Most English people worked the land during the 14thcentury, and produced food for the towns and cities. Then in 1348, the Black Death plague crossed the water’s from Europe into England, bringing with it death on a large scale, no one was immune. This disease took the lives of some fifty percent of the population.
Things had changed in England, and the peasant’s of this land were only too quick to see it. There was plenty of land in need of farming, but limited manpower to carry out the work.
Peasant’s charged for their work, and with manpower shortages, the prices were driven higher and higher, and landowner’s profits were driven lower and lower. Even landowners bartered with peasant’s to get their crops harvested and to market, even if it meant out-bidding fellow farmers.
The authorities had to step in amid growing chaos, and help farmers before it got completely out of control. So it was in 1349, emergency legislation was passed in the form of the “Ordinance of Labourer’s” and the “Statue of Labourer’s” in 1351. These bills were designed to re-set wages paid to peasants at pre Black Death rates. Under these bills it became illegal to refuse work offered or break existing contracts, with fines being imposed for offenders.
By 1361, the legislation of these bills had been strengthened to such an extent, that anyone breaking the rules faced the possibility of branding or imprisonment, for their actions.
The peasant’s were forced to work on church land for up to two days for free, but this meant that no food was grown for their families. They saw the church getting richer and richer, as they returned to olden times as they became one of the poor groups of society.
They wanted to break away from this tradition, for working for free on church land. If landowners paid, why shouldn’t they… John Ball a Priest from Kent backed their actions.
England had been at war with France, and more and more money was needed to take on their powerful armies. Whilst King Edward III of England, pressed home his claims to the French throne, so the long running conflict, known as the “Hundred Years War” would continue.
However, the might of Charles V of France increased in 1369, with cross-channel raids on English coastal towns.
A new King came to the English throne, when in 1377 King Edward III died, only to be replaced by Richard II aged ten.
The young King’s biggest challenge was how to raise the money to pay for his armies battling with the French. Early 14thcentury taxes were imposed on household’s moveable possessions; goods and livestock.
So Parliament introduced the controversial Poll Tax, where each person aged over 14, would have to pay.
By 1381, the peasant’s had witnessed the Poll Tax charges being rolled out three times over a four year period, and they had reached breaking point… If you were on the tax register, you paid or they took goods to the value.
In May 1381, villagers from the Essex village of Fobbing made a stand against Poll Tax payments. When John Brampton the tax collector arrived, checking why bills had not been paid, he was evicted from the village. In June soldiers arrived to establish law and order, and they too were evicted.
Villagers from Fobbing and many other village’s joined forces and marched on London, taking their grievances to the young King.
Peasant’s from Kent, led by Wat Tyler marched on Canterbury, and entered the walled city and castle on 10thJune without resistance. The rebel force deposed the absent Archbishop Sudbury of Canterbury, and forced cathedral monks to swear allegiance to their cause.
The next morning Wat Tyler took his rebel force and marched on London, destroying tax records and burning down government tax houses on route. Upon arrival in London, the city gates were opened for them, by those who believed in their cause.
King Richard II left Windsor Castle by boat, taking up residence at the Tower of London.
Both groups of peasant’s had reached London by the 12thJune. The Kent army of rebels camped at Blackheath and the Essex rebels at Mile End, north of the river Thames.
The King agreed to meet them on the afternoon of the 12that Rotherhithe, but when faced by such a large army, he did not leave the Royal Barge, fearing for his safety and returned to the Tower of London.
On the 13thJune rebels attacked the city, prisons were broken into, prisoners set free, and a number of people killed.
As parts of London burnt, Richard II agreed to meet with the rebel forces the very next day at Mile End, believing the looting and ransacking of the city would cease, and many would leave the city.
King Richard II rode out to meet Wat Tyler the leader of the rebel force at Mile End on the 14thJune, where their demands were put forward:
- Land rents were to be reduced to reasonable levels.
- The Poll Tax was to be abolished.
- Free pardons for all rebels.
- Charters would be given to the peasant’s laying down a number of rights and privileges.
- All traitors were to be put to death.
Richard agreed to their demands, with the added note, that a royal court would decide who is or not a traitor.
Wat Tyler wanted more; he outwitted the King and sneaked off with a group of rebels, and raided the Tower of London. He found the Simon Sudbury the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Hailes the King’s Treasurer and John Legge creator of the Poll Tax. These men were forcibly dragged out onto Tower Hill and beheaded; their heads were paraded around the city, before being fixed to London Bridge.
The peasant’s started leaving the city on mass and returning home, believing the charters they had, absolved them from charges, and their demands had been met. What they didn’t know, was that their leader Wat Tyler and a select group of rebels remained behind, to meet with the King at Smithfield. Wat Tyler was wounded by William Walworth, the Lord Mayor of London, at this meeting, and he died at the hands of a squire.
The King wanted his revenge on these peasant rebels. The King so ordered the execution of any man brandishing a charter, for it became a notice of execution. Thousands were slain by Royal Troops or sent to the gallows for their crimes.
Minor rebellions broke out across the country as rebel peasants returned home, and fire still burnt in their hearts. Violence spread like a plague, gaols opened, prisoner’s set free, court records burned, property looted and destruction on a large scale.
Rebel leaders were rounded up, by Royal Troops, to stand trial for their part in the Revolt.
- Jack Straw was captured in London and executed.
- John Ball was captured in Coventry, tried for his charges in St.Albans and hung, drawn and quartered in the market place.
- John Wrawe was tried in London, and gave evidence against his colleagues hoping to be pardoned, but the court still sentenced him to death. He was hung, drawn and quartered on 6thMay 1382.
- Sir Roger Bacon, was tried and imprisoned in the Tower of London, before being pardoned by the Crown.
The King announced that all peasants’ previous conditions of service would come into effect on the 30thJune, and that the Royal Charters signed during the uprising would be revoked on the 2ndJuly.
What was the final outcome of the Peasant’s Revolt?
- The peasants were crushed by a mightier force, their demands refused, and thousands executed, for taking part.
- Parliament gave up getting involved; in landowners payment to peasant’s who worked on their land.
- The Poll Tax was abolished.
- The peasant class gained respect from landowners and government, and were no longer part of the land, and became free men in their own right.
The 14thCentury Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 showed if pushed too far, the working man can rise up and take action. What started as a local revolt centred around Essex spread across the South of England and up the East Coast.