12 Facts on the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 that Reveal the Explosive Truth
12 Facts on the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 that Reveal the Explosive Truth

12 Facts on the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 that Reveal the Explosive Truth

Tim Flight - July 23, 2018

We all know about the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, right? No? Well, this is the story of a country divided between rich and poor, in which the latter en masse finally got sick of being poor and oppressed. A shabby troop of illiterate farmhands, pitchforks and burning stakes in hand, who descended on London, indiscriminately killing anyone who looked like they owned property or had ever sneered at an indolent peasant, burning and looting everything in their wake. A disorganized revolt ended immediately after the death of the peasant-leader, Wat Tyler, in front of the boy-king, Richard II. It all seems so simple, doesn’t it?

But whilst there is some truth in the stereotypical narrative, the reality was far more complex, and infinitely more interesting. For this was not a random uprising, nor was it without intelligent tactics and smart leadership. Nor was it simply a phenomenon confined to the capital city, but took in much of the country. And it certainly didn’t end immediately upon the death of Wat Tyler. The notorious event is steeped in myth and misunderstanding, and here we will look at the truth behind the bloodshed and disorder in that fateful summer of 1381. Let’s start with the name itself.

12 Facts on the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 that Reveal the Explosive Truth
Plowing the land, from The Luttrell Psalter, England, 1325-35 Dorking Museum

Peasants’ Revolt?

The popular term for the events of 1381 is terribly misleading. It is because of this name that one of the greatest myths about the revolt exists: that it was simply an uprising of ale-drenched oafs brandishing rusty agricultural implements. Nothing could be further from the truth: the revolt was neither an exclusively rural phenomenon, nor a rebellion of just peasants. For the ripples of discontent passed through the inhabitants of the great towns and cities of 14th-century England, and the mob itself included members of the aristocracy and knightly class. Historians thus prefer to call it ‘The Great Revolt’.

It was not just peasants who were furious about the social and economic conditions in 1381. The eastern county of Norfolk is a case in point. Actively participating in the rebellion there was one Sir Roger Bacon, a knight from the manor of Baconsthorpe. As well as generally participating in the orgy of violence, he even took command of a battalion of rebels, and led them on a brutal assault against the city of Norwich. Another member of the knightly class involved was Thomas Gyssing, son of Sir Thomas, who had served as MP for Norfolk in 1380.

Although plenty of peasants were involved in the Great Revolt, they found many allies in the cities. In London, for example, the complicity and participation of the urban population was crucial to the uprising’s success. In the early stages of the rebellion, when small protests were taking place in Essex and Kent, two London Butchers, Adam Attewell and Roger Harry, rode out to the counties to inform the rebels that they could count on support from the capital if they came to London. When they did come, Londoners were crucial in leading the way to important targets and providing intelligence.

Though closer economically to peasants than aristocrats, professionals such as Attewell and Harry were most certainly not serfs legally tied to a lord’s estate. These men, whilst hardly wealthy, had a much greater degree of economic and political freedom than the peasants. Yet whilst they would have taken being called ‘peasants’ as an insult, they were as much involved in the revolt as their poorer allies. As we will see over the coming items on the list, it is absolutely vital that images of the bumbling peasant-gang be purged from our minds when thinking of The Great Revolt of 1381.

12 Facts on the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 that Reveal the Explosive Truth
The Battle of Crecy, a major event in the troublesome Hundred Years’ War, from Jean Froissart’s Chronicles, Netherlands, c.1475. Wikimedia Commons

Why did it happen?

As you can imagine, a revolt of this magnitude needed some pretty convincing motivations, beyond just a general feeling of discontent. Principally, there were three, the first of which was the Black Death. This terrible disease had arrived in England from the continent in 1348, and swiftly killed off about half of the English population. As a result, there was a shortage of labour, and workers naturally took advantage of this by demanding what the king called ‘excessive wages’. Feudal overlords such as barons and knights had no choice but to pay the increased prices for goods and labour.

