When socialists today revisit past struggles and movements, we do not do so for nostalgic or romantic reasons. There is a need to study historical events in order to be aware of the battles of our ancestors; to take pride in those struggles, but, most of all, to arm ourselves with insight and examine the lessons. The Peasants Revolt of 1381-82 was a fight for social justice and the very first time that a large section of English people fought for the idea that ‘all men are equal’. This demonstration of people power struck fear into the hearts of the ruling class.
To understand why the revolt happened, we need to examine the economic and social conditions in fourteenth-century England. The country was predominantly rural and agricultural; most of the population obtaining their living – usually a frugal one – from working the land. In the midlands, the south and east of the country the majority were serfs. The manors in which they lived belonged to the King or a nobleman. The latter required that the peasants to work on his land for part of the week, their unpaid labour in effect acting as rent to the nobleman. The rest of the week they worked on their own holdings.
However it was always the lord’s crops that had to be ploughed and harvested first. A portion of what the serf produced usually had to be given over to his master and if the serf had corn to grind, he had to use the lord’s mill – and pay for the privilege. Bread had to be baked in the lord’s ovens. The serf was tied to the land. He could not leave the village without the permission of the lord. If he did, he became an outlaw with all the associated risks that entailed.
The only people who benefited from this one-sided relationship were, of course, the landowners. The serf was also required to pay homage to his lord and, through him, to the King. This was a legally binding act of respect and allegiance on the serf’s part; a fundamental cornerstone of feudal society.
The church provided powerful institutional and ideological support to this ‘sacred’ state of affairs claiming that the monarch was, in effect, God’s representative on earth and that the nobles were his local agents. According to this theory, God had created an ideal social system and anybody who dared question, let alone criticise or attack it, would provoke his fearsome anger. Ordinary people were expected to support those who oppressed them, know their station in life and remain loyal to the system that exploited and robbed them.
The state, comprising crown, nobility and church acted as a monstrous incubus on the peasantry. The church dinned into the people the consequences of committing the sin of disobedience against those in authority. The walls and windows of churches were covered in images of sinners who had been judged, descending into the jaws of hell where fiery cauldrons and gleeful, leering demons waited to new arrivals into their eternal home and permanent state of suffering and terror. The message for the common people was clear – do as we tell you or else!
Another scourge of medieval England was bubonic plague. The country experienced a devastating outbreak in 1348-50 and slightly less damaging episodes in 1361 and 1369. Commonly referred to as the ‘Black Death’, the plague killed so many that the result was a serious shortage of labour. This was an important development and had a dramatic affect on society. In immediate terms it meant higher wages for some and higher prices for all. The balance of power concerning economic matters was spectacularly altered.
Earlier in the fourteenth century a practice had developed of allowing serfs to free themselves from their bondage by making a money payment. Although the freed villager still had various obligations to the local lord, it allowed him more time to work his own plot. More significantly he could now seek work elsewhere, especially in the developing towns with their better economic prospects.
The second half of the fourteenth century was a period of social turmoil. Free workers, many of them previously serfs, had gained from higher wages in the shortage of labour following the plague. They were incensed when the King and Parliament passed the Statute of Labourers Act in 1351. The legislation ruled that wages be restored to the pre-plague levels. Masters who paid higher wages could be fined and workers who accepted higher wages faced imprisonment and being branded.
Various discriminatory acts were passed in this period to keep serfs bonded to work on the land.
In the towns the skilled workers or artisans formed secret clubs or guilds, the forerunners of trade unions, to develop and defend their common interests. The merchants did likewise. These two groups were the forces for social and economic progress. Inevitably in pursuit of their own interests, they found themselves in conflict with the reactionary forces of the monarchy, the barons and the church. Reactionary these forces may have been, but they were still immensely powerful and determined between them to keep the common people firmly in their place.
The monarchy always needed money to pay for the opulent and frivolously wasteful lifestyle of the court and its hangers-on. In 1381 the hated John of Gaunt, uncle of the young Richard II, then only fifteen years old, persuaded what passed for Parliament to levy a poll-tax on every person over fifteen years of age. This poll-tax, the third in just a few years, amounted to a shilling (5p today) – this when weekly wages were frequently only about 10 to 15 pence -would have been an enormous burden for the vast majority of English families. The poll-tax was so resented and widely evaded that the government sent soldiers across the country to enforce its collection. It was the dispatch of armed men to the four corners of the kingdom that sparked off the revolt.
Even before this, a few men had been travelling the countryside rallying those opposed to injustice and calling on them to make preparations for an uprising. One such itinerant was John Ball. Here was a speaker so turbulent that the Church was quick to disown him. However, his simple arguments struck an immediate chord with the humble folk who flocked to hear him. Here is an example: "They are clothed in velvet, and are warm in their furs and ermine while we are covered in rags. They have wine and spices and fair bread, and we eat oat-cake, and have water to drink. They have leisure and fine houses; we have pain and labour, the wind and the rain in the fields. And yet it is of us and our toil that these men hold their state…"
Unfortunately, Ball embraced the received wisdom of the time that the way forward was for the poor, who had God and justice on their side, to rise up, go to London and acquaint the King with their grievances and he would set about remedying them.
The common people regarded kings as wise and kind men, semi-gods with the interests of their subjects at heart. Ultimately, Ball’s naïve analysis and programme for change was to prove fatally flawed.
The authorities also claimed to have God on their side. Presumably they thought they were doing his work when they seized Ball and imprisoned him in Maidstone Jail. Two months later, 20,000 of his supporters led by Wat Tyler first of all captured Rochester Castle and released many escaped serfs before marching on the prison and freeing Ball. Tyler was an experienced ex-soldier and a natural leader. Unfortunately he also believed that the King was an honourable man who would dispense justice. It was just a matter of getting to meet him and to present the case for the common people.
