When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History's Greatest Peasant Revolts
When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts

Khalid Elhassan - November 24, 2017

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts
The death of Wat Tyler. Antiwar Songs

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!

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts
James Fiennes, Lord Saye, brought before Jack Cade. Wikimedia

Cade’s Rebellion

In 1450, Jack Cade, an Irishman of unknown occupation and little known background residing in Kent, organized a rebellion among peasants and small proprietors angered by oppressively high taxes and a recent steep rise in prices, coupled with widespread corruption and abuse of power by the royal advisors and officials of the weak and hapless king Henry VI. The rebellion gathered steam, and soon became a major popular revolt and peasant uprising that shook England and terrorized its government and aristocracy.

Cade had been living in Sussex until 1449, when he fled to France to escape a murder charge. He returned to England under an assumed name in 1450, and settled in Kent. That June, he emerged as the leader of a rebellion against the royal government, and calling himself John Mortimer, identified with the king’s rivals, the York branch of the royal family.

Cade issued a manifesto, demanding the removal of several royal ministers, and the recall of Richard, Duke of York, from Ireland, where he was a virtual exile. A royal army sent to the suppress the rebels was defeated in Kent, after which the insurrectionists’ rapidly increasing host marched on London. They captured the city on July 3rd, 1450, along with the hated royal treasurer, James Fiennes, Lord Saye and Sele, whom the rebels executed.

Despite Cade’s attempt to maintain discipline, once they entered London, many rebels took to looting. The lawlessness led Londoners to turn on the rebels, expelling them from the city on July 6th, after a battle at London Bridge. To end the revolt, the government persuaded most rebels to disperse by issuing royal pardons. Cade fled, but was tracked down a week later, wounded in a skirmish with royal forces, and captured. He was taken to London, but died of his wounds en route, his death marking the end of the rebellion. While the revolt failed, it contributed to a breakdown of royal authority and prestige that set the stage for the Wars of the Roses.

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts
The execution of Georghe Doja. Wikimedia

Hungarian Peasant Rebellion

Georghe Doja (1470 – 1514) was a Transylvanian nobleman and soldier of fortune who led a rebellion in 1514 – a fierce but eventually unsuccessful uprising of downtrodden Hungarian peasants against their rapacious overlords. After the peasant revolt was put down, Doja went down in history as both a notorious criminal and as a Christian martyr.

After making a name for himself in wars against the Ottoman Turks, Doja was appointed by Pope Leo X to lead a Crusade. About 40,000 volunteers gathered beneath his banner, comprised in the main of peasants, friars, and parish priests – medieval society’s lowest rungs. The Hungarian nobility however neither supplied the Crusaders nor offered military leadership – which was unseemly, since military leadership was the main justification for the aristocracy’s elevated status. Before long, the gathered throng started voicing its collective grievances against the overbearing nobles, and at harvest time, the peasants refused to return and reap their lords’ fields.

The nobles tried to seize the peasants by force and compel them to toil, but that did not sit well with Doja. Siding with the serfs against his own class, he led the Hungarian peasants in a violent rebellion that morphed into a war of extermination against the landlords. Hundreds of castles and aristocratic manors were put to the torch, while thousands of the gentry were killed, often tortured to death or executed in a variety of gruesome ways, such as crucifixion or impalement.

The rebellion was finally crushed, and the peasantry were crushed with it, as they were subjected to a reign of terror and a wave of retaliatory vengeance by the nobles. Over 70,000 were tortured to death, and the peasants as a class were condemned to perpetual servitude, permanently bound to the soil, fined heavily, had their taxes sharply hiked, and the number of days they had to work for their landlords was increased.

Doja was himself captured and condemned to a fiendishly cruel death. Accused among other things of having sought to become king, he was sentenced to sit on a hot iron throne, while a heated iron crown was affixed to his head. Next, bloody hunks were torn out of his body, and nine of his chief lieutenants, starved beforehand, were forced to eat his flesh.

The aristocratic backlash backfired, however, and twelve years later the Ottoman Turks invaded Hungary and had a relatively easy time conquering what was still a bitterly divided country. As to Doja, the revolutionary aspects of his life were drawn upon heavily during the communist era in Romania, his land of birth. Likewise in Hungary, where Doja is the most popular street name in villages, and a main avenue and metro station in Budapest bear his name.

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts
Rebellious peasants surrounding a knight. Wikimedia

German Peasants War

The German Peasants War of 1524 – 1525 was Europe’s largest popular uprising prior to the French Revolution of 1789. For generations, German peasants had experienced a steady curtailment of their ancient rights to fish, hunt, bear arms, or collect wood from common lands, while their noble overlords’ exactions grew increasingly more onerous. The conflict was reportedly, and perhaps apocryphally, sparked by the countess of Lupfen’s orders to her serfs to stop tending their crops in order to collect snail shells for her to use as thread spools. Neglecting their fields and crops meant starvation, so the peasants took up arms.