Even the peasants, who received no pay and farmed the most meagre strips of land under normal circumstances, could demand more favorable employment terms. In 1349, King Edward III issued the Ordinance of Labourers, which fixed the wages and prices that people could charge at the pre-Black Death level. Having briefly tasted the possibility of becoming rich, the artisans and laborers were outraged, and in many cases simply ignored the law. This law impacted everyone below the knightly classes, widely sowing the seeds of rebellion, as the courts were flooded with prosecutions of those ignoring the Ordinance of Labourers.

Laws were even passed against sartorial aspirations. Not content with limiting the economic growth of the lower orders of society, in 1363 the powers-that-be also reissued old laws limiting what commoners could wear, lest they be confused for their social betters. These laws restricted wearing fur and shoes with points of 24-inches to the nobility, with merchants allowed only 6.5-inches of pointiness to their footwear. Peasants were also prohibited from eating all but the most basic of food. Such laws were an insult to most of the population without hereditary titles, pouring cold water on their dreams of social mobility.

If that wasn’t enough, there was also the matter of the Hundred Years’ War. The conflict, which formally began in 1337, was bloody, labor-intensive, and expensive, and rarely saw any decisive or permanent progress from either France or England. The origin of the conflict was the King of England’s dynastic claim to the kingdom of France, meaning that no one had any choice in the matter. Typically, wars were funded by the aristocracy, who technically leased their land from the king in exchange for the money and manpower to support royal expenditure, but in 1377 aristocratic coffers were near-empty.

This was disastrous, since the English were now on the back-foot, and needed to pay for more soldiers to defend the realm against the counter-attacking French. In early 1377, Parliament voted to raise funds through a Poll Tax, an unprecedented general levy on the entire population, from serf to baron. The people were unhappy, and decidedly poorer, but two years later were made to pay another Poll Tax. When all this money was hoovered up by the war effort, yet another Poll Tax, with even higher rates, was passed in 1381. The fuse was lit for a summer of rebellion.

12 Facts on the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 that Reveal the Explosive Truth
Spoiler Alert: the death of Wat Tyler, detail from Jean Froissart’s Chronicles, Netherlands, c.1475. Wikimedia Commons

Wat Tyler

Very little is known about the life of Wat Tyler, one of the leaders of the Great Revolt. He is believed to have been born in Essex, but settled in Maidstone, Kent, at some point. His name suggests that his profession was a tiler, though it has been suggested that he had some military experience, given how ably he led a group of ordinary people on a strategic rampage that shook medieval England to its very core. He was an opportunistic leader, able to make the best of situations as they developed, which suggests he was well-versed in raiding.

The chroniclers and poets of the Great Revolt leave no doubt as to whom was in charge. John Gower, a poet and landowner who lived through the revolt, described him thus: ‘going ahead of the others, one captain urged them all to follow him… he did not sing out alone, but drew many thousands along with him, and involved them in his nefarious doings. His voice gathered all the madmen together, and with a cruel eagerness for slaughter he shouted in the ears of the rabble “Burn! Kill!”‘. Gower, a gifted if turgid poet, is rather wide of the mark.

For Tyler was clearly no ignorant peasant, however he is generally portrayed. He evidently had the respect of his contemporaries, for though he did not start the rebellion he became leader when the protest reached Maidstone. He is thought to have been behind one of the early commands from the Kent rebels instructing those who lived within 12 leagues of the coast to remain at home in case of French invasion (in aid of which the Poll Tax was raised). The real man, sadly, is lost to history, and exists only in disparaging references in narratives written by the victors.

12 Facts on the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 that Reveal the Explosive Truth
John Ball, after a c.1475 illustration to Froissart, London, 1906. Antique Prints

John Ball

Upon becoming leader of the rebels, Wat Tyler’s first act was to storm Maidstone Prison and release a preacher known as John Ball. We know far more about Ball than his liberator, and it is no surprise that Tyler acted so decisively on his behalf. Ball was born in the abbey town of St Albans, Hertfordshire, and had a reputation spanning two decades for rabble-rousing and heresy. His inspirational speeches and sermons were the perfect counterpart to Tyler’s actions and strategies, raising the rebels to fever pitch with litanies of aristocratic corruption and evil so that they followed Tyler’s instructions.

