In June 1381, one of the greatest social convulsions of medieval European history took place in England.
Famine and plague
The 14th century was a terrible era to be alive: the Great Famine of 1315 to 1317 killed perhaps 10% of Northern Europe, and the Black Death, an even greater natural disaster, claimed between 1/3 and 1/2 of the continent’s population at the end of the 1340s and in later outbreaks in the 1360s.
The government of King Edward III of England (r. 1327-77) rushed out legislation in 1351 which fixed wages at pre-plague levels, with the result that workers were unable to benefit from the sudden shortage of labour. Edward’s ruinously expensive wars in France and Scotland had already bankrupted the country and left numerous Englishmen maimed and unable to work.
The poll tax
In 1380, the government of Edward III’s 13-year-old grandson and successor Richard II (r. 1377-99) unwittingly lit a fuse to a powder keg by instigating an unfair poll tax that fell most heavily on the poor.
Poll tax collectors in the early months of 1381 had extraordinary difficulties gathering the due payments and refused to collect taxes in London owing to their fear of inciting mass unrest, and in Essex on 30 May, two collectors were assaulted.
Fear and resentment boiled over, and the two main targets of hostility, blamed for the poll tax, were Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of England, and Robert Hales, Treasurer of England.
Richard II’s powerful, wealthy and hated uncle John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, eldest surviving son of Edward III, was another prime target of rage and hatred, though fortunately for the Duke he was far away in Scotland in June 1381.
The revolt escalates
The widespread though as yet unfocused rage found two leaders in Walter ‘Wat’ Tyler, who coordinated bands of protesters from Kent and Essex, and John Ball, a firebrand preacher who, according to the St Albans chronicler Thomas Walsingham, gave a sermon at Blackheath to 200,000 people (a gross exaggeration on Walsingham’s part) which included the famous line,
‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’.
The rebels began to make a series of demands which were, for the 14th century, radical: the abolition of serfdom, and a man’s right to work for whom he wished at the wages he wished. Their slogan was ‘King Richard and the True Commons’, and what they had in mind was a benevolent monarchy, with the nobility to be abolished.
Very soon after the assault of 30 May 1381, people all over Essex and Kent began committing acts of disobedience and protest, destroyed property belonging to tax collectors, office-holders and local gentry, and burned legal documents. A huge group of people gathered and marched towards London; the Essex rebels gathered at Mile End and others at Blackheath around Trinity Sunday 9 June.
On 11 June, the young King Richard’s advisers decided that he should seek refuge in the fortified Tower of London. Contemporary monkish chroniclers demonised the rebels marching towards London and talked about them in dehumanising language: supposedly they were ‘riff-raff’ with ‘rough, filthy hands’, ‘bare-legged rascals’ and ‘wastrels’ who were guilty of ‘wickedness’.
Storming the Tower
On 13 June, the young king met the rebels’ leaders at Blackheath but was soon forced to retreat, and tried again at Mile End the following day, where they presented their demands to him.
In Richard II’s absence, a mob broke into the Tower of London, where the widely loathed Simon Sudbury and Robert Hales, and John of Gaunt’s fourteen-year-old son and heir Henry of Lancaster (the future King Henry IV), had sought refuge.
Sudbury and Hales were dragged outside and summarily beheaded; Henry of Lancaster was saved by a man named John Ferrour. Outside the Tower, at least 150 foreigners working in London, predominantly Flemish weavers, were also killed and their goods stolen. Unable to lay their hands on the detested John of Gaunt in person, the rebels invaded and destroyed his sumptuous palace of the Savoy next to the Thames, supposedly leaving barely one stone on top of another.
Even in the north of England, meanwhile, Gaunt’s second, Spanish wife Constanza of Castile was in danger, and had to seek refuge at Gaunt’s Yorkshire castle of Knaresborough.
The rebellion crumbles
Richard II met the rebels for the third time at Smithfield on 15 June 1381. William Walworth, Mayor of London, stabbed the rebels’ leader Wat Tyler in Richard’s presence, apparently because it appeared as though he was assaulting the king or had spoken rudely to him.
The 14-year-old king bravely saved the situation by riding towards the rebels, crying out ‘I will be your king, your captain and your leader!’ This bold strategy worked, and chronicler Thomas Walsingham says that the rebels ‘were dispersed’ and ‘fled in all directions like wandering sheep’. Within weeks, order was restored throughout the country.
In November 1381, Richard II told parliament that he would willingly free the serfs if parliament allowed him to do so, and it seems that the adolescent king intended to grant the rebels’ demands, but he was still well underage and not acting under his own agency.
Chronicler Thomas Walsingham puts a famous, though improbable, speech in Richard’s mouth to the effect that
‘Serfs you are and serfs you will remain, and you will remain in bondage, not as before but incomparably harsher.’
Executions, including that of the preacher John Ball, and imprisonments soon followed the Great Uprising, and it would be an extremely long time before such radical demands were voiced again.
14th century historian Kathryn Warner is a biographer of Edward II, Isabella of France, Hugh Despenser the Younger and Richard II. Her book, Richard II: A True King’s Fall, will be published in paperback form by Amberley Publishing on 15 August 2019