English liberty and the Peasants’ Revolt

Nothing  demonstrates the Englishman’s  long held lack of deference  and desire to be his own man better than the Peasants’  Revolt in 1381. General resentment  of  privilege  and  particular  hostility  to  the imposition  of  a  tax  (the  Poll Tax) considered  to  be both unreasonable  and illegitimate,  was given  unambiguous  voice.  For  a brief period the  fog  of  obscurity which  ordinarily  covers  the  masses  in  the mediaeval world  clears. A remarkable  scene meets the  eye for we find not a cowed and servile people but a robust  cast of  rebels  who far from showing respect  for  their  betters display  a  mixture of contempt and hatred for everyone  in  authority bar the boy-king Richard II.

Perhaps  most surprising to the modern reader is the  extreme  social radicalism of their demands which might,  without  too  much exaggeration,  be described as a demand for  a classless society.  The  Revolt may have had its origins in  the  hated Poll  Tax  but it soon developed into a series  of  general political demands. One  of  the  revolt’s  leaders, the  hedge-priest John Ball, reputedly preached ”  Things cannot go  right in England  and never will until goods are held  in common  and there are no more villeins and gentlefolk but  we are  all  one  and  the  same”, and the  anonymous  and  revolutionary  couplet “When Adam delved and Eve span/who was then  the gentleman?”  was in men’s mouths.  The  mediaeval chronicler Jean Froissart  has Ball preaching:

Are we not descended from the same parents, Adam and Eve? And  what can they sow or what reason can they give why they  should be more masters than ourselves?  They  are  clothed  in velvet and rich stuffs ornamented in  ermine and  other  furs while  we  are  forced  to  wear  poor  clothing.  They have wines and fine bread while  we  have  only rye and refuse of straw and when we drink it must be water. They have handsome manors…while we must have the wind  and rain in our labours in the field and it  is  by  our  labours that  they…support their  pomp.  We  are called slaves  and if we do perform  our services  we are beaten and  we  have  no  sovereign to  whom  we  can complain…let  us go to the King  and remonstrate  with him; he is young  and from him we may obtain a favourable answer,  and if not we must seek to amend our  conditions ourselves. (Simon Schama  A History of Britain p 248)

Whether  or not these  words  bore any resemblance to  Ball’s actual words,  whether or not  they were black propaganda (on behalf  of  the  elite)  by Froissart  to  show  the  dangers society  faced  from  the  Revolt,  we  may  note  that the sentiments are  compatible with the demands  made by  the rebels in 1381.

When  the Kentish men  led by Wat Tyler,  an Essex man, met the  14-year-old king Richard at Mile End  on 14  June,  they demanded  an  end to serfdom and a flat rent of  4  pence  an acre.  The  king  granted the plea.  When the  king  met  the  rebels  a second time Tyler shook the king’s hand and  called him  “brother”. Tyler demanded a new Magna  Carta  for  the common people which would have  ended serfdom,  pardoned  all outlaws, liquidated all church property  and declared  that all men below the king were equal,  in effect abolishing  the peerage and gentry. Richard, much to the rebels’  surprise, accepted  the  demands,  although  cunningly  qualifying  the acceptance  “saving  only the regality of the crown”.  A  few minutes later Tyler  was  mortally wounded, supposedly after he had attempted to attack a young esquire in the royal  party who had  called him a thief. His death signalled  the beginning of  the end of the  revolt for without  Tyler  the Revolt  lost direction and  those who  remained  willing  to resist were pacified in the next few weeks.

During the Revolt the rebels  did not  run riot, but acted in a controlled  manner, attacking  the  property of tax collectors, other  important  royal servants and  any property belonging to the king’s uncle,  John of Gaunt. Any identifiable Exchequer document was ripe for destruction.  

The revolt  began in  Essex when  the commissioners attempting  to  collect  the Poll Tax were  surrounded  by  a  hostile  crowd  on 30 May 1381.  Physical threats  were  made  against  one  of the commissioners,  and  the  commissioners retreated  from the immediate task  of attempting to  collect the tax.  This  brought in the Chief Justice  of the  Court of Common Pleas to restore order. He was captured by an  even larger  crowd  and made to  swear on oath that  no  further  attempt  would  be made to collect the  tax  the  area. The  names of informers  who  had provided  names to the commissioners was discovered and the culprits beheaded.

The spirit of rebellion soon spread. By 2 June a  crowd  in the village of Bocking  had sworn  that they would “have  no law  in England except only as  they themselves moved  to  be  ordained.” 

