Revealed: the true identity of the rebels of the Peasants’ Revolt

Far from being an ill-disciplined explosion of rage, the popular uprising of 1381 was organised with near military precision. And one of the reasons for that, a new research project has revealed, was the participation of hundreds of soldiers just returned from the battlefields of France. By Adrian R Bell, Anne Curry, Herbert Eiden, Helen Killick, Helen Lacey, Andrew Prescott, Jason Sadler and Ian Waldock

Boat diplomacy: Froissart's 'Chronicles' show Richard II acceding to many of the rebels' demands at Mile End, 14 June 1381. The speed with which the rebels flooded London wrong-footed the king's advisors. (Photo by Alamy)

“When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” This radical challenge to the social order was delivered by the priest John Ball as he preached to rebel leader Wat Tyler and his companions at Blackheath in June 1381 – and it has resonated ever since. What gave lords their rights to power and land, the insurgents asked. To hammer home the point, crowds of them marched on London.

Advertisement

“Commoners” from Essex, Kent and Hertfordshire rushed through the city gates on 13 June with support not only from the lower classes of Londoners – craftsmen, journeymen, labourers, servants and lower clergy – but also from richer citizens. Public order collapsed. The houses of ecclesiastical and secular dignitaries were broken into and plundered.

Amid the chaos, the young king, Richard II, and his advisers sheltered in the Tower of London. Just outside, on Tower Hill, an unbelievable drama unfolded as the rebels beheaded five men – among them Simon Sudbury, chancellor of England and archbishop of Canterbury, and Robert Hales, prior of the Knights Hospitaller and Treasurer of England – before displaying their heads on poles.

Coordinated violence was breaking out across the country: at Lakenheath in Suffolk, 80 miles north-east of the capital, the rebels hunted down and beheaded the highest judge of the land, Sir John Cavendish. Large parts of England, from Somerset to Kent, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and parts of Yorkshire were in turmoil. Tensions that had been smouldering under the surface in a society already disrupted by the Black Death and inconclusive wars with France had finally erupted into unprecedented levels of rioting. It was a perfect storm: “the hurling time”, as it was afterwards to be remembered.

A plan of action

But who were the rebels plunging the country into chaos? The events of the summer of 1381 have traditionally been called the Peasants’ Revolt, implying that the insurgents were rural labourers, who had been pushed into rebellion by the overbearing demands of their lords.

However, our major new project, “The People of 1381”, is revealing that the picture was far more complex than that. A team of historians and computer scientists has analysed a vast database of legal, governmental and manorial records relating to the revolt, among them indictments produced by jurors summoned to appear before royal justices. Our research has revealed that the rebel bands weren’t exclusively manned by rural peasants, but were instead made up of several distinct groups. And of all these cohorts, one in particular stands out. It consisted of veteran soldiers – men who had served in England’s wars with France – and they brought to the rebellion levels of planning and strategy typical of campaigning armies in the field. Their presence helped transform what otherwise may have been a chaotic explosion of public rage into a disciplined and – for a few weeks, at least – effective insurgency.

Veteran soldiers brought to the Peasants’ Revolt levels of planning typical of campaigning armies

The legal records indicate that the degree of organisation in the revolt was astonishing; we could even say that the actions were implemented with military efficiency. How else was it possible for insurgents from different areas to coordinate their attacks on landlords and royal officials in their localities? How else could hundreds of men from around the country advance on London together, arriving at exactly the right place, and at the right time?

So what drew so many former soldiers to the rebellion? In many cases, it appears to have been a combination of anger at a raft of new taxes levied to cover the escalating cost of the French wars, and fading faith in the state. The imposition of a poll tax – which tripled between 1377 and 1380 – caused enormous resentment.

It was bad enough having to pay this heavy tax, but even worse when the government’s military policies had failed. The English were losing the war. And now the French were sufficiently emboldened to launch raids on the ports and villages of southern England. With rebels in Kent feeling that they had little choice but to take the defence of the coast into their own hands, their faith in their government ebbed further still.

Stirring up trouble

One distinctive role of those with military experience in what we now call the Peasants’ Revolt appears to have been in actively encouraging others to join the insurgency.

