The Peasants’ Revolt

Something happened in England in 1381 that I recently had cause to remember learning about at school, when faced with the awful policies of our current government.

King Richard II (who was King at the age of 14) imposed a new tax, a poll tax on every adult of four pence. Everyone had to pay, whatever their circumstances. So the poorest in the land had to pay the same as noblemen and wealthy businessmen.

Richard II.

A radical preacher, John Ball, stirred up the poor workers with his sermons that everyone should be equal, and that it was not God’s will for some to be rich while others struggled. As well as resisting the new tax, workers demanded an end to serfdom (tied labour), the right to seek out their own employment, and an end to the social structure that provided the ruling classes the given right to be in power.

John Ball was imprisoned, and a group of peasants broke him out of jail. They were led by Wat Tyler, a man who had become impressed with the teachings of Ball, and was determined to overthrow the system in England.

Wat Tyler.

With trouble breaking out all over England, Poll Tax collectors were killed, and a large peasant army congregated in Kent, with Tyler in command. John Ball joined the rebels, and encouraged them to force their demands on the king.

John Ball addressing the rebel army.

He led his force to attack London, and they joined with other peasant armies, crossing London Bridge in June 1381. The rebels proceeded to kill anyone they thought to be complicit in helping the King and his government. They burned public records, and opened the prisons to free those held captive.

Three days later, the teenage King rode out with his bodyguards to meet with the rebels at Smithfield. He promised all their leaders a pardon for everyone involved, and pledged to consider all their demands and to make concessions to them if they withdrew and ended the rebellion. Many of the leaders were satisfied, and immediately left London with their armies. However, Wat Tyler was not happy. He continued to berate the King, using offensive language. This angered the nobles charged with protecting him, and William Walworth, The Lord Mayor of London, rode forward to arrest Tyler.

When he resisted arrest, Walworth slashed him across the neck with his sword, and another nobleman stabbed Wat in his body. After falling from his horse gravely wounded, Tyler was taken to a hospital that treated the poor. But the nobles dragged him from there, and chopped off his head in front of the crowds at Smithfield. Then they carried his head through the city displayed on a pole, before placing it on a spike at the entrance to London Bridge.

The death of Wat Tyler.

With Wat Tyler dead, his army dispersed, and left London to go back to their homes in Kent. Meanwhile, the King revoked all of the promised concessions, and the rebels were hunted down ruthlessly. Over the following weeks, many were executed without trial.

Two months in the summer of 1381. 641 years later, we need another Wat Tyler.

But this time, we need someone who wins.

50 thoughts on “The Peasants’ Revolt

  1. (1) “King Richard XIV was crowned at the age of 2,” reported the caregiver at Tots Я Us.
    (2) The Surfdom of Hawaii waves hello.
    (3) I’m not on the Ball today. Wat Tyler are you talkin’ about?
    (4) The nobles carried Wat Tyler’s head through the city displayed on a pole. Did they pay a pole tax?
    (5) Breaking News – June 15, 1381: There Has Been A Spike in Beheadings Today!
    (6) King Richard didn’t believe in trial and error.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The more things change, the more they stay the same. I have been reading a lot about time past and it always seems so terribly familiar. The problem is two opposing forces will never agree because there are always opportunists who seek to better themselves at the expense of others. Things here are really not good. The Jan 6th hearings have been shocking yet I don’t see anyone mentioning them. It is making me really angry.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Those hearings are mentioned on the news here. But it often feels to me like they are going through the motions. I very much doubt Trump will be charged with anything.
      (Now Trump’s ex-wife is found at the bottom of some stairs. That also sounds suspicious.)
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, it’s very suspicious, just too convenient. Personally I don’t care what happens to Trump as long as I don’t have to see his name or his ugly face but it won’t go away. He makes my stomach cirdle.

