Backwaters of History No.5 – Peasant Rebellion 1381
” . . . that the offender be dragged to the gallows; that he be hanged by the neck and then cut down alive; that his entrails be taken out and burned while he is yet alive; that his head be cut off; that his body be divided into four parts and that his head and quarters be at the King’s disposal.”
That, with additional provisions, was the punishment known as being hanged, drawn and quartered which Mr. E. S. Turner informs us was supposed to have originated in the reign of King Edward I of England. (Roads to Ruin, by E. S. Turner. Pages 83-84.)
That was the punishment meted out to John Ball by Lord Chief Justice, Robert Tressilian on July 15th, 1381, at St. Albans. Others who were prominent in the peasant rising of 1381 met similar fates. William Grindcobbe of St. Albans with fifteen others was subjected to the lesser penalty of being hanged and drawn without quartering. Jack Straw, John Kerby and Alan Threder were killed without trial in London; John Shirle at Cambridge and John Wright with George Dunsby at Norwich were hanged; Geoffrey Litster of East Anglia was hanged drawn and quartered and his quarters sent to Norwich, Harwich, Lynn and Yarmouth to strike terror into other prospective rebels. John Wrawe of Sudbury turned king’s evidence and escaped punishment for twelve months, being hanged in June 1382. The man who gave his name to the rebellion, Wat Tyler of Colchester, after being severely wounded at Smithfield, was dragged from a hospital bed in St. Bartholomew’s by William Walworth, Lord Mayor of London, beheaded and his head paraded around London on the end of Walworth’s lance. So, the Feudal nobility of the 14th century took its revenge for the fright the rebellion had given them. The gibbets all over the eastern and southern counties of England were loaded.
By the beginning of the 14th century in England, feudalism was pregnant with the embryo capitalism. Commerce was developing, a merchant class was arising, the use of money was expanding, peasants were commuting feudal services for money payments and the nobility, as anxious as the peasantry to escape its feudal obligations, was squeezing more and more wealth from the merchants and peasants to maintain the feudal state and to indulge in parasitic luxury.
Into this state of affairs, in the middle of the century, came the great pestilence known as The Black Death which, it is estimated, mortally affected between one-third and one-half of the entire population of this country. The peasants and wage workers who survived the plague were in an advantageous position. Wages rose whilst more poor peasants became wage workers. Other peasants, striving to produce for a regional market instead of for a feudal lord, became more wealthy. Although the wealthier peasants did not object to accumulating their wealth at the expense of their poorer brethren, they did object to contributing considerable sums to the nobility.
In an attempt to control the situation the ruling class introduced the Ordinance and Statues of Labourers by which they tried to fix wages at a low level, bind the worker and peasant closer to his lord and master, and to keep prices at a “reasonable level.” The efforts to enforce these things gave rise to many local acts of resistance.
Throughout the country there wandered a number of poor priests who preached as much against the corruption of the feudal nobility as they did in favour of the Christian heaven. One such was John Ball. Jean Froissart, the contemporary historian, tells us in his “Chronicles,” that John Ball,
” . . . was accustomed to assemble a crowd round him in the market place and preach to them. On such occasions he would say, ‘My good friends, matters cannot go well in England until all things be held in common; when there shall be neither vassals nor lords; when the lords shall be no more masters than ourselves. How ill they behave to us? For what reason do they thus hold us in bondage? Are we not all descended from the same parents, Adam and Eve? And what can they show, or what reason can they give, why they should be more masters than ourselves? They are clothed in velvet and rich stuffs, ornamented with ermine and other furs, while we are forced to wear poor clothing. They have wine, spices and fine bread, while we have only rye, and the refuse of the straw, and when we drink, it must be water. They have handsome seats and manors, while we must brave the wind and rain in our labours in the field; and it is by our labours that they wherewith to support their pomp. We are called slaves and if we do not perform our service we are beaten, and we have no sovereign to whom we can complain or would be willing to hear us. Let us go to the King and remonstrate with him, he is young and from him we may obtain a favourable answer, and if not we must ourselves seek to amend our conditions.”—(Quoted by Fagan and Hilton in ‘The English Rising of 1381,” page 99.)
A Parliament met in Northampton in 1380 and decided to levy a very heavy Poll Tax on the peasantry to help pay for the expensive war with France. The tax was made progressive by providing some relief for the very poor at the expense of the wealthier peasant. This united the whole of the peasantry in opposition, the wealthier members frequently giving the lead in evading the tax and resisting the collectors.
On May 20th, 1381, there rode into Brentwood, one Thomas Bampton, a tax Commissioner. He summoned the inhabitants of Fobbing, Corringham and Stanford-le-Hope to appear before him. They came, armed and led by Thomas Baker of Fobbing. When Bampton tried to arrest Baker the villagers attacked Bampton and his party and drove them out of the town. This was the beginning.
A similar event took place at Gravesend. Abel Ker of Erith led a party against a monastery, then crossed the Thames, joined up with another group ay Barking, recrossed the river and marched to Dartford where Ker handed over his command to Robert Cave, a master baker who was leading the Dartford rebels. After marching around nearby villages recruiting his forces, Cave marched them to Maidstone to release John Ball from jail. It was here, in Maidstone, that Wat Tyler, a man comparatively unknown until the last few days of his life, was placed at the head of the rising.