Wherever and however the uprising began, shared and widespread grievances ensured that it spread quickly among the peasantry. The pent up resentments also ensured that when the peasants finally turned to violence against their noble lords, they turned to violence in a big way. Atrocities abounded, and a noble or landlord who fell into the rebels’ clutches was in for rough treatment, in which a captive being forced to run a gauntlet between rows of peasants wielding clubs and whips was considered to be at the milder end of the spectrum.

Many were inspired by changes brought about by the Reformation, recently launched by Martin Luther, and invoked divine law to support peasant rights and freedom from oppression by the nobles and landlords. The peasants’ demands were encapsulated in a manifesto titled The Twelve Articles of the Christian Union, which also provided biblical justification for the rebels’ cause.

Some prominent Protestant reformers, such as Huldrych Zwingli and Thomas Muntzer, supported the peasants and the justice of their cause. Martin Luther, however, knowing on which side his bread was buttered, wanted nothing to do with the rebels and sided with the nobility, going so far as to pen a pamphlet titled Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants.

The revolt spread quickly through Germany, and at its height, over 300,000 peasants were under arms. However, their lack of organization, military training, artillery, or cavalry, doomed them to ultimate defeat. As with most peasant uprisings, the revolt was crushed once the forces of reaction gathered their strength, and the peasantry were subjected to widespread retaliatory vengeance in which over 100,000 were massacred. Notwithstanding the revolt’s failure, it had a lasting impact on history, as The Twelve Articles – the document listing the peasants’ demands – has been described as an inspiration for the French Revolution and a model for America’s Bill of Rights.

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts
The execution of Stenka Razin. Encyclopedia of Sfaety

Stenka Razin’s Rebellion

In 1670 – 1671, peasants, runaway serfs, and Cossacks, rose against the Russian aristocracy and Tsarist authority, and rebellion erupted along the lower Don river on Russia’s southwestern frontier. Led by Cossack leader Stepan Timofeyovich Razin, better known to history as Stenka Razin (circa 1630 – 1671), the uprising was the first of three major peasant eruptions that shook the Russian state in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Cossacks – members of semi military, democratic, self governing communities along Russia’s southern and southwestern frontiers – were not agriculturists, but made their living from tolls on merchant shipping on the Don and Volga rivers as it traversed their lands. In exchange for guarding Russia’s southern frontiers, the Russian authorities subsidized the Cossacks and tolerated their de facto independence.

During the 1650s and 1660s, wars, epidemics, and crop failures, led to widespread misery and impoverishment in Russia, and many serfs fled their oppressive masters to the Don region. Russian authorities sought to forcibly retrieve the runaway serfs, but the Cossacks resisted. When the authorities responded by cutting off the Cossacks’ subsidies and food supplies, they took to arms.

In 1667, Stenka Razin organized a Cossack regiment to resist the Russian embargo, and that May, he attacked a Russian caravan in which both the Russian Tsar and Patriarch of the Orthodox Church held stakes. The enraged authorities had him declared an outlaw and criminal. Unconcerned, Razin led his men to loot Persian settlements along the Caspian Sea, and by the time he returned to the Don region, he was a popular hero.

Razin then organized about 7000 peasants and runaway serfs, and led them in a revolt on behalf of Russia’s serfs and peasants. The uprising gained widespread popularity, and in May of 1669, the peasant army captured Astrakhan and Tsaritsin (modern Volgograd) after the cities’ populations opened their gates to Stenka Razin’s men. The flame of rebellion spread, and by 1670, over 200,000 peasants and serfs throughout southern and southwestern Russia were up in arms, forming into bands and attacking landowners and government officials.

Razin sought to establish a Cossack republic along the Volga as a preliminary step to marching on Moscow, which he aimed to seize in order to “eliminate the nobles and officials who obstruct the common people“. However, the rebels’ plans were thwarted at the city of Simbrisk, which they failed to capture. After two vicious battles in its vicinity, Razin’s forces were routed and nearly extirpated by the vengeful government forces, while Razin fled back to the Don.

Notwithstanding the defeat at Simbrisk, Razin’s emissaries stirred further uprisings farther north. His proclamation of an intent to found a republic, extending the Cossacks’ absolute equality throughout the whole of Russia, found receptive ears among the downtrodden peasantry and serfs. Soon, armed peasants were gathered in bands on the outskirts of Moscow and around Nizhny Novgorod, about 250 miles to the east, seeking deliverance from their yoke.

Once the government gathered its strength, however, the lightly armed peasants proved no match for the discipline and firepower of professional soldiers. The uprisings were brutally put down, followed by a wave of violent repression in which hundreds of thousands of peasants were massacred, including about 100,000 in the Novgorod region alone. By 1671, the revolt was over, and in April of that year, Stenka Razin was captured. He was taken to Moscow, where he was executed by quartering in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral.

