III. THE GREAT REVOLT: 1381

England and Wales had in 1307 a population precariously estimated at 3,000,000—a slow increase from a supposed 2,500,000 in 1066.46 The figures suggest a sluggish advance of agricultural and industrial techniques—and an effective control of human multiplication by famine, disease, and war—in a fertile but narrow island never meant to sustain with its own resources any great multitude of men. Probably three fourths of the people were peasants, and half of these were serfs; in this regard England lagged a century behind France.

Class distinctions were sharper than on the Continent. Life seemed to revolve about two foci: gracious or arrogant lordship at one end, hopeful or resentful service at the other. The barons, aside from their limited duties to the king, were masters of all they surveyed, and of much beyond. The dukes of Lancaster, Norfolk, and Buckingham had estates rivaling those of the Crown, and the Nevilles and Percys had hardly less. The feudal lord bound his vassal knights and their squires to serve and defend him and wear his “livery.”* Nevertheless one might rise from class to class; a rich merchant’s daughter could catch a noble and a title, and Chaucer, reborn, would have been startled to find his granddaughter a duchess. The middle classes assumed such manners of the aristocracy as they could manage; they began to address one another as Master in England, Mon seigneur in France; soon every man was a Mister or Monsieur, and every woman a Mistress or Madame.

Industry progressed faster than agriculture. By 1300 almost all the coalfields of Britain were being worked; silver, iron, lead, and tin were mined, and the export of metals ranked high in the nation’s foreign trade; it was a common remark that “the kingdom is of greater value under the land than above.” 47 The woolen industry began in this century to make England rich. The lords withdrew more and more lands from the common uses formerly allowed to their serfs and tenants, and turned large tracts into sheep enclosures; more money could be made by selling wool than by tilling the land. The wool merchants were for a time the wealthiest traders in England, able to yield great sums in loans and taxes to Edward III, who ruined them. Tired of seeing raw wool go from England to feed the clothing industry of Flanders, Edward (1331 f.) lured Flemish weavers to Britain, and through their instruction established a textile industry there. Then he forbade the export of wool and the import of most foreign cloth. By the end of the fourteenth century the manufacture of clothing had replaced the trade in wool as the main source of England’s liquid wealth and had reached a semi-capitalistic stage.

The new industry required the close co-operation of many crafts—weaving, fulling, carding, dyeing, finishing; the old craft guilds could not arrange the disciplined collaboration needed for economical production; enterprising masters—entrepreneurs—gathered diverse specializations of labor into one organization, which they financed and controlled. However, no such factory system arose here as in Florence and Flanders; most of the work was still done in small shops by a master, his apprentices, and a few journeymen, or in little rural mills using water power, or in country homes where patient fingers plied the loom when household chores allowed. The craft guilds fought the new system with strikes, but its superior productivity overrode all opposition; and the workers who competed to sell their toil and skill were increasingly at the mercy of men who furnished capital and management. Town proletarians “lived from hand to mouth .... indifferently clad and housed, in good times well fed, but in bad times not fed at all.” 48 All male inhabitants of English cities were subject to conscription of their labor for public works, but rich men could pay for substitutes.49 Poverty was bitter, though probably less extreme than in the early nineteenth century. Beggars abounded, and organized to protect and govern their profession. Churches, monasteries, and guilds provided a limping charity.

Upon this scene the Black Death burst as not only a catastrophic visitation but almost as an economic revolution. The English people lived in a climate more favorable to vegetation than to health; the fields were green the year round, but the population suffered from gout, rheumatism, asthma, sciatica, tuberculosis, dropsy, and diseases of eyes and skin.50 All classes ate a heavy diet and kept warm with alcoholic drinks. “Few men now reach the age of forty,” said Richard Rolle about 1340, “and fewer still the age of fifty.”51Public sanitation was primitive; the stench of tanneries, pigsties, and latrines sullied the air; only the well-to-do had running water piped into their homes; the majority fetched it from conduits or wells and could not waste it on weekly baths.52 The lower classes offered ready victims for the pestilences that periodically decimated the population. In 1349 the bubonic plague crossed from Normandy to England and Wales, and thence a year later into Scotland and Ireland; it returned to England in 1361, 1368, 1375, 1382, 1390, 1438, 1464; all in all it carried away one Englishman out of every three.53 Nearly half the clergy died; perhaps some of the abuses later complained of in the English Church were due to the necessity of hastily impressing into her service men lacking the proper qualifications of training and character. Art suffered; ecclesiastical building almost stopped for a generation. Morals suffered; family ties were loosed, sexual relations overflowed the banks within which the institution of marriage sought to confine them for social order’s sake. The laws lacked officers to enforce them, and were frequently ignored.