Ball’s sermons, usually preached in churchyards and other public places rather than in churches, railed against the corruption of the ecclesiastical establishment, the staggering inequalities in 14th-century society, and the brutal excesses of the upper classes against the powerless and impoverished. His radical views had brought him to the attention of Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who excommunicated and imprisoned him, and in 1366 it was even made illegal for anyone to hear Ball preach. This adversity, however, simply served to make Ball even more of a maverick in thought, and he simply developed a thoroughly revolutionary ideology.

Essentially, by 1381 Ball had decided that all forms of lordship had to end, including both church and lay society. The strict hierarchy of medieval England which such views challenged relied upon lordship by ownership of land, and was seen as a divine imitation of the orders of angels and saints in heaven. Opposing the system, therefore, was not merely treasonous but heretical. Most dangerous of all, in June 1381, Ball was not merely a revolutionary (and incredibly modern) thinker but a gifted orator, who had the nous vigorously to communicate his message to an already fired-up group of rebels.

Some of Ball’s letters and sermons have survived in chronicles, most famously the speech he gave to the rebels at Blackheath recorded by Froissart: ‘when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men… And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty’. Ball was way ahead of his time.

Although such words were effective in inspiring the rebels, it would be a mistake to say that Ball’s beliefs were shared by all. In fact, the demands of the rebellion were mostly conservative, and did not call for an end to lordship entirely, only for the corrupt and cruel to be removed and punished. Many of the demands, as we shall later see in detail, were realistic, and just asked for a fairer deal for everyone and a protection of the rights to free labour, with an end to the legally-enforced serfdom that came in after the Black Death.

12 Facts on the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 that Reveal the Explosive Truth
Stacking sheaves of wheat from the Luttrell Psalter, England, 1325-35. Blogspot

The Embers Fire

Sometimes it is hard for the historian to identify where a great event began, but in the case of the Great Revolt, it is actually rather simple. The revolt began with Poll Tax collections at Brentwood, Essex, on 30th May 1381. The new Poll Tax had initially been collected by local officials, but a second round of collections was undertaken by royal officials, as it was suspected that the amount raised had been limited by the dishonesty of local collectors. The most common trick the local men employed to reduce a community’s tax bill was silently to discount unmarried females.

The royal collectors were thus tasked with traveling the country to make their own audit of the population and ensure everyone paid. As such, they were amongst the most loathed men in the country. The collectors, picked for their bullying nature, would essentially intimidate people into paying, and rumors soon spread of their nefarious methods, such as lifting young girls’ skirts to check whether they had had intercourse with men (virgins were exempt from the Poll Tax). There were also rumors that collectors were employed by royal favorites who were allowed to keep any money collected beyond the official shortfall.

The royal collectors in Brentwood called before them Thomas Baker to give an account of the taxable individuals in his village of Fobbing. One of the men, Sir John de Bampton, commanded Baker to make a full investigation into the tax evasion he suspected in Fobbing. Baker and his associates, however, refused point blank. They saw the investigation as just an excuse for another tax, since Bampton had only recently accepted their total. Bampton was furious at this insubordinate lack of cooperation, threatening Baker and the men of Fobbing by reminding them of the presence of his royal thugs.

What happened next shocked Bampton, and lit the touch paper for the Great Revolt itself. The men of Fobbing, backed up by the emboldened men of the other villages present, again refused. With a misguided arrogance only the aristocracy could possess, Bampton ordered his two henchmen to arrest the dissidents, even though they were outnumbered by around 100 Essex villagers. The villagers advanced, flinging rocks and arrows, and the royal collectors fled. The men of Essex fled, too, but only to the woods, and the next day returned to their homes with accounts of what had taken place at Brentwood.

That was all it took. Soon riders were traveling far and wide to gather like-minded men to join the protest against the abuse of royal authority and the inquisition into tax receipts. When the messengers returned, they brought news that hundreds of others were willing to rise up against the powers that be. If you’re unfamiliar with English geography, the counties of Essex and Kent are separated only by the Thames Estuary, and thus it did not take long for news to cross the water with small vessels into the neighboring county. Few could have anticipated what happened next.

