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The Peasants' Revolt - The Shadow Of 1381

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The Peasants' Revolt of 1381, also known as Tyler's Revolt and The 14th Century Poll Tax Riots, happened for complex and varied reasons. Two of the main reasons were the Black Death (1334-51) and the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), both of which were generally quite fatal for the large numbers of the poor involved. The rich had the advantage of the status and chivalry to protect them - if you were rich at the time, your living conditions were better and you had mobility to move away from the plague, plus during a time of war if you were not killed, a knight would usually capture you, claim your armour, then sell you back to your family in one piece for a large amount of cash. Naturally, the poor were quite unhappy at this favouritism of the rich, and the opportunity for the peasants to express their collective displeasure was provided by a dispute within the monarchy as to whom would be king, compounded by a loss of faith in the church.

The King And Court

After the death of Edward III in 1377, Richard II was chosen to be king and, by the time of the rebellion in 1381 AD, was 14 years old and had been king for some 4 years. At the time the revolt, his chief advisor (and thus the power behind the throne) was John of Gaunt1, Duke of Lancaster, who was Richard's uncle and had also made a claim for the throne when Edward III died, which seemed reasonable since John was Edward's son. However, John had been allied Alice Perrers, Edward III's mistress and the corrupt court party she had led, and this together with John's heavy handed approach to justice and his plans to reestablish the feudal system, including the tithes and taxes, made the young Richard a more favourable choice.

His administration of public affairs is said, furthermore, to have been stained by several acts of violence.
- John of Gaunt described in a chronicle of the day (anon)

His past history lost John the support of his family and the majority of the noble families who had profited from the throne, and thus his claim to the throne failed through lack of support. John was no fool and remained the most powerful figure in the court and government of Richard II, dealing with military matters and making his name as a diplomat.

The Church

Added to this, there was the complication that the common people were losing respect for the authority of the church. There were many hardships and the effect of the catastrophe that was the plague cannot be made clear enough. The established church had lost the confidence, and through that, the faith of a large section of the population. Large-scale reform2 of the Catholic faith was called for and heresies were commonplace.

It seemed as if God had deserted the people, the king had turned against them and no-one knew who or what to blame, and whether through fear or desperation, the peasants were turning against the state and the church.

The Hundred Years War

The series of conflicts between England and France that later became known as The Hundred Years War started in 1337 and continued until 1453. These ongoing conflicts were fought to determine primacy over France. The descendants of the Normans (now the English Kings) had claims to large areas of France, and had enlarged their holdings by conquest. After the Normans, the Angevin dynasty took control of the English throne. The Angevins controlled Normandy and England, and the provinces of Maine, Anjou, Touraine, Gascony, Saintonge and Aquitaine. The English kings had, in consequence, become more powerful than the French, and a series of struggles thus took place for the control of France.

The Black Death

Estimates3 vary but between the years 1334-51, the Black Death may have killed as many as 25 million in Europe people - that is between a half and a third of the population of each country the plague passed through. The drop in available peasant labour led to a rise in wages paid to the common man, and as the peasant became accustomed to his increased value he demanded greater freedom and mobility, the latter being in order to take advantage of this new opportunity.

Parliament responded to these demands for freedom and increased earnings by passing a law to stop the peasants freedom of mobility, this act being known as the Statute of Labourers 1351 AD. The Act also attempted to halt the rise in labour costs by passing legislation to keep wages at pre-plague rates, and made it compulsory for all 'able-bodied' men and women to work.

This proved useless as wages continued to rise, with those employers who needed workers paid the going rate and outbidding each other for workers. Enforcement was impractical as all classes were involved in breaking this law, thus making the law effectively pointless. It did, however, cause massive resentment among the peasantry, a situation which the Archbishop of Canterbury Simon Theobald (Simon of Sudbury), the chancellor of England, paid for with his life. But let's start at the beginning.

The Revolt Begins

The revolt was to bring the end to the feudal system in England. Serfdom was being brought down by the call for more rights for the common man. The shortage of manpower caused by the Black Death meant the peasant could move as he wished, and could thus earn more by going to work for the highest payer. Some landowners were trying to stop the movement of the labour force by enforcing their rights given to them by the feudal system to tie the workforce by law to their home manor. This however, was not the spark that ignited the revolt. That fell to taxation. The campaigns in France were costing a considerable amount. Two poll taxes4 had previously been passed in 1377 and 1379, but in 1380 Parliament passed a third to fund the current war for France. The cost of this tax was passed through the feudal system - the nobles passed the cost of their taxation to the peasants, and the king was thus taxing the peasants both directly and indirectly. Their money was collected in taxation, and even their goods were taken in distress in order to pay for the war.

