A French Wat Tyler: Coincidence or Crypto-tradition?

I’m currently spending a lot of my time checking the references in the manuscript of my book on the Jacquerie revolt of 1358, making sure everything says what I thought it did, catching mistakes in dates and spellings, and so on. Whilst doing this last week, I was surprised to come across the name of one of the most famous medieval rebels of all time: Wat Tyler. To be sure, my ‘Wat Tyler’ (Watier Thullier), who killed a nobleman in Picardy in 1358, is not the same man as the Wat Tyler who led the English Rising in 1381 and was killed at Smithfield on this day 639 years ago. I’m not even sure my Wat Tyler was a real person, and historians of the English Rising have sometimes wondered the same about their Tyler, too. (More on that below). But it does raise some questions about connections and about hidden histories.

My Tyler is found in a letter of royal pardon that was granted to a different man involved in the Jacquerie.[1] This man had been hiding out along with a lot of other people in a quarry near their village because they were afraid of the noble posses who were riding around the countryside putting down the rebellion. When two unknown men approached the caves, claiming themselves to be fleeing the nobles, the villagers were suspicious that they were noble spies. Their suspicions were confirmed when they disarmed the strangers and found one of them hiding a striped hood in the colours that the nobles wore. (We don’t know anything more about these hoods, sadly. My guess is that they might have been the green and camel hoods that identified the followers King Charles II of Navarre.) It was then that ‘Wat Tyler’ appeared and killed one of the men.

The way that the pardon introduces this man makes me think he might be an invention. The stories in pardon letters were crafted by their recipients in order to present the best case for royal forgiveness while not being demonstrably false. (If a judge discovered your story was a lie, the pardon was cancelled and it was back to prison or the gallows for you.) The murderer in this letter is described as ‘someone from the quarry called Wat Tyler’, as if he was otherwise unknown to the pardon’s recipient. He disappears from the story immediately afterward, and I haven’t come across him in any other documents from the revolt or the period. A mysterious Wat Tyler produced to kill the nobleman conveniently explained how this nobleman came to be dead without the pardon’s recipient or anyone he knew having to take the blame for the murder.

So, if ‘Wat Tyler’ was a convenient invention, was the name itself drawn from a folk tradition? This might have been the case for the English Rising’s ‘Jack Straw’ or the other English ‘Jakkes’ in the rebel letters in Walsingham and Knighton’s chronicles. Might the English Wat Tyler have drawn inspiration from the same tradition? There’s no way to know. There is evidence for a real Wat Tyler in England prior to the Rising, and it has been generally accepted that the Smithfield Wat Tyler was using his real name. I’ve not come across another Watier (or Gautier) Thullier, but both names were reasonably common in fourteenth-century France. Still, as with the Jakke letters, which Steven Justice thought perhaps inspired by the Jacques of the Jacquerie, it’s a hint that there might have been cultures and traditions of resistance that are now lost to us, partly because they were subversive but also because they were mostly oral.

In the fifteenth century and later, there is a lot of evidence that rural uprisings were accompanied by carnivalesque behaviour, like dancing, cross-dressing, and satirical performances. Some such behaviour is already visible in the 1381 Rising.[2] The mock Eucharistic ceremony at St Albans where the rebels handed out pieces of broken handmills as the host and the procession in which rebels carried the severed heads of Sudbury and Hales on pikes and made them kiss, spring immediately to mind. The sources for the Jacquerie present much less evidence of this kind of performative rebellion. There’s an account of rebels dancing while their parish priest beat time, and at one squire’s house the rebels are supposed to have done things ‘too disgusting to recall’. In one chronicle, the rebels and their wives are said to have dressed up ‘very strangely’ in clothes stolen from the nobles. Are these isolated incidents? Or were mid-fourteenth-century writers just less interested in these elements than those of the later, most aesthetically-focused period?

I have always to walk a fine line with the Jacquerie between hewing strictly to the evidence in the documents (produced by literate elites who mostly hated the Jacques) and the knowledge that most of those involved in the revolt and their experiences went undocumented. Most of the rebellion is like an iceberg below the waterline. Speculation on my Wat Tyler – folk hero, convenient invention, or local hothead – doesn’t go into the book. He’s been confined to a footnote in chapter nine where I simply note his name and its English translation. Maybe some scholar with the mother of all prosopographical databases will be able to say something more some decades hence. For now, he’s a reminder that sources not only allow us to find out more things, but also show us that there are things we probably can’t find out.

[1] The pardon is published in Siméon Luce, Histoire de la Jacquerie d’après des documents inédits, 2nd edn (Paris, 1894-95), no. 62, after AN JJ 96, no. 425, fol. 145.

[2] Thomas Pettit, ‘“Here Comes I, Jack Straw”: English Folk Drama and Social Revolt’, Folklore 95 (1984): 3-20.