The Plantagenet Era Saw Massive Popular Uprisings
By medieval standards, England was one of the more stable realms in Europe during the first two centuries of Plantagenet rule. There were occasional bouts of political violence amongst the elites, but they tended to be short lived and relatively small scale, causing correspondingly little disruption, all things considered. The Black Death, which arrived in 1348 and killed between a third and a half of England’s population, changed that.
The depopulation led to a severe labor shortage. That allowed surviving workers to negotiate higher wages and better working conditions, particularly from landowners desperate to have their fields tilled. So the landowners and employers got the government to enact the Statute of Laborers in 1351, fixing wages at pre Black Death rates. Understandably, that did not sit well with the peasants and laborers.
Their discontent came to a boil in 1381, when an unpopular poll tax was enacted. That May, officials attempting to collect the tax in Essex were violently resisted. Resistance spread, catching the government of the then 14 year old king Richard II by surprise with its vehemence and speed. Rebels seized and burned court and tax records, emptied the jails, and visited vigilante justice upon unpopular landlords and employers who fell into their hands.
They demanded an end to serfdom, a lowering of taxes, and the dismissal of unpopular officials and judges, and marched on London. On June 13th, 1381, a Kentish contingent led by a Wat Tyler entered the city, massacred foreigners, 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 teenaged 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!”
Two generations later, England erupted into another popular uprising, triggered by high taxes and a recent hike in the cost of living. That came on the heels of a recent loss of most English territory in France, due to a disastrous royal marriage negotiation to wed England’s hapless and mentally feeble king Henry VI to a French princess. The preceding, combined with widespread corruption and abuse of power by royal advisors and officials, brought things to a boil. In 1450 Jack Cade, an Irishman residing in Kent, England, organized and led a rebellion of peasants and small proprietors. The rebellion gathered steam, and soon became a major popular revolt that shook England and terrorized its government and ruling caste.
The rebels issued a manifesto listing their grievances, in which they demanded the removal of several royal ministers. They also demanded the recall of the king’s cousin, Richard, Duke of York, from Ireland, where he was a virtual exile. A royal army was sent to crush the rebellion, only to get crushed by the rebels in Kent. The rebels then marched on London, and captured it on July 3rd, 1450. They also captured the hated royal treasurer, James Fiennes, Lord Saye and Sele, whom they blamed for most of their grievances. After a summary trial, Sele was convicted, sentenced to death, and executed.
However, Cade failed to maintain discipline among his followers, and many of them began looting London. The lawlessness led Londoners to turn on the rebels, and expel them from the city after a battle at London Bridge, July 6th, 1450. Officials then convinced most rebels to disperse by issuing royal pardons. With his host melting away, Cade fled, but was tracked down a week later. After a brief skirmish with his pursuers, he was wounded and captured. He was to be taken to London, but died of his wounds en route.