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Remembering Wat Tyler: Stakes are head high

Remembering Wat Tyler: Stakes are head high

Standing up against rape, murder and repression remains at the heart of our acts of resistance

Wat Tyler’s head was spiked and displayed as a warning upon London Bridge on June 15, 1381. In this literary essay, an anonymous author affiliated with the Kurdistan freedom movement, traces a path in time and between ideas to reflect on that rebellion and its significance today.

rich man in his rolling acres
poor man still outside the gate
-- A Place Called England, Young’uns

We are in a heavy grind. We have not entirely halted yet our stories have been silenced. We are in grave need of a revival of spirit. We used to celebrate the changing of seasons, and cherish our martyrs. We used to know to direct our anger not inwards or upon our loved ones, but straight at the enemy. How do we learn how to survive and fight this system at the same time? We must fight until there is no life without becoming, not just surviving but belonging.

We must know our roots well, our histories of resistance will let hope grow and swell against violent systems and mentality of conquest. These stories of revolt, go way beyond a demand for recognition, and in our bones these stories are alive. What a disgusting farce it is to claim we never had a revolution: there is always a true democratic history, but we must know how to defend it and give meaning to it once again. How are we to build an alternative to this murderous system if we cannot defend ourselves?

Wat Tyler was assassinated by William Walworth, the mayor of London at the time. Walworth thought it was a simple solution in his attempt to ‘keep the peace’ and protect the property of the few, yet it was proved to be a classic case of how it’s impossible to kill an idea. On June 16, the rebels marched on the Tower of London, sought out the Archbishop of Canterbury, and chopped off his head.

Late 14th-century depiction of William Walworth killing Wat Tyler; the King is represented twice, watching events unfold (left) and addressing the crowd (right). Image: Wikipedia

Perhaps when looking back it may seem simpler then, an ‘us and them’ situation with crime and punishment for all to see, blood, guts and screams. Yet when a change of punishment was established as a new strategy focusing on our minds more than our bodies, a special warfare began. An ideological, psychological manipulation backed by the rich few, guarded by those just doing their jobs. Society was forced to divide, become uprooted or stripped of roots.

Rootless folks defend their right to exist in peace, and the uprooted are kept hidden to those who do not know their neighbours and ignore unmarked vans. Though this only accounts for the few. Challenging the special warfare upon us from this patriarchal dominant state, and fighting against the ideas of Nation and State, has always been our defiance: society’s story.

Queen Elizabeth has bitten the dust, though we shouldn’t need to wait for the dust to settle to know what action to take. And it starts with a society without such draconic dependencies.

Caesar was not dead, there were a thousand Caesars.
And the church kept peace among them.
The priests made us hate our bodies, and fear the forests,
the mountains, the black night.
They monopolised magic and wed it to ceremony.
--The Witch’s Child

But its no good blasting the sex pistols at our grandparents or watching The Spider Chronicles: defence of the monarchy, the state, cannot be undone through stories without knowing all the characters. Revealings of truth only make an impact if we know and can defend our democratic history. We must question: why such blind trust exists in the first place? Some say it was the blind faith in Richard II that eventually pacified the rebels of 1381.

Persecution of women for simply being, continues everywhere. It has reached its worse stage with the current State, the ultimate centralization of power and enslavement. Without the exploitation of women, the power of the state could not exist. This was as true as early as the dawn of slavery and was still so during what would come to be known as the Hundred Years War. The commissioners, sent into the villages to discern who was illegible to pay tax, would be especially heavy handed with women, putting hands up their skirts to see if they were virgins or married.

Wat Tyler’s daughter was assaulted by a commissioner called John Bampton, and the working-class resistance was set to light. Unrest was already stirring and pressure building in the English feudal system, especially in the decades following the Black Death. The nobility and the church were attempting to reassert their power, after a period of rising wages and sudden access to many acres. These horrific assaults on women were what sparked the 14th century “Peasant Rebellion”, in fact an anti-repression revolution.

There is no free homeland, without free women
--Tal’at feminist movement, Palestine

Wat Tyler and the Kentish rebels marched on London to show the foundation of living society came from their hard work: they had realised there worth, and were prepared to die for it. They had autonomously organised demands to ensure their worth was not forgotten, and those after them. The demands were to end the free labour of workers tied to land through serfdom, and the destruction of centralization of power. Demands were radical and socialist, the rebels understood and identified the order of power, and insisted on the establishment of grassroots participation and decision making in society.

A imagined illustration from c.1470 of the priest John Ball (“Jehã Balle”) on a horse encouraging the rebels and Wat Tyler (“Waultre le tieulier”) in 1381. Implausibly, the rebels are depicted as soldiers in full plate armour carrying St. George’s Cross and Plantagenet flags. Image: Wikipedia

What is society’s demands today? The centralisation of power in the capitalist system ensures manipulation of oppressed voices, our stories are twisted to suit the exponential growth of a dirty system. Perhaps our answer for contemporary times lies beyond nation-state governance formed at the start of the Industrial Revolution.

