The English Peasant Uprising of 1381
THERE ARE THREE THINGS OF SUCH A SORT
THAT THEY PRODUCE MERCILESS DESTRUCTION
WHEN THEY GET THE UPPER HAND:
ONE IS A FLOOD OF WATER,
ANOTHER IS A RAGING FIRE
AND THE THIRD IS THE LESSER PEOPLE,
THE COMMON MULTITUDE;
FOR THEY WILL NOT BE STOPPED
BY EITHER REASON OR BY DISCIPLINE.
-JOHN GOWER, MIROUR DE L’OMME, C. 1376-1378
The years leading up to 1381 in England had been catastrophic. The past three decades had seen the first wave of the Black Plague in 1348, annihilating over one-third of the population. The subsequent shortage of labor led to the increase of wages needed to secure workers and the workers throughout the country were enjoying a new position of power. In response to this, the government passed the Statute of Laborers, which froze wages at their pre-plague rates, frustrating the aspirations of much of the lower classes. In the later half of the 14th century the aging Edward III had re-entered the war of succession with France and the costly conflict was going badly for England. Widespread critique of the government and the clergy, whose entanglement with political offices angered even the lesser clergy itself, were on most lips of the third estate, and the situation of the papacy did not help matters. To make matters worse, the popular heir to the throne, Edward, commonly known as the Black Prince, died in 1376.
In February of 1377, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster and son of Edward III, assembled a parliament in order to demand on behalf of the King a large subsidy to be collected throughout England. Although the parliament was at the time a rather conservative body, and had only recently engaged in much criticism of the government, for some unknown reason they granted the first poll tax in English history. The tax was to be collected from every person, male and female (excepting beggars), over the age of fourteen at the amount of 1 groat (4 pence) per head.
On the 21st of June Edward III died. He was replaced by his 11-year-old grandson, Richard II, under the protection and control of the royal advisors, especially John of Gaunt. As the war continued to fare badly for England and the expenses of maintaining a defense for the anticipated French invasion began to mount, royal ministers again convinced parliament to level another poll tax, this one graduated to tax the rich more heavily than the poor, in April of 1379. However, neither of these poll taxes was able to collect enough to allay the debt of war. Because of widespread corruption in the administration of the tax and mass avoidance by subjects, the revenues were far smaller than anticipated and Chancellor Richard Scrope was forced to resign his post in January of 1380 because of his failure to provide for the realm.
Scrope was quickly replaced as chancellor by Simon Sudbury, who also happened to be the Archbishop of Canterbury. Confronted with a growing economic emergency, Sudbury gathered with the government and parliament in November of 1380 to discuss yet another poll tax. The third successive poll tax was passed at the heavy amount of 1 shilling (3 times the amount of the first two poll taxes) per head above 15 years of age. Naturally, excessive tax evasion was noted immediately and the government began using more forcible measures to collect the needed amount.
Outbreak of the Revolt
Although there were probably some scattered outbreaks of resistance in early May of 1381, the end of the month witnessed the first organized and armed resistance near Brentwood in southwest Essex on May 30. The commissioned collectors were forced to flee from the attacking villagers of several nearby towns after the townspeople had repeatedly refused to pay and been threatened by the officers. The same villagers then spent the next week spreading the news of their action and convincing others to join in an insurrection. Similar revolts broke out in Kent and on June 7 a combined band from Essex and Kent stormed a castle at Rochester and released a prisoner there.
The Resistance Organizes
Sometime soon after this, the combined bands of rebels elected Wat Tyler to be their leader. Little is known about Tyler, although he seems to have been a man of means and a dynamic leader. They next moved to Canterbury where they entered the cathedral en masse during mass and demanded that the monks there elect a new archbishop, for Sudbury was a symbol of them to both the hated poll-tax and the corruption of the church. They then went to the local jail and freed John Ball, an excommunicated priest who had been imprisoned three times by the Archbishop. Ball quickly became the religious leader of the rebels as they made an about-face and began marching towards London. It was probably sometime during this march that Ball made his famous sermon on radical social equality under God which he based on the already well-known couplet, “Whan Adam dalf, and Eve span, Wo was thanne a gentilman?”
When royal messengers met them to ask of their plans, they told them that they were true servants of the king coming to destroy the traitors in his government and to establish the “trew commons.” The rebels also wished to meet the king at Blackheath, where they were camped. The members of the court, including Richard II who had recently retreated to London from Windsor, were holed up in the Tower of London. They had made no preparations for defending themselves against the rebels as the major part of the king’s military strength was away in the North and in France and the remaining body of Londoners available for conscription were suspect because many of them were known to be sympathetic to the rebels’ cause. By June 12, the rebels, now numbering some 40,000- 60,000, were camped just outside of London, at Mile End. An abortive attempt to meet the rebels occurred on June 13, as the king approached the shore on which they were camped by ship. However, at the advice of the fearful royal counselors, who had already received a petition asking for the head of John of Gaunt and other chief officers of state, the ship turned around and sailed back into London.
March on London
This sparked the rebels’ advance on London itself, which ought to have been impregnable but for the cooperation of the Londoners who allowed them access to one of the gates and loosed them on the city. They proceeded in a methodical path of destruction aimed at their enemies, notably burning the chancery records at Lambeth, destroying the records of their serfdom and the tax rolls, and destroying Savoy Palace, the residence of John of Gaunt. The riches of Savoy were burned without profit to the rebels, who were ordered to destroy but not to loot on pain of death. One man breaking this order and pocketing some silver was said to be consigned to the flames himself.
Finally, the king and his court, exhausted of options, met the rebel party at Mile End on the 14th of June. The rebels demanded abolition of villeinage, the right to labor under a free contract (and thus revoking the Statute of Laborers) and a general pardon for all there. The king granted everything that they asked and commissioned a group to begin writing out the pardons. At this, most of the rebels of Essex began to disperse, but Wat Tyler and those from Kent were not yet satisfied. Sometime during or soon after the Mile End conference, a party took the Tower and executed the treasurer, Robert de Hales, several other court officials, and the hated Archbishop Simon Sudbury.
The following day, the king again met the remaining rebel force at Smithfield. This time the king, along with the mayor of London, William Walworth, were met by Wat Tyler himself. Tyler made similar demands to those made at Mile End, to which he added the complete abolition of lordship, excepting the king, with all others equal; that the property of the church be seized and distributed to the laity; and that all bishoprics except one be removed. It is somewhat unclear what happened next, but whether by plan or provocation, Tyler was killed by William Walworth and one other. The commons grew restless and the 14-year-old king rode out to meet them, assuring them of his sympathies and somehow, with the help of an armed guard summoned by Walworth, was able to convince them to disperse.
Although the rising had spread to other parts of the country, notably St. Albans and Norfolk, the government had gained the upper hand and within the next month all the remaining leaders of the revolt had been tried and executed.
Norman Cohn. The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.
R. B. Dobson. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. New York: St Martin's Press, 1970.
Steven Justice. Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Philip Lindsay and Reg Groves. The Peasants' Revolt, 1381. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974.
May McKisack. The Fourteenth Century – 1307-1399. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959.