Your guide to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

In spring 1381, a group of rebels marched on the city of London, attacking houses and towns on their way to confront the teenage king Richard II. Historian Helen Carr explores what happened and answers key questions about the episode known as the Peasants’ Revolt, from the reasons for the unrest to the identity of Wat Tyler

The death of Wat Tyler', 1859. Tyler was a leader of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt in England, which saw a group of rebels march on London to oppose the institution of a poll tax and demand economic and social reforms. He was killed by officers loyal to King Richard II during negotiations at Smithfield, London. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

When was the Peasants’ Revolt? What happened?

The Peasants’ Revolt took place between 30 May–15 June 1381.

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The uprising began in the counties of Kent and Essex and snowballed from there as both rebel groups marched on London, attacking towns and villages as they went. They specifically targeted the homes of the nobility and even attacked fortifications like Rochester Castle, where they released all the prisoners held inside. At Canterbury, they demanded that the archbishop – whom they saw as an instigator of their oppression – was replaced.

As they marched, the rebels accumulated huge support, in part due to fear – they threatened to destroy people’s homes unless they joined – but also due to a collective anger against the government. They reached London around 11 June and attacked suburbs of the city such as Lambeth, where they destroyed huge quantities of government records.

Richard II, who was only 14 at the time of the revolt, sent a message to the rebels asking the reason for their furious backlash at the crown and the country’s officials. According to the Anonimalle Chronicle, they responded that it was their desire to “save him and destroy the traitors to him and the kingdom”. Richard agreed to hear their grievances at Blackheath the following day, the Eve of Corpus Christi (12 June). As it became clear that the rebel force – growing by the day – was a threat to the safety of the king, Richard took refuge in the Tower of London along with the terrified treasurer, Robert Hales, and the archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury; both men were also targets.

The Peasants’ Revolt: a timeline

November–December 1380 The third Poll Tax in four years is agreed by Parliament in Northampton.

30 May 1381 Riots begin in Kent and Essex.

7 June 1381 Wat Tyler is appointed leader of the rebels in Kent.

7–12 June 1381 The rebels march towards London through Rochester and Canterbury.

12 June 1381 The rebels demand entry into the City of London.

13 June 1381 Richard meets the rebels at Rotherhithe, but soon flees. The Savoy Palace is destroyed.

14 June 1381 Richard meets the rebels at Mile End and agrees to their terms for the first time. Meanwhile, rebels break into the Tower of London and execute Simon Sudbury and Robert Hales.

15 June 1381 Richard meets the rebels again at Smithfield and urges them to depart. William Walworth, the mayor of London, fights Tyler and kills himWith Tyler dead, Richard rides forward and tells the rebels to go home, and their requests would be heard. 

23 June 1381 Richard II withdraws all of the charters that had been agreed with Wat Tyler.

5 July 1381 The pacification of the rebels begins, and executions are ordered.

13 July 1381 John Ball is captured. After being tried for treason he is hanged, drawn and quartered on 15 July 1381.

As Richard’s barge approached Rotherhithe to meet with the marchers, he was faced with thousands of armed rebels – an intimidating spectacle. On one side of the river were 50,000 Kent rebels and on the other side, another 60,000 from Essex. Unprepared for such a massive confrontation, the king’s councillors implored Richard to retreat – and the royal barge fled.

The rebels murdered foreign people – particularly the Flemish – and those dressed in livery, mounting their severed heads on spikes...

The rebels were furious, and Richard’s hasty departure only added fuel to the fire. On 13 June they set about to do the most damage as had been seen in their campaign so far, destroying property – most significantly, the Savoy Palace of John of Gaunt, the third son of the deceased Edward III and the uncle of the current king Richard II. They also murdered foreign people – particularly the Flemish – and those dressed in livery, mounting their severed heads on spikes.

