In 14th century England, the largest political rebellion in the country’s history broke out in London. It had far-reaching consequences which can still be felt today.
The death of Wat Tyler. A contemporary manuscript.
By 1380, medieval Europe was in a shambles. There was plague and famine: the Black Death in 1348 had killed as much as one-half of the entire continent. The Hundred Years War between England and France, meanwhile, was dragging on and on. Religious law held sway, and people lived in ignorance and superstition. There was a rigidly hierarchical social structure that had existed for centuries, which fixed forever one’s place in society—one inherited the job of one’s father, whether it was a farm laborer or pig-keeper, an artisan like a blacksmith or carpenter, or a nobleman. It was a horrible time to be alive.
But, in an odd irony, the devastation wrought by war and plague actually made things better in some ways for the peasantry. With so many people gone, there was now both a large amount of unoccupied land and a severe shortage of peasant labor to work it. The balance of economic power had unexpectedly swung to the favor of the peasantry, and they tried to take full advantage: demands were made for higher pay, better living conditions, and more land. The nobility fought back using pure repression: royal decrees were sent which limited the amount of pay and land a peasant could get and which restricted his movements, forcing him to stay on the manor estate on which he was born and preventing him from leaving to find work elsewhere. As social tensions became ever greater, an explosion was inevitable.
In 1381, the English King was Richard II, only 14 years old. The real power lay with the advisors who ruled in his stead—especially with the King’s uncle, John of Gaunt. It was John who decided that the royal treasury needed more money to pay for the interminable war with France, so he created a new “poll tax”. This had nothing to do with an electoral poll: it was a simple head tax, to be paid by every adult male and married female in the country—and the same amount was to be paid by everyone regardless of how wealthy or poor they were.
Today, we would consider this to be blatantly unfair—and so did the medieval peasantry. But while modern citizens can protest unfair taxes by voting and petitions, medieval people had no political or social rights at all—they were little better than slaves.
But some of England’s peasantry found a way to avoid paying the new poll tax. England’s government depended upon local church records of marriages, births and deaths to keep track of each area’s census, and this record was often incomplete. Sometimes by bribery or favor, but mostly just by oversight and error, many people—as much as one-third of the population in some areas—did not actually appear on the tax rolls and therefore never paid the tax.
When the King’s treasurers added up the money, they found that they were short. And so, they made the near-fatal decision to send in “commissioners” to find all the ones who had avoided the tax and make them pay up. The heavy-handed methods used by these commissioners provoked widespread resentment; many people were forced to pay another tax even though they had already paid the first time. Women were particularly targeted: accounts declared that some of the commissioners used their fingers to test young women to see if they were still virgins or if they were married (and therefore subject to the tax).
The rebellion began with a baker named Thomas, from a village in Essex. Thomas gathered a group of local peasants and, on May 30, 1381, went to the town of Brentwood to confront one of the royal commissioners. When Thomas told him that all the people in the surrounding villages had already paid the tax, the commissioner flew into a rage and ordered everyone nearby to be arrested. Thomas Baker and the others resisted, a riot broke out, and the commissioner and his accompanying men—heavily outnumbered—fled the village.
The next day, another tax commissioner arrived in Brentwood, this time accompanied by a detachment of troops. But the peasantry had reached the breaking point. In the act which crossed the line of no return, they attacked the soldiers, killed six of them, beheaded the tax collector, and drove the rest of the King’s men out of the village. This was now treason, and there was no going back. But the poll tax was deeply unpopular, and as word spread from village to village, the rebellion grew. Within days, all of Essex was aflame with revolt.
On June 2, Lesner Abbey at Kent was attacked by a mob of peasants armed with farm tools, led by a local man named Abel Kerr. The Abbey quickly surrendered, and the tax records kept inside were burned. At the same time, other rebel leaders had gathered in the village of Bocking, in Essex, to draw up a manifesto. This was no disorganized mob of bandits and malcontents: it was an extraordinarily well-disciplined group of social rebels who knew exactly what they wanted to achieve and now formed a comprehensive plan for how to get it. At Bocking they declared that while they had no quarrel with the young King Richard, they sought the removal of many of his advisors, including John of Gaunt. But they also put out a radical new demand: “to have no laws of England, only which they themselves had moved to be ordained”. It was the first time in European history that anyone had demanded that common people have the right to make their own laws. In a series of coded messages, word of the rebellion and its aims was sent to most of southern England.
Within a week, the rebels had gathered an army of peasantry led by Abel Kerr—untrained and not well-armed, but large enough to pose a serious threat. Some of its officers were English Army troops who had been ordered to France but had deserted instead.
The first target was the castle at Rochester, where a local serf was being held on charges of running away from his manor lord. The rebels took the castle without a fight—the serfs inside had opened the gates and let them in. Other strongholds soon followed. The rebels also appointed a leader—a roof-tiler named Wat—and Wat Tyler would become the most famous figure of the Peasant Revolt. His first act was to lead the rebel army to Maidstone to capture the Archbishop’s castle and free a number of prisoners being held there.
After that, Tyler and his army departed for Canterbury to deal with Archbishop Sudbury, one of the King’s advisors who the peasants blamed for the poll tax. On June 10, the rebels broke into the Canterbury Cathedral (during Mass) demanding Sudbury’s head—but the Archbishop had already fled to London. And now, the Peasant Revolt took its most amazing turn of all—Wat Tyler and his men, numbering at least 60,000, decided to march on London, capture the Archbishop, and present their demands for reform to King Richard II himself. At the same time, other peasant armies from Cambridge and Essex converged on London (stopping along the way long enough to behead the chief royal tax collector in Essex and burn all the tax rolls).
