Promises, Promises

David Carpenter

  • England, Arise: The People, the King and the Great Revolt of 1381 by Juliet Barker
    Abacus, 506 pp, £10.99, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 349 12382 0

In England 1381 was the year of what has often been called the Peasants’ Revolt. The insurgency began in Essex in late May, spread quickly to Kent and on 13 June the rebels gathered on Blackheath, entering London the next day. Joined by many from the city, they sacked John of Gaunt’s palace of the Savoy and forced the king, the 14-year-old Richard II, to meet them at Mile End. There, on 14 June, Richard made major concessions, the most important being the abolition of villeinage. While negotiations were going on at Mile End, another group of rebels dragged the archbishop of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury, and the treasurer, Robert Hales, out of the Tower of London and beheaded them on Tower Hill. On 15 June the rebels and the king met again, this time at Smithfield. Their leader, Wat Tyler, failed to doff his cap, instead taking the king’s arm and shaking it roughly in greeting. He then refused with a great oath to dismiss his men and promised that within a fortnight there would be forty thousand of them. As he spoke, he threw a dagger from hand to hand and took a swig from a flagon of ale. This was too much: Tyler was knocked from his horse by the mayor of London, William Walworth, and then run through the body by one of the king’s knights. With the rebels bending their bows, the king now defused the situation by riding among them and saying he would be their leader. The events in London were echoed in uprisings in other towns and in the countryside, notably in East Anglia, where royal officials were murdered, manor houses sacked and records burned. But the revolt evaporated almost as quickly as it had begun. Richard’s promises were enough to send the rebels home. These promises were then withdrawn, and the trial and punishment of the rebels set in motion. Many were executed. The rising did at least put an end to the new poll tax that had been one of its major causes. The next government to attempt a poll tax was Thatcher’s.

Juliet Barker has written a splendid account of the events of 1381 and their wider context, enlivened with many arresting anecdotes. There is the rebel who ran his sword into the royal bed in the Tower of London, saying he would like to do the same to the traitors around the king; the father in the post-revolt trials forced to give evidence on which his son was convicted and hanged; the Cambridge woman who scattered the ashes of the burned university archives shouting ‘Away with the learning of clerks! Away with it!’; and the ‘mercy and piety’ of the otherwise beastly Bishop Despenser of Norwich, who, having heard the confession of one of the rebels, held up his head as he was being dragged to the gallows to stop it knocking on the ground. There are fine descriptions of Shoreditch and the view from the top of Blackheath, although the rebels would have been hard pressed to see in the distance ‘the distinctive twin towers of Westminster Abbey’ since those were built in the 18th century.

Barker’s book makes fruitful use of Andrew Prescott’s doctoral thesis on the judicial records of the rising and Carolyn Fenwick’s three-volume edition of the poll tax returns of 1377, 1379 and 1381. One striking fact to emerge is the degree to which the poll tax of 1381 was evaded: what provoked the revolt was not the tax itself but the appointment of commissioners to investigate evasion and enforce payment. The revolt began with an attack on one of those commissioners, John Bampton, at Brentwood in Essex. Throughout the book, Barker challenges conventional assumptions about the uprising. She stresses how little is actually known of the alleged leaders of the revolt: Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and the radical cleric and itinerant preacher John Balle. Central to many accounts of the revolt is the sermon Balle is supposed to have preached on Blackheath, where the adjoining primary school is now named after him. Balle was there because the rebels had freed him from the archbishop of Canterbury’s prison at Maidstone. The sermon began:

When Adam dalf, and Eve span,
Wo was thane a gentilman?

Balle’s release and the sermon itself are, however, only mentioned in chronicle accounts, albeit contemporary ones. A more reliable source records a rebel being indicted for freeing Balle not from the archbishop’s prison at Maidstone but from the bishop of London’s prison at Bishop’s Stortford. Since this was on 11 June, and the rebels were on Blackheath on the afternoon of 12 June and the morning of 13 June, could Balle have got there in time? Bishop’s Stortford is more than 35 miles from Blackheath and on the other side of the Thames.