The plague collaborated with war to quicken the decline of the manorial system. Many peasants, having lost their children or other aides, deserted their tenancies for the towns; landowners were obliged to hire free workers at twice the former wage, to attract new tenants with easier terms than before, and to commute feudal services into money payments. Themselves forced to pay rising prices for everything that they bought, the landlords appealed to the government to stabilize wages. The Royal Council responded (June 18, 1349) with an ordinance substantially as follows:

Because a great part of the People, and especially of Workers and Servants, late died of the pestilence, and many... will not serve unless they receive excessive wages, and some rather willing to beg in idleness than by Labour to get their Living; We, considering the grievous Discommodity which, of the lack especially of Plowmen and such Labourers, may hereafter come, have upon deliberation and treaty with the Prelates and the Nobles, and Learned Men assisting us, of their mutual Counsel ordained:

1. Every person able in Body and under the Age of sixty Years, not having [wherewith] to live, being required, shall be bound to serve him that doth require him, or else [be] committed to the Gaol, until he find Surety to serve.

2. If a Workman or Servant depart from Service before the time agreed upon, he shall be imprisoned.

3. The old Wages, and no more, shall be given to Servants.....

5. If any Artificer or Workman take more wages than were wont to be paid, he shall be committed to the Gaol.....

6. Victuals shall be sold at reasonable prices.

7. No person shall give anything to a Beggar that is able to labour.54

This ordinance was so widely disregarded by employers and employees that Parliament issued (February 9,1351) a Statute of Labourers, specifying that no wages should be paid above the 1346 rate, fixing definite prices for a large number of services and commodities, and establishing enforcement machinery. A further act of 1360 decreed that peasants who left their lands before the term of their contract or tenancy expired might be brought back by force, and, at the discretion of the justices of the peace, might be branded on the brow.55 Similar measures, of increasing severity, were enacted between 1377 and 1381. Wages rose despite them, but the strife so engendered between laborers and government inflamed the conflict of classes, and lent new weapons to the preachers of revolt.

The rebellion that ensued had a dozen sources. Those peasants who were still serfs demanded freedom; those who were free called for an end to feudal dues still required of them; and tenants urged that the rent of land should be lowered to four pence ($1.67?) per acre per year. Some towns were still subject to feudal overlords, and longed for self-government. In the liberated communities the workingmen hated the mercantile oligarchy, and journeymen protested against their insecurity and poverty. All alike—peasants, proletarians, even parish priests—denounced the governmental mismanagement of Edward Ill’s last years, of Richard II’s earliest; they asked why English arms had so regularly been beaten after 1369, and why such heavy taxes had been raised to finance such defeats. They particularly abominated Archbishop Sudbury and Robert Hales, the chief ministers of the young king, and John of Gaunt as the front and protector of governmental corruption and incompetence.

The Lollard preachers had little connection with the movement, but they had shared in preparing minds for the revolt. John Ball, the intellectual of the rebellion, quoted Wyclif approvingly, and Wat Tyler followed Wyclif in demanding disendowment of the Church. Ball was the “mad priest of Kent” (as Froissart called him) who taught communism to his congregation, and was excommunicated in 1306.56 He became an itinerant preacher, denouncing the wicked wealth of prelates and lords, calling for a return of the clergy to evangelical poverty, and making fun of the rival popes who, in the Schism, were dividing the garments of Christ.57 Tradition ascribed to him a famous couplet:

When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman? 58

—i.e., when Adam dug in the earth and Eve plied the loom, were there any class divisions in Eden? Froissart, though so fond of the English aristocracy, quoted Ball’s alleged views at sympathetic length:

My good friends, matters cannot go on well in England until all things shall be in common; when there shall be neither vassals nor lords, when the lords shall be no more masters than ourselves. How ill they behave to us! For what reason do they thus hold us in bondage? Are we not all descended from the same parents, Adam and Eve? And what can they show why they should be more masters than ourselves?... We are called slaves, and if we do not perform our service we are beaten.... . Let us go to the King and remonstrate with him; he is young, and from him we may obtain a favorable answer; and if not we must ourselves seek to amend our condition.59

Ball was thrice arrested, and when the revolt broke out he was in jail.