12 Facts on the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 that Reveal the Explosive Truth
Portrait of John of Gaunt, a much-hated figure in 1381, taken from his effigy, Kent, 1593. Wikimedia Commons

Outbreak

The Great Revolt was helped in its early stages by the date – Sunday, 2nd June, Whitsunday. Whitsunday was traditionally a time for the lower classes to meet in numbers at festivals and pageants for good-natured, controlled disorder. Thus the news spreading from Essex found large groups of the lower orders gathered together and in fine spirits. Led at this early stage by Abel Ker, the Kent rebels attacked the Abbey of Lesnes. Lesnes was a rich monastery with great landholdings, from which they extracted fines and extra labour from their tenants at will via the system of monastic law courts.

Although the Abbey was an obvious target, given its unjust lordship, the attack was a strategic move. Ker captured the Abbot, William de Hethe, and forced him to pledge allegiance to their cause, thenceforth using his (coerced) approval as propaganda. For the next few days, Ker continued to bully his social betters into complicity. But he did not rest on his laurels, and pursued a policy of recruiting men to the cause, which was simultaneously taking place north of the Estuary in Essex. As a recruitment strategy, Ker travelled with a standard topped with the heads of three executed jurors.

The rebels targeted the possessions of the men in power whom they deemed corrupt or unjust, such as John of Gaunt, the king’s uncle. He was the richest landowner in the country, which meant he had a lot of property to burn down. Other targets were largely made up of those connected with the law, including courts and ecclesiastical buildings. Records of wrongdoers, convictions, and taxation were destroyed. The Kent rebels even took the great Rochester Castle with its 12-feet thick walls by force, cunningly relying on their ability to cause panic and disorder rather than laying it to siege.

Freeing the prisoners of Rochester and the county’s other jails (including John Ball from Maidstone) under the new command of Wat Tyler, the Kentish rebels also took control of the important road linking Canterbury, seat of the most important churchman in the country, and London. They took oaths from anyone passing by. Simultaneously, the pattern of organized mobs targeting the legal profession and the property of unjust gentry was mirrored in Essex. The rebels from the counties met at Cressing Temple, near to where the Sheriff of Essex had just managed to escape with his life, if not his power.

You may wonder where the authorities were in all this, when not being beheaded or fleeing for their lives. Fortunately for the rebels, the nearest soldiers, usually stationed at London, had marched north with John of Gaunt to negotiate peace with the Scottish. They had caught the authorities underprepared. It seems royal intervention was forced when Tyler captured Canterbury Castle, freed the prisoners, had a bonfire of legal records, and murdered judges and gentry alike. At last, royal messengers came from Windsor with the incredible news that King Richard II had requested an audience with the rebels in London.

12 Facts on the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 that Reveal the Explosive Truth
John Ball and Wat Tyler meet outside London, from Jean Froissart’s Chronicles, Netherlands, c.1475. Wikimedia Commons

The King Intervenes

The united rebels of Essex and Kent made their way to negotiate with the 15-year-old king, with Wat Tyler telling the royal messengers that he and his men were coming to save King Richard and the land from traitors. They gathered at Blackheath, an area lying behind the current Royal Observatory. The mood was jubilant amongst the masses of rebels, who numbered 100, 000 according to the chronicler Thomas Walsingham’s count. Tyler had wisely brought Sir John Newton, the captured keeper of Rochester Castle, with him, and brazenly sent the knight to inform the king that the rebels had arrived.

While they waited, the rebels joined up with London’s dissidents, and set about causing mayhem in Southwark, releasing prisoners from the jail, storming Lambeth Palace (owned by the hated Archbishop of Canterbury), and burning legal records. As the palace burned, the rebels’ chant of ‘A revel! A revel!’ was heard across the river at Westminster, spreading fear through the city. As such, when Richard arrived to negotiate the following morning, he opted to stay on his barge and address his subjects from relative safety. Stirred by Ball’s famous speech (see above), the rebels now demanded that traitors be executed.

