Any account of the great revolt raises more questions than it answers. We still do not know exactly how long the rebels had been planning their action: the confrontation at Brentwood was undoubtedly a catalyst but we do not know whether rebellion was already being discussed or how long the rebels of Essex and Kent had been in communication with each other. Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Balle, despite their iconic status, remain shadowy figures. Nor is it clear why Straw, in particular, earned such an enduring reputation whereas other rebel leaders about whom we know much more, such as John Wrawe, William Grindecobbe and Geoffrey Lister, have been virtually forgotten.
It is obvious now that the rebels were far more sophisticated than contemporary chroniclers gave them credit for: they were not just servants and labourers but craftsmen, artisans, wealthy tenant farmers, even members of the gentry, with more to lose than gain from revolt. Apart from the slaughter of the Flemings, especially in London, there was none of the indiscriminate mob violence which characterised other medieval uprisings. A number of royal officials were killed, but the eminent rank of Sudbury, Hales, Cavendish and the prior of Bury St Edmunds should not obscure the fact that the great revolt was not like the French Revolution of 1789 to which it is often compared. These rebels were highly organised and disciplined enough to target particular officials and not others: many of their victims were involved in the collection of the third poll-tax but that was not in itself sufficient to attract retribution – indeed some collectors, like Thomas Sampson in Suffolk and Richard Martyn in Cambridge, were to be found among the leaders of the revolt. The rebels were not a ragged bunch of agricultural workers forced to march on foot but were capable of covering long distances on horseback, spreading the revolt quickly and maintaining the element of surprise. They understood the workings of local government and were often part of it, acting as bailiffs, constables and other ‘worthy men’, so they were therefore able to utilise its systems for their own cause, calling out the local levies for instance, which in other circumstances would have been used against them. They were sufficiently sophisticated and organised to employ a watch-word to identify themselves as sworn members of a movement with coherent aims; the answer to the question ‘With whom haldes yow?’ was simple to remember – ‘Wyth kynge Richarde and wyth the trew communes’ – but it powerfully articulated their loyalties and political ideas. They were not rebels against their king but against those who abused his royal authority; they, and not those supposed to represent them in parliament, were his true and faithful commons. Above all else, they or their leaders were sufficiently literate to be able to read letters, write petitions and dictate charters of liberties.
The great revolt is often characterised as a reaction against the written record, but this is simplistic. While it is true that burning the returns of the third poll-tax, manorial court rolls, judicial records and legal archives was a major part of the revolt and was often an act of great symbolism, manifested by bonfires in public places, the rebels did not seek simply to destroy the written record but to replace it with a new one. At every point, whether it was the king’s concessions at Mile End, those of the abbots of religious houses like St Albans or Bury St Edmunds, or those of private individuals compelled to sign bonds, the rebels wanted the documentation in place so that they had their new-found freedoms enshrined in letters patent or charters. They were not destroying the past but securing their future, and they knew that had to be done in writing.
At the heart of the revolt, in every sense, were the concessions made by Richard II at Mile End. It is difficult to imagine what would have happened if he had refused to grant them. Would the rebels have sacked Westminster itself? Or taken the boy-king hostage? But the fact that he did grant them and was then so slow to revoke them gave the rebellion legitimacy, which persuaded many otherwise unlikely rebels, such as John Hauchach and Geoffrey Cobbe at Cambridge, Richard de Leycester at Ely and Thomas Sampson in Suffolk, to join the revolt. What is more, these men’s standing in their own local communities gave added authority to the rebels’ actions and encouraged others to swell their ranks. One only has to look at the charter of liberties granted by the abbot of St Albans on 15 June to see that Richard’s concessions persuaded people who might otherwise have resisted the revolt that the king was in favour of the rebels’ proceedings. Walsingham’s transcript, which he provocatively titles ‘extorted by the villeins of Barnet’, records among its list of witnesses both John Lodewyk, JP, whose ‘records, processes and indictments’ were being removed from his house that very day by rebels, and Sir Thomas Hoo.1 Walsingham gives no hint that they were compelled to act as witnesses (and he would have been the first to do so) so we can only assume that they signed voluntarily having seen the king’s own letters granting freedom to the people of Hertfordshire.