It sometimes seems impossible to dream of a stateless world. We have somewhat forgotten our natural responsibility to Life. Huge fundamental questions of governing society seem daunting to us, because we are faced with contradictions. In a system ruled by those that believe only in a reality unchanging – tradition used to harm; positivist science claims solutions are indeed black and white, wrong and right, fact or fiction. According to whom?

We cannot shy away from going deeper to understand why and how contradictions exist, without trying to ‘solve’ them or reduce their meaning. If we are to truly accept and understand really what diversity is, it is to run towards the difficulties, the tense conversations, the conflicts both in our own bodies and in our society.

By 1380 society had seen three episodes of taxation by King Richard II and his government, who sought a violent hegemonic solution to fund war with France. By today, the global capitalist system is interdependent with war. War hangs like the sword of Damocles above the so-called United Nations. What exactly is united? Modern tribes.

The nation state needed the bourgeoisie and the power of the capital in
order to replace the old feudal order and its ideology which rested on tribal
structures and inherited rights by a new national ideology which united
all tribes and clans under the roof of the nation.
--Towards Stateless Democracy, Abdullah Ocalan

Yet war, death and destruction seem abstract and the context unclear if we do not know of its true history. The conquest of power started far earlier than the 14th century. For thousands of years violent dominant forces have been used to establish new borders – eradicating fluid boundaries in tribal communities – to forcibly steal the lives, histories and landscape of others.

The same structures the whole world over keep people in poverty
--The Wee Yellow Butterfly, Cathy McCormack

The violent conquest of the British Empire in its attempt to negotiate and take control of the areas of Mesopotamia, by ensuring the demise of the Ottoman Empire was replaced with newly founded United Nations (League of Nations) interests as a priority in the 19th century. Today in the 21st century the horrific situation of a genocide of Palestinian people bares the rotten fruit. Palestine was used as a buffer zone for fear of Russian regional expansion, which led to the so called ‘national home’ for Zionist Jews.

What a difficult predicament Churchill must have had when faced with an already thinly spread British Army in India, Egypt and Ireland, had to rustle up ex Black and Tans and Auxiliaries to form another murderous gang of servants. No rest for the wicked.

Organised resistance must be international, if we are to admit the same structures keep us tied down all across the globe, and across history; an internationalist lens in which we can understand the roots of history and its river of resistance also, is paramount to build an alternative way of life.

battles and wars leave deep wounds and scars
and deep wounds are long in the mending
--Lovers and Friends, Sean Mone 

On the road to blot these deep wounds, we often rely on solutions which focus only on the material, yet what we really need as well as this, is more abstract. In all this blood shed and being told we do not matter, our personalities have been shattered and we are in denial of Love for protecting Life. We have all felt the emptiness. A gap in our souls where there was once so much excitement. We must learn to control our blind rage at our sufferings, and remember the real oppression is upon our very spirit.

The spirit and bravery of those involved in the Revolution of 1381 is what created a domino effect for many stories of community resistance thereafter, one such being the famous poll tax riots of 1990 during Thatcher’s tragic Tory reign. Though what we can truly learn from our brilliant history of resistance is to ensure there is as much bravery and strength put to autonomous organising as they did to chopping off heads and cooking up cocktails.

‘Anti’-organisations are necessary, but without a clear working towards what we are ‘for’ as well, they are sucked into being co-opted by insurgency strategies which use our ‘Anti’ resistance groups like antibiotics.

Drowning in commodities where price tags are slapped on our campaigns for a healthy planet, denying us our dignity, and belittling our natural defence of life and our worth as part of it: we must admit that the biggest war waged has been upon our value for life.

Of course revenge can be sweet. We can bet that beheading 6 of the king’s men at the start of the Peasant Revolt felt pretty damn good. However, revolution is not only huge revolts. The change that we want can only be actualized if we change ourselves too, we must admit how it has affected us within our bodies and fears. We must not be afraid to stand up for ourselves, just because some of us are comfortable doesn’t mean the stakes aren’t just as high, and the need to organise isn’t a priority now. We can no longer let resistance be pacified by “coloniser guilt” as an individual burden: the Nation State is not the working people’s united front. Shame goes nowhere in our culture but spreads like the mandrake’s rot of our souls from within.

We must foster meaningful education for our children, and support our mothers to be autonomous. We must recognise, just as Tyler and his rebels did, the value of standing up against rape, murder and repression, all of us must be confident to challenge this patriarchal capitalist system. Fear is the work of our enemy, and if we can widen our communities and connect our struggles effectively, we can realise our worth, and build a concrete utopia where we all find a belonging.

I belong to the mountains, the clear running fountains
where the grey rocks lie ragged and steep
I’ve seen the white hare in the gullies
and the curlew fly high overhead
and sooner than part from the mountains
I think I would be rather be dead
--Manchester Rambler

This essay is dedicated to the memory of the fallen comrade Sara Hogir Riha of the Kurdistan freedom movement. She was born in Riha, North Kurdistan, where a tradition of resistance goes back to opposing both the British and French during WW1. She fell on 28 July 2023 in the Medya Defense Areas.

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