This rhyme is one of the oldest known English Rhymes and can be dated to the English Peasant Revolt of 1381. At this time the English had suffered horrifically due to the deadly Black Death (Bubonic Plague) during which as many as the third of the population had died. The peasants realised that they were now important in society. This seemingly innocent Rhyme was uttered and muttered by the peasants of the land. Like many political rhymes this was easy to remember and makes use of the simple riddle. The seeds of an English Revolution had been sown. The peasants felt oppressed and called for the abolition of feudal obligations-serfdom. They wanted freedom from from servitude, controlled wages, and unfair taxes.
During this period England was ruled by the young Plantagenet King Richard II who gained the throne, 4 years before in 1377. The peasants were loyal to the King and their hatred was centred on his uncle, the rich and powerful John of Gaunt.
The Kentish leaders of the Revolt were Robert Cave, Abel Ker, Jack Straw, Thomas Farringdon, and Wat Tyler and the rebellion soon spread to Essex and London. A priest called John Ball stirred the flame of revolution even higher by preaching to the peasants and encouraging them to call for justice.
The peasants marched on London whilst the boy-King Richard II and his Court including the Earl of Derby (the future Henry IV), John of Gaunt's son, Sir Thomas Percy (admiral), and Sir Thomas Walworth (Lord Mayor of London) had fled to the Tower of London for safety. King Richard met the rebels at Blackheath and agreed to their demands - many of the peasants peacefully returned to their homes. The remaining peasants led by Wat Tyler met with the King again at Smithfield. Wat Tyler was wounded and captured - he was later beheaded by Mayor Walworth and his men. John Ball met an even more horrific fate and was Hung, drawn and quartered. The King had won the day and the rebellion was crushed. But the rhyme which sparked the 'English Revolution' is still remembered today!