William Longbeard Was England’s First Revolutionary Leader

William Longbeard led a 12th-century revolt in London that forms a key part in the thread of class struggle that runs through English history. He deserves a place of honor in the radical tradition.

Illustration of the death of William Longbeard from John Cassell's Illustrated History of England, Vol. I, 1857. (Getty Images)

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.

Turbulent Preachers

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.

The London Commune

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.”

This disruptive presence was able to reassert itself in 1191, when the nobility’s resentment exploded against the royal government as represented by William Longchamp. Longchamp, Richard I’s chancellor, had been left in charge of the realm while the king was on crusade in the Middle East.

He was deposed at two assemblies held at London, the second in a field east of the city. This gathering was attended not only by the barons, led by Prince John, but also by the mercantile and landowning city elite as well as by large numbers of ordinary townspeople.

It was the townspeople who, foreshadowing language used in the Rising of 1381, called the agent of royal power “a disturber of the land, and a traitor,” and refused to close the city gates against the rebel party. This group, arriving at night, were “received by the joyful citizens with lanterns and torches.”

London’s reward was to be once again granted powers of self-government. Those powers seem to have been lost sometime after 1141, but they appear permanently in the historical record from this point.

A Zeal for Justice

Moments when the ruling class is divided against itself are always socially dangerous, especially when popular classes are mobilized in support of one faction against the other. It is seldom easy to put the genie of protest back in the bottle. The rising against royal authority in 1191 evidently made poor and middling Londoners more conscious of their potential weight in relation to the civic oligarchy. This is what set the stage for Longbeard’s rebellion.

The immediate issue of the revolt was the collection of taxation to pay the ransom of King Richard I, who had been taken prisoner by the German emperor Henry VI on his way back from the crusade. Roger of Howden, the only contemporary chronicler who demonstrates some cautious sympathy for Longbeard, wrote that “the rich men, sparing their own purses, wanted the poor to pay everything.” He went on that Longbeard

becoming sensible of this, being inflamed by zeal for justice and equity, he became the champion of the poor, it being his wish that every person, both rich as well as poor, should give according to his property and means.

Longbeard held office as some sort of magistrate in London, and through this he organized large public gatherings that evidently had the character of political assemblies challenging the authorities. His supporters were organized by oath.

The chronicler William of Newburgh gives the fullest account of events, although it is designed entirely to denigrate and discredit Longbeard. He claimed that fifty-two thousand people were enrolled in this way. Such numbers must be a wild exaggeration, being larger than the population of London at the time, but they do make clear that this was a mass movement.

“Saviour of the Poor”

At one point, Fitz Osbert left London to meet the king across the channel, and although it is not clear what kind of response he received, the journey appears to have strengthened his determination rather than weakened it. It seems that the revolt radicalized after this point, given the millenarian, even revolutionary, speech attributed to Longbeard by William of Newburgh:

I am the saviour of the poor. Oh you poor, who have experienced the heaviness of rich men’s hands, drink from my wells the waters of the doctrine of salvation, and you may do this joyfully; for the time of your visitation is at hand. For I will divide the waters from the waters. The people are the waters. I will divide the humble and faithful people from the haughty and treacherous people: I will separate the elect from the reprobate, as light from darkness.

This remarkable passage probably pushes Fitz Osbert’s words further toward definite heresy than would have been likely. He was not actually accused of doctrinal error at the time. However, there is no reason to dismiss the evidence it provides of marked class conflict, in the association of the poor or humble with the elect of the saved, and the rich with darkness.

Longbeard and his supporters had evidently paralyzed London’s oligarchy, as the first action against them came from the royal government, in the person of the king’s justiciar, Hubert Walter. According to Howden, he ordered that if any of the common people were found outside London, they should be arrested as enemies of the king.

In due course, “merchants of the people” found at Stamford Fair were indeed arrested. It therefore seems that one of the issues at stake was the trading privileges of the great merchant families of the elite, and their wish to control the smaller traders, the “merchants of the people.”

In addition, Newburgh notes that Hubert Walter took hostages from London families, evidently to prevent them from giving active support to Longbeard. These actions were clearly designed to drive a wedge between Longbeard and his more prosperous supporters.

Crushing the Revolt

It is not clear how far all of this weakened the movement. William of Newburgh places Longbeard’s millenarian preaching after the point at which the hostages had been taken. We might speculate that, as the movement became more focused on artisans and the poor, so Longbeard’s stance became more radical in nature. In any case, it must have already seemed threatening enough to the social order before that point for the royal government to have stepped in.

