The Peasants’ Revolt: the beginning of the end for medieval England

Chris Riley

The combination of years of war, death and financial hardship, were made worse by the poll taxes of 1377 that saw regardless of wealth, a flat fee taken from the purses of all

After the calamitous second half of the 14th century, England's peasant population had been subjected to The Black Death, war with France and tax, three things that by the 1380s, had pushed the masses to breaking point. The summer of 1381 saw rebellious peasants go head to head with the then 14 year old king Richard II, in a dispute about not just tax but, more importantly, about the way in which England was ruled. Causes of the Peasants' Revolt When looking at what caused the great rising of 1381, we must first take a look back some forty years to the reign of Edward III and, to The Black Death. By 1348, the plague that had spent that last decade sweeping through Asia and Europe, arrived on the shores of England and over the next few years, would take the lives of up to half of the population of the Kingdom. Along with the unbelievable level of death, The Black Death opened up opportunities for the remaining population, with more land with less hands to work it. The issue that arose from this was, the land owners who still had full control over their 'property' in the form of their serfs, didn't want to pay any more or grant any more freedoms to the peasants, choosing to keep the 'status-quo' as is. Along with the hardships caused by years of Plague, England had been in and out of war with France, sapping morale and men but, most importantly the finances of England. Decades of fighting a much richer enemy like France had left the royal coffers virtually empty, with the Calais garrison costing far more per year than was made from the region's taxes and, the war wasn't exactly going well for the English, leaving many wanting a swift end to both the spending and the war. The combination of years of war, death and financial hardship, were made worse by the poll taxes of 1377 that saw regardless of wealth, a flat fee taken from the purses of all. The income tax itself was bad enough, forcing the poor to pay just as much as the wealthy but, what really go the peasants going was the rumoured behaviours of royal ministers like the much hated John of Gaunt, accused of skimming off the top of the tax, lining their own pockets. The straw that broke the camel's back All throughout England but especially in Kent and Essex, the peasantry began to fight back against the tax collectors with a group in Brentwood attacking and killing the entourage of the government official, John Bampton. Over the next few days, the ever swelling Essex mob began to expand across the whole region. At Rochester castle in Kent, a local peasant had been held captive over a serfdom dispute leading to a group of farmers storming the castle, freeing the captives, all under the new leadership of a man called Wat Tyler. Very little is known about Wat Tyler, we have no idea what he looked like, when he was born or even where he was from but, Tyler's leadership solidified the peasants’ cause, giving the mob a much-needed focus.
The Peasants’ Revolt: the beginning of the end for medieval England
Richard II meeting with the rebels of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

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The Peasants’ Revolt: the beginning of the end for medieval England
15th-century representation of the cleric John Ball encouraging the rebels

"Good people, things cannot go right in England and never will, until goods are held in common and there are no more villeins and gentlefolk, but we all are one and the same. In what way are those whom we call lords greater masters than ourselves?  How have they deserved it?  Why do they hold us in bondage? If we all spring from a single father and mother, Adam and Eve, how can they claim or prove that they are lords more than us, except by making us produce and grow wealth which they spend?"

