On this date in 1381, a mob’s summary execution on Tower Hill of some nobby English lords marked the acme of that country’s most noteworthy peasant revolt.
the fundamental grievance was the bonds of villeinage and the lack of legal and political rights. Villeins could not plead in court against their lord, no one spoke for them in Parliament, they were bound by duties of servitude which they had no way to break except by forcibly obtaining a change of the rules. That was the object of the insurrection, and of the march on the capital that began from Canterbury.
Late medieval England was in the throes of economic, and therefore social transformation.
Manorial lords’ traditional power over their peasants had become untenable for a labor pool depleted by the Black Death, survivors of which found themselves consequently in-demand and suddenly blessed with leverage. As one chronicler recorded,
There was so marked a shortage of labourers and workmen of every kind in that period that more than a third of the land in the whole realm was left idle. All the labourers, skilled or unskilled, were so carried away by the spirit of revolt that neither King, nor law, nor justice, could restrain them. … The entire population, or the greater part of it, has become even more depraved… more ready to indulge in evil and sinfulness.
Rentiers put a forceful kibosh on “sinfulness” like rising wages and labor mobility, legislating backwards feudal rights and pre-plague wage levels.
Who Then Was The Gentleman?
It was a ground fertile for insurrectionary sentiment, like the class-warfare sermon of subversive Lollard preacher John Ball:
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 bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be 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.
This cry for justice anticipated the Levellers by almost three centuries.
But these 14th century downtrodden had some rough levelling of their own in mind, and when the poll tax set spark to tinder, the conflagration spread with terrifying rapidity.
[T]here were some that desired nothing but riches and the utter destruction of the noblemen and to have London robbed and pilled; that was the principal matter of their beginning, the which they well shewed; for as soon as the Tower gate opened and that the king was issued out with his two brethren and the earl of Salisbury, the earl of Warwick, the earl of Oxford, sir Robert of Namur, the lord of Vertaing, the lord Gommegnies and divers other, then Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball and more than four hundred entered into the Tower and brake up chamber after chamber …
These guys were after, above all, John of Gaunt,* the Dick Cheney of 14th century England right down to the malevolent name and underwhelming military achievements: the throne at this time held the posterior of 14-year-old (in 1381) Richard II, and the widely reviled uncle John ran (and freely looted) the realm with a council of loathsome optimates.
Luckily for John, he happened to be off at the Scottish frontier when the Peasants’ Revolt rolled into London; the mob settled for destroying his opulent Savoy Palace on June 13.
The next day, it rampaged through the Tower of London
… and at last found the archbishop of Canterbury, called Simon, a valiant man and a wise, and chief chancellor of England, and a little before he had said mass before the king. These gluttons took him and strake off his head, and also they beheaded the lord of Saint John’s and a friar minor, master in medicine, pertaining to the duke of Lancaster, they slew him in despite of his master, and a sergeant at arms called John Leg; and these four heads were set on four long spears and they made them to be borne before them through the streets of London and at last set them a-high on London bridge, as though they had been traitors to the king and to the realm.
Right, these executed-today guys.
Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England, and Robert Hailes, Lord High Treasurer, neatly concentrated in their persons the political, financial, and religious power exercised by “the unjust oppression of naughty men.”
Still better, they were the advisors most directly connected to the poll tax. As a reward, they got their polls axed.
This was no mere provincial riot. A lower-class revolt had massed an overwhelming force in the very capital of the kingdom, with most of the main government ministers trapped therein — holed up and inconclusively debating one another about how to get out of this jam. And the movement aimed itself at the conquest of power: Tuchman (citing Benedictine chronicler Thomas Walsingham) says that rebel leader Wat Tyler was anticipated that “in four days’ time all the laws of England would be issuing from his mouth.”
Hey, it’s Baldrick!
In the end, the last thing between history and King Wat — and, if you’re willing to dream an anachronistic dream, a Commune of London — was the peasantry’s foolhardy reverence for the person of the pimply king.
Foreshadowing a later era’s “if only the tsar knew” naivete, the rebels who thirsted for the blood of Richard’s advisors fancied the king their champion. Young and handsome; regal; charismatic; and plausibly not implicated in the villeins’ grievances … you can understand why they thought that. But disarmed thereby of the ruthlessness necessary to strike him, Wat Tyler’s band instead went the way of the typical peasant rising.
Richard the Lionheart
The king’s own nerves were steel in this moment, when a lesser adolescent would have quailed from the perilous task of safeguarding the divinely ordained oligarchy with his own person. Richard was, at this point, still in his minority: other men took the country’s decisions in their own hands. Richard would one day have to fight them for his own kingly rights; but, on the evidence of this crisis, he had already grown up, and fast.
Perhaps reasoning that royalty is the best shroud, Richard invited the rebels out to Smithfield the very next day, June 15. When the royal teenager was in personal parley with Tyler, the king’s buddy William Walworth got into a scrape with the peasant 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. And he 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. …
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.
(This source says that Tyler was retrieved from hospital for a summary execution of his own that same day. Others, such as Froissart, indicate that he died straightway from the wounds he suffered in the fray.)
Brazenly wielding the dread sovereign power over the minds of his subjects, Richard braved death by riding unprotected towards their lines, styling himself their “captain,” commanding their obedience. Peasant archers and pikemen who on that day might have turned English history on its head instead lowered their weapons and submitted themselves.
Though the ensuing bloodbath was a bit less wholesale than the one attending France’s recent Jacquerie, it went rough for the leaders, and concessions the king had made the rank and file vanished along with the danger to his crown. “Villeins ye are,” he would later tell a delegation of petitioners imploring him to effect his pledge to abolish serfdom, “and villeins ye shall remain.”
* John of Gaunt also kind of got the last laugh out of those tumultuous years: though John brokered compromises between the king and his rival nobles, John’s son was one of those rival nobles. After dad’s death, that young man overthrew Richard and established the Lancastrian dynasty as King Henry IV.