The Peasants' Revolt of 1381

I argue that English government was unfair to the peasant class. King Richard II and his barons made terrible decisions regarding the peasant class. I believe these bad decisions caused the peasant class to erupt in anger. Had the King treated his subjects more fairly, many lives would have been spared.


The summer of 1381 held one of England’s most dramatic events. What started as a small town revolt became a crucial event in the development of English society. There are many theories as to why the revolt happened: the Black Death, war with France, numerous poll taxes, overzealous barons as well as a very young King Richard, etc. The combination of these instances caused the peasants to rebel and fight for change. Although the revolt ended tragically, it gave way to a period of change which ultimately created more freedom for the future people of England.
The peasants in the small town of Essex were virtually slaves. They were forced to tend to the landowners properties and were treated as servants rather than workers. The Black Death resulted in a shortage of peasant workers (Jerrold). There was a lot of land for the peasants to take control of. They gained power because they were able to force the lords to pay them higher wages for their services, work fewer hours, and some were even able to gain freedom (Dobson). The peasants started to feel important as they gained power and freedom. However, just one year later, in 1351, the king passed the Statute of Labourers (Jones) which forced the peasants to work under the terms prior to the Black Death.


During this period, England was at war with France. To help fund the failing war, King Richard II instituted another poll tax. This was the third poll tax since 1377. The new poll tax was three times the amount as the first poll tax set only four years earlier (Oman, 23). The new tax was viewed as unjust because some people were able to pay a reduced rate while others had to pay the full tax. Many peasants were charged the same amount as the landowners they worked for. Only adult males were charged the new tax, but if one was married, he was forced to pay double (Socyberty). After the Statute of Labourers, this tax was nearly impossible for the peasants to pay.

In June 1377, King Edward III passed away, leaving his 10 year old grandson Richard II to be the King of England (Ormond). The powerful barons: John of Gauth, Archbishop Sudbury, and Sir Robert Hales, took advantage of the young King Richard by enacting their own laws. The young, inexperienced king went along with the barons. The barons introduced the poll tax to help fund the war with France. The peasants despised these men because they were in charge of the taxes and were responsible for introducing these poll taxes. Many people also felt that Richard II was too young to make such life altering decisions (Oman, 23).

The Revolt Begins

Since the peasants were already poor, and they were forced to pay increasing taxes, they eventually gave up and quit paying the taxes. On May 30, 1381 in the town of Essex in the village of Fobbing, a tax collector by the name of Bampton came to see why the peasants stopped paying their taxes (Loyola). The peasants met Bampton and told him they were not paying him anything. Bampton was forced to leave and report the incident to Robert Belknap, the chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas (Loyola). On June 2nd, Belknap traveled to the city of Essex to punish the offenders. While in the city of Brentwood, on his way to Essex, he was attacked by the peasants and forced out of the city (Oman, 34). News of the revolt quickly spread to Kent and the rest of Fobbing. Soon, forces combined and a plan was made to march to London and demand the King to hear their grievances.
The peasants of Kent chose Wat Tyler as their leader. The group marched to Rochester Castle and freed priest John Ball. Ball was imprisoned due to conflicts with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Ball also played a very important role, giving motivational speeches including one of his most notable sermons:

“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.” (Dobson, 374)

Ball is said to be important because he sent letters around the countryside advocating unity and discipline (Oman, 37). The band of peasants marched towards London in a quest to meet the king and force him to revoke his unfair taxes. By June 12th, around 60,000 men of Essex were camped at Mile End, and the next day the men of Kent arrived at Blackheath (Dobson). The peasants were also joined by some of London’s poor. Although aware of the violent acts to the tax collectors, neither the king nor the authorities were prepared. On June 12th, King Richard met the men near Greenwich. The rebels demanded the head of John of Gaunt as well as fifteen others. When Richard refused, the men rushed into London and attacked places of authority (Oman, 63). They burned down the home of John Gaunt, opened prisons, and destroyed many legal records.


