The Peasants Revolt

Richard II meeting with the rebels of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

The Black Death had swept through England taking out great swaths of the population with terrifying efficiency.  The only silver lining to be found in this great expanse of death is that it left the survivors in the possession of more wealth and power than their forebearers.  Men who had been scratching a living, suddenly became village elites with a bit of money and property as all the other heirs were carried off with plague.  Labor for the harvests was scarce and food was scarcer, so those willing to toil were able to charge a wage and not be tied to land as defined by feudal law.  However, the lords were not on board with that as you can imagine, dear reader.  The Statute of Labor was passed in 1351, which attempted to put wages back to 1346 levels and keep the peasants on their land where they belonged.  The landlords then took the opportunity to start raising the rents on the lands the peasants were once again tied to.  To make matters worse, many peasants were required to work for free on church land, sometimes up to two days a week.  There was a rumbling of discontent.

In the years following the Black Death, both King Edward III and his heir, the Black Prince, died leaving Edward’s grandson, Richard to take the throne.  He was only ten years old when he was crowned.  Because of his young age, most decisions were made by the barons, in particular Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.  (For more on John of Gaunt, please see this post: http://www.historynaked.com/john-of-gaunt/ ).  More taxes were raised ostensibly for the Hundred Years War in France.  However, those in the villages of England feared the third Poll Tax passed in 1380 was really to line the pockets of John of Gaunt and the ruling party in Westminster.  The grumbling grew louder until it boiled over into rebellion.  

In the village of Fobbing in Essex, a tax collector arrived to see why no one had paid their poll tax.  He was thrown out on his ear.  The next month, soldiers appeared to enforce law and order and they were thrown out.  The villagers of Fobbing were joined by those in neighboring villages and they began to form a movement.  At Maidstone, they freed a radical priest there named John Ball, who had been imprisoned in Maidstone Castle by the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Ball preached the radical sermon which carried the catchphrase of the revolution:  “While Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?”  They marched on Canterbury, and after relieving the rich pilgrims of their wealth elected a new Archbishop, a humble monk.  At this point a new name comes to the fore- Wat Tyler.  We don’t know much about him, except that he was able to give the rebels new purpose and hold their cause together. He and Ball suggested they take their case to the king and bypass the thieving nobles. And if the king did not listen…well, they would have to do what they must.  With that, the peasant army turned and marched on London leaving a path of burning tax records, labor duties and manor houses in their wake.

An army of between 5,000 and 10,000 peasants camped on the hills of Blackheath within sight of the spires of London on June 12, 1381.  They were convinced they had justice on their side and the king would see reason once he was free of his evil counselors.  Unfortunately, they lost the moralistic high ground when they marched into London the next day.  They invaded Southwark and freed the prisoners at Marshalsea prison.  From there they crossed London Bridge and torched John of Gaunt’s London home, Savoy Palace.  Everything of value was destroyed or looted.  The king and his counselors retreated to the Tower, the strongest fortress in London, and watched the destruction.  Soon the Tower was under siege from the Peasant Army.  Simon of Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor was not so lucky.  He was seized and executed.  One historian describes the scene:

“In the Chapel of St John the shouting rabble came upon the Archbishop, Sir Robert Hales, the Lord Treasurer, John of Gaunt’s physician, and John Legge who had devised the poll tax. They were all at prayer before the altar. Dragged away from the chapel, down the steps and out of the gates onto Tower Hill, where traitors were executed, they were beheaded one after the other. Their heads were stuck on pikes and carried in triumph around the city.”

Fleet prison was opened and the prisoners there were freed as well.  Foreigners were murdered with thirty-five Flemish merchants were beheaded one after another on the same block.  It was bedlam.

15th-century representation of the cleric John Ball encouraging the rebels; Wat Tyler is shown in red, front left

Although Richard was only 14, he was unafraid to deal with the rebels.  He agreed to meet with the leaders at Smithfield, an open space within the city walls.  The meeting was extraordinary.  Tyler rode over to the king with in the royal party and bowed after getting off his horse.  Then shook the king’s hand and called him “brother”.  The king asked him why they did not go home, and Tyler gave a loud curse and began listing off demands.  The demands were nothing short of revolutionary.  The abolishment of serfdom, liquidation of the lands of the Church and all men equal except under the king and a general pardon for all the peasants.  Surprisingly, Richard agreed and Tyler was taken aback.  Maybe Richard was bluffing, maybe Tyler didn’t think it would be that easy, but it was certainly unexpected.  Tyler called for ale, quaffed it then got back on his horse.  A young squire shouted at Tyler he was a thief, and that was the cue for everything to break down.  The mayor of London attempted to arrest Tyler and they came to blows, and Tyler went down.  He was killed by the king’s men out of view of the rebels.  Now what?

Richard took control and saved a terrible situation.  He rode straight at the rebels, declaring, “You shall have no captain but me.”  This played on the rebels loyalty to the crown and saved their skins after the killing of Tyler.  However, the words were deliberately ambiguous.  The rebels took it as Richard taking their side, but what it ended up being was the beginning of the reassertion of royal authority.  They all followed Richard into London thinking they would get their pardons, while Mayor Woolworth high tailed it back to London and raised troops to quash the rebellion.  A week later when Richard met with another group of rebels in Essex and his tone was decidedly different.  He berated them for their pretension to be equal with lords and told them “you will not remain in bondage as you were before, but incomparably harsher.”

Soon anyone in possession of such a pardon was marked for death as a traitor.  In Kent, 1500 peasants were sent to the gallows and in Hertfordshire and Essex 500 were killed.  However, despite the nominal victory of the land owners, the lords were running scared. The attempts to move the wage levels backward and raise poll taxes ended.  Serfdom died out, and the Peasant’s Revolt marks the breakdown of the feudal system.

ER