The Peasants’ Revolt 1381
When the Black Death swept Europe in 1348-1351 it left about 30% of the population dead. This greatly affected the English peasants because there was a labour shortage and food was scarce. Even some thirty years later, life had not returned to normal -the settled and structured country life of the Middle Ages was disrupted, and discontent was rife amongst the poor.
This was a law passed at the end of the Black Death to stop the peasants taking advantage of the shortage of workers and demanding more money. Peasants were forced to work for the same wages as before, and landowners could insist on labour services being performed, instead of accepting money (commutation). This meant that the landowners could profit from shortages, whilst life was made very much harder for the peasants.
Prices had risen since the Black Death. Wages had not risen as fast, so the peasants suffered from hunger and shortages.
During the course of the Black Death and the years following
it, England had a strong and warlike king, Edward III. However,
his son, the Black Prince, died before him, leaving his grandson
as heir to the throne. In 1377, Edward III died, and this boy of
ten became king. The true power lay with the powerful barons, in
particular the boy's uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.
The barons, hated already by the peasants, began to take advantage of the situation.
England was involved in the Hundred Years War. This had left the treasury empty, and the barons were tired of paying for the war.
In 1377, John of Gaunt imposed a new tax, the Poll (head) Tax, that was to cover the cost of the war. Unlike normal taxes, this was to be paid by the peasants, as well as the landowners. Although this was meant to be a "one-off" event, it was so successful that it was repeated three more times. The first tax was 4d from every adult (adult:14yrs+), then it was raised to 4d for the peasants and more for the rich, and finally in 1380, it was raised to 12d per adult.
The barons liked the idea of the peasants helping to pay taxes, especially if the were acting as tax collectors, as some of the money was siphoned off into their pockets. It was much harder on the peasants, who could ill afford to pay, especially as the tax was collected in cash and not in farm produce.
By 1380, many were hiding from the collectors, and avoiding payment. For this reason, the amount collected dropped away, despite the fact that the tax had been increased.
The Church was badly hit by the Black Death, and many of the clergy were poorly educated, thus reducing popular respect for the Church. The Church was also a major landowner, and the abbots and bishops sided with the barons against the peasants. This made the church hated, as the peasants felt betrayed by an organisation that should be helping, rather than exploiting them.
This situation was made worse by a number of rebellious priests who preached against the Church and the barons. Foremost amongst these was John Ball, who coined the famous verse; "While Adam delved (dug) and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?" i.e. There had been no group of non- working layabouts in that time, so why should they be tolerated now?
So dangerous was this teaching that the Archbishop of Canterbury had arrested John Ball, and confined him in Maidstone Castle.
Having examined the Poll Tax returns for 1380, the Royal Council headed by John of Gaunt were upset to discover that less money than ever had been collected. Tax collectors were sent out again, with instructions to collect the full amounts.
One of these men was Thomas Bampton, who arrived at Fobbing in Essex, and summoned the villagers of Fobbing, Stanford and Corningham to appear before him. Those law-abiding villagers who turned up were shocked to discover that they would have to pay the hated tax a second time, and that they would also have to pay for the people who had failed to turn up. Not surprisingly, a riot followed, and Bampton and his men were beaten and driven from the village.
Sir Robert Belknap, a Chief Justice was sent to
calm the situation, but he suffered a similar fate. Word spread,
and peasants allover Essex banded together and turned on the
landowners. Manor houses were burnt down, and any records of
taxes, labour duties and debts destroyed.
Soon peasants in Kent rebelled also, and risings took place in many other areas of the country. Some unpopular landowners were killed, others fled and others captured and humiliated, having to act as servants and perform menial tasks.
Although the revolt spread to many areas of England, the two risings in Essex and Kent became the focus of the revolt.
Essex peasants chase Thomas Bampton out of Fobbing.
Essex rebels kill three of Bampton's servants. The revolt spreads through Essex, Hertfordshire and Suffolk.
The revolt is now widespread. The Kent rebels besiege Maidstone Castle, which surrenders. John Ball is freed, and Rochester Castle surrenders also.
The Kent Rebels march on Canterbury, and capture the city, Rich pilgrims are attacked in the town, Finding the Archbishop away, the rebels appoint a humble monk as the new Archbishop, and hold a service in the Cathedral, promising death to all "traitors" they capture,
At this point a new leader appears, Wat Tyler. We know little of him except that he may have served as a soldier in France, that he was very cunning, and that he must have had exceptional powers of leadership in order to control the mob of rebels.
