The Flame of Rebellion

THE IMMEDIATE CAUSE of the outbreak of the Peasants’ Revolt was Poll tax the government’s decision to raise badly-needed money by poll taxes. These were levied on every person (by the poll, or head) and graduated according to rank and wealth. Parliament voted three poll taxes between 1 377 and 1380. This extract is from the vote of the third tax of 1380: “First the lords and commons have agreed that, for the aforesaid necessities, there shall be given from every lay person in the realm, male or female, of whatever estate or condition, above the age of fifteen years, three groats; save very beggars, who shall not be charged…

“So always that the levy be made in such ordinance and form, that every lay person be charged . . . in manner as follows, to wit, that towards the sum total accounted in each township, the richer shall aid the poorer, in such wise that the richest shall not pay beyond the sum of sixty groats for himself and his wife, and none shall pay less than one groat for himself and his wife.

“And that no person be charged to pay save where he and his wife and children dwell, or where he resides in service. And that all artificers, labourers, servants, and other lay persons . . . shall be each assessed and tallaged according to the rate of his condition. And that commissions be made to certain persons, to be collectors and controllers of the aforesaid sum. . . (104)”

Coming on top of their other grievances, these new taxes aroused deep resentment among the peasants. A jingle of the time ran (105):

Tax has troubled us all,

Probat hoc mors tot validorum.

The King thereof had small,

Fuit in manibus cupidorum.

Widespread tax evasion took place. The royal council appointed special commissioners in March, 1381, to enforce full payment of the tax. For example, the commissioners for Norfolk were told: “You are to certify to the Treasurer and Barons of the Exchequer with all possible speed the number and names of all persons whom you find in each vill and parish; and you shall bring to the Ex­chequer your parts of the said indentures. You are to seize and arrest all those whom you find acting in opposition or rebellion to the above commands. Such men are to be held in our prisons where they are to stay until we make provision for their punishment (106). ”

The revolt began, according to the Anonimal Chronicle, on 30th May, 1381. On that day a commissioner, Thomas Bampton, summoned the men of the three Thames-side villages of Fobbing, Corringham and Stanford to the town of Brentwood in Essex to enquire who among them had evaded the tax in January: “He had summoned before him the townships of a neighbouring hundred, and wished to have from them new contributions, commanding the people of those townships to make diligent inquiry, and give their answers, and pay their due. Among these townships was Fobbing, whose people made answer that they would not pay a penny more, because they already had a receipt from himself for the said subsidy. On which the said Thomas threatened them angrily, and he had with him two sergeants-at-arms of our lord the King (107).”

The men of Fobbing were joined by those of neighbouring Corringham and Stanford: “Then the people of these three town­ships came together to the number of a hundred or more, and with one assent went to the said Thomas Bampton, and roundly gave him answer that they would have no traffic with him, nor give him a penny. On which the said Thomas commanded his sergeants-at­arms to arrest these folks, and put them in prison. But the commons made insurrection against him, and would not be arrested, and went about to kill the said Thomas and the said sergeants.

“On this Thomas fled towards London to the King’s Council; but the commons took to the woods, for fear that they had of his malice, and they hid there some time, till they were almost famished, and afterwards they went from place to place to stir up other people to rise against the lords and great folk of the country (108).”

The young King Richard’s advisers sent Sir Robert Belknap, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, into Essex to restore order. Belknap swore in jurors among the local people to make statements about the offenders. But “the commons rose against him, and came before him, and told him that he was a traitor to the King, and that it was of pure malice that he would put them in default, by means of false inquests made before him. And they took him, and made him swear on the Bible that never again would he hold such a session, nor act as a justice in such inquests. And they made him give them a list of the names of all the jurors, and they took all the jurors they could catch, and cut off their heads, and cast their houses to the ground. So the said Sir Robert took his way home without delay.

“And afterwards the said commons assembled together, before Whitsunday, to the number of some 50,000, and they went to the manors and townships of those who would not rise with them, and cast their houses to the ground or set fire to them. At this time they caught three clerks of Thomas Bampton, and cut off their heads, and carried the heads about with them for several days stuck on poles as an example to others. For it was their purpose to slay all lawyers, and all jurors, and all the servants of the King whom they could find (109).”

The flame of revolt now spread throughout Essex. The story is told in the Chronicon Angliae: “The peasants, whom we call villeins or bondsmen, with the rural inhabitants in Essex, coveting greater things, and in hopes of reducing everything into subjection to themselves, came together in a great multitude and began to make great tumult, demanding their liberty. . . They intended in future to be bound to pay service to no man.

