Agitating the Peasants

When the Black Death reached England in 1351, the population was at breaking point. A few months later, the landlords were hard pressed to find men enough to work their farms. As a result of this, wages rose and conditions for the average peasant were better than they had been for centuries. In an attempt to stop inflation, wage rises, and increasing freedom for serfs, the government introduced the Statute of Labourers, which put a cap on wages. A black market of labour flourished as desperate land owners struggled to reclaim land left untended and re-establish their power bases.

Because of the new wages and reduced population, peasants were living very well. From a diet of cabbages and gruel, peasants could now afford bread (!) and occasionally meat and milk. They had more choices and many migrated to the increasingly wealthy cities.

Heretics such as Wyclif and John Ball were roaming the country during this time, agitating for church reform. They wanted much the same thing as the Reformation achieved two centuries later: a ban on the sale of indulgences; a bible written in English; enforcement of the monastic vows of chastity and poverty. These heretics, especially the Lollard group, had powerful supporters such as John of Gaunt (although he dropped them when they became too radical). There was a bible published by Wyclif during these years, named after him, that was written in the English of the common people (I think a copy of it lives at Trinity College, Dublin, with the Book of Kells).

Meanwhile, Edward III, the king, was fighting France in a conflict known as the Hundred Years War. He and his son, Edward the Black Prince, were excellent generals and for a while it looked like the English were winning. But Edward the Black Prince died of dysentery, and Edward III died a few years later, leaving the throne to his young grandson Richard II, whose uncle, John of Gaunt, was regent for him. Gaunt was unpopular but good at ruling, and Richard was a weak sort of king. Okay, he was only a boy, but that's no excuse. During this time, the war in France went very badly. The country was nearly bankrupted and men who should have been farming were off fighting and dying.

Poll taxes were being levied regularly in the decades after the Black Death to raise money for the king's armies. The plague struck again every so often to keep everyone awake (or dead) and took mostly children born since the previous outbreaks of plague. Richard II, a frivolous monarch, favoured foreign nobles in his courts and merchants of Flanders and France were growing rich in London, not to mention everyone's favourite scapegoat the Jews. It was in this atmosphere of social turbulence and economic uncertainty that the poll tax of 1380 was announced...

The Great Tax Evasion

In the poll tax of 1378, John of Gaunt, the richest man in England, had paid several pounds (240 pence per pound) and the poorest peasants one groat (4 pence). In 1380, John of Gaunt paid several shillings (12 pence) and a peasant could be asked for three groats. In a time when the wages were still only a few shillings a year for most people, this was ridiculous. So when Richard's tax collectors arrived, nobody was home. Records show that up to half the population of any town had mysteriously disappeared since the previous year. When the tax was counted, Richard was angry and sent his tax collectors around again. They were met with hostile bands of peasants and fled.

The Peasants Revolt of 1381

It took some time for the tax evasion to happen, and still more time for the king to send his collectors back. Tensions were high, people were angry, and eventually peasants in the south of England marched on London. Sympathisers in the city opened the gates, and in the (relatively humane and non-violent) riots that followed, foreign merchants were lynched, several members of government were executed and their heads paraded on pikes. Few others were hurt or killed, and while the rioters stormed, fired and destroyed numerous mansions, including John of Gaunt's Savoy Palace, priceless objects were destroyed rather than looted. Nobody is known to have died in the sacking of the Savoy, and Gaunt's mistress escaped unharmed.

As they rioted, the rebels sang their catchphrase: "When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?"

After a few days of rioting, the king agreed to meet the leaders of the riot at Mile End outside the city. The king and rioters arrived as planned. It is important to realise that in the great English tradition, the rioters did not want to kill or remove the king. They simply wanted him to appoint better ministers who would not mislead him.

Richard and his attendants (minus John of Gaunt, who was overseas) met and spoke with the rebel leader, Wat Tyler. Here the stories differ, but it is clear that at some point Tyler unknowingly committed an offence of some description (did he touch the king? say something rude? who can tell now) and one of the king's attendants drew his sword and struck Tyler down. The rabble erupted and Richard made the best move he made during his short reign: He rode right into the crowd and spoke to them. He pointed out that he was there king (they cheered) and that he was in full sympathy with them (they cheered) and that he would happily grant them freedom from serfdom right now. He then told the ecstatic crowd that they should go home, right now, spreading the word and celebrating their freedom. He, Richard, would take care of everything. Some stayed to be written manumissions (a paper stating freedom of the bearer from serfdom) on the spot, but most left immediately.

Richard Betrays His Loyal Subjects

That's right, as soon as the rabble had dispersed, that wretched man changed his mind. He sent out the army to arrest all peasants holding manumissions handed out at the meeting at Mile End, and he declared serfdom to be as real as ever it was. However, the army was out and the leaders were dispersed: the Peasants' Revolt was over.

Nemosyn Has Her Half Groats Worth

It is my opinion that if John of Gaunt had been home instead of traipsing around Castile with his wife and her army, none of this would ever have happened. I have strong opinions on this subject, that will eventually be noded under the title of How To Run A Feudal Kingdom.

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

Background

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.

Sources

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.

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