Richard eventually agreed to meet with the rebels again to hear their terms at Mile End, but as he left the Tower of London, a band of rebels made their way in. They dragged Simon Sudbury and Robert Hales from the Tower, along with Brother William Appleton, a physician in the employ of John of Gaunt. All men were brutally executed on Tower Hill. There was one survivor, however; the young Henry of Bolingbroke, Gaunt’s son, who had allegedly been hidden in cupboard as the rebels stormed the Tower. (If he had been caught, it is unlikely he would have ever become King Henry IV 18 years later.)

Eventually, at another parley on 15 June in Smithfield, the rebellion ended after an altercation between one of its leaders, Wat Tyler, and the mayor of London, William Walworth. After a skirmish, Walworth killed Tyler and the rebels disbanded, only to be pursued and made an example of in the weeks and months that followed.

Who were the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt?

John Ball and Wat Tyler were the most well-known leaders of the revolt.

Ball, a socialist priest, was described in the Anonimalle Chronicle as “a chaplain of evil disposition”. He was a clergyman and a prophet-like figure to the rebels, stating to them that “now was a time given to them by God”. Ball counselled them with the belief that “there be no villeins not gentleman, but that we may all be united together and that the lords be no greater masters than we be”.

It is important to remember that, despite the name of the rebellion, it was not just ‘peasants’ who revolted

‘Watt Teghler’ emerged from the Kent faction of rebels as the rebellion’s head. He was a tiler of houses and represented the labouring people who took part in the revolt. There was also another leader called Jack Straw, from Suffolk, but there is speculation over his role, or even if he and Tyler were the same person. It is important to remember that, despite the name of the rebellion, it was not just ‘peasants’ who revolted; in fact, this is an incorrect description of the rebels. There were members of the clergy, ex-soldiers, landowners, women, bailiffs as well as serfs or ‘peasants’, all demanding justice and equality.

Engraving depicting John Ball, an English Lollard priest who took a prominent part in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Engraving depicting John Ball, an English Lollard priest who took a prominent part in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

What caused the Peasants’ Revolt?

The origins of the revolt lie in the Parliament held in 1380 at Northampton. Tensions had already been high between John of Gaunt and the citizens of London, after he threatened the bishop of London and involved himself in city and mercantile affairs. It was for this reason that Parliament was held in Northampton, rather than Westminster.

Here, it became clear that the crown was in a precarious financial state. The French and Spanish intimidated the coastline, and funds were urgently needed to defend both the country and important military garrisons such as Calais. It was decided that another tax would have to be implemented – and it was the labouring classes that would have to bear the brunt. The tax was raised to three times its normal amount; three groats to any person over the age of 15.

Initially, this was due to be collected in two waves: the first in the early spring and the second in the summer. But the treasurer Robert Hales pushed for a single, brutal collection. This inevitably resulted in clashes and abuse – there is even evidence of collectors investigating young girls’ virginities. Eventually, it faced so much backlash that bailiffs were known to flee towns, or even refuse to collect in fear for their lives.

A more formal backlash began in the town of Brentwood in Essex, as the people threatened a collector, John Bampton, who ran for his life back to London.

Did you know?

The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 saw violent demonstrations against the crown. But the seeds of discontent were sown five years earlier in the Good Parliament of 1376

What did the ‘peasants’ do in the Peasants’ Revolt?

The Kent faction, led by Wat Tyler, torched a brothel run by Flemish women on London Bridge. Once they were admitted into the city, they gathered more recruits and stormed Fleet Prison, Temple, and the property of the master of the Hospital of St John in Farringdon.

The most damage they did in London was to the Savoy Palace, the home of John of Gaunt, who was one of their main targets. Fortunately for Gaunt, he was not at home at the time and was instead negotiating with the Scots in Berwick. Although the rebels targeted Gaunt, he actually had no involvement in the raise in tax, for during the 1380 Parliament he had been on his way south from Scotland and only arrived after the arrangement had been agreed. However, this was the common people of London’s opportunity to get their revenge for his treatment of them in the past.

