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For the people of a small island,
the story of the British is one of the most astonishing
tales in history.
But it's also a tale of constant struggle.
Over the centuries, the British people have faced many tests,
endured many hardships,
and the rich pattern of our history was made by the people themselves.
It was the people who built our society.
They fought for and won our rights and freedoms.
And on their road to the modern world
they faced triumph and disaster,
with courage, tenacity and humour.
And never more so than in the catastrophic 14th century.
The next chapter of the Great British Story.
Around Midsummer's Day in June 1348,
a merchant ship from Gascony in France sailed into the little port
of Melcombe Regis in Weymouth Bay in Dorset.
On board, one sailor was desperately sick, spitting blood,
with agonizing swellings in his armpits and groin.
And as they put him ashore and unloaded their cargo,
rats scampered into the town, bearing a deadly pathogen.
The Black Death.
The story of the arrival of the Black Death is the stuff of dreams.
Tranquil summer's day on the south coast
initiates the greatest catastrophe in our history.
The Black Death will change everything for the peoples of Britain.
In society and economies, in religion and mentalities.
It will be the beginning of the end for the old feudal system,
which had been clamped on the people since the Norman conquest of 1066.
But at that moment, no-one could have foreseen how it would happen.
The horror was just about to begin.
That summer, the plague moved up the roads of southern England.
Remorseless yet unseen, carried by soldiers,
peddlers and pilgrims, it travelled about a mile a day
and by winter, had infected the whole of the south.
The village of Little Cornard in the Suffolk countryside
is the first place for which we have a detailed record.
A farming community whose surnames
still recall the medieval country tasks.
Smith, Mower, Hayward.
14th century court rolls.
Jonathan Belsey is a doctor and in a local solicitor's office,
handed down in the papers of the Lord of the Manor,
he's traced the lost court roll of the village.
Can you take us through what actually happened in 1349?
Do the parish minutes give us a picture?
March 31st 1349.
There are nine deaths recorded...
which is our first inkling that there's a problem.
Presumably this has come up the Stour
and the traders have picked this up.
Then there's another one, 1st of May.
We have 14 people die and this is not population, this is householders
so we can assume that wives and children are dying as well.
And after that there's a gap
and I think what happened there is everybody was running scared.
1st of November, we have this appalling list
of everybody that's died.
And it brings the total up to 49 householders
and in some cases there's single households where
a succession of four different people have died.
Someone's died, left it to their son,
who's died, left it to their sister, who's died, left it to their...
It's... this is a picture of devastation.
If you look at serious infectious illness,
if you get a death rate of three or four percent, which is about
the death rate we had in the flu pandemic in 1919.
You think, "God, that was dreadful."
Now, with the Great Pestilence, with Black Death, what happened was about
three quarters of people caught it and about half of those died of it.
This would have ripped the heart out of a community.
"Lately died Letice Harvy, Felice Osbern, John le Fuller,
"Adam Dyl Stour."
By then, the plague was raging in the cities.
In London, people spoke of 50,000 deaths,
of 10,000 buried here under Charterhouse Square.
The recant excavation of plague pits on Tower Hill showed that those who
buried the dead were too scared even to take the purses from the bodies.
Across the wide lands of open field England,
villages like Codicote on the Great North Road were almost wiped out.
1349. Meeting of the court of Codicote, pages and pages of deaths.
59 of them in one entry.
Hugo Allen, Jonat Pirrey, John White, John Thickney.
Ralph Thickney, Simon Walter, John Martin, Robert Blood.
Out on the Welsh borders, the plague made its way up
lonely country lanes to the farms around Abergavenny.
And now in the lords' rent books, we can see it's effect
on the feudal system itself where the whole structure of labour dues,
which bound the peasants' lives, was on the point of collapse.
At Cwm Morgan we had a watermill worth £14.
It's now worth only three because of the mortality.
There is no income from rent as the tenants are dead.
And with the tenants dead, who would plough the lord's land?
At Bryngwyn we have 196 acres of arable, which are now worth nothing,
on account of the weakness of the land and the plague.
As incomes fell, who would give the lord his dues?
At Hentlys Manor, we have a house of no value.
A fishpond without fish and 16 acres of large wood now worthless.
The rich fared better than the poor, as they always do.
But in Scotland, the monks
of the Royal Monastery of St Andrews were decimated.
So severe was the affliction, said the chronicler Henry Knighton,
that a third of the whole human race
was obliged to pay the debt of nature.
The sea was no barrier.
