“Now the time is come… in which ye may cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty”.
So spoke John Ball, the English radical preacher, and leader of the so-named Peasants’ Revolt, in a rousing sermon at Blackheath on the 12th of June 1391. Ball spoke passionately to the crowd that had assembled on the heath, urging them to cast off the yoke of servitude and to claim their freedom. The next day, the rebels swept through the capital, destroying the property of indolent and corrupt nobles, rousing the wider population, and finally, taking the Tower of London. Just three days later, however, the state responded with a brutal suppression of the rebellion. The leaders of the movement lost their heads, and the dream of liberty remained unrealized.
The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 is regarded, in many accounts, as an early expression of the long-standing British tradition of radical egalitarianism. This dramatic moment in the nation’s history appears, from a modern perspective, to have been the first instance of collective action in the name of freedom, egalitarianism, and liberty, ideals that we usually understand to have been a product of the Enlightenment and the 18th century. Although the movement ultimately failed in its goals, the Peasants’ Revolt lives on in British memory as the beginning of the end for the old order of feudal hierarchies and serfdom.
- 1380 Per capita poll tax is introduced
- 12 June 1381 Rebels assemble at Blackheath, south of London
- 13 June 1381 Rebels enter London and attack targeted sites in the city
- 14 June 1381 Richard meets rebels at Mile End
- 15 June 1381 Richard meets rebels at Smithfield; Wat Tyler is killed
- John Ball – Radical preacher and leader of the revolt
- Wat Tyler – Leader of the revolt
- Richard II English monarch (1377-1399)
- John of Gaunt 1st Duke of Lancaster and uncle/advisor to Richard II
- William Walworth Mayor of London
Poll Taxes and Plague: The Sparks that Kindled a Rebellion
In 1381, England was a country still reeling from the effects of the Black Death, the horrific plague that had swept through Western Europe and wreaked havoc on English society in the 1340s, 1360s, and 1370s. The terrible death toll inflicted by the plague led to a dramatic demographic restructuring of English society: labor was now scarce, and large swathes of land were left unworked, simply because many large landholders lacked the manpower to invest in cultivation. This meant that the cost of labor rose considerably in line with market forces, placing pressure on landlords. In response to these rising costs of labor, in 1351 the English Parliament passed the Statute of Labourers, a law designed to set a maximum wage for workers, thereby compelling ordinary men and women to work for artificially low wages. These new labor laws caused considerable anger among the wider population, particularly among those who depended on wage labor for their livelihoods. This group included artisans, rural laborers, tradesmen, and farmers, all of whom aspired to a better quality of life and felt unduly suppressed by the punitive laws.
In addition to this elite effort to suppress wages, the second half of the 14th century witnessed a rise in the extent and form of taxation. The need for greater taxes was a direct consequence of the expensive and somewhat abortive wars with France, which continued throughout the century and required extensive funding to ensure that the armies on the continent were adequately supplied. English administrators in this period were, therefore, pursuing a variety of creative solutions to extract the money they needed from the country, which led to a succession of experiments with various forms of taxation. In 1377, a poll tax was introduced, followed by two more in 1379 and 1380. This system of taxation diverged from previous methods of revenue collection by the crown, as they were a per capita tax rather than a graduated system based on income or social status. The 1380 poll tax was applied to every person living in England over the age of 16, men and women alike, and was set at three groats (or 12 pence). This was a threefold increase on the poll tax of 1377 and was met with widespread anger and resentment.
The taxes themselves, however, were not the sole cause of the revolt. In the spring of 1391, in response to complaints of tax evasion in certain parts of the country, a number of inquiries were set up in order to investigate and punish those who had failed to pay their taxes. In Essex and the south east of England, these investigators were said to have behaved heavy-handedly, angering local residents and increasing opposition to the tax and local authorities. The poll tax and the behavior of those in positions of authority appear to have opened up a range of issues in English society, relating to power, liberty, and unfair oppression. Whilst the poll tax forms the backdrop for the revolt, it was by no means the only grievance brought by the movement’s leaders.
The Outbreak of Revolt
The seething resentment, then, that emerged in the spring of 1381 came to a head in May. In the south east of England, primarily around Kent and Essex, groups of dissenters began to organize, and rouse their fellow men to anger and rebellion. News and people traveled quickly in this region, which was well connected by rivers and trade networks. Early demonstrations in the countryside were extremely successful in gathering support for the cause, but the real goal was London, where the protesters could take their demands to the lords and nobles who were legislating against them. Ultimately, the call went out: the feat of Corpus Christi on June 13th would be the day when the crowds would gather and march on the capital.
