In 1381, an army of impoverished and mostly illiterate peasants rose up against England’s oppressive economic and social order. Their achievements and ruthless efficiency are as shocking today as they were then to the aristocrats who underestimated them.
I’ve written before about the history of the labor movement in America, including the 1886 Haymarket Massacre. Recently, I’ve been thinking about another little-remembered event from history and its striking parallels with our own time. With Labor Day tomorrow, this seems as good a time as any to consider those parallels, and what lessons or warnings may be drawn from them.
In 1349, the Black Death (now known as Bubonic Plague) arrived in England, killing off between a third and half of the population. Very old news, I know. But did you know the Black Death gave rise to history’s first workers movement? Actually, it was less a “movement” than a “violent uprising bent on upending the whole social order”. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.
The leader of this rebellion was Wat Tyler. His name suggests he made tiles, but we don’t know for sure. Historians can’t even agree about where he was from or where he was born. Until he entered the stage of history at the head of this rebellion, Tyler was one of the millions of faceless workers of Medieval England whose names are lost to us. We do know he was centuries ahead of his time politically and a formidable tactician. Over just two weeks in the summer of 1381, Tyler helped lead tens of thousands of followers in a lightning terror campaign that brought England’s ruling elite, and even its king, to their knees.
Background- A green and pleasant land, for some
Thanks to England’s fertile soil and long growing season, the ruling class that owned all the land had become fabulously wealthy by the 1300s. Each landowner, or lord, had dozens, if not hundreds, of “serfs” to work their land. These were bonded servants over whom the lords held the power of life and death. It wasn’t technically slavery, but pretty close.
Serfs couldn’t go anywhere or even marry without their lord’s permission. It was a serf’s lot to be born, live, work and die on their lord’s land. Serfs produced everything their lord required from food, to wool, to furnishings. And if their lord got into a squabble with the neighboring lord, the serfs had to go fight for him as well.
These estates needed a lot of people to work them. After the Black Death, there were suddenly a lot fewer people to do all this work. This gave the serfs something they never had before: bargaining power, and a chance of upward mobility.
Only this didn’t happen.
Thumbs on scales and tightening screws
Rather than bowing to market pressures and granting serfs a greater share of the wealth they were producing, the landowners petitioned King Edward III in 1375 to decree that serfs’ wages be limited to pre-Plague levels. And he did. Even worse, new laws further restricted workers’ freedom and mobility, forbidding them from seeking better paid work elsewhere. The landed gentry pushed their workers harder than ever in a vain attempt to match the productivity achieved before half the workforce died off.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the English kings of that time had extensive land claims in France, which they were constantly having to defend. Periodically, the Crown would raise armies of English knights, mercenaries and conscripts to go and fight in France. Historians call this the 100 Years War, but it actually lasted 116 years.
Raising armies also meant raising taxes. As the fighting in France became more and more costly, the taxes became more oppressive. The Crown imposed a series of poll taxes, meaning everyone had to pay the same amount, nobleman and peasant alike. This didn’t seem fair to the already much put-upon peasants. It also didn’t escape their notice that the king’s courtiers seemed to be getting richer as the wars went on.
The last straw
In 1381, peasants staged a silent protest by ghosting from local registries to evade the poll tax. When the king’s treasurers did their sums, the discrepancy was obvious. Rather than turn a blind eye, the authorities sent tax collectors and armed guards into the villages to collect.
The tax collectors, believing no one would dare to defy them, committed hideous abuses, especially against young women. For example, they forced girls to raise their skirts to show whether they had reached puberty, making them eligible to pay the tax.
This was the final straw for the peasants. Across the eastern counties of England, coded messages were sent and armed posses were formed. These posses either beat or killed tax assessors and the armed kingsmen. Emboldened by their success in seeing off the tax collectors, the peasants went on the offensive.