Much of the damage done during the revolt was enacted by opportunists

Much of the damage done during the revolt was enacted by opportunists. London rebels broke into the Savoy and formed a pyre of Gaunt’s belongings, igniting a huge inferno. The point of the destruction was to show the wealthy the limits of their power, but some rebels unfaithful to the cause sought to fill their pockets. As they tried to sneak away laden with riches, they were struck down by their contemporaries and immediately executed for not staying true to the cause.

King Richard II and his council go down the Thames in a barge to confer with the rebels during he Peasants' Revolt of 1381. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)
King Richard II and his council go down the Thames in a barge to confer with the rebels during he Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

As the damage ensued in the Great Hall, a party of around 30 rebels went exploring in the cellars, where they came across Gaunt’s supply of wine. Delighted with their discovery, they had a party and became more and more drunk. Meanwhile, two barrels were rolled onto the pyre in the Hall. It was believed the barrels were packed with gold. But, in fact, they were filled with gunpowder that, once ignited, ripped through the palace, crumbling its walls and destroying the building completely. To the horror of the rebels, the pyre exploded into a furnace that could be seen throughout London.

This type of destruction was typical of the revolt. But there was also a human cost. Foreign people were caught and killed, particularly Flemings who were closely connected to the cross-Channel trade network (therefore associated with Mercantile wealth). According to the Annonimalle Chronicle, a proclamation was made stating that everyone who could lay their hands on “Flemings or any other strangers of other nations might cut off their heads”.  It has been suggested that some 150 or 160 foreign people were murdered in various places. A particularly barbaric attack resulted in 35 Flemish people being dragged out of the church of St Martin in the Vintry, and beheaded on the same block.

Any person who was wearing Lancastrian livery – pertaining to Gaunt – also suffered the same fate. The collection of heads on spikes would have made an intimidating spectacle to terrified onlookers. The most notable victims were the two king’s councillors, Simon Sudbury and Robert Hales. Both were beheaded, and Sudbury suffered eight bloody blows before his head was finally severed from his body.  

What was the result? Did the Peasants’ Revolt change anything?

After the death of Wat Tyler on 15 June, the rebels dispersed at the request of the king.

But it was not over, and Richard was keen to make an example of the rebels. The remaining ringleaders were hunted down and executed. Richard visited Essex where the rising began and ordered a pacification of its people. Uprisings were quashed outside of London and the bishop of Norwich, Henry Despenser, took it upon himself to execute rebels in his domain, without trial.

After the revolt, government were cautious about imposing further tax and it was decided that the country’s war effort would need to be frugal, rather than chasing multiple opportunities.

John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the fourth son of King Edward III. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the fourth son of King Edward III. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

John of Gaunt never rebuilt his palace and his personal situation dramatically changed. He was left vulnerable and in fear for his life, and lived under the protection of the Scots (who were still enemies of the crown). He even ended his long-term love affair with his mistress Katherine Swynford, due to the animosity exercised towards him during the revolt. Generally, peace in the realm was considered to be the priority in the aftermath of the Peasants’ Revolt.  

Did the Peasants’ Revolt end feudalism?

The revolt didn’t end feudalism, but it paved the way for its decline. In the decades that followed, there were fewer people bonded to their lords in serfdom and landowners were fearful of their workers rising against them. This in turn lead to fairer treatment of the working classes and their wages – which had been capped in the aftermath of the Black Death – were less regulated.

How did the Peasants’ Revolt change King Richard II?

After the death of Wat Tyler, Richard bravely and impulsively rode up to the rebels and stood before them. He told them to depart for their homes, that the rebellion was over. He performed the role of a benevolent king, merciful to his people and bade them to leave peacefully. He swore that he would grant their wishes and no harm would come to them.

This was a major and decisive moment in his early kingship and confirmed his sense of self-importance. Up until this point, he had relied heavily on his uncle, John of Gaunt, and the guidance of his councillors, but after 1381, Richard began to act of his accord and of his own will. This self-confidence, arrogance and sense of entitlement led to another rebellion, by his own lords, that would eventually end his reign.

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Helen Carr is a medieval historian and TV producer. Her podcast, Hidden Histories, is available to stream at Acast.com