Reading through the hastily-scrawled list, Richard was shocked by the demands to execute his closest advisors. He then made the imprudent decision to turn tail and sail away, informing the rebels that they could come to negotiate again the following week at Windsor. The rebels, having been overjoyed by the prospect of speaking to the king and having their demands met, were initially stunned, and then furious. The restraint the rebels had shown was now at an end, and they entered the city by London Bridge, its guards wisely realizing the futility of resisting so large a crowd.

12 Facts on the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 that Reveal the Explosive Truth
The Tower of London, with the city in the background, Netherlands, c.1475. Wikimedia Commons

London Burning

Using the rebellious Londoners’ invaluable knowledge of the city’s geography, the great mob made its way to strategically-important targets. Having swollen their ranks by releasing prisoners from London’s jails, the locals led the mob to their first target, the New Temple, home to London’s lawyers and thousands of legal documents. The rebels pulled the residences there to the ground and ransacked Temple Church, which contained the legal records, burning them in another communal bonfire. The rebels then made their way to the Savoy Palace, John of Gaunt’s impressive residence, and perhaps the finest private house in the country.

The Anonomaille Chronicle describes the destruction: ‘at last they came before the Savoy, broke open the gates, entered the place and came to the wardrobe. They took all the torches they could find, and lighted them, and burnt all the cloths, coverlets and beds… all the napery and other goods they could discover they carried into the hall and set on fire with their torches… they burnt the hall and the chambers as well as the apartments within the gates’. They also took away the treasures they found, either melting them on the fire or flinging them in the sewers.

It is testament to their purity of intention that this group of economically-desperate rebels did not take any of Gaunt’s treasure as plunder, though it could save them from poverty. Tyler had strictly forbidden looting to ensure the destruction of such places remain symbolic rather than larcenous, and one man caught hiding a goblet was himself thrown onto the fire as punishment. As gunpowder was added to hasten the Savoy’s destruction, the inferno must have been spectacular. In a final symbolic act, one of Gaunt’s priceless vestments was raised up a pole and shot with arrows, before being torn apart.

12 Facts on the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 that Reveal the Explosive Truth
The murder of Simon Sudbury, from Jean Froissart’s Chronicles, Netherlands, c.1475. Pinterest

Taking of the Tower

The rebels were not done yet, having burned legal records and the homes of the gentry and released masses of prisoners. 18 traitors were seized and beheaded on the day that Richard failed to treat with the rebels. With Gaunt away in Scotland, the next traitor that the rebels really wanted was Sir Robert Hales, head of the treasury, and the figurehead of the Poll Tax. He had hidden himself in the Tower of London, and thus the rebels next made their way there. Also barricaded in the keep were Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the king himself.

From the Tower, Richard could see the masses of commoners devoted to him, but desperate to kill his most trusted advisors. Unwilling to surrender Hales and Sudbury, he made the bold step of meeting the rebels again at Mile End, his royal messengers having failed to persuade them to go home. This time, the rebels’ demands were more conservative: upon bended knee, they asked that all men of England be made free, with better employment rights, a cap to rents, a limit to the power of landlords, and an end to punitive fines and taxation in any form.

Perhaps surprised by these chastened demands, and certainly flattered by their evident devotion to him alone, the king surprisingly agreed. They would receive their charter of liberties if only they would just go home, he disingenuously advised. But then he showed his inexperience: he actually told the rebels that they were free to travel England, seeking traitors and bringing them before him for justice. Essentially, he had agreed to what he expected the rebels to ask for, rather than what they actually requested. From this point on, things got very ugly indeed, as royal sanction fortified the already rebellious mood.

Word of the king’s approval reached the men who had waited behind at the Tower, including Ball, Tyler, and the influential Jack Straw, who were ensuring no one escaped. Richard had planned for Sudbury and Hales to escape while the rebels were at Mile End, but had not reckoned on the leaders’ smart strategy. Sudbury and Hales were still in the Tower, and Richard had effectively just given Royal Decree to their arrest. The Tower’s terrified guards, seeing the smoke and chaos across the London skyline, let down the drawbridge. The King Richard-sanctioned day of reckoning had arrived.

