Gateway to the Classics: Richard II by Jacob Abbott
Richard II by  Jacob Abbott

Wat Tyler's Insurrection

The insurrection to which a large portion of the people of England were driven by the cruel tyranny and oppression which they suffered in the early part of King Richard's reign is commonly called Wat Tyler's insurrection, as if the affair with Wat Tyler were the cause and moving spring of it, whereas it was, in fact, only an incident of it.

The real name of this unhappy man was John Walter. He was a tiler by trade—that is, his business was to lay tiles for the roofs of houses, according to the custom of roofing prevailing in those days. So he was called John Walter, the Tiler, or simply Walter the Tiler; and from this his name was abridged to Wat Tyler.

The whole country was in a state of great discontent and excitement on account of the oppressions which the people suffered before Walter appeared upon the stage at all. When at length the outbreak occurred, he came forward as one of the chief leaders of it; there were however, several other leaders. The names by which the principal of them were known were Jack Straw, William Wraw, Jack Shepherd, John Milner, Hob Carter, and John Ball. It is supposed that many of these names were fictitious, and that the men adopted them partly to conceal their real names, and partly because they supposed that they should ingratiate themselves more fully with the lower classes of the people by assuming these familiar and humble appellations.

The historians of the times say that these leaders were all very bad men. They may have been so, though the testimony of the historians is not conclusive on this point, for they belonged to, and wrote in the interest of the upper classes, their enemies. The poor insurgents themselves never had the opportunity to tell their own story, either in respect to themselves or their commanders.

Still, it is highly probable that they were bad men. It is not generally the amiable, the gentle, and the good that are first to rise, and foremost, to take the lead in revolts against tyrants and oppressors. It is, on the other hand, far more commonly the violent, the desperate, and the bad that are first goaded on to assume this terrible responsibility. It is, indeed, one of the darkest features of tyranny that it tends, by the reaction which follows it, to invest this class of men with great power, and to commit the best interests of society, and the lives of great numbers of men, for a time at least, entirely to the disposal of the most reckless and desperate characters.

The lower classes of the people of England had been held substantially as slaves by the nobles and gentry for many generations. They had long submitted to this, hopeless of any change. But they had gradually become enlightened in respect to their natural rights; and now, when the class immediately above them were so grievously oppressed and harassed by the taxes which were assessed upon them, and still more by the vexatious and extortionate mode in which the money was collected, they all began to make common cause, and, when the rebellion broke out, they rose in one mass, freemen and bondmen together.

There was a certain priest named John Ball, who, before the rebellion broke out, had done much to enlighten the people as to their rights, and had attempted to induce them to seek redress at first in a peaceable manner. He used to make speeches to the people in the market-place, representing to them the hardships which they endured by the oppressions of the nobility, and urging them to combine together to petition the king for a redress of their grievances. "The king will listen to us, I am sure," said he, "if we go to him together in a body and make our request; but if he will not hear us, then we must redress our grievances ourselves the best way we can."

The example of Ball was followed by many other persons; and, as always happens in such cases, the excitement among the people, and their eagerness to hear, brought out a great many spectators, whose only object was to see who could awaken the resentment and anger of their audiences in the highest degree, and produce the greatest possible excitement. These orators, having begun with condemning the extravagant wealth, the haughty pretensions, and the cruel oppressions of the nobles, and contrasting them with the extreme misery and want of the common people, whom they held as slaves, proceeded at length to denounce all inequalities in human condition, and to demand that all things should be held in common.

"Things will never go on well in England," said they, "until all these distinctions shall be leveled, and the time shall come when there shall be neither vassal nor lord, and these proud nobles shall be no more masters than ourselves. How ill have they used us! And what right have they to hold us in this miserable bondage? Are we not all descended from the same parents, Adam and Eve? What right have one set of men to make another set their slaves? What right have they to compel us to toil all our lives to earn money, that they may live at ease and spend it? They are clothed in velvets and rich stuffs, ornamented with ermine and furs, while we are half naked, or clothed only in rags. They have wines, and spices, and fine bread, while we have nothing but rye, and the refuse of the straw. They have manors and handsome seats, while we live in miserable cabins, and have to brave the wind and rain at our labor in the fields, in order that, with the proceeds of our toil, they may support their pomp and luxury. And if we do not perform our services, or if they unjustly think that we do not, we are beaten, and there is no one to whom we can complain or look for justice."

