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The English Peasants Revolt of 1381

By Edited Sep 9, 2015 0 0

The Peasants Revolt of 1381, also known as "Wat Tyler's Rebellion" or "the Great Uprising" was the largest and most widespread popular rebellion in English history.

After the Black Death ravaged Europe, the death toll was so high that nearly of third of the population had been wiped out by the plague. Under feudal law, peasants were only allowed to leave their own villages with the permission of their lord. However, after the drastic population decline many lords were in dire need of laborers in order to make the harvest in time, and they encouraged peasants to leave their home villages and come to work for them on their lands. The labor shortage enabled peasants to effectively demand higher wages, and some even demanded (and received) their freedom. 

Many in positions of authority saw these developments as threat to the feudal system, and in 1351 the Crown responded by passing the Statute of Labourers. The Statute mandated that peasants could not be paid a greater wage than the going rate in 1346, and that no peasants would be permitted to leave their own villages. This caused a huge amount of anger and resentment among the peasants.

Many of the Barons were already greatly disliked by the peasants due to their oppressive conduct, and respect for the Church had also diminished considerably following the Black Death. Matters were made worse by the fact that the Church was a major landowner, and the abbots and bishops sided with the Barons in their suppression of the peasants. A small number of rebellious priests sided with the peasants instead, preaching openly against the Church and fanning the growing flames of discontent.

Popular anger reached a boiling point in 1380, when the war with France prompted the Crown to introduce a successive series of Poll Taxes within a four year period. Not only was the tax a great hardship, the landlords responded by increasing rents, enraging the peasants who were tied to the land by the Statute of 1346. After the imposition of the latest poll tax, many peasants hid from the tax collectors, resulting in a lower total sum collected despite the tax increase. The Royal Council responded by sending the tax collectors out again with orders to collect the total amount due — an act which ultimately triggered the outbreak of the revolt.

The first major incident took place at the village of Fobbing in Essex, where a tax collector and his men arrived and summoned peasants from the surrounding villages. Those who obediently answered the summons were informed that not only would they be forced to pay the tax a second time, they would also have to make up the difference for those who refused to answer the summons. A riot immediately broke out, and the tax collector and his men were beaten and expelled from the village, as were subsequent officials sent in to subdue the unrest.

Word of the revolt spread quickly to villages throughout Essex, and bands of peasants began to form and attack manor houses and government buildings, destroying tax documents and records of debts. Some landowners were killed, taken prisoner, or put through various humiliating ordeals by the vengeful peasants. Similar uprisings soon spread to Kent, and then to other parts of England. Rebels from Kent laid siege to Maidstone Castle and freed a rebellious priest named John Ball, who had been imprisoned by the Church after he preached a sermon in the peasants' favor. 

A huge force of peasants (estimated to have been as many as 50,000) began marching toward London in order to demand the abolition of serfdom and the repeal of the poll tax. They were led by a mysterious man named Wat Tyler, who may have been a soldier returned from the war in France. After surrounding London, the peasants crossed London Bridge and occupied the city. Many peasants became extremely unruly, engaging in bouts of drinking, looting, and violence. Fleet Prison was broken into, a number of foreign merchants were massacred, and the Savoy Palace was ransacked and burned down.

The young King Richard and his councilmen were completely unprepared for the uprising, and had only a few hundred troops at their disposal. Having little recourse, King Richard agreed to meet with the peasants for negotiations on June 14, where he conceded to nearly all their demands, including the creation of charters attesting that the holders had been pardoned for taking part in the revolt. While the King was preoccupied with the negotiations, a force of peasants took advantage of his absence and stormed the Tower of London, where they took vengeance on many of their most hated enemies. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Treasurer, and John Legge (the creator of the loathed poll tax) were all dragged from the tower and beheaded.

After the first day of negotiations many peasants began to leave the city with their charters, believing that the King would keep his word. However, Wat Tyler and a substantial force remained, demanding a second meeting with the King in which they would issue further demands. The second meeting took place outside the city walls, possibly at the request of the Lord Mayor William Walworthe, who was maneuvering to get the peasants outside the city. Exactly what really took place on the second meeting is not known, as only the King's own chroniclers recorded the event. 

According to the chroniclers, Wat Tyler rode ahead of his main force to meet with the King, whereupon he behaved belligerently and immediately started a confrontation after dismounting his horse. After Tyler drew his dagger, the Lord Mayor drew his sword and struck a mortal blow to Tyler's neck, after which one of the King's knights ran Tyler through and killed him.

Seeing that their leader had been enclosed by the King's men, the rebel force began to go into an uproar. However, King Richard placated them by riding forward and shouting the ambiguous words "You shall have no captain but me." The King then claimed that Tyler had been knighted rather than cut down, and promised the peasants that all their demands would be met provided they marched to St. John's fields and waited.

The peasants did as requested, and the King's men immediately prepared to retaliate against the rebels. Messengers were dispatched to summon royal troops, which were sent to slaughter the rebellious peasants who remained in the main group. Peasants who naively brandished the charters they had received in London were executed. John Ball, the rebellious priest who had played a key role in instigating the revolt, was hung, drawn and quartered in order to instill fear into anyone tempted to follow his example. After several thousand peasants had been sent to the gallows, the revolt was ended.

Even though the rebellion itself was crushed, the incident demonstrated in no uncertain terms that the peasants were a potentially dangerous force to be reckoned with, and that they could not be treated with the same level of impunity that had prevailed in earlier stages of feudalism. The poll tax was never raised again, and Parliament no longer attempted to force down the peasants' wages by legislative fiat. Most lords also began to treat the peasants with a greater measure of respect, making many more of them free men upon their request. Many historians consider the Peasants Revolt of 1381 a key event leading to the eventual breakdown of the feudal system itself.

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