When Edward iii. died in 1377 a.d. , his grandson, Richard, the son of the Black Prince, became king. He was only a boy of eleven, but the people already loved him for the sake of his brave father, and there was great rejoicing when he was crowned.
Like so many other boy kings, Richard was too young to reign, and the power was really in the hands of his uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. The people hoped that with a new king happier times would come for them, but they were soon disappointed, and John of Gaunt was hated as Edward had been hated in his last years.
The war with France still went on, although it became harder and harder to find money with which to pay the soldiers, and the people were taxed more and more heavily.
A new tax, called the poll-tax, had been first paid in the reign of Edward iii. Poll means head, and it really was a tax upon the head of every one in the kingdom over the age of fourteen. Rich people had to pay more than poor people, still it was the poor who felt the burden most.
This tax was now made three times as heavy as it had been, and the poor were driven almost to despair. Rough, rude men were sent all over the country to gather the money. These men insulted and ill-treated the people, and at last one of them behaved so brutally to the daughter of a man called Wat, that Wat struck him on the head with his hammer and killed him.
This man Wat or Walter was a tiler of houses, and from that he was called "Wat the Tiler" or Tyler. In those days people very often took their names from the work they did.
As soon as it became known that Wat Tyler had killed a tax-collector, the people of the town flocked round him. They had been ready to rise in rebellion before, and now this action of Wat decided them. They armed themselves with any kind of weapon upon which they could lay hands—sticks, rusty swords, old bows and featherless arrows—and began to march to London. Everywhere, as they passed along through towns and villages, others joined them, and men, leaving their carts and ploughs in the fields, forsook their wives and children till, when they reached London, they were a great army of one hundred thousand men.
The chief leaders of this army were Wat Tyler, Jack Straw, and a priest called John Ball.
This priest had done a great deal towards stirring up the people against their masters. He had already been put into prison three times for preaching that all men should be equal, and that it was wicked for one man to have more money than another.
"When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?"
Many of those who had joined Wat Tyler hardly knew what they wanted. They knew only that they were miserable and poor, and they hoped that if they saw the King he would do something to make them happy. They blamed John of Gaunt for the misery they suffered, and on the road to London they stopped all whom they met, and made them swear to be true to Richard ii. , and never to accept any one of the name of John as King.
When they came near London they camped upon Blackheath, and sent messengers to the King begging to be allowed to speak with him.
"You need not fear," they said, "we will do you no harm. We have always respected you, and will respect you as our King. But we have many things to say to you which you ought to hear."
"Tell them," said King Richard, "that to-morrow I will meet their leaders by the river." This answer gave the peasants great joy, and they camped for the night as best they could. They had no tents nor covering of any kind, and many of them had no supper, for they had eaten any food which they had brought with them, and had no money to buy more.
The next day the young King rowed down the river to talk to the people as he had promised. But when he saw what a great crowd there was he would not land. He sat in his boat and tried to talk to the leaders as they stood upon the bank. But they were angry because he would not land, and made such a noise that it was impossible to hear anything.
"Tell me what you want," shouted the King; "I have come to hear what you have to say."
"You must land first. Then we will tell you what we want," yelled the crowd in return.
But Richard was afraid to land, and indeed the barons and lords would not allow him to do so. So after rowing up and down the river for some time, trying in vain to make himself heard by the howling, yelling crowd on the bank, he returned to the Tower, where he was living.
When the people saw the King row away they were madly angry. They had been quiet and orderly. They were so no longer. "Let us march to London," they said, "and take it."
The Mayor of London shut the city gates, but the poor people within opened them to their friends, and the yelling crowd poured into the city.
They broke into all the shops where food was sold, eating and drinking as much as they wanted. They burned and wrecked John of Gaunt's house, called the Savoy, which was the most beautiful palace in London. Other houses and some churches were destroyed, and many people were killed. The prisons were broken open, and all the prisoners set free. Yet the rioters did not steal. They burned and threw into the river the beautiful furniture and jewels belonging to John of Gaunt, because they hated him and blamed him for their misery, but they would not allow anything to be taken away. One man who was seen to steal a piece of silver was thrown into the flames, and burned alive as a punishment by his companions. "We are not thieves and robbers," they said. "We are fighting only for truth and justice."
As the day went on, the noise grew greater and greater, and when night came the rioters collected in the square in front of the Tower. There they made a terrible noise, swearing that, if the King did not come out to them, they would burn the Tower.
The King and his friends held a council together, and Richard decided that next day he would again try to speak with the people. He sent a message to them telling them to go to an open space called Mile End, and that there he would come to speak with them in the morning.
A great many of the people, when they heard this, marched to Mile End, but others refused to go away from the Tower. Next morning, as soon as the gates were opened for the King to pass out, these rioters rushed in. They killed many of the people in the Tower, and nearly frightened the King's mother, the Princess of Wales, to death.
Meanwhile, Richard rode to Mile End, and found a great company of people awaiting him there. As soon as he was near enough he spoke to them kindly.
"My good people," he said, "I am your King. What is it you want? And what do you wish to say to me?"
"We want you to make us free for ever, both ourselves and our children. We will not be slaves any longer," they replied.
"You have your wish," answered Richard. "Now go home quietly. Leave behind you one or two men from each village. To them I will give letters signed and sealed with my seal, promising what you ask."
Then the people, who really did not know quite what they wanted, set up a great shout for the King, and went back to their homes.
Richard gave orders to about thirty secretaries, who wrote the letters as fast as they could. They sat up all night to write. These letters promised freedom to all the slaves and, as soon as they were written, they were signed and sealed with the King's seal, and given to the men who waited for them.
But Wat Tyler had not been with the rioters at Mile End, and he would not agree to go home. He wanted the King to promise much more than that there should no longer be slaves in England. Next day, while he and his followers were gathered at a place called Smithfield, the King came riding by, attended only by a few friends and soldiers.
"Here is the King," said Wat, "I will go to speak to him. You must not move until I give you a signal." He waved his hand and added, "When you see me make this sign, run forward and kill every man of them, except the King. Do not kill him, for he is young, and we can make him do what we like."
Then he set spurs to his horse, and galloped towards Richard, who was waiting to see what the rebels meant to do.
"King," said Wat, "do you see all those men there?"
"Yes," replied the King, "I do. Why do you ask?"
"Because they are all under my orders," said Wat, "and have sworn to do whatever I command them."
"I have no objection to that," replied the King, and he went on to speak quietly and peaceably to Wat Tyler, but Wat was too angry to listen. Finding that he could not quarrel with the King, he began to do so with one of the gentlemen beside him.
Hot words passed between them, till Richard growing angry turned to the Mayor of London, who was also there, and told him to seize Wat Tyler.
"Truly," said the Mayor, "it ill becomes such a rascal to use such words in the presence of the King. I will pay him for it," and raising his sword he struck Wat Tyler a blow on the head. Wat fell to the ground, the King's friends closed round him, and a minute later he was dead.
When Wat Tyler's men saw him fall, they called out, "They have killed our captain. Let us slay them all," and they ran towards the King with their bows bent ready to shoot.
Then Richard did a brave thing. Forbidding any of his men to follow him, he rode alone toward the rioters. "Friends," he said, "what are you doing? I am your King. Follow me. I myself shall be your leader."
At these words many of the rioters were ashamed. Some of them at once slipped quietly away, and Richard, putting himself at the head of the others, led them out into the country.
Meanwhile some of Richard's company had fled back into London, crying, "They are killing the King, they are killing the King."
When the people heard that, many of the King's soldiers came running together, and an army marched out to the fields to meet Richard and the rebels.
As soon as he saw them, the king left the rebels and put himself at the head of his own soldiers. Several of the nobles then wished to attack the rebels, but Richard forbade them to do so. But he ordered all the letters promising freedom, which the rioters had among them, to be given up at once on pain of instant death.
As soon as the King received the letters, he tore them up in sight of the rebels. These poor people now saw all their hopes of freedom gone. Their leader, too, was dead, so not waiting for more they broke and fled they hardly knew where. Many of them returned to their homes, but John Ball and Jack Straw were cruelly betrayed by the very men they had tried to help and free. They were beheaded by Richard's orders, along with many of their followers.
The King did not keep any of his promises to the people. "Slaves you are, and slaves you shall remain," he said savagely, when the danger to himself was over. It seemed as if the rising had been in vain. But that was not so. Many masters freed their slaves, and although years passed before all were free, Wat Tyler's rebellion was the beginning of freedom for the lower classes in England. Up to this time many of the labourers and workers who were free men had been treated almost as badly as slaves, but now their condition became better.