By 1350, the plague had reached the Orkneys and the Shetlands.
Boats from Bristol brought the plague to Ireland.
The first deaths in Dublin came even before the plague reached London.
And here in Trinity College, there's an extraordinary eyewitness account
of the plague by a friar called John Clyn.
Well, in Dublin, he says 14,000 died.
He tells us that it arrived in Dublin
and it swept through the whole of the city and then he tells us
very specifically that 25 friars died, Franciscans, in Drogheda.
Now that's a full house of friars, so, I mean, it is a devastation,
and 23 Franciscans died in Dublin.
And does he describe the symptoms, Bernadette?
Yes, he does. He describes three distinct symptoms.
"For many died from carbuncles and from ulcers
"and pustules that could be seen on the shins and under the armpits.
"Some died as if in a frenzy from the pain in the head,
"others from spitting blood."
In a Christian universe, the plague brought visions of the end of time.
Despairing of the future, Clyn left a moving message
for the generations to come.
"Now I, Friar John Clyn, have brought together in writing just as I have
"truthfully heard and examined and lest the writing should
"perish with the writer and the work fail together with the worker,
"I am leaving parchment for the work to continue,
"if by chance, in the future, a man should remain surviving,
"and anyone of the race of Adam should be able to escape this plague
"and live to continue this work I commenced."
He's left it in case anyone be left alive of the race of Adam
that will read it and will be able to continue.
For the people of the future, for us to read.
Because he thinks that everybody's going to die.
And with those millions of deaths, what did that terrible time
actually feel like?
In the church at Ashwell in Hertfordshire,
14th century graffiti scratched on the walls by the vicar
and still readable, give us a glimpse.
"And the year when the great plague first came
"was 1,350 minus one.
"Miseranda, ferox et violenta."
Pitiable, ferocious and violent.
"The plague departed
"and left only the dregs of the people to bear witness.
"And that year, a mighty wind blew across the world."
And so, over 500 days, the Black Death ran its course.
At least half the population of Britain died.
And the first impact of the plague was on work.
Most of the British people worked the fields,
villeins and serfs who owed labour to their lords.
Before the plague, England was densely populated,
maybe six million people.
Labour was plentiful, wages were low.
But now, labour had a new worth.
This gives you an idea what you would have seen in the Middle Ages.
You know, ploughing time in the 13th century,
maybe 15 or 20 ploughing teams moving slowly
across one of the great fields.
Some of them would have been women.
If you set your plough right, it'll follow,
if you haven't got it set right, you'll sweat all day.
The Black Death having killed so large a portion of the population,
it sort of makes things better for those who remain.
Go on, Go on!
That's it, keep a bit of pressure down on that hand.
On the right hand?
You want to be driving that wheel into the side.
Into the side, OK.
That's how you'll keep it straight, keep in that furrow.
So you've got to watch that edge?
Yeah. And watch your horses are walking in the furrow as well.
Right. It take some physical strength to do it as well?
A little bit, yeah.
The peasants, who were so tied to their land, are now in great demand
because there aren't enough of them
and they can go off in search of higher wages.
Eventually, legislation is brought in to keep them from doing that,
but it's indicative of the sort of new age of ambition.
Though most British people were still unfree,
there was a rising class of free men and women
able to move about to seek better work, more money.
And the boom industry was in cloth.
The demand for cheap and cheerful clothing was on the rise
as far away as Scotland in Edinburgh and Dundee,
and in Wales in Carmarthenshire.
The key product was wool.
Though after the Black Death, the ancient craft of flax making,
to make linen, also starts to be more than a cottage industry.
That is ready as after it came from the crimpers, now it comes to
this cutters here so we have our crimping, sticking, scotching,
then it's put up in the box here then up to the flax store and retied.
But the centre of the cloth trade was England.
Course, Manchester's famous as a textile town
in the industrial revolution, the centre of Lancashire cotton.
But its roots as a textile town lie in the Middle Ages,
and after the Black Death, from the 1360s, it grew
with the migration of Flemish weavers from East Anglia,
who settled here, and all along the banks of River Irwell
and the Irk were fulling mills.
And the workers here were typical of the kind of people of that time
with a bit of freedom, a bit of ready cash,
who were anxious to take advantage
of the new job opportunities after the great plague.
The people below the big landlord, like the monks
and the barons and the other great aristocrats, the people below them
have a good deal of freedom of activity, shall we say.
They can take initiatives, they're not cowed,
dominated, lacking in skill or the ability to change their own lives.
