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The peasants’revolt of 1381 in UK - La révolte des paysans en Angleterre

Monday 7 January 2013, by Robert Paris

The Peasants’ Revolt, Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, or the Great Rising of 1381 was one of a number of popular revolts in late medieval Europe and is a major event in the history of England. Tyler’s Rebellion was not only the most extreme and widespread insurrection in English history but also the best-documented popular rebellion to have occurred during medieval times. The names of some of its leaders, John Ball, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, are still familiar in popular culture, although little is known of them.

The revolt later came to be seen as a mark of the beginning of the end of serfdom in medieval England, although the revolt itself was a failure. It increased awareness in the upper classes of the need for the reform of feudalism in England and the appalling misery felt by the lower classes as a result of their enforced near-slavery.

The revolt was precipitated by King Richard II’s heavy-handed attempts to enforce the third medieval poll tax, first levied in 1377 supposedly to finance military campaigns overseas. The third poll tax was not levied at a flat rate (as in 1377) nor according to schedule[2] (as in 1379); instead, it allowed some of the poor to pay a reduced rate, while others who were equally poor had to pay the full tax, prompting calls of injustice. The tax was set at three groats (equivalent to 12 pence or one shilling), compared with the 1377 rate of one groat (four pence). The youth of King Richard II (aged only 14) was another reason for the uprising: a group of unpopular men dominated his government. These included John of Gaunt (the Duke of Lancaster), Simon Sudbury (Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, who was the figurehead to what many then saw as a corrupt church) and Sir Robert Hales (the Lord Treasurer, responsible for the poll tax). Many saw them as corrupt officials, trying to exploit the weakness of the king.

Then the King caused a proclamation to be made that all the commons of the country who were still in London should come to Smithfield, to meet him there; and so they did.

And when the King and his train had arrived there they turned into the Eastern meadow in front of St. Bartholomew’s, which is a house of canons: and the commons arrayed themselves on the west side in great battles. At this moment the Mayor of London, William Walworth, came up, and the King bade him go to the commons, and make their chieftain come to him. And when he was summoned by the Mayor, by the name of Wat Tighler of Maidstone, he came to the King with great confidence, mounted on a little horse, that the commons might see him. And he dismounted, holding in his hand a dagger which he had taken from another man, and when he had dismounted he half bent his knee, and then took the King by the hand, and shook his arm forcibly and roughly, saying to him, “Brother, be of good comfort and joyful, for you shall have, in the fortnight that is to come, praise from the commons even more than you have yet had, and we shall be good companions.” And the King said to Walter, “Why will you not go back to your own country?” But the other answered, with a great oath, that neither he nor his fellows would depart until they had got their charter such as they wished to have it, and had certain points rehearsed and added to their charter which they wished to demand. And he said in a threatening fashion that the lords of the realm would rue it bitterly if these points were not settled to their pleasure. Then the King asked him what were the points which he wished to have revised, and he should have them freely, without contradiction, written out and sealed. Thereupon the said Walter rehearsed the points which were to be demanded; and he asked that there should be no law within the realm save the law of Winchester, and that from henceforth there should be no outlawry in any process of law, and that no lord should have lordship save civilly, and that there should be equality among all people save only the King, and that the goods of Holy Church should not remain in the hands of the religious, nor of parsons and vicars, and other churchmen; but that clergy already in possession should have a sufficient sustenance from the endowments, and the rest of the goods should be divided among the people of the parish. And he demanded that there should be only one bishop in England and only one prelate, and all the lands and tenements now held by them should be confiscated, and divided among the commons, only reserving for them a reasonable sustenance. And he demanded that there should be no more villeins in England, and no serfdom or villeinage, but that all men should be free and of one condition. To this the King gave an easy answer, and said that he should have all that he could fairly grant, reserving only for himself the regality of his crown. And then he bade him go back to his home, without making further delay.

