‘You wretches, detestable on land and sea; you who seek equality with lords are unworthy to live. Give this message to your colleagues. Rustics you were and rustics you are still…’
Richard II, Waltham, 22 June 13811.
And rustics they indeed remained. Crystallised in the national consciousness from that day onwards as either a treacherous rabble or campaigners for liberty, depending on the perspective of the individual considering the event, they were part of the greatest popular uprising, in terms of the percentage of the population participating, in England’s history, immortalised as the country’s most notorious band of rebels. It would be hard to deny Alistair Dunn’s statement that few common people in the history of the nation have ever been so successfully cemented in the national mythos than the leaders of the rising, Wat Tyler, John Bull and Jack Straw2. For centuries since that fateful year, civil disorder and rebellion have prompted the resurfacing of memories of the revolt, right through to the English Civil Wars of the sixteen-hundreds3. Yet that pervasive image of yokel recalcitrance is deceptive, ignoring the vast number of people involved who could not be described as ‘peasants’. It is to the use of this term in general that attention must be turned.
Before beginning to analyse the social make-up of the rebels in any of the main centres of disturbance, it is essential to deal with an issue of perhaps even more fundamental importance. The terms ‘peasantry’ and ‘revolt’ are problematic when considering the events of summer 1381. Contemporary chroniclers almost exclusively used words synonymous with ‘peasants’, ‘rustics’ and ‘serfs’, except when sliding deeper into their indignation and utilising language that degraded the rebels still further – ‘oxen’, ‘swine’ and ‘mad dogs’4. The participants in the rising are known to have referred to themselves as the “free commons”, a phrase repeated throughout the rising and of a distinctly different character, carrying connotations of community and far broader in its inclusion of various demographics within society. It indicated a shared lifestyle and shared concerns, particularly within urban settings where the term first experienced clear development and which were, at least in theory, collectives5. The use of this phrase by the people involved in the uprising is not merely an issue of semantics, it is of crucial importance in understanding not only how they viewed themselves, but also the reality of the social nature of the rising. The term ‘peasant’ is also problematic in that its use can be taken in a narrow or broad sense. If ‘peasantry’ is taken to describe individual families working their own holdings for the purposes of subsistence farming, the inclusion in the revolt of local craftsmen such as smiths and carpenters needs qualification. Rodney Hilton does include these people as integral parts of the wider peasant community and therefore allows for a less focused definition on the part of external commentators6. Indeed, broadening the scope of the term may have been a conscious decision on the part of chroniclers and other observers, a point which will be dealt with later, but when extended to include minor gentry and townspeople who also became involved, the word itself becomes inadequate and perhaps even redundant.
‘Revolt’ too presents problems. The appropriacy of its use depends heavily on whether the observer considers the events to be closely linked and coordinated. Strohm dismisses the suggestion completely, stating that in truth it was ‘a disparate and widespread protest movement’, rather than a coherent, unified attempt to force social change7. Opinions have diverged widely on this issue, although given the range of grievances and the actions used to deal with them, the arguments advanced by historians such as Edgar Powell8 and Nicholas Brooks9 to support the idea of a pre-planned and organised insurrection seem less plausible outside their primary focus on events in Kent and Essex. Although here the rapid spread of the uprising does suggest some coordination on the part of the participants, particularly as the first actions took place on the second of June in both Essex and Kent, Brooks himself acknowledges that sympathetic movements elsewhere only manifested themselves once news of the initial successes in the South-East had arrived10. Beyond the borders of these two counties and the mass movement of their inhabitants to London, the picture of cohesion becomes far less convincing.
With the intricacies of nomenclature examined, the possibility for analysis of individual outbreaks of unrest opens up. Inevitably the clearest evidence of a lack of uniform demographic for the uprising can be seen in the events that occurred in towns. The information available regarding the activities of townsfolk is far more plentiful and therefore gives a greater picture of events, while simultaneously often being more problematic in its tone. Indicative of these issues is the situation that arose in the town of St Albans. Thanks to Thomas Walsingham’s detailed chronicle of the burgesses’ activities and demands, it is possible to create a clear timeline of events, yet his animosity towards the St Albans rising in particular makes his account decidedly problematic when considering bias. His position as a member of the town’s ecclesiastical community placed him in direct opposition to events and his anger is palpable. However, the incidents he describes are explained lucidly and are directly relevant to the question at hand. Far from being concerned with the plight of peasantry, and without making demands for freedom of villeins and serfs of the sort that were made in other areas, the townspeople assaulted the object of their dissatisfaction – the local abbey with which they had long had disagreements. Chief among their list of grievances was the abbey’s control of common land in the area which restricted the freedom to fish, hunt and graze livestock, rights they claimed to have been granted in the past11. The actions taken by the locals directly attacked this hegemony. Folds and gates erected by the abbot in the nearby Falcon Wood were torn down, and inmates were released from the prison maintained by the town’s monastery12. Ultimately the abbot was brought before the leaders of the movement and presented with a charter from King Richard himself that ordered the return of the disputed rights13. In spite of the aggressive nature of the confrontation, the negotiations that followed were held peacefully, in marked contrast to other notable examples of hostilities at the time, a fact that perhaps also had a bearing on the relatively peaceful suppression of the town once the ‘revolt’ had ended14.
