One of the major frustrations of writing about the great revolt is that the rebels destroyed so many of the records which would have given us valuable information about them as individuals. Nowhere is this more disappointing than in the case of Wat Tyler, or Tegheler, as his name was generally set down at the time. Neither his identity nor his place of origin can be pinned down with any certainty and the few snippets of evidence that do survive seem contradictory. In a petition of 1383–4 from the House of Commons to the king in parliament, for instance, Tyler was described as being ‘a captain, leader and chief … of the county of Kent’. This does not necessarily mean he was a Kentishman, though the Anonimalle chronicler, writing after 1385, goes further, identifying him as ‘Watt Teghler of Maidstone’.1 He is the only chronicler to attribute a place of origin to Tyler, and he may have assumed he was from Maidstone since that was the place where the rebel first emerged as a named leader in his account.
Opposing evidence comes from Kent itself. In the inquisitions made immediately after the revolt several juries from the county, giving testimony at the beginning of July 1381, declared him to be ‘of Essex’. More tellingly, on 4 July, less than a month after the events they were describing in Maidstone, the jurors of that town specifically identified him as being ‘of Colchester’. While it was clearly in the Kentishmen’s interest to blame outsiders for causing the revolt, the same juries had no hesitation in correctly identifying the places of origin of other rebel leaders in their own county, such as Abel Ker of Dartford.2 It is tempting to give more weight to the Kent sources, since they were better placed to know the truth about their own people and they are as close to contemporaneous as it is possible to get on this subject. The poll-tax records might have given us more material but all the 1381 returns for Kent, except those for Canterbury, ‘were burnt by the commons’ and none of the detailed earlier rolls for Maidstone have survived. In Colchester the sole extant return is for 1377, and no Wat Tyler appears there.3
It is possible that ‘tegheler’ was Tyler’s occupation rather than his family name; the two were not always synonymous, even at this period. If he were a tiler by trade, as some chroniclers claim,4 he could have been either a simple layer of floor or roofing tiles or a skilled craftsman involved in their production. Making tiles, particularly decorative ones for flooring, required wooden stamps with a proud design to create a depression in red clay which was then filled with white clay to create the pattern. The tiles were then glazed and fired in a kiln. Tilers were either itinerant, like the masons who worked on major ecclesiastical and aristocratic buildings, or associated with a particular large-scale production site like Battle Abbey’s ten kilns at Wye, Kent, twenty miles from Maidstone, which in 1374 alone produced some 190,000 flat, ridge and corner tiles for flooring and roofing the Sussex abbey, but also for sale elsewhere at prices between two shillings and 2s. 6d. per thousand. It is tempting to think that Tyler might have been drawn to Kent to work in such a place, but there is no hard evidence at all, other than his name, to suggest that he did follow that occupation.5
We reach a similar dead-end with the only other potential source of information. Froissart tells us that Richard Lyons was murdered as an act of revenge by Tyler, who had once been his servant ‘during the wars in France’. Sadly, this is a typical Froissartian fabrication, colourful but untrue, if only because the chronicler is unaware that Lyons was a merchant-financier and had never performed military service in France. Given Tyler’s methods and leadership skills it does seem possible that he might have been a soldier, perhaps newly returned from Brittany, or one of Felton’s disbanded recruits who had mustered in Dartmouth earlier in the year. Again, however, we draw a complete blank in the muster rolls of the period.6 In the end, all that we can say about Tyler is that his activities in the revolt, so far as the record stands, relate to Kent and London, but there is no reason to suppose that he was not originally from Essex, or even Colchester. He may have been one of the band of Essex men recruited by Abel Ker and brought over to Kent at the beginning of the revolt, but there was considerable movement of individuals between the two counties long before this, and he may simply have been living in Maidstone by 1381, just as John and William ‘Kentissh’ and their wives were resident in Colchester.7 Tyler’s origins are not immaterial. If he did come from Essex, his prominent role in events in Kent might help to explain how and why the rebels of both counties were able to coordinate their movements so closely.