Life was tough for peasants in the 14th Century. They belonged to their local lords and had few, if any, freedoms. Known as “villeins”, they worked virtually without pay for their lord and one of their denied freedoms meant they could marry only if he approved.
The Black Death plague, which swept through the country killing about half the population between 1348 to 1350, ironically brought some relief for the peasants. It meant simply that there were fewer of them and landowners, faced with a shortage of manpower, had to pay up to secure workers.
The competition for labour meant that wages went up and the profits of landowners went down. To the privileged this represented a state of anarchy and it was certainly not a situation that the authorities would allow to continue. So new laws were passed: the Ordinance of Labourers in 1349 and the Statute of Labourers in 1351.
Both laws were designed to fix wages at pre-plague levels and made it a crime to refuse work or break a contract, the right of local lords to prevent serfs leaving their manors being endorsed. When the laws were later toughened, transgressors faced branding as well as imprisonment.
If the peasants were having a rough time, so too was the teenage King Richard II on whose young shoulders heavy responsibilities were laid. Not least solving the problem of finding money for the continuing conflict against the French.
In 1337, Richard’s father, King Edward III, had kicked off what was to be known as the Hundred Years' War by demanding the French throne. A poll tax to help pay for the conflict had been introduced but the money raised had been quickly used up mainly by the war and now the cupboard was looking bare again.
So in 1380 Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, came up with the idea of a new poll tax. Such a tax was more crippling for the poor because it was levied not on a household, but on the individual people in it. Sudbury called for three groats (one shilling) per head for everyone over the age of fifteen.
In his 1984 book The English Rebels, Charles Poulsen wrote: “A shilling was a considerable sum for a working man, almost a week's wages. A family might include old persons past work and other dependents, and the head of the family became liable for one shilling on each of their 'polls'. This was basically a tax on the labouring classes.
“There was a maximum payment of twenty shillings from men whose families and households numbered more than twenty, thus ensuring that the rich paid less than the poor."
All this could have been almost designed to spark rebellion – and it certainly did. Groups of workers across the country formed themselves into bands of protesters, especially in Kent and Essex, the big two counties neighbouring London.
A massive contingent from Kent marched to London wreaking destruction along the way and were joined by the Essex protesters, bringing their total to somewhere between sixty and a hundred thousand.
They were to be led by Wat Tyler. Very little is known about him but according to John Stow, an English historian and antiquarian of the time, Tyler's fourteen-year-old daughter, Alice, was sexually assaulted by a poll tax-collector.
Stow wrote: "The mother hearing her daughter screech out, and seeing how in vain she struggled against him, being therefore grievously offended, she cried out also and ran into the street among her neighbours, clamouuring about that there was one within that would ravish her daughter.”
Tyler was not at home but rushed back when he heard the news, found the tax collector and “gave him such a knock upon the head that he broke his skull and his brains flew about the room.”
This was a hanging matter so possibly thinking “in for a penny, in for a pound,” Tyler joined the poll tax rebels who were on the march.
Noting “the strength and vigour of his personality,” it was not long before the charismatic Tyler became the peasants' leader, according to Hyman Fagan in his 1938 book, Nine Days That Shook England.
One of his first acts was to break radical preacher John Ball out of jail. Ball, who had been imprisoned for heresy by the Archbishop of Canterbury, believed in everyone being equal and had called for an end to all titles except that of king.
Whipped up by the preaching of Ball, who said they should “throw away the evil lords”, the rebels were demanding that all men should be free and equal; that laws should be less harsh; and there should be a fairer distribution of wealth.
Upon being told of their approach to the capital, the King, along with his royal household and the Archbishop of Canterbury, moved to the Tower of London for safety. But Richard agreed to meet Tyler and other leading rebels just outside the city at Mile End.
At this meeting on June 14, the King agreed to all of the rebels’ demands and promised to end both serfdom and feudalism.
But while the meeting was taking place, some rebels broke into the Tower and dragged out Richard’s supporters. The Archbishop of Canterbury and a number of people from the royal household were beheaded. At the same time other rebels roamed the streets looking for and killing anyone thought to be sympathetic to the feudal system.
The next day – June 15 – there was another meeting between Tyler and the King, again outside the city but this time at Smithfield.
Tyler put forward another list of demands that included the removal of the lordship system, the distribution of the wealth of the Church to the poor and a reduction in the number of bishops.
There are various accounts of what happened next. According to the 14th Century Anonimalle Chronicle of St Mary’s, Richard said he would do what he could. But one of the King’s party then shouted out that Tyler was a common thief.
"For these words,” the Chronicle says, “Wat wanted to strike the valet with his dagger, and would have killed him in the King's presence; but because he tried to do so, the Mayor of London, William of Walworth, arrested him.
“Wat stabbed the mayor with his dagger in the body in great anger. But, as it pleased God, the mayor was wearing armour and took no harm. He struck back at the said Wat, giving him a deep cut in the neck, and then a great blow on the head. And during the scuffle a valet of the King's household drew his sword and ran Wat two or three times through the body.
“Wat was carried . . . to hospital . . . and put to bed. The mayor went there and found him, and had him carried out to the middle of Smithfield, in the presence of his companions, and had him beheaded."
As the peasants raised their weapons ready to avenge their leader the King rode over to them and spoke for some time. It is not known what he said but his words did the trick and the rebels agreed to go home.
Richard did not keep his promises, saying they had been made under duress. Serfdom was not abolished and the King’s soldiers put down the revolts. Hundreds of rebels were hanged, including John Ball. In the end the peasants were still under the control of the nobles – just as they had been before the uprising.
Later, a deputation of peasants seeking clarity about their position was admitted before the unforgiving King. According to chronicler Thomas Walsingham he told them:
"Rustics you were and rustics you are still. You will remain in bondage, not as before but incomparably harsher. For as long as we live we will strive with mind, strength and goods to suppress you so that the rigour of your servitude will be an example to posterity."
Published: May 26, 2020
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