History makers: the Peasants’ Revolt
The fourteenth-century rebels that rose up against unfair laws and punitive taxes altered England forever.
In 1349, an Irish monk named Brother Clynn wrote: ‘I am waiting among the dead for death to come… and I leave parchment for continuing my work should anyone be alive in the future.’ Every other monk in his monastery had died of the Black Death and he believed that the end of the world was nigh.
That deadly pandemic resulted in about one third of the Europe’s population losing their lives; perhaps as many as 70million people died. But while Brother Clynn foresaw an ending, quite the opposite was to happen. Though tragic, the death of so many was to mark the beginning of an era of greater prosperity, freedom and rights for peasants. There were now fewer peasants, but their labour was still in high demand, which meant they could now leave their lord’s demesne and demand a better wage for their labour. However, immediately after the Black Death, the government of Edward III passed two key laws in an attempt to freeze wages at pre-plague levels. The unpredictable lottery of monarchy had then placed the war-hungry 10-year-old child, Richard II, on the throne of England in 1377. Fixated with outright victory in the One Hundred Years War, started by his grandfather Edward III, Richard’s government introduced hugely unpopular poll taxes in 1377 and 1379. A further tax introduced in 1381 was to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Irrespective of wealth, the tax was fixed at a rate of 12 pence per person, meaning that it was a huge burden on the poor, but a minor inconvenience to the wealthy. In addition, rumours spread of widespread corruption in the government. The peasants were ripe for revolt.
Following the expulsion of a tax collector from the town Brentwood, 30 kilometres north-east of London, a band of rebels swept through Kent and Essex, swelling their numbers with volunteers as they went. They advanced upon London in a pincer movement from the south and east. The two leaders of the rebellion emerged as Wat Tyler, of whom little was previously known, and John Ball, a radical priest who had been broken out of prison by Kentish rebels, where he had been held for his beliefs in social equality and a fair distribution of wealth within the church. Indeed, as he preached to the crowd of thousands of rebels at Blackheath, then just outside London, he cried: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men.’
Londoners willingly opened the gates of their city to the rebels who set about their task with fervour. They sacked Savoy Palace, the home of the key adviser to the now 14-year-old Richard. Guards in the Tower of London opened the gates to the rebels, who freed the inmates and executed Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Treasurer of England, who had been hiding inside. There were also several incidents of misplaced rage among the rebels, like when the crowd set their sights upon Flemish immigrants, many of whom were wealthy wool merchants, and murdered them in the streets.
Faced with a grave situation, the young king rode out to meet the rebel leaders at Blackheath. Their demands were an end to poll taxes, an immediate end to serfdom, the introduction of a more democratic form of government with local representation based on the Provisions of Oxford in 1258, and a fair distribution of wealth and power from the nobility. Richard initially gave into their demands as well as issuing pardons for all involved.
Most of the rebels dispersed and made their way home, flattered with what they perceived as an unlikely victory. Their leaders, however, were not to be so easily won over. The following day they demanded another meeting with the king beyond the city walls at Smithfield. It is here that the waters of history become murky. Taken aback by a slight towards the king – which some claim was gurgling water in his presence, but others record as verbally insulting the young monarch – a king’s adviser stabbed Wat Tyler in the back. The other leaders were promptly rounded up, executed, and their heads put on pikes overlooking the city they had controlled just days before.
In the weeks and months that followed, it became clear that the Peasants’ Revolt could not be seen as anything other than failure. Richard broke the promises he made to the rebels at Blackheath, but things had changed. No king would introduce a poll tax for almost 300 years (the next to do so was the ill-fated Charles I months before the outbreak of the English Civil War) and serfdom was gradually crumbling and giving way to a new kind of economy. Employers were finding that voluntary, paid labour was more efficient and effective than forced tenure by service and the peasants had shown that they could be a powerful force for change in society.
Paddy McKeating is a history teacher based in London.