And the new entrepreneurs were not only men.
Across Britain, women had always been a major part of the work force,
at home, in the field and in the marketplace.
I think you get your own little systems, don't you?
And one industry where women led and made money was brewing.
I have a feeling this is going to be thirsty work!
Ale was a key part of the British diet
and in every town and village, women did that job.
Only now being reclaimed by today's female brewsters.
Probably averaging four barrel brews at the moment.
I've literally just taken on a graduate from Heriot Watt.
This is a manorial court roll for Brigstock. A lot of women did help
support their households by brewing for sale,
by making ale and selling it to their neighbours.
And then this is a list of the brewsters, all women in this case.
Most of them wives.
So this is the wife of Richard Tubb and Matilda Tubb
and a woman who's only known by her first name, Maryant.
The wife of Richard Aukey and Joan Cocass, Isabella Cocass.
Medieval court rolls give us
a huge amount of social detail on women's work.
One woman entrepreneur called Cecilia Pennefader
stood up for herself in a male world
and earned a rude cartoon from the landlord's scribe.
What kind of freedoms did a woman like Cecilia have?
I mean, for example,
she didn't marry, but how did she make her living?
She was a landholder, she held about 70 acres.
She would have worked the land, she might well have hired people.
She would have bought a lot of things at market that she needed.
These people are very imbedded in commercial markets.
They're not subsistence farmers.
They're not producing everything they consume.
It's a terribly touching that you can resurrect the life
of such an ordinary person, from the documents.
Almost an act of piety by the scholar.
It shouldn't be necessary to write the history of half of humanity,
but it is necessary, isn't it?
Well, yes. I wouldn't say it was an act of piety,
but it comes from my belief that the history of ordinary people matter
and that women are among those ordinary people.
And I think what surprises people about someone like Cecilia,
which really is not surprising at all,
is that is she was much more active than I think a lot of people expect.
She did hold land, she did go to court, she argued with neighbours,
she had a rich and full life.
It was limited in certain ways, but she's not in an abyss,
which is what my students think the lives of medieval women were -
just terrible. And in fact, it's not the case at all.
-She's not a passive observer of history.
She makes history, and she makes it in modest ways.
So Britain after the Black Death
is beginning to look like a different place.
And in our community dig in the town of Long Melford in Suffolk,
the townspeople found archaeological evidence
of these hidden changes in people's lives.
That's good evidence of a very posh building.
In our 50 test pits, an unexpected pattern started to emerge.
You've broken through the floor?
-Yeah, we got through it. You can see.
Before the Black Death, Melford had been a largely rural place.
Its 60 tax-paying families were mostly farmers,
with one cloth dyer and a handful of artisans.
Right. That is proper medieval.
This is a late medieval jug handle.
I mean, that's very typical of the stuff they were making in Essex
from about 1400 onwards, or thereabouts.
But the quantity of finds suggested life in the town
was beginning to change.
The dig turned up startling evidence for the time after the plague.
Previous results from 40 rural village digs
showed massive contraction,
but Long Melford had now become a magnet.
Nearly all of the other villages we've looked at across the region
show a dramatic, catastrophic in most cases,
drop in the amount of activity, the size of the population,
post Black Death.
Not Long Melford.
You can see that in the maps here. Here's high medieval Long Melford.
Remember this scatter of separate nodes of activity,
-with perhaps fields in-between.
When we take that forward to the late medieval period,
where in nearly all of our other medieval villages
there's a massive contraction in what's going on,
-we see growth.
Look at that! And I think for the first time
we've got something that really looks like a town there.
Nearly all of these test pits producing pottery
of late medieval date.
People in a period when the population has declined,
many settlements are decimated,
Long Melford was probably hit as bad as everyone else
but people are moving into it.
People are picking up those empty places. Those empty households.
They're moving into them and the village is just steaming ahead.
Sharing in that boom was Hadleigh, a prosperous wool town.
And it's here that, for the first time, a document has turned up
with one of the most famous names in British history.
His name tells you his profession.
He came from a Hadleigh family of tile and brick makers.
A perfect example of the trades that were doing well
after the Black Death.
Tyler and his wife, Imogen, lived on the outskirts of town,
here on Coram street.
And he would have worked in a place like this.
There have been kilns on this site since the 14th century.
Here we have Hadleigh. An ideal situation for brick and tile making.
They have all that's necessary.
You have a river valley, you have all the ingredients here,
you will have clay, and sand and water.
All the things a tile or brick maker would want.
