ in Quentin Tarentino’s 1994 classic, Pulp Fiction. Similarly, the medieval period has continued to inspire radical working-class political movements to this day. In 1981, on the 600th anniversary of the Peasants’ Revolt, Tony Benn spoke on Blackheath, the site of John Ball’s sermon. There, in front of a crowd wearing a badge calling on those present to ‘finish the job’, he recited Ball’s famous words: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’ 

Since the nineteenth century, the medieval period has provided a politically-expedient deep pedigree to argue for a long-running and even instinctive English socialist tradition.

[i] ‘Hymns for the Unenfranchised: A Song for the Next Rebellion’, The Odd Fellow, 21 August 1841, p. 3.

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