Hume on perfidy

David Hume on Wat Tyler’s rebellion.

Inspired by Andy’s book, I’ve been re-reading Hume’s history, and I’ve just read the section on Wat Tyler’s rebellion, in which the teenaged Richard II defused a very dangerous (for the ruling class) situation by promising the rebels to support their demands – already granted by royal charter – and then, after they had dispersed, stood aside as the nobility crushed them and revoked the promises he had made.

Hume acknowledges that the rebels’ demands – including the abolition of personal slavery – were “extremely reasonable in themselves” but says they were “such as the nation was not sufficiently prepared to receive” (“the nation” presumably meaning the landowners) and that it was “dangerous” for such demands “to be extorted by violence.”

Hume then goes on to report on the deal and the double-cross, concluding with a sad reflection that Richard, having shown such “courage, presence of mind, and address” in his youth, proved an unsuccessful king.

What strikes me about the passage is that Hume does not at all consider the long-term costs of such perfidy: the sort of question he never neglects in considering interactions among the nobility and gentry. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that Richard might have even considered keeping his pledged word, since he hadn’t pledged it to gentlemen.

[Full text after the jump.]

Hume, History of England, V. II, Ch. XVII


The imposition of three groats a head had been farmed out to tax-gatherers in each county, who levied the money on the people with rigour; and the clause, of making the rich ease their poorer neighbours of some share of the burden, being so vague and undeterminate, had doubtless occasioned many partialities, and made the people more sensible of the unequal lot, which fortune had assigned them in the distribution of her favours. The first disorder was raised by a black-smith in a village of Essex. The tax-gatherers came to this man’s shop, while he was at work; and they demanded payment for his daughter, whom he asserted to be below the age assigned by the statute. One of these fellows offered to produce a very indecent proof to the contrary, and at the same time laid hold of the maid: Which the father resenting, immediately knocked out the ruffian’s brains with his hammer. The bystanders applauded the action, and exclaimed, that it was full time for the people to take vengeance on their tyrants, and to vindicate their native liberty. They immediately flew to arms: The whole neighbourhood joined in the sedition: The flame spread in an instant over the county: It soon propagated itself into that of Kent, of Hertford, Surrey, Sussex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridge, and Lincoln. Before the government had the least warning of the danger, the disorder had grown beyond controul or opposition: The populace had shaken off all regard to their former masters: And being headed by the most audacious and criminal of their associates, who assumed the feigned names of Wat Tyler, Jack Straw, Hob Carter, and Tom Miller, by which they were fond of denoting their mean origin, they committed every where the most outrageous violence on such of the gentry or nobility as had the misfortune to fall into their hands.

The mutinous populace, amounting to a hundred thousand men, assembled on Black-heath, under their leaders, Tyler and Straw; and as the princess of Wales, the king’s mother, returning from a pilgrimage to Canterbury, passed through the midst of them, they insulted her attendants, and some of the most insolent among them, to show their purpose of levelling all mankind, forced kisses from her; but they allowed her to continue her journey, without attempting any farther injury. They sent a message to the king, who had taken shelter in the Tower; and they desired a conference with him. Richard sailed down the river in a barge for that purpose; but on his approaching the shore, he saw such symptoms of tumult and insolence, that he put back and returned to that fortress. The seditious peasants, meanwhile, favoured by the populace of London, had broken into the city; had burned the duke of Lancaster’s palace of the Savoy; cut off the heads of all the gentlemen whom they laid hold of; expressed a particular animosity against the lawyers and attornies; and pillaged the warehouses of the rich merchants. A great body of them quartered themselves at Mile-end; and the king, finding no defence in the Tower, which was weakly garrisoned, and ill supplied with provisions, was obliged to go out to them, and ask their demands. They required a general pardon, the abolition of slavery, freedom of commerce in market-towns without toll or impost, and a fixed rent on lands instead of the services due by villenage. These requests, which, though extremely reasonable in themselves, the nation was not sufficiently prepared to receive, and which it was dangerous to have extorted by violence, were however complied with; charters to that purpose were granted them; and this body immediately dispersed and returned to their several homes.

