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.