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

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


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.