The Peasants’ Revolt
Nothing demonstrates the Englishman’s 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 signaled 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. There was no general riot but rather the people, 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 )
There were two great sources of general authority in mediaeval England. The Crown was one, the other was the Church. Yet, before the Reformation the English were renowned throughout Europe for their anticlericism – a good example of this attitude was the response to Sudbury’s warning to Wat Tyler’s rebels that England would be put under an interdict by the Pope if he was harmed. This was met by hearty laughter followed by the grisly dispatch of the unfortunate cleric soon afterwards, whose head to did not part from his shoulders until a goodly number of blows had been struck.
The contempt in which many of the servants of the Church were held can be seen in both John Wycliffe’s complaints against clerical abuse in the latter half of the 14th century and in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and William Langland’s Piers Plowman, both written in the same century in which the Peasants’ Revolt took place. Both works are full of jibes at fat illiterate priests and cheating pardoners who peddled absolution from sins with their indulgences sold for money.
Wycliffe’s doctrine contained the fundamental ideas which were later realised internationally in the Reformation. He questioned the reality of transubstantiation (the Catholic belief that the bread and wine at Communion turn literally into the body and blood of Christ), he attacked the authority of the pope, he railed against the abuses of simony and indulgences. He advocated a bible in English and either he or his followers, the Lollards, produced a complete translation before the end of the fourteenth century.
Implicit within Wycliffe’s thought was the democratic spirit, because it is a short intellectual step from the belief that each man could be his own mediator with God to the idea that he should have a say in his earthly life.