The pub, as the CAMRA site explains, was named after Jack Straw, one of the leaders of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt. According to legend Jack Straw addressed groups of peasants on Hampstead Heath from the back of a hay wagon which was nicknamed "Jack Straw's Castle" (I say "according to legend" advisedly - according to the BBC History site, Jack Straw may not even have been a real person, but might have been an alias of the rebel leader, Wat Tyler).
The Peasants' Revolt, as any fule kno, came in the wake of catastrophe and turmoil - it's widely thought that the labour shortage caused by history's deadliest pandemic, the Black Death had already begun to undermine the old feudal order, whilst the burden of taxes levied to fund the King's French wars royally pissed the lower orders off. The toffs could no longer rely on unquestioning loyalty with radicals like John Ball coming out with incendiary statements like this:
From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men ... I counsel you therefore well to bethink yourselves, and to take good hearts unto you, that after the mannar of a good husband that tilleth his ground, and riddeth out thereof such evil weeds as choke and destroy the good corn, you may destroy first the great lords of the realm, and after, the judges and lawyers, and questmongers, and all other who have undertaken to be against the commons.
To those in charge, this was subversion and treason (our current rulers would probably call the speech "inappropriate" or "unhelpful", which is just corporate-speak for subversive and uppity).
Fired up by the fighting talk of Ball and others, the army/mob of repressed peasantry marched on London, burning the Savoy Palace, one of the homes of the fabulously powerful John of Gaunt, slaughtering the Archbishop of Canterbury and John Legge (who had devised the hated poll tax) and forcing concession after concession from the boy-King Richard II.
It looked like revolution and the world turned upside down until, on 15th June 1381 during a parley between Wat Tyler and the king at Smithfield, the Mayor of London lashed out at Tyler with his sword, knocking him off his horse. One of the king's squires stabbed Tyler to death as he lay on the ground and the rest, as they say, is history - the rebellion collapsed, the king went back on all the promises Tyler had forced out of him and the ruling class re-established order by re-asserting its exclusive use of extreme violence in the traditional forms of hanging, drawing and quartering and sticking heads on spikes, just in case anybody hadn't got the message about who was back in charge. Mind you, our rulers never quite plucked up the courage to bring the poll tax back (well not until the end of the 1980's anyway, and the idea got another good kicking then, too).
Looking at the news today, it seems rather as if we're in the wake of another catastrophe and that Joe and Joanne Average are getting angry and stroppy again. It's not quite on the same scale - the global economy may have gone completely Pete Tong, but we haven't yet lost a third of the population to a virulent plague and I think the chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury can sleep soundly in their beds for the moment. But things definitely aren't looking great, and people are getting very cross indeed:
Strikes have been breaking out across the UK in support of a mass walkout by energy workers in Lincolnshire angry at the use of foreign workers.
Huge crowds have taken to the streets in France to protest over the handling of the economic crisis, causing disruption to rail and air services.
I think that with all the bad stuff hitting the fan, the ruling classes ought to be getting a tad nervous. The artificial sense of prosperity created by cheap credit and a property bubble has, like one of those shoddy sofas bought on tick in the January sales, fallen apart before it's been paid for. The old economic order, to which there was allegedly No Alternative (remember The End of History?) looks like a bit of a scam which has left a lot of ordinary people insecure and up to their eyes in debt. These are horrible times for many, but they're also getting interesting.
John Ball had a vision of the sort of world he wanted to see after the Peasant's Revolt. It didn't happen, of course and it probably won't come to pass even if the world is changed for the better after the present mess is cleared up. But it doesn't sound an altogether bad place and maybe, when all the hype and bullshit of the latest boom/bust has been purged, and the inept Masters of the Universe have been wholly discredited we might be just a little nearer to a different sort of world:
For so shall you procure peace and surety to yourselves in time to come; and by dispatching out of the way the great men, there shall be an equality in liberty, and no difference in degrees of nobility; but like dignity and equal authority in all things brought in among you...