The poll tax of 1380 capped the discontent. The government was nearing bankruptcy, the pledged jewels of the king were about to be forfeited, the war in France was crying out for new funds. A tax of £ 100,000 ($10,000,000?) was laid upon the people, to be collected from every inhabitant above the age of fifteen. All the diverse elements of revolt were united by this fresh imposition. Thousands of persons evaded the collectors, and the total receipts fell far short of the goal. When the government sent new commissioners to ferret out the evaders, the populace gathered in force and defied them; at Brentwood the royal agents were stoned out of the town (1381), and like scenes occurred at Fobbing, Corringham, and St. Albans. Mass meetings of protest against the tax were held in London; they sent encouragement to the rural rebels, and invited them to march upon the capital, to join the insurgents there, and “so press the King that there should no longer be a serf in England.”60

A group of collectors entering Kent met a riotous repulse. On June 6, 1381, a mob broke open the dungeons at Rochester, freed the prisoners, and plundered the castle. On the following day the rebels chose as their chief Wat Tegheler, or Tyler. Nothing is known of his antecedents; apparently he was an ex-soldier, for he disciplined the disorderly horde into united action, and won its quick obedience to his commands. On June 8 this swelling multitude, armed with bows and arrows, cudgels, axes, and swords, and receiving recruits from almost every village in Kent, attacked the homes of unpopular landlords, lawyers, and governmental officials. On June 10 it was welcomed into Canterbury, sacked the palace of the absent Archbishop Sudbury, opened the jail, and plundered the mansions of the rich. All eastern Kent now joined in the revolt; town after town rose, and local officials ran before the storm. Rich men fled to other parts of England, or concealed themselves in out-of-the-way places, or escaped further damage by making a contribution to the rebel cause. On June 11 Tyler turned his army toward London. At Maidstone it delivered John Ball from jail; he joined the cavalcade, and preached to it every day. Now, he said, would begin that reign of Christian democracy which he had so long dreamed of and pled for; all social inequalities would be leveled; there would no longer be rich and poor, lords and serfs; every man would be a king.61

Meanwhile related uprisings occurred in Norfolk, Suffolk, Beverly, Bridgewater, Cambridge, Essex, Middlesex, Sussex, Hertford, Somerset. At Bury St. Edmund the people cut off the head of the prior, who had too stoutly asserted the feudal rights of the abbey over the town. At Colchester the rioters killed several Florentine merchants who were believed to be cutting in on British trade. Wherever possible they destroyed the rolls, leases, or charters that recorded feudal ownership or bondage; hence the townsfolk of Cambridge burned the charters of the University; and at Waltham every document in the abbey archives was committed to the flames.

On June 11 a rebel army from Essex and Hertford approached the northern outskirts of London; on the twelfth the Kent insurgents reached Southwark, just across the Thames. No organized resistance was offered by the adherents of the King. Richard II, Sudbury, and Hales hid in the Tower. Tyler sent the King a request for an interview; it was refused. The mayor of London, William Walworth, closed the city gates, but they were reopened by revolutionists within the town. On June 13 the Kent forces marched into the capital, were welcomed by the people, and were joined by thousands of laborers. Tyler held his host fairly well in leash, but appeased its fury by allowing it to sack the palace of John of Gaunt. Nothing was stolen there; one rioter who tried to filch a silver goblet was killed by the crowd. But everything was destroyed; costly furniture was thrown out of the windows, rich hangings were torn to rags, jewelry was smashed to bits; then the house was burned to the ground, and some jolly rebels who had drunk themselves to stupor in the wine cellar were forgotten and consumed in the flames. Thereafter the army turned on the Temple, citadel of the lawyers of England; the peasants remembered that lawyers had written the deeds of their servitude, or had assessed their holdings for taxation; there too they made a holocaust of the records, and burned the buildings to the ground. The jails in Newgate and the Fleet were destroyed, and the happy inmates joined the mob. Wearied with its efforts to crowd a century of revenge into a day, the multitudes lay down in the open spaces of the city, and slept.