There is obviously some truth and some extravagance is these complaints. Men deprived of their rights, as these poor English serfs were, and goaded by the oppressions which they suffered almost to despair, will, of course, be extravagant in their complaints. None but those totally ignorant of human nature would expect men to be moderate and reasonable when in such a condition, and in such a state of mind.

The truth is, that there always has been, and there always will necessarily be, a great inequality in the conditions, and a great difference in the employments of men; but this fact awakens no dissatisfaction or discontent when those who have the lower stations of life to fill are treated as they ought to be treated. If they enjoy personal liberty, and are paid the fair wages which they earn by their labor, and are treated with kindness and consideration by those whose duties are of a higher and more intellectual character, and whose position in life is superior to theirs, they are, almost without exception, satisfied and happy. It is only when they are urged and driven hard and long by unfeeling oppression that they are ever aroused to rebellion against the order of the social state; and then, as might be expected, they go to extremes, and, if they get the power into their hands, they sweep every thing away, and overwhelm themselves and their superiors in one common destruction.

Young persons sometimes imagine that the American doctrine of the equality of man refers to equality of condition; and even grown persons, who ought to think more clearly and be more reasonable, sometimes refer to the distinctions of rich and poor in this country as falsifying our political theories. But the truth is, that, in our political theory of equality, it is not at all equality of condition, but equality of rights, that is claimed for man. All men—the doctrine is simply—have an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Even when all are in the full enjoyment of their rights, different men will, of course, attain to very different degrees of advancement in the objects of their desire. Some will be rich and some will be poor; some will be servants and some masters; some will be the employers and some the employed; but, so long as all are equal in respect to their rights, none will complain—or, at least, no classes  will complain. There will, of course, be here and there disappointed and discontented individuals, but their discontent will not spread. It is only by the long-continued and oppressive infringement of the natural rights of large masses of men that the way is prepared for revolts and insurrections.

It was by this process that the way was prepared for the insurrection which I am now to describe. The whole country for fifty miles about London was in a very sullen and angry mood, ready for an outbreak the moment that any incident should occur to put the excitement in motion. This incident was furnished by an occurrence which took place in the family of Walter the Tiler.

It seems that a personal tax had been levied by the government, the amount of which varied with the age of the individual assessed. Children paid so much. Young men and young women paid more. The line between these classes was not clearly defined, or, rather, the tax-gatherers had no means of determining the ages of the young people in a family, if they suspected the parents reported them wrong. In such cases they were often very insolent and rude, and a great many quarrels took place, by which the people were often very much incensed. The tax-gatherer came one day into Walter's house to collect the tax. Walter himself was away, engaged at work tiling a house near by. The only persons that were at home were his wife and a young daughter just growing to womanhood. The tax-gatherer said that the girl was full-grown, and that they must pay the higher tax for her. Her mother said, "No, she is not full-grown yet; she is only a child." The tax-gatherer then said he would soon find out whether she was a woman or not, and went to her to take hold of her, offering her rudeness and violence of the worst possible character. The poor girl screamed and struggled to get away from him. Her mother ran to the door, and made a great outcry, calling for help. Walter, hearing the cries, seized for a club a heavy implement which he used in tiling, and ran home. As soon as he entered the house, he demanded of the officer, who had now left his daughter and came forward to meet him, what he meant by conducting in so outrageous a manner in his house. The officer replied defiantly, and advanced toward Walter to strike him. Walter parried the stroke, and then, being roused to perfect phrensy by the insult which his daughter had received and the insolence of the tax-gatherer, he brought his club down upon the tax-gatherer's head with such a blow as to break his skull and kill him on the spot. The blow was so violent that the man's brains were scattered all about the floor.

The news of this occurrence spread like wild-fire through the town. The people all took Walter's part, and they began to assemble. It seems that a great many of them had had their daughters maltreated in the same way by the tax-gatherers, but had not dared to resist or to complain. They now, however, flocked around the house of Walter, and promised to stand by him to the end. The plan was proposed that they should march to London, and in a body appeal to the king, and call upon him to redress their wrongs.

"He is young," said they, "and he will have pity upon us, and be just to us. Let us go in a body and petition him."

The news of the movement spread to all the neighboring towns, and very soon afterward a vast concourse collected, and commenced their march toward London. They were joined on the road by large companies that came from the villages and towns on the way, until at length Walter and his fellow-leaders found themselves at the head of from sixty to one hundred thousand men.


View of the Tower of London, as Seen from the River

The whole country was, of course, thrown into a state of great alarm. The Duke of Lancaster, who was particularly obnoxious to the people, was absent at this time. He was on the frontiers of Scotland. The king was in his palace; but, on hearing tidings of the insurrection, he went to the Tower, which is a strong castle built on the banks of the river, in the lower part of London. A number of the nobles who had most cause to fear the mob went with him, and shut themselves up there. The Princess of Wales, Richard's mother, happened to be at Canterbury at the time, having gone there on a pilgrimage. She immediately set out on her return to London, but she was intercepted on the way by Tyler and his crowd of followers. The crowd gathered around the carriage, and frightened the princess very much indeed, but they did her no harm. After detaining her for some time, they let her pass on. She immediately made the best of her way to the Tower, where she joined her son.

As fast as companies of men came from the villages and towns along the road to join the insurgents, the leaders administered to them an oath. The oath bound them,

1. Always to be faithful and true to King Richard.

2. Never to submit to the reign of any king named John. This was aimed at the Duke of Lancaster, whose name was John, and whom they all specially hated.

3. Always to follow and defend their leaders whenever called upon to do so, and always to be ready to march themselves, and to bring their neighbors with them, at a moment's warning.

4. To demand the abrogation of all the obnoxious taxes, and never to submit again to the collection of them.

In this manner the throngs moved on along the roads leading to London. They became gradually more and more excited and violent as they proceeded. Soon they began to attack the houses of knights, and nobles, and officers of the government which they passed on the way; and many persons, whom they supposed to be their enemies, they killed. At Canterbury they pillaged the palace of the archbishop. The Archbishop of Canterbury, then as now, drew an immense revenue from the state, and lived in great splendor, and they justly conceived that the luxury and ostentation in which he indulged was in some degree the cause of the oppressive taxation that they endured.

They assaulted a castle on the way, and made prisoner of a certain knight named Sir John Newton, whom they found in it, and compelled him to go with them to London. The knight was very unwilling to go with them, and at first seemed determined not to do so; but they disposed of his objections in a very summary manner.

"Sir John," said they, "unless you go with us at once, and in every thing do exactly as we order you, you are a dead man."

So Sir John was compelled to go. They took two of his children with them also, to hold as security, they said, for their father's good behavior.

There were other parties of the insurgents who made prisoners in this way of men of rank and family, and compelled them to ride at the head of their respective columns, as if they were leaders in the insurrection.

In this manner the throngs moved on, until at length, approaching the Thames, they arrived at Blackheath and Greenwich, two villages below London, farther down than the Tower, and near the bank of the river. Here they halted, and determined to send an embassage to the king to demand an audience. The embassador that they were to send was the knight, Sir John Newton.

Sir John did not dare to do otherwise than as the insurgents directed. He went to the river, and, taking a boat, he crossed over to the Tower. The guards received him at the gate, and he was conducted into the presence of the king.

He found the king in an apartment with the princess his mother, and with a number of the nobles and officers of his court. They were all in a state of great suspense and anxiety, awaiting tidings. They knew that the whole country was in commotion, but in respect to what they were themselves to do in the emergency they seem to have had no idea.

Sir John was himself one of the officers of the government, and so he was well known to all the courtiers. He fell on his knees as soon as he entered the king's presence, and begged his majesty not to be displeased with him for the message that he was about to deliver.

"I assure your majesty," said he, "that I come not voluntarily, but on compulsion."

The king said to him that he had nothing to fear, and directed him to proceed at once and deliver his message.

The knight then said that the people who had assembled wished to see the king, and he urgently requested that his majesty would come and meet them at Blackheath.

"They wish you to come by yourself alone," said he. "And your majesty need have no fear for your person, for they will not do you the least harm. They have always respected you, and they will continue to respect and honor you as their king. They only wish to tell you some things which they say it is very necessary that your majesty should hear. They have not informed me what it is that they wish to say, since they desire to communicate it themselves directly to your majesty."

The knight concluded by imploring the king to grant his subjects a favorable answer if he could, or at least to allow him to return to them with such a reply as would convince them that he, their messenger, had fairly delivered his message.

"Because," said he, "they hold my children as hostages, and unless I return they will surely put them to death."

The king replied that the knight should have an answer very soon, and he immediately called a council of his courtiers to consider what should be done. There was much difference of opinion, but it was finally concluded to send word to the men that the king would come down the river on the following day to speak with them, and that, if the leaders would come to the bank of the river opposite Blackheath, he would meet them there.

So Sir John Newton left the Tower, and, recrossing the river in his boat, went back to the camp of the insurgents, and reported to the leaders the answer of the king.

They were very much pleased to hear that the king was coming to meet them. The news was soon communicated to all the host, and it gave universal satisfaction. There were sixty thousand men on the ground, it is said, and, of course, they were very insufficiently provided with food, and not at all with shelter. They, however, began to make arrangements to spend the night as well as they could where they were, in anticipation of the interview with the king on the following day.

On the following morning the king attended mass in solemn state in the chapel of the Tower, and then immediately afterward entered his barge, accompanied by a grand train of officers, knights, and barons. The barge, leaving the Tower stairs, was rowed down the river to the place appointed for the interview. About ten thousand of the insurgents had come to the spot, and when they saw the barge coming in sight with the royal party on board, they burst out into such a terrific uproar, with yells, screams, shouts, outcries, and frantic gesticulations, that they seemed to the king and his party like a company of demons. They had Sir John Newton with them. They had brought him down to the bank of the river, because, as they said, if the king were not to come, they should believe that he had imposed upon them in the message which he had brought, and in that case they were going to cut him to pieces on the spot.

The assembly seemed so noisy and furious that the nobles in attendance on the king were afraid to allow him to land. They advised him to remain in the barge, at a little distance from the shore, and to address the people from the deck. The king resolved to do so. So the barge lay floating on the river, the oarsmen taking a few strokes from time to time to recover the ground lost by the drift of the current. The king stood upon the deck of the barge, with his officers around him, and asked the men on the shore what they wished for.

"I have come at your request," said he, "to hear what you have to say."

Such an arrangement as this for communicating with a mass of desperate and furious men would not have been safe under circumstances similar to those of the present day. A man standing in this way on the deck of a boat, within speaking distance of the shore, might, with a rifle, or even with a musket, have been killed in a moment by any one of the thousands on the shore. In those days, however, when the only missiles were spears, javelins, and arrows, a man might stand at his ease within speaking distance of his enemies, entirely out of reach of their weapons.

When the crowd upon the shore saw that the king was waving his hand to them in order to silence them, and that he was trying to speak, they became in some measure calm; and when he asked again what they wished for, the leaders replied by saying that they wished him to come on shore. They desired him to land, they said, so that he could better hear what they had to say.

One of the officers about the king replied that that could not be.

"The king can not land among you," he said. "You are not properly dressed, nor in a fit condition, in any respect, to come into his majesty's presence."

Hereupon the noise and clamor was renewed, and became more violent than ever, the men insisting that the king should land, and filling the air with screams, yells, and vociferations of all sorts, which made the scene truly terrific. The counselors of the king insisted that it was not safe for the king to remain any longer on the river, so the oarsmen were ordered to pull their oars, and the barge immediately began to recede from the shore, and to move back up the river. It happened that the tide was now coming in, and this assisted them very much in their progress, and the barge was swept back rapidly toward the Tower.

The insurgents were now in a great rage. Those who had come down to the bank of the river to meet the king went back in a throng to the place where the great body of the rebels were encamped on the plain. The news that the king had refused to come and hear their complaints was soon spread among the whole multitude, and the cry was raised, To London! To London! So the whole mighty mass began to put itself in motion, and in a few hours all the roads that led toward the metropolis were thronged with vast crowds of ragged and wretched-looking men, barefooted, bareheaded; some bearing rudely-made flags and banners, some armed with clubs and poles, and such other substitutes for weapons as they had been able to seize for the occasion, and all in a state of wild and phrensied excitement.

The people of London were greatly alarmed when they heard that they were coming. There was then but one bridge leading into London from the southern side of the river. This bridge was on the site of the present London Bridge, about half a mile above the Tower. There was a gate at the end of the bridge next the town, and a drawbridge outside of it. The Londoners shut the gate and took up the drawbridge, to prevent the insurgents from coming in.

When the rioters reached the bridge, and found that they were shut out, they, of course, became more violent than before, and they began to burn and destroy the houses outside. Now it happened that many of these houses were handsome villas which belonged to the rich citizens of the town. These citizens became alarmed for their property, and they began to say that it would be better, after all, to open the gates and let the people come in.

"If we let them come in," said they, "they will wander about the streets a while, but they will soon get tired and go away; whereas, by opposing and thwarting them, we only make them the more violent and mischievous."

Then, besides, there were a great many of the common people of London that sympathized with the rioters, and wished to join them.

"They are our friends," said they. "They are striving to obtain redress for grievances which we suffer as well as they. Their cause is our cause. So let us open the gates and let them come in."

In the mean time, the whole population of the city were becoming more and more alarmed every hour, for the rioters were burning and destroying the suburbs, and they declared that if the Londoners did not open the gates, they would, after ravaging every thing without the walls, take the city by storm, and burn and destroy every thing in it. So it was finally concluded to open the gates and let the insurgents in.


The Savoy

They came in in an immense throng, which continued for many hours to pour over the bridge into the city, like a river of men above, flowing athwart the river of water below. As they entered the city, they divided and spread into all the diverging streets. A portion of them stormed a jail, and set all the prisoners free. Others marched through the streets, filling the air with dreadful shouts and outcries, and brandishing their pikes with great fury. The citizens, in hopes to conciliate them, brought out food for them, and some gave them wine. On receiving these provisions, the insurgents built fires in the streets, and encamped around them, to partake of the food and refreshments which the citizens had bestowed. They were rendered more good-natured, perhaps, by this kind treatment received from the citizens, but they soon became excited by the wine which they drank, and grew more wild and noisy than ever. At length a large party of them began to move toward the palace of the Duke of Lancaster. This palace was called the Savoy. It stood on the bank of the river, between London and Westminster, and was a grand and imposing mansion.

The Duke of Lancaster was an especial object of their hatred. He was absent at this time, as has been said, being engaged in military operations on the frontiers of Scotland. The mob, however, were determined to destroy his palace, and every thing that belonged to it.

So they broke into the house, murdering all who made any resistance, and then proceeded to break and destroy every thing the palace contained. They built fires in the court-yard and in the street, and piled upon them every thing movable that would burn. The plate, and other such valuables as would not burn, they broke up and threw into the Thames. They strictly forbade that any of the property should be taken away. One man hid a silver cup in his bosom, intending to purloin it; but he was detected in the act, and his comrades threw him, cup and all, as some say, upon the fire; others say they threw him into the Thames; at any rate, they destroyed him and his booty together.

"We are here," said they, "in the cause of truth and righteousness, to execute judgment upon a criminal, and not to become thieves and robbers ourselves."


Ruins of the Savoy

When they had destroyed every thing that the palace contained, they set fire to the building, and burned it to the ground. A portion of the walls remained standing afterward for a long time, a desolate and melancholy ruin.

The insurgents felt a special animosity against lawyers, whom they considered mercenary instruments in the hands of the nobles for oppressing them. They hung all the lawyers that they could get into their hands, and after burning the Savoy they went to the Temple, which was a spacious edifice containing the courts, the chambers of the barristers, and a vast store of ancient legal records. They burned and destroyed the whole.

It is said, too, that there was a certain man in London, a rich citizen, named Richard Lyon, who had formerly been Walter the Tiler's master, and had beaten him and otherwise treated him in a cruel and oppressive manner. At the time that he received these injuries Walter had no redress, but now the opportunity had come, he thought, for revenge. So he led a gang of the most desperate and reckless of the insurgents to Lyon's house, and, seizing their terrified victim, they dragged him out without mercy, and cut off his head, The head they stuck upon the top of a pike, and paraded it through the streets, a warning, as they said, to all cruel and oppressive masters.

A great many other heads, principally those of men who had made themselves particularly obnoxious to the insurgents, were paraded through the streets in the same manner.

After spending the day in these excesses, keeping all London in a state of dreadful confusion and alarm, the various bands began to move toward night in the direction of the Tower, where the king and his court had shut themselves up in great terror, not knowing what to do to escape from the dreadful inundation of poverty and misery which had so suddenly poured in upon them. The rioters, when they reached the Tower, took possession of a large open square before it, and, kindling up great bonfires, they began to make arrangements for bivouacking there for the night.

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