The many examples of rebels riding with banners of the king’s arms displayed – banners which, in at least some instances, were given to them at Mile End – demonstrate that they believed they were acting as the king’s agents, as does the repeated insistence that they were acting ‘on the king’s commission’. The gruesome beheadings of so many victims and the displaying of their heads on London Bridge or local pillories mimicked the usual practice of the state when dealing with traitors. On the odd occasion when a victim was killed by another method, like Reginald de Eccles at Norwich, who was stabbed in the abdomen, his head was still cut off for public display as that of a traitor. When we learn that the rebels in Cambridge compelled the university’s representatives to undertake to pay for the enrolment of their new charter in the king’s chancery, we cannot be in any doubt that they believed that they had the law and the king on their side.2 Richard’s futile attempt in November 1381 to persuade parliament to reinstate his abolition of villeinage suggests that they were right, at least in so far as the king’s personal wishes went.
The great revolt was over and the inquest had been held, but little would be done to redress the grievances that had inspired it. John of Gaunt would continue his Spanish adventures, oblivious to, or careless of, the financial cost to the kingdom. Corrupt and oppressive royal officials remained in place and even, in cases like the Accloms of Scarborough, managed to pass the baton on to the next generation. The townsmen of places in the lordship of powerful abbeys did not gain their independence until after the monasteries themselves had been abolished by Henry VIII: St Albans eventually got its charter of incorporation in 1553, Bury St Edmunds in 1606.3 In the countryside those holding by villein tenure reverted to their former methods by which they tried to throw off the yoke of lordship. In 1385, for example, the villeins on the abbey of Bury St Edmunds’ manor of Littlehawe, Suffolk, were found guilty of withholding their customary services for three years and fined three pounds. Led by their parson and chaplain, they had formed an association and raised money to buy exemplifications from Domesday Book to prove their free status; significantly, despite withholding their services, they had paid the abbey four pence an acre throughout their labour strike, exactly the sum which the rebels had persuaded the king to accept as the value of customary land.4
Villeinage was never formally abolished, but lingered on into the sixteenth century: manumission for the villeins of the duke of Norfolk was one of the demands of Kett’s rebellion in 1549 and as late as 1575 Queen Elizabeth I sold off three hundred of her villeins in an attempt to shore up her depleted finances.5 In the years immediately after the revolt it was actually the House of Commons which would lead a rearguard action to enforce villeinage more rigorously. The king granted its petitions in 1385 for the right to reclaim and extradite villeins who left their manors for towns, and in 1388 that villeins’ children should not be allowed to leave the manor after the age of twelve. A further petition in 1391 demanding that they should not be permitted to send their children to school because education was a means to ordination, and ordination automatically bestowed manumission, was rejected. On most estates, however, a combination of economic pressures as grain prices dropped, outright refusal by tenants to perform collective services and an inability to find anyone willing to take on tenancies burdened with labour dues led to a gradual withering away of villein tenure and its replacement by leasehold and cash rents.6
In the immediate aftermath of the revolt, parliament and the Church would act in concert to ensure that no popular revolt could again be stirred up by renegade preachers: orthodox churchmen had been quick to point the finger of blame at John Wyclif. William Rimington, for instance, a Cistercian writing in 1382–3, claimed that Wyclif’s ‘pestiferous teaching was probably a cause that lately moved the community to rise against the king and nobles of this realm’. Walsingham went further, seeing archbishop Sudbury’s death as punishment for his ‘lukewarmness’ and ‘negligence’ in suppressing Wyclif and his followers, among whom he placed John Balle, who ‘taught, moreover, the perverse doctrines of the perfidious John Wycliffe, and the insane opinions that he held’. The Carmelite author of Fasciculi Zizaniorum, a