Peasants in revolt: 1381 and after

During the same period of time that the plague was ravaging the population, England had attempted to maintain a state of near-constant war with France. The purpose of war was to defend original English royal family holdings in France; these provinces were wealthy and the kings could not afford to lose them. However, the battles did not directly benefit the common people, and in both countries, peasants resisted the way the cost always fell on them.

The kings of England were fully complicit with other landowners in trying to keep peasants on the land. Edward III, king during the Black Death, had supported laws that limited wages for rural workers to whatever they got before the plague. His son, Richard II, now faced worsening wage inequity, lower tax revenue, and continued pressure to keep up the battles for royal property in France. He was only 10 when he became king.

The old tax base was based on farm revenue, now badly disrupted by all of the dramatic economic changes. Parliament passed a poll tax, “poll” being the old word for “head.” If peasants were cut free from their manors and now working in towns, they would have to be counted that way and taxed individually. The poll tax was a one-time event created to raise quick money in 1377, but it was repeated in 1379, and again in 1380. Each time, those who had to pay grew more resentful. They began to evade paying. Parliament responded by raising the tax and cutting out the loophole of allowing a married couple to pay one single rate.

Peasants had been organizing strikes and complaints against their landlords for several years by then. Towns had seen riots and the ruling elite were often divided against each other. Towns were also filled with people who had simply run away from their farms without permission, seeking work. It was a bad time for the government to press the tax, but of course they did it anyway.

The tax collector in Essex tried to arrest a village representative for refusing to collect more tax, but the villagers had come armed and they resisted arrest. From that point, it flamed into open war. Armed peasants marched on London and into Suffolk to start a revolt there. Meanwhile, an attempt to capture a runaway serf in Kent began a rebellion there. Its leader, Wat Tyler, became the leader of the entire 1381 uprising, often called Wat Tyler’s Rebellion.

Over the next year (people and news traveled slowly), many local battles were fought. The main drama happened in London, where the armed mob attacked many public buildings and some palaces, including the Savoy Palace of the young king’s uncle, John of Gaunt, a power broker. They finally seized the Tower of London. The mob also massacred Flemish workers, seen as immigrant labor threats.

The 15 year old king was in the Tower of London, the royalty’s last fall-back fortress. He made the wise choice to ride out with a small guard and talk to the rebels; while he was out, the mob seized the Tower itself, beheading several officials. The castle was looted and several royal family members nearly killed (the future Henry IV barely escaped). Meanwhile, Richard II promised the rebels many of the concessions they demanded. He signed a charter they had drawn up. Their guard now let down, some of the rebels went home.The king then met with the remaining rebels again, specifically with Wat Tyler, at a place called Smithfield. Tyler was rude and got into a quarrel with one of the king’s servants, who stabbed him. The teenage king, showing courage nobody expected (nor ever saw again), rode his horse to the front of the mob and asked for their loyalty, leading them away to prevent open battle. Wat Tyler’s head was cut off, naturally. Other rebels were executed at Smithfield.
It took the government a few months to finish executing all rebels and stopping all further regional rebellions. Richard II’s charter was torn up. He had no real intention of reforming anything. England, like other European countries, reacted to early peasant revolts with violence and suppression. France, Hungary, Belgium, and Germany all had uprisings over the next century.But nothing could really stop the economic changes. You can suppress and execute peasants, but you can’t really make them pay taxes if they’re determined not to. You can’t really keep them on the manor if they are physically able to run away and hide in the city. By 1450, when there was another significant uprising, the feudal system was pretty much gone. Farms paid wages and men could choose their line of work.

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