The uprising began at Brentwood in Essex where the locals fiercely resisted the official collectors of the latest poll-tax and drove them away – one of them was killed in the struggle. The authorities sent bigger forces to Brentwood and when they too were driven off, it was seen as divine vindication of their cause as well as evidence of their potential strength. Throughout the eastern and southern counties uprisings took place bringing together peasants and town craftsmen with some knights and merchants. The Peasants’ Revolt is something of a misnomer. It brought together in common action people from a far wide range of social groups.
Wat Tyler was elected leader of the Kentish rebels by a Grand Council on 7 June 1381. Steps were immediately taken to guard the coast from any opportunist French attacks while the King and his barons were preoccupied with the uprisings. Immediately the houses of lords of the manor were attacked and the manorial rolls destroyed. These were important legal documents containing lists of all the serfs and their obligations. Their destruction was seen as an immediate and practical way of ending serfdom in the villages.
The peasant army then marched on London and camped overnight on Blackheath. Ball and Tyler met a number of London merchants who told them that the ordinary citizens would welcome them. On the following morning, 13 June, a service was held at which Ball gave these immortal words to his followers: "In the beginning all men were created equal; servitude of man to man was introduced by the unjust dealings of the wicked and is contrary to God’s will. For if God had intended some to be serfs and others lords, He would have made a distinction between them at the beginning." He told them that they now had a chance to do away with evil lords, unjust judges and lawyers and all others whose activities were against the common good.
A final parley with the King ended in both sides exchanging insults so the rebels marched on London. Although some rich citizens tried to organize a defence, the London apprentices and journeymen pre-empted them by opening the City gates and removing the armed guard from London Bridge. The rebels attacked and destroyed the palace of the hated Archbishop of Canterbury and also the brothels in Southwark owned by the Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Walworth. He was outraged with this attack on his property and went on play a particularly dishonourable part in the unfolding events, as we shall see.
The rebels were able to enter London without recourse to fighting and then showed remarkable discipline and restraint. They destroyed the buildings and property of certain people they hated such as John of Gaunt as well as the Temple, where the lawyers had their headquarters. They also razed the prisons to the ground but there was no looting and no drunkenness. Some detested individuals – well known supporters of the poll-tax -were executed.
This evidence of the power of ordinary people struck fear into the King and his followers. What were they to do to end this disgraceful reversal of the natural order of things and to put the peasants back in their place? They decided that military action was unwise at this stage and that cunning and treachery were more likely to be successful. Cynically, they banked on the fact that the populace believed in the integrity of the King whose job was therefore to promise them all they asked for. A meeting with the rebels was arranged, to be held at Mile End.
At Mile End a petition was handed to the King who, after reading it, verbally agreed to the full implementation of its demands and called on his loyal subjects to disperse. The King had apparently agreed to the liberation of his subjects from bondage, to the freezing of rents and a pardon for all rebels.
On hearing the King’s announcement many of the rebels were so relieved they shed tears of joy as they streamed off home to spread the good news. However a substantial number of rebels including Tyler and Ball stayed on, still unconvinced. Why had it all been so easy? What guarantees were there that the promises would be implemented? If the peasants had really won these concessions, why not submit even more demands?
The King, the nobles and the rich London merchants were still faced with a large number of people whose patience with the social order had finally snapped and they feared for their wealth, property and privileges. They quickly made military preparations while calling the rebels to a further meeting this time at Smithfield. Here they lured Wat Tyler well away from the ranks of his supporters and the King and Tyler then apparently engaged in amicable negotiations about a further series of demands.
The King’s apparent readiness to agree to these new concessions pleasantly surprised Tyler, but his elation was cut short when the perfidious Walworth suddenly attacked and cut him down with his sword, seriously injuring him. The waiting rebels waited some distance away, oblivious to Tyler’s dreadful plight. Then the King approached the crowd and told them he had decided to grant their demands. Tyler had been knighted, he said, and asked them to reassemble at nearby Clerkenwell, where Tyler would address them.
As the rebels happily made their way to Clerkenwell, the dying Tyler was found by some friends who carried him into St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. Suddenly the wretched Walworth appeared. He cut off Tyler’s head which he impaled on his lance like a trophy. He rode off to rejoin the King and when he appeared with this grisly prize held aloft, the insurgents were stunned and disorientated.
They dispersed in somber mood, the fighting spirit drained from them. Within a few days the King’s forces launched a savage counter-attack, cutting down the poorly-armed rebels and hanging many of them after the most cursory of trials. The teenage King berated them as: "The most vile by land and sea, you who are not worthy to live when compared with the lords whom ye have attacked… you were and are serfs and shall remain in bondage, not that of old but in one infinitely worse, more vile without comparison…"
Leaders such as John Ball were captured, tried and then hanged, drawn and quartered but they went to their deaths with courage and dignity. The state was revealed as the law of the rich supported by bodies of armed men and they went on to extract a frightful levy of the rebels. Possibly as many as 7,000 were slaughtered. This official reign of terror contrasted sharply with the restraint displayed by the rebels who executed small numbers despite the contempt and degradation heaped upon them over the centuries by the rich and powerful.
The rebellion had been defeated but this does not mean that it was necessarily a failure. The poll-tax was withdrawn and not restored. The monarch and his high-born lackeys learned that in spite of their bold words, it was not wise to try riding completely roughshod over the common people. Serfdom had been dealt a blow from which it never fully recovered, partly under the pressure of changing economic circumstances. But above all, a light had been lit – ideals about freedom and liberty had been forged out of these experiences. These ideas never totally died out and the fight for them has been taken up time and again in England and elsewhere in the world as part of the class struggle between the exploiters and exploited. This struggle continues today.