If Wat Tyler and his wife Imogen were living on Coram Road,
they're quite close to the source of the materials,
the raw materials that are right on their doorstep.
You would have probably had a family group,
because the children were occupied and they were cheap labour.
So the tendency was for the man, or the woman,
because women made tiles as well, and bricks,
would be actually making the product.
And the family would be moving it away.
The method of making bricks by hand hasn't changed since Tyler's day.
We're using a system very, very similar to those
that would have been used in the 13th and 14th century.
Very little has really changed.
The principle is identical to that which would have been used
by Wat Tyler and his wife.
Tiles were in demand, not just for domestic housing
but we're not going into a period where grain barns were being built.
Huge barns which needed roofs to keep the grain dry.
In the late 14th century,
tilers and plasterers
were apprenticed to a master to learn their trade.
A bit like today.
How did you get into this job and what training did you have to do?
I got a job doing kiln stacking.
Then I slowly made my way up here and just got on the bench.
I started learning, that's pretty much it.
But what turned a skilled craftsman like him
into the most famous rebel in British history?
-Do you know what the job is, Matt?
-Not off the top of my head.
There's a group, very independent, self sufficient in every way,
and proud of what they did, because they were a proud people.
I'm sure they'd be very bitter about any controls brought in on them,
because they were used to working at their own speed
and making their own progress.
But as East Anglians, they were also very jealous of their independence.
And they weren't the only ones.
In every English community, there were peasants who were literate,
who knew the law and were politically aware.
In medieval court rolls,
an incredible range of material is now coming to light,
recording a century of almost constant conflict
between the peasants and their feudal lords.
These sorts of things are the training ground for the later Peasants' Revolt.
So a long history of dare we call it "class struggle"?
Class struggle, absolutely! I certainly count that.
If you actually took a sort of map of England
and mapped out all the villages where there was violent protest,
litigation against their lord,
it would be a chequerboard of lots of parts of England.
What's true is that it never was coordinated.
It was just there wasn't the spark.
And the spark came in the late 1370s
with a series of national poll taxes,
which hit everyone, rich and poor, men and women.
So this is one of the great documents of English history,
this is the poll tax of 1381.
The tax that caused the Peasants' Revolt.
"An unheard-of tax," it was said at the time,
"...imposed by a corrupt, incompetent, insolvent government,"
Who were fighting a very costly foreign war.
We've heard that before, haven't we?
The revolt began in Essex in a village on the Thames estuary
where the King's poll tax gatherers were driven out by force.
The place was Fobbing.
The date, 13th May 1381.
In the next few days, resistance spread like wildfire.
East Anglia, the richest part of England, was a centre of the revolt.
You're suggesting that a lot more planning lay behind these events,
not just a spontaneous combustion like the English riots in 2011.
I think it's totally unlike that, Michael.
I'd rather choose the Arab Spring.
The communication is the thing.
What was the equivalent in 1381 of the BlackBerry?
Answer is a string of good fast horses.
They got the information out and signalled to start the revolt.
As far as we know, the Peasants' Revolt
was an English phenomenon.
It didn't spread into Wales or into the Kingdom of Scotland.
Beginning in the southeast, it spread as far north as Yorkshire,
and as far west as Somerset.
Leaders immediately emerged at a local level.
Many using pseudonyms - Jack Straw or Jack Truman.
Even Piers Ploughman.
They communicated by letters in English,
the texts of seven of these have survived.
In the rich county of Kent,
the rebels took over market towns like Faversham,
supported by the better off peasant landowners.
# Crippled by levies and taxes and tithes
# The crying of children And the sorrow of wives... #
A lot of people were very disgruntled
because this tax of one to three groats went across everybody.
Everyone thinks it's just the peasants, but no.
-Everyone was there.
-The people of England?
The people of England. That's it, yeah.
It was here in Kent that the radical priest John Ball
spoke his famous sermon that all human beings are born equal.
So when Adam delved and Eve span. Who was then the gentleman?
One of the most interesting new discoveries about the revolt is the role of women in the leadership.
-There were women leaders as well, weren't there?
-Certainly, Margery Starre for one.
63 women rebels were indicted in Suffolk alone.
Women were sometimes going against the men -
"I'm sorry, I'm a free woman."
That old English idea of "it's not fair".
Well, yeah, you've got to be fair play and all that. It's justice.
The people take so much and then after a while they say,
"Nah, we've had enough of this," and just rise up.
The government now faced a mass uprising.
