Brief Views on the Great Rising of 1381: the "Peasant Revolution" in England

The Great Rising of 1381 is an event that sometimes comes to my mind when I think of the '99' movement of our day. In so many ways they are similar and even though my post will be fairly simplistic, I suspect that a careful reader will easily see the parallels with today's protest movements. (I was listening to a lecture that discusses happiness and how it is measured today... and it is generally agreed upon that countries that have the smallest amount of economic disparity are the happiest... certainly the US has a very wide disparity right now which is a big part of this protest movement. So sit back and enjoy a few minutes of reading about the people who became part of the Peasant Revolt in England. You won't regret it. :)

So our story will start with the newest tax- the third 'poll' tax. The vast majority of people already felt oppressed, poor and overtaxed already. So from stage right... enters a tax collector into the town of Fobbing. Thomas Baker was a brave man who lived in Fobbing and John Bampton was the poor soul who was given the royal authority to attempt and collect the poll tax from the villages. Everyone was afraid to get in the way of any of the official men who were supposed to collect the poll tax . These collectors were men who were given many liberties – including the ability to reach up the skirts of the local women to determine if they were virgins (and therefore didn't have to pay the tax) or if they were not virginal... whereas the woman would need to pay the tax. When John Bampton came to the village of Fobbing, he brought a token bodyguard and set up to look for 'potential' tax evaders. It was at this point that Thomas Baker came forward with a small group of men from the nearby villages. He told John Bampton that everyone who lived there had paid the tax appropriately and so he (John Bampton) needed to leave. John, in his misjudgment or arrogance, then ordered the arrest of 100 people from the crowd including Tom Baker. The crowd, emboldened by Mr Baker's bravery and angry about the government and the tax in general began to riot... forcing John Bampton and his token bodyguard to flee for their lives and health. This would later be seen as the beginning of the Peasant Revolt.

It must be noted that the Black Death also played a role in the beginning of this revolt. The Black Death arrived several decades before this time... and took the lives of about half of the people living in Europe and England at the time. In areas, whole villages were emptied of populations - This massive and quick quantity of death caused a labor shortage which changed the way that landowners had to deal with their serfs. When the country of England had been overcrowded, peasants really couldn't complain much and had no way to address their grievances in any way that could affect positive change. Being a serf and surviving the plague gave you more options about your work... and even who you could work for. Land was now more available and so a peasant could attempt to work for someone else for more money or more benefits. Wages rose significantly as people could travel and there were fewer people to do jobs. Because of this, the English monarchs would pass laws trying to keep the wages lower and to attempt to keep the peasants oppressed and malleable.

Three men that must be mentioned are the advisers of the young King Richard II - John Gaunt, Simon Sudbury, and Robert Hales. The Hundred Years' war was still in session and so these men needed to find ways to continue to get funds to pays for the costs of fighting. These men helped pass new taxes such as the huge poll tax that was so unpopular and led to this rebellion (a tax that taxed every individual the same whether you were a peasant or you were wealthy.) They had also passed laws trying to restrict the rise of wages to help keep prices low for the rich and 'noble'. John Gaunt, father of the future Henry IV and uncle to Richard II, was very hated due to his great ability to come up with new laws that were very oppressive and made live difficult for the serfs and peasants and perceived (real or not) ability to siphon off funds for his own purse. Simon Sudbury was the Archbishop of Canterbury as well as Chancellor of England while Robert Hales was another high ranking member of the Catholic Church who also had a strong political position- that of Treasurer of England. These three men are known as the few who developed and passed not only these oppressive laws, but these two high ranking men of the Church are the ones who apparently came up with the heavy handed laws of enforcing the tax... including the sexual assaulting of all the peasant women by checking their 'virginity' status. (By the way, it was not unusual for high ranking churchmen to also be high ranking politicians... so the presence of these men in this scenario isn't really that unusual. Only these individual's extreme tactics were truly extreme and unusual for the time.)

