Peasants' Revolt

Richard II meets the rebels in a painting from Froissart's Chronicles
The end: Wat Tyler killed by Walworth while Richard II watches / Richard addresses the crowd

The Peasants' Revolt, Wat Tyler's Rebellion, or the Great Rising of 1381 was one of a number of popular revolts in late medieval Europe and is a major event in the history of England. Tyler's Rebellion was not only the most extreme and widespread insurrection in English history but also the best-documented popular rebellion ever to have occurred during medieval times. The names of some of its leaders, John Ball, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, are still familiar in popular culture although little is known of them.

The revolt later came to be seen as a mark of the beginning of the end of serfdom in medieval England, although the revolt itself was a failure. It increased awareness in the upper classes of the need for the reform of feudalism in England and the appalling misery felt by the lower classes as a result of their enforced slavery.


[edit] Events leading to the revolt

[edit] The poll tax

The revolt was precipitated by heavy-handed attempts to enforce the third poll tax, first levied in 1377 supposedly to finance military campaigns overseas – a continuation of the Hundred Years' War initiated by King Edward III of England. The third poll tax was not levied at a flat rate (as in 1377) nor according to schedule[clarification needed] (as in 1379); instead it allowed some of the poor to pay a reduced rate, while others who were equally poor had to pay the full tax, prompting calls of injustice. The tax was set at 3 groats (equivalent to 12 pence or 1 shilling) compared with the 1377 rate of 1 groat (4 pence). The youth of King Richard II (aged only 14) was another reason for the uprising: a group of unpopular men dominated his government. These included John of Gaunt (the acting regent), Simon Sudbury (Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, who was the figurehead to what many then saw as a corrupt Church) and Sir Robert Hales (the Lord Treasurer, responsible for the poll tax). Many saw them as corrupt officials, trying to exploit the weakness of the King.[citation needed]

[edit] Labour shortage

The Black Death that ravaged England in 1348 to 1350 had greatly reduced the labour force, and consequently the surviving labourers could demand higher wages and fewer hours of work. Some asked for their freedom. They often got what they asked for: the lords of the manors were desperate for people to farm their land and tend their animals. Then, in 1351, King Edward III summoned parliament to pass the Statute of Labourers. The Statute attempted to curb the demands for better terms of employment by pegging wages to pre-plague levels and restricting the mobility of labour; however the probable effect was that labourers employed by lords were effectively exempted, while labourers working for other employers, both artisans and more substantial peasants, were liable to be fined or held in the stocks. The enforcement of the new law angered the peasants greatly and formed another reason for the revolt.

[edit] How the revolt was triggered

Incidents in the Essex villages of Fobbing [1] and Brentwood triggered the uprising. On 30 May 1381, John[2] or Thomas[3] Bampton[4] attempted to collect the poll tax from villagers at Fobbing. The villagers, led by Thomas Baker, a local landowner, told Bampton that they would give him nothing, and he was forced to leave the village empty-handed. Robert Belknap (Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas) was sent to investigate the incident and to punish the offenders. On 2 June, he was attacked at Brentwood. By this time the violent discontent had spread, and the counties of Essex and Kent were in full revolt. Soon people moved on London in an armed uprising.[5]

[edit] First protests

In June 1381, Kentish rebels formed behind Wat Tyler and marched on London to join the Essex contingent. When the Kentish rebels arrived at Blackheath on June 12, the renegade Lollard priest, John Ball, preached a sermon including the famous question that has echoed down the centuries: "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"[6] The following day the rebels, encouraged by the sermon, crossed London Bridge into the heart of the city. Meanwhile the 'Men of Essex' had gathered with Jack Straw at Great Baddow and had marched on London, arriving at Stepney. Instead of a full-scale riot, there were only systematic attacks on certain properties, many of them associated with John of Gaunt and/or the Hospitaller Order. On June 14, the rebels are reputed to have been met by the young king himself, and, led by Richard of Wallingford, to have presented him with a series of demands, including the dismissal of some of his more unpopular ministers and the effective abolition of serfdom. One of the more intriguing demands of the peasants was "that there should be no law within the realm save the law of Winchester". This may refer to the statutes of the Charter of Winchester (1251), though it is sometimes considered to be a reference to the more equitable days of King Alfred the Great, when Winchester was the capital of England.

