Deadly illness ravaged the world, and in the teeth of an economic crisis a small corrupt elite enriched itself above everyone else, backed by authoritarian laws.
It could only lead to one thing—the vengeful killing of people in charge by a giant, angry mob.
Perhaps not entirely like today then. But the events of the Peasants’ Revolt, some 640 years ago this month, shouldn’t be treated as simply a far off bit of history.
It’s true that society was very different. Capitalism didn’t yet exist. But there was a rich elite who lived off the labour of the masses of very poor people below them.
Most people lived in self‑contained towns or villages, where the local lord owned the land and charged the peasants rent to work on it. Peasants rarely had a choice in the matter.
If they were serfs, or “villeins,” they were legally tied to the land, which the lord owned. Even their daughters couldn’t marry without the lord’s permission.
And if a peasant died, the lord could claim their best animal as compensation for the rent they would have paid.
On top of that, every peasant had to pay rent to the church—about ten percent of all their income—plus “tithes” of certain produce. The church itself was a big landowner, its clergy took up positions in wealthy estates and had roles in writing and implementing laws.
Through its real control of people’s lives, the church taught that this rigid hierarchy was justified by the sins of the peasants’ biblical ancestors.
So most peasant families lived on the edge of hunger, while a landowning and clerical elite grew corrupt and wealthy off the back of their work.
The bubonic plague tore across England in 1348 and wiped out at least a third of the population, mostly among the peasants.
One flipside of this was that there were far fewer people to do the work on the land. Suddenly peasants could start making demands of the lords, such as wages or more freedoms.
And if the lord refused, they could even break the law and flee, knowing they’d find another lord to hire them.
Amid these economic challenges to the rule of the lords and the king, there could be political challenges too.
New, maverick priests—often expelled from the church—travelled between towns and villages preaching a message that struck at the heart of the status quo. They rejected the very idea that God had chosen favourites to rule.
They said the system was made by people and could be changed by people.
Some of them carried an even more radical message. John Ball, famous as one of the leaders of the revolt, preached equality.
So in the years before the Revolt, England’s rulers passed a series of laws designed to keep the peasants in their place. One of them punished preachers for spreading “false news.”
There was also a law that banned them from demanding higher wages.
After this came laws that said if a peasant left for work in another town or village they could be branded with the letter “F” for “falsity” on their forehead.
Then came the poll tax—and the start of the revolt.
King Richard II’s many wars in France were going badly, and were expensive. A law was introduced that said every person had to pay a shilling—about a month’s wages—in tax.
It would be collected by bailiffs and thugs. Peasants became adept at dodging the tax collectors—and then resisting them.
In Spring 1381, a tax collector rode with soldiers into the village of Fobbing, in Essex. Twenty villagers with longbows met him and forced him to turn back.
He returned with an even bigger gang on 2 June. This time 100 villagers with longbows grabbed him, tied him backwards to his horse, and sent him out again.
He was followed by the severed heads of two jurors who had promised to help him find the villagers guilty.
That same day bailiffs arrived to collect tax in Dartford, Kent. In the home of one family, they grabbed a young girl to “examine” her genitals to “prove” she was over 14.
Her father John Tyler smashed the tax collectors’ head with a staff. According to one account, “The brains flew out of his head, wherethrough great noise arose in the streets and the poor people, being glad, everyone prepared to support the said John Tyler.”
The collectors were driven out.
These acts of resistance were the start of the revolt—and there are signs of some organisation, coordination and preparation.
In Essex and Kent the peasants sent word to neighbouring villages calling for help to fight the collectors, and quickly raised armies.
Villages across the two counties did the same. They all marched to Maidstone where the radical preacher John Ball was in prison and fought to free him.
Ball, who had spent years agitating across south east England, sent letters out everywhere with the message, “Now it is time.”
The people who got these messages knew what they meant and raised armies of their own, all to march on London.
At Maidstone they also elected a leader, Wat Tyler, an ordinary man, to lead them.
They had clear targets and organisation. Two peasant armies of tens of thousands, one from Essex and one from Kent, marched into London together from north and south of the Thames.
Villages and towns marched through the streets in regiments.
Rather than aimless rioting and destruction, they targeted the houses and palaces of the lords, as well as lawyers’ offices, burning the legal documents that kept them in servitude.
Wat Tyler banned looting—everything the rich owned must be destroyed. Two peasants who defied this were among some of the only people killed in the uprising.
Others they killed were some of the most important people in England—including treasurer Robert Hales, responsible for the tax, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was in charge of the law.
Both were hiding in the Tower of London. Tyler’s army stormed the tower, grabbed them, cut off their heads and nailed them to London Bridge.
The peasants were in control of London. The king had to meet with Tyler just outside east London. He spent the whole day signing declarations granting freedom to serfs and peasants.
Tyler then demanded another meeting in Smithfield, in today’s City of London, where he demanded even more radical measures.
“No lord shall exercise lordship over the Commons.” And, “The property and the goods of the holy church should be taken and divided according to the needs of the people.”
That Tyler, an ordinary person, was now in a position to meet and demand this of the king was astonishing. At this point he felt confident enough to meet the king almost alone and armed with just a dagger.
The king’s men murdered him. Then the king himself went to the peasant armies to tell them Tyler’s death was a mistake, but that he would keep his promises. They believed him and went home.
It might seem strange that they could trust the king so easily.
But they had already forced him to agree to their most outlandish demands.
More fatally, they still had some faith in the king. They hated his advisers, but the king’s rule was the foundation of how society worked.
The revolt itself was cast as an attempt to rid the king of the corrupt advisers and priests. The peasants thought they could use the king to bring in the changes they wanted with the legitimacy and authority of the crown.
If that seems naive, think how people can both hate and trust their bosses and governments today. Or how in the Arab revolutions ten years ago people overthrew dictators but left corrupt politicians and generals in their place.
It’s not stupidity to not immediately see the need to overthrow the whole basis of the only society you’ve ever known.
The king followed up his betrayal with brutal repression. Thousands of peasants were killed after returning to their villages.
Ball was caught, hanged until he was nearly dead, disembowelled and dismembered so his body parts could be sent all over England as a warning.
But the poll tax was gone. And 50 years later, villeinage was abolished.
So there are some lessons. One—don’t trust those at the top.
Two—revolts take time to organise. Then they can explode.
Three—when they do, they can make those at the top, who are seemingly untouchable, suddenly weak. And it’s always worth it.
Maybe violent retribution does await our corrupt rulers after all.