During this transaction, another body of the rebels had broken into the Tower; had murdered Simon Sudbury, the primate, and chancellor, with Sir Robert Hales, the treasurer, and some other persons of distinction; and continued their ravages in the city. The king, passing along Smithfield, very slenderly guarded, met with Wat Tyler, at the head of these rioters, and entered into a conference with him. Tyler, having ordered his companions to retire till he should give them a signal, after which they were to murder all the company except the king himself, whom they were to detain prisoner, feared not to come into the midst of the royal retinue. He there behaved himself in such a manner, that Walworth, the mayor of London, not able to bear his insolence, drew his sword, and struck him so violent a blow as brought him to the ground, where he was instantly dispatched by others of the king’s attendants. The mutineers, seeing their leader fall, prepared themselves for revenge; and this whole company, with the king himself, had undoubtedly perished on the spot, had it not been for an extraordinary presence of mind, which Richard discovered on the occasion. He ordered his company to stop; he advanced alone towards the enraged multitude; and accosting them with an affable and intrepid countenance, he asked them, “What is the meaning of this disorder, my good people? Are ye angry that ye have lost your leader? I am your king: I will be your leader.” The populace, overawed by his presence, implicitly followed him: He led them into the fields, to prevent any disorder which might have arisen by their continuing in the city: Being there joined by Sir Robert Knolles and a body of well armed veteran soldiers, who had been secretly drawn together, he strictly prohibited that officer from falling on the rioters, and committing an undistinguished slaughter upon them; and he peaceably dismissed them with the same charters, which had been granted to their fellows. Soon after, the nobility and gentry, hearing of the king’s danger, in which they were all involved, flocked to London, with their adherents and retainers; and Richard took the field at the head of an army 40,000 strong. It then behoved all the rebels to submit: The charters of enfranchisement and pardon were revoked by parliament; the low people were reduced to the same slavish condition as before; and several of the ringleaders were severely punished for the late disorders. Some were even executed without process or form of law. It was pretended, that the intentions of the mutineers had been to seize the king’s person, to carry him through England at their head, to murder all the nobility, gentry, and lawyers, and even all the bishops and priests, except the mendicant friars; to dispatch afterwards the king himself; and having thus reduced all to a level, to order the kingdom at their pleasure. It is not impossible, but many of them, in the delirium of their first success, might have formed such projects: But of all the evils incident to human society, the insurrections of the populace, when not raised and supported by persons of higher quality, are the least to be dreaded: The mischiefs, consequent to an abolition of all rank and distinction, become so great, that they are immediately felt, and soon bring affairs back to their former order and arrangement.

A youth of sixteen, (which was at this time the king’s age) who had discovered so much courage, presence of mind, and address, and had so dexterously eluded the violence of this tumult, raised great expectations in the nation; and it was natural to hope, that he would, in the course of his life, equal the glories, which had so uniformly attended his father and his grandfather, in all their undertakings.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

8 thoughts on “Hume on perfidy”

  1. Thank you; this is very interesting. But I think your second sentence has a “not” too many.

  2. ‘Nation” here means ” the political nation” – those people qualified to offer counsel. Partly adjudged by wealth, partly by social standing, partly by learning (later language and religion also played a part). A large part of English politics up to say 1930 is about who is part of the political nation, but it would be common ground for many centuries that not every adult is qualified.

    1. Bingo! There’s more or less a whole chapter about this in my book. The fight for the franchise, and over the necessary social and cultural preconditions for the franchise, was a fight over political identity as well as simple power (if there’s a difference).

      1. One interesting detail is that who was thought able to offer advice varied a lot by level of politics. A manor court was expected to listen to the heads of households, the local priest, the reeve and so on; a vestry was the senior male householders, a county meeting the local gentlemen, senior clergy and wealthier burgesses, an Irish court included chieftains and bards, a Welsh one people of significant lineage. In France and Italy, various groups were represented via fraternities, lay orders, guilds and local councils (Louis XI wrote circular letters to his “lords and good towns”). A large part of political history revolves around efforts to impose conformity on a very messy reality.

  3. “Walworth, the mayor of London, not able to bear his [Tyler’s] insolence, drew his sword, and struck him so violent a blow as brought him to the ground..”
    They had braver Lord Mayors of London in those days, if the same policy.

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