Why did the peasants really revolt?

In 1381, a vast rebel army ransacked the Tower of London, burned palaces and murdered government officials. What, asks Laura Ashe, provoked this explosion of popular rage: the excesses of England’s landowners, or hatred of King Richard II?

Richard II sails down the Thames to Greenwich to meet the rebels. (Photo by Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo)

This article was first published in the Christmas 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

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On the night of 13 June 1381, the 14-year-old king Richard II looked out from the Tower of London to see his city burning, the streets in chaos. Thousands of armed men and women from the countryside, self-appointed representatives of the ‘Commons of the realm’, had poured into the city over London Bridge, hunting down the lords and officials they called traitors for their corruption and oppression of the poor. They targeted and attacked symbols of power, and the property of men who wielded it. They broke into the Marshalsea and Fleet prisons, releasing all the prisoners, and ransacked the lawyers’ offices in the Temple, burning all the documents they could find.

Next they raided Lambeth Palace, the official residence of the hated lord chancellor, Archbishop Simon Sudbury. And, in pursuit of the king’s despised treasurer, Robert Hales, high master of the Knights Hospitallers, rebels burned down the whole estate of St John’s Priory, Clerkenwell.

Laura Ashe will be speaking about ‘Richard II: The Boy Who Never Grew Up’ at our Kings and Queens Weekend in March 2019. Find out more here

The BBC History Magazine Kings and Queens Weekend will take place on 2-3 March 2019

Meanwhile, a formidable Kentishwoman called Johanna Ferrour, together with her husband, led a party that destroyed John of Gaunt’s palace at the Savoy, hurling his valuables into the river. Gaunt’s family and servants were allowed to leave the house before it was torched, but he escaped death only because he was away from London. According to the chronicler Froissart, the shouts and cries that floated up to the king and his ministers in the Tower sounded as if “all the devils of hell were amongst them”.

The rebels’ hit list

Earlier that day, one of the uprising’s leaders, the chaplain John Ball, had told the waiting rebels, encamped on the south bank of the Thames at Blackheath, that “now was a time given to them by God”, to seize their liberty. This could not be a bloodless revolution: it would be a coup d’etat. “First the archbishop and great men of the kingdom were to be slain,” Ball declared. “After, lawyers, justices, lastly whomsoever they knew like hereafter to be hurtful to the Commons, they should dispatch out of the land.”

The royal party had hoped to avoid this apocalyptic scenario by heading off the rebels before they entered the city. The insurgents agreed to parley with the king at Blackheath. Richard approached cautiously by barge down the river, but got no further than Rotherhithe, for the rebel leaders suddenly demanded that 15 of the king’s councillors – Gaunt, Sudbury and Hales chief among them – be beheaded as traitors. No further negotiation seemed possible, and the king’s party retreated in alarm.

Within hours the crowd had crossed the bridge into the city. In a night of confusion and fear in the Tower, Richard’s advisors debated their course of action. Some were in favour of a violent response – hundreds of household knights under their lords’ command were stationed across London, and the mayor of the city, William Walworth, was keen to raise the militia. But the loyalties of the Londoners could not be reliably known, streets were no place for a pitched battle, and the risk of failure was too great. The Earl of Salisbury is said to have counselled the king to negotiate with the commons, and “to grant them everything that they desire, for if we start something we cannot finish we shall never recover, but we and our heirs will lose everything, and England be destroyed”.

As a growing crowd surrounded the Tower, the king made his decision. He had a bland charter drawn up, and ordered a man to stand on a chair and read it out. The charter promised the rebels pardon for “all their illegal offences”, as long as they would now go home in peace and send him a letter detailing their grievances.

The enraged crowd met this feeble offer with derision, and “had it cried round the city that all lawyers, all the men of the Chancery and the Exchequer and everyone who could write a writ or a letter should be beheaded”.

The leaders renewed their demand that the king himself come to speak with them. So Richard sent messengers asking them to meet him on the morning of 14 June at Mile End: “a fair plain place where the people of the city did sport them in the summer season”, some distance out of the city and away from its streets. The king, Mayor Walworth and the rest rode out to meet them, leaving Sudbury and Hales alone in the Tower.

