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Wat Tyler, a Dramatic Poem by Robert Southey Electronic Edition Edited by Matt Hill

History of the 1381 Peasants' Rebellion

  1. During the years before the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, relations between the landed gentry and the lower classes of society were extremely poor.  The Black Death of 1349 had so decimated the English population that the few able-bodied workers available were able to command high wages from their employers (Saul, 59).  In response, the upper classes, with the support of the government, enacted a series of measures adverse to the interests of the peasantry.  The aim of much of this legislation was the restoration of wages to their pre-plague levels.  In addition to this legislation, landowners began to enforce their manorial privileges strictly, making certain that they received their full amount of "villein dues, and in particular labour obligations" (Saul, 60).  In effect, as Nigel Saul states in his book Richard II, "From these cases we can see that lords were using all the powers at their disposal to strengthen their hold over their tenants.  In effect they were maintaining their living standards at the expense of those beneath them in the hierarchy" (60).  Such practices effected an overall sense of deep discontent among the populace, heightening traditional tensions between lord and peasant.

  2. During this period of intense economic and social unrest, England continued its military struggles with France.  For many years the two countries were in conflict over the English ownership of French Aquitaine and the extent to which the sovereign of England owed fealty to the French king.  Edward III had claimed the French crown (ca. 1338) in an effort to end the argument (Saul, 7).  The subsequent series of armed confrontations became known as the Hundred Years' War.   This war continued into the reign of Richard II, Edward III's successor and grandson (Richard's father died before Edward III, leaving the nine year old Richard to become the Prince of Wales and the heir to the throne in 1376).

  3. Because Richard was only ten when he ascended to the throne on Edward's death in 1377, a series of regal councils ran the English government in Richard's name.   More significantly, no official regent was appointed to rule during the period of Richard's minority.  People feared the ambition of his uncle, John of Gaunt, and thus, as Saul states, "the pretence was maintained that Richard was fully competent to govern" (28).   Gaunt,  however, still possessed a great deal of power.

  4. At the beginning of Richard's reign, a brief truce temporarily negotiated with France expired, and conflict resumed between the two nations.  In order to defray the expense of the war, the councils issued a series of taxes.  The first of these was a graduated, or proportionate, poll tax issued on every English adult (Oman, 17).   Next, Parliament levied a tax on moveable property that raised a significant amount of revenue (Saul, 34).

  5. Unfortunately, despite the massive outlay of economic resources supporting it, the war was going badly.  Saul notes that "Since 1377 over £250,000 had been spent on the war.  Yet there were no victories at sea or in the field, and no territorial gains, to show for it." (48).  At this point, in need of additional revenue, the government levied yet another poll tax.  This one, however, in contrast to the first, was a flat tax of three groats per person.  The lower classes, ill-equipped to furnish such an amount, were hurt the most.  Obviously, non-compliance with this measure was widespread. The most common way for peasants to avoid paying the tax was to lie about the number of their family members; however, when the results were tallied, the population "fell" by as much as fifty percent from the last population poll in certain areas (Oman, 23).  Consequently, the government applied stricter measures of collection, supplying the spark for rebellion.

  6. The first known outbreak of violence occurred in the town of Brentwood in Essex County.   When officials attempted to collect the tax, the town people rioted, killing six people (Oman, 33-4).  After this incident, violence spread throughout the rest of Essex as well as the county of Kent.  Dissidents from both regions began to march on London in an attempt to address the king and air their grievances.  It is important to realize that the people did not blame Richard for their problems; their ire focused instead on John of Gaunt and the Richard's ministers.   In his book, The Peasants' Revolt of 1381, R. B. Dobson states that "hostility toward the king's ministers was combined .  .  . with an intense and genuine devotion to the person of the king himself.  Inevitably regarded by the insurgents as the source and symbol of all justice, Richard II had the additional advantage of being too young to incur personal blame for the recent misconduct of the French wars" (23).

  7. It was during the march to London that Wat Tyler entered the scene.  History contains many conflicting accounts of Tyler's life, so it is difficult to know the exact details of his life and of his role in the rebellion.  Nigel Saul states that Tyler, "the Kentish leader and who may have had Essex origins," was responsible for coordinating the two groups of rebels during the march to London (62).  Charles Oman also explores different stories of Tyler's background, adding the possibility that he was a discharged soldier (35).  All accounts agree, however, that Tyler's charisma united the rebels, and he possessed a certain amount of authority over them.

