“… Why are those whom we call lords, masters over us? How have they deserved it? By what right do they keep us enslaved? We are all descended from our first parents, Adam and Eve; how then can they say that they are better than us… At the beginning we were all created equal. If God willed that there should be serfs, he would have said so at the beginning of the world. We are formed in Christ’s likeness, and they treat us like animals… They are dressed in velvet and furs, while we wear only cloth. They have wine, and spices and good bread, while we have rye bread and water. They have fine houses and manors, and we have to brave the wind and rain as we toil in the fields. It is by the sweat of our brows that they maintain their high state. We are called serfs, and we are beaten if we do not perform our task… Let us go to see King Richard. He is young, and we will show him our miserable slavery, we will tell him it must be changed, or else we will provide the remedy ourselves. When the King sees us, either he will listen to us, or we will help ourselves. When we are ready to march on London I will send you a secret message. The message is “Now is the time. Stand together in God’s name”. (John Ball, 1381)
At this time – it’s worth remembering that the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt had at least part of its origins in a pandemic: the Black Death of 1348-9, which killed maybe half Europe’s population.
The disruption the plague introduced led to huge social upheaval (whole towns & villages died or people fled); to loosenings of bonds of feudal society in England. labour shortage led to villeins leaving the manors they were tied to in search of better conditions. Some demanded concessions from lords.
The government passed laws to try to prevent serfs getting uppity & keep a lid on this discontent. But the process accelerated; and several decades of resentment at tight hierarchy & poverty of feudal society was triggered by the poll taxes of the late 1370s/early 1380s.
How will the pandemic we are experiencing, and our response to it, change social relations for OUR futures… The wealthy & powerful will again try to make us pay the economic & social costs and avoid losses to their power and way of life. Revolt is already taking hold in the US…
How we work and live, how structured of power control and divide us and how we resist, are not separate. Revolt against state/racist violence, opposition to austerity, mutual aid for all our survival and keeping ourselves safe & as well as we can in the face of plague: all linked…
In June 1381 the south and east of England erupted into revolt. Self-organised armies made up of thousands of peasants attacked royal officials and local landowners, freed prisoners and armed themselves, before marching on London to lay their many grievances before the king. In the capital, they would settle scores with royal officers, ally themselves with the London poor, storm the best-defended fortress in the land, assert egalitarian claims… For a brief time they threatened to topple the government.
This Peasants Revolt began almost simultaneously in the counties of Essex and Kent, bordering on London.
The outbreak began in Essex on May 30. One of the king’s new commissioners collecting the poll tax, called either Thomas Bampton (or John of Bampton), rode out to Brentwood to revise the taxation returns of the hundred of Barstable in the south of Essex. He was accompanied by three clerks and two sergeants-at-arms, but was not expecting trouble.
Under the feudal social system prevailing in the fourteenth century, villeins – peasants who did the agricultural work – were bonded to the lord of the local manor, who had the right to decide what services he required of them and could levy fines and restrict their movements as he saw fit. The Black Death of 1348-9, however, went a long way to undermining this social relationship, as the huge numbers who died left massive labour shortages, which tipped the balance in favour of agricultural workers, increasing their value. Previously tied to manors and unable to leave, villeins began to up sticks in search of paid work in towns or more favourable conditions elsewhere; some were clearly angling to get more out of their lords, though how much collective bargaining went on is unclear. The government passed laws like the Ordinance of Labourers, to prevent free movement and hold wages down, but these attempts to put the genie back in the bottle would largely fail. Still, tension around manorial service, and the feudal duties serfs ‘owed’ to their lords, provided a fierce undercurrent of resentment that would erupt in 1381.
The immediate trigger for the Peasants’ Revolt was a Poll Tax. Ruinous wars with France led to heavy taxation, including three impositions of poll-tax in 1377, 1379 and 1380. The final tax increased threefold from that of 1377 and was levied at a flat-rate of 1s per person over the age of 15. It would fall hardest on those least able to pay.
By 1381 some 450,000 people had ‘disappeared’ from the register, in a attempt to avoid paying. Bampton’s task in Essex was root out some of these tax evaders. He began with a visit to three marshland villages (Fobbing, Corringham and Stanford le Hope); however, but a crowd of the inhabitants, mainly peasants and fishermen, turned up to greet him, prepared to resist. Men from Fobbing informed Bampton they wouldn’t pay an extra penny above what they’d already paid. Thomas Baker was accounted their ‘leader’, but there were over 100 men involved. Bampton tried unsuccessfully to arrest the spokesman, only to be beaten and stoned out of town. The rebels retreated to the forest, a traditional refuge for outlaws, and sent messages round south Essex, calling out their neighbours. (Thomas Baker has been called the ‘first instigator of the Revolt – and he paid for it with his life, being hung, drawn and quartered in Chelmsford on July 4th 1381 in the fierce repression that followed the risings.)