Death to oppressors

The rebels placed their demands before the king, and they were momentous. They asked for the end of serfdom: no man henceforth was to be bound to a lord’s service or his land, but should be free to rent or buy his own property. Property rental was to be set at an affordable four pence per acre. All men were to be free to buy and sell goods at market and to bring any legal grievance to the king’s court. The rebels also demanded that all the traitors who had presided over current oppression and corruption be executed and that all who had taken part in this uprising should receive a full amnesty.

Richard agreed to all these conditions – and, in doing so, apparently signalled the end of a social structure that had maintained the exploitative hierarchy of lords and serfs for centuries. But he also equivocated, saying that all “those found to be traitors” under the law would be justly punished. With this he asked the rebels to disband and go home in peace.

While negotiations continued at Mile End, a separate group of rebels, again led by Johanna Ferrour, entered the Tower of London – let in by an uneasy and intimidated garrison – and proceeded to ransack it. They seized Sudbury and Hales, dragged them out to Tower Hill, and beheaded them as traitors. Some historians have suggested that Richard’s party intentionally abandoned the chancellor and treasurer in the Tower, hoping that the mob would be appeased by their deaths. The king would certainly have been unable to convince the commons of his goodwill had he been flanked by the two man held responsible for the hated taxes that had sparked the revolt.

Whatever his intentions, Richard immediately, dramatically agreed to all the commons’ demands, ordering 30 scribes to issue charters on the spot, granting “freedom from bondage” to all the men of the counties. It’s unclear whether the rebels believed him. Either way, they did not disband.

When news of Sudbury and Hales’ execution reached Richard, his party retreated in confusion. As for the rebels, they now sought out further targets across London, taking effective control of the city. Among those they executed was Richard Imworth, the warden of the Marshalsea prison, described by a contemporary chronicler as “a tormentor without pity”. That afternoon the king came to Westminster Abbey in procession with his party, praying at the altar and making confession, before sending out messengers and criers to announce his desire for a second meeting with the commons, this time at Smithfield.

It was here, on Saturday 15 June, that Richard finally met Wat Tyler, the most famous of the rebel leaders. Tyler came forward out of the crowd, riding a little horse, and approached the king’s party. He didn’t bow, or take off his hat. He seized the king’s hand and shook it, congratulating him on making peace with the commons. We have no idea what the king’s reaction was, but all the chroniclers express horror at Tyler’s “rude and villainous manner”. Apparently, he asked for a cup of water. He then rinsed his mouth out and spat, before asking for a jug of ale, which he drank while Richard waited.

The king’s party simply couldn’t stomach such provocation, it seems. Insults were hurled, and a scuffle broke out. Then the Mayor of London himself, William Walworth, lunged forward with a knife. Tyler was stabbed, before falling to the ground.

At this moment, everything hung in the balance. The king’s party was small, facing a huge crowd of angry and confused rebels, whose leader had just vanished from view, surrounded by enemies. But Richard spurred his horse forward toward the crowd, shouting that he was their king, and they should follow him. He commanded them to reassemble in Clerkenwell, where he would meet them. Meanwhile Mayor Walworth rode back into the city at speed and raised the militia. When the crowds converged on Clerkenwell they found themselves leaderless, and surrounded by armed men, the mayor’s militia and the king’s knights and men-at-arms. Walworth had Wat Tyler’s head, spitted on a pike, shown to the crowd. They broke and fled.

An ignorant rabble?

The Peasants’ Revolt was all but over and, as events would prove over the following weeks, King Richard was in no mood to show mercy to its leaders. What irony then that the rebels never intended to do any harm to the king. On the contrary, the commons looked to Richard to be their champion, to eradicate his corrupt advisors and councillors and acknowledge all men to be equal, saving his own sovereign dignity. As they planned the advance on London, the rebels devised a password exchange: “With whom do you hold?”, to which the answer was: “With King Richard and with the true commons.” As it turned out, the rebels’ faith in their king was to prove their undoing.

The revolt may have ended in chaos but it had begun as a highly organised challenge to the establishment, directed with precision by charismatic leaders, and aimed at specific revolutionary goals.Though serfs were certainly involved, it was not really a ‘peasants’ revolt’: the majority of those who can be identified were property owners, substantial people with important roles in their local communities – reeves, bailiffs, jurors, and constables, as well as clergy and local officials.