Indictments against the rebels give prominence to charges against those who rode from place to place spreading word of the rising.

An indictment against the rebels in Cambridgeshire states that John Peper of Linton – who had fought in France under Thomas of Woodstock, Richard II’s uncle – rode with one of the main rebel groups in Cambridgeshire “carrying a lance with a pennant”.

Another man, John Quenyld of Edenbridge in Kent, had received letters of protection for military service in France in 1380 but was in the King’s Bench prison in Southwark at the time of the rising. As they passed through Southwark to cross London Bridge into the city, the rebels opened the prisons, a clear statement of their lack of confidence in royal government and justice. Quenyld escaped. He had connections in Surrey and first headed in that direction. We find him triggering major disturbances in Guildford. Quenyld also joined in the attack on the city authorities in Winchester, bursting into the merchants’ hall and burning the records.

This was far from an isolated incident. Across the country the rebels sought out and destroyed documents (both manorial records and government archives), symbolising both their rejection of authority and criticism of how the country was being run at a local and a national level. Often the rebels were accused of acting “in warlike manner”. In other words, they behaved as though they were at war: raising banners (seen in this period as a declaration of war), brandishing weapons commonly used in conflict – and employing these weapons with lethal force.

They also used their specialist military skills. We can see from the legal records that rebels were deliberately arming themselves in preparation for their collective action. Robert Glover of Strood and Drerlyng Ceode, a barber, seized from the house of William Topcliff (a senior official of the archbishop of Canterbury) “a hauberk [shirt of mail], a target, a lance, a bow and two sheaves of arrows”. Other rebels plundered armour and protective jackets.

Once in London the rebels made a beeline for the Great Wardrobe stores in the Tower of London. The list of items they stole – which included everything from mail shirts and helmets to axes and arrows – suggests that they knew what they were looking for.

Rebel fighters

Military veterans who waged war on the state in the summer of 1381

Robert Hull was accused of joining the rebels who entered the abbey of
St Mary Graces near the Tower of London. They assaulted the abbot and forced him to give up possession of their London properties. They also tore up books, charters and muniments. 

Back in 1355, Hull had been the master of the king‘s ship La Isabelle, based in King’s Lynn. He was authorised to impress 30 mariners and sail for Gascony. Over 20 years, Hull travelled numerous times in royal service. It seems that he was motivated to join the rebels because his lands were close to the abbey of St Mary Graces and he resented its property acquisitions. 

The Stathums, from Morley in Derbyshire, came from a gentry family headed by a powerful woman, Goditha Stathum. On 18 June 1381, with news of rebellion reaching Derbyshire, Goditha seems to have encouraged her sons to attack targets linked to John of Gaunt, the king’s uncle and a man with whom the family had a longstanding feud. 

Four of the five brothers can be linked to military service: Ralph is likely to have fought with Sir Hugh Calverley at Calais in 1375; Thomas and William served with the Earl of Buckingham in 1380; and Robert served at Brest in 1393. 

John Stakepoll was listed as one of four “principal leaders and traitors” of the rebellion and was beheaded for his part in the rebellion. Yet very little was recorded about him. What we do know is that when Stakepoll died, his posses- sions consisted of a red gown, a cloak made of red and green cloth, three hoods and a pair of worn-out stockings, a pair of worn-out thigh-boots, an earth- en-ware pot, as well as a harp and a gittern (similar to a lute).

The colourful clothes and musical instruments suggest that Stakepoll might have been a minstrel. However, one more item points in another direction: an overslop (an overgarment or cover) for a chain mail covering the head and neck. Could John Stakepoll also have served as a soldier? 

Crushing revenge

Thanks to talents they had acquired on campaign, some rebels were capable of wreaking substantial damage to even the sturdiest of fortified houses – as William Topcliff discovered to his cost. Topcliff had been involved in heavy-handed judicial sessions at Dartford, provoking the residents and making him a target for the rebels. On 7 June 1381, they took their revenge.

