The Peasants’ Revolt: Rise of the Rebels | History Hit

The Peasants’ Revolt: Rise of the Rebels

Amy Irvine

16 Feb 2024
15th-century representation of the cleric John Ball encouraging the rebels; Wat Tyler is shown in red, front left
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / British Library manuscript "Royal 18 E. I f.165v" / Froissart's Chronicles / Public domain

In 1381 England was a tinderbox ready to explode. New thoughts and ideas had been stoked by a chain-reaction of disasters, including pandemic, wage suppression, war in Europe and uncertainty around government. Such discontent drove thousands of ordinary people to join the first popular rebellion in English history. Here we explore what drove the 14th century peasantry of England to breaking point, as featured in our documentary, The Peasants’ Revolt: Rise of the Rebels.

In this 3-part series, History Hit’s medieval expert, Matt Lewis, reveals the previously unknown stories of the ordinary people involved in the Peasants’ Revolt, working closely with investigative historians from the People of 1381 Project, and alongside top medieval historians, including his Gone Medieval co-host, Eleanor Janega, and Richard II biographer, Helen Castor. 

In part one, Matt explores the origins of the rebellion, and the explosive days preceding the violent attack on London on the 13 June 1381.

Matt Lewis investigates the real people behind the revolutionary peasants revolt of 1381.
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Life in 14th century England

In the late 14th century, although towns and cities were growing, England’s population was primarily rural. Around 80-85% of the entire medieval European population was classed as a ‘peasant’. The term meant someone was a farmer, but within this categorisation, economic status varied greatly. Some were actually prosperous landowners, even employing staff and servants, with even middle-class peasants fairly well-to-do. However, at least 50% of peasants in England were poor, struggling in subsistence farming, often living hand-to-mouth.

Wealthier peasants (sometimes wealthier than people who were technically nobles due to their land ownership) were generally free men, who could accumulate land and go to market with their goods; ‘serfs’, the lower class of peasants, were tied to their lord’s land, and subject to many restrictions.

In this feudal world, authorities were rarely challenged from below, yet by 1381, escalating taxation had made life increasingly harder for most peasants. The 14th century is generally considered one of the worst times to be alive due to a combination of bad weather (affecting crops, livestock and resulting in the Great Famine), the Black Death, and the ongoing Hundred Years’ War, when many were directed to go to France to fight for the king. Taxation, necessary for funding the war effort, emerged as a central grievance, sparking the Peasant’s Revolt.

The people of Tournai bury victims of the Black Death – by Pierart dou Tielt, circa 1353

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

By Spring 1381, sporadic rioting had occurred in Winchester, Salisbury, Shrewsbury and York against increased taxes. On 30 May in Brentwood, Essex, a royal tax commissioner was forced to flee after peasants, led by Thomas Baker, refused to pay additional taxes and drew weapons upon him. Tensions were high.

Tithe taxes and the poll tax

The tithe, a church tax, required individuals to pay 10% of their income annually. It was often collected at harvest time, usually in a Tithe Barn, enabling people to pay in produce instead of money if needed.

Government taxes, mainly for funding things such as foreign wars, were collected through a fractional tax system. A tax collector would come round every couple of years, assess a peasant’s ‘moveable goods’ (i.e. such as money or other possessions), assess its worth, and charge a percentage of it, usually 10%. Similar to income taxes nowadays, it was reasonably fair.

However, at this time, England was fighting the Hundred Years’ War against France which had strained finances, and the king needed to raise more money. This led to the introduction of the first Poll Tax in 1377. This set a flat rate of 4 pence for everybody over age 14, but whilst this was a day or two’s wages for a labourer, it was virtually nothing to a nobleman. The poll tax didn’t raise as much revenue as expected, although some wealthy clergy voluntarily paid more to help the poor.

Gradually, the church’s tax office became the government’s tax office. In 1379, a second, much more progressive poll tax was introduced, including 33 layers of payment. Whilst still a flat rate, it sought to build on the overpayment by wealthy clergy last time, with payments ranging from 6 pounds, 13 shillings and 4 pence for the richest, to 4 pence for the poorest. Nevertheless the tax was a failure and faced resistance, with the population magically ‘shrinking’ as people hid family members from tax collectors.

In 1381, another poll tax was imposed, back in the form of another unpopular flat-rate tax, demanding 12 pence from every person over the age of 16. Such a large sum was a crushing burden to regular people, sparking widespread suffering and fears of starvation, igniting open revolt. A peasant could be killed by their lord for revolting, but the fact so many risked life and death by doing so highlights how they felt they had no other option.

