The Peasants’ Revolt (also known as the Great Rising or Wat Tyler’s Rebellion) occurred in 1381. At the time of the revolt, the English population was dealing with the effects of the Black Plague as well as the Hundred Years’ War. These two issues led the government to take unpopular steps to deal with problems that arose as a result of these issues. These steps led to the rebellion.
Reasons Behind the Rebellion
The Black Death (a plague) had swept through the land during the years of 1346 to 1353. The Black Death killed off a large segment of the population and left landowners in desperate need of workers to work their land. Feudal law during the time did not allow peasants to leave their village unless they had their lord’s permission. With the need for more workers, lords began to encourage peasants to leave their villages in order to come work in their fields.
The peasants also realized that they could demand higher pay since they were in such demand. This led to peasants leaving their village looking for a better deal in terms of wages. In 1351, Parliament, in an attempt to stop peasants moving around for better pay, passed the Statute of Labourers. This statute stated that wages had to be the same as before the plague years and that peasants were not allowed to leave their villages. If peasants did not heed the law, they could be fined and later, the penalty was changed to branding and imprisonment.
In addition to limiting peasants’ wages, the government also introduced a poll tax to help pay for the war with France (the Hundred Years’ War). This was the third poll tax in four years. A poll tax is money that needed to be paid to the government for every person over the age of fourteen living in a peasant’s house. Taxes used to be collected just on the household, not on the people living in the household so this resulted in an increase in the amount peasants had to pay.
This poll tax caused a lot of anger and many peasants tried to hide the number of people living in their home. Between the years 1377 and 1381, the adult population of England mysteriously dropped by thirty-three percent. The government realized that people were trying to hide people in order to limit the taxes they had to pay, so the government sent out a new set of tax collectors escorted by armed guards. These new tax collectors had the power to arrest evaders.
The Start of the Rebellion
On May 30, 1381, a group of tax collectors arrived at Brentwood in Essex. The collectors, led by John Bampton, were there to investigate the possibility of tax evasion by the villagers. Bampton set up inb Brentwood and then called on the leaders of Fobbing, Corringham, and Stanford-le-Hope to meet him at Brentwood. The villagers claimed that they had already paid their taxes and refused to pay anymore. Bampton’s armed escort tried to arrest a number of the villagers and violence broke out. Bampton was forced to flee back to London. A number of the people that had accompanied Bampton to Brentwood were killed.
The rebellion spread through Wessex and the county of Kent soon joined in the rebellion. The peasants decided to march to London and present their case to the king whom they thought would be more receptive to their demands. The rebels did not blame King Richard for their problems but instead focused their anger at Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster. These two men were close advisors to the king and the rebels believed that they were corrupt.
The March to London
The rebels from the Kent area and the rebels from the Essex area seemed to be in contact with one another since the rebellion was well-organized and coordinated. Both groups set off for London on June 2, 1381. One group coming in from the north (the Essex group) and the other group coming in from the south (the Kent group).
The group coming in from Kent attacked Rochester Castle and on June 10, broke into Canterbury cathedral and demanded that Simon Sudbury, the archbishop of Canterbury, be deposed. The rebels also burned manor houses and religious houses, in addition to a number of official records. They also released prisoners from prison.
Two leaders rose out of the mass. One was named Wat Tyler. Tyler was a charismatic leader who rose from the mob to lead the whole rebellion. One of his first acts was to break John Ball out of prison. Ball was a preacher who had been imprisoned for heresy. Ball believed in everyone being equal and called for the end of all titles except for the king.
The two groups came together at Blackheath and by this point there were between sixty and a hundred thousand rebels. It was in Blackheath that Ball gave his famous speech asking, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?”
Upon hearing of the approach by the rebels, the king, Richard II, and the rest of the royal household moved to the Tower of London for safety. On June 13, the gates of the city were opened and the rebels poured into the city. They burned the houses of the Archbishop of Canterbury and John of Gaunt.
Messages were passed between the king in the Tower of London and the rebels and Richard agreed to meet with Tyler and the other leaders at a placed called Mile End. During this meeting, which took place on June 14, Richard II agreed to all of the rebel’s demands. He promised to end both serfdom and feudalism and then asked that the rebels return home.
While this meeting was taking place, some of the rebels broke into the Tower of London and dragged out Richard’s supporters. Both, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury, and the Royal Treasurer, Robert Hales, were beheaded as were a number of other people from the royal household.
Some of the rebels, mainly the Essex group, began to leave for home but Tyler’s forces remained. Tyler’s forces roamed the streets of London looking for (and killing them when they were found) anyone involved with the legal system and with John of Gaunt as well as foreigners.
Another meeting between Tyler’s forces and King Richard took place the next day on June 15 at Smithfield, just outside of London. This meeting included the king, the king’s supporters, including the mayor of London, William Walworth, as well as Wat Tyler and his supporters. During this meeting, Wat Tyler acted very arrogantly towards the king. In response, someone in the king’s group yelled that Tyler was simply a common thief. Tyler angrily responded to being called a common thief and pulled out his dagger. This allowed Walworth to attempt to arrest Tyler for his behaviour in front of the king. Walworth attempted to grab Tyler and Tyler stabbed him with the dagger. Walworth was wearing armour so the dagger didn’t do any damage but Walworth grabbed his own dagger and stabbed Tyler in the neck. The blow almost took of Tyler’s head.
Tyler was taken to the hospital but ended up dying. Richard II was able to talk to the remaining rebels and, while no one knows exactly what was said, the rebels left for home.
The peasants’ revolt was over and Richard refused to follow through with any agreements he made at Mile End. He claimed that the agreements were was made under threat and therefore were not valid. The poll tax was dropped but the peasants were still under the control of the nobles—exactly the way it was before the revolution.