Among the peasants' first targets was the ancient Abbey of St Albans,
which owned estates with thousands of tied peasants,
and also controlled the market.
This is where the mob attacked St Albans Abbey that summer of 1381.
The Great North Gate.
It's like a fortress, isn't it?
A visible symbol of their subjection.
There were 2,000 rebels, all of them trying to fight their way inside
where there were 100 monks and the Abbot and their few hundred staff.
They must have been terrified by the turn of events,
by the fury that was unleashed.
And the peasants out there not only wanted to get the monks inside
but they wanted to destroy the Abbey archives.
The court books, the record of their subjection.
Their leader William Grindcob said,
"All we want is a little liberty after so many centuries of oppression."
By now, and we don't know how,
Wat Tyler was acknowledged as the chief leader.
From south and east, the rebels converged on London.
# Crippled by levies and taxes and tithes
# The crying of children and the sorrow of wives
# Smouldering anger in Essex and Kent
# Has burst into flame Now on London we're bent... #
The city's gates were opened and the people poured in.
# In the garden of England We'll delve and we'll spin
# Till the fruits of our labours In Eden we'll win. #
They celebrated with bonfires of feudal documents in the streets.
As the Savoy Palace went up in flames,
the whole order of things was shaken.
Among the chief targets of the people's anger
was the Archbishop Of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury.
Sudbury was Lord Chancellor too
and the rebel leader Jack Straw said he was public enemy number one.
As Chancellor, he was responsible
for bringing in the poll tax at three groats a head.
Rich pay the same as poor.
But most of all, I think, it's said to be that he was one of a coterie
who influenced Richard against doing a deal with Wat Tyler.
Tyler is reported as saying that if they could have done a deal with the King,
we can all go home.
And the person who stopped it was Simon of Sudbury
and that was probably the real reason, as well as the poll tax,
why they finished him off.
To the rebels, Sudbury was an enemy of the people.
but back in his hometown, where he founded a college,
he's still a bit of a local hero.
And they pulled him out, together with some others
and they made him kneel down.
On June 14th, Sudbury was beheaded on Tower Hill...
..by rebels, led by a woman, Johanna Ferrour.
And Simon's head was gone.
Recovered from its spike on London Bridge,
his head was later returned to Sudbury.
And it's still here.
Draw round so that you can all see...
and I will introduce you to Simon.
-Say hello, everybody. CHILDREN:
-What do you think of that?
The peasants had now killed the Lord Chief Justice
and the Chancellor.
They were on the verge of full-scale revolution.
As Sudbury was executed,
eyewitnesses remembered the sound of the crowd.
Rising over the city, a visceral roar like a monstrous beast.
Within a few days, the rebels had taken over the capital.
But what would they do now?
At this point, the letters of the peasant leaders betray a growing anxiety.
"Lady Mary, help us.
"Know your friend from your foe,
"beware of treachery in the city."
Early next day came the reckoning.
The peasants believed that the King would listen if only they could speak to him directly.
Their key demand was the abolition of serfdom
and the next morning, they met the 14-year-old Richard II face-to-face here at Smithfield.
Saturday June 15th 1381, it's a turning point in British history.
Crystalline blue day, just like today.
And the city crackling with tension.
During the night, the peasant army has moved round from the East End
and is pouring into Smithfield.
And the King and his henchmen with his armed guards
have come out of the city and are down there below us,
facing the peasant army.
And at this point, with incredible bravado,
the peasant leader, Wat Tyler, rides out to meet the King.
Now remember, our sources for what happened next
only come from the King's side.
But according to them,
Tyler was insulting in his manner towards the King.
Called him "my brother". At one point reined his horse in
so its bottom thrusted to the very nostrils of the King's horse.
Then the Mayor of London, William Walworth,
seized Tyler's reins
and called him "a scurvy villain and a traitor" and stabbed him.
The rebels were stunned and enraged.
But the King himself pacified them and agreed to meet their demands.
That day, the King and his councillors signed charters promising to abolish serfdom.
But once the rebel army had dispersed, the Government reneged on the deal,
saying they'd only signed it under duress.
The ringleaders were hunted down, tried and executed.
Whether Imogen Tyler carried on her husband's business, history does not say.
So, brief and savage, the summer of blood was over by late June 1381.
Sporadic rioting, looting and house breaking still flickered
across the country, but serious organized disorder was over.
Here in Sudbury, the Earl Of Suffolk was brought in on a mandate from the Government
to mop up the resistance and to punish insurgents.