Both the Kent and the Essex rebels now set out to march on London. The simple peasants believed that they were going to explain their grievances to the King, who had been badly advised, and that all would be set right. However, some of the more intelligent figures, such as Wat Tyler and John Ball had a much clearer idea of the situation, and were planning to gain as much as they could.
The King and the council were caught completely by surprise, and there were only a few hundred troops in London. The city was virtually defenceless.
Both groups of peasants had reached London. The Kent peasants camped at Blackheath, and the Essex peasants at Mile End, north of the River Thames. Their nUDbers are hard to estimate, but both groups could have been made up of up to 50,000 people. A message was sent into the city, demanding a meeting with the king. It was arranged that he would meet them at Rotherhithe, on the Thames, that afternoon.
Richard travelled downriver in the royal barge, but at the sight of the huge crowd of peasants, Richard's advisers would not let him land. He returned to the Tower of London, leaving the peasants angry and frustrated.
That night the peasants closed in on London. They were able to enter because the gates of the city, and London Bridge were opened by townspeople sympathetic to their cause, although they later claimed they had been forced to do it.
The rebels were loose in the city. Fleet Prison was broken open, many lawyers were killed in the Temple, and foreign merchants massacred. Despite this, most peasants were peaceful, and little damage was done to the city, on the orders of Wat Tyler.
A group of peasants marched west from the city to the magnificent Savoy Palace, home of John of Gaunt. It caught fire as they ransacked it. Fortunately, John of Gaunt was in Scotland at this time, and escaped the rebels. As the flames lit the sky, Richard agreed to meet the rebels at Mile End the following day. He hoped that this would draw the peasants out of the city.
Richard rode to the meeting at Mile End. Here, Wat Tyler put forward the peasants demands:
-land rents were reduced to reasonable levels.
-the Poll Tax was to be abolished.
-free pardons for all rebels.
-charters would be qiven to the peasants laying down a number of rights and privileges.
-all "traitors" were to be put to death.
Richard agreed to all these demands, but added that only a royal court could decide if a person was a traitor or not. He thought that this was the best policy, in order to allow the peasants to go home. A group of thirty or so clerks began to copy out charters for the peasants to take home.
However, the King had been outwitted by Wat Tyler. A group of peasants, taking advantage of the King's absence at Mile End, raided the Tower of London. Here, they found three of their lOSt hated people; simon Sudbury, (Archbishop of Canterbury), sir Robert Hailes (King's treasurer) and John Legge (the creator of the Poll Tax). They were dragged out onto Tower Hill, and beheaded.
Following the granting of charters the previous day, many
peasants began to leave London and return home, believing that
their demands had been met. However, Wat Tyler and a hard core of
peasants remained behind, and they demanded another meeting with
the King, to deliver even more demands.
The King agreed to a meeting at Smithfield, an open space within the city walls.
When the King's party arrived, Wat Tyler rode up and greeted them in an insolent manner. What happened next is unclear, but was probably a pre-arranged plot. Tyler was rude to the King, refusing to dismount, and spitting in front of him. The Lord Mayor of London, William Walworth, drew his sword and attacked Tyler, wounding him. A squire finished him off as he lay on the ground.
This was a crucial moment, before the peasants realised what had happened. The young King rode forward, shouting out that all their demands were to be met, and that they should follow him out of the city, where charters would be forthcoming. Trustingly, the rebels followed him, and most were persuaded to return home.
As soon as the peasants had left London, messengers were dispatched throughout the country, summoning troops. The last members of the huge gathering of peasants were encamped at Billericay in Essex. They found themselves cut down by royal troops, vainly flourishing the pardons and charters that they had been given.
Royal forces toured the affected areas, hunting the rebels. Possession of a charter became a virtual death sentence. In Hertfordshire and Essex, some 500 died, very few with any form of trial, as the Earl of Buckinqham carried out the King's demand for vengeance. In Kent the toll of executions was even greater, with 1500 peasants sent to the gallows
Another minor rebellion broke out in St. Albans, where the abbot was a hated figure amongst the townspeople. This was ruthlessly crushed, and on 15th July, John Ball, whose preaching had done so much to cause the rebellion, was hung, drawn and quartered in the market place, as an example to any other potential rebels
1.On the surface, the peasants were crushed, their demands denied, and many executed. However, the land owners had been scared, and in the longer term several things were achieved.
2. Parliament gave up trying to control the wages the landowners paid their peasants.
3. The hated poll tax was never raised again.
4. The Lords treated the peasants with much more respect. They made more of them free men ie. they were not owned as part of the land. This benefited in the end, as free men always work much harder.
5. This marked the breakdown of the feudal system, which had worked well during the early Middle Ages, but was now becoming outdated as attitudes were beginning to change.