The Story and Background the Peasants Revolt
The peasants who survived the
Black Death (1348-1350) believed that there was something special about them – almost as if God had protected them. Therefore, they took the opportunity offered by the disease to improve their lifestyle. Feudal law stated that peasants could only leave their village if they had their lord’s permission. But many lords were short of desperately needed labour for the land that they owned. After the Black Death, lords actively encouraged peasants to leave the village where they lived to come to work for them. When peasants did this, the lord refused to return them to their original village.
Peasants could demand higher wages as they knew that a lord was desperate to get in his harvest. So the government faced the prospect of peasants leaving their villages to find a better ‘deal’ from a lord thus upsetting the whole idea of the Feudal System which had been introduced to tie peasants to the land. Ironically, this movement by the peasants was encouraged by the lords who were meant to benefit from the Feudal System.
The Cause of the Peasants Revolt
To curb peasants roaming around the countryside looking for better pay, the government introduced the Statute of Labourers in 1351 that stated:
- No peasants could be paid more than the wages paid in 1346
- No lord or master should offer more wages than paid in 1346
- No peasants could leave the village they belonged to
Though some peasants decided to ignore the statute, many knew that disobedience would lead to serious punishment. In 1380 the government also introduced the third Poll Tax in just four years. Landlords were constantly increasing rents on their land to which the peasants was now tied by the Statute of Labourers. This created great anger amongst the peasants which was to boil over in 1381 with the Peasants Revolt. It can therefore be argued that the Black Death and the Poll Tax was the cause of the Peasants Revolt.
The Peasants Revolt of 1381
In 1381, and under the leadership of heroes such as Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, the peasants marched to London in order to present a petition to the king. 60,000 strong, the petitioned called for the abolition of serfdom, tithes and the game laws as well as the right to freely use the forests. The peasants also demanded that the poll tax be abolished. John Ball, a priest who spoke regularly to the people gathered in the marketplace, expressed the sentiments of the revolt. The rallying cry of the peasants was a rhyme which spread dissension across the South of England:
"When Adam Delved and Eve Span
Who was then the Gentleman?"
John Ball and the other leaders urged the peasants to go to the King in London to plea their case. Workers in the cities, especially London, rose in support of the peasants and their demands.
King Richard II, then only fourteen years of age, offered to meet the peasant demands. Under the command of Wat Tyler, the rebels camped at Blackheath where they waited for word from Richard II. The king agreed to meet with the rebels but the crowds that had assembled made it difficult for him to land at Greenwich. The frustrated rebels attacked the prison at Marshalsea and Richard returned to his mother at the Tower. The rebels plundered Lambeth Palace, burned books and furniture, crossed London Bridge and joined the London mob. They made their way to Fleet Street, opened the Fleet prison and, according to Froissart's Chronicles:
"fell on the food and drink that was found. In the hope of appeasing them, nothing was refused them. . . They destroyed several fine houses, saying they would burn all the suburbs, take London by force, and burn and destroy everything."
The Savoy Palace, home of the King's uncle John of Gaunt, was burned to the ground. The Tower was under siege. On June 14, Richard looked down upon the mob from his room in the Tower and managed to arrange an interview with the rebels at Mile End where, among other concessions, he granted their requests for the abolition of feudal services and their right to rent land at an agreed price. Some of the rebels returned home. But for those who remained near the Tower, violence was about to escalate.
The king had advised Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor, to seize the opportunity to escape. But as the plan unfolded Sudbury was recognized by the rebels and the London mob smashed their way into the Tower. One historian has described the event in the following way:
"In the Chapel of St John the shouting rabble came upon the Archbishop, Sir Robert Hales, the Lord Treasurer, John of Graunt's physician, and John Legge who had devised the poll tax. They were all at prayer before the altar. Dragged away from the chapel, down the steps and out of the gates onto Tower Hill, where traitors were executed, they were beheaded one after the other. Their heads were stuck on pikes and carried in triumph around the city."
The Peasants Revolt - Wat Tyler meets King Richard II
The next day on 15 June 1381 King Richard II again met with the rebels. At the Smithfield conference further concessions were granted the rebels: the estates of the church would be confiscated, all lordships except the kings would be abolished, and all the rebels would be pardoned. Wat Tyler rode up to the king, his "horse's tail under the every nose of the king's horse," made the mayor of London lose his temper. He knocked Wat Tyler off his horse with a broadsword and as Wat Tyler lay on the ground one of the king's squires stabbed him in the stomach, killing him. The English Peasants' War was over. Wat Tyler's head was cut from his corpse and displayed on London Bridge. John Ball was hanged, drawn and quartered in the presence of Richard II and his quarters were displayed in four other towns as a warning to other rebel. Jack Straw was executed and his head displayed on London Bridge. The promises made to the rebels by Richard II were quickly withdrawn although the poll tax was abolished.