fifteenth-century compendium of anti-Lollard material, blatantly fabricated a ‘confession’ by Balle ‘that for two years he had been a disciple of Wycliffe and had learned from the latter the heresies which he had taught’ and that he had been part of a ‘secret fraternity’ which had travelled the country preaching Wyclif’s ‘perverse doctrine [and] … if they had not encountered resistance to their plans, they would have destroyed the entire kingdom within two years’. The chronicler Henry Knighton, who was in the embarrassing position of having one of Wyclif’s most eminent former disciples as his abbot, found his way out of the difficulty by describing Balle as Wyclif’s John the Baptist: ‘Balle prepared the way for Wycliffe’s opinions and, as is said, disturbed many with his own doctrines … [Balle] was the real breaker of the unity of the church, the author of discord between the laity and clergy, the indefatigable sower of illicit doctrines and the disturber of the Christian church’.7
Wyclif’s personal response to the great revolt was ambivalent. He condemned the murder of Sudbury because it was carried out without trial and was an excessive punishment for his crime in assuming the chancellorship, which Wyclif described as the most secular office in the land; however, Wyclif pleaded for mercy for the rebels because their grievances cried out for redress and had been ignored.8 The Church, however, had no intention of allowing his voice to be heard in public again. In May 1382 the Blackfriars Conference (which was appropriately struck by an earthquake while in session) condemned a list of twenty-four propositions attributed to Wyclif and his followers, including his heretical beliefs about Church property and the impotence of priests in mortal sin, which were shared by Balle. A few days later parliament issued a statute requiring sheriffs and other royal officials to imprison unauthorised preachers and those who defended the propositions. Wyclif and his supporters were prohibited from any further preaching or teaching until they renounced their heresy and did penance for it. As a result of the combined action of Church and state the apparatus was put in place for punishing heretics which would eventually lead to legislation in 1401 allowing them to be burned at the stake. Balle could not have envisaged that his preaching would have had such terrible consequences but his role in stirring up the revolt, however much exaggerated by the chronicles and the authorities, could not be ignored and gave the Church the excuse it needed to seek and gain the state’s assistance in repressing future dissent in matters of faith.
Despite having lost everything they set out to achieve, and despite the thoroughness of the suppression of the uprising, the rebels did not give up easily. On 29 July sixteen bondsmen by blood of the abbot of Chester held secret meetings in woods and the fields around Backford, just north of Chester, and made a collection of money to pay for legal advice on how to obtain their freedom. Was this a very late outbreak of the great revolt, a very early example of a new one or, as the ‘rebels’ themselves would have claimed, not a revolt at all but simply a non-violent way of trying to gain their liberty? Nevertheless, because the systems were now in place to suppress rebellion, it was identified and treated as such by the authorities.9
A more serious attempt to revive the rebellion apparently occurred in September in a group of villages south of Maidstone, Kent. Allegedly inspired by the unlikely report by pilgrims travelling from northern areas of England to Canterbury that Gaunt was about to free his villeins, Thomas Harding gathered a group of sympathisers in the local brewery and plotted to seize and kill three members of the Kentish gentry, enlist armed assistance from Romney Marsh and elsewhere and compel the king to reinstate the concessions he had made at Mile End or kill him too. They even agreed to send one of their number as a spy to the royal court to report on any planned moves against them and an agitator into Essex to raise rebels there. We cannot tell now whether this was a genuine attempt to restart the rebellion, or talk prompted by the drink, or the inventions of the approver who betrayed the alleged plot to John Frenyngham, one of the Kent commissioners to put down the rebellion. What we do know is that the response was swift and savage. Frenyngham had already suffered at the rebels’ hands earlier in the year, when he had been seized and compelled to swear the oath of loyalty to king and commons. Now he arrested the ringleaders and brought them before Tresilian, who held a special session of the King’s Bench just to try them: nine were executed and Harding’s head was fixed to the outer gate of Westminster Palace. A jittery government appointed a string of commissions to investigate, arrest and punish agitators from Kent who were rumoured to be stoking up further revolts in counties throughout the south-east.10