That evening the King’s Council thought better of its refusal to let him talk with Tyler. They sent an invitation to Tyler and his followers to meet with Richard the next morning at a northern suburb known as Mile End. Shortly after dawn on June 14 the fourteen-year-old King, risking his life, rode out of the Tower with all of his council except Sudbury and Hales, who dared not expose themselves. The little party made its way through the hostile crowd to Mile End, where the Essex rebels were already gathered; part of the Kent army followed, with Tyler at its head. He was surprised at the readiness of Richard to grant nearly all demands. Serfdom was to be abolished throughout England, all feudal dues and services were to end, the rental of the tenants would be as they had asked; and a general amnesty would absolve all those who had shared in the revolt. Thirty clerks were at once set to work drawing up charters of freedom and forgiveness for all districts that applied. One demand the King refused—that the royal ministers and other “traitors” should be surrendered to the people. Richard replied that all persons accused of misconduct in government would be tried by orderly process of law, and would be punished if found guilty.

Not satisfied with this answer, Tyler and a selected band rode rapidly to the Tower. They found Sudbury singing Mass in the chapel. They dragged him out into the courtyard and forced him down with his neck on a log. The executioner was an amateur, and required eight strokes of the ax to sever the head. The insurgents then beheaded Hales and two others. Upon the Archbishop’s head they fixed his miter firmly with a nail driven into the skull; they mounted the heads on pikes, carried them in procession through the city, and set them up over the gate of London Bridge. All the remainder of that day was spent in slaughter. London tradesmen, resenting Flemish competition, bade the crowd kill every Fleming found in the capital. To determine the nationality of a suspect he was shown bread and cheese and bidden name them; if he answered brod und käse, or spoke with a Flemish brogue, he forfeited his life. Over 150 aliens—merchants and bankers—were slain in London on that day in June, and many English lawyers, tax collectors, and adherents of John of Gaunt fell under the axes and hatchets of indiscriminate vengeance. Apprentices murdered their masters, debtors their creditors. At midnight the sated victors again retired to rest.

Informed of these events, the King returned from Mile End and went, not to the Tower, but to his mother’s rooms near St. Paul’s. Meanwhile a large number of the Essex and Hertford contingents, rejoicing in their charters of freedom, dispersed toward their homes. On June 15 the King sent a modest message to the remaining rebels asking them to meet him in the open spaces of Smithfield outside Aldersgate. Tyler agreed. Before keeping this rendezvous, Richard, fearing death, confessed and took the Sacrament; then he rode out with a retinue of 200 men whose peaceful garb hid swords. At Smithfield Tyler came forward with only a single companion to guard him. He made new demands, uncertainly reported, but apparently including the confiscation of Church property and the distribution of the proceeds among the people.62 A dispute ensued; one of the King’s escort called Tyler a thief; Tyler directed his aide to strike the man down; Mayor Walworth blocked the way; Tyler stabbed at Walworth, whose life was saved by the armor under his cloak; Walworth wounded Tyler with a short cutlass, and one of Richard’s squires ran Tyler through twice with a sword. Tyler rode back to his host crying treason, and fell dead at their feet. Shocked by what seemed to them plain treachery, the rebels set their arrows and prepared to shoot. Though their numbers were reduced, they were still a substantial force, reckoned by Froissart at 20,000; probably they could have overwhelmed the King’s retinue. But Richard now rode out bravely toward them, crying out, “Sirs, will you shoot your king? I will be your chief and captain; you shall have from me that which you seek. Only follow me into the fields without.” He rode out slowly, not sure that they would heed or spare him. The insurgents hesitated, then followed him, and most of the royal guard mingled in their midst.

Walworth, however, turned sharply back, galloped into the city, and sent orders to the aldermen of its twenty-four wards to join him with all the armed forces they could muster. Many citizens who at first had sympathized with the revolt were now disturbed by the murders and pillage; every man who had any property felt his goods and his life to be in peril; so the Mayor found an impromptu army of 7,000 men rising at his command as if out of the earth. These he led back to Smithfield; there he rejoined and surrounded the King, and offered to massacre the rebels. Richard refused; the rebels had spared him when he was at their mercy, and he would not now show himself less generous. He announced to them that they were free to depart in safety. The Essex and Hertford remnants rapidly melted away; the London mutineers disappeared into their haunts; only the Kent contingent stayed. Their passage through the city was blocked by Walworth’s armed men, but Richard ordered that no one should molest them; they marched off in safety, and filed back in disorder along the Old Kent Road. The King returned to his mother, who greeted him with tears of happy relief. “Ah, fair son, what pain and anguish have I had for you this day!” “Certes, Madam,” the boy answered. “I know it well. But now rejoice and praise God, for today I have recovered my heritage that was lost, and the realm of England too.” 63