  • Thursday 30 May, 1381
  • The unrest in England started as a local rising in Brentwood Essex, when the first attack on a tax collector took place. From this, the revolt spread rapidly from village to village and tax collectors were attacked across south-east England. In a matter of days towns and villages in Kent, Suffolk, Hertfordshire and Norfolk were involved. Soon, armed gangs of rioters were attacking and destroying churches and monasteries and the properties of some of the nobility.

    What added to the danger of this revolt was that those involved were not just peasants. They were supported by some of the gentry, knights and minor lords, who became involved in the unfolding events. These educated men supplied organisation, leadership and direction to the growing army of peasants. One of the most important of these men was Richard of Wallingford, Constable of Wallingford Castle. He was later involved in the presentation of the rebel's petition to the king.

  • Saturday 1 June
  • Word of the events in Brentford reached Baddow and Colchester and poll tax collectors there were attacked.

  • Wednesday 5 June
  • Wat (Walter) Tyler was elected as one of the leaders of the revolt. The rebellion had spread into Kent. As the rebels progressed across the country their numbers grew and Canterbury, Rochester and Dartford joined.

  • Saturday 8 June
  • The town of Maidstone in Kent rebelled against the new tax. Meanwhile, the rebel army moved towards London. As it crossed the country many more people joined the movement from nearby towns and villages.

  • Sunday 9 June
  • 10 days after the first attack, the rebellion reached the town of Cambridge.

  • Wednesday 12 June
  • The rebel army from Essex reached London and made camp at Mile End near London.

  • Thursday 13 June
  • This day saw the arrival of the men of Kent led by Wat Tyler and Jack (or John) Ball5, and the rebel armies from Essex and Kent joined forces at Blackheath in southeast London. Wat Tyler now had a force of nearly 20,000 men to command. An attempt to petition the king was rejected and in retribution Wat Tyler led the mob into the City of London, and the mob looted and burned a large number of nobles' houses in the city. Fleet and Newgate prisons were destroyed and John of Gaunt's residence, the Savoy Palace was destroyed. The Hospital of St John in Clerkenwell was later looted and burned - the hospital was attacked because it was a possession of the Knights of Rhodes, originally the Hospitallers of Jerusalem, an influential military order of monks.

  • Friday 14 June
  • After the carnage of the previous day, the king now agreed to hear the petition of the rebels at Mile End, upon receiving guarantees of his safety. On hearing the petition of grievances presented by Richard of Wallingford, the king agreed to the terms placed before him:

    • To end feudal serfdom.
    • To end the service to a feudal lord.
    • To abolish market monopolies and the restrictions on buying and selling of goods.

    During the audience, Tyler led the mob into the city on a second raid. The Tower of London was taken and plundered, the Archbishop of Canterbury Simon Theobald (Simon of Sudbury) was captured - his fate was to be beheaded on Tower Hill, as Archbishop Simon was blamed by the peasants for the position they were in. In fact, he was so unpopular that the Tower guards stood aside and let the rebels take him and his staff away to their execution.

  • Saturday 15 June
  • Richard II visited Westminster Abbey with his party. After prayers, he proceeded to Smithfield. Wat Tyler meets with the king and proceeds to present more demands including the seizure of church lands and property. The next part of the story is best left to someone closer to the events6.

    Wat Tighler, in the presence of the King, sent for a flagon of water to rinse his mouth, because of the great heat that he was in, and when it was brought he rinsed his mouth in a very rude and disgusting fashion before the King's face. And then he made them bring him a jug of beer, and drank a great draught, and then, in the presence of the King, climbed on his horse again. At this time a certain valet from Kent, who was among the King's retinue, asked that the said Walter, the chief of the commons, might be pointed out to him. And when he saw him, he said aloud that he knew him for the greatest thief and robber in all Kent.... And for these words Watt tried to strike him with his dagger, and would have slain him in the King's presence; but because he strove so to do, the Mayor of London, William Walworth, reasoned with the said Watt for his violent behaviour and despite, done in the King's presence, and arrested him. And because he arrested him, he said Watt stabbed the Mayor with his dagger in the stomach in great wrath. But, as it pleased God, the Mayor was wearing armour and took no harm, but like a hardy and vigorous man drew his cutlass, and struck back at the said Watt, and gave him a deep cut on the neck, and then a great cut on the head. And during this scuffle one of the King's household drew his sword, and ran Watt two or three times through the body, mortally wounding him. And he spurred his horse, crying to the commons to avenge him, and the horse carried him some four score paces, and then he fell to the ground half dead. And when the commons saw him fall, and knew not how for certain it was, they began to bend their bows and to shoot, wherefore the King himself spurred his horse, and rode out to them, commanding them that they should all come to him to Clerkenwell Fields.
    - A chronicle of the day (anon)
    The Mayor of London issues a summons to the men of the wards of London to attend in arms, the king attended with a company of mounted armoured knights bearing points (lances). And they enveloped the commons like sheep within a pen, and after that the Mayor had set the wardens of the city on their way to the King, he returned with a company of lances to Smithfield, to make an end of the captain of the commons. And when he came to Smithfield he found not there the said captain Watt Tighler, at which he marvelled much, and asked what was become of the traitor. And it was told him that he had been carried by some of the commons to the hospital for poor folks by St Bartholomew's, and was put to bed in the chamber of the master of the hospital. And the Mayor went thither and found him, and had him carried out to the middle of Smithfield, in presence of his fellows, and there beheaded. And thus ended his wretched life.
    - A chronicle of the day (anon)

    The rebellion in London was over. The king’s first action was to revoke the concessions granted in the Mile End petition.