With the help of veterans of the French wars, the peasants organized themselves, beating their plowshares into swords. They ransacked local strongholds and centers of authority, burning tax records kept there. They freed serfs who’d been imprisoned for deserting their lords, who regarded them as property.
Marching across the countryside, rebel agitators gathered more followers and resources as they went. Wherever they went, they targeted and killed local nobles and officials who they considered oppressors.
Even holy places like abbeys and monasteries weren’t safe from the peasants’ ire. The Church, then the biggest landowner in England, was every bit as authoritarian as the secular landlords. The Archbishop of Canterbury Simon Sudbury was also the king’s Lord High Chancellor, and one of the chief architects of the brutal crackdown on tax cheats. About 2000 armed rebels entered Canterbury Cathedral bent on putting Sudbury to death. But Sudbury had already run away to London.
On to London
Within a week of the first uprising, the rebels in Essex had elected Wat Tyler to lead them. Tyler communicated with leaders in the neighboring counties of Cambridge, Kent, Norfolk and Suffolk. Together, the leaders agreed it was time to take the fight to London. Their goal once there was to put their case to the king. King Edward III had since died and his 14-year-old grandson, Richard II, was on the throne. The peasants didn’t see the boy king as their enemy. He was, in their view, appointed by God, and the final arbiter of God’s justice on earth. This, they believed, meant he was bound to take their side.
Instead, the peasants focused their rage on Richard’s advisers, whom the peasants thought were manipulating the boy king to enrich themselves. The peasants believed it was God’s will that they kill these advisers and thus free the king of their evil influence.
By the time all the rebel contingents converged on London, they were about 60,000 strong. Once there, the peasant army found that about half the city’s population of 40,000 were ready and waiting to join them. Over several days, the rebels raided and burned abbeys and stately homes, dumping treasures and luxury goods into the Thames. They stormed the lawcourts, killing lawyers they deemed corrupt. Possibly at the instigation of local cloth merchants, the rebels also targeted and executed foreigners, especially Flemish merchants (from modern day Belgium). Many Flemings were decapitated and others were forced into a church which the rebels then set ablaze.
A meeting at Mile End
London’s ruling class was wholly unprepared for such an assault. With all of Richard’s professional soldiers off fighting in France, the city was virtually defenseless. Moreover, Richard’s ruling council seemed paralyzed by the shocking turn of events. For centuries, the nobility had had little or no contact with the peasants they ruled, regarding them as little better than animals. It was inconceivable to them that the peasants could organize themselves with such deadly and purposeful efficiency.
Ultimately, the young king and his council decided to buy time. He consented to meet with a contingent of the rebels from Kent and hear their demands.
Richard and his kingsmen met the Kentish rebels at Mile End, at the edge of London. It’s unknown who put the demands to the king (some assume it was Tyler), but we know what the demands were: an end to serfdom; freedom to sell goods on the open market instead of handing them over to a lord; reduced land rents; and a general pardon for the rebels. The peasants also gave Richard a list of nobles they wanted handed over for execution.
Perhaps to everyone’s surprise, Richard agreed to these demands, and even issued charters making them law. Richard didn’t agree to hand over the nobles, but promised to mete out justice to them himself. However, while Richard was at Mile End, another rebel group stormed the Tower of London, where they finally caught up with Archbishop Sudbury. The rebels dragged out Sudbury and Robert Hales, the Lord High Treasurer, and beheaded them.
Tyler rides forward
At this point, all but the most radical of the rebels returned home, satisfied with their apparent victories. However, Wat Tyler’s hardcore Essex contingent remained. Buoyed by Richard’s concessions at Mile End and believing the boy king was on their side, Tyler’s group arranged a face-to-face meeting with Richard the very next day at Smithfield, outside London’s walls.
Here again, the two sides met, Richard with his 200 or so kingsmen and advisers, and Tyler with his thousands-strong peasant army. Tyler rode forward to speak with the king. While aristocratic chroniclers of the time begrudgingly admit that Tyler was eloquent, they’re less flattering about his manners. Tyler spoke to the young king with a familiarity the king’s courtiers found offensive. Tyler addressed Richard as an equal, believing he was a fellow brother in the cause.
Tyler’s demands for reforms went further than those at Mile End. He demanded guarantees that the system of serfdom would never re-emerge; the abolition of the senior clergy and aristocracy (apart from the king); local administration of courts and police; and redistribution of the wealth of the clergy and nobility among the commoners.
Richard apparently agreed to these new demands, or at least made a show of it. What happened next is debatable. Most agree that one of the kingsmen provoked Tyler, who drew his knife. The Mayor of London then rode forward and slashed Tyler across the back of his head. Tyler managed to ride a few paces back towards his followers before falling from his horse.
The boy king’s face turn
The peasants, seeing their leader struck down, raised their bows and prepared to attack. But then the boy king rode forward, telling the peasants that he would be their new leader. The peasants rejoiced and blithely followed Richard’s instruction to meet him at nearby Clerkenwell Fields.
Tyler, dying but not yet dead, was taken to a nearby abbey, ironically, for treatment. There, a group of kingsmen strode in, dragged Tyler outside and beheaded him.
The peasants awaiting the king at Clerkenwell were shocked when Richard arrived with the Mayor of London, who was carrying Tyler’s head on a pike. The king’s forces had the peasants surrounded. Seeing this, the peasants fell to their knees, begging the king’s mercy. Richard told them to leave London in peace, and they did.
The story didn’t end there, however. Richard retracted all his concessions from Mile End, vowing that the conditions of the peasants’ servitude would be even harsher than before. He then dispatched men-at-arms across the land to seek out and kill the rebel leaders in the villages and forests where they were hiding. This slaughter went on for months, killing thousands. At least two rebels suffered the ultimate traitor’s death: hanging, drawing and quartering.
The only immediate result of the revolt in the peasants’ favor was that King Richard at last withdrew the reviled poll tax. Other than that, things changed little for a time. Peasants’ wages remained low and their freedoms severely curtailed.
But over the following decades, England’s ruling class had to come to terms with new economic and social realities. Even though the feudal system remained law, few landlords dared enforce its harsh restrictions on their peasants. Gradually, peasants drifted away from their plantations seeking better opportunities elsewhere. Those peasants content to stay in the farming villages where they’d lived for generations enjoyed better wages and an overall better quality of life.
Of course, the struggle for economic freedom and equality didn’t end there and continues to this day. This struggle has at times given rise to mob violence and brutal crackdowns by the state and owner class. However, at least in the Western world, none have yet matched the scale and carnage of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt and its aftermath. For that we should be grateful.
Legacy and cautionary tales
A modern reader may sympathize with the rebels’ high-minded goals and aspirations to freedoms we take for granted today. Indeed, many progressive thinkers have eulogized the Peasants’ Revolt as a spiritual predecessor to modern labor and civil rights movements. But it’s important not to gloss over the horrors of those two weeks.
It’s difficult to grasp the scale and shock factor of this revolt today. It sprang up rapidly in counties across England, with possibly hundreds of thousands taking up arms. Within two weeks, they managed to coordinate a massive pincer movement advancing towards London. While this level of organization and discipline was stunning, it was by no means complete. Rebel leaders like Wat Tyler issued orders against looting and wanton savagery, but both occurred and were widespread.
Not only did the rebels kill hundreds of people who they regarded as traitors and oppressors, they also brutally killed many people who were completely innocent. Aside from London’s unfortunate Flemings, the rebels also targeted simple folk who refused to join their cause.
The Peasants’ Revolt was a spontaneous, widespread, yet highly-focused explosion of rage that gave rise to an orgy of violence and destruction, the like of which we haven’t seen since. In this sense, the revolt marked a turning point in history. It was the moment when society first witnessed the awesome power and terror that can be unleashed when the masses have finally had enough of not having enough.
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