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

W. T. Sherwin's Introduction to the 1817 Edition


THE history of Wat Tyler has always held a distinguished place in the English records; and though some men affect to disapprove of his conduct, all men have concurred in admiring his courage. The Nation, even at that distant period, had began to rise above the barbarous state into which the conquest, by William the Norman, had plunged it, and to shew strong signs of returning life. Such is the effect which society works upon a people--such the consequence which the human mind will produce upon itself, when left to pursue its natural course without interruption.

The wars between the English and the French Governments, which took place in those days, were like all others, ruinous and expensive. To defray the costs of these, a tax of three groats was ordered to be paid by every man and woman above the age of fifteen years: this unheard of imposition had too much in it of the nature of conquest, and savoured too strongly of the nature of despotism, to be willingly submitted to. It gave rise to a discussion, amongst the people, about the right of the government to adopt such a measure, and the result of that discussion, was resistance. Their motto was:

When Adam delv'd, and Eve span,
Who was then a gentleman?

" The first disorder (says Hume,) was raised by a blacksmith, in a village of Essex. The tax-gatherers came to this man's shop while he was at work; and they demanded payment for his daughter, whom he asserted to be below the age assigned by the statute. One of these fellows offered to produce a very indecent proof to the contrary, and at the same time laid hold of the maid, which the father resenting, immediately knocked out the ruffian's brains with his hammer. The by-standers applauded the action, and exclaimed that it was full time for the people to take vengeance on their Tyrants, and to vindicate their native liberty. They immediately flew to arms; the whole neighbourhood joined in the sedition; the flame spread in an instant over that county, and many others, before the government had the least warning of the danger."

The populace, amounting to one hundred thousand men, assembled on Blackheath, under their leaders, Wat Tyler and a Jack Straw. They sent a message to the King, (who had taken shelter in the Tower) and desired a conference with him. Richard sailed down the Thames, in a barge, for that purpose; but, on approaching the shore, he was alarmed at the appearance of the people, and he returned to the fortress. The people, in the mean time, had broken into the City of London; where they cut off the heads of those whom they disliked, and committed other acts of a similar description. To quiet them the King promised that their grievances should be redressed; but, as it afterwards proved, these promises were never intended to be performed.

During this transaction another body had broken into the Tower, had murdered the Chancellor, and Treasurer, with others of the Nobles; and continued their ravages in the city. The King passing along Smithfield, met with Wat Tyler, at the head of the populace, and entered into a conference with him. Tyler ordered his companions to retire; he went amongst the King's Company, and while he was conversing with Richard, Walworth the Mayor of London drew his sword, and with the assistance of the other persons in the King's service, he murdered him. Richard then advanced to the populace, and promised them their freedom if they would return to their homes; but as soon as he had reobtained the upper hand, he revoked their charters, and reduced them to the slavish condition in which they had been before. The city of London, in commemoration of the part which their Mayor had taken in the above transaction, wear a representation of Walworth's dagger upon their coat of arms, to this day.


Sherwin's Edition
(see W.T. Sherwin, below)

Price Three Pence
At three pence, or three pennies, the play would be affordable to most people. Sherwin's contemporary, William Cobbett, writes about his own ground-breaking journal, the two pence edition of the Political Register, that "'Two or three journeymen or labourers cannot spare a shilling and a halfpenny a week; but they can spare a halfpenny or three for things each, which is not much more than the tax which they have to pay on a quid of tobacco'" (qtd. in Boston 71).

Robert Southey
Follow link for biographical notes on Southey.

Poet Laureate
Southey's laureateship (1813-1843) succeeded Henry James Pye's (1790-1813) and preceded William Wordsworth's (1843-1850). J. Johnston's cartoon, released after the publication of Wat Tyler in 1817, includes symbols of this paid position of the royal household: Southey wears a crown of laurels and is surrounded with occasional poems (Carnall facing pg. 162). (The requirement of writing annual odes for New Year's and the king's birthday was in fact abolished during his tenure) ("Poet Laureate" Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics). Many detractors highlighted Southey's title as a representative marker of his changed political sympathies.