And in the 14th century, that was a very unpleasant business.
So the great rising had failed.
But the forces that had propelled it,
which after all were the forces of history, couldn't be stopped.
Over the next few decades, a million mutinies are recorded in the court rolls.
Legal cases in which the people themselves slowly, patiently
negotiated away the bonds of the old order.
One story from Suffolk is typical of the changing times.
It's the tale of a man who was born a bonded serf
20 years after the revolt but gained his freedom and rose in the world,
to become a member of a new group in English society.
I was interested in finding out more about farmers because they're a mystery.
Often all you know about them is their name
and the amount of rent they pay.
-We're using this word "farmer"?
-Yes, I mean, for them it's quite a technical term,
it meant someone who paid a particular type of rent, the farm.
So they're renting rather than paying labour dues as their ancestors did.
Yes, they're not paying labour dues,
the usual arrangement is they paid a sum of cash
and that's typical of the records contained in a roll like this,
which is a financial account.
This is the account of Robert Parman, farmer.
It says that he pays £11
for the farm of the agricultural production of the Abbot's demesne.
And it says here, "Thus let to the said Robert."
Was he a free man?
No, he's a serf. His father was a serf so he was born into serfdom.
But being a serf didn't prevent you making your way in the world.
Sounds like the rise of a new class in English society.
Yes, yes, there were no farmers in... You know, 20 years earlier.
It's a new group of people, a very significant group of people,
who are making waves in the 15th century
and of course, continuing to make waves until the present day.
So in the 1450s, Robert was a man of some standing in the village.
Do you get a sense of a personality coming out in the documents, Chris?
I don't think he's a very attractive man, myself.
He's a dominant, bullying sort of figure, I suspect.
He's a successful businessman.
Can I just point out how he bossed the village about?
You find that his sons are not just landholders in the village,
they also occupy official positions in the Government.
The Abbot's Bailiff chooses the people who are going to occupy office.
Of course, for a long time, the Abbot's Bailiff was one Robert Parman
and then you look down the list and who do you see?
Sometimes you get three or four of his sons are also in this group of influential pledges.
Chosen by himself.
Wonderful tale of advancement, isn't it?
Unlikeable and grasping as he may have been,
Robert had set out to better himself and his children.
It's very pretty, isn't it?
'The ex-serf had become a pillar of the local community.
'He even beautified his parish church.'
Robert Parman's window from the inside.
Yes, his great contribution to
the whole communal effort, really, in building the church.
So Robert dies, 1475, commemorated in the church,
what happens to the family story in the village after that?
Quite extraordinarily, his son,
Robert Jr, had actually become a rector of the parish,
so as well as his father ruling the secular side of parish life,
his son was the leader of the religion of the parish as well.
So his son had got a much better education that his father then.
-Do we know?
Well, we know the father had a basic education of some kind,
which made him able to keep his accounts and so on.
But the son, presumably again, went to Bury School, the monks' school at Bury.
-Then went onto Cambridge...
..got an MA at Cambridge
and then there was promoted to become Rector of Chevington.
Everyday story of medieval country folk, isn't it?
What a journey in a few decades from a serf to a Cambridge MA.
So the aspirations of the Peasants' Revolt
would eventually be achieved by new economic freedoms.
And also, crucially, by education,
which provided opportunities across the barriers of medieval class and gender.
# And if you're a friend of Jesus you're a friend of mine. #
And don't think that our rural ancestors were strangers to education.
By the 14th century, schools had sprung up all over the medieval countryside.
Ewelme School was founded in the 1430s,
before the Wars of the Roses.
We're at Ewelme Primary School in South Oxfordshire,
the oldest primary school in the country.
Founded in 1437 by Alice Chaucer,
who was granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer, the poet.
The children would have been taught to read and write,
very unusual in those days.
And so this was, in effect, a grammar school
and the children would have learned Latin.
See whether you can work out what any of these words might mean.
Feminam might mean feminine.
So it's reading and writing and being able to use Latin
and to compute figures,
so that they were equipped to go
and help on the estates and keep records,
possibly even to go into the church.
I'm going to show you some of the equipment
that they would have been using in this school
back in the 15th century. They would have been using things like wax tablets.
Can anyone see anything around this classroom that you don't think
they would have had in 1437?
Well, they wouldn't have had whiteboard pens.
Well, maybe they just didn't know how to make a whiteboard pen work.
Back in the 15th century, the spread of education
was helped by a very simple and practical innovation.
