I’ve been aware of this bit of our history since I was in Junior School, but the other day I read about it again and thought the story was worth retelling.
In the mid-fourteenth century, England was recovering from the Black Death, which in 1348 had killed no less than half the population. Workers were scarcer than before the plague and they began to seek higher wages. In response the Statute of Labourers was passed, setting wages at their pre-plague levels and making it a crime to ask for more. Imagine the resentment that caused.
Discontent continued to rumble, added to by the fact that the French were raiding the south coast and encouraging a Welsh uprising and a Scottish invasion. There was a furious popular reaction against those charged with the kingdom’s defence and failing in that charge. This was the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, an uprising not only by peasants but also by many of the middle classes.
The first outbreak was in Brentford, in reaction against the collection of a Poll Tax of a shilling a head to meet the costs of the war with France. In Kent, there was anger at the arrest of a man accused of being a runaway serf.
The Kentish rebels marched on London via Canterbury, and on the way they killed some royal officers, and people they considered traitors, in a display of violence that was rare for the time. The rebels had death lists, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Archbishop of Canterbury. (They got the Archbishop.) Their stated aim was to ‘save the king and to destroy traitors to him and the kingdom’. Other targets of the rebels included lawyers, Flemish traders, and ecclesiastical landlords.
Their main demand was the end of serfdom, and they were protesting against corruption and oppression. Outbreaks were not confined to London, with uprisings reported in St Albans, Bury St Edmunds, and Cambridge.
Ten thousand rebels arrived in London and the king (the 14-year-old King Richard II) took refuge in the Tower of London. Richard met the rebels at Mile End, and gave charters freeing them ‘from all bondage’, which satisfied many, who went home He met them again at Smithfield, mainly now men of Kent led by Wat Tyler. At this meeting, Wat was stabbed to death by the Mayor of London. Disheartened, the rebels dispersed.
The government restored order and a series of hangings followed, although this does not seem to have been a mass slaughter. The quote I’ve read is that ‘nothing became the English government more than the moderation with which it repressed a revolt it had helped to cause’. Parliament requested general pardons, both for the rebels and those who had used violence against them.
In the short term the rebels lost. The charters given by the king were cancelled and serfdom restored. Critics of the government blamed the uprising on excessive taxation and failure to prevent the French raids.
But, the Poll Tax was dropped, and over the next fifty years serfdom began to decline. Serfs bought their freedom (manumission) and as tenants of land began to gain the freedom to use it as they wished.
The Black Death caused huge changes in how society worked, and the labour shortage following it may have contributed to the decline of the feudal system of serfdom, where you, the serf, worked land belonging to your feudal lord and you could be bought and sold along with the land.
The Peasants’ Revolt failed. The promises made to the rebels were discarded as soon as the rebellion subsided, and the rebel leaders were hanged. The Revolt threw a stone into the water, but the ripples were subsumed by the main current of events. Or were they? Would the government of today give solemn undertakings, only to discard them when it was expedient? No, of course not, what was I thinking…
Robert Tombs, The English and their History.
A J Grant, Outlines of European History.
© Jim Walshe 2018