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Peasants' Revolt

During the summer of 1381 the government of England was rocked by an event now called the Peasants' Revolt. The country had already been experiencing economic and social difficulties as a consequence of the Black Death. The immediate cause of the uprising is clear: the raising of a third poll tax. This was bitterly resented. Unlike previous poll taxes, where ability to pay had been taken into account, this one simply raised a flat rate of 1 shilling per person. As a result, evasion was widespread, with taxpayers concealing the existence of dependants such as widowed mothers or unmarried sisters. Eventually the poor rates of collection triggered a series of official investigations, held between January and March 1381. These had considerable success in uncovering deceptions, but they also created significant local unrest.
Destruction of tax records,  1381 - opens new window
Destruction of tax records, 1381
Document (158k) | Transcript
Seal from Certificate of Manumission

Stirrings of rebellion

The revolt began in Essex, at the end of May, with an attack by men from Fobbing and surrounding villages on John Bampton and other justices who were part of an investigating commission. Another commission, led by Sir Robert Belknap, Chief Justice of Common Pleas, attempted to deal with rioters at Brentwood, but this provoked further violence. The revolt quickly spread across the Home Counties and East Anglia.

Within a short space of time the Essex men had linked up with Kentish dissidents, and a radical political agenda emerged. The rebel leaders, who were key members of their local communities, viewed themselves as protectors of the laws and customs of the realm. On 2 June, at Bocking, in Essex, they declared their intention 'to destroy divers lieges of the king and to have no law in England except only those which they themselves moved to be ordained'. Seal from Certificate of Manumission
Seal from Certificate of Manumission

Death of Wat Tyler

The rebels then converged on London. By 12 June groups from Kent and Essex had reached the suburbs. The government hesitated. It chose to negotiate and arranged a meeting at Blackheath between the 14-year-old king, Richard II, and the Kentish rebel leader, Wat Tyler. The rebels demanded the heads of 'traitors', among them the king's uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. This was refused. They then forced their way into London, attacking and looting property - including Gaunt's residence at the Savoy - and releasing prisoners from Newgate Prison.

At a further meeting, on 14 June, at Mile End, the rebels demanded the abolition of serfdomGlossary - opens new window. The king agreed and charters of manumissionGlossary - opens new window were quickly issued. Unfortunately, these concessions sparked further outbreaks of violence, and the rebels also decided to execute the 'traitors'. Another meeting was arranged between Tyler and the king, this time at Smithfield, on 15 June. Tensions were high and an argument broke out during which Tyler was killed, probably by one of the king's servants. Then, in an apparently well co-ordinated plan, the Londoners set upon the rebels, driving them from the capital.
Certificate of manumission - opens new window
Certificate of manumission
Document (147k) | Transcript
Inquisition into offences committed in Essex, 1381 - opens new window
Inquisition into offences
committed in Essex, 1381
Document (180k) | Transcript

Harsh retribution

The government quickly swung into action, ordering sheriffs to proclaim the enforcement of peace and to take whatever measures were necessary to crush the revolt. Judicial commissions were appointed to restore order, authorised to deal with the rebels 'according to the law and custom of England'. Only one county offered active resistance - Essex. Here retribution was harshest. In the course of the judicial hearings, 19 rebels were executed by hanging and another dozen by hanging and drawing. The Peasants' Revolt was over.


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