When you get to about 1400,
paper is becoming common and cheap in England
and it's always seemed to me that the paper revolution
is even more important than the printing revolution,
because, in fact, you cannot have a printing revolution
until you've got paper.
And once you've got cheap paper, it's much easier for schools to function
because you don't merely keep temporary exercises,
which you have to then get rid of.
You can actually keep permanent notes,
so by 1400, you're already in the world of school exercise books.
CHILDREN ALL TALK AT ONCE
And we've been talking about boys. What about girls and women?
Most female education is done in the households,
but it won't involve Latin.
They don't go to grammar schools,
but they may well be taught by a parent or a literate person,
a cleric or somebody like that,
they may be taught their alphabet and be able to read
and we certainly know at gentry level that women were reading romances,
they were reading religious books,
because these works get mentioned in wills.
Right, we're going to be singing the Tudor song Hey Ho, Nobody's At Home.
OK, so one, two, three, four...
# Hey ho, nobody at home
# Meat nor drink nor money I have none... #
So in the 15th century, hundreds of villages up and down the land
had their own tiny schools and schoolmasters.
It was the beginning of a social revolution
percolating silently from below.
By the time we reach the Tudors,
England will be the most literate society
that had yet existed in history.
So the people rose through education. Take the Paston family
from the tiny Norfolk village which still bears their name today.
Back in the 1400s, the Pastons were just 100-acre farmers,
but they rose in the world.
And we know about them through letters they wrote to each other
during the Wars of the Roses.
The Pastons' letters are so vividly expressed
that they can almost seem people like us.
And it's the letters written by the women that are most revealing.
It's not bad, actually. That's not a bad fit...
Oh, not too... You can't see now!
For the first time in our history,
we can eavesdrop on the thoughts of ordinary women.
They tell of blackmail and bullying by the local lords and their cronies
but they also speak of women's hopes and dreams
and even their love lives.
I'm sorry that you shall not be home for Christmas.
I pray that you'll come as soon as you may.
I shall think myself half a widow because you shall not be home.
God have you in his keeping.
Written on Christmas Eve by your Margaret.
They read so immediate.
They just are real people.
And that's very uncommon in 15th-century letters.
So as the news filtered back to this corner of Norfolk
of battles in France in the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses,
life went on.
To my right worshipful husband, John Paston.
I pray you heartily that you'll send me a pot of treacle.
In haste, Margaret.
In one of the Paston letters
is what might just be our earliest Valentine.
Nearly, it has sealed it. You've got the pattern. Just skidded a bit.
Cousin, Friday is Valentine's Day.
And every bird choose himself a mate.
If you'd like to come on Thursday night and stay till Monday,
I trust to God that you may speak to my husband
and that we may bring the matter to a conclusion.
"I pray you that you will wear the ring
"with the image of St Margaret..."
..That I sent you for remembrance till you come home.
You have left me such a remembrance
that makes me think upon you both night and day when I would sleep.
We've talked about the quill that was taken from goose feathers.
You just, like, take all the feathers off
then you just, like, make a slit in the bottom
and then you just dip it in the ink.
Yes, so if you look at the angle there...
'The younger John Paston is begging for a new hawk from his brother'
and there's this plea, "Could I have a new hawk, please?
"My last hawk was useless
"and all the other knights have got better hawks than me."
Then he gets one, and he says, "But she is but a hedge sparrow."
Because she arrived with broken wings
so it's so sad, this younger brother, but, I mean, he triumphed in the end
because he's the one all the rest of the Pastons are descended from.
If you were an ordinary person,
the 15th century wasn't a great time to live,
but out of catastrophe had come the beginnings of real changes
in our ancestors' lives. By the 1470s and '80s,
Britain was slowly rising out of its long depression.
And the woolmen now did what the British have always been good at -
they reinvented their business model.
And it was the wool towns of Suffolk
which scored the most spectacular successes.
They tapped into the export market with Germany, France and the Baltic
and you can still see their new money in Lavenham.
Wonderful spectacle of medieval wealth
as you come up the street, isn't it?
It's an incredible place.
In 1524, we were recorded as
the 14th richest town in England.
We paid more tax in that year than York, Lincoln, Norwich,
many of the big cities. It's quite incredible to think
-of a population not much bigger than it is today, about 1,800.
-I love the way you refer to... You talk of "we", Jane.
Well, you know, I'm not exactly a local, but Suffolk born and bred.
How did they make their money, Jane?