In late May, the Chief Justice of the Commons Pleas, Robert Belknap (or Belkneap), who headed for Brentwood to open a commission into poll tax defaulters. He was set upon by an ‘armed multitude’ and forced to swear on the Bible that he would never hold another such session. His papers were destroyed; he escaped with his life, but others were not so lucky. Three local jurors, called to present evidence or defaulters before Belknap, were beaten to death and beheaded (their houses were torn down); and three clerks were also killed.
These Brentwood killings were followed by a general outbreak of riot and plunder, which spread through Essex through the first week of June. Rebels sent out letters to other counties, asking people there to rise also. Among the rebels’ were literate men.
The Peasants’ Revolt had begun.
Kent swiftly followed Essex into revolt. On June 2 a small armed band, headed by one Abel Ker of Erith, burst into the monastery of Lesness, and frightened the Abbot into swearing an oath to support them. Names of those involved are mostly lost – though John Yonge, Jordan de Bladyngton, Robert Draper, John Cheseman, John Clerk and Thomas Chaump were later named in documents after the revolt as having been associated with Ker in breaking into the houses of prominent men in the county.
Then Ker and others took boat across the Thames estuary, conferred with the rebels from the villages about Barking.
What a conference that must have been! Not necessarily the leaders, but the most vocal and active elements in the moment, discussing where this could go, and maybe setting out what each group would do on either bank of the Thames… How much of the cataclysmic events of the next week and a half were plotted there and how much developed spontaneously we will never know… What made the Kentish men sail across the fiver in the first place – had word spread from Essex about agro there so quickly? Were some folk (fishermen maybe?) accustomed to sailing between the counties, who had friends, contacts, relatives on the other bank?
The Kentish rebels sailed back over the Thames on June 4, bringing with them a band of about 100 rebels from Essex to swell their numbers. The insurgents of the two counties remained in close touch, acting in concert.
A debate that has engaged historians for decades – was a ‘Great Society’, a secret underground network among the peasants, pre-dating the Revolt, which organised this sudden rising of the masses against the elite?
Judicial records from investigations into the rebellion in he months after it died down, seem to indicate testimony along these lines… But it may come down to a misreading of the language used. (as well as rebels being pressured telling officials what they wanted to hear?)
Historian Rodney Hilton comprehensively rejected the notion of a ‘Great Society’ organising the revolt. Hilton’s Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 (London 1973), takes the form of a Marxist analysis of the revolt, examining its causes, nature and significance.
Rather than the revolt being just the creation of a few nasty malcontents and ‘evil men’, as the medieval chronicler Froissart called them, Hilton shows that it was the class nature of medieval society that led to 1381, (and many other medieval peasant movements). The rising was not merely the accidental creation of the corrupt imposition of the poll tax, as some historians suggest, nor was it any kind of ‘provincial’ rising, uniting the classes against a faction of the aristocracy. It was the product of long-standing class struggles in the countryside over the feudal power of landowners, (both secular and church), clearly led and directed by the exploited themselves.
Hilton rejects the idea of a ‘Great Society’ on the grounds that the Latin phrase found in the judicial records of the revolt could be translated as meaning various ‘big gangs’ rather than a single organisation.
However, the picture Hilton gives, of a revolt which began ‘spontaneously’ and which developed organisation locally and haphazardly, creating these ‘gangs’ which attempted to direct events, has itself been criticised by other Marxist historians. Hilton’s view that villagers rose up in two counties ‘spontaneously’ is problematic for some modern party-oriented socialists who can’t seem to conceive of organisation less structured than democratic centralism…
Hilton is criticised in some quarters for implying that the Revolt, and medieval peasant rebellions generally, are ‘elemental’ almost unconscious, reactions.
Other historians who have examined the speed with which the revolt spread in Kent and Essex, the co-ordination of activity across two counties, the preciseness of attacks on gentry and strongholds of authority, suggest that a high level of organisation was at work. Nicholas Brooks’ ‘The organisation and Achievements of the Peasants of Kent and Essex in 1381’ (published in Studies in Medieval History Presented to R.H.C. Davis, eds. H. Mayr-Harting and R.I. Moore, 1985), sees the rebellion as ‘somewhere between the two extremes…’ of ‘a disorganised and chaotic explosion of rural and urban anger’ or a consistent and disciplined plan of action…’ His study of how the revolt spread in the two counties is worth a read. He takes subtle indications as signs of a deeper planning to events, such as the apparent wide spread of villagers who provided the 100 Essex men who sailed back across to Kent with Abel Ker and his mates. They came from quite far afield in the county: Brooks sees this as evidence of a fairly far-flung network.
By June 6th, several days of secret meetings, ‘conventicles’ where oaths of comradeship were sworn and plans made, began to evolve into open armed rebellion. For three days, men went from village to village in Essex encouraging each to rise (Nicholas Brooks likens them to flying pickets – unsurprising, given that he was writing at the time of the 1984-5 miners strike). On the morning of 10th June, armed bands congregated together in both Kent and Essex to march on London.
As Brooks points out, it only took two weeks for the insurgents to enter London after the initial outbreaks, and the way that the marches on London followed in parallel on the spreading web of agitation and assaults on local landowners and sheriffs does follow a suspiciously similar pattern.
‘The synchronised assembly and movement of the insurgent forces in the two counties did not fit by chance into so neat a pattern. Decisions had to be taken and orders sent about meeting places, about dates and about targets; these decisions had to take account of the distances to be covered by each band on each day and of the time that would be needed to open gaols and to break into properties and destroy [tax] records. Every village that sent men to the assembly-points had to be contacted in advance. . . the fundamental plan for bringing out the two shires simultaneously and moving next day to the county towns and to London on the following day must have been planned in advance by some form of central high command’.
Brooks also notes that there is good evidence that the radical demands for the abolition of serfdom, and the effective annihilation of aristocratic government, existed right from the start of the rebellion.
One point worth noting, is that underground networks were to be found in England only a few years later. The Lollards, religious dissidents who opposed some of the dogma and hierarchy of the Church, formed secret congregations which built through clandestine contacts, which spread widely throughout the country in the last decades of the fourteenth century and into the fifteenth. Lollardy to some extent inherited some of the social protest that had characterised the 1381 Revolt though interpreting it in religious terms. If there had been underground networks before 1381, perhaps Lollardy was built on some of their remnants; or on the contacts that had been quickly evolved during the rebellion. Only 33 years after the Peasants Revolt Lollards were attempting their own revolt – though it was a terrible failure.
A centralised high command or not, there was possibly a conscious minority co-ordinating activity across the Thames (suggested by the June 2nd conference), although revolt can also throw up its own capable organisers and long-standing grievances can lead people to come to the same conclusions about what has to be dismantled to improve their lives.
The Essex troubles were more agrarian and less political than Kent’s. Essex was more rural and its grievances more feudal. The rebellion in the county saw a systematic attack on the king’s officers. John Ewell (Escheator of the County) was murdered at Langdon Hills, John Sewall (Sheriff) had his manor ransacked at Coggeshall and the dwelling of Sir Robert Hales (the king’s Treasurer, popularly labelled ‘Hob the Robber’) was destroyed at Cressing Temple. Admiral Edmund de la Mare’s manor at Peldon was also sacked. Destruction of court rolls, leases and charters occurred as bondmen burnt documents that enslaved them. Religious houses (among the largest landowners and thus owners of serfs) were not spared: at Waltham Abbey every document that could be found was burned.
Colchester fell into rebel hands without resistance. As would later happen in London, a xenophobic element diverted the revolt into racist pogromming, and massacred several Fleming merchants, another of their number meeting the same fate at Manningtree.
Kent saw its own insurgency. Manor houses were attacked. Rochester Castle was seized, then Maidstone Prison attacked, and its prisoners liberated, including radical priest John Ball, who was to become the theoretician of the rebellion.
As the Essex and Kent bands moved towards London on June 11, London’s urban poor started in on the government, targeting hated institutions and unpopular officials from June 12th: the Marshalsea Prison & Lambeth Palace were stormed… the king’s despised uncle, John of Gaunt’s, London townhouse was torched.
The Kentish rebels camped on Blackheath, and the Essex rebels on Mile End Fields, both large open spaces within sight of the capital… Here rebel priest John Ball preached a doctrine of equality and freedom, but also of rebellion and class antagonism: for all: “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondsmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who would have had any bond and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may, if ye will, cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty. I counsel you therefore well to bethink yourselves, and to take good hearts unto you, that after the manner of a good husband that tilleth his ground, and riddeth out thereof such evil weeds as choke and destroy the good corn, you may destroy first the great lords of the realm, and after, the judges and lawyers, and questmongers, and all other who have undertaken to be against the commons. For so shall you procure peace and surety to yourselves in time to come; and by dispatching out of the way the great men, there shall be an equality in liberty, and no difference in degrees of nobility; but like dignity and equal authority in all things brought in among you.”
The revolt’s high water mark came when the two groups joined forces and entered London on June 13. The following day a shaken Richard II agreed to the demands of the Essex men at Mile End (a general pardon, the abolition of villeinage, liberty to trade and fixing of rent at 4d per acre).
It was short-lived. Many of the rebels began to march home after this, feeling they had won… but the king was only buying time. The following day saw a second meeting with the king at Smithfield, when rebel leader, Wat Tyler, was killed by the king’s supporters. (Ironically, the date was June 15, the anniversary of Magna Carta.) The revolt began to unravel. Remaining peasants were rounded up; bands who had departed were chased down; a battle at Billericay on 28th June between a rump of the Essex men and the king’s soldiers saw total defeat for the rebels, with unknown numbers killed. Leaders and spokesmen were hunted down and executed, including John Ball and Jack Straw, and Thomas Baker of Fobbing, who had done so much to spread the revolt at its beginnings. The king announced that all the concessions he had granted were revoked, telling the villeins: “Serfs you were and serfs you are; you shall remain in bondage, not such as you have hitherto been subject to, but incomparably viler.”
And yet it was not to be. The bonds already loosened by the Black Death and other social changes were hastened, if anything after the Revolt. Serfdom and villeinage began to break down, a slow and complex process its true, but undeniably, a century after 1381, England changed hugely, and the feudal system evolved and was altered, helping to produce the beginnings of a massive change across the whole society. The rebels played a part in that, whether or not it would have occurred in any case, the rebellion forced the pace.
And their dreams and hopes were not completely lost; rebellions in the fifteenth century would revive some of their ideals, and the plans and programs of the ‘Great Society’ continued… even today…
Of course, this wasn’t the last attempt to impose a Poll Tax in the UK. Nor the last rebellion that this triggered. The anti-poll tax movement that fought and beat off the Thatcher government’s attempt to push the costs of local government entirely onto the people who have the least money was a fitting echo of the Peasants Revolt.
Again the state and the press were in no doubt that the was a network of opposition that had organised the protest – and they were right… However, they again looked for secret leadership when attempting to exact retribution for he Trafalgar Square riot. Once again the ‘outside agitators’ had organised the whole event – this time anarchists were responsible. The UK’s small anarchist movement had been heavily involved in resisting the poll tax on the ground, and many were present at Trafalgar Square and took part in the fighting. But had no more orchestrated it than the police did – except in the sense that after the wave of local revolts at town halls that had rocked March 1990, many of those present expected and desired a larger outbreak. But as in 1381, the presence of activists in the movement and the rioting doesn’t obscure the ability of people to get together, often quickly and competently, to organise against attacks on their livelihoods or a practical response to cataclysmic events.
Which has echoes again for us in 2020, and the Covid-19 lockdown. The support and solidarity, organised through newly-sprung up mutual aid groups or simply through neighbours, friends, existing bonds and communities, that has been the answer to the virus, reminds some of us of the widespread strength and grassroots base of the anti-poll tax movement. It’s an inspiring development.
Many of the activists who played a part in the anti-poll tax movement hoped that that kind of community organisation would evolve, grow and begin to challenge other aspects of the exploitative, unequal and murderous society we experience; that it would be the beginning of a general community revolt against capitalism. In most places, however, anti-poll tax groups did not carry on into other campaigning, for lots of reasons; though ideas, experiences, inspiration did, in many forms.
Will the spirit of mutual aid we now see continue, build, evolve? As we write major rebellion is also taking place in the US against racist police violence. Across the world resistance is building to the job cuts, hunger and poverty being created under the cover of ‘protecting us’. In the UK there are debates about the lockdown, how it might continue; what kind of future we face; there are genuine divisions about whether it is a project imposed from above or a co-operative effort we can have control over from below.
To some extent we stand at a crossroads: the vested interests of capital and the ruling elites can see vast potential in the technocratic possibilities of post-lockdown, new ways of imposing work, reducing their costs and increasing ours, new ways of control and surveillance, track and trace software, beefing up laws to stop us congregating to fight for our interests at the grassroots. On the other hand there’s the potential of our fluid solidarity, of the growing rage against the wealthy and powerful who profit from us as we live and work, profit from our deaths, profit from the health and careworkers’ labours even as they deny them adequate PPE, and simperingly clap them once a week… The rich are getting richer, and as after the crash of 2008 they will make us pay for the vast economic cost of lockdown through cuts, austerity, repression.
If we let them. Spirit of June 1831… March 1990, anyone?
“Why are those whom we call lords, masters over us? How have they deserved it? By what right do they keep us enslaved?”
Derived from an entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.