In that year of woe and dread, 1348, the Black Death fell upon England. Never before had so frightful a calamity been known; never since has it been equaled. Men died by millions. All Europe had been swept by the plague, as by a besom of destruction, and now England became its prey. The population of the island at that period was not great,—some three or four millions in all. When the plague had passed more than half of these were in their graves, and in many places there were hardly enough living to bury the dead.
We call it a calamity. It is not so sure that it was. Life in England at that day, for the masses of the people, was not so precious a boon that death had need to be sorely deplored. A handful of lords and a host of laborers, the latter just above the state of slavery, constituted the population. Many of the serfs had been set free, but the new liberty of the people was not a state of unadulterated happiness. War had drained the land. The luxury of the nobles added to the drain. The patricians caroused. The plebeians suffered. The Black Death came. After it had passed, labor, for the first time in English history, was master of the situation.
Laborers had grown scarce. Many men refused to work. The first general strike for higher wages began. In the country, fields were left untilled and harvests rotted on the ground. "The sheep and cattle strayed through the fields and corn, and there were none left who could drive them." In the towns, craftsmen refused to work at the old rate of wages. Higher wages were paid, but the scarcity of food made higher prices, and men were little better off. Many laborers, indeed, declined to work at all, becoming tramps,—what were known as "sturdy beggars,"—or haunting the forests as bandits.
The king and parliament sought to put an end to this state of affairs by law. An ordinance was passed whose effect would have made slaves of the people. Every man under sixty, not a land owner or already at work (says this famous act), must work for the employer who demands his labor, and for the rate of wages that prevailed two years before the plague. The man who refused should be thrown into prison. This law failed to work, and sterner measures were passed. The laborer was once more made a serf, bound to the soil, his wage-rate fixed by parliament. Law after law followed, branding with a hot iron on the forehead being finally ordered as a restraint to runaway laborers. It was the first great effort made by the class in power to put down an industrial revolt.
The peasantry and the mechanics of the towns resisted. The poor found their mouth piece in John Ball, "a mad priest of Kent," as Froisaart calls him. Mad his words must have seemed to the nobles of the land. "Good people," he declared, "things will never go well in England so long as goods be not in common, and so long as there be villains and gentlemen. By what right are they whom we call lords greater folk than we? On what grounds have they deserved it? Why do they hold us in serfage? If we all came of the same father and mother, of Adam and Eve, how can they say or prove that they are better than we, if it be not that they make us gain for them by our toil what they spend in their pride? They are clothed in velvet, and warm in their furs and their ermines, while we are covered with rags. They have wine and spices and fair bread; and we have oat cake and straw, and water to drink. They have leisure and fine houses; we have pain and labor, the rain and the wind in the fields. And yet it is of us and of our toil that these men hold their state."
So spoke this early socialist. So spoke his hearers in the popular rhyme of the day:
"When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?"
So things went on for years, growing worse year by year, the fire of discontent smouldering, ready at a moment to burst into flame.
At length the occasion came. Edward the Third died, but he left an ugly heritage of debt behind him. His useless wars in France had beggared the crown. New money must be raised. Parliament laid a poll-tax on every person in the realm, the poorest to pay as much as the wealthiest.
Here was an application of the doctrine of equality of which the people did not approve. The land was quickly on fire from sea to sea. Crowds of peasants gathered and drove the tax-gatherers with clubs from their homes. Rude rhymes passed from lip to lip, full of the spirit of revolt. All over southern England spread the sentiment of rebellion.
The incident which set flame to the fuel was this. At Dartford, in gent, lived one Wat Tyler, a hardy soldier who had served in the French wars. To his house, in his absence, came a tax-collector, and demanded the tax on his daughter. The mother declared that she was not taxable, being under fourteen years of age. The collector thereupon seized the child in an insulting manner, so frightening her that her screams reached the ears of her father, who was at work not far off. Wat flew to the spot, struck one blow, and the villanous collector lay dead at his feet.
Within an hour the people of the town were in arms. As the story spread through the country, the people elsewhere rose and put themselves under the leadership of Wat Tyler. In Essex was another party in arms, under a priest called Jack Straw. Canterbury rose in rebellion, plundered the palace of the archbishop, and released John Ball from the prison to which this "mad" socialist had been consigned. The revolt spread like wildfire. County after county rose in insurrection. But the heart of the rebellion lay in Kent, and from that county marched a hundred thousand men, with Wat Tyler at their head, London their goal.
Wat Tylerís Cottage.
To Blackheath they came, the multitude swelling as it marched. Every lawyer they met was killed. The houses of the stewards were burned, and the records of the manor courts flung into the flames. A wild desire for liberty and equality animated the mob, yet they did no further harm. All travellers were stopped and made to swear that they would be true to King Richard and the people. The king's mother fell into their hands, but all the harm done her was the being made to kiss a few rough-bearded men who vowed loyalty to her son.
The young king—then a boy of sixteen—addressed them from a boat in the river. But his council would not let him land, and the peasants, furious at his distrust, rushed upon London, uttering cries of "Treason!" The drawbridge of London Bridge had been raised, but the insurgents had friends in the city who lowered it, and quickly the capital was swarming with Wat Tyler's infuriated men. Soon the prisons were broken open, and their inmates had joined the insurgent ranks. The palace of the Duke of Lancaster, the Savoy, the most beautiful in England, was quickly in flames. That nobleman, detested by the people, had fled in all haste to Scotland. The Temple, the head-quarters of the lawyers, was set on fire, and its books and documents reduced to ashes. The houses of the foreign merchants were burned. There was "method in the madness" of the insurgents. They sought no indiscriminate ruin. The lawyers and the foreigners were their special detestation. Robbery was not permitted. One thief was seen with a silver vessel which he had stolen from the Savoy. He and his plunder were flung together into the flames. They were, as they boasted, "seekers of truth and justice, not thieves or robbers."
Thus passed the first day of the peasant occupation of London, the people of the town in terror, the insurgents in subjection to their leaders, and still more so to their own ideas. Many of them were drunk, but no outrages were committed. The influence of one terrible example repressed all theft. Never had so orderly a mob held possession of so great a city.
On the second day, Wat Tyler and a band of his followers forced their way into the Tower. The knights of the garrison were panic-stricken, but no harm was done them. The peasants, in rough good humor, took them by the beards, and declared that they were now equals, and that in the time to come they would be good friends and comrades.
But this rude jollity ceased when Archbishop Sudbury, who had been active in preventing the king from landing from the Thames, and the ministers who were concerned in the levy of the poll-tax, fell into their hands. Short shrift was given these detested officials. They were dragged to Tower Hill, and their heads struck off.
"King Richard and the people!" was the rallying cry of the insurgents. It went ill with those who hesitated to subscribe to this sentiment. So evidently were the peasants friendly to the king that the youthful monarch fearlessly sought them at Mile End, and held a conference with sixty thousand of them who lay there encamped.
"I am your king and lord, good people," he boldly addressed them; "what will ye?"
"We will that you set us free forever," was the answer of the insurgents, "us and our lands; and that we be never named nor held for serfs."
"I grant it," said the king.
His words were received with shouts of joy. The conference then continued, the leaders of the peasants proposing four conditions, to all of which the king assented. These were, first, that neither they nor their descendants should ever be enslaved; second, that the rent of land should be paid in money at a fixed price, not in service; third, that they should be at liberty to buy and sell in market and elsewhere, like other free men; fourth, that they should be pardoned for past offences.
"I grant them all," said Richard. "Charters of freedom and pardon shall be at once issued. Go home and dwell in peace, and no harm shall come to you."
More than thirty clerks spent the rest of that day writing at all speed the pledges of amnesty promised by the king. These satisfied the bulk of the insurgents, who quietly left for their homes, placing all confidence in the smooth promises of the youthful monarch.
Some interesting scenes followed their return. The gates of the Abbey of St. Albans were forced open, and a throng of townsmen crowded in, led by one William Grindcobbe, who compelled the abbot to deliver up the charters which held the town in serfage to the abbey. Then they burst into the cloister, sought the millstones which the courts had declared should alone grind corn at St. Albans, and broke them into small pieces. These were distributed among the peasants as visible emblems of their new-gained freedom.
Meanwhile, Wat Tyler had remained in London, with thirty thousand men at his back, to see that the kingly pledge was fulfilled. He had not been at Mile End during the conference with the king, and was not satisfied with the demands of the peasants. He asked, in addition, that the forest-laws should be abolished, and the woods made free.
The next day came. Chance brought about a meeting between Wat and the king, and hot blood made it a tragedy. King Richard was riding with a train of some sixty gentlemen, among them William Walworth, the mayor of London, when, by ill hap, they came into contact with Wat and his followers.
"There is the king," said Wat. "I will go speak with him, and tell him what we want."
The bold leader of the peasants rode forward and confronted the monarch, who drew rein and waited to hear what he had to say.
"King Richard," said Wat, "dost thou see all my men there?"
"Ay," said the king. "Why?"
"Because," said Wat, "they are all at my command, and have sworn to do whatever I bid them."
What followed is not very clear. Some say that Wat laid his hand on the king's bridle, others that he fingered his dagger threateningly. Whatever the provocation, Walworth, the mayor, at that instant pressed forward, sword in hand, and stabbed the unprotected man in the throat before he could make a movement of defence. As he turned to rejoin his men he was struck a death-blow by one of the king's followers.
This rash action was one full of danger. Only the ready wit and courage of the king saved the lives of his followers,—perhaps of himself.
"Kill! kill!" cried the furious peasants, "they have killed our captain."
Bows were bent, swords drawn, an ominous movement begun. The moment was a critical one. The young king proved himself equal to the occasion. Spurring his horse, he rode boldly to the front of the mob.
"What need ye, my masters?" he cried. "That man is a traitor. I am your captain and your king. Follow me!"
His words touched their hearts. With loud shouts of loyalty they followed him to the Tower, where he was met by his mother with tears of joy.
"Rejoice and praise God," the young king said to her; "for I have recovered to-day my heritage which was lost, and the realm of England."
It was true; the revolt was at an end. The frightened nobles had regained their courage, and six thousand knights were soon at the service of the king, pressing him to let them end the rebellion with sword and spear.
He refused. His word had been passed, and he would live to it—at least, until the danger was passed. The peasants still in London received their charters of freedom and dispersed to their homes. The city was freed of the low-born multitude who had held it in mortal terror.
Yet all was not over. Many of the peasants were still in arms. Those of St. Albans were emulated by those of St. Edmondsbury, where fifty thousand men broke their way into the abbey precincts, and force the monks to grant a charter of freedom to the town. In Norwich, a dyer, Littester by name, calling himself the King of the Commons, forced the nobles captured by his followers to act as his meat-tasters, and serve him on their knees during his repasts. His reign did not last long. The Bishop of Norwich, with a following of knights and men-at-arms, fell on his camp and made short work of his majesty.
The king, soon forgetting his pledges, led an army of forty thousand men through Kent and Essex, and ruthlessly executed the peasant leaders. Some fifteen hundred of them were put to death. The peasants resisted stubbornly, but they were put down. The jurors refused to bring the prisoners in guilty, until they were threatened with execution themselves. The king and council, in the end, seemed willing to compromise with the peasantry, but the land-owners refused compliance. Their serfs were their property, they said, and could not be taken form them by king or parliament without their consent. "And this consent," they declared, "we have never given and never will give, were we all to die in one day."
Yet the revolt of the peasantry was not without its useful effect. From that time serfdom died rapidly. Wages continued to rise. A century after the Black Death, a laborerís work in England "commanded twice the amount of the necessaries of life which could have been obtained for the wages paid under Edward the Third." In a century and a half serfdom had almost vanished.
Thus ended the greatest peasant outbreak that England ever knew. The outbreak of Jack Cade, which took place seventy years afterwards, was for political rather than industrial reform. During those seventy years the condition of the working-classes had greatly improved, and the occasion for industrial revolt correspondingly decreased.