Wat Tyler leads the Peasants’ Revolt

Posted in Historical articles, History, Revolution on Monday, 27 June 2011

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This edited article about the Peasants’ Revolt originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 977 published on 29 November 1980.

Wat Tyler, picture, image, illustration

Tyhe mayor of London about to kill Wat Tyler

John Ball raised his hands to still the noise of the crowd and the people pressed closer to hear the Kentish priest speak.

“Matters are going badly in England, and they will not get better until there be no serfs and no gentlemen,” he cried. “Adam and Eve were the parents of us all, so why should the lords go in velvet and fur, while we shiver in threadbare cloth? Why do they dine on rich meats, white bread and wine, while we fill our stomachs with loaves made from straw?”

This was the kind of talk the peasants wanted to hear. Shouting and cheering, they followed the priest when he called on them to leave their homes and march with him to London, where they would air their grievances before the young King Richard.

In another part of Kent, an outlaw, Wat Tyler, was encouraging the peasants to resist the new Poll Tax, which demanded fourpence a head from every person in the kingdom. With a huge following, he stormed Canterbury and Rochester, emptying the jails to swell his forces. Word of the revolt spread to Essex, Surrey and Hertfordshire, and soon three great mobs were converging on London, all eager to see the king, who they were sure would be on their side against greedy landlords and rapacious tax collectors.

Trouble had been brewing for many years, and the Black Death, which had killed off almost a third of the population, had, in a strange way, helped the peasants. With fewer men to work the land, those labourers who survived the epidemic found they were in great demand, and soon started to demand higher wages. The lords became so alarmed that in 1351 they passed a law called the “Statute of Labourers”, forbidding men to seek higher wages than they had earned before the Black Death.

The peasants were at last sensing that the end of serfdom could not be delayed much longer. Many left their villages, refusing to work on their lords’ fields, but others found they were being forced to work twice as hard to make up for the lack of labourers.

The new Poll Tax only made matters worse. A groat (fourpence) was nothing to a nobleman, but it was a day’s wages to a peasant. Many could not or would not pay, and like Wat Tyler they attacked the hated collectors. He had the excuse that a tax collector had insulted his pretty young daughter and Wat had attacked and killed him with a club. Now he was on the run from the law.

The disorderly crowds marched towards London, carrying banners announcing: “We are the Commons of England now.

They camped for the final night of their march at Blackheath, south of the Thames, while a frightened London prepared for the worst, and the king and his council waited uneasily to see what their demands would be.

Next day, Wat Tyler and John Ball marshalled their forces for the last stage of their march to the capital. But once over London Bridge, they lost control as the peasants saw, for the first time, the immense wealth of the London merchants. They broke into the houses, looting and burning.

After the merchants’ shops the magnificent Palace of the Savoy, home of the king’s uncle, became their next target. King Richard was hardly more than a boy, and they held his uncle responsible for most of their discontent. His palace was completely destroyed.

Leaving the Savoy in flames, the mob advanced on the Tower, and the gates were opened to them by the soldiers, who were sympathetic to their cause. They roamed all through the fortress, where they found the king’s mother. The rough horseplay that the Queen Mother had to suffer turned to savage fury when they came upon the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Treasurer. These two men were hated for being responsible for the Poll Tax. They were hustled out into the courtyard and beheaded.

It was agreed that the king would meet the rebels at Smith-field the next day. A handsome, boyish figure on a white horse, he rode bravely among the huge crowd, and believing all had now been won, they cheered him lustily. But Wat Tyler had little faith in the promises of kings, and tried to get close enough to the boy to speak to him. At this point, the mayor of London, thinking he meant to harm the boy, spurred forward and plunged his dagger into Tyler’s chest.

The mob surged forward in a fury at the attack on their leader and, in what was to be the finest moment of his reign, King Richard drew his sword shouting: “I will be your captain. Go to your homes now, good people, and on my word no harm shall come to you.”

The crowd melted away, happy that serfdom would now be ended by the king. But no sooner was the danger past than he broke his word. “Serfs ye are,” he sneered, “and serfs ye shall remain.”

Soldiers and judges were sent into the countryside, and at many crossroads peasants were hung from gibbets. John Ball, the Kentish priest who had led one of the mobs to London, was hung at St. Albans. Wat Tyler was dragged from his bed in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, and beheaded.

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