  • Sunday 16 June
  • In one of the last acts of rebellion Cambridge University was attacked and books and records were burnt.

  • Tuesday 18 June
  • The suppression of the rebellion began and the arrests started. After the rioters had been dispersed the king ordered that the traitors be captured and executed. A large number were taken and brought for execution in London. So many gallows were set up around the capital and in the southeast of the country the king relented and pardoned the remaining prisoners, providing that they paid a fee of twenty shillings for the document of pardon.

  • Monday 15 July
  • In the marketplace of St Albans, the rebel priest of Kent Jack (or John) Ball was executed by being hung, drawn and quartered. He was the last of the ringleaders to be punished for his rebellion.

    The rebellion was ended. The last act was that John Wycliff was forced to leave Oxford in 1383 due to his continued opposition to the church.

The Trouble Tax And Grasping Government Has Caused In England and the Colonies

  • 1st Century AD - The Icini uprising (60 AD), when Boudicca and the Icini tribe fought the Romans in Britain. Nero's tax collector Catus Decianus ignored Prasutagus's will and set about taking control of Boudicca's land and possessions. Boudicca refused the Romans and was publicly flogged while her daughters were raped by soldiers. Her lands were taken from her and her family.

  • 10th and 11th Centuries - The continued provision of Danegeld, a tax which effectively bribed the Vikings into leaving England alone, has led to more Anglo Saxon pence of that era being dug up in Denmark than in England.

  • 11th Century - Lady Godiva's legendary ride through Coventry was a protest against her husband's taxation of the town.

  • 17th Century - The Ship Tax, ordered from maritime towns and counties to pay for ships of the Royal Navy, led to the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I.

  • 17th Century - The 1647 Corn excise tax riots, which started in Smithfields Market in London after a farmer refused to pay the tax and was supported by the crowd.

  • 18th Century - The 1764 American Colony Sugar export tax, which led to riots in thirteen British colonies in America. The American War of independence was also down to tax - Britain wanted to tax the colonies without giving them voting rights.

The 1990 Poll Tax Revolt

As if history had taught them nothing, Margaret Thatcher's Tory Government decided to introduce a Poll Tax and, despite many warnings, pushed the act through Parliament. The people, however, had a long memory. On 31 March, 1990, between 180,000 and 250,000 protesters began a march at Kennington Park.

They made their way through the City of London, and the trouble started in Trafalgar Square when the police started arresting protesters. Things started getting out of hand at around 4pm, and despite bringing in mounted officers, the police were unable to stop violence from breaking out.

By 6pm the protesters - by now rioters - made their way out of the City, damaging and destroying expensive shops, banks, car showrooms while leaving public houses and smaller shops untouched. The rioters went virtually unpunished due to police inefficiency, but the events are thought to have indirectly forced the resignation of Prime Minister Thatcher, and in 1993, John Major's government replaced the poll tax with council tax. The people on this occasion came out on top, though it is interesting to note that a Tyler and a Thatcher were losers on both occasions.

1John was born in Ghent/Gaunt, Flanders. John of Gaunt was the 1st Duke of Lancaster, holding the title from the marriage of his first wife Blanche of Lancaster (1345-1368). The children of this marriage included the future Henry IV of England (1366–1413), with the other children being Philippa (1360–1415), John (1362–1365), Elizabeth (1364–1426) and Edward (1365–1368). John was well connected - Duke of Lancaster was just one of his titles, with others including the Earl of Richmond, Lancaster, Derby, Lincoln and Leicester, and the King of Castile and Leon. At the time of the Peasants' Revolt, John was married to his second wife Constance of Castile and had two children by her: Katherine (1372-1418) and John (1374-1375).2John Wycliff's ideas for reform were spreading, including his ideas that the bread and wine of the Eucharist were not changed by the priest's words during the ritual of Mass.3We are forced to rely on estimates as there were no population records kept, and any records kept at the time have not been corroborated.4Poll taxes were taxes not on property but on people, so no one was exempt and all had to pay.5Little is known about this man - it is speculation, but there is an entry in a dictionary that defines a Jack Ball as someone who sits around, not doing a thing - this may be an indication of his mark on events of the time.6The following are reproduced with the original spellings.

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