“The men of two villages, who were the authors and prime movers in this mischief, sent word to each village that all, old and young, should flock to them, furnished with such arms as they could get; and that those who did not come, or despised this warning would have their goods destroyed, their houses set on fire or pulled down, and their heads cut off. These terrible threats made all hasten to them, so that in a short time so great a number was assembled that it was estimated at some 5000, of the meanest common people and peasants. . . (110)”

The Essex rebels sent messengers to the people of Kent, who rose in arms a few days later: “When the men of Kent heard news of what they had long hoped for, they too without delay gathered together a large band of commons and peasants, by the same devices wherewith the Essex men had collected their bands…

In a short time [they] stirred up the whole of their county to a similar tumult. And soon they besieged all the roads by which pilgrims go to Canterbury, and stopping all the pilgrims they compelled them to swear: first to be faithful to King Richard and the commons… then that they would be ready to come and join them whenever they should please to send for them; that they would persuade all their fellow-citizens and neighbours to hold with them, and would consent to the raising of no taxes in the realm in future save the ‘fifteenths’ which alone their fathers and fore­fathers knew and submitted to (111).”

Throughout Kent the rebels released prisoners from the jails. These included John Ball, then in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s prison at Maidstone: “At last, having been excommunicated, yet not desisting, he was thrown into prison, where he predicted that he would be set free by 20,000 of his friends—which afterwards happened in the great disturbances, when the commons broke open all the prisons, and made the prisoners depart (112).”

Joined by John Ball, the Kentish rebels decided to march on London. On 10th June they were joined by two other leaders, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, as recounted by Froissart: “On the Monday before the feast of Corpus Christi, 1381, these men left their homes and set out for London, to speak to the King and to gain their freedom, for their object was that no Englishman should remain a serf. At Canterbury they found John Ball (he was looking, in vain, for the archbishop, who was in London with the King) and with him Wat Tyler and Jack Straw. They were given a warm welcome, for the people of Canterbury were on their side; and having decided to make for London to see the King, they sent word to their supporters in Essex and Sussex, and as far as Bedford and Stafford, encouraging them to do the same, so that London would be surrounded. In this way the King would be unable to escape them; they aimed to assemble together in London from every side on the feast of Corpus Christi (113).”

Canterbury, too, was occupied by a group of rebels on 10th June. For the next month, it was the stronghold of the revolt: “At Canterbury, they invaded the church of Saint Thomas and did great damage; they also wrecked the apartments of the Arch‑bishop, saying as they destroyed or removed his belongings: ‘This chancellor of England has had his furniture cheap. He will now give us an account of the revenues of the country, and of the great sums he has raised since the King’s coronation.’ “After raiding the monasteries of Saint Thomas and Saint Vincent, they left for Rochester, accompanied by all the inhabitants of Canterbury. They were joined by the people of the villages to right and left of the road, and they advanced like a whirlwind, mercilessly destroying the houses of attorneys and King’s proctors, and of the officers of the Archbishop’s court (114).”

Another group attacked Rochester Castle. They frightened the garrison into surrender, and took the governor with them: “At Rochester they were again welcomed, and they went to the castle and seized the governor, Sir John Newton, saying: ‘You will have to come with us and be our commander-in-chief, and do exactly as we say.’ Sir John tried to refuse, and gave a number of excellent reasons for doing so, but in vain, for they replied: ‘Sir John, if you refuse, you are a dead man.’ Realizing that the people were out of their minds and quite ready to kill him, he reluctantly put himself at their head (115).”

They marched on to Blackheath, seven miles south-east of London, killing and burning houses on the way and showing especial hatred towards lawyers for their part in enforcing the Statute of Labourers: “After leaving Rochester the rebels crossed the river and came to Dartford, never sparing the property of attorneys or proctors as they went. They cut off several heads on their way, and soon reached Blackheath, where they encamped on a hill, saying that they were for the King and the commons of England (116).”

By 12th June large numbers of Kentish men had assembled on Blackheath, while the Essex men had reached Mile End, then a hamlet outside the City walls: “And on the vigil of Corpus Christi Day the commons of Kent came to Blackheath, three leagues from London, to the number of 50,000 to wait for the King, and they displayed two banners of St. George and forty pennons. And the commons of Essex came on the other side of the water to the number of 60,000 to aid them, and to have their answer from the King (117).”

Meanwhile, Richard II had come to London. He was lodged for safety in the Tower, where he held a meeting of the Council to consider the crisis: “At this time the King was at Windsor, but he removed with all the haste he could to London: and the Mayor and the good folks of London came to meet him, and conducted him in safety to the Tower of London. There all the Council assembled and all the lords of the land round about, that is to say, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Chancellor of England, the Bishop of London, and the Master of the Hospital of St. John’s, Clerken­well, who was then Treasurer of England, and the Earls of. . . Kent, Arundel, Warwick, Suffolk, Oxford, and Salisbury, and others to the number of six hundred (118).”