        Liked by 2 people

      1. The Brits and the RAF did wonderful, courageous things while in the USA, pro fascists like Lindberg pulled strings to keep us out of the war. It took a sneak attack by the Japanese to finally get into helping stop Hitler. I for one am ashamed of our actions prior to Pearl Harbor.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Pete, I remember the Peasants Revolt and watched a re-enactment at the Tower of London in 2016. A most interesting piece of history. I think it was George Orwell who said the working classes never seem to win in any revolt or change of political system. The middle classes use the working classes to overthrow the upper classes and thus replace them. A few working class people move up in the system but nothing changes for the majority. I could be wrong about my source above though.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. There are lots of working class people, Robbie. In fact, they are the majority in Britain. You have to look outside of Greater London to see millions living on the ‘Minimum Wage’. Don’t be fooled by what you see on the news, or in the newspapers. A recent report stated that 30% of UK children live on or below the Poverty Line. That was not contradicted by the government, as that suits their purposes very nicely.
        And for what is is worth, I am living (at 70 years old) on a combination of work and State pensions that bring in just £1600 a month. I may be a homeowner, but I will forever be ‘working class’. Our weekly supermarket bill is over £100, and it costs over £100 to fill my car with diesel.
        Best wishes, Pete.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Okay, I wasn’t sure how you classified middle class. I associated it more with education than earnings, but I am wrong. In SA so many of our people have barely any education so I don’t think of you in the same way at all as I think you are well educated. Apologies for my misunderstanding.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. No problem, Robbie. Class structure in Britain is complex. People born into upper class families might not be wealthy, but would always be ‘upper class’. These days, much of the modern class system is ‘aspirational’, in that people think that owning their own home makes them middle class. Well they might live next door to a solicitor or bank manager, but would always be judged by others by their roots. If you settle in Britain, it will gradually become clear to you. As a ‘foreigner’ from South Africa, you would almost certainly escape any such instant judgement. 🙂
            Best wishes, Pete.

            Liked by 2 people

  4. I think this a good example of why they say “don’t push your luck”. Wat Tyler and John Ball had won a great victory, but rather than walking away, Wat Tyler seemed to want more than victory and pushed his luck with devastating consequences for all. A lesson for us all.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, he shoulld have withdrawn the army to the edges of the city, and waited for the King to make good on his pledges. The rebel forces were much larger than any army the King could have raised. But Wat was uneducated, and tried to humiliate the King.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I have many conflicting emotions, reading this, a story I was reasonably well aware of. I would like to believe that significant societal change for the better [for the majority who are not by any reasonable definition ‘rich’] can be achieved without revolution, which is nearly always violent [because that is easier for the forces of repression to deal with], but I fear it can’t, so until people stop accepting their servitude [and ‘subject’ status], the status quo will continue for a long time to come. Cheers, Jon.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. And on the field at Blackheath Us commons covered the earth
    More men than ever I did see Poor honest men from birth

    The men were up from Kent, and out of Essex too
    Though naught but the Thames divides us and unites us onwards
    Through all the villages of England and on to London town
    Where we poor men would meet our king and lay our grievance down
    Wat Tyler led us men from Kent, rough hands were shaken there
    King Richard and the commons our bold resolvе and prayer
    We knew our king would hеar us, our loyalty was clear
    T’was the bloody lawyers’ poll tax that had brought us labourers here
    And yet he wouldn’t see us, so to London we did roar
    And the poor there and the Essex men burst down the prison door

    What happened at the Tower was justice, rough in part
    The murders of the Flemish boys sat uneasy in my heart
    “And now the king must see us” said Tyler to his men
    And the very next day young Richard came and met us at Mile End

    Kent and Essex, Bedford, Sussex received King Richard’s word
    No harm nor blame would come to them if home they would return
    And Lincoln, Cambridge, Stafford too received our young king’s favour
    And thirty thousand left us there, believing it was over

    But Tyler, he was not convinced and told us to remain
    “I want to hear his words again, for nothing much has changed”
    So Tyler, he approached the king and took Richard by the arm
    And his rough but friendly gesture caused Richard’s knights alarm

    “Ah my lord” said Tyler, “companions we shall be”
    “I shall trust in you my lord, if you will trust in me”
    And so he called for water, and then he called for ale
    And his manner shocked young Richard’s knights and I watched the Lord Mayor pale
    “I know this man” a voice accused, “Wat Tyler is a thief”
    The Lord Mayor feared he’d harm the king, that was his true belief
    And there at Smithfield drew his sword, and cut our captain down
    And the heart went out of all of us with his blood upon the ground

    Young Richard, he was merciful and he pardoned one and all
    But home to Kent like beaten dogs, still serfs we had to crawl
    But how precious was our liberty and the hope that filled us all
    That left poor Tyler’s severed head upon a bloody pole

    Liked by 3 people

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