[edit] Storming the Tower of London

At the same time, a group of rebels stormed the Tower of London and summarily executed those hiding there, including the Lord Chancellor (Simon of Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was particularly associated with the poll tax), and the Lord Treasurer (Robert de Hales, the Grand Prior of the Knights Hospitallers of England). The Savoy Palace of the king's uncle John of Gaunt was one of the London buildings destroyed by the rioters.

[edit] Smithfield

At Smithfield on the following day, further negotiations with the king were arranged, but on this occasion the meeting did not go according to plan. Wat Tyler rode ahead to talk to the King and his party. Tyler, it is alleged by the the kings chroniclers, behaved most belligerently and dismounted his horse and called for a drink most rudely. In the ensuing dispute, Tyler (supposedly) drew his dagger and William Walworth, the Lord Mayor of London, drew his sword and attacked Tyler, mortally wounding him in the neck; Sir John Cavendish, one of the King's knights, drew his sword and ran it through Tyler's stomach, killing him almost instantly. Seeing him surrounded by the King's entourage, the rebel army was in uproar, but King Richard, seizing the opportunity, rode forth and shouted "You shall have no captain but me",[7] a statement left deliberately ambiguous to defuse the situation. He promised the rebels that all was well, that Tyler had been knighted, and that their demands would be met - they were to march to St John's Fields, where Wat Tyler would meet them. This they duly did, but the King broke his promise. The nobles quickly re-established their control with the help of a hastily organised militia of 7000, and most of the other leaders were pursued, captured and executed, including John Ball and Jack Straw, who was beheaded. Following the collapse of the revolt, the king's concessions were quickly revoked.

[edit] Conclusion

Despite its name, participation in the Peasants' Revolt was not confined to serfs or even to the lower classes. The peasants received help from members of the noble classes - one example being William Tonge, a substantial alderman, who opened the London city gate through which the masses streamed on the night of June 12.[8] Although the most significant events took place in the capital, there were violent encounters throughout England, particularly in East Anglia. The last battle of the revolt took place near North Walsham around 23rd June, when the 'Fighting Bishop' Henry le Despenser soundly defeated a rebel force led by Geoffrey Litster. Those involved hastened to dissociate themselves in the months that followed.

Although the Revolt did not succeed in its stated aims, it did succeed in showing the nobles that the peasants were dissatisfied and that they were capable of wreaking havoc. In the longer term, the Revolt helped to form a radical tradition in British politics (a development explained by Christopher Hampton, see further reading). After the revolt, the term 'poll tax' was no longer used, although English governments continued to collect broadly similar taxes until the 17th century. The Community Charge, introduced 600 years after the peasants revolt, was popularly known as the poll tax (particularly by its opponents).

[edit] Literary mention

Title page to William Morris' A Dream of John Ball (1888)

Geoffrey Chaucer mentions Jack Straw, one of the leaders of the Revolt, in his satiric The Nun's Priest's Tale in The Canterbury Tales.

Froissart's Chronicles devotes 20 pages to the revolt.

The revolt is featured prominently in the climax of Anya Seton's historical novel, Katherine (novel) (1954). The main character, Katherine Swynford survives the destruction of Savoy Palace.

John Gower, a friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, saw the peasants as unjustified in their cause. In his Vox Clamantis, he sees the peasant action as the work of the Anti-Christ and a sign of evil prevailing over virtue, writing "....according to their foolish ideas there would be no lords, but only kings and peasants...".

William Morris described the revolt in A Dream of John Ball (1888).

Singer-songwriter Frank Turner wrote Sons of Liberty on his album Poetry of the Deed about the Revolt.

[edit] Footnotes

  1. ^ "::Peasants Revolt::". 2007-03-30. Retrieved 2010-07-09. 
  2. ^ "Exhibitions & Learning online | Citizenship | Citizen or subject". The National Archives. Retrieved 2010-07-09. 
  3. ^ "The Peasants' Revolt 1381". Retrieved 2010-07-09. 
  4. ^ The Anonimalle Chronicle says "une Thomas de Bamptoun"[1]. Some authors (eg Vivian Hunter Galbraith in A R Myers (ed), English Historical Documents 1327-1485–Ž) have taken this as an error for John de Bampton who had been High Sheriff of both Essex and Hertfordshire a few years earlier.
  5. ^ Maurice Hugh Keen, England in the Later Middle Ages: A Political History (Routledge, 1975)
  6. ^ See John Ball (priest): Notes: 3
  7. ^ Simon Schama's A History of Britain, Episode 5, 'King Death'.
  8. ^ Dobson 220

[edit] Further reading

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