Peasants Revolt

Peasants Revolt

Medieval England did not go through many revolts, but the Peasants’ Revolt in June 1381 was the worst case.

Offenders faced a harsh punishment system and this was normally enough warning to prevent them causing any trouble. The majority of English locations had castles too where soldiers were stationed - a guarantee for acceptable behaviour from medieval peasants.

A peasant army coming from Kent and Essex headed towards London and took the Tower of London captive. Both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the King’s Treasurer were killed. King Richard II was just 14 then but he decided to meet with the peasants in Mile End.

Medieval painting of the peasants revolt
Medieval painting of the peasants revolt

The peasants had several reasons for being so angry and coming to London on a rampage:

1. Once the Black Death was over, there were not always enough workers in the manors. As encouragement to the surviving workers, most lords had let them go free and gave them payment in return for working on their land. However, almost 35 years since the Black Death, a lot of peasants worried the lords would decide to withdraw these privileges, so they were all set to fight.

2. A lot of peasants were made to work free of charge on land owned by the church and this could be for two days each week. Because of this they were unable to focus on their rightful land and grow food to provide their families with. The peasants wished they could be free from this routine which benefitted the church but not them. They received support from a priest who lived in Kent named John Ball.

3. Richard II brought in a new tax known as the Poll Tax in 1380, which made everyone on the tax register pay 5p. This type of tax was used for the third time within four years, and the peasants were already fed up with it by 1381 as they saw 5p as a lot of money. In the event they were unable to pay by cash, they had to resort to paying goods like seeds or tools which were essentials for the year ahead.

In May of the same year, a tax collector came to the village of Fobbing in Essex to investigate why the locals had neglected to pay their poll tax. However, the villagers threw him out along with soldiers who arrived the following month to set out law and order. Fobbing had organised itself and other local Essex villages followed suit - afterwards was when the group of villagers set off for London to complain to the teenage king.

Wat Tyler from Kent in particular had come forward as the peasants leader. When the peasants were marching from Kent through London they ruined tax records and tax registers, and the buildings that held government records got burned to the ground. They managed to enter the city as the people living there had let them through the gates.

By the middle of June the peasants discipline was beginning to evaporate - a lot would get drunk and loot things. They were also known to murder foreigners. Wat Tyler had requested that discipline would be acknowledged by the peasants who saw him as their leader, but they did not.

The young king met with the rebellious peasants at Mile End on 14 June, where he agreed to give them all they desired as long as they returned home peacefully. Some of them did but others went back into the city and killed the archbishop and Treasurer by cutting off their heads on Tower Hill, by the Tower of London. Meanwhile Richard II hid the same night out of concern for his safety.

Richard met with them once more on 15 June outside of the city’s walls at Smithfield. This was supposedly the Lord Mayor’s idea (Sir William Walworth) as he wanted to remove the peasants from London, but during Medieval England the city was made of wood and had very cramped streets so any efforts to displace them could have resulted in a fire or the peasants simply disappearing into the crowded streets once they realised soldiers wanted them.

Wat Tyler was killed at the meeting by the Lord Mayor. It is not certain what actually took place, due to the only ones able to record it in writing were in favour of the king, so their evidence could potentially not add up properly. Tyler’s death and Richard’s promise to again provide the peasants with what they wanted made them return back to Kent.

The revolt was finally over in summer 1381. John Ball was hung and Richard did not actually carry out any of the promises he had made and claimed they had been declared under threat so were not lawfully valid. Other Kent and Essex leaders were hanged and the poll tax withdrawn, though the peasants still had to go back to their previous lifestyle - being controlled by the lord of the manor.

The lords still did not have things how they wanted as the Black Death was responsible for a decrease in labour. Over the following century most peasants found they were able to earn more because the lords were in need of a harvest and the peasants were the only people who could provide it. Therefore they requested more money which the lords were required to give them.

See also: The Poor Peasant

MLA Citation/Reference

"Peasants Revolt". 2015. Web.