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Richard II addressing the Peasants' Revolt and Wat Tyler's Death

The Peasants' Revolt, 1381

Four years after Richard's accession discontent came to a head in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. The causes of this rising were numerous. The deepest of them lay in the changes which had effected society since the time of the Black Death [1348-9 and 1361-2]. The demand for labour was still great, and the free labourers, who could hire themselves out where they would, were bitterly discontented with the laws which tried to keep down their wages. They had formed associations to defeat the Statute of Labourers [1351], and for a generation there had been much quarrelling between them and their masters.

The grievances of the free labourers were, however, small as compared with the troubles of the serfs or villeins. In Norman times the mass of the people had, as we have seen, become villeins. During the fourteenth century the number of villeins was steadily decreasing, as many ran away from their lords, and many were set free, since lords had found that it paid them better to cultivate their lands with free labour, while the Church taught that it was a meritorious act to enfranchise a bondman. However, the strong demand for labour, which resulted from the decline of population after the pestilence, had retarded this movement towards freedom.

When it became very difficult to obtain free labour, it was natural that the lords of serfs should exact to the uttermost the rights they still possessed of compelling their bondmen to work for them without pay. At the same time the villeins became more unwilling to give up so much of their time to their lords, when they saw that their free brethren could earn large wages without difficulty. The result was that the villeins were even more discontented than the free labourers, and both classes alike were ripe for revolt.

Thus the unrest and discontent of Edward III's time still continued. It was increased by the struggles in the boroughs between the craftsmen of the guilds and the rich merchants, who kept the government of the towns in their own hands, and ruled harshly in the interests of their own class. Old soldiers who had come back from the French wars told the poor English how the men of Flanders had shaken off the yoke of their count, and had, by union and determination, won liberty for themselves. The friars still wandered through the land, teaching that Christ and His apostles had had no property, and denouncing the oppressions of the rich. Wycliffe's "poor priests" were now also traversing the country, maintaining their master's doctrine of dominion founded on grace and declaring that it was the duty of a Christian to deprive unworthy men of their offices and lands. John Hall, an Essex priest, made himself the mouthpiece of this widespread discontent. "We are all come,' said he, "from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve. How can the gentry show that they are greater lords than we?" On every side the old social order was breaking up, and men were ripe for revolution.

Disgust at the bad government of John of Gaunt and the council added political to social unrest. Heavy taxes were levied, though the people got nothing in return from them. Finally, in 1381, the imposition of a new poll-tax—that is, a tax levied on each individual in the community, brought the Peasants' discontent to a head. The Kentish men were among the freest and most turbulent of Englishmen. There was no villeinage in Kent, but nowhere was the indignation at the badness of the government so deeply felt. Headed by Wat Tyler, the Kentish men refused to pay the poll-tax, rose in revolt, and marched in great numbers to London.

At the same moment disturbances broke out all over England, as if in obedience to a common command. The most formidable were in the eastern counties, where the numerous serfs of great abbeys, like Bury St. Edmunds and St. Albans, rose against their monastic landlords and demanded their enfranchisement. Like the Kentish freemen, the villeins of the eastern shires also made their way to London. The rebels soon took possession of the capital, and wrought many outrages. They murdered some of the king's ministers, including the chancellor, Simon of Sudbury, the archbishop of Canterbury. They burned John of Gaunt's house, the Savoy Palace in the Strand, and declared they would have no king named John.

Richard II was only sixteen years old, but he showed a courage and resolution that put to shame the weakness of his ministers. One day he met the rebels from the eastern counties at Mile End, agreed to give them charters of freedom, and persuaded the majority to go home. The Kentish men, however, remained in arms, and constantly perpetrated fresh outrages. Next day Richard went with William Walworth, the mayor of London, to treat with them in Smithfield. Tyler, the rebel leader, behaved with great familiarity, but Richard promised to accept most of his demands. Unluckily, one of the king's followers declared that Tyler was the greatest thief in Kent, and Tyler sprang upon him with his dagger. The mayor strove to protect the courtier, and a scuffle ensued between the two, in which Tyler was slain. The rebels drew their bows at the king, but Richard, riding up among them, declared, "I will be your captain; come with me into the fields, and you shall have all you ask." His presence of mind saved the situation, and gave time for the soldiers to surround the rebels and force them to lay down their arms.

The troubles in London were thus ended, and all over the country the gentry, plucking up courage, set to work to put down the revolt systematically. The cruelties worked by the peasants in their brief moment of triumph were now more than revenged on them by their victorious masters. Even the king took part in punishing the rebels. He put John Ball to death at St. Albans, and revoked the charters of freedom which he had issued on the grounds that they had been obtained by violence, and that he had no power to interfere with the lord's property over his serfs. When parliament met it approved the king's action, and declared that it would never agree to the liberation of the villeins. However, a little later, the marriage of the king to Anne of Bohemia, daughter of the Emperor Charles IV, was made an excuse for extending a general pardon to all the rebels.

Despite the apparent failure of the peasants, the revolt was not entirely without fruit. It taught the government and the gentry that it was dangerous to press the tenants too much, and, though for a time it probably made the conditions of the villeins worse, it led in the long run to the restriction of villeinage. Many landlords found that it was easier for them to set free their peasants and to accept money payment in lieu of their accustomed services. Within a hundred years of the Peasants' Revolt, villeinage had almost disappeared from England. Besides this something was done to remedy the misrule against which the Kentish men had so loudly protested. John of Gaunt was so unpopular that power slipped away quietly from him, and before long he betook himself to Spain, where he strove, with little result, to make himself king of Castile by reason of his marriage with Constance, the daughter of Peter the Cruel. His failure taught the king's council some measure of wisdom and prudence, and the country became somewhat better governed in the years succeeding the Peasants' Revolt.





      Excerpted from:

      Tout, T. F. An Advanced History of Great Britain. New ed.
      New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1910. 229-232.




Other Local Resources:




Books for further study: Barker, Juliet. 1381: The Year of the Peasants' Revolt.
            Belknap Press, 2014.

Dunn, Alastair. The Peasants' Revolt: England's Failed Revolution of 1381. 2nd Ed.
           Tempus, 2004.

Jones, Dan. Summer of Blood: The Peasants' Revolt of 1381.
            UK General Books, 2010.

Justice, Steven. Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381.
           Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.




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Edward II
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Piers Gaveston

Hundred Years' War (1337-1453)

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Sir John Chandos
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Richard II
Peasants' Revolt, 1381
Lords Appellant, 1388
Richard Fitzalan, 4. Earl of Arundel
Archbishop Thomas Arundel
Thomas de Beauchamp, E. Warwick
John Montacute, 3. E. of Salisbury
Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford
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Oath of Supremacy
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Images:

Chart of the English Succession from William I through Henry VII

Medieval English Drama

London c1480, MS Royal 16
London, 1510, the earliest view in print
Map of England from Saxton's Descriptio Angliae, 1579
Location Map of Elizabethan London
Plan of the Bankside, Southwark, in Shakespeare's time
Detail of Norden's Map of the Bankside, 1593
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Sketch of the Swan Theatre, c. 1596
Westminster in the Seventeenth Century, by Hollar
Visscher's Panoramic View of London, 1616. COLOR
c. 1690. View of London Churches, after the Great Fire
The Yard of the Tabard Inn from Thornbury, Old and New London




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