On 30 May, 1381 the villagers of Fobbing in Essex armed themselves with old bows and sticks to face the oncoming arrival of John Bampton, a Justice of the Peace looking to collect their unpaid taxes.
Bampton’s aggressive conduct enraged the villagers and violent clashes ensued in which he barely escaped with his life. News quickly spread of this insurrection, and by 2 June both Essex and Kent were in full revolt.
Today known as the Peasants’ Revolt, the ensuing conflict spread as far as York and Somerset and culminated in the bloody storming of London. Led by Wat Tyler, this saw the killing of a number royal government officials and eventually Tyler himself, before Richard II was forced to address the rebels’ demands.
But what exactly forced the 14th century peasantry of England to breaking point?
1. The Black Death (1346-53)
The Black Death of 1346-53 ravaged the population of England by 40-60%, and those who survived found themselves in a radically different landscape.
Due to the significantly lower population, food prices decreased and the demand for labour skyrocketed. Workers could now afford to charge higher wages for their time and travel outside of their hometown for the best paid opportunities.
Many inherited land and property from their deceased family members and were now able to dress in finer clothes and eat better food usually reserved for the higher classes. The lines between the social hierarchies began to blur.
Many were unable to comprehend that this was a socio-economic factor of the pandemic however, and viewed it as subordination by the peasant classes. Augustinian clergyman Henry Knighton wrote that:
‘If anyone wanted to hire them he had to submit to their demands, for either his fruit and standing corn would be lost or he had to pander to the arrogance and greed of the workers.’
Strife grew between the peasantry and the upper classes – a strife that would only heighten in the following decades as authorities attempted to batter them back down into subservience.
2. The Statute of Labourers (1351)
In 1349, Edward III laid out the Ordinance of Labourers that, after wide dissent, had to be reinforced by Parliament 1351 with the Statute of Labourers. The statute attempted to set a maximum wage for labourers in order to halt the peasant classes’ demands for better pay and realign them with their accepted station.
Rates were set at pre-plague levels, when an economic depression had forced wages lower that they would have ordinarily been, and it became a crime to refuse work or travel to other towns for higher pay.
Though the statute is thought to have been widely ignored by the workers, its instillation did little to help the unstable class divisions that continued to emerge, and caused much distaste amongst the peasantry.
During this time, William Langland wrote in his famous poem Piers Ploughman:
‘Working men curse the king and all his parliament…that makes such laws to keep the labourer down.’
3. The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453)
The Hundred Years’ War broke out in 1337 when Edward III began to press his claim on the French throne. Peasants in the south became increasingly involved in the war as the closest settlements to the French coast, with their towns attacked and their boats repossessed for use in the English navy.
From 1338-9, the English Channel naval campaign saw a series of raids on English towns, ships, and islands by the French navy, private raiders and even pirates.
Villages were burnt to the ground, with Portsmouth and Southhampton seeing significant damage, and areas of Essex and Kent also attacked. Many were killed or captured as slaves, often being left to the mercy of their attackers by the inefficient response of the government.
Jean Froissart described one such raid in his Chronicles:
‘The French landed in Sussex near the borders of Kent, in a fairly large town of fisherman and sailors called Rye. They pillaged and plundered it and burnt it completely. Then they returned to their ships and went down the Channel to the coast of Hampshire’
Further, as the paid professional armies heavily featured the peasantry, the working class became increasingly politicised during the war. Many were trained to use longbows or had relatives who left to fight, and the constant taxation to fund the war effort left many resentful. Further dissatisfaction with their government ensued, particularly in the south-east whose shores had seen much destruction.
4. The poll tax
Despite initial successes, by the 1370s England was suffering huge losses in the Hundred Years’ War, with the country’s financial situation in dire straits. Garrisons stationed in France costed an exorbitant amount to maintain each year, while disruptions in the wool trade only exacerbated this.
In 1377, a new poll tax was introduced at the request of John of Gaunt. The tax demanded payment from 60% of the country’s population, a far higher amount than previous taxes, and stipulated that every lay person over the age of 14 years had to pay a groat (4d) to the Crown.
A second poll tax was raised in 1379, by the new king Richard II who was just 12 years old, followed by a third in 1381 as the war worsened.
This final poll tax was triple the first at 12d per person over the age of 15, and many evaded it by refusing to register. Parliament duly established a team of interrogators to patrol the villages in the south east where dissent was highest, with the aim of uncovering those who refused to pay.
5. Growing dissent in both rural and urban communities
In the years leading up to the rising, widespread protest against the government was already occurring in both rural and urban centres. Particularly in the southern counties of Kent, Essex and Sussex, general dissent was surfacing surrounding the practice of serfdom.
Influenced by the preaching of John Ball, the ‘crack-brained priest of Kent’ as Froissart described him, much of the peasantry in the area began to acknowledge the unjust nature of their servitude and the unnaturalness of nobility. Ball would reportedly wait in the churchyards after Mass to preach to the villagers, famously asking:
‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?’
He encouraged people to take their qualms directly to the king, with word of the dissent soon reaching London. Conditions in the city were no better, with the expansion of the royal legal system enraging residents and John of Gaunt a particularly hated figure. London soon sent word back to the neighbouring counties expressing their support in the insurrection.
The catalyst at last came in Essex on 30 May 1381, when John Hampden went to collect Fobbing’s unpaid poll tax, and was met with violence.
Beaten down by years of servitude and government incompetency, the final poll tax and the harassment of their communities that followed was enough to push the peasantry of England into revolt.
With the south already poised for London, a mob of 60,000 headed for the capital, where just south of Greenwich John Ball reportedly addressed them:
‘I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.’
Though the revolt did not achieve its immediate aims, it is widely considered the first of a long line of protests by the English working class to demand equality and fair payment.