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.