The Peasants' Revolt
On the 30th May 1381 revolt broke out in Essex following the arrival government official John Bampton to investigate non-payment of the poll tax. The revolt, which would be known as The Peasants' Revolt, Wat Tyler's Rebellion or the Great Rising spread across large parts of the kingdom of England. A contingent of rebels even managed to enter London and gain, albeit temporarily, concessions from the young king, Richard II, who was just 14 at the time. Ultimately however, the revolt would end in failure and by the end of November of the same year, most of the rebel leaders had been tracked down and executed.
The revolt had various causes, including the socio-economic and political tensions generated by the Black Death in the 1340s, the high taxes resulting from the conflict with France during the Hundred Years' War, and instability within the local leadership of London. In particular, people were unhappy with the operation of serfdom and the use of the local manorial courts to exact traditional fines and levies.
The final trigger for the revolt was the arrival of John Bampton in Essex on May 30th 1381 to investigate non-payment of the poll tax. Brampton was a Member of Parliament, a Justice of the Peace and well-connected with royal circles. He based himself in Brentwood and summoned representatives from the neighbouring villages of Corringham, Fobbing and Stanford-le-Hope to explain and make good the shortfalls on June 1st. The villagers however turned up armed and organised, carrying with them old bows and sticks and when two sergeants under Brampton attempted to arrest a representative for non-payment, violence broke out. Brampton escaped to London, but three of his clerks and several of the Brentwood townsfolk who had agreed to act as jurors were killed. By the next day the revolt had spread across the region and by June 4th groups of rebels, now thousands strong, marched north and south, to London and Suffolk to escalate the revolt.
In Kent, violence also flared up following the arrest and imprisonment of a Robert Belling, who was claimed to be an escaped serf. On June 6th, rebels stormed the gaol at Maidstone and then advanced on Rochester Castle, where Belling was held. Faced by the angry crowds, the constable in charge of Rochester Castle surrendered it without a fight and Belling was freed.
From this point, the Kentish peasants appear to have been led by Wat Tyler, whom the Anonimalle Chronicle suggests was elected their leader at a large gathering at Maidstone on June 7th. Little is known about Tyler prior to the Revolt, though it is suggested that he may have served in France as an archer and was a charismatic and capable leader.
Tyler and the Kentish men advanced to Canterbury, entering the walled city and castle without resistance on June 10th. The rebels deposed the absent Archbishop of Canterbury, Sudbury, and made the cathedral monks swear loyalty to their cause. They attacked properties in the city with links to the hated royal council, and searched the city for suspected enemies, dragging the suspects out of their houses and executing them. The city gaol was opened and the prisoners freed. Tyler then persuaded a few thousand of the rebels to leave Canterbury and advance with him on London the next morning.
The Kentish advance on London appears to have been coordinated with the movement of the rebels in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. Their forces were armed with weapons including sticks, battle axes, old swords and bows. Along their way, they encountered Lady Joan, the King's mother, who was travelling back to the capital to avoid being caught up in the revolt; she was mocked but otherwise left unharmed.
Word of the revolt reached the King at Windsor Castle on the night of June 10th and by the next day he had taken up residence in the powerful fortress of the Tower of London. The king was in a difficult position, having perhaps only a few hundred soldiers at his disposal. Most of his troops and experienced commanders were abroad and the nearest major military force was in the north of England, guarding against a potential Scottish invasion. A delegation, headed by Thomas Brinton, the Bishop of Rochester, was therefore sent out from London to negotiate with the rebels and persuade them to return home.
At Blackheath, the Lollard preacher John Ball gave a famous sermon to the assembled Kentishmen. Ball was a well-known priest and radical preacher from Kent, who was by now closely associated with Tyler. Ball rhetorically asked the crowds "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?" and promoted the rebel slogan "With King Richard and the true commons of England".
The phrases emphasised the rebel opposition to the continuation of serfdom and to the hierarchies of the Church and State that separated the subject from the King, while stressing that they were loyal to the monarchy and, unlike the King's advisers, were "true" to Richard. The rebels rejected proposals from the Bishop of Rochester that they should return home, and instead prepared to march on.
Since the Blackheath negotiations had failed, the decision was taken that the King himself should meet the rebels, at Greenwich, on the south side of the Thames. Guarded by four barges of soldiers, Richard sailed from the Tower on the morning of June 13th, where he was met on the other side by the rebel crowds. The negotiations failed, as Richard was unwilling to come ashore and the rebels refused to enter discussions until he did. Richard returned across the river to the Tower.
The rebels entered London via London Bridge on June 13th, the bridge’s gates having been opened from the inside. Another contingent arrived at Algate and where let in by those already inside. The Kentish rebels had assembled a wide-ranging list of people whom they wanted the King to hand over for execution. It included national figures, such as John of Gaunt, Archbishop Sudbury and Hales. The city’s prisons were attacked and emptied and the houses of Flemish immigrants targeted. Smithfield and Clerkenwell Priory, the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller, were also destroyed while the Knights’ legal offices on Fleet Street were emptied of their contents, books and paperwork, which were burnt. Next to be attacked along Fleet Street was the Savoy Palace, a huge, luxurious building belonging to John of Gaunt, which was ripped apart and burnt to the ground. In the evening, rebel forces turned their attention to the Tower of London, from where the young King watched his city burn.
The next day the houses of officials continued to be burnt and Flemings hunted. According to one source, in one city ward, the bodies of 40 executed Flemings were piled up in the street. According to historian Rodney Hilton argues that these attacks may have been coordinated by the weavers' guilds of London, who were commercial competitors of the Flemish weavers.