The book also investigates the role of Richard II. Barker suggests that Richard’s acceptance of the rebel demands at Mile End and his assumption of leadership at Smithfield had a significant effect on the course of the revolt outside London. It reinforced the rebels’ claim to be loyal subjects of the king, acting in his name to cleanse the realm of its oppressors. The revolt spread to Norfolk only after the events at Mile End were known. The royal imprimatur also paralysed the lords and officials who might otherwise have resisted the insurgents. This argument is convincing. More problematic, Barker acknowledges, is her idea that Richard was sincere in his concessions to the rebels and reluctant to withdraw them. Sir Hugh Segrave, Richard’s new treasurer, told the parliament of November 1381 that the concessions had been made under duress and the king had revoked them as soon as he could:

And now the king wishes to know the will of you, my lords, prelates, lords and commons here present, and whether it seems to you that he acted well in that repeal and pleased you, or not. For he says that if you wish to enfranchise and make free the said villeins by your common agreement, as he has been informed some of you wish to do, he will assent to your request.

It’s hard to see how this statement can be understood as Richard ‘plead[ing] with parliament to allow the abolition of villeinage’. At most, Segrave is saying that the king will accept the abolition, if parliament desires it. In stating explicitly that the king was coerced into making the concessions, the speech gave the clearest possible indication of what Richard now wished to happen. The apparent deference to parliament was no more than a polite form of words concocted to show proper respect for parliament’s authority and to ensure that the repeal of the concessions was given the fullest possible endorsement. There is also little in the fact that the Commons didn’t respond to the king’s question until they had consulted with the Lords. Such consultations were routine and in this case designed to give more weight to the Commons’ eventual pronouncement ‘with one voice’ that the revocation had been ‘well made’. Barker also suggests that Richard’s initial withdrawal of the concessions on 2 July was delayed by his desire to stick to them. It is far more likely that this was judged the earliest safe moment for the move. As Segrave put it, the revocation took place ‘as soon as God, by his grace, had restored [the king] to his authority … and when the trouble had partly ceased.’ Would Richard have had much sympathy with the rebels given Tyler’s insolence at Smithfield and the brutal murders of Sudbury and Hales?

Barker’s book also questions the nature of the rising. In line with much recent scholarship, she shows that it was more than a peasants’ revolt against oppressive lordship. Quite apart from the events in London, there were disturbances in other urban centres. In both St Albans and Bury St Edmunds the rising was directed at the monasteries that governed the towns. In Cambridge it took aim at the university and Barnwell Priory. Members of the gentry also took part, often (like the Stathum family in Derbyshire) pursuing local agendas. The breakdown of law and order made this an ideal time to settle old scores. Some of the grievances that sparked the revolt were not against lords but against royal government. There was frustration at its failure to protect coastal areas from French attacks combined with fury at its demands for large sums of money through successive poll taxes to finance the foreign adventures of the king’s uncles John of Gaunt and Thomas of Woodstock. The former wanted the money to make himself king of Castile, the latter to lead expeditions to France (the one he did lead in 1380 was an expensive fiasco). This resentment was the cause of the murder of Sudbury, a former chancellor, and Hales, the king’s treasurer, in London; in the country the targets were often the poll tax commissioners and the king’s judges.

Unsurprisingly, given the emphasis of her account, Barker avoids the term ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ and prefers to speak of the ‘Great Revolt’ or the ‘Great Rising’. Indeed, she doesn’t refer to ‘peasants’ at all, writing instead of relations between lords and ‘tenants’. My own view is that banning the term ‘peasants’ gives a false impression of the nature of the revolt. Contemporaries did sometimes refer to the relations between lords and tenants, but they also made it clear that 1381 was, in large part, a peasants’ revolt. It was, as both the monk writing a chronicle at Westminster Abbey and the chronicler of St Albans Abbey, Thomas of Walsingham, said again and again, a revolt of the ‘rustici’, a word that can be directly translated as ‘peasant’. Walsingham sometimes used ‘rustici’ to mean peasants who were legally unfree, in which case it was synonymous with villein, serf, bondman and ‘nativus’. But he and the monk of Westminster also used ‘rusticus’, as villein too could be used, to stand for peasants in general, whatever their legal status.

