Gateway to the Classics: The World's Story: England by Eva March Tappan
The World's Story: England by  Eva March Tappan

The Revolt of the Peasants


TOWARDS the year 1381, all those in England who were called "bonds," that is to say, all the cultivators, were serfs of body and goods, obliged to pay heavy aids for the small portion of land which supported their family, and unable to quit this portion of land without the consent of the lords, whose tillage, gardening, and cartage of every kind they were compelled to perform gratuitously. The lord might sell them with their house, their oxen, their tools, their children, and their posterity, as is thus expressed in the deeds: "Know that I have sold such a one, my naif  (nativum meum ), and all his progeny, born or to be born." Resentment of the misery caused by the oppression of the noble families, combined with an almost entire oblivion of the events which had elevated these families, whose members no longer distinguished themselves by the name of Normans, but by the term gentlemen, had led the peasants of England to contemplate the idea of the injustice of servitude in itself, independently of its historical origin.

In the southern counties, whose population was more numerous, and especially in Kent, the inhabitants of which had preserved a vague tradition of a treaty concluded between themselves and William the Conqueror for the maintenance of their ancient rights and liberties, great symptoms of popular agitation appeared in the commencement of the reign of Richard II. It was a time of excessive expense with the court and all the gentlemen,  on account of the wars in France, which all attended at their own cost, and wherein each vied with the other in the magnificence of his train and his armor. The proprietors of the lordships and manors overwhelmed their farmers and serfs with taxes and exactions, alleging for every fresh demand, the necessity of going to fight the French on their own ground, in order to prevent their making a descent upon England. But the peasants said:—

"We are taxed to aid the knights and squires of the country to defend their heritages; we are their slaves, the sheep from whom they shear the wool; all things considered, if England were conquered, we should lose much less than they."

These and similar thoughts, murmuringly exchanged on the road, when the serfs of the same or of neighboring domains met each other on their return from labor, became after a while the theme of earnest speeches, pronounced in a sort of club, where they collected in the evening. Some of the orators were priests, and they derived from the Bible their arguments against the social order of the period.

"Good people," they said, "things may not go on in England, and shall not, until there be no more villeins or gentlemen among us, but we be all equal, and the lords no more masters than we. Where is their greater worth, that they should hold us in serfage? We all come from the same father and mother, Adam and Eve. They are clothed in fine velvet and satin, lined with ermine and minever; they have meat, and spices, and good wines; we, the refuse of the straw, and for drink, water. They have ease and fine mansions, we pain and hard labor, the rain and the wind, in the open fields."

Hereupon the whole assembly would exclaim tumultuously: "There shall be no more serfs; we will no longer be treated as beasts; if we work for the lords, it shall be for pay."

These meetings, held in many parts of Kent and Essex, were secretly organized, and sent deputies into the neighboring counties to seek the counsel and aid of men of the same class and opinion. A great association was thus formed for the purpose of forcing the gentlemen to renounce their privileges. A remarkable feature of the confederation is, that written pamphlets, in the form of letters, were circulated throughout the villages, recommending to the associates, in mysterious and proverbial terms, perseverance and discretion. These productions, several of which have been preserved by a contemporary author, are written in a purer English, that is to say, less mixed up with French, than are other pieces of the same period, destined for the amusement of the rich citizens. Except as facts, however, these pamphlets of the fourteenth century have nothing curious about them; the most significant of them is a letter addressed to the country people by a priest named John Ball, which contains the following passage:—

"John Ball greeteth you all well, and doth give you to understand he hath rung your bell. Now right and might, will and skill; God speed every idle one; stand manfully in truth and helping. If the end be well, then is all well."

Notwithstanding the distance which then separated the condition of the peasants from that of the citizens, and more especially from that of the London citizens, the latter, it would appear, entered into close communication with the serfs of Essex, and even promised to open the gates of the city to them, and to admit them without opposition, if they would come in a body to make their demands to King Richard. This king had just entered his sixteenth year, and the peasants, full of simple good faith and a conviction in the justice of their cause, imagined that he would enfranchise them in a legal manner, without their needing to resort to violence. It was the constant theme of their conversations: "Let us go to the king, who is young, and show him our servitude; let us go together, and when he shall see us, he will grant us his grace of his own accord; if not, we will use other means." The association formed round London was rapidly extending, when an unforeseen incident, in compelling the associates to act before they had attained sufficient strength and organization, destroyed their hopes, and left to the progress of European civilization the gradual abolition of servitude in England.