A year later, in September 1382, another conspiracy was uncovered in Norfolk, this time with the objective of capturing and killing bishop Despenser and other magnates, probably as a preliminary to raising another rebellion. The plan was to raise recruits at the three-day fair of Horsham St Faith near Norwich then lead them to occupy the abbey of St Benet-at-Holme, which was to become a rebel fortress. This plot too was nipped in the bud by the commissioners for Norfolk, led by Thomas de Morlee, who had so ignominiously been held captive by Geoffrey Lister. As senior judge in Despenser’s absence, Morlee was able to exact his revenge by condemning ten of the men to death. Morlee, it appears, had learnt nothing from his experiences, since at about the same time he was able to clear himself of the charge of having taken prisoner Thomas, son of Philip Gervays, and kept him hidden away by claiming that the man was his serf.11
In May 1383 six men were charged with making a ‘new insurrection’ in Suffolk because they had raised a large band of people to attack the houses of George Glanvyll at Hollesley and the rector of Parham: they had allegedly compelled Glanvyll and his wife to pay them a fine of ten pounds and looted their house, which had previously been broken into during the great revolt. Three of the accused were condemned to death but two claimed benefit of clergy and therefore escaped execution. A couple of months earlier, an attempt to kill the sheriff of Devon at Tavistock was judged to be insurrection and treason – though the murder of a royal tax-collector at Goldsworthy, Devon, was tried only as a felony.12
Much of the north was in a state of semi-permanent disorder throughout the late 1380s and 1390s, with numerous uprisings recorded in Yorkshire and Cheshire, but these were by and large local affairs, far enough away from London for the government to regard them as lacking the potential to inspire a second nationwide revolt.13 John Berwald, junior, of Cottingham, Yorkshire, for instance, was indicted in 1392 because he had composed ‘a certain rhyme in English words’ which he had proclaimed at Beverley on 28 July and in Hull a week later. Like the letters attributed to John Balle, his rhyme was considered revolutionary and incendiary: it urged people to stand together as brothers, maintain their neighbours and, if wrong were done to one of them, it should be held a wrong to all ‘and on that purpose we stand’. The rhyme was linked with disturbances on the manor of Cottingham, which belonged to Thomas Holland, the king’s half-brother, in which there had been
sworn conspiracies, assemblies, taking of fines and ransoms from the people without reasonable cause, liveries of hoods … contrary to the ordinance, confederacies, ambushes to beat, maim or kill people of the country-side, assaults on William Holme, late escheator in that county, in the exercise of his office, and false alliances by confederation that each would maintain the other.
Despite these crimes, all those involved were pardoned a year later.14
The great revolt of 1381 achieved none of its stated aims – though no government would dare to impose another poll-tax for six hundred years. Nevertheless, the idea that ordinary people could spontaneously rise up and join forces against an oppressive regime to better their condition has gripped the popular imagination ever since. From Jack Cade in 1450 to the Revolutionary Socialist Workers’ Party and the poll-tax rioters of the 1980s, generations of rebels and political idealists have looked back to the great revolt for inspiration and affirmation of their own struggle. Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Balle have been mythologised and elevated to the status of ideological martyrs for their cause – a cause which, bizarrely, has largely been misunderstood. Radical though the rebel demands were, they did not include equality for all, redistribution of wealth or the destruction of the political system; even the poll-tax, as we have seen, was not a flat-rate imposition levied on one and all regardless of rank or personal means.
