Today in (the edge of) London’s history: Revolting peasants plunder a rich man’s house, North Cray, 1381.

The major events of the Peasants Revolt of 1381 have been told and retold many times – and rightly so. But a host of other actions preceded and accompanied the storming of the Tower of London, the breaking open of the jails, the beheading of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the sermon of John Ball on Blackheath, Wat Tyler’s demand for a classless society and his murder…

All across the south and east of England local crowds beat off poll tax collectors, but they also gathered to settle scores with local landowners. The landed gentry everywhere had made themselves hated for three centuries by their oppression of the serfs. Since the Black Death in 1348-9, the drastic shortage of labour had opened up opportunities for the rural workers to bargain for better conditions. But the growing mood of revolt seemed to offer the chance to accelerate the process of change. Mobs invaded manor houses, to find and destroy the manor rolls – serfdom – the records of who ‘belonged to whom’, and who owed what services to who, according to the complex feudal system. Mostly, the rebels observed a code of moral restraint – refusing to rob the rich. In some places, though, this slipped – understandably, some desired to expropriate the expropriators.

On the 8th and 9th June, the rising in Kent was spreading in all directions. Bands of recruits from every village between the Weald and the estuary of the Thames were flocking in to join a main rebel army gathering around Maidstone. On these two days, the Kentish insurgents lashed out at unpopular landlords. We learn that they seized great quantities of official documents in the houses of Thomas Shardelow of Dartford, the coroner of Kent, and of Elias Raynor of Strood, which they ‘ traitorously burnt and consumed in the midst of the streets of the aforesaid towns.’

And on the 8th they levelled to the ground the great manor house of Nicholas Herring at North Cray (these days on London’s southeastern edge). Two post-revolt indictments state that one John Houtekyn of Malling and Robert Wronge (great name!) of Trottiscliffe broke into the houses of Nicholas Herring at North Cray. They pillaged his goods, and drove off his cattle.

Hundreds of such stormings took place, from Kent to Peterborough, from Southwark to Cambridge. Resentment and class hatred broke into the open; some people undoubtedly also recognised that whatever negotiations and petitions might bring, the rebellion would likely end, so they might as well grab what they could.

The revolt was a great flowering of hope, as well as a burning riotous outpouring. Vicious xenophobic violence as well as realistic class revenge co-existed with the communist visions of Ball and the strategic brilliance of the elected generals of the commons. It was a time of possibility. A nexus when things could, and did change. Though severe retribution fell on the heads of the leaders, and many suffered, serfdom was already on its way out. And the example and inspiration of the rebels of 1381 echoes down the years…

We’ll have more on the Peasants’ Revolt on June 12th…


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


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