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
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


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.