Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2167

The peasants’ revolt shook England’s rulers

This article is over 14 years, 10 months old
The 1381 poll tax riots are still inspiring struggles today, writes Matthew Cookson
Issue 2167

The Climate Camp descended onto Blackheath in south east London last week. Activists chose this piece of common land because of a tradition of radical events taking place there, most famously the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

A peasant army, led by Wat Tyler, camped out on Blackheath in June of that year.

The rebellion by tens of thousands of peasants shook England’s rulers to the core.

Ideas of liberty, equality and a different kind of society circulated among the insurgents.

These were summed up by the radical preacher John Ball’s famous words, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?

“From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men.”

England was a feudal society, dominated by the king, landowners, bishops and wealthy merchants.

Two and a half million people lived in the country, most of them bound in serfdom to their lords and forced to labour for them.

The authorities imposed a poll tax on the people to help finance wars against France.

This intensified the harshness of the peasants’ lives, and was the spark for the revolt.

It began when the people in the Essex villages of Fobbing and Brentwood refused to pay the poll tax and threatened to kill those trying to collect it.

This action soon spread to Kent and other parts of the country. Two great peasant armies gathered, one from Essex led by Jack Straw and the other from Kent led by Tyler. Both armies marched on London.

Wat Tyler and his army captured Rochester Castle, releasing many of the serfs held there.

They then marched on Maidstone jail and freed Ball, who had been defrocked as a priest for his radical sermons and then imprisoned.

The rebels arrived at Blackheath on 12 June, where Ball preached, “Matters cannot go well in England nor ever shall until all things shall be held in common, when there are no vassals nor lords.

“If we stand together all manner of people now in bondage will follow us and be made free. We will have some remedy, either by fairness, or otherwise.”

The next day the rebels entered London, after townspeople opened the gates of the city to them.

The insurgent throng destroyed the buildings of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the king’s uncle John of Gaunt.

They seized the Archbishop and the treasurer of England, the equivalent of the chancellor today, and beheaded them.

The rebels then met King Richard II at Mile End in east London. Tyler “asked that no lord should have lordship in future but it should be divided among all men”.

He presented a petition demanding the liberation of the serfs, the freezing of rents and a pardon for all rebels. The king verbally agreed to this.

Unfortunately, the leaders trusted the king, believing that he was a good man being misguided by his advisors.

This allowed him time to prepare to strike back.

Tyler was lured to a meeting at Smithfield the day after the king’s promise of freedom.

The mayor of London, William Walworth, assassinated him. Walworth cut off Tyler’s head and held it aloft in front of the insurgents, disorientating them.

The king’s forces then launched a savage attack on the remains of the peasant army, cutting them down.

The rebel leaders were hunted down and John Ball, Jack Straw and others executed. The terror killed as many as 7,000 people.

The king proclaimed to the rebels, “You wretched men, you who seek equality with lords are not worthy to live.

“Serfs you were and serfs you will remain. You will remain in bondage not as before but incomparably harsher.”

Despite this defeat, the revolt had terrified the rulers. Things could no longer remain the same. Within a few years serfdom had disappeared from England.

No ruler tried to introduce another poll tax until Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s, and the protests it provoked led to her downfall.

The limits of a mainly agricultural society meant that the kind of world Tyler, Ball and others dreamed of would be impossible to achieve at the time.

But the revolt has inspired people fighting for change for over 600 years now, including the climate activists of today.

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