Meeting With The King

On June 14th, King Richard and a few of his knights met with the peasants of Essex at Mile End. The peasants presented Richard with a petition asking for the “abolition of serfdom, labor services based on free contracts, and the right to rent land at four-pence an acre” (Oman, 68). They also asked again for the lives of those men they previously asked for. This time Richard agreed to their demands and signed charters (Dobson). He asked the peasants to return home without violence. However, many peasants continued violence in London. They attacked the Tower of London, captured Archbishop Sudbury, Sir Roger Hales, and John of Gaunt’s physician. They took these men to Tower Hill and executed them. It is also stated that the men killed 150-160 foreigners living within the city (Oman, 69). After this, many of the men of Essex returned home.

The next day Richard met Wat Tyler and the men of Kent at Smithfield. Wat demanded an “end to all lordship except that of the king, that the Church's estates be confiscated and divided among the wider populace and that there be only Bishops throughout the whole kingdom” (Oman, 69). The king agreed to all of these demands. Soon after this, Wat Tyler was killed by the Mayor of London. It is unclear as to whether Wat addressed the king in a negative manner or if the king planned to kill him ahead of time. After Wat was killed, the crowd was ready to rush the king and kill him and his men.

Results of the Revolt

Eventually the king regained control of the city and issued warrants for anyone involved in the revolt. Overall, 110 rebels were tried. Each one was sentenced to death (Oman, 73). Among the 110 was John Ball. Ball was hung on July 15th (Dreams). On August 30th Richard ordered the hangings to cease. Anyone who had not yet been hung was eventually freed.

The king revoked the charters he wrote and declared all demands were made under threat, making them invalid in law (Dobson). Although the revolt came to an end, and the king withdrew all charters he promised, the poll tax was revoked and a poll tax was never again issued. The peasants also found themselves with a little power due to the shortage of workers from the Black Death as well as the many workers who died in the revolt. The peasants failed in their original aim but were able to show their discomfort with the way things were handled and succeeded in showing the king that if pushed far enough, they were capable of causing destruction.

Check out a small video on the Peasants' Revolt HERE

Source Cited

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“Britannia History: The Peasants' Revolt." Britannia: British History and Travel. Web. 27 Apr. 2011.
COHN, SAMUEL. "After the Black Death: labour legislation and attitudes towards labour in late-medieval western Europe." Economic History Review 60.3 (2007): 486-512. Business Source Complete. EBSCO. Web. 27 April 2011.
Dias, Rosie. "Loyal Subjects? Exhibiting the Hero of James Northcote's “Death of Wat Tyler”." Visual Culture in Britain 8.2 (2007): 21-43. Art Abstracts. Web. 27 April 2011.
Dobson, R. B. The Peasants' Revolt of 1381. London: Macmillan, 1970. Print.
Dreams of John Ball: Reading the Peasants' Revolt in the Nineteenth Century.' Nineteenth-Century Contexts. 31.1 (March 2009): 47-59.
Dunn, Alastair. The Peasants' Revolt: England's Failed Revolution of 1381. Stroud: Tempus, 2004. Print.
“John Ball, William Morris - John Ball & William Morris." Great Stories, People, Books & Events in Literary History. Web. 27 Apr. 2011.
Jones, Dan. "THE PEASANTS' REVOLT." History Today 59.6 (2009): 33-39. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 27 Apr. 2011.
Mortimer, Ian. "The Summer of Blood: The Peasants' Revolt of 1381." History Today 59.12 (2009): 58.Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 27 Apr. 2011.
Oman, Charles, and E. B. Fryde. The Great Revolt of 1381,. Oxford: Clarendon P., 1969. Print.
Ormrod, W. M. The Reign of Edward III. Stroud, Gloucerstershire: Tempus Pub., 2000. Print.
"The Many Roles of Wat Tyler | History Today." History Today | The World's Best History Writing. Web. 27 Apr. 2011.