In the Tower’s chapel, Simon Sudbury was saying mass. Sudbury was an important target because he was not only fantastically wealthy as Archbishop of Canterbury but was also (until recently) Lord Chancellor, the highest position in English government. This meant that he was held responsible for both the Poll Tax and the tax inspection. The rebels entered, and dragged him through the castle to Tower Hill, where he was beheaded along with Hales and John Legge, suspected to be the instigator of the tax inspection earlier that year. Many more traitors were executed in the streets in the following hours.

12 Facts on the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 that Reveal the Explosive Truth
The death of Wat Tyler at Smithfield, from Jean Froissart’s Chronicles, Netherlands, c.1475. Wikimedia Commons

Smithfield and the Death of Tyler

As London continued to burn, and severed heads piled up in the streets, Richard realised that giving the rebels permission to seek out traitors had been a grave error of judgement (surprise, surprise). His apparent permission seems even to have corrupted Tyler, who thrice refused to accept the Mile End charters in exchange for peace, realising that widespread disorder was the lifeblood of his movement. Richard thus changed tactics, and sought to meet the rebels with force. Mustering the 200 or so nobles and knights still in London, and arranged a third negotiation with the rebels at Smithfield.

When both sides were assembled, Richard sent the Mayor of London, William Walworth, to summon Tyler. Tyler approached on a small horse, disrespectfully refusing to dismount or remove his hood. According to the Anonomaille Chronicle, he then ‘sent for a jug of water to rinse his mouth… as soon as the water was brought he rinsed out his mouth in a very rude and villainous manner before the king’. He then shook the king’s hand, as if meeting a social equal, and addressed him as ‘brother’. Tyler’s new demands were equality for all men and all Lordship to be abolished.

John Ball’s radical preaching had clearly rubbed off on him. Richard, however, stunned Tyler by agreeing to all of his demands. Tyler’s strategy was to use the expected refusal to inspire yet more disorder across the country, and to keep his honorary role as leader of the commons. After minutes of tense silence, Tyler rudely turned his horse and made to ride off. At this, one of the king’s party called him a common thief. Swollen with pride, Tyler spun around, unsheathing his dagger. When Walworth then attempted to arrest Tyler for this disrespect to the king, Tyler stabbed him.

Alas, the Mayor’s armor protected him, and without hesitation Walworth stabbed the rebel through the neck and head, a valet running Tyler’s flank through with a sword for good measure. Tyler was fatally wounded, but still managed to flee, falling from his horse in a stream of blood. Walworth sent news to the wards of London that though the hated Wat Tyler was badly injured, the king was in danger and needed their aid, and they loyally took arms. Wallworth then sought out the moribund Tyler, finding him prostrate at St Bartholomew’s Church, Smithfield, and beheaded him as a traitor.

And what of the rebellious mob? Confused by the sight of Tyler riding towards them, then falling off his horse, they did not know what to do. Seizing the initiative, Richard rode out to them, and convinced them to follow him to the fields of Clerkenwell. Once settled there, they swiftly realized that the king was not their friend when the armed men of London and Walworth (with Tyler’s head on a spike) arrived to pen them in. Richard simply commanded them to go home, which they obeyed. The king then knighted Walworth on the spot, and plotted retribution.

12 Facts on the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 that Reveal the Explosive Truth
Misericord depicting Henry le Despenser, Bishop of Norwich, Kings Lynn, 14th century. Wikimedia Commons

Outside of the South East

As stated at the outset, the Great Revolt was not confined to Essex, Kent, and London. In fact, Tyler’s ludicrous demands moments before his death were inspired in part by news of the rebellion taking hold elsewhere. As far away as the city of York, over 200 miles north of London, aggrieved townsfolk were tearing down the city walls and destroying religious houses. Indeed, when John Ball fled from Smithfield, he was aiming for York, where he knew he could be sure of a sympathetic crowd. He was captured in Coventry, and hanged, drawn, and quartered in St Albans.