Wat Tyler
One of the rebel leaders of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Tyler's subsequent status as a legendary figure of British folklore results in numerous conflicting stories concerning the details of his life. Some accounts claim that he was from Essex, others Maidstone, and still others maintain Tyler was from Colchester, John Ball's town (Oman, Political History 34; Saul 62-3). Various speculations on his profession cast him as a tiler (Dobson 18) or as a discharged soldier (Oman, Political History 35). Regardless of these variations, it is known that Tyler was the leader of the rebels from Kent; he later merged his men with rebels from Essex during the march on London (Saul 62-3).

The rebels were able to take over London and force a meeting with King Richard. Their demands included an abolition of serfdom, a standardized rent, and the deaths of those men whom they considered to be traitors to the crown (Saul 68). During the second meeting with King Richard, Tyler expanded on those conditions, asking for "an end to outlawry, the disendowment of the Church, and equality of all men below the king" (Saul 70). During this meeting, Walworth, the Mayor of London, stabbed Tyler to death. It is unclear whether Tyler was the victim of a royalist plot or if he was grandstanding in an attempt to impress his men and provoked the attack (Saul 70-2). However, as an immediate effect, King Richard was able to calm and eventually disperse the rebels.

distinguished place in the English records
(Link to annotated bibliography on other tellings of Wat Tyler's legend.)

William the Norman
William, the Duke of Normandy, was also known as William the Conqueror. In 1066, he invaded England, and at the Battle of Hastings, with the aid of cavalry and superior archers, he killed the Saxon king, Harold, thus winning the English throne and establishing a French ruling class.

The wars . . . Governments
Because the English kings held title to the French duchy of Aquitaine, monarchs from the two countries often argued over the extent to which the English should swear fealty to the French crown. Finally in 1337, Edward III of England, Richard II's grandfather, asserted that he should be the king of France on the grounds that his mother, Isabella, was King Charles IV's sister (Saul 7). After Charles's death, his cousin Philip IV became king, and Edward argued that, as Charles's nephew, he had a stronger claim to the throne. The subsequent conflicts began the Hundred Years War.

The war continued during Richard II's reign, although he was only ten years old when he assumed the throne. After a two-year truce, the two countries resumed conflict in 1377 (Saul 31). The English spent heavily for little apparent gain, and when their ally the duke of Brittany made peace with the French, the English were obliged to withdraw (Saul 55).

In 1381, due to the recurrent conflict with France, Richard II's government faced a shortage of disposable operating income; to remedy this, Parliament implemented a census-based tax of three groats for every person in the kingdom, a tax very similar to that which Edward III's Parliament had implemented in 1377. Compared to the 1377 census (poll) tax, the income generated by the 1381 tax was a great deal lower than expected, showing a population decrease of nearly half a million people (1,355,201 in 1377 vs. 896,481 in 1381 (Oman, Great Revolt). Richard's government viewed this radical and seemingly inexplicable decline in population as evidence of either widespread evasion of the tax or negligence in its collection. As a result, the government appointed new commissioners to audit the lists of tax-liable citizens and to focus collection efforts on those who had avoided paying the tax. English sheriffs were ordered to use "all manner of ways and means" to ensure the collection of the tax. V.H.H. Green correlates the appearance of these tax collectors with the first incidents of rebellion (217).

"The English groat coined in 1351-2 was made equal to four pence" (OED 2).

unheard of
This was actually the third of recent poll taxes, the first being in 1377 and the second in 1379. The first one was a tax of one groat and the second was graduated according to income. The third, however, was a flat tax of three groats (Saul 31-2, 56).

"When Adam delv'd"
This couplet has been attributed to John Ball by sources as various as the anonymous 1654 chapbook The Idol of the Clownes (p. 8) and M.H. Keen's England in the Later Middle Ages (268). Alongside such claims, however, has been the equally prevalent suspicion that the couplet "seems to have been handed down by tradition" (Burke 133). Included in the latter group is R.T. Davies, who identifies it as one of several "typically common" (331) elements in the opening of the tentatively dated fourteenth century "The pointless pride of man." The opening reads: "When Adam delf,/ And Eve span, / Spir, if thou will spede, / Whare was than / The pride of man / That now merres his mede?" (Davies 143).