Image

Fig. 1—POL DE LIMBURG: The Month of October, a miniature from Les Très Riches Heures du Due de Berry. Musée Condé, Chantilly

Image

Fig. 2—CLAUS SLUTER: Moses. Museum, Dijon

Image

Fig. 3—HUBERT AND JAN VAN EYCK: The Virgin, detail from The Adoration of the Lamb. Church of St. Bavon, Ghent

Image

Fig. 4—HUBERT AND JAN VAN EYCK: The Adoration of the lamb. Church of St. Bavon, Ghent

Image

Fig. 5—King’s College Chapel (interior), Cambridge

Image

Fig. 6—Chapel of Henry VII, Westminster Abbey, London

Image

Fig. 7—House of Jacques Cœur, Bourges

Image

Fig. 8—ROGIER VAN DER WEYDEN: Portrait of a Lady. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (Mellon Collection)

Image

Fig. 9—MATTHIAS GRÜNE-WALD: The Crucifixion, detail from the Isenheim Altarpiece. Museum, Colmar

Image

Fig. 10—ALBRECHT DÜRER: Portrait of Hieronymus Holzschuher. Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin

Image

Fig. 11—HANS HOLBEIN THE YOUNGER: Erasmus. Louvre, Paris

Image

Fig. 12—ALBRECHT DÜRER: The Four Apostles (at left: John and Peter; at right: Mark and Paul). Haus der Kunst, Munich

Image

Fig. 13—LUCAS CRANACH: Martin Luther. The John G. Johnson Art Collection, Philadelphia

Image

Fig. 14—Luther Memorial, Worms

Image

Fig. 15—ALBRECHT DÜRER: Philip Melanchthon. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Image

Fig. 16—RENÉ BOYVIN: Calvin. Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire, Geneva

Image

Fig. 17—Reformation Monument, Geneva

Image

Fig. 18—Chateau of Francis I, Chambord

Image

Fig. 19—Gallery of Francis I, Fontainebleau

Image

Fig. 20—Church of St. Maclou, Rouen

Image

Fig. 21—TITIAN: Charles V at Mühlberg. Prado, Madrid

Image

Fig. 22—MICHEL COLOMBE: St. George and the Dragon. Louvre, Paris

Image

Fig. 23—JEAN GOUJON: Water Nymphs, from Fountain of the Innocents. Louvre, Paris

Image

Fig. 24—JEAN CLOUET: Francis L Louvre, Paris

Probably under the prodding of the Mayor who had saved him, Richard on that same June 15 issued a proclamation banishing from London, on pain of death, all persons who had not lived there for a year past. Walworth and his troops searched streets and tenements for such aliens, caught many, killed several. Among these was one Jack Straw, who confessed, presumably under torture, that the men of Kent had planned to make Tyler king. In the meantime a deputation from the Essex insurgents arrived at Waltham and demanded of the King a formal ratification of the promises he had made on June 14. Richard replied that these had been made under duress, and that he had no intention of keeping them; on the contrary, he told them, “Villeins you are still, and villeins you shall remain”; and he threatened dread vengeance on any man who continued in armed rebellion.64 The angry deputies called upon their followers to renew the revolt; some did, but these were cut down with great slaughter by Walworth’s men (June 28).

On July 2 the embittered King revoked all charters and amnesties granted by him during the outbreak, and opened the way to a judicial inquiry into the identity and actions of the main participants. Hundreds were arrested and tried; 110 or more were put to death. John Ball was caught at Coventry; he fearlessly avowed his leading role in the insurrection, and refused to ask pardon of the King. He was hanged, drawn, and quartered; and his head, with those of Tyler and Jack Straw, replaced those of Sudbury and Hales as adornments of London Bridge. On November 13 Richard laid before Parliament an account of his actions; if, he said, the assembled prelates and lords and commons wished the serfs to be freed, he was quite willing. But the members were nearly all landowners; they could not admit the right of the King to dispose of their property; they voted that all existing feudal relations should be maintained.65 The beaten peasants returned to their plows, the sullen workers to their looms.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!