The Peasants’ Revolt Reaches London
- June 12th1381 -
In 1990 much of Britain was erupting in violence as the full impact of the hated Poll Tax was taking effect. Police were fighting running battles with rioters in Trafalgar Square as they tried to force their way into Downing Street and Parliament. Up and down the country similar protests ended up in chaos. The Poll Tax, introduced by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government, was seen as unfair on the less well off in society. It was also to bring about her downfall when she resigned as leader in November 1990. Had she seen the impact of a previous poll tax in the fourteenth century she might well have shied away from introducing it. However, as we well know, unfortunately we never learn from history.
So it was that in 1341 the peasants in England were angered beyond what could be tolerated. The reasons were many. England was doing badly in the 100 Years War and a young King, Richard II, only 14 years old, was being manipulated by a group of advisors ruling for their own benefit and political manoeuvring. Also prominent on the scene was a ‘rogue’ priest by the name of John Ball. The Church had put him in prison a number of times as he preached a message of equality. He was one of the first to espouse the notion of socialism. Why should some people be rich and others poor? Why should some drink wine whilst others dirty water? Why should some live in manor houses and palaces whilst others live in hovels? For hundreds of years the Church had preached that people were born into their own level of society and that was what where you stayed. There was little argument about it. If you wanted to get into heaven you accepted it and got on with life. Only the Church could get you into heaven so what choice did you have? Such was the power of the Church in medieval Society. Now here was a man, a priest no less, who said that this was wrong. People started to question their position and role in society. The Black Death of 1348-50 had already made the peasants rebellious as their labour was more in demand and they could ask for higher wages. That was until the Government clamped down and in 1351 introduced the Statute of Labourers that declared it illegal to pay a peasant more than they did before the Black Death. This obviously benefitted the ruling class but not those at the lower levels of society. Resentment and anger further increased.
With the war going on in France money was needed to support it. In 1377 a Poll Tax of 4p was introduced. In 1379 another was collected but the government got their sums wrong and tripled the sum the following year to 12p. This pushed the peasants too far and when tax collectors arrived in the Essex village of Fobbing the population fought them off. Other officials were sent in and one of them violated a young girl whom he claimed was old enough to pay but her father said she was not. A fight broke out and the tax collector was killed. In other villagers similar disturbances broke out. The spark had lit the bonfire of pent up frustration and anger. Rebels from Essex and Kent now marched on London. Other counties joined them, especially in East Anglia and Lincolnshire. Maidstone Prison was captured and John Ball released. Rochester Castle was captured and a man called Wat, a tiler, was appointed as the leader. He was helped by Jack Straw. As they moved towards London more and more men joined them until on 12thMay they arrived outside the City gates. These had been locked but merchants inside unlocked them to let them in, as they were sympathetic to their cause. They also hoped that rioting might help them sort out their own personal feuds.
Those seen as responsible for the Poll Tax and general poor government were targeted. The Archbishop, Simon Sudbury, had already had his palace destroyed in Canterbury and he headed to the Tower of London to seek refuge with the treasurer, Robert Hales. John of Gaunt, another advisor to the King, had his palace, the Savoy, burnt down.
The rebels asked to speak to the King. They had no grievance with him and carried his coat of arms on banners. They did not want to be accused of treason. The King agreed to meet them the next day at Blackheath and duly arrived on a barge, sailing down the river. His hated advisors were with him and this caused such a disturbance on the riverbank that he could not hear what the peasants were asking. The advisors quickly issued instructions for the barge to be rowed away. This further enraged the crowd who moved back to London. Another meeting was arranged for the following day, June 14th, at Mile End. Here the King agreed to many of their demands including being free of their feudal duties – in effect making the villeins, or serfs, freemen. He did not, however, agree to the execution of his advisors saying that it was for a court to decide that. Charters granting their freedoms were drawn up and a representative of each village was asked to stay to collect them the following day.
For Wat Tyler these demands did not go far enough and the men from Kent rioted that afternoon and evening in London. They stormed the Tower of London and came face to face with the King’s mother. They also found both Sudbury and Hales. The latter two were dragged out of the tower and beheaded with their heads stuck up on pikes. It took six blows to remove Sudbury’s head. Fearing a complete revolution the King agreed to meet Tyler the next day on June 15that Smithfield – significantly outside the city walls.
When the two sides met Richard’s small entourage was completely outmanned. Contemporary accounts give the figure of 60,000 peasants – certainly a number that is too high. What happened next is open to conjecture. Some say that Tyler was deliberately set up in what was an assassination, others that Tyler went too far and deserved everything that came his way. The peasants’ leader rode toward to the King. There was talk and Tyler was either offered, or asked for, a drink. It is said that he spat this out in the direction of the King. Some maintain that this drink was spiked. There were angry words between the groups. One of the King’s men wound Tyler up and called him the greatest crook in Kent. At this Tyler drew a dagger. Drawing a naked blade in the presence of the King was an act of treason and the Mayor of London, William Walworth, struck Tyler with his sword. He fell, fatally wounded, to the ground. The peasant army looked as though they would charge the King but the young boy rode calmly toward them, as if rehearsed. “Sirs, would you kill your King?” he asked. “I will be your leader, follow me.” This they dutifully did and he led them out further into the countryside and asked them to go home. Leaderless and in the presence of the King they meekly did as they were told.
Later, in front of another group of peasants, the King tore up the charters granting them freedom. “Peasants you are,” he said, “and peasants you will remain.” The King’s men went around the countryside rounding up and executing the rebels and their leaders. John Ball was hanged, as was Jack Straw. Hundreds died in this way and their freedom was not granted. It seemed as if the revolt had failed. However the government had been given a fright. There were to be no more poll taxes, wages started to rise and within a hundred years almost all peasants were given their freedom – not all due to the revolt it must be said. As for Richard, his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, deposed him in 1399. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London in September and although no one is sure, it is thought he was starved to death, or was murdered around February 1400.
As in so many events of this nature there are rarely clear winners and losers. Most people lost although in the long term the freedom so greatly wanted by the peasants was won. It is surprising that such an astute politician like Margaret Thatcher could fall into the same trap. The similarities between the two events are quite stark. The advisors of Richard II had become divorced from the real world. Many felt that Thatcher had become the same. If only more people remembered and learned from their history then the world would be a more peaceful place.