Revolts were not uncommon during the middle ages, but the most serious one was the 'Peasants’ Revolt', which took place in June 1381; a violent system of punishments for offenders was usually enough to put any peasants off from causing trouble and most areas in England also had castles full of soldiers, which was usually enough to guarantee reasonable behaviour amongst medieval peasants.
What Started The Revolt?
After the Black Death, many manors were left short of manual workers and in order to encourage those who had survived to stay on at their manor, many lords had given the peasants on their estates their freedom and paid them to work on their land; now, nearly 35 years after the Black Death, many peasants feared that the lords would take back these privileges and they were prepared to fight for them.
Many peasants were forced to work for free on church land, sometimes for up to two days a week; this meant that they had less time to work on their own land which made it difficult for them to grow enough food for their families; the peasants wanted to be free of this burden that just made the church richer and kept them poor; they were supported in this endeavour by a Kent priest called John Ball.
The Straw That Broke The Camel's Back:
There had just been a long war with France and wars cost money, and that money usually came from the peasants through the taxes that they paid, and in 1380, Richard II introduced a new tax called the 'Poll Tax'; this meant that everyone who was on the tax register had to pay another 5p; it was the third time in four years that a tax had been used to raise money and by 1381, the peasants had had enough; 5p to them was a great deal of money and if they could not pay in cash, they were made to pay in kind, such as through seeds and tools etc; the self same things that were vital to the peasants' survival in the coming year.
In May 1381, a tax collector arrived at the Essex village of Fobbing to find out why the people there had not paid their poll tax, he was subsequently thrown out of the village by the villagers, so in June that year soldiers were sent to the village to establish law and order; they too were thrown out of the village, as by then the villagers of Fobbing had been joined by many other local villages and had organised themselves into an armed force; after doing this, the villagers marched on London to plead with the young king to hear their complaints.
By this time one man had emerged as leader of the peasants, Wat Tyler; as the peasants marched on their way to London, through other towns and villages, they destroyed all the tax records and registers that they could find and the buildings which housed these government records were burnt down; they managed to get into the city of London simply because the people of london opened the gates to them.
Wat Tyler, as their leader, had asked for discipline amongst those who looked up to him, but by mid June in London the discipline of the peasants had starting to break down and many of them got drunk; they caused disturbances, start to loot and murdered any foreigners that they came accross.
On the 14th June the king met the rebels at Mile End; at this meeting, Richard II promised the peasants all that they had asked for and then asked that they now go home in peace; some did, but others returned to the city and rioted; they stormed the Tower of London and summarily executed those hiding there, which included the Lord Chancellor 'Simon of Sudbury', the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was particularly associated with the poll tax, and the Lord Treasurer 'Robert de Hales', the Grand Prior of the Knights Hospitallers of England; their heads were cut off on Tower Hill by the Tower of London.
Several bulidings were destroyed by the rioters that night, including the Savoy Palace of the king's uncle John of Gaunt and Richard fearing for his life, spent the night in hiding; the following day on the 15th June, he met the rebels again, this time outside of the city’s walls at Smithfield; it is said that this was the idea of the Lord Mayor, Sir William Walworthe, who wanted to get the rebels out of the city; a lot of medieval London was made out of wood and the streets were cramped, so any attempt to put down the rebels in the city could have ended up in a fire and the rebels would have found it easy to vanish into the city once they knew that soldiers were after them.
The meeting did not go according to plan; Wat Tyler rode ahead to talk to the king and his party; Tyler, it is alleged by the king's chroniclers, behaved most belligerently and dismounted his horse and called for a drink most rudely; in the ensuing dispute, Tyler supposedly drew his dagger and William Walworth, the Lord Mayor of London, drew his sword and attacked Tyler, mortally wounding him in the neck and then Sir John Cavendish, one of the King's knights, drew his sword and ran it through Tyler's stomach, killing him almost instantly.
Seeing him surrounded by the King's entourage, the rebel army was in uproar, but King Richard, seizing the opportunity, rode forth and shouted, "You shall have no captain but me," a statement left deliberately ambiguous to defuse the situation; he then promised the rebels that all was well, that Tyler had been knighted and that all their demands would be met; he said that they were to march to St John's Fields, where Wat Tyler would meet them; this they duly did, but the king broke his promise and the nobles quickly re-established their control with the help of a hastily organised militia of 7000.
By the summer of 1381, the revolt was over and most of the other leaders had been found, captured and hanged, including John Ball; following the collapse of the revolt, the poll tax was withdrawn, but Richard did not keep any of his promises claiming that they were made under threat and were therefore not valid in law; those involved in the revolt hastened to disassociate themselves in the months that followed.
The peasants were then forced back into their old way of life, under the control of the lord of the manor; however, the lords did not have it all their own way; the Black Death had caused such a shortage of labour that over the next 100 years many peasants found that they could request higher wages; the lords needed a harvest in and the only people who could do it were the peasants; they asked for more money and the lords finally gave in and gave it to them.