In the year 1381, the necessities of the Government, arising from the prosecution of the war and the luxury of the court, occasioned the levy of a poll-tax of twelve-pence for every person, of whatever station, who had passed the age of fifteen. The collection of this tax not having produced as much as had been expected, commissioners were sent to inquire into the subject. In their examination of the nobles and rich, they were courteous and considerate, but towards the lower classes they were excessively rigorous and insolent. The indignation caused by these outrages created an insurrection, headed by a tiler, named Walter, or familiarly Wat, and surnamed from his trade, Tyler. This movement created others, in Sussex, Bedfordshire, and Kent, of which the priest, John Ball, and one Jack Straw were appointed leaders. The three chiefs and their band, augmented on its march by all the laborers and serfs it met, proceeded towards London; "to see the king," said the simpler among the insurgents, who expected everything from the mere interview.

They marched, armed with iron-tipped staves, and rusty swords and axes, in disorder, but not furious, singing political songs, two verses of which have been preserved:—

"When Adam delved and Eve span,

Who was then the gentleman?"

They plundered no one on their way, but on the contrary, paid scrupulously for all they needed. The Kentish men went first to Canterbury to seize the archbishop, who was also chancellor of England; not finding him there, they continued their march, destroying the houses of the courtiers and those of the lawyers who had conducted suits brought against serfs by the nobles. They also carried off several persons whom they kept as hostages; among others a knight and his two sons; they halted on Blackheath, where they entrenched themselves in a kind of camp. They then proposed to the knight whom they had brought with them to go as messenger from them to the king, who on the news of the insurrection had withdrawn to the Tower of London. The knight dared not refuse; taking a boat, he proceeded to the Tower, and kneeling before the king:—

"Most dread lord," he said, "deign to receive without displeasure the message I am fain to bring; for, dear lord, it is by force I come."

"Deliver your message," answered the king; "I will hold you excused."

"Sire, the commons of your kingdom entreat you to come and speak with them; they will see no one but yourself; have no fear for your safety, for they will do you no evil, and will always hold you their king; they will show you, they say, many things it is necessary for you to know, and which they have not charged me to tell you; but, dear lord, deign to give me an answer, that they may know I have been with you, for they hold my children as hostages."

The king, having consulted with his advisers, said "that if on the following morning the peasants would come as far as Rotherhithe, he would meet them, and speak with them." This answer greatly delighted them. They passed the night in the open air as well as they could, for they were nearly sixty thousand in number, and most of them fasted for want of food.

Next day, the 12th of June, the king heard mass in the Tower; and then, despite the entreaties of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who urged him not to compromise himself with shoeless vagabonds,  he proceeded in a barge, accompanied by some knights, to the opposite shore, where about ten thousand men from the camp at Blackheath had collected. When they saw the barge approach, "they," says Froissart, "set up shouts and cries as if all the devils from hell had come in their company," which so terrified the king's escort that they entreated him not to land, and kept the barge at a distance from the bank.

"What would you have?" said the king to the insurgents: "I am here to speak with you."

"Land, and we will show you more readily what we would have."

The Earl of Salisbury, answering for the king, said: "Sirs, you are not in fit order for the king to come to you"; and the barge returned to the Tower.

The insurgents went back to Blackheath, to tell their fellows what had occurred, and there was now but one cry among them: "To London, to London; let us march upon London."

They marched accordingly to London, destroying several manor-houses on their way, but without plundering them of anything: arrived at London Bridge, they found the gates closed; they demanded admission, and urged the keepers not to drive them to use violence. The mayor, William Walworth, a man of English origin, as his name indicates, wishing to ingratiate himself with the king and the gentry, was at first resolved to keep the gates shut, and to post armed men on the bridge to stop the peasants; but the citizens, especially those of the middle and lower classes, so decidedly opposed this project that he was fain to renounce it.

"Why," said they, "why are we not to admit these good folk? They are our people, and whatever they do is for us."

The gate was opened, and the insurgents, overrunning the city, distributed themselves among the houses in search of food, which every one readily gave them, from good will or from fear.

Those who were first satisfied hastened to the palace of the Duke of Lancaster, called the Savoy, and set fire to it, out of hatred to this lord, the king's uncle, who had recently taken an active part in the administration of public affairs. They burned all his valuable furniture, without appropriating a single article; and threw into the flames one of their party whom they detected carrying something away. Actuated by the same sentiments of political vengeance, unmixed with other passion, they put to death, with a fantastic mockery of judicial forms, several of the king's officers. They did no harm to men of the citizen and trading class, whatever their opinions, except to the Lombards and Flemings, who conducted the banks in London, under the protection of the court, and several of whom, as farmers of the taxes, had rendered themselves accomplices in the oppression of the poor. In the evening, they assembled in great numbers in St. Catherine's Square, near the Tower, saying they would not leave the place until the king had granted them what they required; they passed the night here, from time to time sending forth loud shouts, which terrified the king and the lords in the Tower. The latter held counsel with the mayor of London as to the best course to be pursued in so pressing a danger: the mayor, who had deeply compromised himself with the insurgents, was for violent measures. He said nothing could be easier than to defeat, by a direct attack with regular forces, a set of people, running in disorder about the streets, and scarce one in ten of whom was well armed. His advice was not followed, the king preferring the counsel of those who said: "If you can appease these people by good words, it were best and most profitable; for if we begin a thing we cannot achieve, we shall never regain our ground."

In the morning, the insurgents who had passed the night in St. Catherine's Square set themselves in motion, and declared that unless the king came to them forthwith, they would take the Tower by assault, and put to death all that were within it. The king sent word that if they would remove to Mile-End, he would meet them there without fail; and shortly after their departure he accordingly followed them, accompanied by his two brothers, by the Earls of Salisbury, Warwick, and Oxford, and by several other barons. As soon as they had quitted the Tower, those insurgents who had remained in the city entered it by force, and running from chamber to chamber, seized the Archbishop of Canterbury, the king's treasurer, and two other persons, whom they decapitated, and then stuck their heads upon pikes. The main body of the insurgents, numbering fifty thousand men, was assembled at Mile-End when the king arrived. At sight of the armed peasants, his two brothers and several barons were alarmed, and left him; but he, young as he was, boldly advanced, and addressing the rioters in the English tongue, said:—

"Good people, I am your king and sire; what want you? What would you have from me?"

Those who were within hearing of what he said answered: "We would have you free us forever, us, our children, and our goods, so that we be no longer called serfs or held in serfage."

"Be it so," said the king; "return to your houses, by villages, as you came, and only leave behind you two or three men of each place. I will have forthwith written, and sealed with my seal; letters which they shall carry with them, and which shall freely secure unto you all you ask, and I forgive you all you have done hitherto; but you must return every one of you to your houses, as I have said."

[The letters were distributed, and the men started for their homes. John Ball and Wat Tyler, however, felt little confidence in the letters. They brought together several thousand men and declared that they should remain in London until the king had given them far more definite concessions and also security that these concessions would be kept.]

Their firmness produced its effect upon the lords of the court, who, not venturing as yet to employ force, advised the king to have an interview with the chiefs of the revolt in Smithfield. The peasants, having received this notification, repaired thither to await the king, who came, escorted by the mayor and aldermen of London, and by several courtiers and knights. He drew up his horse at a certain distance from the insurgents, and sent an officer to say that he was present, and that the leader who was to speak for them might advance.

"That leader am I," answered Wat Tyler; and heedless of the danger to which he exposed himself, he ordered his men not to move hand or foot until he should give them a signal, and then rode boldly up to the king, approaching him so near that his horse's head touched the flank of Richard's steed. Without any obsequious forms, he proceeded explicitly to demand certain rights, the natural result of the enfranchisement of the people, namely, the right of buying and selling freely in towns and out of towns, and that right of hunting in all forests, parks, and commons, and of fishing in all waters which the men of English race had lost at the Conquest.

The king hesitated to reply, and meantime, Wat Tyler, whether from impatience or to show by his gestures that he was not intimidated, played with a short sword he had in his hand, and tossed it to and fro. The mayor of London, William Walworth, who rode beside the king, thinking that Wat Tyler menaced Richard, or simply carried away by passion, struck the insurgent a blow on the head with his mace, and knocked him from his horse. The king's suite surrounded him, to conceal for a moment what was passing; and a squire of Norman birth, named Philpot, dismounting, thrust his sword into Tyler's heart and killed him. The insurgents, perceiving that their chief was no longer on horseback, set themselves in motion, exclaiming:—

"They have slain Our captain! Let us kill them all!" And those who had bows bent them to shoot upon the king and his train.

King Richard displayed extraordinary courage. He quitted his attendants, saying, "Remain, and let none follow me"; and then advanced alone towards, the peasants, forming in battle array, whom he thus addressed:—

"My lieges, what are you doing? What want you? You have no other captain than I Tyler was a traitor; I am your king, and will be your captain and guide; remain at peace, follow me into the fields, and I will give you what you ask."

Astonishment at this proceeding, and the impression ever produced on the masses by him who possesses the sovereign power, induced the main body of the insurgents to follow the king, as it were, by a mechanical instinct. While Richard withdrew, talking with them, the mayor hastened into the city, rung the alarm-bell, and had it cried through the streets:—

"They are killing the king! They are killing the king!"

As the insurgents had quitted the city, the English and foreign gentlemen, and the rich citizens, who sided with the nobles, and who had remained in arms in their houses with their people, fearful of pillage, all came forth, and, several thousand in number, the majority being on horseback and completely armed, hastened towards the open fields about Islington, whither the insurgents were marching in disorder, expecting no attack. As soon as the king saw them approach, he galloped up to them, and joining their ranks, ordered an attack upon the peasants, who, taken by surprise and seized with a panic terror, fled in every direction, most of them throwing down their arms. Great carnage was made of them, and many of the fugitives, reentering London, concealed themselves in the houses of their friends.

by Augustin Thierry

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