In 1381, some 35 years after the Black Death had swept through Europe decimating over one third of the population, there was a shortage of people left to work the land. Recognising the power of ‘supply and demand’, the remaining peasants began to re-evaluate their worth and subsequently demanded higher wages and better working conditions.
The Peasants' Revolt the first great popular protest in English history started in Essex on 30 May 1381, when a tax collector tried, for the third time in four years, to levy a poll tax, to try and raise money for Richard 11's war against France,arrived at the village of Fobbing to find out why no tax had been collected but locals attacked the tax collectors as they came to collect this hated tax, and were thrown out, as were soldiers sent soon afterwards.This led to the phrase 'fobbed off'. This crippling tax meant that everyone over the age of 15 had to pay one shilling. Perhaps not a great deal of money to a Lord or a Bishop, but a significant amount to the average farm labourer! And if they could not pay in cash, they could pay in kind, such as seeds, tools etc. All of which could be vital to the survival of a farmer and his family for the coming year.
The peasants were not just protesting against the government. Since the Black Death poor people had become increasingly angry that they were still serfs, usually farming the land and serving their king. Whipped up by the preaching of radical priest John Ball, they were demanding that all men should be free and equal; for less harsh laws; and a fairer distribution of wealth.The term “Peasants” Revolt is somewhat misleading as many of the men who were to take up arms that summer were far from what we would today think of as peasants. Many were from the yeoman classes, skilled men and village leaders. Their fight wasn’t against misery, hunger or poverty, instead it was a call for liberty, justice and an end to the feudal system that still kept many free born Englishmen as mere slaves to the lords of the manor. It was a moral crusaded for emancipation and for what they believed to be right
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. On June 14th, with no close military support at hand that could stand in the way of the rebel army, King Richard, who was only fourteen, rode to Mile End to hear the rebels' demands, which included provisions for free labor contracts (doubtless a reference to the Statute of Laborers) and the right to rent land at fourpence an acre. Richard promised them justice,and made vast concessions including the abolition of serfdom, market monopolies and feudal service 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, who provided something like a flashpoint for the mob's fury.
The following day the King again met with the rebels, this time at Smithfields, and Wat Tyler bravely rode out from the rebel ranks armed only with a dagger to present their final demands. He demanded that all Englishmen should as treated as equals and that all aristocratic titles and privileges were to be abolished and only the king was to retain a superior title. Wat proclaimed:-
“There should be equality among all people save only the king. There should be no serfdom and all men should be free and of one condition.”
He demanded that all church property should be confiscated and divided out among the people save for a small amount to provide the clergy with “sufficient sustenance” Finally he demanded for his people “We will be free forever, our heirs and our lands."
At some point according to an eyewitness (on the King’s side), Tyler behaves disrespectfully towards young King Richard, he shook the Kings hand roughly and after calling for water, he rinsed his mouth "in a very rude and disgusting fashion”. Wat Tyler, alone and far ahead of the ranks of the rebel army was set upon by the Kings men and murdered.
On seeing the death of their leader the rebel ranks joined battle formation and began to string their bows until the King rode out in front of them declaring “I will be your Captain” He called for further negotiations and re-affirmed the concessions he had previously made the rebels. Leaderless and with their aims apparently achieved the rebel army gradually faded away.
With the rebels dispersed the King acted swiftly. He immediately rescinded every concession he had made and he sent Royal troops out into the country where the remains of the rebellion was mercies crushed. One chronicler tells us that over 500 leaders of the rebellion were sent to the gallows, including John Ball and Jack Straw who were hanged, drawn and quartered. On a later tour of Essex the King would sneer at his English subjects,:-
“Rustics you were and rustics you are still. You will remain in bondage, not as before, but incomparably harsher”
Both Wat Tyler and his rebellion were dead but his name lived on to become a watchword and a rallying cry during public demonstrations and rebellions that his actions inspired throughout the later medieval period and up to this present day.
Wat Tyler and his kinsmen were brave and courageous men who refused to be intimidated by a political elite who wished to dominate them and refused to have their ideals curbed by the social constraints of the day. A cry for social justice and freedom that has since been planted in every single country that draws its culture and tradition from those very same Anglo-Saxon people. Wat Tyler epitomised something that we very often forget about the English and that is their tradition for radical thought and action – in short people just like Wat Tyler and John Ball who were prepared to think the unthinkable no matter what the consequences.
Although the Revolt was defeated, its demands – less harsh laws, money for the poor, freedom and equality, all became part of our democracy in the long term.
The Peasants' Revolt was a popular uprising. In its demands for rights and equality, it was similar to the Chartists of the 19th century, the Diggers and the levellers at the time of the English Civil War, then the sufragettes, and the modern Trade Union Movement and the campaign against Margaret Thatcher's dreaded Poll tax in the 1980's and the protests it provoked that led to her downfall, an echo of the poll tax from centuries before, opposition to which had contributed to the Peasant's Revolt.It is remembered by all those who stand for freedom and justice and stand against oppression, still inspiring people to fight for change.
Just like all those centuries ago the rich and todays rulers, the corporate and financial so-called elite are still taking what they want from the people, getting their ever more outrageous ‘rewards’ by appropriating from the people who do the work the wealth that they produce. Anger in the air still palpable, as ordinary people again hold the political class in contempt.
Wat Tyler - Robert Southey ( 1774 - 1843)