The Peasants Revolt, 1381.
The circumstances that led to the Peasant`s Revolt in 1381 were the general living conditions of the vassal and a desire for some, relatively small, improvement of their lot. What it was not, was a direct response to the influence of John Wyckcliffe. Although there were some common issues the singular difference was that at no stage did Wyckcliffe advocate the use of force to achieve his aims. It is however, quite easy to see how the followers of Wyckcliffe, and Lollardy in general, became associated with the friars and parish priests who did take part in civil disorder, and why Wickcliffe`s “Poor Priests” suffered by association.
The principal mouthpiece of rebellion was John Ball, a former priest from the North of England, who gravitated to making
strident speeches in London. His favoured approach was to speak to people as they left church on the Sabbath and, having got an auditory, expand upon equality and rights of the people. His phraseology included tenets of what we might today call Communism.
” things cannot go well in England, nor ever will until everything shall be in common; when there shall be neither vassal nor lord and all distinctions levelled, when the lords shall be no more masters than ourselves.”
The people themselves were not so much in favour of common holdings, but sought personal freedom and commutation of all forms of labour to a rent of four pence an acre. When this was granted the majority were prepared to go home. Other issues about which they felt aggrieved were disendowment of the churches ( being diverted to help the poor – not reimburse the landlords), free use of the forests, abolition of game laws (eg taking the king`s deer, and rabbits) and the indiscriminate use of `outlawry` as a penalty.
The rising itself was spasmodic and uncoordinated. There were some named leaders, such as Ball, but there did not seem to be a national organisation. The matter was brought to a head by three successive impositions of Poll Taxes between 1377 and 1381 that caused great hardship and a stiffened resistance. In May 1381 the resistance to the tax commissioners broke into the open in Essex and took on a sense of purpose. Tax collectors were attacked, manor houses, castles and monasteries were attacked and rioting became common place through much of south east England. The burgeoning revolt spread to Kent and into the compass of Wat Tyler, who became the chief agitator and leader on a march to London on 12 -13 June 1381.
The climax of the rebellion took place over the three days of Corpus Christi week – 13,14 and 15 June. In London there was some sympathy among the Council but in a short time things got out of hand. Arriving in Southwark, the location of the notorious Marshalsea Prison, they soon demolished it and released the prisoners. The rebels from Essex arrived in Lambeth where they sacked the Archbishop`s palace destroying property and the registers and chancery rolls. At London Bridge a brothel was burned seemingly because it had been filled with Flemish prostitutes by the Mayor of London, for his benefit. For a while the mob was delayed by a chain across the bridge but it was taken down and the carnage continued. The Kent rebels broke open and released prisoners in the Fleet Prison while rebels from London itself burnt property belonging to Knight Templars and sacked the palace of Savoy. There followed the burning of the Duke of Lancaster`s home and the property of other unpopular nobles. They also attacked foreigners and put to death unpopular citizens, probably settling some old scores in the doing. One example quoted was the summary beheading of Roger Leggett who was dragged from the altar of St Martin`s le Grand and murdered in Cheap St.
After trying unsuccessfully to see the king at the Tower of London, the rebels stopped to draw breath. The young , fourteen year old, king had seen much of the burning and rioting from the turret of the
Great Tower but he was not afraid. In the absence of useful suggestions from his courtiers he ordered that it should be cried in the wards that everyone between fifteen and sixty should come to Mile End on the Friday to meet their King. In the interim he tried to convince some rebels in the vicinity of the Tower of his good intentions and gave them a draft Act in which the King pardoned their trespasses and undertook to inquire into their grievances if put in writing. This was communicated to the rebels generally but they rejected it as ` a trifle and a mockery`. They wanted blood, and in particular Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
King Richard arrived at Mile End on the Friday about 7am where he was received respectfully. The King agreed their demands, including the lawful trial of traitors and their execution. Abolition of serfdom and fourpence an acre for their land was also agreed before the mob exceeding some 100,000 turned for the Tower. Here they beheaded Archbishop Sudbury, the Lord Treasurer, and in all some 140-160 other persons. John Imworth, governor of the Marshalsea Prison was dragged in the presence of the King, from Westminster Hall into Cheap St. where he was beheaded.
The King arrived at Westminster Abbey about 3,00pm and after prayers and confession ordered that the people meet him at Smithfield, by St Bartholomew`s Church. There is some doubt it Wat
Tyler had been at the earlier meeting but he was certainly to the fore at Smithfield swaggering and taunting. In a scuffle with the Mayor of London, William Walworth, Tyler received a mortal wound and it seemed as if general bloodshed was imminent but the King, with great courage, forestalled them by riding forward and calling upon them to move to the larger field of St John, Clerkenwell. In the meantime the Mayor assembled armed support that backed the king when he reached Clerkenwell ; here the wounded Wat Tyler was produced and beheaded. The rebellion collapsed and the rebels were allowed to disperse. Trouble did not entirely cease in other parts of the country and the main leaders – John Ball, Jack Straw, Geoffrey Lister and William Grindcobbe among them, were caught and executed.
The main outcome was a `Royal Charter concerning the
`manumission of the rustics` which defined the right to freedom of the people of England.
‘Richard, by the grace of God, king of England and France, the lord of Ireland, to all his bailiffs and faithful men to whom these present letters come, greetings. Know that by our special grace we have manumitted all our liegemen, subjects and others of the county of [ ] ; and we have freed and quitted each of them from bondage by the present letters. We also pardon our said liegemen and subjects for all felonies, acts of treason, transgressions and extortions performed by them or any one of them in whatsoever way. We also withdraw sentences of outlawry declared against them or any of them because of these offences. And we hereby grant our complete peace to them and each of them. In testimony of which we order these letters of ours to be made patent. Witnessed by myself at London on 15 June in the fourth year of my reign’.