The Peasants Revolt 1381
A ten year old boy prostrate himself before the altar in Westminster Abbey, the year was 1377 and Richard of Bordeaux was duly crowned Richard II of England.
It was an unfortunate time for such a young man to assume the crown. The previous three decades had seen the country had been wracked by the plague, laying waste to almost a quarter of the population. The impact this was to have was complex.
- There was a shortage of labour and the great landowners were trying to extract maximum effort out of their tied workforce. The labourers on the other hand were keen to extract more money and saw the labour shortage as an opportunty to apply pressure to their masters.
- The landowners took their grievances to the King Edward III and a new piece of legislation was drawn up, the ‘Statute of Labourers’ which required all labourers to work for their masters at set wages and conditions wherever and whenever needed. This legislation prohibiting any rise in wages caused much anger and complaint, even if it was only partially effective.
The continuing military skirmishes with France required money to be raised and taxation was raised to an unprecedented level.
- The writing was on the wall, when , in late 1380, Parliament heard of a rebellion in York, where armed rebels broke their way into the Guildhall, protesting about the level of taxation being imposed on the population.
- This should have sent a clear warning to the King’s ministers but they chose not to heed it and they decreed a poll tax that was three times bigger than the last one. Every man in the Kingdom paid the same amount and the burden to the poor was untenable.
- The poll tax collectors had difficulties subduing the unrest as they passed from village to village to collect this massively unfair and unpopular tax.
- The unrest threatened the lives of the collectors, with the borders counties of London showing the greatest rebellion.
- The counties of Essex and Kent had been amongst the worst hit by the plague and they were in a period of great unrest and flux. The poll tax was to be the great unraveller of whatever stability remained.
It was not just a revolt by the peasants about the unfair taxes levied, it was a revolt by the common people against the powerful and wealthy ladnowners and the corruption and greed exhibited by those in power. Solid members of society, jurors, constables of the parish stood alongside the labourer.
It was a peoples revolt.
On 30th May 1381, the men of Essex, at Brentwood, refused to pay the royal official and sent him packing. The rebellion quickly took hold and men of Kent, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk also refused to pay. The troubles began to spill into the counties of Surrey, Hampshire and Wiltshire.
The rebels marched on Canterbury, home of the Archbishop, they released a cleric John Ball who joined them and their slogan became;
‘John Ball greets you all and gives you to understand, that he has rung your bell’
By the 11th June the various groups had made the decision to march on London and stand before those who had made the decisions, the court officials and lawyers.
It is estimated that at this point there were in excess of 30,000 men on the march.
- A man called Wat Tyler led the Kentish men and on 12th June 1381 he gathered the rebels around him.
- The young King Richard just fourteen years old, was in the Tower for his own safety but he decided to take a party and go to meet the rebels. The party set off down the Thames but turned back on hearing the angry mob on the banks of the river.
- This act of cowardice enflamed the rebels and Tyler unleached them on the city.
They poured into the city, whose gates were open to them, the population of the City of London had sympathy for their actions releasing prisoners from the Marshlsea and Fleet prison. They tore through the lawyers quarters of Temple, setting fire to properties. including the home of John Gaunt, the Savoy Palace.
- King Richard made a tactical decision. He decided to ride out to Mile End, in doing this he hoped he could draw the rebels out of the city and maybe give time for others in the court to make good their escape.
- Whatever his motives, Richard secured the loyalty of the rebels but they would have no truck with others in his court. They plucked the Archbishop of Canterbury out of the Tower and beheaded him along with other court officials.
- Richard asked the rebels what they wanted. They replied that although they were loyal to him as King, they wanted rid of the tax setters, the government, who they saw as traitors.
- They also wanted their freedom from serfdom and demanded that land should be rented at four pence per acre. Richard agreed to their terms.
- Rebels about the country started to demand that people express their allegiance to Richard and the commons. Manor after manor in the country was pillaged and the pipe rolls burnt, these set out the collections of the hated poll taxes.
On 15th June, 20,000 rebels gathered at Smithfield where the king had agreed to meet them to discuss terms. At the head of the body of men was Wat Tyler.
- Wat Tyler appeared to show little deference to the king, he took hold of the king’s bridle and when it looked as though he might be threatening the king, the Mayor of London, who was accompanying the king drove a dagger into his throat.
- Richard called to the crowd, as shocked and angry they surged forward. He told them Tyler was a traitor and that he, King Richard, would lead them. They believed him and as Tyler was led away to St Bartholemews Hospital they followed King Richard to Islington where an armed guard stood ready for them.
- They had been out played. The king now played a clever hand, he forgave the rebels and suggested they go home.
King Richard now turned the tables on his rebelling subjects. He revoked all promisesmade at Mile End and was totally disdainful of them, in fact it was recorded that he told a group of protesting villagers;
“Rustics you are, rustics you will always be. You will remain in bondage, not, as before, but incomparably harsher. For as long as we live we will strive to suppress you and your misery will be an example to posterity”
Wat Tyler was beheaded at Smithfield Market and John Ball was hung, drawn and quartered.
Not all was lost though, by those who had dared to rebel. There was a constant fear of rebellion and insurrection that, over the coming decade resulted in steadily improving conditions for the labouring classes, a rise in wages and living standards and no return of the poll tax.
The feudal order was beginning to break down.