Gateway to the Classics: Stories From English History, Book II by Alfred J. Church
Stories From English History, Book II by  Alfred J. Church

The Story Of Wat Tyler

In the year 1381 there broke out the most terrible rebellion of the people against their rulers that has ever happened in England. There were many things to make them discontented. A great number of men had perished, and great sums of money had been spent, in the French wars, and all to very little or no good. Then the Parliament had passed laws by which they tried to keep the labourers, both in the country and the towns, from earning their proper wages. The fact was that a dreadful plague, which men called the Black Death, had passed through the country and swept off as much as half the population. Naturally, when there were fewer men to do the work, these fewer would be better paid for doing it. But this did not please their employers; and the employers persuaded the Parliament, where the poor had no one to speak for them, to pass a law by which wages should be kept low. By these it was forbidden for any labourer to ask and for any master to pay higher wages than had been paid before the year of the Black Death. Then a very hateful tax, called the poll-tax, was laid upon the people. The word "poll" means head, and every one above a certain age was bound to pay it. True, it was provided that the rich should pay more than the poor; the Duke of Lancaster, who was the King's uncle, and the archbishops had to pay to marks (£6 13s. 4d.) each, while a labouring man had to pay a groat (4d.). But, as a matter of fact, rich and powerful people often paid less than their due, while the poor could not escape.

It was in the month of June, 1381, that the trouble began, and began in several places almost at the same time. An officer was sent down from London into Essex to inquire why the tax had not been properly collected in that county. At the first place he came to the people refused to answer his questions. Soon after one of the principal judges came to try them for their disobedience: they attacked him and his people; the judge escaped, but some of his clerks were killed. In a few days all Essex had rebelled, their leader being a priest who called himself Jack Straw.

At the very same time that these things happened there was a rising in Kent. It began at Dartford, where a tax-collector was killed by a tile-maker, because he had behaved badly to one of the man's children. It spread to Gravesend, where one of the townspeople had been claimed as a bondsman by a neighbouring squire, and thrown into prison till he should pay £300 for his freedom. At Maidstone the rebels found a leader, Walter the tile-maker, commonly called Wat Tyler. There were as many as seven men who followed this occupation of making tiles that were among the leaders of the rebellion. Wat Tyler was joined by a well-known priest, John Ball by name, who had already been punished more than once for speaking against the Pope, the bishops, and the clergy. At Canterbury the mayor and aldermen were compelled to swear that they would support the cause of the people. The whole multitude—according to some accounts there were as many as 100,000 of them—marched towards London. When they came to Blackheath, John Ball is said to have preached a sermon to them, taking for his text the two verses—

"When Adam delved and Evé span,

Who was then the gentleman?"

Meanwhile the country-folk from Essex had posted themselves at Mile End, which is on the east side of London, and those from Hertfordshire at Highbury, which is on the north. But it was not these, as we shall see, but the men from Kent that did the most mischief.

What they first did was to send a message to the King by a certain knight whom they had compelled to come with them. The knight was to tell the King that England had been very badly governed for many years by the nobles and bishops, and that the people desired, for his sake and their own, to have these things set right. They wished, therefore, that he should see them and hear what they had got to say. The knight took this message, not very willingly, and the King sent him back with this answer, that if they would send their leaders the next day down to the river, he would talk with them.

The next day the King was rowed in his barge down the river as far as Rotherhithe (about three miles from Blackheath). The rebels had not been satisfied to send their leaders only; as many as 10,000 men had crowded down to the river-side, and these raised such an uproar when they saw the King's barge, that the nobles who were with him were frightened, and advised him not to land. The barge was rowed up and down, and the King tried to speak from it; the people, however, would not listen unless he landed, and this the nobles would not allow him to do.


King Richard the Second.

When the multitude at Blackheath heard that nothing had been done, they at once marched to London, doing much damage as they went. They were especially enraged against lawyers and foreigners, especially the Flemings, merchants and workmen from Flanders, many of whom had lately come over to this country. They thought that the lawyers made a profit out of their troubles, and that the Flemings took trade and work that properly belonged to Englishmen. The gates of London were not shut against them; in fact, there were thousands of people in the city who wished them well, and the authorities did not dare to refuse them admittance.

Perhaps the most unpopular man in the kingdom at this time was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, uncle to the King. A large body of the rebels, as soon as they got into the city, plundered and set on fire the Duke's palace, which was near the river, in a place then and still called the Savoy. The house and church belonging to the Knights Hospitallers of Rhodes were also burnt; the people probably disliked them as being foreigners. Some houses belonging to Lombard money-lenders were broken open. We are also told that Wat Tyler murdered a citizen whose servant he had once been in France, and by whom he had been beaten. The story does not look like truth, for how should a tile-maker have been a citizen's servant in France?

That night the main body of the rebels remained in St. Catherine's Square opposite the Tower. It was in the Tower that the King, his mother, the Black Prince's widow, and many of his chief counsellors were living.

The next day the King went to talk with the people who had come up from the eastern counties, and who had assembled, as has been said, at a place called Mile End. He made them promises to set right the things of which they complained, and so satisfied them. He even put these promises into writing. As many as thirty scribes were busy all night, it is said, with this work. In the morning the deeds were handed over to the people, and they went away to their homes, thinking that they had obtained all that they wanted.

Meanwhile, much mischief had been done at the Tower. We do not know whether the rebels were permitted to enter this place, or broke into it by force. We can see that the King and his advisers did everything they could to please Wat Tyler and his followers, of whom they were greatly afraid, and they may have thought it a good plan to seem to trust them. According to one account, the rebel leaders made their way through the gate as the King's party was coming out to go to Mile End. However this may be, they got in somehow, and murdered four persons, the chief of whom was Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury. After this they left St. Catherine's Square, and encamped in another large open space, where markets were held, known as Smithfield, and still called by that name.

The next morning the King rode into London from Westminster, for he had been at service in the Abbey. It is not clear whether he intended to speak to the rebels, or, seeing a great gathering of them as he rode by Smithfield, suddenly made up his mind to do so. He had done so well with the people at Mile End that he may well have hoped to pacify Wat Tyler and his followers. The story of what followed is thus told by a chronicler who lived at the time.

"When Wat Tyler saw the King, he said to his men, 'Here is the King; I will go and speak with him; do not move from your place till I give you this sign,' and he moved his hand to show what he meant. 'Then step forward and kill every one that is with the King, but save him alive, for he is young, and we can do what we please with him. We will carry him about England, and be masters of the whole land.' Then he spurred his horse to where the King was, coming so near that his horse's head touched the crupper of the King's saddle. 'King,' said he, 'dost thou see all these people?'

" 'Yes,' answered the King, 'I see them. Why dost thou ask?'

" 'Because they are all under my command, and have sworn to do whatsoever I shall bid them.'

" 'Well,' said the King, 'I do not blame them.'

" 'But dost thou think that all these men, and as many more as there are in this city under my command, ought to go away without having your promise in writing to take with them? Not so; but we will take the writings with us.'

" 'Nay, it has not been so ordered. Tell your companions to go to their homes, and the writings shall be given out village by village and town by town.'

"When the King had thus spoken, Wat Tyler saw one of the King's squires against whom he had a grudge. The man was carrying the King's sword. He said to him, 'Give me thy dagger.'

" 'Why should I give it thee?' said the squire. But the King said, 'Give it to him,' and this the squire did, much against his will.

"Wat Tyler said, 'Give me thy sword.'

" 'I will not,' the squire answered, 'for it is the King's sword, and thou art not worthy to carry it. And had thou and I been alone thou hadst not dared say such words, not for a heap of gold as high as this church. For they were near to the church of St. Bartholomew, which still stands in Smithfield. When the Mayor of London, William Walworth by name, heard this, he rode forward, having twelve others with him, all wearing armour under their clothes. 'How darest thou,' he said, 'so behave and say such words in the presence of the King?' By this time, too, the King had grown angry, and said to the Mayor, 'Lay hands on him.'

"Meanwhile Wat Tyler said to the Mayor, 'What concern hast thou with my words? What dost thou mean?'

" 'I mean this,' said the Mayor, 'that it does not become such a rascal as thou art to say such words in the presence of my lord the King. Verily, if I die for it, thou shalt suffer for thy insolence.' With this he drew a sword that he had, and struck Tyler such a blow as brought him down from his horse. When he was on the ground the King's people closed round him, so that his followers could not see what was done, and one of the squires killed him.

"When the rebels saw that their leader was dead, they cried out, 'They have killed our captain; let us slay them all.' And they came on, each man having his bow bent before him.

"The King, seeing this, bade his attendants stay where they were, and rode forward alone. 'Gentlemen,' he said, 'what are you about? You shall have none other captain but me. I am your king.' When they heard these words, such as were inclined to peace slunk away, but the others kept their ground, and seemed ready for mischief.

"By this time the alarm had spread in the city that the King was in danger, and a great number of the citizens came out to his help. Some of the King's counsellors were for falling upon the rebels, but the King would not suffer it. 'Nay,' said he, 'but go and ask them for their banners.' For each company had one of the King's banners. These they gave up. Then it was commanded that any man that had a written promise from the King should give it up under pain of death. This they did also, and after this they were suffered to depart."

The other leaders were seized and executed, and many of those who had joined in the rebellion were put to death. None of the King's promises were kept, and the wrongs complained of were not set right. Still in the end these poor men did not suffer in vain. Wat Tyler's rebellion was a step towards English freedom.

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