William Longbeard, the Unjustly Forgotten Radical of 12th Century LondonRoundup
tags: English history, radical history
Dominic Alexander is a historian and the author of Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008).
The twelfth-century figure William Longbeard was once widely known as a “spirited champion” of the “poor people” of London, executed because “death was long a favourite remedy for silencing the people’s advocates,” in the words of Charles Dickens. The story of Longbeard and the revolt he led in 1196 formed part of the nineteenth-century radical tradition.
However, that tradition largely failed to survive into the century that followed, and Longbeard sank into obscurity. He deserves to be rescued from that position, as the 1196 revolt forms a key part of the thread of class struggle that runs through English history.
William Fitz Osbert, variously referred to by the chroniclers as “Longbeard” or “William with the beard,” was a scion of London’s ruling elite, yet his nickname signaled his adoption of the role of an ascetic holy man. It was unquestionably this religious status, unconnected in any official way to the Church, that gave him the prominence and authority needed to lead a popular movement among the poor and middling citizens of London.
Since the mid-eleventh century, Western Christendom had been embroiled in conflicts over papal and royal powers, and the spiritual purity or otherwise of the priesthood and powerful prelates. Throughout this time, a variety of holy men, ascetic preachers, and hermits often roused popular enthusiasm, which could sometimes turn against the established order.
In Rome, for example, during the years between 1145 and 1155, Arnold of Brescia first joined and then led a civic uprising against the ruling authorities, the Church itself. Although the authorities admitted that Arnold was genuinely of “holy life” and orthodox doctrine, they nonetheless had him executed.
England was notably free of the heretical movements found elsewhere during the twelfth century. But the story of Longbeard shows that it underwent social conflicts similar to those in the rest of Western Europe.
England was fairly backward in terms of urban development at this time, but like Aragon in Iberia, another kingdom on the periphery of Western Christendom, it was quite advanced in terms of having a powerful, centralized monarchy. This context gave the body of London’s citizens, in what was by far the most sizable city of the kingdom, considerable political importance.
Londoners had already helped to determine the outcome of an aristocratic civil war known as the Anarchy. They forcibly defied the Empress Matilda at the point of her triumph over King Stephen in 1141, leading to recovery by Stephen’s party. London’s act of resistance earned it the grant of a recognized “commune,” or self-government, from King Stephen.
Such communes spread from Italy into France during the twelfth century and represented a definite challenge to princely feudal power. One English chronicler complained that the commune was “a tumult of the people and a terror of the realm.”