Cambridge too provides ample evidence of opportunistic attempts to resolve long-standing differences, with previous examples of violence in 1304, 1322 and 137115. Here the object of ire was the university itself and the issues at the centre of the conflict were entirely economic in nature. Permission given by the king in 1378 allowed the university to seize and hold assizes of goods such as bread and wine “if the mayor and bailiffs be negligent or remiss”16. In parliamentary discussions of the rising it was alleged that the mayor and bailiffs themselves had been the instigators of the assault on the university, as well as on hated local figures17. Roger Harleston, a local lawyer, former sheriff and MP, had his home and guest house raised to the ground and looted. The university’s role in training lawyers made it significantly unpopular with local burgesses, particularly when those lawyers had been involved in economic issues which negatively affected them18. Archives and charters held by the university were burned, with Corpus Christi College a particular focus of attack, possibly as a result of its close association with the king’s much-loathed uncle, John of Gaunt, a man whose humiliation appears to have been a priority in other areas as well. The colleges and scholars were presented with a charter renouncing the rights they had formerly claimed19. No demands appear to have been made regarding any change in the social structure of the land, certainly not related to rural issues far beyond the borders of Cambridge. If a ‘peasants’ revolt’ requires, as would seem logical, actions designed to deal directly with the hardship and restrictions imposed on the lives of rural agricultural communities, there is little evidence of this to be found here.
Further afield in other towns, things were similar. In Ipswich, rebels launched attacks on the homes of John Cobat, an assessor who had been directly involved in collection during the second and third poll taxes, a lawyer named John Gerard, and on the property of the Roman cardinal bishop of Sabina, the archdeacon of the area who had never once visited his archdeaconry but still insisted on collecting his feudal dues20. A royal commissioner was executed in Ely on the seventeenth of June, while the bishop’s prison was broken open and the prisoners released21. In both cases there was, once again, no evidence of sympathy with peasant concerns and the perpetrators were inhabitants of the towns. Even those that owned agricultural land were hardly humble labourers. Thomas Sampson, a particularly wealthy rebel, owned land across a minimum of three separate parishes, with hundreds of acres being cultivated22.
As the site of the most dramatic episode in the rising and because of its overall importance in the country, London is impossible to ignore. The infamous burning of the Savoy and the storming of the Tower of London stand out as moments when the rebels achieved successes far beyond what perhaps even they had imagined possible. The involvement of the Kent and Essex rebels, a large number of whom were undoubtedly those who could be termed ‘peasants’, in the meetings at Mile End and Smithfield may be seen as the climax of the drama, yet once again events in the city were essentially internal affairs. London had as strictly stratified a society as anywhere else in the country, with its economic and political monopolies, trade jealously controlled by guilds, and a population in which seventy-five percent of residents had no official citizenship and therefore no right to engage with the city’s governance22. Such circumstances made friction inevitable and violent conflict an alarming possibility. Strohm suggests that it was fear of this ‘inner division’ which led the authorities to be cautious in their dealings with the rebels beyond the gates, lest violent action there should spark sympathetic violence within the city walls23. London’s independence with regard to interference by authorities was surely acknowledged at this time and continued to be a source of concern into the future. In 1397 an older Richard II would deal with these issues himself, favouring Nottingham as a setting for councils as he stated openly his concern for his safety in the South due to the perceived hatred of Londoners and their neighbours in nearby counties24.
