The Unexpected Reason for England's First Major Violent Revolution
The Unexpected Reason for England’s First Major Violent Revolution

The Unexpected Reason for England’s First Major Violent Revolution

Jennifer Conerly - December 22, 2017

The Unexpected Reason for England’s First Major Violent Revolution
The rebels during the Peasants’ Revolt burn Savoy Palace, 1381. The king’s uncle John of Gaunt was blamed for the poll tax that was the spark that led to the revolt. When the rebels reached London, they burned down his home at Savoy Palace. Henry VII later left instructions in his will that the home be turned into a hospital for the needy, which was established in 1512. By Alfred Garth Jones, ca. 1900. Wikimedia Commons.

Unable to quell the violence, Richard II exited the Tower to negotiate with the peasants. They met at Mile End, where the king agreed to all of their demands. Richard II agreed to eliminate serfdom, stop the unfair taxation laws, and granted pardons to anyone involved in the uprising. Satisfied with the negotiations, some of the rebels returned home, but Wat Tyler and his followers remained, doubtful of the king’s sincerity.

The next day, June 14, 1381, Richard II met with Tyler and his men in Smithfield, London, and he continued to support the demands of the uprising. During the meeting, some of the rebels stormed the Tower of London, murdering the Lord Chancellor and the Lord High Treasurer, who were both still locked inside. Wat Tyler still wasn’t convinced the king would honor his promises, and there was an altercation in which William Walworth, the mayor of London, murdered Tyler.

The king was able to calm the rebels long enough to order Walworth to organize a force to take back control of London. As soon as he had control of the city, he went back on his word and reneged on his promises. The revolutionary fervor had spread throughout the country, and the king ordered almost 5,000 soldiers to restore peace in the country, which didn’t come until November 1381. By the time peace was restored, almost all of the leaders and about 1,500 of their followers were dead.

The Unexpected Reason for England’s First Major Violent Revolution
Richard II meets with the rebels of the Peasants’ Revolt, 1381. Manuscript illustration by Jean Froissart, ca. late 14th to early 15th century. Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Wikimedia Commons.

The Peasant’s Revolt is one of the most researched events of medieval England. The uprising led to the abolition of the poll tax, and it forced England to change its foreign policy. Without the option to raise enough taxes, the country couldn’t invest in military aggression against France and Scotland, as it had before. The memory of the uprising was fresh in the minds of landowners: they were more willing to negotiate with their workers for better conditions and better wages, some even giving their serfs the option to buy their freedom. By the end of the fifteenth century, the feudal system had become obsolete.

The Peasant’s Revolt is one of the most important events of medieval England because of its political and economic impact. With its combination of disorder, protest, and violence, many of the country’s top officials were killed, temporarily paralyzing the government and almost bringing it down altogether. Remnants of the rebellion, especially attacking unfair taxation, would be echoed in the beginnings of the American Revolution nearly four hundred years later. Although England’s first popular uprising was sparked by a combination of many different factors, at the heart of it was the belief that workers had the right to be paid a fair wage and that a flat tax was economically unjust to the lower classes. These are still arguments that we are having today.