One of the principal leaders of the rebellion was John Ball, a radical preacher who had been imprisoned and excommunicated as a result of the content of his sermons. His preaching was rooted in millenarianism, predicting an imminent and total social overhaul, and he was intensely critical of the social hierarchies that placed high-ranking clerics and lords over the needs of ordinary people. We know very little of his early life, just as we have almost no information about the other major leader of the revolt: Walter (Wat) Tyler. He was a craftsman from Essex who joined the Kentish rebels, and he emerged as a key figure due to his charismatic leadership qualities and his capacity for organization. Both of these men were extremely important in shaping the character of the revolt and channeling the anger of the roused crowds.
On June the 13th, the crowds marched on London from the south, crossing the river at London Bridge. The king and his council remained ensconced in the Tower of London, fervently debating how to deal with the revolt. As they stalled for time, the rebels stormed through the city, attacking the prisons at Southwark and Newgate, throwing open the doors and rousing the men of the city to their cause. As the different groups of rebels rounded on Fleet Street, the object of their anger became clear. The Savoy Palace, the lavish home of John of Gaunt, stood between the road and the river. John of Gaunt was the king’s ambitious and powerful uncle who was widely credited with having masterminded the new poll taxes. The rebels entered, almost unopposed, the luxurious interiors of this vast palace were torn down and destroyed, and the building burned to the ground. It is remarkable, however, that amidst these targeted attacks, very little appears to have been stolen. The Savoy Palace, despite being filled to the brim with valuable treasures, was destroyed but not looted, and similar attacks on high-ranking nobles appear to have been ideologically rather than financially motivated. The violence and destruction continued until, at nightfall, the crowd gathered outside the Tower of London.
On June 14th, Richard decided to approach the rebels himself, in doing so, distancing himself from the ministers that appeared to be the principal object of their anger. Throughout the city riots, violence and destruction of property continued, and almost as soon as Richard had left the Tower, it was stormed by a group of rebels. Simon Sudbury, the Lord Chancellor, and Robert Hales, the Lord of the Knights Hospitaller, were both seized and executed. Richard continued, however, to Mile End, where he resolved to meet with some of the leaders of the movement and negotiate an end to the revolt. This meeting is a remarkable event in the story of the revolt, as it is clear that Richard himself took a huge risk in going to meet the rebels, with only a small bodyguard. Was this a simple act of naiveté? Or a stroke of diplomatic genius?
During the meeting at Mile End, Richard listened to the rebels’ demands and made a series of extraordinary promises. All of the rebels involved in the violence were to be given amnesty, and a series of charters were drawn up that detailed the abolition of serfdom. Richard refused to give up any of his officials, which was a key demand of the rebels, but he did promise to administer justice in cases of unfair behavior on the part of landlords.
These extraordinary concessions, whether they were made in sincerity or not, were not sufficient to assuage all of the rebels. A large contingent, led by Wat Tyler, demanded a second meeting with Richard the next day at Smithfield to which Richard acquiesced, and the two camps, royal, and rebel gathered at opposite ends of the field. Tyler spoke for the rebels, stating that further concessions must be made before he was prepared to tell the crowds to stand down. Angry words were spoken, and as the tensions escalated, a fight broke out between Tyler and William Walworth, the Mayor of London. Moments later, Wat Tyler was dead, and the movement had lost its head.
In the moments after Tyler fell, panic and confusion reigned among the rebels, and it is likely that they would have erupted in violence were it not for the instinctive actions of Richard. The boy king rode out to the rebels, calling to them, and declaring himself to be their king and leader. He led them from the field and out into Clerkenwell, thereby diverting what would have likely developed into a massacre. As the rebels dispersed across London, the nobles, headed by William Walworth, began to rouse forces of their own to launch a crackdown.
The death of Wat Tyler symbolized the death knell of the revolt. In the days after the 15th of June, all of the promises made by Richard were revoked, and the rebels were pursued relentlessly. In London, Essex, Kent, East Anglia and even further north, where similar, smaller scale revolts had also broken out, dissenters and those associated with the rebels were attacked, tried, imprisoned and sometimes executed.
A Peasants’ Revolt?
Traditional interpretations of the Peasants’ Revolt tend to characterize it as a reaction to the traditional feudal order and hierarchies of the late medieval period. The participants, according to this view, would have been primarily peasants and serfs, and they were aiming to break down the vertical structures of power and authority that profoundly limited their freedoms. The demands made to the king on the 15th of June did include the abolition of serfdom and extensive land reform. The call for a radical social change does seem to have been widely reiterated, and it is clear that the rebels attributed their inability to better themselves to the inequities inherent to the feudal social order.
