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The History of the Peasants' Revolt
by Jeff Hobbs

P E A S A N T S'
R E V O L T

14th Century Poll Tax Riots

King Richard & Wat Tyler

The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 is one of the most dramatic events of English history. What began as a local revolt in Essex quickly spread across much of the south east of England, while some of the peasants took their grievances direct to the young King, Richard II, in London.

The revolt began in Essex when locals in Brentwood reacted to an over-zealous poll-tax collector. From Brentwood, resistance to tax collectors spread to neighbouring villages, while across counties such as Kent, Suffolk, Hertfordshire and Norfolk, armed bands of villagers and townsmen also rose up and attacked manors and religious houses.

It was the rebels of Essex and Kent who marched on London. By 12th June, the Essex men were camped at Mile End, in fields just beyond Aldgate, and on the following day the Kentish men arrived at Blackheath. Incredibly, neither the government nor the city of London authorities seem to have been prepared, although the king was moved from Windsor to the Tower of London. During the next few days, the different bands of rebels from Essex and Kent were joined by some of London's poor, and they set about attacking political targets in the city. They burned down the Savoy Palace, which was the home of John of Gaunt - Richard II's uncle, and probably the most powerful magnate in the realm. They set fire to the Treasurer's Highbury Manor, opened prisons and destroyed legal records.

On 14th June, King Richard and a handful of lords and knights met the Essex peasants at Mile End. The peasants pledged their allegiance to Richard, and handed him a petition which asked for the abolition of villeinage, for labour services based on free contracts, and for the right to rent land at fourpence an acre. The King said he would grant these demands. Remarkably, later that day some peasants entered the Tower itself and invaded the Royal bedchambers and the privy wardrobe. Whilst in the Tower, some rebels took the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chancellor and John of Gaunt's physician into custody. They then dragged them onto Tower Hill and executed them. The rebels considered these men 'traitors,' perhaps holding them responsible for the various charges of corruption and extravagance that Parliament had aimed at the Royal administration for the past decade or so. Anyway, after these events it seems that many of the Essex rebels began to disperse.

The next day, King Richard met the Kentish peasants at Smithfield. They demanded an end to all lordship beyond that of the King, that the Church's estates be confiscated and divided among the wider populace and that there be only Bishops throughout the whole kingdom. The numerous radical preachers who took part in the revolt probably put forward these religious demands. As before, the King agreed to all the demands put before him. However, the rebel leader, Wat Tyler, apparently addressed the King with insolence and the Mayor of London pulled Tyler from his horse and a squire killed him. The crowd prepared to rush the King and his men, but Richard confronted them, and convinced them to follow him. As he led them away, the Mayor made off to the city where he recruited a force which soon surrounded the rebels. Richard declared that all should be pardoned and should return peacefully to their homes. The London revolt was effectively over.

Elsewhere, villages around London, such as Clapham, Chiswick and Twickenham had been plundered and burnt. Even in the north of England, there were at least three isolated outbreaks - in York, Scarborough and Beverley. But the most serious risings outside London were in the eastern counties. In St Albans, the local townsmen drained the Abbot's fishpond, killed his game, sacked the houses of his officials and burned the charters that gave him his manorial rights. In Bury St Edmunds, the Prior was tried and beheaded by rebels. In Cambridge, peasants and townsmen damaged parts of the University, burned its archives and drew up a document that formally handed over the University's privileges to the town. In Norfolk, a large band of rebels forced the city authorities of Norwich to open the gates and then took over the castle, while rebel detachments plundered parts of the surrounding area.

The targets that the peasants attacked, plus the demands that they made to the King, show the pressures they faced at the time. The immediate cause of the revolt was the unprecedented amount of taxation the peasantry faced from the Government. The poll tax of 1380 was three times higher than that of the previous year and, unlike its predecessor, taxed rich and poor at the same rate. Hence, it was very unpopular with the peasantry.

However, the main call of the peasant rebels was for the abolition of serfdom. This was because, since the middle of the century, their lords had prevented them from making the most of the changing economic conditions. Visitations of the plague since 1348/9 had reduced the population by between a third and a half. As a result, labour became more scarce, wages rose and the economy began to suit the peasant more than it suited the landowner. However, the landowners of Parliament legislated to keep wages low and to restrict the free movement of serfs. Locally, landowners in their capacity as manorial lords also tried to tighten the feudal dues that serfs were obliged to carry out for them. Needless to say, the peasantry resented both these measures and there were local revolts both in the decade before and after 1381. Hence, the rebels attacked symbols of lordship and lordly authority, such as manors and manorial records.

London was made safe from 16th June 1381 and, over time, the authorities gained control in all the regions that had experienced insurrection. King Richard issued a proclamation denying rumours that he had approved of what the rebels had done and, soon after, revoked the pardons he had granted them. A judicial enquiry followed and the King toured the areas that had experienced revolt. In Essex and Hertfordshire, the rebels were dealt with severely, but generally the judicial proceedings were fair. Many of the main leaders of the revolt were already dead, while those who had survived were executed. Aside from this, no mass reprisals were allowed and, significantly, no late medieval Parliament ever tried to impose a poll tax upon the Nation again.

 

Bibliography
Dobson, RB (1983) The Peasants' Revolt of 1381
Dyer, C (1984) 'The Social and Economic Background to the Rural Revolt of 1381' from The English Rising of 1381, Ed. By RH Hilton and TH Ashton
Hanawalt, BA (1986) The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England
Hilton, R (1973) Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381
McKisack, K (1959) The Fourteenth Century 1307-1399
Tuck, A (1984) 'Nobles, Commons and the Great Revolt of 1381' from The English Rising of 1381, Ed. By RH Hilton and TH Ashton


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