During all this time that the King was speaking, no lord or counsellor dared or wished to give answer to the commons in any place save the King himself. Presently Wat Tighler, in the presence of the King, sent for a flagon of water to rinse his mouth, because of the great heat that he was in, and when it was brought he rinsed his mouth in a very rude and disgusting fashion before the King’s face. And then he made them bring him a jug of beer, and drank a great draught, and then, in the presence of the King, climbed on his horse again. At this time a certain valet from Kent, who was among the King’s retinue, asked that the said Walter, the chief of the commons, might be pointed out to him. And when he saw him, he said aloud that he knew him for the greatest thief and robber in all Kent.... And for these words Watt tried to strike him with his dagger, and would have slain him in the King’s presence; but because he strove so to do, the Mayor of London, William Walworth, reasoned with the said Watt for his violent behaviour and despite, done in the King’s presence, and arrested him. And because he arrested him, he said Watt stabbed the Mayor with his dagger in the stomach in great wrath. But, as it pleased God, the Mayor was wearing armour and took no harm, but like a hardy and vigorous man drew his cutlass, and struck back at the said Watt, and gave him a deep cut on the neck, and then a great cut on the head. And during this scuffle one of the King’s household drew his sword, and ran Watt two or three times through the body, mortally wounding him. And he spurred his horse, crying to the commons to avenge him, and the horse carried him some four score paces, and then he fell to the ground half dead. And when the commons saw him fall, and knew not how for certain it was, they began to bend their bows and to shoot, wherefore the King himself spurred his horse, and rode out to them, commanding them that they should all come to him to Clerkenwell Fields.

Meanwhile the Mayor of London rode as hastily as he could back to the City, and commanded those who were in charge of the twenty four wards to make proclamation round their wards, that every man should arm himself as quickly as he could, and come to the King in St. John’s Fields, where were the commons, to aid the King, for he was in great trouble and necessity.... And presently the aldermen came to him in a body, bringing with them their wardens, and the wards arrayed in bands, a fine company of well-armed folks in great strength. And they enveloped the commons like sheep within a pen, and after that the Mayor had set the wardens of the city on their way to the King, he returned with a company of lances to Smithfield, to make an end of the captain of the commons. And when he came to Smithfield he found not there the said captain Watt Tighler, at which he marvelled much, and asked what was become of the traitor. And it was told him that he had been carried by some of the commons to the hospital for poor folks by St. Bartholomew’s, and was put to bed in the chamber of the master of the hospital. And the Mayor went thither and found him, and had him carried out to the middle of Smithfield, in presence of his fellows, and there beheaded. And thus ended his wretched life. But the Mayor had his head set on a pole and borne before him to the King, who still abode in the Fields. And when the King saw the head he had it brought near him to abash the commons, and thanked the Mayor greatly for what he had done. And when the commons saw that their chieftain, Watt Tyler, was dead in such a manner, they fell to the ground there among the wheat, like beaten men, imploring the King for mercy for their misdeeds. And the King benevolently granted them mercy, and most of them took to flight. But the King ordained two knights to conduct the rest of them, namely the Kentishmen, through London, and over London Bridge, without doing them harm, so that each of them could go to his own home.

Afterwards the King sent out his messengers into divers parts, to capture the malefactors and put them to death. And many were taken and hanged at London, and they set up many gallows around the City of London, and in other cities and boroughs of the south country. At last, as it pleased God, the King seeing that too many of his liege subjects would be undone, and too much blood split, took pity in his heart, and granted them all pardon, on condition that they should never rise again, under pain of losing life or members, and that each of them should get his charter of pardon, and pay the King as fee for his seal twenty shillings, to make him rich. And so finished this wicked war.


When the Black Death swept Europe in 1348-1351 it left about 30% of the population dead. This greatly affected the English peasants because there was a labour shortage and food was scarce. Even some thirty years later, life had not returned to normal -the settled and structured country life of the Middle Ages was disrupted, and discontent was rife amongst the poor.
Causes of the revolt
1. The Statute of Labourers 1351

This was a law passed at the end of the Black Death to stop the peasants taking advantage of the shortage of workers and demanding more money. Peasants were forced to work for the same wages as before, and landowners could insist on labour services being performed, instead of accepting money (commutation). This meant that the landowners could profit from shortages, whilst life was made very much harder for the peasants.
2. Prices

Prices had risen since the Black Death. Wages had not risen as fast, so the peasants suffered from hunger and shortages.
3. The young king

During the course of the Black Death and the years following it, England had a strong and warlike king, Edward III. However, his son, the Black Prince, died before him, leaving his grandson as heir to the throne. In 1377, Edward III died, and this boy of ten became king. The true power lay with the powerful barons, in particular the boy’s uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.
The barons, hated already by the peasants, began to take advantage of the situation.
4. The Poll Tax

England was involved in the Hundred Years War. This had left the treasury empty, and the barons were tired of paying for the war.

In 1377, John of Gaunt imposed a new tax, the Poll (head) Tax, that was to cover the cost of the war. Unlike normal taxes, this was to be paid by the peasants, as well as the landowners. Although this was meant to be a "one-off" event, it was so successful that it was repeated three more times. The first tax was 4d from every adult (adult:14yrs+), then it was raised to 4d for the peasants and more for the rich, and finally in 1380, it was raised to 12d per adult.

The barons liked the idea of the peasants helping to pay taxes, especially if the were acting as tax collectors, as some of the money was siphoned off into their pockets. It was much harder on the peasants, who could ill afford to pay, especially as the tax was collected in cash and not in farm produce.

By 1380, many were hiding from the collectors, and avoiding payment. For this reason, the amount collected dropped away, despite the fact that the tax had been increased.
5. John Ball and the Church

The Church was badly hit by the Black Death, and many of the clergy were poorly educated, thus reducing popular respect for the Church. The Church was also a major landowner, and the abbots and bishops sided with the barons against the peasants. This made the church hated, as the peasants felt betrayed by an organisation that should be helping, rather than exploiting them.

This situation was made worse by a number of rebellious priests who preached against the Church and the barons. Foremost amongst these was John Ball, who coined the famous verse; "While Adam delved (dug) and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?" i.e. There had been no group of non- working layabouts in that time, so why should they be tolerated now?

So dangerous was this teaching that the Archbishop of Canterbury had arrested John Ball, and confined him in Maidstone Castle.
The Outbreak

Having examined the Poll Tax returns for 1380, the Royal Council headed by John of Gaunt were upset to discover that less money than ever had been collected. Tax collectors were sent out again, with instructions to collect the full amounts.

One of these men was Thomas Bampton, who arrived at Fobbing in Essex, and summoned the villagers of Fobbing, Stanford and Corningham to appear before him. Those law-abiding villagers who turned up were shocked to discover that they would have to pay the hated tax a second time, and that they would also have to pay for the people who had failed to turn up. Not surprisingly, a riot followed, and Bampton and his men were beaten and driven from the village.

Sir Robert Belknap, a Chief Justice was sent to calm the situation, but he suffered a similar fate. Word spread, and peasants allover Essex banded together and turned on the landowners. Manor houses were burnt down, and any records of taxes, labour duties and debts destroyed.
Soon peasants in Kent rebelled also, and risings took place in many other areas of the country. Some unpopular landowners were killed, others fled and others captured and humiliated, having to act as servants and perform menial tasks.
Timeline showinq the Main Events 1381

Although the revolt spread to many areas of England, the two risings in Essex and Kent became the focus of the revolt.
May 30th.

Essex peasants chase Thomas Bampton out of Fobbing.
June lst

Essex rebels kill three of Bampton’s servants. The revolt spreads through Essex, Hertfordshire and Suffolk.
June 7th

The revolt is now widespread. The Kent rebels besiege Maidstone Castle, which surrenders. John Ball is freed, and Rochester Castle surrenders also.
June lOth

The Kent Rebels march on Canterbury, and capture the city, Rich pilgrims are attacked in the town, Finding the Archbishop away, the rebels appoint a humble monk as the new Archbishop, and hold a service in the Cathedral, promising death to all "traitors" they capture,

At this point a new leader appears, Wat Tyler. We know little of him except that he may have served as a soldier in France, that he was very cunning, and that he must have had exceptional powers of leadership in order to control the mob of rebels.

Both the Kent and the Essex rebels now set out to march on London. The simple peasants believed that they were going to explain their grievances to the King, who had been badly advised, and that all would be set right. However, some of the more intelligent figures, such as Wat Tyler and John Ball had a much clearer idea of the situation, and were planning to gain as much as they could.

The King and the council were caught completely by surprise, and there were only a few hundred troops in London. The city was virtually defenceless.
June 12th

Both groups of peasants had reached London. The Kent peasants camped at Blackheath, and the Essex peasants at Mile End, north of the River Thames. Their nUDbers are hard to estimate, but both groups could have been made up of up to 50,000 people. A message was sent into the city, demanding a meeting with the king. It was arranged that he would meet them at Rotherhithe, on the Thames, that afternoon.

Richard travelled downriver in the royal barge, but at the sight of the huge crowd of peasants, Richard’s advisers would not let him land. He returned to the Tower of London, leaving the peasants angry and frustrated.

That night the peasants closed in on London. They were able to enter because the gates of the city, and London Bridge were opened by townspeople sympathetic to their cause, although they later claimed they had been forced to do it.
June 13th

The rebels were loose in the city. Fleet Prison was broken open, many lawyers were killed in the Temple, and foreign merchants massacred. Despite this, most peasants were peaceful, and little damage was done to the city, on the orders of Wat Tyler.

A group of peasants marched west from the city to the magnificent Savoy Palace, home of John of Gaunt. It caught fire as they ransacked it. Fortunately, John of Gaunt was in Scotland at this time, and escaped the rebels. As the flames lit the sky, Richard agreed to meet the rebels at Mile End the following day. He hoped that this would draw the peasants out of the city.
June 14th

Richard rode to the meeting at Mile End. Here, Wat Tyler put forward the peasants demands:

 land rents were reduced to reasonable levels.
 the Poll Tax was to be abolished.
 free pardons for all rebels.
 charters would be qiven to the peasants laying down a number of rights and privileges.
 all "traitors" were to be put to death.

Richard agreed to all these demands, but added that only a royal court could decide if a person was a traitor or not. He thought that this was the best policy, in order to allow the peasants to go home. A group of thirty or so clerks began to copy out charters for the peasants to take home.

However, the King had been outwitted by Wat Tyler. A group of peasants, taking advantage of the King’s absence at Mile End, raided the Tower of London. Here, they found three of their lOSt hated people; simon Sudbury, (Archbishop of Canterbury), sir Robert Hailes (King’s treasurer) and John Legge (the creator of the Poll Tax). They were dragged out onto Tower Hill, and beheaded.
June 15th

Following the granting of charters the previous day, many peasants began to leave London and return home, believing that their demands had been met. However, Wat Tyler and a hard core of peasants remained behind, and they demanded another meeting with the King, to deliver even more demands.
The King agreed to a meeting at Smithfield, an open space within the city walls.

When the King’s party arrived, Wat Tyler rode up and greeted them in an insolent manner. What happened next is unclear, but was probably a pre-arranged plot. Tyler was rude to the King, refusing to dismount, and spitting in front of him. The Lord Mayor of London, William Walworth, drew his sword and attacked Tyler, wounding him. A squire finished him off as he lay on the ground.

This was a crucial moment, before the peasants realised what had happened. The young King rode forward, shouting out that all their demands were to be met, and that they should follow him out of the city, where charters would be forthcoming. Trustingly, the rebels followed him, and most were persuaded to return home.
The Aftermath: The kings Revenge

As soon as the peasants had left London, messengers were dispatched throughout the country, summoning troops. The last members of the huge gathering of peasants were encamped at Billericay in Essex. They found themselves cut down by royal troops, vainly flourishing the pardons and charters that they had been given.

Royal forces toured the affected areas, hunting the rebels. Possession of a charter became a virtual death sentence. In Hertfordshire and Essex, some 500 died, very few with any form of trial, as the Earl of Buckinqham carried out the King’s demand for vengeance. In Kent the toll of executions was even greater, with 1500 peasants sent to the gallows

Another minor rebellion broke out in St. Albans, where the abbot was a hated figure amongst the townspeople. This was ruthlessly crushed, and on 15th July, John Ball, whose preaching had done so much to cause the rebellion, was hung, drawn and quartered in the market place, as an example to any other potential rebels
The Result of the Peasants Revolt

1.On the surface, the peasants were crushed, their demands denied, and many executed. However, the land owners had been scared, and in the longer term several things were achieved.

2. Parliament gave up trying to control the wages the landowners paid their peasants.

3. The hated poll tax was never raised again.

4. The Lords treated the peasants with much more respect. They made more of them free men ie. they were not owned as part of the land. This benefited in the end, as free men always work much harder.

5. This marked the breakdown of the feudal system, which had worked well during the early Middle Ages, but was now becoming outdated as attitudes were beginning to change.

Upon the peasants’ revolt, read "A dream of John Ball"

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