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.