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A river runs through my life


The Heddon Valley
Image: Thanks to On this Day

The River Heddon, which makes its way along the western edges of Exmoor until reaching the North Devon coast at Heddon's Mouth, runs full of light through the woods and meadows of the beautiful Heddon Valley.

Looking at this image I had the strange idea that there were events that occurred far back in history that run through my life like a river. They are not one event, occurring say in 1776, but the multitude of events that rise from a source far beyond, and bring life.

Here is one of the events I have been thinking about.

In the 14th century, men in England who had been serfs were gaining their freedom by buying it or by escaping to the free towns, where, if they lived free for a year and a day, they remained free. Those who had bought their freedom in the country leased farms from local landowners - originally the word farm meant rent - and became independent farmers, village smiths, artisans and labourers. Then, in 1348 the Black Death struck, and struck at least two more times before it was done, killing one out of every three persons, wreaking social and economic disaster.

You might imagine that the surviving free men had even more choices, better wages, higher prices for the food they grew, but the people in power had different ideas. At the time Parliament was full of landowners, who needed labourers and who tried to turn free men back into serfs and to legislate pre-Black Death wages. Those wages meant that working men couldn’t pay the higher prices for food and feed their families. When to top it all, Parliament dropped a poll tax on their heads, free men revolted.

The men of the so-called ‘Peasants Revolt’ of 1381 were not peasants. They were free men who did not want to be turned into serfs. They called their revolt the ‘Great Revolt’.

They mounted a fierce and organized resistance with strikes and combinations. Sending “messengers carrying letters and instructions from village to village" (Oxford DNB) they marched on London, full of "confidence and hope".

Knowing they were as much children of God as any rich person, they sang, When Adam delved, and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?

Some committed violence when they reached London. The young king Richard II gave them letters guaranteeing their freedom, but he reneged on his word. Many free men and their families were trapped again as serfs. But again, all over England, they resisted.

By the end of the 15th century serfdom had ended.

In contrast, in France, serfs did not become free until the end of the 18th century. In Russia, they remained serfs until the mid-19th century.

Looking at the tumbling run of freedom through the centuries, I wonder, where would I be if they had not dared to live free?

Note: The incorrect name 'Peasants Revolt' is one of those historic manipulations engendered guilelessly or purposefully, I do not know which. In the same way, the involvement of townspeople in achieving Magna Carta has been written out of the history books, perhaps to make the Great Charter seem like a mere toffs' tussle.

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