  8. Historians also note the role of John Ball, a priest from Kent who had been a social agitator for many years, who preached to the rebels.  Oman, who calls Ball the "second notable figure in the rising," notes Ball's belief in social equality and a "Christian democracy" (36).  He also mentions Ball's letters circulated around the countryside advocating unity and discipline among the rebels (37).   In addition, it does seem likely that Ball actually preached the text "When Adam delved and Eve span, / Who was then the gentleman?" that Southey quoted in his play (Dobson, 374).

  9. On June 13, the rebels were to meet with King Richard at Blackheath.  Saul relates, however, that because of the number of rebels and the potential danger to the king, Richard sailed to meet the rebels and hear their demands near Greenwich on June 12. [Oman states that this was the morning when Ball delivered the aforementioned sermon (38)].  The rebels' first demands included "the heads of John of Gaunt and fifteen other traitors—among them those of the chancellor, the treasurer, and the chief justice" (63).  When Richard refused, the rebels entered London itself.   Accounts vary as to the extent of the rioting within London proper; both Saul and Oman agree, however, that the main places of attack were Gaunt's palace and the prisons (Saul 64, Oman 40).

  10. On Friday, June 14th, Richard again met with the rebels, this time at Mile End.  Saul states that this time, the rebels asked once more for the lives of those men whom they considered to be traitors, but also for "the abolition of serfdom and for a standard rent" (68).  Richard acceded to these demands, drawing up charters of manumission, and promising that the rebels could execute those men found guilty by law (Saul, 68-9).

  11. Nevertheless, after this meeting, rioting continued in London, including an attack on the Tower of London.  It was during this attack that certain groups of rebels executed both the chancellor, Archbishop Sudbury, and the treasurer, Sir Roger Hales.   In addition to these two killings, Saul notes that the rebels killed between 150-160 foreigners living in the city (69).

  12. The next day, Richard met with Tyler and the rebels at Smithfield.  Once again, there are conflicting accounts of what occurred during that meeting.  It is certain, however, that William Walworth, the mayor of London, and Tyler fought and that Tyler died as a result of that conflict.  Some people claim that Walworth killed Tyler himself, while others state that a squire named Ralph Standish actually did the killing (Saul, 71). 

  13. Also, it is unclear how the fight began.  Certain versions state that Tyler provoked the attack by menacing the king; others maintain that the king and his ministers planned beforehand to kill Tyler (Saul, 71).   Evidence exists for both sides of the debate, and it is unlikely that we will ever conclusively know what happened.

  14. In any event, as soon as Tyler was dead, the government took control of the situation.   Richard himself offered to lead the rebels, saying, "You shall have no captain but me.  Just follow me to the fields without, and then you can have what you want" (Saul, 72).  Oman relates a similar tale, with Richard shouting, "Sirs, will you shoot your king?  I will be your chief and captain, you shall have from me all that you seek.  Only follow me to the fields without" (47-8).   At this point, with Tyler's death, the rebels had lost their leadership, and as Saul states, "In London, certainly, the rebellion was over.  The royal authorities had regained the initiative, and the threat to public order was effectively ended" (73).

  15. Afterwards, 110 rebels were tried and sentenced to death.  Many of the sentences were carried out, among them John Ball's; he was hung, drawn, and quartered on July 15 (Oman, 51).  However, by August 30, "Richard and his council issued orders that all further arrests and hangings were to cease.  This brought the hangings to an end, and one after another the surviving prisoners were pardoned and released" (Oman, 51).  Rebellion continued in Essex for a short time after the executions, but gradually, it too was quelled.

  16. The English government revoked the charters of manumission on July 2 (Saul 76). Oman acknowledges that while some landlords might have learned caution, the overall majority of them actually became stricter than before.  He notes, " If we had not the story of Tyler and Ball .  .  .  preserved in the chronicles and the judicial proceedings, we should never have guessed from a mere study of court-rolls that there had been an earth-shaking convulsion in 1381" (64).  Overall, the rebels failed to achieve their goals.  The Great Revolt did not end serfdom; that would come later with changing economic conditions in the fifteenth century (Oman, 64). Until John of Gaunt's death in 1399, he remained the king's principle advisor. Finally, throughout his reign, Richard II would remain an absolute monarch with a firm belief in the divine right of kings.

Published @ RC

August 2004