Medieval England experienced few revolts but the most serious was the Peasants’ Revolt which took place in June 1381. A violent system of punishments for offenders was usually enough to put off peasants from causing trouble. Most areas in England also had castles in which soldiers were garrisoned, and these were usually enough to guarantee reasonable behaviour among medieval peasants.
An army of peasants from Kent and Essex marched on London. They did something no-one had done before or since – they captured the Tower of London. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the King’s Treasurer were killed. The king, Richard II, was only 14 at the time but despite his youth, he agreed to meet the peasants at a place called Mile End.
What were the peasants angry about and why had they come to London ?
1. After the Black Death, many manors were left short of workers. To encourage those who had survived to stay on their manor, many lords had given the peasants on their estates their freedom and paid them to work on their land. Now, nearly 35 years after the Black Death, many peasants feared that the lords would take back these privileges and they were prepared to fight for them.2. Many peasants had to work for free on church land, sometimes up to two days in the week. This meant that they could not work on their own land which made it difficult to grow enough food for their families. Peasants wanted to be free of this burden that made the church rich but them poor. They were supported in what they wanted by a priest called John Ball from Kent.
3. There had been a long war with France. Wars cost money and that money usually came from the peasants through the taxes that they paid. In 1380, Richard II introduced a new tax called the Poll Tax. This made everyone who was on the tax register pay 5p. It was the third time in four years that such a tax had been used. By 1381, the peasants had had enough. 5p to them was a great deal of money. If they could not pay in cash, they could pay in kind, such as seeds, tools etc., anything that could be vital to survival in the coming year.
In May 1381, a tax collector arrived at the Essex village of Fobbing to find out why the people there had not paid their poll tax. He was thrown out by the villagers. In June, soldiers arrived to establish law and order. They too were thrown out as the villagers of Fobbing had now organised themselves and many other local villages in Essex had joined them. After doing this, the villagers marched on London to plead with the young king to hear their complaints.
One man had emerged as the leader of the peasants – Wat Tyler from Kent. As the peasants from Kent had marched to London, they had destroyed tax records and tax registers. The buildings which housed government records were burned down. They got into the city of London because the people there had opened the gates to them.
By mid-June the discipline of the peasants was starting to go. Many got drunk in London and looting took place. It is known that foreigners were murdered by the peasants. Wat Tyler had asked for discipline amongst those who looked up to him as their leader. He did not get it.
On June 14th, the king met the rebels at Mile End. At this meeting, Richard II gave the peasants all that they asked for and asked that they go home in peace. Some did. Others returned to the city and murdered the archbishop and Treasurer – their heads were cut off on Tower Hill by the Tower of London. Richard II spent the night in hiding in fear of his life.
On June 15th, he met the rebels again at Smithfield outside of the city’s walls. It is said that this was the idea of the Lord Mayor (Sir William Walworthe) who wanted to get the rebels out of the city. Medieval London was wooden and the streets were cramped. Any attempt to put down the rebels in the city could have ended in a fire or the rebels would have found it easy to vanish into the city once they knew that soldiers were after them.
At this meeting, the Lord Mayor killed Wat Tyler. We are not sure what happened at this meeting as the only people who could write about it were on the side of the king and their evidence might not be accurate. The death of Tyler and another promise by Richard to give the peasants what they asked for, was enough to send them home.
Walworth, bottom left hand corner, killing Tyler. Richard II is just behind Tyler and also addressing the peasants after Tyler’s death
By the summer of 1381, the revolt was over. John Ball was hanged. Richard did not keep any of his promises claiming that they were made under threat and were therefore not valid in law. Other leaders from both Kent and Essex were hanged. The poll tax was withdrawn but the peasants were forced back into their old way of life – under the control of the lord of the manor.
However, the lords did not have it their own way. The Black Death had caused a shortage of labour and over the next 100 years many peasants found that they could earn more (by their standards) as the lords needed a harvest in and the only people who could do it were the peasants. They asked for more money and the lords had to give it.
Peasants’ Revolt, also called Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, (1381), first great popular rebellion in English history. Its immediate cause was the imposition of the unpopular poll tax of 1381, which brought to a head the economic discontent that had been growing since the middle of the century. The rebellion drew support from several sources and included well-to-do artisans and villeins as well as the destitute. Probably the main grievance of the agricultural labourers and urban working classes was the Statute of Labourers (1351), which attempted to fix maximum wages during the labour shortage following the Black Death.
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United Kingdom: The Peasants’ Revolt (1381)
Financing the increasingly expensive and unsuccessful war with France was a major preoccupation. At the end of Edward III’s reign a new device, a poll tax of four pence a head, had been introduced. A similar but graduated tax followed in 1379,…READ MORE
The uprising was centred in the southeastern counties and East Anglia, with minor disturbances in other areas. It began in Essex in May, taking the government of the young king Richard II by surprise. In June rebels from Essex and Kent marched toward London. On the 13th the Kentish men, under Wat Tyler (q.v.), entered London, where they massacred some Flemish merchants and razed the palace of the king’s uncle, the unpopular John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. The government was compelled to negotiate. On the 14th Richard met the men of Essex outside London at Mile End, where he promised cheap land, free trade, and the abolition of serfdom and forced labour. During the king’s absence, the Kentish rebels in the city forced the surrender of the Tower of London; the chancellor, Archbishop Simon of Sudbury, and the treasurer, Sir Robert Hales, both of whom were held responsible for the poll tax, were beheaded.
The king met Tyler and the Kentishmen at Smithfield on the following day. Tyler was treacherously cut down in Richard’s presence by the enraged mayor of London. The king, with great presence of mind, appealed to the rebels as their sovereign and, after promising reforms, persuaded them to disperse. The crisis in London was over, but in the provinces the rebellion reached its climax in the following weeks. It was finally ended when the rebels in East Anglia under John Litster were crushed by the militant bishop of Norwich, Henry le Despenser, on about June 25.
The rebellion lasted less than a month and failed completely as a social revolution. King Richard’s promises at Mile End and Smithfield were promptly forgotten, and manorial discontent continued to find expression in local riots. The rebellion succeeded, however, as a protest against the taxation of poorer classes insofar as it prevented further levying of the poll tax.