Today in London rebellious history, 1381: Barnet folk are still staunch in the Peasants Revolt

The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 played out on a ‘national level’ – that is, huge armies gathered, marched on the capital, and caused a brief crisis and threat to the power of the feudal system and the aristocracy, monarchy and church establishment, who benefitted from the feudal labour of serfs all over the land.

But the revolt also found local focus all across the south-east of England. The grievances that led to the revolt were not uniform; many and varied oppressions sparked anger and rebellion, and outbreaks of trouble generally saw particular hated lords targeted. Some bands of rebels erupted at the poll tax collectors trying to extort cash from them; some sorted out some local grievances before marching on London; many never marched to London at all but busied themselves with the local powers-that-be.

Major targets of local action were the manor rolls and the court rolls – basically, the records of the feudal services local villeins and serfs ‘owed’ to their lord, and the records of disputes, refusals, fines and arguments over the extraction of these obligations. Long before 1381, these unpaid duties towards your feudal superior caused constant friction; the labour shortages resulting from the Black Death of 1348-9 gave the serfs a greater power to negotiate, despite royal action against their freedom to leave home to look for better situations.

When the 1381 rebellion broke out, many manor houses were attacked, and the manor rolls seized and burned, both as a symbolic gesture and a practical attempt to erase the record of what the lord could demand of his tenants.

One local example: the men of Chipping Barnet played a rowdy role in the area of Middlesex around St Albans and Barnet; this is captured by the horrified St Albans chronicler.

The Abbey of St Albans was the most powerful landowner in the area; successive abbots’ attempts to maintain the rolls and demand the full duties ‘owed to them’ had increasingly got the Abbey’s tenants’ backs up. The revolt provided inspiration and opportunity to even up the scores…

According to his account, on entering London on 13 June, the Kent and Essex rebels sent a message to St Albans via men from Barnet, and the next day Barnet men were again prominent in the St Albans contingent which headed to the capital and returned with the message that ‘there would no longer be serfs but lords’.

The Gatehouse at St Albans Abbey – stormed by the 1381 rebels

During the following week the rebels attacked the symbols of the abbot’s lordship, broke into his prison, woods and warrens, and burnt the hated court rolls. They also engaged in what sounds like some provocative and near-blasphemous agitprop, staging a mock mass, but placing torn-up documents instead of communion bread on the tongues of the (un?)faithful.

The rebels forced the abbot to issue charters for each village; not only in St Albans itself, but also areas further afield where the Abbey’s writ ran. ‘The people of Barnet came with bows and arrows, two-edged axes, small axes, swords and cudgels and obtained a similar charter of liberties as those of the people of St Albans, including free hunting rights, fishing rights, and rights of erecting hand mills’ (milling was the lord’s monopoly).

After this they demanded’ a certain book made from the court rolls’ so they could burn it because it contained evidence that’ almost all the houses of Barnet were held by the rolls’. The abbot prevaricated’, promising it within three weeks, and thus saved the book for posterity.

The revolt was over in London by 15 June, but total suppression further afield took longer.

On 28 June royal commissioners arrived in St Albans, but there was still some resistance: ‘300 bowmen from the surrounding villages, especially from Barnet and Berkhamsted’ gathered in arms to continue to assert their demands.

On 15 July king Richard II arrived in St Albans and annulled all the abbot’s enforced concessions, and on 20 July received oaths of fealty from all the inhabitants of Hertfordshire.

The defeat of the Revolt was far from the end of resistance to the power of the Abbey locally. The abbot’s tenants had concentrated on specific grievances, but since these were suppressed, not addressed, tensions soon began to rebuild. Illegal land transfers continued, and in 1417 there was another violent revolt; royal justices eventually had to be sent to intervene, because ‘the bondmen and tenants in bondage of the abbot of St Albans at Chipping Barnet have leagued together to refuse their due customs and services’.

Many of those involved in 1381 were not peasants at all, but men of substantial property. The Barnet rebels in 1417 included twelve freemen, among them a citizen of London. During the 15th century, serfdom and the associated services and indignities – which had provoked the fierce struggle between abbot and tenants at Barnet – was gradually phased out.

Today in London radical history, 1381: Essex and Kent rebels hold conference at Barking as Peasants’ Revolt gathers pace

“… 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.

And led to thousands marching on central London in anger again

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.

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Today in London’s radical history: Wat Tyler killed as the Peasants’ Revolt begins to unravel, 1381.

The 1381 Peasants Revolt remains one of the most cataclysmic and inspiring events in British history. While in the immediate it was defeated, it sounded a death knell to a feudal system already rotten and decaying, and hastened social change in England, as well as inspiring 6 centuries of agitators, activists, rebels, socialists, anarchists, liberals communists, democrats and many more. Much of it can be read to support a number of conflicting political ideologies, and often is.

At its heart the Revolt pushed to the fore a character of who it can fairly be said that probably no other person has such historical significance while so little actually known or proven fact can be definitely stated about him. School and motorways can be named after him, but his name may not even have been his real name. Wat Tyler remains an enigma, a fascinating glimpse of a personality, thrust to the head of a fierce rebellion, articulating demands so radical they get you spied on by Special Branch even today, then cut down by royal servants and slaughtered.

The basic facts behind the Peasants’ Revolt are well known. An English government (dominated by an aristocratic and clerical coterie around king Edward III and his grand-son Richard II), tries to levy three poll taxes to raise more money to fight their pointless dynastic and genocidal hundred years war in France. Those living on the south coast notice that all this cash doesn’t seem to contribute anything towards coastal defence as French raiders regularly swan up and take revenge on the nearest English without much response from the rich or their lackeys. A large section of the English rural population in the south of England, already decimated by the Black Death 30 years before, and enraged by subsequent attempts to keep wages and social mobility down by law and force, reacts to the blatant attempt to get the poor to pay more of their meagre resources to fund the rich’s adventures in blood, by rising up, refusing to pay and killing or deriving out the tax collectors. Huge armies of angry peasants march on London, having first raided the homes of the rich and the local monasteries to destroy the manor rolls that record their ‘feudal obligations’ (the unpaid work they had to do for their landlords) and the levels of rent and tax they were liable for. A general agreement is reached that feudalism itself has to go. A stroppy London populace also rebels, opens the gates to the rebels, and a number of the upper class directors of Late 14th Century England PLC are seized and put to death; some racist twats also attack foreign workers in London, because there’s always a fucking Brexiter in the mix. In terror for their lives, the king and his remaining advisers meet the rebels at Mile End and lyingly promise to grant all the demands of the rebels, signing charters to this effect, but have as much intent to keep their word as, say, councillors and big building contractors have of honouring promises to the residents of council tower blocks. Shortly after many of the rebels then leave happily for home, the core leadership of the revolt met the king again, and Wat Tyler pushes for even more concessions, going beyond even the massive aim of abolishing feudalism and proposes to abolish all classes and religious hierarchy apart from the king himself. He’s stabbed, butchered and the young king cleverly persuades the rebels to not react by killing him and his gang. Because of the holy fucking reverence people held the king in the peasants don’t kill him out of hand, which they will regret, because immediately he can Richard II orders them rounded up; hundreds, perhaps 3000, are executed or killed out of hand, and the king goes back on everything that was sworn, telling the poor to get back to the land and work because that’s where they will be forever, in their place. Sadly for him he doesn’t live long enough to see that the revolt does in fact herald huge change because the ruling class realise you can’t keep stuffing shit in people’s mouths because they will spit it in your face. So the Revolt does bring about something of the aims of the mass of its participants; we’re still waiting and fighting for the classless society bit, Wat, but this time we really will not exclude the monarchy from the chop.

So who was Wat Tyler?

As Paul Foot said about him, “Wat Tyler, about whom, to his enormous credit, we know absolutely nothing. We don’t know what he looked like, we don’t know what he did for a living, we don’t know anything about him save that he led the biggest rising of ordinary people in Britain before Oliver Cromwell.”

Guesses and assertions on scanty evidence have abounded through the centuries… As Tyler seemed around forty when he was killed, he was likely born about 1340. One document suggested that as a young man he lived in Colchester. It has been suggested that during this time he became a follower of radical priest John Ball. He may have fought in the Hundred Years War and worked for Richard Lyons, one of the sergeant-at-arms of Edward III. By the 1370s Tyler was living in Maidstone, Kent.

Tyler is sometimes conflated with one John Tyler, an actual tiler working in Dartford, Kent, whose action was one of the sparks for the uprising there. Poll tax collectors were ordered to drum up as much cash as possible, including by checking the age of young girls, as they were exempt from paying the tax –  by measuring pubic hair. The opportunity for sexual assaults by these nasty and unscrupulous men being obvious. A little like UKIP’s failed general election to enforce checks on muslim girls returning from abroad for Female Genital Mutilation, only this policy actually happened. Happily John Legge, who drew up this policy, would by be killed in London by rebels a few days later. Maybe Farage and Nuttall should be drawing up wills.

John Tiler’s house was visited by assessors, who

‘had gone to the house of one John Tyler and commanded of his wife the payment of the poll tax on behalf of herself, her husband and her daughter. She refused to pay for her daughter, as not being of age, and the collector thereupon seized the daughter, declaring he would discover if this were true.’

‘Neighbours came running in, and John Tyler, being at work in the same town tiling of an house when he heard thereof, caught his lathing staff in his hand and ran reeking home, where, reasoning with the collector, who made him so bold, the collector answered with stout words and strake at the tiler. Whereupon the tiler, avoiding the blow, smote the collector with the lathing staff that the brains flew out of his head, wherethrough great noise arose in the streets and the poor people, being glad, everyone prepared to support the said John Tyler.’

This account is sometimes repeated but attributing the killing of the collector’s death to WAT Tyler. It seems though that this story may date only from John Stowe’s account in the 17th century. At least one chronicle written a few years after 1381 (John Trevisa’s World History, c. 1390) ‘refers to John Tiler, leader of the peasants’. So perhaps it was the same man… perhaps two people of similar names shoved together by history. It’s unlikely we will ever be certain. The mystic cockney communist William Blake was inspired by the story to illustrate it in an engraving (see the picture above this post), in 18th century dress!

Wat Tyler was elected leader of the Kentish peasant army in Maidstone, as John Ball was freed from prison by armed rebels. Ball, an unfrocked radical priest, had been imprisoned for preaching subversion, and immediately joined the revolt’s leadership. As Charles Poulsen, the author of The English Rebels (1984) has pointed out, it was important for the peasants to be led by a religious figure: “For some twenty years he had wandered the country as a kind of Christian agitator, denouncing the rich and their exploitation of the poor, calling for social justice and freeman and a society based on fraternity and the equality of all people.” John Ball was needed as their leader because as a priest, he had access to the word of God. “John Ball quickly assumed his place as the theoretician of the rising and its spiritual father. Whatever the masses thought of the temporal Church, they all considered themselves to be good Catholics.”

Whether or not he had personally bashed out the brains of a poll tax collector, Tyler was either well known and respected, or very quickly recognised as being intelligent and organised, since within days of a huge army of peasant rebels gathering in Kent he had been elected leader of the Kentish contingent: some 70,000 strong by contemporary accounts. Soon he was heading the march on London.

“His ability as leader, organiser and spokesman is clearly revealed throughout the revolt, while his standing among the rebel commons was proved by the immediate acceptance of his captaincy, not only in Kent and Essex, but in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, and even farther afield; while the strength and vigour of his personality impressed itself even on the unwilling recorders of his work.” (Reg Groves) Charles Oman, the author of The Great Revolt of 1381 (1906) claims that the main reason that Wat Tyler became the leader of the revolt was because he was a man with military experience and knew how to establish authority over a mob. However, a mob is often capable of establishing authority over itself. Tyler is recognised by even the ardent anti-peasant chroniclers as being cunning and able to make practical tactical and strategic decisions which people carried out because they made sense.

It had also been speculated that Tyler was a member of a pre-revolt underground network, sometimes called the ‘Great Society’; linked individuals and groups who shared a radical and subversive vision of a world without the hierarchies, class divisions and poverty medieval peasants endured. John Ball had been preaching a form of classless communism for several years; he was hardly unique in dreaming of a better world. Such networks are known to have existed around this time among heretical religious sects; it is hardly impossible that political groups also operated clandestinely (in fact heretical sects may well have influenced Ball and other social radicals, as millenarian theological ideas often described the coming rule of Jesus on earth in terms of a classless paradise with no suffering, poverty, work…)

We don’t know, though we can suspect, and if we have spent time in radical groups plotting social change ourselves we like to believe… Paul Foot clearly liked to think of the rebels being led by a group very like his own Socialist Workers Party: “Through Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, even Lincolnshire, there were peasants meeting together in the villages. Representatives had been previously appointed and marked down. We know that because when John Ball was released from prison in Maidstone he wrote and sent a series of letters. Only two or three have come down to us, but the letters are direct, like Party circulars mobilising the membership. They are to Jack So-and-so, get out there and get the people out. You there, John this or Wat that, go for this particular landlord, or for that particular set of manorial rolls.”

Ball for certain, and, as far as we know, Tyler were not among the Kentish rebels who had sailed across the Thames on June 2nd and held a 2-day conference with Essex rebels at which the plans to march on London had to have been drawn up (though it is possible Tyler was there). A collective leadership did arise, either from people with a rebellious past, or maybe just people with a quick mind. Despite Paul Foot’s back-projection of a form of democratic centralism at work in the woods and fields, it is more likely that there were underground networks, but that they were autonomous, making links, yes, but organising themselves without orders from some committee. Authority was granted to individuals to command the large armies that converged on London in June 1381, but the unknown number of years of grassroots agitation, discussion of ideas, preaching, maybe swearing oaths, can only really have been done voluntarily and in secret, which means either a cell structure, or self-directed local groups. It is also possible that all this was done within a few weeks, not years, because spontaneous self-organisation is possible; more likely the immediate upsurge was based on some period of subversive rumblings.

Tyler is reported to have articulated the peasants’ view that they were acting lawfully and were not out to completely expropriate the wealthy. He is said to have told a crowd: “Remember, we come not as thieves and robbers. We come seeking social justice.” Many of the rebels obeyed a strict moral code, self-imposed as far we can tell, not to steal the wealth of the rich and the church, though much was destroyed deliberately. Some who broke this code were put to death.

Henry Knighton records: “The rebels returned to the New Temple which belonged to the prior of Clerkenwell… and tore up with their axes all the church books, charters and records discovered in the chests and burnt them… One of the criminals chose a fine piece of silver and hid it in his lap; when his fellows saw him carrying it, they threw him, together with his prize, into the fire, saying they were lovers of truth and justice, not robbers and thieves.” In their own terms this reflects a belief that their actions were justified, and they could show the moral rightness of their cause by not breaking god’s commandment not to steal; though it is worth commenting that as with all uprisings and riots there will be different crowds with different agendas, and events can reflect many diverse motivations which appear part of the same movement, while having contradictions and internal conflicts.

Wat Tyler himself illustrates this, since while the majority of the rebels seem to have desired merely an end to the poll tax, or the end of feudal duties, or other definite ends, he is quoted as demanding a more fundamental program.

The Mile End meeting between king Richard and the rebel leaders, where the king ‘gave in’ and signed their charters, took place on June 14th. Large numbers of rebels then began to march home, thinking that was it. The following day, a second meeting between the king & the peasant rebels took place, at Smithfield, the great open space north of the City of London, famed for animal slaughter and the ritual execution of dissidents. The remaining rebels may not have trusted the king, and called him to come and give further assurances. At this meeting, Wat Tyler argued for equality for all under the king, the church’s wealth to be distributed among the poor, an end to men being outlawed:

“Then the King caused a proclamation to be made that all the commons of the country who were still in London should come to Smithfield, to meet him there; and so they did.

And when the King and his train had arrived there they turned into the Eastern meadow in front of St. Bartholomew’s, which is a house of canons: and the commons arrayed themselves on the west side in great battles. At this moment the Mayor of London, William Walworth, came up, and the King bade him go to the commons, and make their chieftain come to him. And when he was summoned by the Mayor, by the name of Wat Tighler of Maidstone, he came to the King with great confidence, mounted on a little horse, that the commons might see him. And he dismounted, holding in his hand a dagger which he had taken from another man, and when he had dismounted he half bent his knee, and then took the King by the hand, and shook his arm forcibly and roughly, saying to him, “Brother, be of good comfort and joyful, for you shall have, in the fortnight that is to come, praise from the commons even more than you have yet had, and we shall be good companions.” And the King said to Walter, “Why will you not go back to your own country?” But the other answered, with a great oath, that neither he nor his fellows would depart until they had got their charter such as they wished to have it, and had certain points rehearsed and added to their charter which they wished to demand. And he said in a threatening fashion that the lords of the realm would rue it bitterly if these points were not settled to their pleasure. Then the King asked him what were the points which he wished to have revised, and he should have them freely, without contradiction, written out and sealed. Thereupon the said Walter rehearsed the points which were to be demanded; and he asked that there should be no law within the realm save the law of Winchester, and that from henceforth there should be no outlawry in any process of law, and that no lord should have lordship save civilly, and that there should be equality among all people save only the King, and that the goods of Holy Church should not remain in the hands of the religious, nor of parsons and vicars, and other churchmen; but that clergy already in possession should have a sufficient sustenance from the endowments, and the rest of the goods should be divided among the people of the parish. And he demanded that there should be only one bishop in England and only one prelate, and all the lands and tenements now held by them should be confiscated, and divided among the commons, only reserving for them a reasonable sustenance. And he demanded that there should be no more villeins in England, and no serfdom or villeinage, but that all men should be free and of one condition. To this the King gave an easy answer, and said that he should have all that he could fairly grant, reserving only for himself the regality of his crown. And then he bade him go back to his home, without making further delay.”

As the king dithered, clearly reluctant to agree this even if he meant to renege later, there was a scuffle & Tyler was stabbed by the Lord Mayor, William Walworth.

“During all this time that the King was speaking, no lord or counsellor dared or wished to give answer to the commons in any place save the King himself. Presently Wat Tighler, in the presence of the King, sent for a flagon of water to rinse his mouth, because of the great heat that he was in, and when it was brought he rinsed his mouth in a very rude and disgusting fashion before the King’s face. And then he made them bring him a jug of beer, and drank a great draught, and then, in the presence of the King, climbed on his horse again. At this time a certain valet from Kent, who was among the King’s retinue, asked that the said Walter, the chief of the commons, might be pointed out to him. And when he saw him, he said aloud that he knew him for the greatest thief and robber in all Kent…. And for these words Watt tried to strike him with his dagger, and would have slain him in the King’s presence; but because he strove so to do, the Mayor of London, William Walworth, reasoned with the said Watt for his violent behaviour and despite, done in the King’s presence, and arrested him. And because he arrested him, he said Watt stabbed the Mayor with his dagger in the stomach in great wrath. But, as it pleased God, the Mayor was wearing armour and took no harm, but like a hardy and vigorous man drew his cutlass, and struck back at the said Watt, and gave him a deep cut on the neck, and then a great cut on the head. And during this scuffle one of the King’s household drew his sword, and ran Watt two or three times through the body, mortally wounding him.”

To prevent the rebels massacring them for the murder of Tyler, the king promised them all their demands if they would go home…Tyler meanwhile, carried wounded to Bart’s Hospital, was seized by Walworth & beheaded in Smithfield.

“[The king] spurred his horse, crying to the commons to avenge him, and the horse carried him some four score paces, and then he fell to the ground half dead. And when the commons saw him fall, and knew not how for certain it was, they began to bend their bows and to shoot, wherefore the King himself spurred his horse, and rode out to them, commanding them that they should all come to him to Clerkenwell Fields.

Meanwhile the Mayor of London rode as hastily as he could back to the City, and commanded those who were in charge of the twenty four wards to make proclamation round their wards, that every man should arm himself as quickly as he could, and come to the King in St. John’s Fields, where were the commons, to aid the King, for he was in great trouble and necessity…. And presently the aldermen came to him in a body, bringing with them their wardens, and the wards arrayed in bands, a fine company of well-armed folks in great strength. And they enveloped the commons like sheep within a pen, and after that the Mayor had set the wardens of the city on their way to the King, he returned with a company of lances to Smithfield, to make an end of the captain of the commons. And when he came to Smithfield he found not there the said captain Watt Tighler, at which he marvelled much, and asked what was become of the traitor. And it was told him that he had been carried by some of the commons to the hospital for poor folks by St. Bartholomew’s, and was put to bed in the chamber of the master of the hospital. And the Mayor went thither and found him, and had him carried out to the middle of Smithfield, in presence of his fellows, and there beheaded. And thus ended his wretched life. But the Mayor had his head set on a pole and borne before him to the King, who still abode in the Fields. And when the King saw the head he had it brought near him to abash the commons, and thanked the Mayor greatly for what he had done. And when the commons saw that their chieftain, Watt Tyler, was dead in such a manner, they fell to the ground there among the wheat, like beaten men, imploring the King for mercy for their misdeeds. And the King benevolently granted them mercy, and most of them took to flight. But the King ordained two knights to conduct the rest of them, namely the Kentishmen, through London, and over London Bridge, without doing them harm, so that each of them could go to his own home.”

So king Richard II led many of the remaining peasants, to nearby Clerkenwell Fields, where they were then surrounded by royal troops. After days of disorder and rebels imposing their will on the authorities, the government now had the upper hand, and hundreds of executions followed…

“Afterwards the King sent out his messengers into divers parts, to capture the malefactors and put them to death. And many were taken and hanged at London, and they set up many gallows around the City of London, and in other cities and boroughs of the south country. At last, as it pleased God, the King seeing that too many of his liege subjects would be undone, and too much blood split, took pity in his heart, and granted them all pardon, on condition that they should never rise again, under pain of losing life or members, and that each of them should get his charter of pardon, and pay the King as fee for his seal twenty shillings, to make him rich. And so finished this wicked war.”

The promises to the rebels were now so exposed as so many empty words, and a vicious repression was launched against the scum who had dared to question their place and even worse dared to act upon it and deprived a few rich plutocrats of their heads.

“Every home in London was visited by the forces of the king and asked to swear an oath of allegiance on pain of death. John Ball was half-hanged, disembowelled while still alive, hanged again and drawn at St Albans. John Rawe, Jack Straw, John Sherwin of Sussex, William Grindcobbe in St Albans, all of them were executed in one way or another after varying forms of resistance in different towns.

William Grindcobbe from St Albans was arrested, imprisoned, and told that he would be killed unless he went back and told the insurgents to lay down their arms. He agreed to go back, and spoke to some 100-150 armed men at St Albans. He told them on no account to lay down their arms, to continue the struggle – and he was taken from behind while he was speaking and executed. Such was the spirit of the Peasants’ Revolt.” (Paul Foot)

So the sun set on both the largest mass movement for social change that England witnessed in the middle ages, and the lives of the radicals who briefly challenged the whole idea of order and hierarchy. Tyler remains a mysterious figure, like a bright light shining in a dense fog. John Ball too, a comet of brilliant love and rage which can be hidden by death – but you know it’s coming round again. Because he expresses eternal ideas, the kernel of which we struggle with today: why should any live off the labour of others? Why should anyone be in power over us? Why can’t we work together for the good of all and not for profit and self-enrichment? How can we ourselves change this situation?


Sorry to nick this next bit so directly from Paul Foot, with all our reservations about him he had a proper way with words; at the end of a talk about Tyler, Ball and the Revolt, he links it so well to the future that we will give the last words to him (ok, in reality the hard work was done by William Morris). Yes we know Foot was in the fucking SWP and we don’t support them at all. William Morris’s Dream of John Ball is well worth a read though.

“In 1881, one hundred years ago, inspired by the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Peasants’ Revolt, William Morris, a great socialist writer, grappled with this same idea. We do have something in common with what John Ball and Wat Tyler were doing in 1381. How could William Morris, with his enormous writing powers, try to bridge the gap for the socialists of his time? He did it in a really very brilliant piece of writing. It took him a long time to do it, and didn’t in fact appear until 1885.

He imagined himself or somebody like himself, a socialist in 1881, being plunged back into the villages of Kent in 1381, beating off the barons and the nobles. He describes John Ball coming to a village – probably the best description there is, better than the chronicles themselves because William Morris really went into it and found out about it.

At the end of the piece, which is called The Dream of John Ball, this man, who has all this experience of 500 years after 1381, has a long discussion with John Ball about what will happen. John Ball says, in effect, that he knows the revolt is going to fail, but asks what is going to happen after that? When, he asks, is his dream of all people living in common and sharing everything and there not being any vassals or lords going to come about?

Morris replies sadly that it won’t come for 500 years at least.

Not surprisingly, John Ball gets a bit depressed about that. He reminds his guest that he is marching to certain defeat and execution, and asks: For what? Is it worth it?

Here is the reply:

‘John Ball, be of good cheer, for once more thou knowest as I know that the fellowship of man shall endure, however many tribulations it may have to wear through. It may well be that this bright day of summer, which is now dawning upon us, is no image of the beginning of the day that shall be – but rather shall that day dawn be cold and grey and surly, and yet, by its light shall men see things as they verily are, and, no longer enchanted by the gleam of the moon and the glamour of the dream-tide, by such grey light shall wise men and valiant souls see the remedy and deal with it, a real thing that may be touched and handled and no glory of the heavens to be worshipped from afar off.

‘And what shall it be, as I told thee before, save that men shall be determined to be free, yea free as thou wouldst have them, when thine hope rises the highest and thou arte thinking, not of the king’s uncles and poll-grote bailiffs and the villeinage of Essex, but of the end of it all, when men shall have the fruits of the earth and the fruits of the earth and the fruits of their toil thereon without money and without price. That time shall come, John Ball, when that dream of thine shall this one day be, shall be a thing that man shall talk of soberly, and as a thing soon to come about as even with thee they talk of the villeins becoming tenants paying their lord quit-rent.

‘Therefore hast thou done well to hope it, and thy name shall abide by thy hope in those days to come, and thou shalt not be forgotten.’

It’s coming sometime. Get out there and sharpen the scythes, companeros/as…

Some excerpts were nicked from This Bright Day of Summer, by Paul Foot

Read William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s rebel history: Marshalsea Prison & Lambeth Palace stormed by peasant rebels, 1381.

On the night of the 12th June 1381, the main body of the Kentish peasant rebels, inflamed against poll taxes, serfdom and oppressive laws of all kinds, camped on Blackheath. But a sizable minority too angry and inspired to rest even after a long day’s march, pushed on, as far as Southwark and Lambeth. “There they were met by a mob of malcontents belonging to the suburbs and even by numerous sympathisers from the city itself, who had been obliged to take boat across the river to join them, for the drawbridge in the midst of London Bridge had been raised on the news of their approach.”

This advanced guard of the rebellion broke open the two prisons in Southwark, those of the Marshalsea and King’s Bench, and let loose the captives:
“And before the hour of Vespers the commons of Kent came, to the number of 60,000, to South-wark, where was the Marshalsea. And they broke and threw down all the houses in the Marshalsea, and took out of prison all the prisoners who were imprisoned for debt or for felony.”

The Marshalsea Prison was built to hold prisoners brought before that court and the Court of the King’s Bench, to which Marshalsea rulings could be appealed. Also called the Court of the Verge, and the Court of the Marshalsea of the Household of the Kings of England, the Marshalsea court was a jurisdiction of the royal household that, from around 1290, governed household members who lived within the verge, defined as within 12 miles (19 km) of the king. Thought to have been built some time in the fourteenth century (though there are records of an earlier prison of this name), the prison was at one time second in importance only to the Tower of London. Though most of the prisoners held in the Marshalsea throughout its history were debtors, from the 14th century onwards, minor political figures were held there instead of in the Tower, mostly for sedition. William Hepworth Dixon wrote in 1885 that it was full of “poets, pirates, parsons, plotters; coiners, libellers, defaulters, Jesuits; vagabonds of every class who vexed the souls of men in power …”

Having trashed the prison, the peasant rebels “levelled to the ground a fine house belonging to John Imworth, then Marshal of the Marshalsea and the King’s Bench, and warden of the prisoners of the said place, and all the dwellings of the jurors and questmongers belonging to the Marshalsea during that night.”

As Imworth’s house burned, flames flared up all night in the sight of the King and his councillors in the Tower, and of the citizens of London, who watched from their wharves and windows the signs of approaching trouble.

Around the same hour that day, “the commons of Essex came to Lambeth near London, a manor of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and entered into the buildings and destroyed many of the goods of the said Archbishop, and burnt all the books of register, and rules of remembrances belonging to the Chancellor, which they found there.”

Lambeth Palace was (and still is) the official London residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury. In 1381 the Archbishop was Simon of Sudbury, former Bishop of London. As the Peasants Revolt gathered pace, Sudbury became one of the main targets of the people’s rage, as he was also the Lord Chancellor of England, the ultimate authority for tax-gathering and raising revenue, blamed for the latest poll tax bearing heavily on the poor. That he was a close ally and crony of John of gaunt, the king’s uncle, long a hate figure for the populace and Londoners in particular, only increased the price on his head. Having released John Ball from his prison at Maidstone, the Kentish insurgents attacked and damaged the archbishop’s property at Canterbury.

On the 14th, the commons flocked to the Tower of London; the most heavily guarded fortress in the land. However, so unpopular was Sudbury with the rebellious peasants that guards simply allowed the rebels through the gates, rushing into the Tower, they seized the archbishop himself, and dragged him to nearby Tower Hill, a traditional execution ground. The peasants consciously satirised and ritualised their instant justice on Sudbury by using the physical spaces of repression – beheading the Archbishop, they stuck his head on a spike on the gate of London Bridge, where authority usually impaled the heads of rebels and traitors.

And on Saturday morning (June 15th), the poor’s vengeance on the Marshalsea prison was completed: John Imworth, “a tormentor without pity”, the Marshal of the Marshalsea, had taken sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. A body of rioters entered the church, “passed the altar rails, and tore the unhappy man away from the very shrine of Edward the Confessor, one of whose marble pillars he was embracing in the vain hope that the sanctity of the spot would protect him.

He was dragged along to Cheapside, and there decapitated.”

All of London’s other prisons, and lockups in other towns, were opened and their inmates freed by the rebellious armies.

Even after the defeat of the Revolt, the Marshalsea remained an object of fear and loathing. Prisoners were sprung in 1450 during Cade’s rebellion; the prison was rocked by riots in 1504; at Xmas 1505, in 1539, in 1592 there was a riot outside the Marshalsea (see yesterday’s blog entry)… more riots broke out in 1639 over the terrible conditions – some prisoners were standing 23 to a cell, unable to sit down…

Lambeth Palace meanwhile, has also been regularly attacked by London rebels: in 1639, 1640, 1780; bombed by the Angry Brigade in 1970. Unlike the Marshalsea, however, it still stands… One for next time eh?


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

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