For some time, Fitz Osbert remained beyond the reach of his opponents as he was “so surrounded by the populace” that he could not be arrested. The authorities had to wait for their moment: it is neither an exaggeration nor an anachronism to say that a situation of dual power existed in London for a period in 1196. This would not have been unprecedented in medieval Europe. In both Milan and Florence during the eleventh century, social and religious conflicts had paralyzed the local ruling class.

The degree to which the events in London alarmed the ruling class is underlined by the manner in which they brought those events to an end. Two “noble citizens” discovered a moment during which Fitz Osbert was less guarded by the people, and Hubert Walter sent them with an armed force to capture him. Longbeard and his companions took sanctuary in the church of St Mary-le-Bow.

Walter, who was the archbishop of Canterbury as well as being the king’s justiciar, commanded that the church be set alight so that the rebels would be driven out. This came as a considerable shock to contemporaries. Sanctuary, the right of any fugitive to take refuge in a sacred space, was at this point taken very seriously. Later in the Middle Ages, violations of sanctuary would become almost routine, but not at this time.

Longbeard, fatally wounded after escaping the burning church, was summarily tried and executed. In the immediate aftermath of his death, the authorities had to suppress a burgeoning martyr’s cult. The cult appears to have attracted attention even from people outside London. According to Newburgh, its popularity was such that

the idiot rabble, therefore, kept constant watch and ward over the spot; and the more honour they paid to the dead man, so much the greater crime did they impute to him by whom he had been put to death.


William Longbeard’s rebellion resembles other patterns of revolutionary challenge to established rulers, where an initial challenge to authority enables a more or less rapid radicalization. Political power then unravels in the face of revolt until the lowest social layer capable of self-organization is mobilized.

The 1196 revolt was suppressed, but it was not without a long-term impact, contrary to the judgment of many historians. We should see this in the context of the continuing struggles between the Crown and the barons and townspeople under Kings John and Henry III in the thirteenth century.

The rebellion may also have had an immediate impact upon the raising of revenues from the people of London, which was, after all, the starting point of the agitation. In 1199, the citizens of London gave King John, upon his accession to the throne, three thousand marks for the confirmation of the liberties granted by King Richard.

We do not know the precise nature of the unfair practices that the leading London citizens were using to shift the tax burden before 1196. But the payment in 1199 was assessed by levels of wealth, with the richer citizens paying four shillings in the pound, those of lesser wealth two shillings, and those with less than twelve pence in rent or chattels paying nothing. Moreover, in 1206, King John appears to have intervened in order to insist upon an equitable assessment of that year’s taxation, ordering the election of twenty-four jurors to oversee a fair collection.

No doubt, John did this for reasons of his own advantage rather than due to a particular concern for the poor. He was already unpopular with the barons, and his concession of Magna Carta was less than a decade away. Yet John’s 1206 intervention is also an indication that dissent over the burden of taxation in London remained an issue, and that the poor were successfully asserting themselves.

A New Phase

The revolt of 1196 may have been suppressed, but this does not mean that its grievances were not, to some extent, addressed by rulers who did not want to see this sort of dissension repeated. The common people of London had entered into the political calculations of the elite. Popular feeling remained relevant later during Henry III’s troubled reign, which was reaching a new crisis point during the 1250s, when the famous chronicler Matthew Paris wrote an account of the Longbeard episode in his long history of England.

Paris, whose sympathies tended not to be with the royal party, presented Longbeard as an almost swashbuckling hero of the people, while removing the more dangerous religious resonances. However, the chronicler did close his narration of this story by saying that there were still people who believed that Longbeard could justly be considered a martyr.

What does seem to have come to an end after Longbeard is the prominence of ascetic holy men in England, where an unusually large literature had built up celebrating a variety of holy hermits and ascetics. This activity largely ceased, as did the latitude ascetics possessed in the twelfth century to speak truth to power.

One “simple and rustic” holy man who prophesized that King John’s reign would come to an end in 1212 was executed, along with his son, as soon as the prophecy proved incorrect. This was something of a singular episode in the history of popular ascetics, but it sums up the end of a phase of popular religion, where wandering preachers, ascetics, and hermits had been a focus for the expression of various kinds of social conflict. Yet it was also the beginning of another phase in the history of England, as the urban and rural poor began to make their mark on the political sphere.