Rebellion and military expertise

After the events at Brentwood, Essex on 30 May 1381, tensions escalated. A meeting convened in Thomas Baker’s home village of Fobbing on 2 June, attracting widespread support from those ready to make a stand.

On 4 June 1381 the Essex rebels launched an attack on Lesnes Abbey in Kent, targeting tax records crucial for control and taxation by the Church and Crown. This destruction sparked a coordinated revolt, necessitating military expertise.

Between 1370-1400, 100,000 soldiers had been deployed to France – a large portion of able-bodied men from England’s already small population. Consequently, England was full of experienced military personnel, who played a crucial role in leading the initial rebel charge. Society was also heavily armed, with archery practiced by all and peasants often possessing armour, swords, daggers, bows and arrows. 

Peasant longbowmen at practice, from the Luttrell Psalter, c. 1320–1340

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Luttrell Psalter 1325 / Public Domain

Escalation of violence

The rebels were highly organised, and disseminated messages amongst peasants, leading to fires in towns and cities across England, burning crucial documents that upheld medieval society. Rochester Castle, a strategically vital fortress, fell into rebel hands after its constable, Sir John Newington, was taken hostage.

Violence escalated, and one day after the attack on Rochester, rebels reached Canterbury on 10 June – the county capital of Kent and the seat of the most powerful man in the English Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury. Although he wasn’t there, the rebels seized the gold and the treasure that he had accumulated, intensifying their anger.

Leaders like Wat Tyler, Jack Straw (who led the Essex rebels), and radical preacher John Ball emerged, the latter advocating for equality and having already been excommunicated for preaching against church wealth.

In need of weapons, peasants armed themselves – all would have had access to a hand-axe, along with other tools turned into makeshift weapons such as a billhook (traditionally used for pruning trees, with spikes added) and a flail (traditionally used for threshing wheat). With its mix of military and improvised weapons, the rebellion spread.

Richard II’s early reign

Richard II had become king aged 10, and by 1381, despite being only 14, he had been king for 4 years. In medieval England, the king’s authority and will was crucial for governance. Having such a young king meant England faced a long period with a king who in effect was too young to rule for himself. Richard’s 3 uncles had stepped-in to help govern, but were perceived as part of England’s problems, particularly John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster), who was ambitious and seen as self-serving.

John of Gaunt, although driven by duty to uphold the monarchy for Richard, was viewed as haughty, power-hungry and resistant to criticism or reform, bringing him into direct conflict with those opposed to what he represented. Richard himself believed in his divine rights as king, but lacked a full understanding of the responsibilities and duties his role required.

What kind of England did Richard inherit? Why was John of Gaunt so influential? How significant was the 'Peasant's Revolt'? How did Richard's death contrast with his reign? Medieval historian Helen Carr answers key questions about King Richard II.
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Move towards London

The same day Wat Tyler led his forces into Canterbury, rebels attacked Cressing Temple in Essex, looting and burning documents. Further incidents occurred at Chelmsford. The different peasant groups had communicated covertly for weeks using military-inspired codes, coordinating their movements towards London.

On 12 June, thousands of men converged on Blackheath, demanding justice and presenting their hostage, Sir John Newington, constable of Rochester Castle, as their envoy to King Richard II at the Tower of London. Newington conveyed the rebels’ grievances, informing Richard II that the rebels meant him no harm and held him as their rightful king, but believed England had not been well governed by his uncles and by the clergy.

During the rebellion, John of Gaunt was away on the northern border, responsible for defence against the Scots, and was thus too far away to do anything, leaving his property and family vulnerable. However the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury, was present. As Lord Chancellor, Sudbury was effectively head of the government and had played a key role in enacting the third poll tax that triggered the revolt. Despite resigning, he remained a rebel target, as did Richard II’s uncles who’d governed during his minority.

richard ii black death peasants revolt

An image from Froissart’s Chronicle of Richard II meeting the Peasants Revolt.

Image Credit: Bibliotheque Nationale de France / CC

Agreement to meet the rebels

Conflicts had been brewing in parliament over funding for the failing war effort, but government focus on internal issues meant they were blindsided by the sudden uprising of ordinary people.

On 13 June, amidst increasing chaos, King Richard II agreed to meet the rebels at Rotherhithe. However, as the royal barge approached, it was confronted by 10,000 raucous rebels, prompting fear for Richard’s safety. The Earl of Salisbury ordered the barge to turn around, further enraging the crowds, who snapped.

Watch Peasants’ Revolt – Part Two: London’s Burning

Amy Irvine