We're called the wool towns, but in actual fact,
we made our money from cloth. Our cloth in Lavenham,
which was a very thick, coarse, broad cloth, known as Lavenham Blues,
dyed with woad, which was a pretty horrible substance anyway.
But it was being exported as far away as northern Russia.
-In the 15th century?
-Or before that, yeah.
And these people, who started life as little artisans,
spinning, weaving and dyeing,
gradually became sort of under the umbrella, if you like,
of a cloth merchant or clothier, who took control of the whole process
and made a great deal of money in the process.
But of course, all those wealthy cloth merchants
try to show off their wealth through their buildings,
so Lavenham is comprehensively rebuilt during that period
with all these close-studded buildings, jettied buildings,
to show off the amount of timber they could afford.
Lavenham is an extraordinarily well-preserved medieval townscape.
Really can get a sense of what it must have been like
to walk down a medieval street here.
And here we're stepping onto Water Street in Lavenham,
which was originally, as the name suggests,
a wet, wide street that flooded regularly.
Today, the water flows underneath the front rooms, the sitting rooms
of the people living on one side of this street.
Michael, you're wearing wellingtons because you're about to explore it.
'Here in Lavenham, the early Tudor middle class
'built grand townhouses
'showing off all the arts of the plasterers and the tilers
'but they also put their money into infrastructure,
'even a common sewerage system for the town.'
The manhole cover that is looming open in front of us, Michael,
would have been the middle of our medieval street.
It's quite narrow, isn't it?
Look at this!
So, can you hear me, Leigh?
Yup, I can hear you. What can you see, Michael?
I've got a fantastic sweep of brick vaults down here, Leigh.
I don't think anything lives down there, Michael,
but I can't guarantee it.
Might be a few escaped pets of the reptilian variety.
Oh, gosh, spiders around here, look at this!
Great, look at this,
a sewage outlet there, running underneath the street.
It's a wonderful insight, isn't it,
to the way things worked in the medieval world.
The community was the driving force
behind all the things that make society work.
Charity, law and order, education,
entertainment, and even sanitation.
In a medieval microcosm, it's the big society.
Oh, gosh! Blimey...
It's very nice to see you.
I was expecting to come out in the loo.
'Back in Long Melford, in our big communal dig,
'we found more evidence of this early Tudor boom time.'
That's going back quite a long way.
Sort of Tudor period, Queen Elizabeth onwards, really.
'A medieval guildhall was rebuilt as an inn for commercial travellers.'
I don't know what that is, it's certainly not a typical modern tile.
'And, just behind the Swan Inn, the test pit revealed
'the modern spirit of those Tudor developers.'
Well, you have your grey-brown layer at the bottom,
which presumably was the soil behind the original building here,
which is producing the sort of 14th, 15th-century pottery.
Then someone's dug a trench through that to put a brick wall in,
presumably as part of a nice Tudor brick building.
Building goes up, it's knocked down,
the whole thing's levelled, the builders tarmac over it.
-At some point, someone put a sewer pipe in as well!
-I love it.
Historians talk about the great rebuilding of the 16th century, don't they?
And we think about all these lovely half-timbered houses
and actually, that's kind of builders going at it
-and developers going at it as hard as they are today.
It's a real insight, isn't it,
to the changing world of Tudor England.
I mean, you have to remember that that time - 15th, 16th century -
this part of East Anglia is a mainstay of the wealth of England,
with the wool trade, these towns like Lavenham and Kersey
and Long Melford here.
So in 1522, around the time that the Swan Inn was built,
there were 160 taxable households here in Long Melford
and a third of them worked in the cloth industry.
There were ten great, rich clothiers -
there were weavers and dyers and fullers and tailors.
And an inn like this, built to service their industry,
with people coming in from as far away as London.
And it's a story that you could repeat right across Britain -
from Totnes in Devon to the towns of northeast Scotland,
for the people of Britain, the world of work was changing.
So, through work, education and ambition,
the British people came through the horrors of the Black Death
and its violent fallout.
For the ordinary person, it must have been a terrible time to live.
But out of it, they forged new ways of working and living
that still shape us today.
At this point, the lives of the people of Britain
were still ruled by the twin pillars of medieval power -
monarchy and the Catholic Church.
And the next challenge the British people will face
will come from their own rulers -
a chain of events that will change them forever
in their religious beliefs and customs,
in their attitudes to life and death.
Events that, in the end,
will overthrow the power of both God and king.
THEY ALL SING A HYMN
And how that happened,
we'll see in the next chapter of The Great British Story.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd