John Ball on a horse encouraging Wat Tyler's rebels, from 1470 manuscript
John Ball on a horse encouraging Wat Tyler's rebels, from 1470 manuscript

Summary of the Peasant's Revolt of 1381

In 1381, 35 years after the black death had surged through England, a large group of Peasants from Southeastern England rose up to protect themselves against newly imposed legislation that would deprive them of the ability to provide for themselves.
  • This rebellion was more or less led by a man by the name of Wat Tyler, who marched on London. The Peasants formed two groups, one came North of the Thames river the other from the South. The people of London opened the city to the rebels and soon they captured the Tower of London.

In an effort to quell this rebellion the 14 year old King, Richard II, bravely road out to meet the crowd.
  • The young king lead the crowd outside the city and an agreement was made. The Crown would remove the much hated pole tax and would allow for the Peasants to keep their increased wages. In return the Peasants simply had to go home and leave the city unmolested. The Peasants more or less did so.

Unfortunately, the agreement between King and country was broken.
  • Parliament, which had the power of the purse, deemed the agreement between Richard II and the Peasants to be null and void do to the fact that it was made under duress. The Pole Tax was repealed however, but the new wages that Peasants wanted protected where not given. Furthermore, many of the leaders of the revolt were killed. Wat Tyler was supposedly killed during one of the early meetings with the King. John Ball, a priest who helped insight the uprising was also murdered.

Causes

The revolt was said to have three main causes.

1. The first was a worry about wages. After the Black Death England was suffering from a labor shortage. Peasants began to see opportunity and began to show signs of moving, possibly even buying some land for themselves. The English nobility, in an effort to keep the peasants on their estates, gave them greater freedom and raised their wages. The policy worked and many peasants stayed on in the surface of their lords. By 1381 however, the political plain was seemingly shifting. The 35 years after the Black Death had been good for peasants but since then England had naturally began to replenish their population. The peasants began to fear that their higher wages would be taken from them when the population reached pre-Black Death status.

2. Peasants were also required to work on Church land for free two days a week. This archaic practice was greatly detested by many in the community because it made the church rich at the expense of the poor. Furthermore, the time that could have been used to work the peasants own fields was being taken to work the fields of the church. This hindered their production which made some struggle to provide for their families. A priest, John Ball, took the side of the peasants and would become a key part in raising support for the uprising.

3. The Hundred Years war had been raging for sometime at this point and a new poll tax was imposed to pay for it. This tax coupled with the fact that their wages maybe reduced to pre-Black Death levels was the breaking point for the peasants.

Effects

The wider effects of the revolt are more difficult to measure.

The peasants became embolden by their success of repealing the poll tax and several peasants went to their lords demanding that they actually get a raise in wages. The nobility, still suffering from the labor shortage, had no choice but to comply. The English population wouldn't totally recover from the Black death for another hundred years leaving the peasants with the ability to hold their wages. That being said they were still largely under the thumb of their lords, bishops, and the crown.

This episode had a profound effect on the young King, Richard II. Richard had been the one to negotiate with the peasants and the peasants felt that the King had largely been mislead by his corrupt advisers. Richard began to believe that he would be better off without his advisers and the nobility which had grown quite strong in the early years of Richard's reign. This would be the catalyst for Richard's future disputes for the nobility and eventually lead to a power struggle that would threaten to uproot the English crown.


Event Overviews


Wat Tyler and the Peasants Revolt


The Peasants Revolt


Peasants' Revolt from UK National Archives


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Multimedia Resources

The Causes of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381

Peasants Revolt



Richard II exerts control over the rebel mob, image from 1485
Richard II exerts control over the rebel mob, image from 1485

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Primary Sources

Readings from the Peasants Revolt

Explore the 1300s from the British Library

A series of quotes from those who lived through the Peasant's Revolt