Across East Anglia and Cambridgeshire, the most feared rebel was John Wrawe. A former chaplain from Essex, instead of heading to London he moved north to stir up support for the revolt. Guilty of arson, blackmail, theft, and murder, Wrawe and his followers were especially brutal in their methods, and did not seem as ideologically driven as Ball and Tyler. They plundered the Priory of St Edmunds at Bury, stealing priceless treasures then quaffing wine with the proceeds, and murdering the prior, John of Cambridge. They also murdered Sir John Cavendish, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, for good measure.

Wrawe’s rebellion was decimated by another churchman, Henry Despenser, Bishop of Norwich. Despenser (above) had been an accomplished knight before taking orders. He had fled Norwich after learning of the Norfolk rebels’ intention to murder him, but when his safe-place at Burleigh was threatened by Wrawe, he acted decisively. With only eight lances and a few archers, Despenser found some of Wrawe’s men at Peterborough, sacking the abbey, and personally slaughtered many of the sorry group, even those pleading sanctuary at the altar. He cut and stabbed his way back to Norwich, liberating Cambridge, Ely, and Huntingdon in the process.

Approaching Norwich, Despenser encountered envoys from John Litster, the rebel-leader in Norwich, weighed-down with booty. They were beheaded, and Despenser had their heads nailed up at Newmarket. When Despenser finally reached Norwich on June 24th, a full nine days after the death of Wat Tyler, the revolt was still raging. Though outnumbered by Litster’s men, Despenser expertly led his small force to a resounding victory. Despenser ordered Litster to be partially hanged, disemboweled, his sundered bowels burnt, and finally beheaded. Peace was restored in East Anglia, though what God thought of the bishop’s bloodthirsty actions is not recorded.

12 Facts on the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 that Reveal the Explosive Truth
Richard II’s conciliatory manner towards the rebels was swiftly dropped once he had the advantage, illustration from Jean Froissart’s Chronicles, Netherlands, c.1475. Wikimedia Commons

Aftermath

Though he sent the rebels packing with their tails between their legs, Richard knew that order was not yet restored. He heard of trouble stirring across every south eastern county and beyond (see above), and the very night that Tyler died (15th June), he formed a commission of seven men to hunt down, try, and execute horribly all wrongdoers within a 70-mile radius of London. To William Walworth, one of the committee, Richard gave explicit permission for him to punish the guilty ‘by beheadings and mutilations of limbs, as seems to you most expeditious and sensible’. Walworth did not disappoint.

The widespread and cruel violence of the Great Revolt continued: only the identities of the perpetrators had changed. Richard’s far-flung, draconian vengeance drew censure for its severity from his subjects, according to the Westminster Chronicle: ‘the populace shuddered at the spectacle of so many gibbeted bodies… despite all the retribution visited on the guilty the severity of the royal displeasure seemed to be in no way mitigated but rather to be directed with increased harshness towards the punishment of offenders… it was widely thought that in the circumstances the king’s generous nature ought to exercise leniency rather than vindictiveness’.

Even in the face of this, when it became abundantly clear that Richard had no intention of honouring the promises he made at Mile End, rebels from Essex sent messengers to the king, asking him to ratify the charter of liberties he had promised. Richard’s response was uncompromising: ‘villeins [feudal tenants] you were and villeins you will remain: in permanent bondage, not as it was before, but incomparably harsher… we shall strive… to keep you in subjection, to such a degree that the suffering of your servitude will be an example to posterity’. The last Essex rebels were soon executed.

In all, thousands of people met extremely cruel deaths between July and November 1381. Many were killed simply on the evidence of hearsay. However, although the Great Revolt may have ended in misery for the commoners, the next parliament in November 1381 demanded reforms of the king’s household, including the presence only of ‘good and worthy people’, and a limit to how many guests he could entertain so that ‘our said lord may live honestly within his own means from now on, without charging his people as has been done before’. Perhaps the rebels were right, after all.

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Dobson, R. B. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. London: Macmillan, 1970.

Dunn, Alastair. The Great Rising of 1381: The Peasants’ Revolt and England’s Failed Revolution. Stroud: Tempus, 2004.

Hilton, Rodney. Bondmen Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381. London: Routledge, 1995.

Jones, Dan. Summer of Blood: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. London: Harper Press, 2009.

Oman, Charles. The Great Revolt of 1381. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969.

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