It is one of the great ironies of history that the man who did more than anyone else to ensure that the rebel leaders would be remembered was one of their bitterest and most implacable foes. Thomas Walsingham had wanted to create martyrs of archbishop Sudbury and the prior of Bury St Edmunds. Instead, he made popular heroes out of Tyler, Straw and Balle. It is not the pious phrases he put into Sudbury’s mouth as he faced his brutal execution that ring down through the centuries but the words of the fictitious sermon he gave John Balle:
When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman?15
We can question whether Tyler, Straw and Balle were as key to the revolt as their fame would suggest, but what is beyond doubt is that they, and many others like them, emerged as leaders of a popular uprising the likes of which had never before been seen in England. Previous rebellions had always been led by members of the aristocracy: it was the barons who united against King John to obtain Magna Carta in 1215, fought the civil wars against Henry III in the 1260s and deposed Edward II in 1327. The same was to hold true for much of the future, as Richard II would learn to his cost when he too was removed from the throne by a coalition of magnates led by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke. In 1381, however, there was not a single member of the nobility, secular or ecclesiastical, who identified with the grievances of the general population and was prepared to act to remedy them. For the lay aristocracy war with France was a matter of honour and a way of life: its financial cost was an irrelevance. The senior clergy might protest in congregation at being forced to contribute money to the king’s wars but, like their lay peers, they did not voice opposition to the war in principle. And also, like their secular counterparts, they were beneficiaries of the systems which those at the lower end of the social scale so resented.
Parliament, as an institution, was quite capable of taking a stand against bad governance, insisting on changes in government personnel and imposing tighter controls on spending and auditing royal accounts, but the merchants and shire gentry who sat in the House of Commons were the same men who served in civic office and as stewards of great estates, sheriffs and, above all, as justices of the peace. They were therefore part of the problem. They might express concern about the effect of continual and heavy taxation on the ‘poor commons’ and even attempt to mitigate its worst effects on the poorest, but only once in six assemblies since 1377 had parliament refused a request for taxation. Their conviction that wage-earners, such as labourers and servants, were cash-rich and ought to be brought within the tax net, encouraged them to enforce regressive and unrealistic legislation controlling wages and to impose the poll-taxes, despite their disproportionate effect on the less wealthy in society. Neither parliament as a whole, nor even the Commons, which purported to represent the people of the shires and towns, was prepared to voice or redress the grievances of the general population.
Since the natural leaders of the kingdom could not be called upon to provide remedies, others had stepped into the breach. These were what we might now call the middle class, or more specifically the aspirant middle class: those who had no real voice or role in the administration of urban government, or who were caught in the middle of agrarian society between the traditional defined ranks of landlords on one side and villeins on the other. Whether free or unfree, though generally the former, they were the ambitious, hard-working and lucky who had bettered themselves by seizing the economic opportunities offered in the years after the Black Death. It was these people who had become the village elite, rich enough to pay wages to employ others outside their own families, and serving in manorial and county administration as jurors, constables and bailiffs. And it was overwhelmingly these people – hitherto respectable men like William Gildeborne, John Geffrey and Thomas Sampson – who led the revolt of 1381.
They were joined by the artisans and craftsmen whose skills enabled them to earn their living in a growing market economy outside the narrow confines of the traditional, manorial, agricultural relationship of landlord and tenant. Men like Henry Bongay and William Grindecobbe were wealthy enough to expect that they had earned a right to play a part in civic government or to avoid the humiliation of being obliged to perform archaic customs and services at the whim of their social superiors. Yet they had no legitimate means of expressing their dissatisfaction and frustration, and their relatively modest earnings and savings were increasingly being targeted by a government determined to squeeze as much as possible from the populace into its ever-empty coffers. Repeated demands for taxation took their toll, particularly when the burden of supporting their poorer (and possibly more feckless) neighbours was added to their own personal liability. Many of them were doubtless sufficiently educated to be both numerate and literate in English, if not in the French or Latin which remained largely the preserve of professional clerks. They were just the sort of people who, in the decades after the revolt, would reject orthodox religion to become Lollards, subscribing to the popular heresy, based on Wyclif’s ideas, which encouraged lay literacy and reading the Bible in English, questioned the Church’s monopoly on salvation and championed the rights of the individual. The government ignored such people at its peril and, in 1381, it paid the price.