They began to arrive on the evening of June 12. As more and more groups of peasants approached, the young King and his counselors fled to the safety of the royal fortress at the Tower of London, the most secure place in the city and impossible for any but the most powerful and well-equipped army to take by force. But once in the Tower, the royal government was itself effectively trapped: the entire population of London at the time was only 40,000 people, and with most of the English Army away fighting in France there was only a small garrison of a few hundred in the city, enough to protect the King inside the fortress, but not enough to go out and drive away the much large peasant army in combat.
There then occurred one of the most extraordinary events in English history: the young King Richard II and some of his advisors boarded a river barge and sailed to the place where the peasant army was encamped. Remaining on the boat, safe from possible capture, the King of England began talks with the rebellious peasantry. Unsure of how large the rebellion was, or even what the rebels wanted, Richard II at first simply demanded that the insurgent army should disperse and go home. Instead, the rebels submitted a list of names—high-ranking advisors to the King, many of whom were right there on the boat with him—which they wanted handed over to them for “justice”. Richard refused, and the barge returned to the Tower. The rebels decided to follow him.
Pouring towards London, the peasants were joined by city residents who sympathized with them. On June 13, the mass of people made their way to the only place where they could cross the Thames River—London Bridge. After entering the city, they killed a number of lawyers at the Courts of Justice and burned the estate house of the King’s uncle John of Gaunt (Gaunt himself was away in Scotland). Gathering up the stores of silver, gold and jewelry there, the rebels neither stole it nor redistributed it: instead, they dumped it all into the Thames. This was not an act of mere theft or looting: it was a conscious and deliberate political protest.
By nightfall, the peasants controlled almost all of London. Richard II was now a virtual prisoner inside the Tower of London fortress. Nearly half of the entire country was in revolt. The English peasantry—viewed by the nobility as savages who were barely above an animal level of ability—had organized a nationwide uprising, formed a powerful military force, planned and carried out a targeted campaign of political violence, and now had the royal government itself on its knees.
At this point, though, the rebels were still rather naively convinced that the King was not their enemy—was perhaps even a supporter—but was being misled by bad advisors, and could be won to respect the rights of common Englishmen if only they could talk to him. Through a messenger, King Richard, having really no choice, sent word to the rebel leaders: he would ride out and meet them the following day.
The meeting took place at Mile End, just outside the city, with the King and his retinue, some 30,000 peasants from the countryside, and thousands of Londoners who had simply come to watch. The rebels presented four “requests”: an end to the institution of serfdom which bound each peasant to a particular manor; the right of every farm laborer to sell their produce wherever they chose, instead of turning it over to the manor lord; a legal reduction in land rents; and amnesty for all the participants in the Revolt. It would, in one stroke, completely transform the economics and culture of the English countryside. The King had no choice but to accept, and dutifully wrote out and signed charters agreeing to all these demands.
Then the rebels casually mentioned that they also wanted the heads of several of the King’s advisors. Richard left, promising only that the counselors would “receive justice”. The crowd followed, all the way to the Tower. In 300 years, the Tower of London had never fallen in battle, but when the peasants arrived, they found the gates open, probably by sympathizers. Swarming inside, they quickly found the Archbishop of Canterbury—who they held responsible for the poll tax—and beheaded him in the Tower’s chapel. The treasury minister soon followed. By the end of the day, convinced they had won all their demands, most of the peasant army left London and began the long walk home to the countryside.
But events were not over yet.
One small group of rebels remained behind. Led by Wat Tyler, they wanted more, and confronted King Richard the next day. They met at an open spot on the edge of the city called Smithfield.
It’s not clear how much of what happened on June 15, 1381, was planned and how much was accidental. With the rebel force now reduced to about 300 men and the hardcore leadership of the revolt in front of him, Richard II, though just a boy of 14, may have seen an opportunity to save his kingdom with his own force of about 200 men, and may have set up the meeting as a trap for the rebel leader, willing to risk everything in a final fight.
Wat Tyler and King Richard met on horseback in the center of the field, with their retinues behind them. As Tyler began to list his demands, a scuffle broke out involving one of the King’s squires. Tyler was attacked by the Mayor of London and stabbed, falling wounded off his horse. And then, just as it seemed that open combat would break out, the young Richard boldly rode up to the peasant forces and shouted, “You shall have no other King but me—follow me!” He led them off to another nearby field. The wounded Tyler was taken inside a nearby chapel.
And then, whether pre-planned or not, the final blow fell. As the peasant force gathered behind the King, every available royal force in London was quickly moved to surround them. Tyler, meanwhile, was dragged out into the street by royal troops and beheaded. The severed head was delivered to the King just as the royal troops surrounded them. The rebels all dropped their weapons and surrendered. With their leader dead, the bulk of their army disbanded, and the belief that the King was on their side shattered, the Peasant Revolt died almost as quickly as it had arisen.
King Richard’s retribution was swift. Determined that such a revolt could never happen again, he hunted down and killed every rebel leader he could find—hundreds were executed by “drawing and quartering”, others were beheaded or hung. Thousands more were unofficially executed by local authorities, without even a trial.
But even though they ultimately were defeated, the Peasant Revolt was the first step that led to the American Revolution and the French Revolution, and sent a message that has echoed through all of political history right down to today. No government, not even an unelected autocrat, can hold power if its own people are not prepared to accept it.