PRECIS 1 - The Peasants' Revolt

The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 was one of the most dramatic uprisings in England’s history. An overzealous tax collector and a new poll tax caused the townspeople of Brentwood to revolt and they refused to pay taxes. Neighboring villages joined forces with Brentwood and marched to London to meet with the King and demand change. Although the townspeople started with good intentions, many of them indulged in violent acts including looting, killing, and arson. After meeting with the King, the peasant’s demands were met. However, once the King gained control again, he revoked all rights given to the peasants. . However, the revolt did have positive results as peasants went back to their old way of life and had more privileges than before.

In the Beginning
Locals in Brentwood reacted to an overzealous tax collector
Resistance spread to neighboring villages
Resistance to tax collectors spread to neighboring villages
Armed bands of villagers rose and attacked manors and religious houses
Poll tax of 1380 was 3 times higher than last year, taxed rich and poor same rate, abolition of serfdom

Landowners legislated to keep wages low and restrict free movement of serfs, tightened feudal dues
Caused the peasants to revolt and march to London to demand change

Reduced population by 1/3, labor became scarce, wages rose, economy started to suit peasants
Peasants resented all measures, smaller revolts, rebels attacked symbols of lordship & authority
March to London
Rebels of Essex and Kent marched to London
Neither government nor the city was prepared
London’s poor joined the rebels
June 12th Essex men – Mile End, June 13thKent - Blackheath
Rebels were able to move into the gates
Attacked political targets in the city, burned down Savoy Palace, set fire to the Treasurer’s manor, opened prisons, destroyed legal records
June 14th
King Richard and knights met Essex peasants at Mile End
Peasants asked for abolition of villeinage, free labor, right to own land a four pence per acre
Some peasants entered the Tower and invaded Royal bedchambers
Peasants pledged alliance, gave him petition
King granted all demands

Executed Archbishop, Chancellor, and John of Gaunt’s physician
June 15th
Richard met Kentish peasants at Smithfield

Wat Tyler addressed the king with insolence
Peasants rushed the king
The peasants followed the king

Richard declared all demands pardoned and everyone go home
Demanded end of all lordship beyond the King, church estates to be confiscated and divided, only bishops in the village. King agreed
Mayor of London pulled him from his horse and a squire killed him
King confronted them, said follow me
Mayor snuck away, recruited forces, surrounded the rebels
The London revolt was over
Continuance of Revolting
Villages around London plundered and burnt. Drained Abbot’s fishpond, killed his game, sacked his official’s houses, and burned all charted that gave him his rights. Damaged parts of Cambridge and gave rights to the university to the city. Took over Norwich castle.
Showed the pressure they were facing at the time. Proved the taxes were too high and that taxing rich and poor at the same rate was unfair.
After the Revolt
Eventually authorities gained control in all regions, Richard denied the approval of peasants demands, Rebels were dealt with in Essex and Kent, all survivors of the revolt were executed
London was made safe. However, no late medieval Parliament ever tried to impose a poll tax upon the Nation again.

The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 is a very inspiring event in English history. The peasants did what many people of today would have done. Although their methods in revolting became violent and ended tragically, they fought for change and got it. Much could be learned from these people’s struggle. They were being treated unfairly and stood up for themselves. This eventually led to change. We hear many stories of people being treated unfairly but less is said about fights for change. It would be a good idea to change the methods used to gain change, but the idea is there.

PRECIS 2 - The Peasant's Revolt

The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 was one of the most dramatic uprisings in England’s history. The peasants were tired of working for free and refused to pay taxes in which the king continuously increased. When tax collectors came to collect their fees, the townspeople revolted and kicked them out of the city. Neighboring cities caught wind of this movement and soon followed. After enough people gathered together, they marched to London to meet with the King and demand change. Although the townspeople started with good intentions, many of them indulged in violent acts including looting, killing, and arson. By the end of the revolt, anyone involved was already dead or soon executed and any demands the king agreed to were abolished. However, the revolt did have positive results as peasants went back to their old way of life and had more privileges than before.

