Peasants’ Revolt began in Essex and soon became a major protest with people from varied sections of rural society participating in it. Also referred to as Wat Tyler’s Revolt after the leader of the rebels, it peaked when the rebels famously entered the Tower of London. Here are 10 interesting facts about one of the most prominent events in England’s history.
#1 Black Death was indirectly responsible for the Peasants’ Revolt
In 1348 a plague known as Black Death, one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, spread to England killing about 50% of its population. Huge number of peasants died during Black Death and this meant that after the plague there was plentiful land but landowners were short of peasants. This allowed the labourers to charge more. However the government introduced labour laws which sided with landowners, like fixing wages at pre-plague levels. These laws were unpopular and provoked the peasants.
#2 Hundred Years’ War made the situation worse for the peasants
At the time of the revolt, England was in constant conflict with France which came to be known as the Hundred Years’ War. The war put England under huge financial pressure and the parliament reacted by introducing a taxation of 4 pence on every person on the tax register, known as the poll tax. The poll was used three times in four years with the last one collecting as much as 12 pence on each person over 15. The poll tax tensed the already fragile relationship between the peasants and the ruling class.
#3 Peasants’ Revolt began in Essex
The revolt began on June 1, 1381 in Essex. A royal official by the name of John Bampton summoned and interrogated people in Brentwood to collect unpaid poll taxes. Violence broke out and although Bampton escaped, three of his clerks and several people who had agreed to act as jurors were killed.
#4 It soon spread across the south-east of England
From Brentwood, resistance to tax collectors spread to neighbouring villages. A wide variety of people including local artisans and local officials rose up in the revolt as it continued to spread across counties such as Kent, Suffolk, Hertfordshire and Norfolk. Armed villagers and townsmen attacked manors and religious houses. Official records were burnt, political officials were executed and prisons were opened.
#5 Two main leaders of the revolt were Wat Tyler and John Ball
John Ball was a radical priest who played a key role in the Peasants’ Revolt. He gave radical sermons in many places calling for social equality; end to taxes and peasants working for free for the church. Wat Tyler of Kent emerged as the main leader of the peasants and was responsible for shaping the political aims of the revolt. He led the march of a group of protestors from Canterbury to London to make their grievances known.
#6 King Richard II was 14 when the Peasants’ Revolt took place
Rebels entered London on June 13. Savoy Palace was burned down and legal records were destroyed. On June 14, the fourteen year old King Richard II, accompanied by a handful of lords and knights, met the rebels at Mile End. The peasants pledged their allegiance to Richard and handed him a petition which contained their demands like each labourer could work for employer of his choice, end to social demarcation, abolition of serfdom and unfree tenure, etc. Richard agreed to their demands.
#7 The Rebels famously entered the Tower of London on June 14, 1381
While Richard was at Mile End, a group of rebels entered the Tower of London. There they hunted down their key targets, dragged them to Tower Hill, beheaded them, paraded their heads around the city and affixed them to London Bridge. England’s future king Henry IV was also about to be executed but was saved by one of the royal guards.
#8 Wat Tyler’s death was the greatest blow to the Peasants’ Revolt
On June 15, Richard II met the rebels led by Wat Tyler at Smithfield. He agreed to their demands but in between the negotiations Tyler was pulled from his horse and a squire killed him. The crowd prepared to rush towards the Richard but he convinced them to follow him. The rebels were soon surrounded by a force and the king convinced them to return home peacefully promising that they would be pardoned. The death of Tyler was the beginning of the end of the Revolt of 1381.
#9 Battle of North Walsham effectively ended the Peasants’ Revolt
Richard II did not honour his previous grants to the peasants on account that they were made under pressure. He also revoked the pardons he had granted them. Unrest continued in England for a short duration. Defeat of the rebel forces at the Battle of North Walsham effectively ended the revolt. Richard mobilised 4,000 soldiers to restore order. Most of the rebel leaders which survived were tracked down and executed. 1500 rebels were killed by the end of the year.
#10 Peasants’ Revolt became hugely popular in socialist literature
Although the poll tax was abolished, little else changed in the peasants’ life after the revolt. The revolt did influence the course of the Hundred Years’ War with future parliaments being averse to imposing taxes for the war. The Peasants’ Revolt is a part of popular culture and appears in many poems, plays and novels. It was hugely popular in 19th and 20th century socialist literature. Its relevance is debated with some considering it a defining moment in British history while others being more apprehensive of its impacts.