The Peasants’ Revolt

The Peasants’ Revolt of June and July 1381 was one of the most dramatic events in English history. One of the main causes of the rebellion was the poll tax of 1380-81, the third such poll tax, and it was enforced by much-hated commissions of inquiry, which investigated whether all persons were complying with the tax. In 1380, Parliament allowed the king, through his new Chancellor, Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, to assess a tax of three groats (one shilling) on every man and woman over the age of fifteen. The early 1380s were generally a time of economic hardship, and many elements of society, bitterly resented the poll tax, which collectors extracted, and then supposedly placed in their own coffers. However, the main call of the peasant rebels was for the abolition of serfdom. This was because, since the middle of the century, their lords had prevented them from making the most of the changing economic conditions. Visitations of the plague since 1348/9 had reduced the population by between a third and a half. As a result, labour became more scarce, wages rose and the economy began to suit the peasant more than it suited the landowner. However, the landowners of Parliament legislated to keep wages low and to restrict the free movement of serfs. Locally, landowners in their capacity as manorial lords also tried to tighten the feudal dues that serfs were obliged to carry out for them. Needless to say, the peasantry resented both these measures and there were local revolts both in the decade before and after 1381. Hence, the rebels attacked symbols of lordship and lordly authority, such as manors and manorial records.

Grievances came to a head first in Essex, where the commons attacked tax commissioners, and then in Kent. Events quickly moved beyond tax grievances to include looting, arson, and murder. The leader in Kent was Wat (or Water or Walter) Tyler, who was not a peasant; in fact, many of the commons who took part in the rising were financially comfortable but had grievances against local officials and scores to settle. The commons were urged on by three clerics: Jack Straw, about whom little is known; John Wrawe, a former vicar who led the peasants of Essex; and John Ball, a lapsed priest. On 7 June Tyler and his followers took possession of Canterbury, opened Maidstone prison, and marched toward London, attracting followers along the way. The Essex peasants also converged on London; and on Thursday, 13 June, the rebels gained entrance into the city, streaming through Aldgate. They burned John of Gaunt’s London palace, the Savoy, along with Fleet Prison and the Hospital of St. John. King Richard, who was only fourteen, rode to Mile End on Friday, 14 June, to hear the rebels demands, which included provisions for free labour contracts and the right to rent land at fourpence an acre. Richard promised them justice, with the result that many Essex commons returned home; but other peasants broke into the Tower and executed, among others, Archbishop Sudbury and Robert Hales, Royal Treasurer and Prior of the Hospital of St. John’s. At Smithfield on Saturday, Tyler presented the king a list of six points, two of which were ‘That there should be no seignory except that of the King’ and ‘That there should be no serf in England’. These points resemble the doctrines said to have been preached by the renegade priest John Ball. During this conference with the king and after heated words with William Walworth, mayor of London, Tyler was killed by the king’s valet. The crowd prepared to rush the King and his men, but Richard confronted them, and convinced them to follow him. As he led them away, the Mayor made off to the city where he recruited a force which soon surrounded the rebels. Richard declared that all should be pardoned and should return peacefully to their homes. The London revolt was effectively over.

Elsewhere, villages around London, such as Clapham, Chiswick and Twickenham had been plundered and burnt. Even in the north of England, there were at least three isolated outbreaks – in York, Scarborough and Beverley. But the most serious risings outside London were in the eastern counties. In St Albans, the local townsmen drained the Abbot’s fishpond, killed his game, sacked the houses of his officials and burned the charters that gave him his manorial rights. In Bury St Edmunds, the Prior was tried and beheaded by rebels. In Cambridge, peasants and townsmen damaged parts of the University, burned its archives and drew up a document that formally handed over the University’s privileges to the town. In Norfolk, a large band of rebels forced the city authorities of Norwich to open the gates and then took over the castle, while rebel detachments plundered parts of the surrounding area. The leader of the rebels at St. Albans was William Grindcob; at Bury, John Wrawe; and at Norfolk, Geoffrey Litster, hailed as ‘King of the Commons’.

London was made safe from 16th June 1381 and, over time, the authorities gained control in all the regions that had experienced insurrection. King Richard issued a proclamation denying rumours that he had approved of what the rebels had done and, soon after, revoked the pardons he had granted them. A judicial enquiry followed and the King toured the areas that had experienced revolt. In Essex and Hertfordshire, the rebels were dealt with severely, but generally the judicial proceedings were fair.  Jack Straw, Grindcob, Ball, and Wrawe were all executed, along with many others. Aside from this, no mass reprisals were allowed, and significantly, no late medieval Parliament ever tried to impose a poll tax upon the Nation again.