English Peasants’ Revolt
The Peasants’ Revolt, also known as Wat Tyler’s Rebellion after one of its main leaders, was a major uprising across much of England that rocked the kingdom in 1381. The revolt’s roots traced back to mid century, in the aftermath of the Black Death which killed a third to a half of England’s population. The depopulation led to a severe labor shortage, which enabled surviving workers to negotiate higher wages and better working conditions, particularly from landowners desperate to have their fields tilled. Landowners and employers responded by getting the government to enact the Statute of Laborers in 1351, fixing wages at pre Black Death rates, and discontent amongst peasants and the laboring classes had simmered ever since.
The discontent came to a boil in 1381, with the enactment of an unpopular poll tax, and that May, officials attempting to collect the tax in Essex were violently resisted. The resistance spread, catching the government of the then 14 year old king Richard II by surprise with its vehemence and speed, as rebels seized and burned court and tax records, emptied the jails, and visited rough justice upon unpopular landlords and employers who fell into their hands.
Then, demanding an end to serfdom, a lowering of taxes, and the dismissal of unpopular officials and judges, the disparate rebel bands coalesced and marched on London. On June 13th, a Kentish contingent under Wat Tyler entered the city, where they massacred Flemish merchants, destroyed the palace of an unpopular uncle of the king, and seized the Tower of London. The king’s chancellor and his treasurer, deemed responsible for the introduction of the hated poll tax, were captured and beheaded.
The king agreed to meet Wat Tyler and his contingent on the outskirts of London to hear their demands, but Wat Tyler was treacherously killed at the meeting. The young king then claimed that he would be the rebels’ leader, and promising reforms and agreeing to their demands, convinced them to disperse. As soon as sufficient military force was available, however, the king reneged, and the peasants were brutally suppressed. When a peasant delegation reminded the king of his promises, he contemptuously dismissed them, sneering “Villeins ye are, and villeins ye shall remain!”