There isn't much known about the individual we now know as Wat Tyler who became a great leader in this rebellion. What is known is that he was a tradesman and he was elected a leader in this revolt. There are some thoughts that be might have been a solider in his past, but it is certainly clear that he must have been a smart and cunning man to be able to control and wield his peasant 'army' with such skill and success- in fact he did so well, that the group he was leading only fell apart at his death . Sometimes the Peasant's revolt is called by the name 'Wat Tyler's Rebellion'. John Ball was considered by many to be a radical preacher who was determined to change the Catholic church from within and to change the church's response to the poor and the sick. He wanted the church to go back to it's fundamental principles and for his 'radical' sermons, he had been imprisoned a few times. One quote that John Ball is well known for is “While Adam delved (dug) and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?” - the suggestion that all people used to work... that there was not a group who benefited from the labors of others and did not work in the earth's beginning... and this was a fairly radical at this time. Words such as these caused John Ball's next imprisonment under the orders of Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury. During the revolt, a group of rebels broke into the church of the Archbishop of Canterbury and ordered the archbishop removed and John Ball to be put in his (Simon Sudbury) place. John Ball had been rescued from prison by the rebels along with a few other individuals. On the Catholic Feast of Corpus Christi, John Ball the rebel’s preacher, gave the speech with the former quote and a large groups spurred on by Ball's motivating mass on social equality would then rise up and try to set 'the world right'. When the King wouldn’t come to them, these large groups decided to go to London to see him. Both of these men were considered quite radical at the time. Both attempted to cause change- whether politically or through the Catholic church that helped who they saw as the downtrodden and the poor and sick. This was not really a common thought with the elite at this time- in fact, many of the elite tended to think that the poor and the sick as lazy, savages, stupid, etc.... These men were asking the people to see a world very different from the status quo... which would threaten the minority power structure at the top.

Many other groups joined in the rebellion besides the 'peasant' classes. Some were actually considered 'rich landowners' or wealthy merchants. These individuals which included John Sumner from Manningtree and his neighbor Robert Pierce, joined due to their anger over the injustice of the poll tax. This revolt had popular support across all classes and when the rebels were joined by rich and influential individuals such as John Mocking, the peasant army would put these men in the front of the large force. That way, these men of influence could help persuade others of influence to help in the cause. These men were able, for instance, to convince the men in charge of the gates of London to led the invading 'army' in so no fighting was necessary. These people joined because they too agreed with the peasants about the injustice of the tax and other oppressive laws. So in this way, the revolt is not just a form of class warfare, but a form of several classes working towards a more fair and just government.

When this uprising was beginning, King Richard II was fourteen years old. The belief that the king was God's appointed 'ruler' on earth for England which gave the monarchy a level of flexibility and trust that no other organization on earth had... even the Catholic church had been tarnished with the Black Death. But the King was divinely appointed and so he was trusted implicitly. However, if the King was too young, a king would be helped in his job by some powerful and high ranking nobleman. This was beneficial for King Richard because when things went bad as they did with the combination of the continuing consequences of the Black Death, new oppressive laws and taxes, etc... these advisers would be blamed. The vast majority of the peasants truly believed that John of Gaunt was the evil force behind the throne and that he (John) was the man that had convinced the King to pass all of these oppressive laws... that the king was young and innocent and that John had simply been using King Richard to gain more power and money. This trust and faith that was had in the King was so absolute and unquestioning that after the King signed a charter giving the peasants most of their demands, many people took King Richard at his word and simply went home... they didn't wait to make sure he kept his word. Unfortunately, Richard II was not trustworthy towards to the peasants and rebels. He would use this absolute faith in him to his advantage, to take out the leaders of this revolt and to use terror to bring the populace back under his control.

While some groups have thought and argued that the peasants revolt was simple an 'disorganized rabble' and as such could not really organize, there is evidence to show that this theory can not be and is not correct. (In fact it is a little telling that the nobles tending to think of the peasants as savages... this ignorance may help explain why the nobles felt that they didn't have to treat the peasants as human... and as such their prejudiced would not have allowed them to believe the peasants could be intelligent enough to organize.) This revolt did start with an explosion of disorganized riots in a few places such as Essex and Kent due to the frustration and out of control emotions in the lower classes. However, after a few weeks, these riots would be turned into something that would be seen more as a military display than a disorganized group. Messages would be written in code and delivered by horses and boats quickly through the countryside. The rebels were organized and used targeted violence in an attempt to achieve their aims. An experiment completed by Tony Robinson and others show that the only way to really have this revolt happen the way that past observers and chroniclers have written it was to have good organization- small groups that would travel quickly and help rouse up the local populaces to help with the fight... large groups of people who may not have been sure what to do, but were willing to follow good leaders so that they could have the change and freedom that they wanted. The acts of violence that were committed were almost always very controlled and were very symbolic towards the enemies of the 'king'- looting was banned and not allowed by the leaders and it is a sign of how well thought of and controlled that these groups were that these ideas were fairly easily enforced. That said, other groups of people who were not quite so scrupulous 'took advantage' of the large military presence of the peasants to even up scores with their enemies, steal and cause damage, as well as racist attacks and massacres on the Flemish immigrants in the area... so everything wasn't exactly perfect.

The demands of the peasants were very radical for the time... whereas we wouldn't even raise our eyebrows over their demands today. In Balking at Essex, the ringleaders of this 'revolution' held a summit in June 1381 where they wrote a manifesto... a very well written manifesto by the way. This document stated the peasants' intention to destroy 'divers legions' or enemies of the king and to have no laws in England except those the people felt to be ordained or acceptable. The idea that people could actually rule themselves or make some of the rules themselves was a really big deal- especially if you look at the other ideas that were also widely believed at the time... that the Pope was God's spokesman on earth, that kings were divinely appointed to rule and create laws, that 'classes' in society were a tradition and a divine institution. More specifically, the demands that were asked for was for the poll tax was to be abolished, all rebels were to be pardoned by the king, that all traitors as defined by the people would be put to death, that land rates would be reduced, and that the peasants would be given more rights and privileges. These demands were given to King Richard himself by the rebel leader, Wat Tyler. Some of the rights that were wanted were that peasants should have the freedom to trade as they wanted to and not just give their goods to the 'Lord of the Manor'. By wanting to lower the land rent all over the country for everyone, the peasants were really asking for economic freedom for all.

To be a leader of the Peasant’s revolt was to suffer terribly if you were poor... and ironically, to have no or little punishment if you were considered a higher class and wealthier person. Thomas Baker would be hunted down, captured and then killed in July 1381 by the horrible act hanging, drawn and quartered. Wat Tyler met in front of a small group alone and unarmed when he decided to ask the king for more concessions – Wat Tyler didn't think that the king had truly given enough rights to the peasants. Mr Tyler, sitting on his horse, then was 'rude' to the King and was violently attacked by the Lord Mayor of London named William Walworth. Wat Tyler was wounded in the scuffle with the mayor and when he fell off his horse he was later dragged to an abbey for an attempt at saving his life. However, the king's men dragged Wat back out, killed him and then put Wat Tyler's head on a pike to show it off. John Ball was hung, drawn and quartered in a marketplace as an example in July 1381. Some of the wealthier leaders, such as John Mocking, Thomas Raven, and the men from Manningtree were pardoned and lived out the rest of their lives in relative obscurity and potential boredom. Thomas Waltham, the army deserter, claimed innocence and staked his life on a trial by combat... which he lost. Richard Scott ended up in prison the next year for cheating some men in a dice game. Over the next five months, there were many unofficial executions without trial as the government itself tried to cover up the revolts and have it quickly forgotten. Some of King Richard's high ranking men died in this revolt as well. Robert Hales and Simon Sudbury were executed, their heads cut off... and their heads were placed on spikes for the celebration of the peasant's accomplishments – Sudbury's head was rescued by some of his supporters and hidden in his church in a cupboard where we can still see it today. (yuck!)

In conclusion, what did the Great Rising accomplish? In the short term, it didn't appear that much had really changed at all. But the peasant's revolt really scared the nobility who were truly the minority in the country and that fear had a long lasting legacy. Feudalism had pretty much fallen apart and the nobles/Lords treated the peasants with more respect and did give many of them more rights, including the right to be 'free men'.... the charter that King Richard had signed removed and abolished serfdom as it had been practiced before that time. Parliament never attempted to continue to collect the poll tax again... and it was never brought up as a possibility in the future. Parliament also stopped attempting to control wages or the amounts that landowners could pay peasants. The global effect was that all over the world, leaders were put on notice that ordinary people could and would get together and think about politics on a broader level … even politics that didn't necessarily affect them or their lives. It gave notice that governments who ignored the opinions of their own people did so at the government's peril. This method of rebellion would crop up in future revolts and rebellions in other countries (reminds me immediately of the French Revolution actually.)

What are your thoughts? :)

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