Large numbers of peasants, i.e., serfs and rural workers, would have been involved in the revolt, simply because of the balance of probabilities and the composition of English society at that time. However, the demographics of the revolt was rather broader than is generally allowed in modern accounts of the events. It included members of the clergy, artisans, urban workers, even some gentlemen, occasionally sheriffs and bailiffs and local manorial officials: essentially a broad spectrum from 14th-century English society. The anger was directed mainly at the ruling classes. The traditional legal recourses of many of these people were limited, because parliament, property, and local governance fell largely in the hands of elite landholders who were, it was felt, abusing their power in order to protect their interests and deliberatively legislating against the favor of the commoners.
This is reflected in the nature of the attacks on the city, where the violence was terrible but targeted, and singled out individuals and groups deemed to have been complicit in the systems of taxation, landholding, and serfdom that continued to oppress rural laborers. When the rebels reached Lambeth Palace, for example, and the offices of the Royal Chancery, they destroyed records of taxation and landholding but left the libraries intact. The goal of the revolt was not total revolution and the overthrow of the monarchy, but rather the removal of the corrupt intermediaries that stood between commons and king, and importantly, the king’s justice.
The Peasants’ Revolt achieved few of its original aims. Concessions and manumissions issued by the king were immediately retracted, the nobles retained their place, money, and position in English society, and there was no further discussion of the representation of the laboring masses. However, this does not mean that the revolt achieved nothing whatsoever. There were no further poll taxes, and the kings and nobles had understood the message that exerting too tight a squeeze on those of the bottom rung of the social ladder would have consequences. Noble and royal power was not absolute, and controversial policies could not simply be imposed without inciting violence. The institution of serfdom continued, although by the end of the 14th century it was clear that this system of landholding was in a process of terminal decline.
In addition to this, the idea of the Peasants’ Revolt endured for centuries in the English imagination and operated as a sort of subconscious limit on royal and noble power. The violent and bloody events of 1381 took on an iconic status in English culture and literature and were mentioned in a number of medieval and early modern literary works, including those by Chaucer and the poet John Gower. The Peasants’ Revolt also supported the romantic notion of a tradition of British radicalism and egalitarianism. This English spirit of radicalism, understood to have been the driving force behind the civil wars and political upheavals of the 17th century, is embodied in the popular imaginary by the Peasants’ Revolt. When Margaret Thatcher tried to institute a poll tax in the late 1980’s, mass violent protests, evoking the spirit of the Peasants’ Revolt took place (the tax was rescinded, but evolved into modern day council tax).
Sites to Visit
- Smithfield Market, Farringdon, London. The current market stands on the site of the large, grassy field where the Wat Tyler met his end at the culmination of the revolt. During the medieval period, this site operated as a notorious place of execution, particularly for dissenters and rebels against the crown, including William Wallace.
- Blackheath, London. This ancient common was a frequent meeting place in the medieval period, and like many other open sites in the city, was used as a burial place during the Black Death. It was here that John Ball delivered his rousing sermon to the crowds of rebels. Today, the heath remains an area of undeveloped common land, in which it is possible to imagine the gathering of protesters in the 14th
- The Savoy Hotel, The Strand, London. The present-day hotel stands on part of the medieval site of its namesake, the Savoy Palace. This lavish palace was the home of John of Gaunt and was destroyed by rebels in 1391. The Palace occupied the space between the Strand and the river and is home to a number of streets and buildings named to commemorate the former building.
Film, Literature, and TV
- Now is the Time, by Melvyn Bragg. A historical novel dramatizing the Peasants’ Revolt, focusing on the iconic meeting between the rebels and the king.
- Medieval England: The Peasants’ Revolt. A BFI film, part-narration, part-dramatisation, with Anthony Hopkins in the role of Wat Tyler
- Dan Jones, The Summer of Blood, (General Books, 2010). This accessible and well-written book is a gripping account of the events of the summer of 1381.
- Juliet Barker, 1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt, (Harvard University Press, 2014). This scholarly work presents the most up-to-date summary of research into the Peasants’ Revolt, with a useful appendix of sources and letters.
- Mark O’Brien, When Adam Delved and Eve Span: A History of the Peasants’ Revolt, (Bookmarks, 2016). A readable and introductory history of the revolt, with rich descriptions of 14th-century peasant life in England.
Relevant YouTube Videos
The Peasants Revolt of 1381: A Channel Four documentary (2004) focused on the Peasants’ Revolt:
Peasants Revolt: Three Minute History: Digestible account of the major events of the revolt:
Peasant Revolts: World History: 1381 in the broader context of dissent in the 14th century: