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Rising taxes and a wage freeze caused the Peasants’ Revolt

Posted in Farming, Historical articles, History, Politics on Friday, 29 November 2013

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This edited article about the Peasant’s Revolt first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 469 published on 9 January 1971.

Peasants' Revolt, picture, image, illustration

The Peasant's Revolt arrives in London by C L Doughty

If ever the people needed a champion, they needed one in the summer of 1381.

In fact, they had needed one for over 300 years, ever since the Norman Conquest when the freemen of England had had the feudal system imposed upon them by their new masters. The farmer and peasant had become a serf, a Middle English way of saying “slave.” He was, indeed, owned by the lord of the manor and was listed in that lord’s possessions along with cows, pigs, forest, farming and grazing land. He was at his master’s beck and call to sow and reap, to plough and hoe, to hew wood, defend the castle in time of attack and march off to any war that the big man cared to join.

In return the serf was given a miserable hovel for which he had to pay rent from the produce he managed to grow in his spare time on a couple of strips of land allotted to him by his master.

There was no way to break the system. If a serf ran away, he was hunted like a criminal, flogged if caught and branded on the forehead. If he were not caught, he dare not seek work on another manor or in a town. He had to live as an outlaw in the grim, dark forests which in those days were fearful, dank and gloomy places of wild animals and wilder unknown terrors. The outlaw’s life was a miserable existence on nuts and berries, not the rich feasts of the king’s venison and good red wine looted from a wealthy abbot’s pack mules by Robin Hood.

However, the system was severely cracked by one of the worst disasters ever to blight Europe. It was the Great Pestilence or Black Death of 1349. According to various estimates, it killed anything between a quarter and a half of the population of England. Suddenly there were not enough men to till all the land. With no produce coming in, the lords had trouble finding the cash to pay their own rents and taxes to the king, so they sold off some of their acreage for cash, often very cheaply.

Some lords, desperate for labourers, offered wages to serfs of another to come and work for them. Gradually, and by no means easily or suddenly, some of the peasants were able to buy their way out of bondage and become small landowners. It became possible, although strictly illegal, for many more to wander from place to place seeking work at the best wages.

The humble English serf was being given a glimpse of freedom.

Sterner laws were hurriedly passed by the nobility to keep the serfs where they belonged, at the bottom of the social pile in their hovels beside the castle walls.

The worst of this bunch of laws was a “wages freeze.”

The nobility in those days regarded the peasantry as a race apart, with very little intelligence. They expected them to obey.

Most of them did obey, because they had no choice, but all of them grumbled. Their mood was ugly.

Then came taxes. What with the long wars with France and government finances in a muddle, the king was short of cash. He had begun selling off some of the crown jewels. He had loans to repay and needed money to run the country. The king’s advisers said that the only way to raise this money was to impose a new tax on everybody in the kingdom. Thus it was decreed that everyone over 15 years of age would pay a tax of 4d. To us today, and to the nobles of that time who had incomes of several thousand pounds a year, it was not much. To a poor peasant who had to pay for himself, his wife and perhaps also for an unmarried grown-up daughter, this tax was an enormous sum . . . since he was very lucky if he earned as much as 20 shillings a year . . . and 4d. was almost a week’s wages!

When this tax was first imposed in 1377 the nation groaned.

When it was trebled – to a shilling – in 1380 it caused a rebellion.

Tax collectors were attacked, and so were the judges and sergeants-at-law who were sent to try and punish the culprits.

In Essex and across the Thames in Kent, numbers of peasants refused to pay and began marching around the countryside tearing up and burning all the tax records and court papers that they could find. At first they were bands of men without leaders to champion their cause.

They found two leaders in Maidstone, Kent. One of them was John Ball, a wandering priest who had been put into prison by the Archbishop of Canterbury for preaching about the equality of man. The other, Wat Tyler, was also a wanderer. Some say that he was an Essex man who happened to be in Kent at the time of the uprising. It seems that he had worked at his roofing trade in several places, had served some sort of apprenticeship in London and had been in the army fighting in France.

John Ball was a well-known agitator who could put the people’s anger into words and plain demands. Wat Tyler was able to organise the leaderless throng into a disciplined force.

He marched the rebels first to Canterbury, where they made their headquarters. Then, gathering more supporters every mile of the way, he led his ragged army the 70 miles to London in two days. Manor houses and halls along the route were ransacked and tax papers destroyed, but there was very little looting and hardly any bloodshed and vengeance-seeking.

Wat Tyler made it known that he was leading a peaceful protest march to rid the land of the traitors who, for their own greed, had misled the young King Richard II and brought about all the nation’s ills.

With 30,000 men of Kent, Wat Tyler camped on Blackheath before marching them down the steep slopes to Southwark on the south side of London Bridge. On the same day a roughly equal number of men from Essex were massed out at Mile End to the north east of the city walls.

The 15-year-old king and his courtiers had sought sanctuary within the Tower of London.

The gates of London were opened to Wat and his men, for they had many supporters within the city, and the countrymen marched into the narrow streets. On Wat’s orders they kept in their groups. They did not behave like invaders, and there was no stealing or burning.

For many of them, this was the first city that they had ever seen. They marvelled at the tall houses that leaned over them, they peered goggle-eyed down the dark alleys which must have seemed more mysterious than any forest path.

Wat sent groups of men this way and that to seek out tax rolls for destruction, and to destroy the possessions of the most hated man in England, John of Gaunt, the king’s chief adviser. His great house at the Savoy was entered and all his fabulous possessions, the loot from the French wars among them, were tumbled out into the street and set fire to with gunpowder. Such was Wat’s control, that a man caught trying to steal a golden goblet was promptly hung.

Several well-known and widely hated “traitors,” including the Archbishop of Canterbury, were executed by the rebels, but there was no massacre.

Two meetings with the king were arranged, and at both the young monarch meekly agreed to all Wat’s demands for freedom and justice.

However, the second meeting at dusk just outside the City at Smithfield, was no more than a trap. Perhaps he had become overconfident, but Wat allowed himself to be lured away from his supporters to parley with the king. The king’s men had pretended to be unarmed, by hiding their armour and weapons beneath their cloaks. Then as planned, a squire taunted Wat and made him nervous enough to draw his dagger. At once Walworth, the ruthless, scheming Lord Mayor of London, used this as an excuse to rush forward as though defending the king’s life. Wat was stabbed several times and in a moment he slumped from his horse, mortally wounded.

The rebellion was now virtually leaderless and at an end!

The king went back on his promises, the lords returned to their manors and the peasants hurried home to their untended plots of land to dream of what might have been and to wait another 300 years for the gradually-decaying feudal system to be abolished once and for all by Oliver Cromwell.

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