England as a nation has largely escaped the era-defining revolutions of France, Germany and Russia. In 1381, however, centuries of feudal serfdom and a changed social situation lead to a widespread revolt of the downtrodden peasants across the country. Though the revolt was defeated by the King’s forces, it was certainly the instigator of social change in Medieval England, and has been referenced by left-leaning historians and politicians ever since.
Just as the outbreak of World War 1 allowed the Russian revolution to happen, decades of war and plague changed the status quo in England to a degree where revolt was possible and widespread. The most obvious cause of this change was the Black Death, a terrible wave of plagues that had swept through Europe in the middle years of the century and decimated England’s population by an estimated 50%. As a result of this, the peasantry – who had previously been kept under a system of serfdom which greatly restricted their freedom – became more scarce and had more land available to them. As a result, they grew richer and were able to pursue jobs and privileges that their fathers could never have dreamed of. The nobility were very suspicious of this and tried to greatly restrict the goods that peasants could buy as well as other freedoms that they now enjoyed – but they could not undo what had happened. In addition, England and France had been engaged in the Hundred Years War since 1337, and most of the financial burden of the war fell upon the peasantry in the form of the hated poll tax. Finally, the wise and popular King Edward III died in 1377, leaving the throne to the boy-king Richard II and his despised regent John of Gaunt, who had already almost been lynched by angry crowds in London.
The revolt is judged to have broken out in Essex on the 30th May, when MP John Bampton arrived to investigate non-payment of poll tax. The south-east of England had always been its wealthiest region, and as a result there were very few unpaid serfs there and the peasants enjoyed a better quality of life than elsewhere. It was therefore the hotbed of the many radicals who had emerged following the Black Death. On the 1st June Bampton gathered the headmen of several Essex villages together to explain the shortfall, and they arrived with large crowds brandishing various weapons. Edward III had armed the peasantry and insisted on longbow practice for the fight against the French, and these men were not to be messed with. When Bampton attempted to arrest one recalcitrant village leader he and his men were set upon and though the MP escaped at least three of his entourage were killed. By the 4th June, the now-lit fires of revolt were spreading across Essex, and delegations were sent to the neighbouring counties of Kent and Suffolk asking them to join in.
In Kent in particular they needed little invitation, after an escaped serf called John Belling was imprisoned the local villages had already exploded with anger and stormed Rochester Castle, where he was being held. On the 7th June they elected a leader called Wat Tyler at the town of Maidstone – a tough and charismatic man whose origins are mysterious but who appears to have fought in France as one of the renowned English longbowmen. Now it had a leader with clear aims, the revolt gathered momentum and purpose. Tyler’s first move was marching on the castle-town of Canterbury, where the Archbishop was deposed, the jails emptied of prisoners and many of the King’s known supporters dragged out of their houses and murdered. By the 12th June, the rebels from Kent, Essex Suffolk and Norfolk had been coordinated, and they had reached the outskirts of London in their thousands.
The rebels were loyal to the King, who had now taken refuge in the Tower of London, but demanded the abolition of serfdom and the downfall of the feudal system that kept them separated by many social rungs from their monarch. The main targets of their hatred were the church leaders and the aristocracy, and Tyler’s friend – the radical cleric John Ball – addressed his men and coined the famous phrase “when Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?” The King’s options were limited at this stage. His armies were busy in Ireland France and the Scottish border, and it would be difficult to put down the revolt by force. Richard decided that he ought to meet the rebels, but the attempted talks failed when he lost heart and refused to get out of his boat onto the bank where their men were waiting.
After this, the mob decided that negotiations were worthless and marched through the open gates of London, where many of the locals joined them. There they repeated their antics in Canterbury on a far larger scale, and the Londoners attacked the houses of Flemish immigrants who they felt were taking all the best jobs. Soon events were badly out of hand as important buildings were burned and ransacked, and Flemings and aristocrats were murdered and left to rot in the streets. Now under siege in the tower, the King finally met the rebels face-to-face at Mile End, accompanied by only a small bodyguard to show his peaceful intentions. There he agreed to the abolition of serfdom, and charters confirming this were distributed across the country. The Tower fell to the rebels during the negotiations, and many of John of Gaunt’s hated men were publically beheaded, though the King’s female family members were spared.
Satisfied with the decree over serfdom, most of the rebels from Essex went home at this point, but Tyler’s diehard group of Kentishmen remained and continued to burn loot and murder their way through the city. Another meeting between the rebel leader and the King took place at Smithfield on the 15th June, and this time Richard brought a substantial force of armoured men with him, though it was still dwarfed by the force of thousands of grim-faced rebels facing him. At this meeting Tyler treated the King with condescension and rudeness, and an argument between him and the Richard’s men got out of hand, leading to the Kentish man’s death in a sudden brawl with the Mayor of London and the King’s Squire. Violence almost ensued as the incensed rebel archers knocked their bows, but the fourteen-year-old King then showed exceptional personal bravery by exposing himself to their bows and demanding that they stand down. Unwilling to kill their King, the peasants backed down, and Tyler’s head was displayed on a pole in London.
The violence did not end there, but the most immediate threat did. Other revolts occured in the east of England, the north and the west country, and though many lootings (including that of Cambridge University) occurred, the King summoned an army out of loyal men in London, and the remaining diehard rebels were defeated in a pitched battle at North Walsham in late June. Though the decree abolishing serfdom was repealed, the revolt did change the position of the peasants. The government was now wary of squeezing them for cash, and Poll Tax was abolished. In practice, serfdom died quickly, and many serfs were allowed to purchase freedom from their Lords for a manageable price. Peasant opinions gained more weight, and in this sense the revolt can be judged to be a success.