English peasants’ revolt of 1381

King Richard II meeting the peasant rebels

From British daily The Morning Star:

Summer Of Blood by Dan Jones (Harper, £20)

Wednesday 24 June 2009

by Dan Glazebrook

The peasants’ revolt of 1381 was an extraordinary event that left the ruling landlord class in England quaking in their boots and loosened the shackles of serfdom forever.

Names such as Wat Tyler and John Ball have rightly passed into the annals of popular history.

Dan Jones’s contribution is particularly welcome for the light that it sheds on the intricate details of decision-making among strategists and tacticians on both sides. It is also a thoroughly gripping and readable story.

Most people will be familiar with the broad contours of the events of 1381. A series of costly and disastrous wars with France led to the introduction of a new type of tax – the poll tax. For the first time, it had to be paid by the whole population.

The first time around, it was paid without too much trouble.

But the second time – at quadruple the rate – it was widely resented. Thomas Baker‘s attacks on the poll tax commissioners in Brentwood signalled the beginning of the revolt and by mid-June, London itself was under siege by a peasant army of tens of thousands.

In was under these circumstances that the 14-year-old king Richard II agreed to meet the rebels.

But their first scheduled meeting was postponed when Richard read their demand for the execution of almost his entire coterie of advisers.

The rebels never doubted their fealty to King Richard himself.

Indeed, their oath of allegiance was “To King Richard and the Commons.”

This was similar to what came to be known centuries later in Russia as “The Good Tsar” theory. According to it, the noble ruler was being misled by those around him who were the actual source of the country’s sufferings – much in the way capitalism is portrayed in today’s media, perhaps.

One thing that comes across especially clearly from this book is how well organised and disciplined the peasants’ army actually was.

When the king did finally meet the rebels at Mile End, he granted them everything that they had demanded – an end to feudal servitude and a maximum rent of 4d per acre.

His servants set about drawing up charters to give to the peasants, officially freeing them from bondage.

So half the peasant army took their charters and set off home, while the others rounded up and killed dozens of the most powerful men in the kingdom and paraded their heads on spikes.

A large number of peasants were massively hungover on their way home as they had raided some of the biggest wine cellars in the world.

From such accounts, which are far from uncommon in revolutionary history, one can understand why later rebels from Cromwell to Khomeini have adopted a puritanical attitude on such questions.

Soon after, Wat Tyler was slain and the revolt fizzled out. Its leaders and participants were hunted down and executed and Richard repealed the charters that he had granted to the rebels.

An interesting aspect well covered in Jones’s book was the participation of the emergent bourgeoisie.

Some, such as Sir Roger Bacon, were enthusiastic supporters and even leaders of the revolt.

Others, such as the merchant class in London, who had their own beef with the state, were more wary and quickly turned against the revolt once it seemed to threaten the established order. The book also highlights the fascinating and lesser known role of Parliament after the revolt.

It attempted to use the revolt as a bargaining chip in its own struggle with royal authority, and initially refused to repeal the charters of freedom that Richard had granted the peasants.

Although it was soon brought into line, the confidence gained by the masses during the revolt infected the other classes too.

This would have implications in the centuries to come.

And the poll tax was lifted, not to be attempted again for over 100 years – when it sparked another rebellion. It would not be the last.

See also here. And here.

Blackheath, site of the peasants’ revolt: here.

Campaigners have called for the preservation of the Bryn Glas battlefield in Powys, where the last Welsh Prince of Wales defeated English forces in a struggle for independence over 600 years ago.

Battle of Hastings, 1066: here.

Oliver Cromwell and the Putney Debates: here.

11 thoughts on “English peasants’ revolt of 1381

  1. I would highly recommend Simone Zelitch’s novel, ‘The Confession of John Ball’.


    Link is to a google book sample of the novel. Among my tattoos is a copy of William Morris’ etching of Adam and Eve with the words, “Who was then the gentleman?” written underneath. I guess the events of 1381 made a strong impression on me.


  2. Hi Jon, thanks for your interesting comment. Your link to Simone Zelitch’s novel, made clickable, is here.

    By the way, it is called The confession of Jack Straw, not of John Ball. “Jack Straw” here, of course, does not mean the 21st century “new” “Labour” politician.


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