"To allure, entice, or draw away (a person)" (OED v3).

"Scottish philosopher and historian" who was a proponent of skepticism and empiricism. He published A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), An Abstract of a Treatise of Human Nature (1740), Essays Moral, Political, and Literary (essays from 1741 to 1752), An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748), An Enquiry concerning the principles of Morals (1751), The Natural History of Religion (1757), and History of England, a six-volume work of English history from Roman times to 1688 (publ. 1754-1762) ("Hume, David" The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy).

The first open rebellions of the Peasants' Revolt occurred in Essex and were soon followed by similar outbreaks in Kent. The rebels from Kent converged with some of those from Essex, and on June 7, 1381, they continued their march to Maidstone (McKisack 407-408). (Most sources place Wat Tyler among the rebels from Kent.)
Tradition also gives Blackheath as the place where John Ball preached to the people from the famous text 'When Adam dalf, and Eve span, Wo was thanne a gentilman?" ("Ball, John" DNB).

Fleet Street
Fleet Street in the nineteenth century was the site of numerous periodical publishers (Chancellor 326). Of the registered printing presses that William B. Todd compiles from 1800 to 1840, the 81 entries at Fleet Street are second only to those from the Strand (with 82) with the next highest concentration located at Paternoster Row (with 40) (234).

Jack Straw
Jack Straw is another notable figure in the accounts of the Peasants' Revolt. His name appears in various tellings as Rackstraw or Rakestraw (Dobson 24). People sometimes confuse him with Wat Tyler; however, they are two distinct men. Little is definitively known about Straw's actions except that he was Tyler's lieutenant and that he was a leader of the men who burned Sir Roger Hales's manor at Highbury (Dobson 40).

William the Conqueror built the Tower of London in 1066 in order to establish firmly the Norman presence in London after the Battle of Hastings (Wilson 2). In 1078, he replaced the existing structure with a stone castle that remained a strong defensive fortress (Wilson 2). In time, the Tower became a royal residence which, although it was rarely used, remained an important holding given its location and defensibility (Wilson 7). Due to its strength, monarchs occasionally used the Tower to temporarily incarcerate powerful prisoners who had offended them (Wilson 11). The castle remained a royal residence and was not used for common prisoners. By Richard II's reign, prisoners could establish households within the Tower, receive visitors, and enjoy all the amenities to which they were accustomed (Wilson 10-11).

Richard II was the son of Edward, known as the Black Prince, and Joan, the countess of Kent. When the Black Prince died prematurely, Richard became the heir to the throne and was invested with the title of Prince of Wales on November 20, 1376 (Saul 17). Upon the death of King Edward III, his grandfather, in 1377, he ascended to the throne at the age of ten. Powerful royal uncles, most notably John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster, overshadowed the early years of Richard's reign. However, due to popular distrust of Gaunt's ambition, Parliament did not appoint a regent for the young king, and Richard remained nominally in power. In actuality, a series of three "continual councils" ran the country in Richard's name (Saul 27-30).

These councils were in command during the resumption of hostilities with France and increased taxes dramatically to pay for the costs of fielding the armies. Nevertheless Richard remained extremely popular, as his subjects viewed him as the best hope for change in England's political and military fortunes. The people blamed the council for the English setbacks (Saul 45)

Thus, during the Peasants' Revolt, the people trusted the fourteen-year-old king but disliked and wanted to depose his advisors, especially John of Gaunt (Saul 58). It is said that on the death of Wat Tyler, Richard established the truce with the peasants, crying that they should have "no captain but him" (Saul 72). Historians disagree over the extent of Richard's role in Tyler's death and the degree to which Richard negotiated in good faith with the rebels. It is true that throughout his reign, Richard was an absolute monarch who possessed a firm belief in the divine right of kings and the duty of his subjects to obey his rule.