London Calling After the ordeal at Rochester castle, Tyler and the rebels moved westwards towards the capital. Another radical by the name of John Ball, a religious man who preached against the lavish spending and wealth of the church, wanting a return to the 'good old days' of a simpler Christianity. During early June, Tyler’s band continued to add to their ranks, releasing Ball from his imprisonment in Maidstone continuing to ransack their way towards the king and London. Richard II was a teenage king whose father died well before he could teach his young son how to rule and, was under the influence of his much-hated royal uncle, John of Gaunt. The chips were stacked against the young king who by June of 1381, was confined behind the walls of the Tower of London, likely the single safest place in the whole kingdom surrounded by his advisors, save John of Gaunt who was away in the north. The Kent rebels camped at Blackheath, where John Ball delivered his now famous sermon stating: "Good people, things cannot go right in England and never will, until goods are held in common and there are no more villeins and gentlefolk, but we all are one and the same. In what way are those whom we call lords greater masters than ourselves?  How have they deserved it?  Why do they hold us in bondage? If we all spring from a single father and mother, Adam and Eve, how can they claim or prove that they are lords more than us, except by making us produce and grow wealth which they spend?" In simple terms, Ball was preaching a medieval version of collectivisation, with elements of primal communism (i am using a modern term to describe the loose collection of ideas held by Ball and the rebels) to go with it. A removal of titles and a return to a 'simpler time' was all Ball really wanted but it was attached to the list of demands from the rebels that also included fairer wages and much more of a say in local and national politics, all the while remaining completely loyal to King Richard. With the rebels full of pep and Righteous fervour, the king's men decided to attempt to reach some kind of agreement, meeting the rebels on the shores of the Thames and, from the safety of boats, simply asked the rebels to go home and return to their villages. The rebels refused and demanded not only a meeting with the king but the heads of his closest advisors. A capital ablaze By 13th June, the rebels camped at Blackheath were ready for a fight, marching over London Bridge attacking, burning and destroying anything that belonged to the king's 'evil advisors' taking special care to dismantle the landed wealth of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury, Sir Robert Hales, the lord chancellor and John of Gaunt. Gaunt's lavish palace, the Savoy was high on the list of places to destroy for the rebels, and with the Essex rebels coming from the north, the Kent rebels under Tyler quickly set about destroying virtually everything they could get their hands on. Drinking the wine sellers dry, destroying fine plate and burning the Duke of Lancaster's fine clothes but, the rebels looted virtually nothing, with the leadership being aligned on the 'no looting policy' as they saw it as going against their humble demands. With London burning, the thousands of peasants and merchants that received reinforcements from the city itself, surrounded the Tower of London looking to capture and kill Sudbury and Hales, who were both still quivering behind the walls of the tower. Soon, the mass of men and women were able to get into the tower defences, capturing their most hated enemies, the Chancellor Hales and Archbishop Sudbury, both were quickly beheaded without trial as the king fled to regather his thoughts. As two of his most important but hated advisors were having their heads removed from their bodies, the young king met the other rebels at Mile End, surprisingly agreeing to all of their requests, likely agreeing solely to get the rebellious serfs to return to their fields so he could rebuild London, buying himself some well-needed breathing room.
Ancestry UK

What followed at Smithfield is one of the most famous interactions between English king and subject

Smithfield by the morning of 15th June, the situation was dire. Much of London had been destroyed, with many foreign merchants, friends or employees of the hated lords dead and the king in desperate need of a way out. Choosing to ride out to meet the still not dispersed rebels, Richard II, still only 14 years old, with a small band of household knights, met Wat Tyler and the thousands of now very drunk and likely tired rebels. What followed at Smithfield is one of the most famous interactions between English king and subject of the realm but, the exact happenings are difficult to pinpoint. Tyler approached the king, greeted the young monarch as 'brother' and began to talk as if he was an old friend, quite rudely demeaning ale to quench his thirst. after being given the ale he so craved, a scuffle broke out between Tyler and some of the king's men, leading to Tyler being mortally wounded by the mayor of London, William Walworth. Sensing a potential battle between thousands of roughly armed peasants and the few soldiers at his disposal, Richard did perhaps the bravest thing he ever did. Spurring his horse, Richard raced towards the rebel lines shouting 'I am your king, fight for me and no one else' (or to that effect at least) managing to catch the rebellious peasants completely by surprise. With their charismatic leader dead and the king firmly on their side (keep reading...) the rebel cause slowly but surely began to dissipate. By mid-June, all of the rebels had returned to their homes, believing that serfdom was done with and all of their woes would soon be gone but, Richard had other ideas. The wrath of the King Richard II isn't usually remembered as a particularly brave or just king, more of a tyrant that had to be removed by his cousin some 18 years later so, what happened? As soon as the rebels returned home, Richard performed a complete U-turn, refusing to acknowledge any of the demands, including, the emancipation of the serfs, the main point of contention for the rebels, choosing instead to demand his advisors to hunt down the rebel leaders. The rest of 1381, Richard and his men hunted down and murdered thousands of the 'rebel leaders' including John Ball who, on 15th July, was given the full traitor treatment of a hanging, a drawing and finally, a quartering. The Peasants’ revolt had a profound impact on the young King, with the events of 1381 having a lasting effect on his mistrust of the people and often harsh punishment for traitors and rebels. The revolt, alongside the other dramatic changes of the 14th century, eventually saw an end to serfdom but the inequality that Ball, Tyler and the rest of the rebels were so eager to destroy, ultimately would remain.
The Peasants’ Revolt: the beginning of the end for medieval England
The Westminster Portrait of Richard II of England (1390s)
The Peasants’ Revolt: the beginning of the end for medieval England

Chris Riley

Chris is a Sheffield based History student, currently studying at the Open University building on a lifetime passion for medieval history. Chris joined Rosie and The Historians Magazine team in 2021, alongside running The History Corner blog, a place for peer submitted historical content and TV, film and book reviews.
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