Medieval England experienced a surprisingly few number of revolts, especially given the constant threat of war and the rising taxes pushed on peasants to fund the feuds.
However, one of the most serious and most notable revolts was the Peasants’ Revolt which occurred during June 1381.
Before the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 a feudal system existed that kept both peasant and landlord relatively happy. England’s strict laws and harsh punishments ensured that peasants adhered to the laws, and peasants were forbidden to travel to different parts of the country to look for new opportunities and higher wages unless they had their lord’s expressed permission.
However, there was a series of circumstances that contributed to the uprising that is now known as the Peasants’ Revolt.
Causes of the Peasants’ Revolt – Emboldened by the Black Death
The peasants who survived the Black Death that ravaged through Europe between 1348 and 1350 believed that there was something special about them. Many felt that they had been protected, possibly by the Almighty, for a purpose.
Their survival against one of the most horrifying plagues of all time emboldened them. Their new sense of worth and value gave the peasants the confidence to seek out new opportunities. Peasants felt it was their right to ask for better conditions and higher pay. They were no longer as afraid of the authority that ruled them.
The Black Death had also wiped out a large portion of the population, leaving many lords in a position where they had lots of work but a small workforce. The desperate need for labour forced the lords to offer higher than usual wages to peasants to encourage them to leave their villages. However, once they had completed their work, the new lord often refused to allow the peasant to return back home to their original village.
The Black Death had given rise to an increase in workers’ rights, despite the attempts by the Government to control the rights of the peasants. These included the Statute of Labourers in 1351 which tried to limit the liberties peasants had as well as cap the wages that they could earn.
However, many lords had given their peasants more freedom and higher pay. 35 years after the Black Death peasants were concerned that the lords and Government would revoke their rights and their pay, and this is something that the peasants were more than prepared to fight for to defend.
Causes of the Peasants’ Revolt – The War with France
By 1381, England had spent a long time at war with France as part of the Hundred Years War. By the time the revolt had started England had been at war with France for more than forty years.
Wars inevitably cost money (weapons need to be purchased, troops need to be hired, fed and adequately clothed, etc) and more often than not it was the peasants that were expected to help cover these costs through the form of taxes.
In 1380, Richard II introduced a new tax, known as the Poll Tax. The legislation behind this tax said that every registered taxpayer would be expected to pay an additional 5p. This was the third time in four years that a tax of this kind had been enforced on the people.
By 1381, the peasants had quite simply had enough of paying high taxes for wars.
Causes of the Peasants’ Revolt – Restrictions by the Church
Many peasants were made to work on land owned by the church without pay. Some peasants would be forced to give up two days a week to provide free labour in this way.
This enforced labour, so close to slavery, meant that the peasants could not find the time to work on their own land. This made it even more difficult for the peasants to provide enough food for their growing families. This scheme served the church but not the people that provided the labour.
The peasants were desperate to be free of this burden, and this particular cause was supported by a priest called John Ball from Kent.
The combination of these three major factors eventually led to a distinct rise in the unhappiness of the peasant, and before long these signs of strain began to show.
Early Uprising in Essex
In May 1381, a tax collector arrived at Fobbing, a village in Essex. He was charged with the task of finding out why the people living there had not paid their poll tax. Rather than finding out and returning with the owed monies, the tax collector was thrown out of the village.
Later, in June, soldiers arrived to enforce the tax law and establish a sense of order, but they too met the same fate as the tax collector. The villagers of Fobbing had organised themselves since the tax collectors visit, and people from many other local villages in Essex had travelled to Fobbing to join the villagers in their stance.
After successfully withstanding the reprisal of the soldiers the villagers decided to head to London to plead with King Richard II, who was just fourteen years old at the time of the revolt.
A Marching Army
An army of approximately 60,000 peasants marched from Kent and Essex to London. While en-route to London the peasants had destroyed a number of tax records and tax registers. The buildings which housed government records were burned down.
When the peasants arrived at London they did something that had never been done before or has never been done since; the peasants successfully captured the Tower of London.
Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball stood out as the leaders of the revolt, and together they petitioned for the abolition of the poll tax, and the abolition of serfdom as well as the right to freely use the forests. The peasants also demanded that the poll tax be abolished. King Richard bravely agreed to face the peasants despite his young age.
Waning Discipline and the King’s Ear
Despite the fervour of the initial revolt, it was clear to the leaders that by the middle of June the discipline of the peasants was starting to wane. Many peasants took to drinking and looting, and violence began to increase. Wat Tyler and his mean appealed to the peasants for discipline and patience, but the appeals fell on deaf ears.
The peasants did however get the King’s ear, and on June 14th King Richard II met the leaders of the peasants at an agreed location, Mile End.
At this meeting, Richard II agreed to meet the demands of the peasants and requested that they retire back home in peace. Some did, yet many did not. Instead, they returned to the city and murdered both the Archbishop and Treasurer.
The next day King Richard II met the rebels again, this time outside of the city walls. It’s unclear how or why, but at this meeting it seems the Lord Mayor killed Wat Tyler. King Richard II reiterated his promises, and the peasants agreed to end their revolt.