cut off the heads
The heads in this case belonged to Archbishop Simon Sudbury, the chancellor, and Sir Roger Hales, the treasurer, as well as 150-160 foreigners (Saul 69-70). These executions would have seemed justified to the rebels. Nigel Saul points out that after the first meeting between Richard and the peasants, many of the rebels believed that they possessed carte blanche in dealing with those men whom they called traitors (68-9). People judged guilty of treason in the Middle Ages would be sentenced to death in an especially painful manner as well as suffer the confiscation of all their goods (Bellamy 13).

their grievances
The rebels demanded that they be allowed to deal with those men they called traitors, the abolition of serfdom, and a standardized rent (Saul 68). At the second meeting between the rebels and the king, Wat Tyler added further concessions, including "an end to outlawry, the disendowment of the Church and equality of all men below the king" (Saul 70).

Chancellor and Treasurer
Sir Simon Sudbury was the Chancellor; Sir Roger Hales, the Treasurer.

In the decades following the Black Death of 1348-9, England suffered a 40 percent reduction in population. As opposed to a surplus, landholding gentry now faced a labor shortage. Lords were no longer able to hold peasants to their manors and force them by feudal convention to work; in light of this, an increasing number of peasant labor services were performed for monetary compensation. During the years just before the Peasant Revolt of 1381, landlords, who faced a loss of status and power with the rise of the peasant working class, often sought to re-establish serfdom and demanded non-remunerative labor services. This attempt to re-enforce an antiquated and socially unjust system of manorial feudalism, coupled with the high taxes of the late 1370s and early 1380s served to create an atmosphere of antagonism and antipathy between peasants and landholders.

"A space partly enclosed by houses outside Aldersgate, where the cattle-market was wont to be held" (Oman, Political History 45).

William Walworth was Lord Mayor of London during the reign of Edward III in 1374 and during the reign of Richard II in 1380 ("Walworth" DNB). He loaned large sums of money to Richard II in 1377 ("Walworth" DNB). On June 13, 1381, he held London Bridge against Wat Tyler and was present two days later (June 15) at Tyler's confrontation with the King at Smithfield where Tyler died ("Walworth" DNB). According to the DNB, Walworth stabbed Tyler in the neck, then pulled him off his horse and plunged a dagger into his chest. In other accounts (see McKisack), Walworth merely pulled Tyler off his horse, and a squire named Standish actually killed him (413). No one knows whether Tyler threatened the King at this meeting or if Walworth acted of his own volition. In any case, he was knighted for his role in the suppression of the rebels ("Walworth" DNB). Moreover, the King rewarded Walworth with 100 pounds a year. He was also one of the commissioners chosen to quiet the subsequent unrest in Kent in 1381-2 ("Walworth" DNB).

promised them
The actual words attributed to Richard are "'You shall have no captain but me. Just follow me to the fields without, and then you can have what you want'" (qtd. in Saul 72).

"Charter" here refers to "a written document granting privileges to, or recognizing the rights of the people, or of certain classes of individuals" (OED 1a). Southey's version of the peasants' charter (Act III) conveys many of their essential grievances, including the abolition of serfdom. Historically, Richard did accede to their demands at Mile End (Saul 68-69). However, Parliament declared the charters of manumission void and revoked all agreements with the peasants; the claim in Rotuli Parliamentorum (III, 100) was that "they had never assented of their free will, nor would they ever have done so except to live and die the same day" (In Myers 142).

In Southey's time, concern over charters was manifested in movements like that of the Chartists, whose central principle was to grant parliamentary representation for all people. This charter was published on May 8, 1838 (OED "Charter 1d; "Chartist" a).

coat of arms
It was once commonly held that the dagger in the upper left quadrant of the London coat of arms was Walworth's. However, historian John Stow (Summarie of Englyshe Chronicles, 1565, in DNB) claims that it represents the sword of St. Paul ("Walworth" DNB).

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August 2004