Tyler took his army to Canterbury where they searched the Palace of the Archbishop and destroyed all papers and rolls that recorded the peasants’ bondage to their masters. At Canterbury Cathedral Tyler made a pronouncement from the pulpit stating that Archbishop Sudbury was condemned and would be put to death and it was intimated that John Ball should be appointed to the office.
Tyler’s army returned to Maidstone, joined up with the main force, attacked and captured Rochester Castle and marched on London. On Wednesday, June 12th, the peasant army pitched camp on Blackheath. From this camp parties were dispatched to release the prisoners from the King’s Bench and Marshalsea prisons most of whom were offenders against the Statute of Labourers.
Inside the walls of the City of London the ruling class was in a panic. The king with some of his nobles went by barge to Rotherhithe where the Kent and Essex rebels were camped on opposite banks of the Thames. The royal party took fright and scampered back to London. The rebels then marched to London Bridge and to Aldgate, burning the Lord Mayor’s brothels and destroying all the feudal documents that they could lay hands on.
Alderman Walter Sybyle, a fishmonger, was in charge of London Bridge, and threw it open to Tyler and his men, whilst Thomas Farrington opened the Ald Gate to the Essex men. The rebels had many such sympathisers amongst the merchants and workpeople of London who were themselves victims of the rapacious nobles. Many of them joined Tyler’s forces when they entered the city and were punished for their part in the rising when it was suppressed.
The main body of rebels marched past the Gothic edifice of St. Paul’s church, down the hill to Lud Gate and along the Strand to the Savoy Palace, the residence of the most hated man in England—John of Gaunt, the leader of the corrupt gang of noble speculators who were bleeding the people. The rebels maintained a strict discipline, executing selected enemies, destroying documents and property of their especial enemies, but stealing, taking or looting nothing. They encamped by the Tower of London which they eventually occupied.
The rebel army had a childish faith in the king, Richard II, a boy of 14 years of age. John Ball encouraged this faith, according to the quotation from Froissart that we have given. The king was regarded as a person of power who stood above all class antagonisms and enmities and who could be relied upon to be fair in his judgement of peoples wrongs and powerful enough to put them right. His nobles who surrounded him were an evil influence. If he could be spoken to and told of the rebels troubles, they were sure that he would remedy them. This faith proved the undoing of the rebellion.
The Earl of Salisbury, a mature statesman, concocted a plan to destroy the rebel army. Leaving Archbishop Sudbury of Canterbury, who was also Chancellor, Robert Halles, known as Hob the Robber, who was Treasurer, John Legge and the king’s confessor, Appledore, to be tried and beheaded by the rebels in the Tower, the king and his other nobles rode out through Ald Gate to the fields at Mile End. Here he made promises to the assembled rebel forces.
In the house of John Farringdon in London the rebel leaders had drawn up their demands which they now placed before the king. To the men of Hertford he promised:
“Know that of our special grace we have manumitted all our liege and singular subjects and others of the county of Hertford, freed each and all of their bondage, and made them quit by these presents; pardoned them of all felonies, treasons, transgressions, and extortions committed by any and all of them, and assure them of our ‘summa pax’.”—(“English Rising of 1381.” Fagan and Hilton. Page 130.)
Similar charters were granted to other sections of the rebels. This satisfied many of them and, as Salisbury had anticipated, large numbers drew off and returned. delighted, to their native villages.
A reduced army under Tyler remained and continued to dig out and execute the particular enemies that they had listed. Those peasants who returned home spread the news of their great success and hosts of other risings occurred all over the country. John Farringdon with Alderman John Horn and other members of various London Guilds did a bit of cleaning up in the city on their own account, executing some of their class enemies and straightening out a number of social injustices.
It was necessary to disperse the remainder of the rebel forces. The king again met the peasants at Smithfield and the nobles managed to separate Tyler from his men, surround him and, under cover of dusk, to strike him almost to death, without his followers realising what was happening. The rebels were told to go to St. John’s Fields where a beknighted Wat Tyler would be returned to them. At the rendezvous the rebels were met by a strong military force that Mayor Walworth had raised and they were easily beaten and dispersed. Farringdon and Horn tried to raise support for the peasants within the city but most of the erstwhile supporters, having squared their own accounts were only too pleased to see the end of the rebel forces.
Needless to say, the king’s promises were never kept, but a hunt for rebels was conducted throughout the main areas of disaffection and cruel punishments inflicted. The rising was probably a contributory factor in the improved conditions of the peasantry during the following century but the main factor was the change in the economic forces within feudalism.
Many workers today have the same faith in the capitalist state as the 1381 rebels had in their king. They regard the state as an independent organ, detached from class interests, acting as a mediating force in the struggles between employers and employed. Just as the feudal king was a member of the exploiting class of his day with the same interests to uphold, so the capitalist state of today is representative of capitalist class interests and uses its forces to maintain the capitalist system and protect the property of capitalists. Like the feudal state machinery, the capitalist counterpart will always be used to subdue rebellious workers.
Books to read:
“An Economic History of England”, by Charlotte M. Waters.
“Six Centuries of Work and Wages”, by James E. Thorold Rogers, M.P.
“The English Rising of 1381”, by H. Fagan and R. H. Hilton.
“The Black Death”, by G. G. Coulton
“The Revolutionary Tradition in England”, by F. A. Ridley.
“A Peoples History of England”, by A. L. Morton.
“Chronicles of France, England and Spain”, by Froissart (English version in Everyman Library).
“Survey of London”, by John Stow (also in Everyman Library).
“Dream of John Ball”, by William Morris