Thomas Crowe of Snodland “dragged large boulders onto the house causing it to be crushed”. The term used for Crowe’s action in dragging the boulders is “trectum”, suggesting that he might have used a large sling or trebuchet to launch the boulders that smashed Topcliff’s house to bits. Crowe was an ex-soldier with garrison experience at Calais, where he would have learned how to use a trebuchet.

The rebels may have used a large sling or trebuchet to launch boulders at William Topcliff’s house

A number of Kent rebels were masons, and it is likely that some had been engaged in military service. Gilbert Stork and Lawrence Rockacre were accused of participating in one of the most notorious incidents of the entire revolt: the attack on the Savoy Palace, London residence of Richard II’s uncle John of Gaunt. The “expertise” these masons had gained in military service may help explain why the palace was so badly damaged that it was never rebuilt.

Some of the rebels were army deserters, who had been lying low in Maidstone and Rochester after taking wages for a campaign to France but then absconding. One such was Thomas Wootton, who had been engaged to go on campaign to Brittany in the spring of 1381.

Intriguingly, Wootton was named as one of the leaders of the revolt by another rebel, Robert Bennett of Barford St John in Oxfordshire, who later “turned king’s evidence” and informed on his former friends.

Bennett was in prison in Southwark when the revolt erupted. He claimed that Wootton had led a band of rebels that burst into the prison and freed those inside. Bennett also claimed that, in the panic, the wife of the keeper of the prison gave him six silver spoons to keep out of rebel hands. Bennett insisted that Wootton had forced him to hand over the spoons.

As a result of the allegations, all Wootton’s possessions were held until £30 had been levied in compensation for the wages he had been paid to serve with the army.

The truth of Bennett’s allegations was tested through trial by battle at Newgate gaol. Bennett vanquished Wootton, who was duly executed. But this was not enough to save Bennett’s skin. For his role in the revolt, he, too, was put to death.

Sea-going insurgents

The rebellion didn’t just attract veterans of England’s land campaigns in France; mariners, it seems, played a role, too. In Kent, John Ellis, master of a balinger (a small sea-going vessel used to counter French raids), was said to have risen with others in the Isle of Sheppey on 11 June and to have seized land and livestock belonging to the unpopular Kentish royal official Nicholas Herring.

John Ailrugge, shipman, is named in actions relating to disturbances in Bridgwater. He had served under John of Gaunt in Aquitaine in 1378. Another future rebel served on the same expedition. This was William Paynot of Weeley in Essex, who – along with an accomplice with a suggestive name, Woodgrave Mariner – was accused of inciting a rising in Essex on 27 June 1381 following the execution of the rebel John Preston of Hadleigh.

Some rebels were described as “travelling-men”, representing a rootless, wayfaring way of life. One of these was John Young of Hereford, who was involved in the wool and cloth trade between Wales and England. He was engaged in 1383 to participate in a military “crusade” in Flanders under the bishop of Norwich, Henry le Despenser.

Young wasn’t alone among Despenser’s future troops to have been embroiled in the revolt. The authorities attempted to prosecute Richard Crisping of Catfield for his part in the destruction of the archives of the abbey of St Benet of Holme in Norfolk in 1381. Yet the case had to be dismissed because Richard was serving in Despenser’s campaign in Flanders.

By the end of June, the king and his advisors had recovered their equilibrium, the rebel leader Wat Tyler was dead, and the insurgency’s initial successes were quickly being reversed. Ironically, Henry le Despenser was heavily involved in the suppression of the revolt, leading the army that would deliver it a fatal blow at the battle of North Walsham on 25 or 26 June. But, as the case of Richard Crisping proves, that didn’t stop him recruiting a number of former rebels for his army – these were, after all, useful men to have with him on the battlefield.

For generations, English soldiers – men like Crisping – had been acquiring military expertise in the many wars the nation had waged against the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish and, of course, the French. In 1381, they employed these martial skills to devastating effect once again – against the very state they fought for.

Adrian R Bell, Anne Curry, Herbert Eiden, Helen Killick, Helen Lacey, Andrew Prescott, Jason Sadler and Ian Waldock are the team behind The People of 1381, a research project producing a comprehensive new interpretation of the Peasants’ Revolt. Find out more here

Advertisement

This article was first published in the May 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine