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Peasants rise in revolt


Throughout the British Isles in the later fourteenth century the standard of living was rising as the population decline brought about by the Black Death of 1347–50 led to an increase in per capita wealth. But in England, in particular, this increased prosperity was eroded by the rising costs of the war with France. Edward III’s early aggressive campaigns onto French soil, which had yielded prestige, booty and ransoms, were now replaced by a more defensive, and expensive, strategy. The French had turned the tables and in the 1370s raided the south coast of England, burning Rye and Winchelsea. In the last decade of his reign, Edward III withdrew from government, his son the Black Prince died in 1376 and his young grandson, Richard II, at the age of 11 succeeded him as king of England in 1377. He inherited a rich country saddled with an unwinnable war.

The personal prosperity produced by the population decline led to increased self-confidence and social unrest. Since the thirteenth century there had been localized protests against the demands by manorial lords for compulsory services (serfdom), but protests had become more frequent since the Black Death had shifted the balance of power away from manorial lords in favour of labourers and craftsmen. These protests were becoming more sophisticated as peasants hired lawyers to argue that their particular manor had once formed part of the royal estate (where all men were free). As a result, the Commons claimed in the Parliament of 1377 that villeins (serfs) had ‘withdrawn the customs and services due to their lords, holding that they are completely discharged of all manner of service due both from their persons and their holdings’.

All over Europe, in Paris in 1358, in Florence and Ghent in 1378, groups of protesters were making their voices heard in armed clamour. There is no single explanation for this volley of protests, since the pressures of population decline, price fluctuations, the imposition of taxation, the spread of literacy and the consequences of warfare affected different groups in different ways. But what was unique about the 1381 rising in England was that it was the only one that was truly national: it was the most widespread and the most coordinated. Crucially, the small size of England and its centralized government provided the protesters with a single objective: the king and his council.

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In June 1381 thousands of men – and some women – from south-east England converged on London in a mass armed protest. The young king, Richard II, was virtually held hostage in the Tower, some of his leading councillors were murdered in the streets of London, and the news of the rising sparked off other localized protests further afield. This mass protest, popularly known as the Peasants’ Revolt, has achieved iconic status in the English political memory, more recently in the protests organized to resist the proposed new community charge (aka the poll tax) in 1990. The revolt was extremely important but not necessarily for the reasons for which it is remembered.

It was called the Peasants’ Revolt because that is how the hostile monastic chroniclers viewed it: a revolt of the rustici who were, in their eyes, scarcely human. But any revolt on a mass scale in late medieval England was bound to be composed of country people since they comprised over 90 per cent of the population. Thus there could be no mass revolt in which they did not participate. Moreover it is clear that many who were not ‘peasants’ also took part: local gentry and knights, townspeople and clergy. These were not the poor and downtrodden but men whose social status did not correspond to their prosperity. People from all social groups, except perhaps the aristocracy, were involved.

It is hard to discern the objectives of the protesters, but there are routes into an understanding of their motives. Two sets of ‘Demands’, apparently presented to the king in mid-June, have been preserved in chronicle accounts. On the first occasion the protesters asked for freedom from serfdom and a standard rent for land of 4d an acre; on the second, the demand for the abolition of serfdom was repeated, along with the demand for an end to lordship and the redistribution of ecclesiastical property among the people of the parish. On neither occasion was there any reference to the poll tax or to the burdens of taxation.

The organizers of the rising chose to focus on the day of the Christian festival of Corpus Christi, which was always marked throughout England by communal activity such as processions. In 1381 the feast fell on Thursday 13 June. The trigger for the risings seems to have been the activities late in May of justices of the peace at Brentwood in Essex who were enquiring into poll tax evasion. The third poll tax (or per capita tax) had been agreed by Parliament in November 1380. All lay people (the clergy were separately taxed) over the age of 15 were to pay three groats each (one shilling), which amounted to about one week’s wages. Only genuine paupers were to be excused. But, as was usual with medieval taxation, it was expected that the rich would help the poor, and in many places this happened. This was the heaviest of the three poll taxes, however, and there was considerable evasion, hence the commissions of inquiry. When Sir Robert Bealknap, the king’s chief justice, rode into Essex to help the local justices he was nearly ambushed, and ‘travelled home as quickly as possible’. The rising had begun.

The first rebels arrived at Blackheath from Kent on Wednesday 12 June. John Ball, whose unorthodox preaching had earlier landed him in Maidstone Prison, was now released by the rebels and at Blackheath preached on the theme: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?’ The aim of the rebels was to meet the king and explain to him their grievances, and to remove those councillors around him whom they held responsible for the failures in the French war, the heavy taxation and the judicial injustices that they suffered. Richard, standing in a barge in mid-stream at Greenwich, received the list of the nine ‘traitors’ whose heads the rebels wanted. These included Richard’s uncle John of Gaunt (luckily for him he was away from London negotiating a truce with the Scots), the chancellor (Simon Sudbury, archbishop of Canterbury), the treasurer (Robert Hales), the chief justices, as well as local officials in Kent and Essex. When Richard refused their demands the rebels swarmed towards London. They opened prisons, sacked the archbishop’s palace at Lambeth, destroying manorial documents, and burned the Savoy Palace of John of Gaunt. From the security of the Tower, Richard and his councillors looked out on the smoking buildings and the fires of the rebels camped on Tower Hill.

The following day Richard, leaving behind the unpopular councillors, rode out with a small entourage to try to draw the rebels off to Mile End. It was recognized that the rebels had no hostility to Richard himself, and when he arrived at Mile End the king was treated respectfully. When the rebels asked for the abolition of serfdom Richard agreed that charters of manumission (i.e. granting personal freedom) should be written out. And this was indeed done. Satisfied, the Mile End rebels began to disperse. Richard’s decoy action had not saved two of his men, though: the rebels who had not gone to Mile End broke into the Tower and dragged Archbishop Sudbury and Treasurer Hales out to be executed on Tower Hill.

Saturday 15 June marked the climax of the rising in Lon-don. Richard rode out once more to meet the rebels, this time at Smithfield. Here the rebels were led by Wat Tyler, who treated the king in a familiar way and called him ‘brother’. Although Richard granted the new demands of the rebels, ‘saving his regality’, a scuffle broke out. Tyler was mortally wounded and as he rode back towards his companions, he fell from his horse. At this moment of tension, Richard rode out and called to the rebels, ‘I will be your king, your captain and your leader. Follow me.’ And he led them away from the City to Clerkenwell Fields. The mayor of London later dragged Tyler into Smithfield, where he was executed. When Richard met his mother that night he told her he had ‘recovered my inheritance, the realm of England, which I had nearly lost’. As indeed was true.

As soon as the king and his councillors had regained the upper hand, the retribution began. Although the rebellion in Kent died down quite rapidly, the embers continued to smoulder in Essex. On 28 June the remaining rebel army was easily defeated, and on 2 July the king revoked all the charters of freedom and pardon that he had granted. Commissions were appointed to collect accusations against the rebels and, in all, several hundred were executed.

Although the rising in the summer of 1381 had a cascade effect on other parts of England – there were protests as far away as Cornwall and Yorkshire – there were no repercussions in other parts of the British Isles. The Black Death had struck Scotland, Wales and Ireland as fiercely as in England, yet their social structures and economies were different. In Scotland, for example, personal servitude had disappeared by the mid-fourteenth century: Scottish lords exploited their rural workers in different ways, but there was a conscious decision to avoid heavy taxation. In all three countries protest took the form of a heightened national consciousness rather than class warfare. So the pressures that led to the rising in England, in the rest of the British Isles led to renewed struggles against the English, seen most forcefully in the revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr in Wales.

On the face of it, the rising of 1381 appears to have achieved nothing. So why is it a turning point? It did not lead to a statute abolishing serfdom but it did lead lords to take the safer course and, instead of farming their demesne lands with unwilling servile labour, they leased the lands and lived on the rents rather than the produce. In this way villein tenure (land held in return for compulsory labour services) disappeared, although personal serfdom or bond status remained. As late as 1549 the rebels who followed Robert Kett demanded that ‘all bondmen may be made free’. It largely ceased to matter, but the status survived as an instrument of extortion since men would pay large sums to be free of the stigma of servile status. It is true that no English government – until 1990 – again attempted to introduce per capita taxation. The attempt of the medieval poll taxes to spread taxation more widely failed because the burden was not also spread more equitably: the rich paid less, proportionately, than the poor. So this novel form of taxation was discredited.

The English rising of 1381 was a turning point because it destroyed the complacency of the English ruling classes and in so doing it ensured that those who ruled England must in future be responsive to the wider political community. Those who governed England and those who owned the land were conscious, even if they could not bring themselves to admit it, that the despised rustici were capable of bringing the realm to its knees and that they had the organizational and military skills, and literacy, to bring this about.

Just as 9/11 brought home to western governments not only the strongly held views of Islamic believers but also the ability of Islamic extremists to organize protests on a massive scale, so too in 1381 the followers of John Ball and Wat Tyler demonstrated that they could make their voices heard. In future English governments chose to listen.


1356 Battle of Poitiers. Edward the Black Prince, when successfully raiding French territory from Gascony on 18 September, collided, near Poitiers, with the French army led by their king, John. The following day, more by luck than strategy, Edward, ‘fighting like a cruel lion’, defeated the French and took their king prisoner. This marked a high point in English ambitions in France but proved to be only a flash in the pan.

1359 Birth of Owain Glyn Dŵr. He claimed the title prince of Wales in September 1400 and led the most successful rebellion against English rule in Wales since the conquest of 1282. Owain summoned a Welsh Parliament, promoted the Welsh language and proposed to set up two universities in his principality. But after 1406 the revolt degenerated into guerrilla warfare that ended with Owain’s death in around 1416.

1376 The Good Parliament. In this ‘great’ Parliament the Commons seized the initiative, led by their speaker, Peter de la Mare, and devised a new procedure ‘in common’ – impeachment – to challenge the corrupt and self-seeking councillors around the ageing King Edward III. For the first time in fifty years they refused to make a grant of taxation. Their self-assertion was to echo down the years.

1377 The London ‘Jubilee Book’. The citizens of London drafted a new constitution for the city, known as the ‘Jubilee Book’ since it was put together in the fiftieth year of Edward III’s reign. Job descriptions for city officers (in the form of oaths) and procedures for election were written down to make civic government more accessible. But this attempt at transparency led to acute factionalism and the Jubilee Book was publicly burnt in 1387.

1387 The Canterbury Tales. Although Geoffrey Chaucer began to write his best-known work in this year, it was still incomplete when he died in October 1400. Undoubtedly the greatest medieval English poet, Chaucer raised the status of English as a language fit for courtly literature, and made it a vehicle for poetry that could also be read privately for personal enjoyment.

1388 Battle of Otterburn. The Scots, led by James, earl of Douglas (who was killed in the battle) inflicted a notable defeat on the English at Chevy Chase, in which Henry Hotspur, son of the earl of Northumberland, was captured. The defeat ended the domination of the northern border by the Percy earls of Northumberland. The subsequent truce severed the Franco-Scottish alliance that had seriously damaged the English war effort.

1394 English expedition to Ireland. Richard II was the first English king to lead an expedition to Ire-land since 1210, and the last to do so until William III fought the Battle of the Boyne nearly 300 years later. The Gaelic chiefs were persuaded to become royal vassals, royal authority extended beyond the Pale and, for a brief time, much of Ireland was incorporated into the British political system.

1395 The ‘Twelve Conclusions’ of the Lollards. The Lollards nailed their outspoken criticisms of the Church, written in Latin and in English, to the doors of Westminster Hall and St Paul’s when Parliament was sitting. These ‘Conclusions’ reflected the populist interpretations of the ideas of John Wycliffe (died 1384) and provoked a sharp clerical backlash. The criticisms continued, though, and finally triumphed in the Reformation of the 1540s.

1399 Deposition of Richard II. Henry Bolingbroke deposed his cousin Richard as king of England by a blatant act of force, which his garbled claim citing rightful descent and divine favour barely concealed. The deposition of the legitimate king seriously damaged royal authority and ultimately exposed England to the miseries of the civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses.

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