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts
Kondraty Bulavin’s house in Starocherkask. Wikimedia

Bulavin Rebellion

Led by Kondraty Bulavin, a democratically elected Cossack leader, the Bulavin Rebellion (1707 – 1708), also known as the Astrakhan Revolt, was the second of three major peasant revolts that rocked Russia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As with the Stenka Razin uprising, the revolt was triggered by tensions between Moscow and the independent Cossacks, caused in no small part by the central authorities’ attempt to stem the tide of serfs fleeing their oppression in Russia to the freedom of the Cossack frontier lands, and to recover the fugitives for their aristocratic masters.

In the runup to the revolt, various aspects of the radical westernizing reforms of Tsar Peter the Great scandalized Russia and were seen as an affront by its pious peasantry to their Orthodox faith. That, piled atop the serf peasants’ preexisting grievances and the oppression and injustice under which they groaned, led to widespread discontent, and many voted with their feet by escaping to the Cossack lands, where they could toil and practice their faith in freedom.

Pressure from landlords mounted on the government to recapture the fugitives serfs and restore them to their masters, and in 1707, Peter the Great ordered a census in Cossack settlements to identify and return the fleeing peasants. An expedition to carry out the Tsar’s decree was seen by the Cossacks as a threat to their freedoms, and on the night of October 8th, 1707, Bulavin led a Cossack band which fell upon the expedition and wiped it out.

That was the spark for a widespread, if inchoate, peasant revolt that aimed to march on Moscow, not to fight the Tsar, but to free him from evil counselors whom many peasants assumed were keeping the Tsar ignorant of their plight. Others, of a more religious bent, believed that the real Tsar was hidden away, and the person claiming to be Peter the Great and implementing the radical westernizing reforms that offended their Orthodox faith was actually the antichrist.

Although the peasant revolt gained widespread popularity, poor leadership and vision condemned it to failure. Among other things, Bulavin failed to offer an alternative Tsar around whom the discontented could rally and unite, with the result that much of the armed resistance was frittered in various eruptions which the authorities could deal with piecemeal. Additionally, although Tsar Peter was engaged in a major war against Sweden at the time, the rebels failed to coordinate their actions with the Swedes, allowing Peter to amass a 32,000 man to deal with the peasants. That force steadily stamped out the revolt, and eventually, with the rebellion collapsing amidst devastating defeats, a faction of Bulavin’s followers turned against the rebel leader and assassinated him on July 7th, 1708, after which the uprising quickly ended.

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts
Pugachev’s Court, by Vasily Perov, 1879. Art Hive

Pugachev Rebellion

The Pugachev Rebellion (1773 – 1775), also known as the Peasants War, was the third and greatest of Russia’s major peasant revolts between 1670 to 1775. It was led by Emilian Pugachev, a former Russian army lieutenant, and posed an existential threat to Tsardom against a backdrop of deep resentment by the peasantry of Russia’s exploitative government and aristocracy.

During the reign of Catherine the Great, Russia’s elites embraced western culture, arts, technologies, fashions, and foods. The new western luxuries and westernized standard of living were quite expensive, however, and to pay for them, Russia’s landlords turned to their peasant serfs, increasing their tax burdens and squeezing them dry. That led to protests, increased incidences of serfs fleeing their landlords’ lands, and rebellions, with over 160 localized peasant uprisings recorded throughout the Russian Empire between 1762 to 1772.

In 1773, the discontent erupted into a massive peasant revolt, sparked by word that Tsar Peter III, who had been assassinated in 1763, had escaped death and was hiding amongst the Cossacks from Tsarina Catherine the Great, who sought to thwart Peter III from his intent to emancipate Russia’s peasants from serfdom. The self-proclaimed Tsar Peter III was actually Emilian Pugachev, a Cossack born in the same village where former peasant revolt leader Stenka Razin had been born a century earlier.

Pugachev was a Russian army lieutenant who had fought in the Seven Years War before deserting to wander southern Russia among Orthodox religious fundamentalists known as Old Believers. With them, Pugachev hatched a plan to pose as the deceased Peter III, and in that guise, he soon attracted widespread popularity amongst Cossacks, peasants, and non-Russian populations resentful of official discrimination and demands to convert to Orthodox Christianity.

Promising a repeal of an unpopular poll tax and forced labor, Pugachev amassed a large peasant army, supported by Cossacks, Tartars, and other non-Russians, and in 1773, crushed a Russian army sent to put down the rebellion. As the rebels marched deeper into Russian territory, promising the Russian masses liberation from aristocratic oppression, Pugachev, under the guise of Tsar Peter III, formed an alternate government that emphasized the peasants’ freedom from the nobility. He also held court to judge and punish abusive landlords and officials captured by the rebels.

The revolt steadily gained steam, and at its height, the rebels controlled vast territories stretching from the Volga river to the Urals. In April, 1774, Pugachev suffered a defeat and was forced to flee to the southern Urals, where he raised a new army and returned to the fray, fighting a series of battles on the Steppe, particularly around the city of Kazan, which the rebels burned. After setbacks, the rebels retreated to the Volga river where, outside today’s Volgograd, they were defeated, after which Pugachev’s lieutenants betrayed him to the authorities. The Pugachev rebellion collapsed with the capture of its leader, who was taken to Moscow and executed in January of 1775.

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