The rebellion  had infected Kent by the end of the first week in June.  By the time Wat Tyler,  an Essex man by birth,  had  been elected to lead the Kentish  men  the demand was for the heads  of the king’s uncle John of Gaunt,  the Archbishop  of Canterbury Simon Sudbury and the Treasurer Sir Robert  Hales. After Tyler’s first meeting with Richard,  Sudbury and  Hales were  captured and beheaded by the rebels. No deference  or want of ambition there.

The  extent  to  which the Revolt frightened  the  crown  and nobility can be seen in the violence of Richard’s words  when he addressed  another group of rebels at Walthamstow on  22 June,  by  which  time the danger was felt  to  have  largely passed:

You wretches,  detestable on land and sea ;  you who seek equality  with  lords  are unworthy to  live.  Give  this message to your colleagues.  Rustics you were and rustics you are still:  you will remain in bondage  not as before  but incomparably  harsher. For as long as we live we will  strive  to  suppress you ,  and your misery  will  be  an example  in  the eyes of posterity .  How ever,  we  will spare your lives if you remain faithful. Choose now which you want to follow .  (Simon Schama  A History of Britain p 254 )

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3 Responses to English liberty and the Peasants’ Revolt

  1. Historical Undergrad says:

    I know this is an old post, but I thought it worth to leave my comments because it keeps popping on Google, and since I’m doing this topic at university at the moment. I have to say, I disagree with you in your interpretation of the Peasants’ Revolt.

    Firstly, I think many historians would disagree with your sentiments towards the representativeness of the revolt. The term ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ is a misnomer; the vast majority of those who took part in the revolt, according to official records, were actually members of the ‘yeomanry’ class, a prosperous group of farmers, craftsmen, people involved in proto-industry, those who would fill the local town offices such as constable, reeve, alderman or chamberlain, in other words the village ‘elite’. Their numbers had been swelled by the Black Death, as more peasants became more prosperous and independent of lords. They were described as peasants (rustici) by contemporary chroniclers, most of whom were monks and therefore members of a landholding class wishing to denigrate the rebels and their agenda.

    Now, some, such as Paul Strohm, believe this isn’t an issue, and the rebels were seeking an equal community of all classes below the king, supposedly shown by their demand to abolish serfdom. But for me, their lack of representativeness is shown within the John Ball speech quoted above. I completely agree, as Strohm would, that its authenticity is somewhat irrelevant, since Froissart, in replicating/creating the speech to shoot it down, is inadvertently revealing to us the attitudes and ideology of the rebels. But as well as the evocative language that contrasts the luxuries of the wealthy with the misery of their own condition, Ball is also condemning the poor as much as the rich. He is specifically complaining about the sumptuary laws and the Statute of Labourers, designed to determine what classes of people could wear and eat, and work and be paid for their efforts, respectively. Ball and the other rebels were frustrated because they are undeservedly being kept in a poor state when they felt their status and wealth had actually raised them above the level of the serfs and peasants the chroniclers categorised them as. They perceived the poll tax as unfair because they felt it was deliberately targeted at them, which in some ways it was. They felt the traditional balance of society, such as the obligations of lords to represent and protect the interests of those below them, had been broken, and the revolt was their way of restoring it.

    I would also question the authenticity of the quote, “have no law in England except only as they themselves moved to be ordained”. The idea that the rebels intended to overthrow the law of England is a common theme among the chroniclers and even in official records, and it doesn’t accord with the surviving letters and manifestos of the rebels or their actions. Throughout the revolt, the rebels were actually deliberately respectful to established procedures and law. When they met the king, they actually sought royal pardons for their actions, which many of the rebels got. They weren’t seeking to overthrow society, as the chroniclers would have us believe, but rather to restore its balance. That’s why they targeted institutions and people, like the Archbishop of Canterbury, who they felt had failed in their duty to society. In fact, some historians have argued that rioting and revolts were actually accepted ways for those of the lower orders to express their grievances that their lords were not fulfilling their obligations.

    It’s a mistake, I think, to read contemporary ideas about ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, class conflict, and ‘liberty’ into the Middle Ages. It was a very different society to ours, based on mutual obligations, societal bonds, with its own distinct ideology about how society should be ordered and how people should behave towards each other. At the heart of all this was, of course, the king, which medieval ideology saw as the father of the people, who protected the interests of all in society, and the person from whom all justice and governance flowed. This is why the rebels so badly wanted an audience with the king.

    There is, of course, a lot of debate surrounding the revolt, and as a lowly undergraduate I can only offer my opinion as far as my knowledge can carry it. But I think the historical consensus these days is veers towards seeing the Peasants’ Revolt not as revolutionary, but as idealistically conservative.

  2. xx says:

    “rustics you were and rustics you are still.” ! what did the five fingers say to the face? Slappp!

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