The Beginning
Violent system of punishments
Army of peasants from Kent and Essex marched to London
Captured Tower of London

King Richard – age 14
Usually kept peasants from revolting
Garrisoned soldiers
Captured the Tower of London

Killed Archbishop of Canterbury and the King’s Treasurer
Still agreed to meet peasants
Black Death
After the Black Death
Lords gave peasants freedom and paid them to work on their land
After 35 years, the peasants feared that the lords would revoke these privileges
Manors left short of workers
Encouraged those peasants to stay on the manors
The peasants started to prepare to fight for their privileges
Working for the Church
Peasants forced to work church land for free, up to 2 days a week
Working for free made the church rich
They needed support in what they wanted
They weren’t able to work on their own land, difficult to grow food
Made the peasants poor, made them want to be free of this burden
They gained the support of a priest named John Ball from Kent
War with France
Long wars with France
Wars cost a lot of money
Richard II, new Poll Tax, 1380
Some couldn’t pay in cash
War cost a lot of money
Peasants forced to pay taxes
Peasants to pay 5p – a lot of money
Had to pay in kind (seeds, tools, etc)
Conflict Begins
May 1381, tax collector arrives at the Essex village of Fobbing
June 1381, Soldiers came for order
Other local villages of Essex joined Fobbing
Villagers marched to London
Peasants marched from Kent to London
Mid-June, peasants discipline faded
The villages refused to pay taxes and threw him out of the village
They were also thrown out
The peasants were able to throw out the soldiers
Wat Tyler emerged as the leader
Destroyed tax records, tax registers, and burned government buildings
Got drunk, started looting in London and murdered foreigners
June 14th – King met peasants at Mile End
Some did but others returned to the city
June 15th King met peasants outside of the city walls
Again, the King promised the peasants what they asked for
Gave peasants what they asked for and told them to go home in peace
Murdered the Archbishop and Treasurer. King hid in fear
Lord Mayor killed Wat Tyler. King made another promise
The peasants were satisfied and returned home
Revolt Comes to an End
Summer of 1381, revolt was over

King withdrew Poll Tax
Black Death caused a shortage in labor
The peasants asked for more money
John Ball was hung, King didn’t keep promises - they were made under threats – not valid in law. Other leaders were hung.
Peasants were forced to old way of life
Peasants asked for more money since the lords needed them to work
Lords had no other choice but to pay

The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 is a very inspiring event in English history. The peasants did what many people of today would have done. Although their methods in revolting became violent and ended tragically, they fought for change and got it. Much could be learned from these people’s struggle. They were being treated unfairly and stood up for themselves. This eventually led to change. We hear many stories of people being treated unfairly but less is said about fights for change. It would be a good idea to change the methods used to gain change, but the idea is there.

PRECIS 3 - John Ball and The Peasants' Revolt

The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 began after a string of poll taxes were placed on the townspeople of Essex. The peasants felt like this Poll tax was wrong as the poverty stricken peasants were taxed at the same rate as rich landowners. John Ball, a famous preacher was imprisoned. The peasants freed him, and with his popular preaching, he inspired the peasants to march to London and demand the poll tax be abolished. Ball’s sermons promoted equality among all people, no matter their social class. Although his sermons sparked a revolution, many of his followers began to lose focus on the overall mission, resulting in the death of all parties involved.

No Poll Tax
3rd poll tax in 5 years to fund failing war in France
Peasants marched through the Kent countryside

Peasants began their march to London
Peasants marched to Canterbury
Peasants of Essex rose up on May 29th, 2381

Sacked manors, burned court rolls, broke open prisons, forced all they met to swear allegiance to ‘King & Commons’
Took Rochester Castle on June 6th, Canterbury on the 10th, and Maidstone on the 11th
Barged into a cathedral, threatened to have Archbishop Sudbury
John Ball Joins the Revolt
John Ball was imprisoned for unsanctioned preaching
He began preaching in New York, then Colchester, then spent 20 years in Kent
Archbishop Simon Sudbury, of Canterbury, released him once
Armies of Kent and Essex rallied on Blackheath on June 13th
June 11th, John Ball “the Mad Priest of Kent” was broken out of ecclesiastical custody in Maidstone
Spread unorthodox gospel, imprisoned twice

Gave a statement regarding why he was imprisoned and gave accounts of John Ball
Ball distinguished himself,
Preaching of John Ball
Gave sermons explaining his view of equal rights among all people

Made recommendations as to what should be done to gain equality

Following his word
All men created equal, servitude introduced by evil oppression of man; if God wanted serfs he would have appointed who is serf and who is lord in the beginning.
uproot tares that’s accustomed to destroy the grain; kill great lords, slay lawyers, justices and jurors, root out everyone who is harmful to the community
Insurgents destroyed Marshalsea prison, Lambeth Palace, and homes of the Treasurer and the Mayor of London, broke open Fleet Prison, destroyed all property of the Knights of St John, sent the lawyers and professional perjurers fleeing from the Temple, made a bonfire of all the legal records and law books
A Chroniclers’ Description of the Events
Peasants pushed on into London
Turned their attention to the Palace of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and military leaders

Emphasis was on destruction rather than looting
Lawyers scrambled off
Broke open gates, entered the palace, went to the wardrobe, took torches, and lit them, and burned all the cloths, coverlets, beds, very valuable head-boards, and all other valuable goods. Found barrels of gunpowder, threw them into the fire, and set the hall in a blaze, causing great loss and damage to the Duke of Lancaster.
The revolting peasants killed another for taking a silver cup from the Savoy
The Peasants Finally Meet the King
Their first day’s destruction in London done
Unable to escape
Wat Tyler demanded the abolition of serfdom, all feudal dues, a general amnesty, the abolition of monopolies, and a 4d per acre rent for all free tenants
The King secretly didn’t keep his promises
Peasants camped beneath the tower where the young king, advisors, and retinue had taken refuge
Richard II agreed to hear demands at Mile End
The king said he agreed to all this and handed out dozens of charters saying as much

Charters later proved not worth the vellum they were written on
Actions of Rebellious Peasants
Many peasants were conned into returning home with their worthless charters
Other peasants stayed and exploited Authority’s palpable weakness to the max. Jack Strawmtorched the Priory of St John’s Manor in Highbury. The warden of Marshalsea was beheaded. Blocks were set at every major street corner and a few hundred people who would not affirm support for ‘King and Commons’ met the same fate
Ending of the Revolt and Cunning Actions of the King
Second meeting between Tyler and Richard II at Smithfield Market

Tyler gave a 2nd set of demands, even more radical than the first

King tried to disarm Tyler’s demands
King really couldn’t grant anything

The negotiation closed when Tyler tried to pick a fight with one of the king’s retinue
The King could have went down to John Ball and his mob

At first the king granted mercy
The king was treated most disrespectfully. It’s claimed he intended to seize the monarch there to use him as a puppet and hostage throughout England
The abolition of outlawry & all law except that of Winchester, of all nobility except the king, of all bishoprics save one, and the distribution of all church estates amongst the laity
Said he would grant all that was in his power to grant

Sovereign couldn’t grant any of this without Parliamentary approval
He was struck repeatedly by the Mayor of London

He instead conned them to follow him through Aldersgate where Sir Robert Knolles rallied the propertied classes of London to surround and disperse the rebels.
He later revoked the charters he’d granted two days earlier and ordered the rebels hunted down.
Conclusion of the Revolt
Noticing the peasants ability to conquer London

The king regained control of the capital,
John Ball escaped the debacle of Smithfield
Thomas de la Mare was deemed a traitor for keeping the town to feudal exactions over a century behind the rest of England
Peasants rose in Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire and trouble spread to Bridgewater, Somerset, Beverley & Scarborough in Yorkshire.
These new revolts were quickly put down

Was eventually captured hiding in Coventry in July 1381 and taken for trial in St Albans
He and John Ball were drawn and quartered on 17th July and later hung.
John Ball is proof that religion, with proper wording, can be used to motivate people to fight for a common cause. Although the end result of this revolt was tragic, we understand that preachers are capable of gathering a group of followers and starting a revolution. Popular preachers of today could use John Ball as an example to gather followers to fight for a common goal. When people have had enough, all they need is motivation to create change, and John Ball laid a good foundation for using religious sermons to motivate people to come together and fight.

PRECIS 4 - Popular Preaching

Popular preaching, in medieval times, was used for many reasons. Some preachers chose to spread the word of God, while others used popular preaching to gather and motivate followers. These preachers were experienced in their art and were able to inspire people to believe their word and follow them. These preachers gave sermons at churches, events, and even on the streets. They were trained in ways to better serve their followers. The training acted as a foundation to their sermons, but the preachers found their own style in which to gain followers. Some preachers chose to write their sermons down for later use or for the use of others. Many of these sermons have been preserved and can be used today.

Main Idea
Popular Preaching in Medieval Times
Catholic mass rituals
Most common people did not understand Latin
Delivered by friars, Franciscans, and Dominicans
Included a sermon delivered by the priest in Latin
Popular sermon in vernacular was added to the mass in the 13th century
Sermons delivered at funerals, church dedications, and at universities
Characteristics of Popular Preaching
Sermons focus on an aspect of a selected theme
Statement and prayer delivered by preacher, followed by thema
Thema was restated followed by a breakdown of the thema
Began with a lesson based on the gospel of the day. Thema – selected theme
Sometime skipped to deliver proof of thema by citing sources of authority instead
Sermon closed by recitation of the sermon and blessing
Audience of Medieval Popular Preachers
Sermons delivered in local churches
Sometimes the churches were too small
Audience was usually unconstrained and could be rude and discourteous to the preacher

The preachers needed to keep the attention of the people
May tell an anecdote or use folklore or verse sermon

The preacher could keep the audience’s attention
People of high and low estate attended
Sermons were moved to a public green

People in attendance moved freely about and socialized with one another. Could address the friar, or walk out on the friar in the middle of his sermon
Sermon needed to be short, and contain elements the people could relate to or find interesting
Preacher would embellish concerns of good and evil, use a large word or a foreign word to impress the audience
The result was a vibrant, creative and well-received sermon
Training of Medieval Popular Preachers
Required to be trained and licensed by the church before they were allowed to preach
Treatises dictated actions to be abided by the preachers

The treatises set forth rules
Studied treatises on sermon making

Preacher should speak slowly, clearly, in a serious manner, remain focused, dress, speak, and behave in a conservative manner, neither stand still nor be flamboyant with his gestures
The preachers would eventually do as they please when giving their sermons
Sermons of Medieval Popular Preachers
Creating sermons

Four different kinds of sermons
Published sermons

Re-preaching of written sermons

Many of these sermons are available today
Wrote their own sermons or based sermon on works of others
Improvised, prepared, memorized, and read
Either preached in the vernacular or written down in Latin, but not necessarily both
Were not verbatim to the written word. Some words were changed due to the different languages
These popular sermons provide an authentic insight to the people and the times.

Popular preaching is a good way to gain followers and to motivate people to fight for a cause. Many people follow a certain religion and will honor that religion to the death. Popular preachers can use this loyalty to bring followers to help fight for certain causes. An example is John Ball, a popular preacher during the peasants’ revolt of 1381. He used sermons to inspire the people of his town to revolt against the king due to unfair taxes. His sermons explained how God created everyone equal and it wasn’t fair for the poor peasant workers to be taxed the same as the rich land-owners. This motivated the people to storm the King’s city and fight for change. Popular preaching can be used today to spark a revolution and get people to fight for change.



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