These men were genuinely egalitarian. Their ideology is perhaps best captured by John Ball, when he preached “that from the beginning, all men were made alike by nature, and that bondage and servitude was brought in by oppression of naughty men against the will of God. For if it had pleased God to have made bondsmen he would have appointed them from the beginning of the world, who should be slave and who lord.”

This was a movement of the people, seeking wholesale social change. And it wasn’t confined to London. Across hundreds of villages in Essex, Kent, Hertfordshire and Suffolk, commoners rose up against the local authorities, burning and destroying the court records and estate archives that represented the rights and powers of their lords. The leaders of the rebellion co-ordinated strategies over many miles through letters and messengers. Their targets were political, and they wrote down their grievances and demands. They even sought written agreement and acknowledgement from the king.

Those grievances were both numerous and legitimate. The devastation wrought by the Black Death in 1348–49 had had a hugely destabilising effect on the the labour market, as demand for workers outstripped supply, and wages rose. The government responded with heavy-handed attempts to prevent the rural population from benefiting at the expense of landowners. It capped wages, outlawed free movement, and strengthened the hold of lords over serfs and labourers.

Mass tax evasion

Serfdom lay at the very centre of public disaffection: for the unfree could be exploited by their lords at every turn. They could not withhold or charge more for their labour, had to pay a fine to marry or to inherit their position, and were liable to maintain their lords’ buildings and property. Records show that vast numbers were arbitrarily fined for attempting to find work elsewhere, or for ‘trespassing’ on the lord’s land. They were given punitive conditions in return for limited freedoms; to offer just one example, they may have been permitted to work for someone else but compelled to return to help the lord with the harvest each year.

All the while, taxation became ever more burdensome, as the unending war in France took its toll. In November 1380 parliament voted to levy a poll tax at the flat rate of a shilling per head – this was three times the rate of the first poll tax, in 1377, and no longer graded according to ability to pay, as a second levy had been in 1379. There was widespread evasion and refusal, and as spring warmed into the hot summer of 1381, the government misjudged the mood of the counties in ordering ever stricter enforcement of the tax.

At the end of May, a group of villagers in Brentwood, Essex set upon a tax collector, saying that they would not pay another penny. This was not purely a local protest in resentment at a punitive tax, but a conscious, and soon widespread, uprising against corruption and oppression. Within a fortnight, rebels held the Tower of London.

In the revolt’s aftermath, it appeared that the commons had comprehensively lost their battle. The rebel ringleaders were rounded up and executed. John Ball, who had preached his incendiary egalitarianism so persuasively, was hanged, drawn and quartered on 15 July. All legal concessions Richard had made to the commons were repealed in parliament the following month. The king himself took part in a “visitation” of Essex to crush the remnants of rebellion there, and apparently dismissed their spokesmen with threats of death, declaring them “wretches… unworthy to live”. “You will be forever in bondage,” he promised, “not as you have been, but incomparably more vilely.”

The king was wrong. The atmosphere had changed, and over the next half-century dealings between lords and their tenants shifted irrevocably. Many fines and penalties were no longer enforced, and rents fell. In 1381 there had been tens of thousands of unfree families, bonded to their lords’ service; by the mid-15th century, only handfuls remained, and the rules under which they served were only sporadically enforced.

In the longer term, it is unclear how much of a legacy the leaders of the revolt could claim. In 1450 Jack Cade raised rebellion in Kent and advanced on London in indictment of Henry VI’s flawed reign, but he was captured and put to death. In 1549 Robert Kett led a rebellion that overtook much of East Anglia. In an echo of John Ball’s sermons, he demanded that “all bond men may be free, for God made all free with his precious blood shedding”. Kett too was executed as a traitor, and the establishment coupled his name with those of Wat Tyler and Jack Cade as a grim deterrent against further uprisings in the 16th and 17th centuries.

When a revolution, led by Oliver Cromwell, eventually did sweep away England’s establisshment, it was directed to dramatically different ends. While the rebels of 1381 sought to construct a new, egalitarian society under the stewardship of their king, Cromwell and his comrades would send theirs to the block.

Laura Ashe specialises in the literature, history and culture of medieval England at the University of Oxford and is the author of Richard II: A Brittle Glory (Allen Lane, 2016).

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To listen to Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Peasants’ Revolt on Radio 4’s In Our Time, click here.