With the arrival of Wat Tyler and what must have been an increasingly confident cohort of rebels, opportunities presented themselves to those in the city who had personal grievances to resolve, the wealthy as well as the poor and disenfranchised masses25. Ronald Webber states that the rebels were ‘egged on’ by locals26, but recent research has suggested that the vast majority of those involved in the London violence were inhabitants of the city itself, most of them urban workers or “journeymen” who were unable to access the trades and employment available through the guild system27, although members of other social groups also took advantage of the situation. That city aldermen aided the external rebels by lowering defences including the drawbridge on London Bridge is well known, although some of the details, including the assertion that John Horn and Walter Sibley attempted to prevent aid reaching the king after the confrontation at Smithfield, have been questioned and at least partially discredited through research begun by Bertie Wilkinson in 194028. Another group identified as likely active participants in the chaos within the city walls were the organised weavers native to London. Long-term resentment of the privileged position of Flemish weavers, combined with predictable xenophobia, may have been the cause of attacks aimed against them29. Similar assaults on Flemish textile workers and establishments took place around the city, a brothel frequented by them being, tellingly, the first building targeted by the Kentish rebels on their arrival in Southwark30. The connection between the victims and concerns of rural folk is negligible, if non-existent, once again clearly highlighting the confused aims even among those of the counties that provided the initial spark for the uprising.
In the final analysis the question remains one of definition. A true peasants’ revolt would surely need to have been one where the majority of instances of insurrection involved people that could easily be included within a narrower definition of the term ‘peasantry’ than appears to have been the case in 1381, and where the primary focus of demands and aims was the amelioration of rural suffering and repression. Rebels who fell into the above category were undoubtedly a part of the rising, involved in the cases of rebellion analysed previously. As an example, there is no strong reason to question Walsingham’s indication that villagers from areas around St Albans took part in the townspeople’s moves against the abbey31. Rural labourers also inevitably made up a significant proportion of the forces of insurrection in Essex and Kent, given the numbers apparently involved. Yet the hostilities clearly spread far beyond this group, bringing in people from all areas of society outside the aristocracy.
Why then the insistence in contemporary records and analyses on blame of the peasantry? Perhaps the previously mentioned fear of publicly acknowledging the central role of Londoners in the rising provides an answer. Laying sole responsibility at the door of the most easily maligned sectors of England’s population could arguably have been a logical, if not subconscious, response to accepting the far more worrying truth – that the dissatisfaction and volatility in society spread far more widely and posed far greater threat to the established order. For ultimately the events of June 1381 could not be disingenuously dismissed as a restricted movement of pitchfork-waving yokels. It was an explosion and outpouring of national anger and refusal of the status quo, an alarming prospect for those whose voices have defined the accepted story of that summer and undeniable motivation for the tone and nature of the documents they left behind.
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1Simon Schama, A History of Britain: The Edge of the World? (London: BBC Worldwide, 2000), p. 254.
2Alistair Dunn, The Peasants’ Revolt: England’s Failed Revolution of 1381 2nd edn (Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2004), p. 75.
3Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War: A People’s History 2nd edn (London: Harper Perennial), p. 516.
4Paul Strohm, ‘A Peasants’ Revolt?’, in Misconceptions About the Middle Ages ed. by Stephen J. Harris (New York: Routledge , 2007), pp. 198-9.
5John Watts, ‘Public or Plebs: The Changing Meaning of ‘the Commons’, 1381-1549′ in Power and Identity in the Middle Ages: Essays in Memory of Rees Davies ed. by Huw Pryce and John Watts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) <http://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:2153/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199285464.001.0001/acprof-9780199285464> [Accessed 8 October 2017] (p. 4).
6 Rodney Hilton, Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 (London: Methuen&Co., 1973), pp. 35-36.
7Strohm, p. 197.
8Edgar Powell, The Rising in East Anglia in 1381 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1896).
9Nicholas Brooks, ‘The Origins and Achievements of the Peasants of Kent and Essex in 1381) in Studies in Medieval History Presented to R. H. C. Davis ed. by Henry Mayr-Harting and Robert Ian Moore (London: Hambledon Press, 1985).
10Ibid., pp. 248-50.
12Richard Barry Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 2nd edn. (London: MacMillan, 1983), p. 273.
13Ibid., p. 275.
14Ibid., p. 276.
15Juliet Barker, England Arise: The People, The King and The Great Revolt of 1381 (London: Little, Brown, 2014), pp. 321-22.
16Ibid., p. 322.
17Ibid., p. 323.
18Ibid., pp. 320 – 22.
19Ibid., pp. 324-25.
20Ibid., p. 310.
21Ibid., p. 314.
22Dunn, p. 84.
23Strohm, p. 201.
24 Michael Bennett, Richard II and the Revolution of 1399 (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited, 1999), p. 130.
25Dunn, p. 85.
26Webber, p. 70.
27Strohm, pp. 197-8.
28Dunn, p. 87.
29Hilton, p. 195.
30Dunn, p. 113.
31Dobson, p. 273.