King Richard left the castle that morning and made his way to negotiate with the rebels at Mile End in east London, taking only a very small bodyguard with him.The King left Sudbury and Hales behind in the Tower, either for their own safety or because Richard had decided it would be safer to distance himself from his unpopular ministers.
It is uncertain who spoke for the rebels at Mile End, and Wat Tyler may not have been present on this occasion, but they appear to have put forward their various demands to the King, including the surrender of the hated officials on their lists for execution; the abolition of serfdom and unfree tenure; and a general amnesty for the rebels. Richard issued charters announcing the abolition of serfdom, which immediately began to be disseminated around the country. He declined to hand over any of his officials, apparently instead promising that he would personally implement any justice that was required.
While Richard was at Mile End, the Tower was taken by the rebels. Taking advantage of the gates, which were open to receive Richard, around 400 rebels entered the fortress, possibly under the leadership of a lady named Johanna Ferrour. They encountered no resistance, possibly because the guards were terrified by them. Once inside, the rebels began to hunt down their key targets, and found Archbishop Sudbury and Robert Hales in the chapel of the White Tower. Along with William Appleton, John of Gaunt's physician, and John Legge, a royal sergeant, they were taken out to Tower Hill and beheaded. Their heads were paraded around the city, before being affixed to London Bridge. The rebels found John of Gaunt's son, the future Henry IV, and were about to execute him as well, when John Ferrour, one of the royal guards, successfully interceded on his behalf. The rebels also discovered Lady Joan and Joan Holland, Richard's sister, in the castle but let them go unharmed after making fun of them. The castle was thoroughly looted of armour and royal paraphernalia.
Richard did not return to the Tower but instead travelled to the Great Wardrobe, one of his royal houses in Blackfriars, part of south-west London. There he appointed the military commander Richard FitzAlan, the Earl of Arundel, to replace Sudbury as Chancellor, and began to make plans to regain an advantage over the rebels the following day.
On June 15th, Richard left the city to meet Tyler and the remaining rebels, who were unsatisfied with the charters granted the previous day, at Smithfield, just outside the city walls. The King and his party, at least 200 strong and including men-at-arms, positioned themselves outside St Bartholomew's Priory to the east of Smithfield, and the thousands of rebels massed along the western end.
Richard probably called Tyler forwards from the crowd to meet him, and Tyler greeted the King with what the royal party considered excessive familiarity, terming Richard his "brother" and promising him his friendship. Richard queried why Tyler and the rebels had not yet left London following the signing of the charters the previous day, but this brought an angry rebuke from Tyler, who requested that a further charter be drawn up. The rebel leader apparently demanded refreshment and, once this had been provided, attempted to leave.
An argument then broke out between Tyler and some of the royal servants. When the Mayor of London, William Walworth, stepped forward to intervene, Tyler made some motion towards the King, and the royal soldiers leapt in. Either Walworth or Richard ordered Tyler to be arrested, Tyler attempted to attack the Mayor, and Walworth responded by stabbing Tyler. Ralph Standish, a royal squire, then repeatedly stabbed Tyler with his sword, mortally injuring him.
The situation was now precarious and violence appeared likely as the rebels prepared to unleash a volley of arrows. Richard rode forward towards the crowd and persuaded them to follow him away from Smithfield, to Clerkenwell Fields, defusing the situation. Walworth meanwhile began to regain control of the situation, backed by reinforcements from the city. Tyler's head was cut off and displayed on a pole and, with their leader dead and the royal government now backed by the London militia, the rebel movement began to collapse. Richard promptly knighted Walworth and his leading supporters for their services.
The royal suppression of the revolt began shortly after, with Sir Robert Knolles, Sir Nicholas Brembre and Sir Robert Launde being appointed to restore control in the capital. A summons was put out for soldiers, probably around 4,000 men were mustered in London, and expeditions to the other troubled parts of the country soon followed. The revolt in East Anglia was independently suppressed by Henry Despenser, the Bishop of Norwich, who defeated a rebel army at the Battle of North Walsham on the 25th or 26th of June.
The rebel leaders were quickly rounded up. John Ball was caught in Coventry, tried in St Albans, and executed on July 15th. A wide range of laws were invoked in the process of the suppression, from general treason to charges of book burning or demolishing houses, a process complicated by the relatively narrow definition of treason at the time. The use of informants and denunciations became common, causing fear to spread across the country; by November at least 1,500 people had been executed or killed in battle.
Despite the violence of the suppression, the government and local lords were relatively cautious in restoring order after the revolt, and continued to worry about fresh revolts for several decades. Indeed, low-level unrest continued for several more years.
There were no further attempts by Parliament to impose a poll tax or to reform England's fiscal system. The Commons instead concluded at the end of 1381 that the military effort on the Continent should be "carefully but substantially reduced". Unable to raise fresh taxes, the government had to curtail its foreign policy and military expeditions and began to examine the options for peace. The institution of serfdom declined after 1381, but primarily for economic rather than political reasons. Rural wages continued to increase, and lords increasingly sold their serfs' freedom in exchange for cash, or converted traditional forms of tenure to new leasehold arrangements. During the 15th century the institution vanished in England completely.
Another effect was that due to the Lollard element within the revolt, the Lollards lost the support and protection of their noble and royal sympathisers. By the mid-1400s, the word Lollard had essentially become synonymous with 'heretic.'
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