The peasant nature of the revolt makes sense of both the insurgents’ demands and the concessions Richard made at Mile End in order to persuade them to go home. It’s perfectly true that one of the concessions was as relevant to the lower orders in London as it was to those in other towns: all the king’s subjects should be free to buy and sell within every city, borough and market town. The result would have been to destroy the monopolies and privileges of town rulers, something for which ‘all those excluded from elite circles of citizenship had fought for generations’. But Richard’s other concessions dealt directly with rural conditions. The most famous of all, and the only one for which texts survive, was the freeing of everyone ‘from all bondage’ – the abolition of villeinage. This was linked to another concession. All land was to be held not in bondage but for a rent no higher than four pence an acre. This then abolished the labour services and other customs that went along with tenure in villeinage. It was also of great benefit to peasants, free and unfree, who paid exorbitant rents. When Richard revoked his concessions on 2 July, he placed the abolition of villeinage at the start. In ordering everything to return to normal, he concentrated at the end of the proclamation entirely on the relations between lords (of whom he was one) and peasants:

We strictly order that everyone, both free and unfree (nativi), shall perform the works, customs and services, which they owe to us and their other lords, as they were accustomed to do before the disturbance, without contradiction, murmur, resistance or difficulty. Further, we forbid the same people from withdrawing or delaying the foresaid works, customs and services either to us or their lords, in these times of disturbance under any colour.

Research into the social standing of participants has also established the peasant element in the revolt. Christopher Dyer looked into the landholdings of almost fifty rebels from Essex, Hertfordshire and Suffolk. Of these no fewer than 44 held their land on unfavourable terms, including 38 who held it in villeinage. Dyer concluded that ‘there is nothing here to contradict the traditional identification of the rising as the “Peasants’ Revolt”.’ His conclusion is much the same as Herbert Eiden’s in his study of the landholdings of the rebels in Norfolk. Both Dyer and Eiden also found large numbers of artisans among the insurgents: brewers, carpenters, smiths, tailors and so on. Wat Tyler was one such if his name indicates his profession. Yet many of these men had peasant backgrounds. There is much to be said for Rodney Hilton’s view that such men were ‘not so much allies of the peasantry as part of them’.

In a classic article published in 1949 Hilton showed how the revolt of 1381 was the culmination of a long period in which peasants had been struggling against their lords. Both individual peasants and village communities withdrew their labour, attacked manorial officials and brought legal actions claiming they were free, or were entitled to fixed services because they belonged to a manor once in the hands of the king. This was the ‘training ground’ for the revolt. Some places involved in 1381 had a long history of protest. In the early 14th century, the ‘poor tenants’ of Bocking in Essex cited Magna Carta in their complaints against their lord’s bailiff and it was at Bocking that the insurgents gathered at the start of the revolt in 1381. In the 13th century, despite numerous individual movements of protest, nothing was ever co-ordinated. That may be because there was no trigger like that provided by the poll taxes. It may also be that the many peasants were too ground down by the poverty created by overpopulation. All this changed after the Black Death in 1348-49, which reduced the population by between a third and a half and meant that peasants could both acquire more land and bargain for higher wages. Here, however, they were faced by a reaction from their lords, who sought to maintain labour services and other customs of villeinage. In addition the 1351 Statute of Labourers attempted to hold wages down to pre-plague levels.

For peasants who saw the opportunity of improving their lot all this was immensely frustrating, and such upwardly mobile men were often at the forefront of the revolt. No offer was made during the crisis of 1381 to repeal the Statute of Labourers, but justices of the peace, who enforced the statute, were often attacked by the rebels. The rebels also targeted manorial records, in place after place consigning them to the flames, and so destroying the proof of the servile terms of their tenure and the fines imposed to enforce them. Dyer cites a case from court sessions in Thorrington, Essex. On 6 June 1381, two serfs were accused of agreeing marriages for their daughters without their lord’s permission, while two other men were punished for sheltering relatives who had broken their employment contracts. All four joined in the burning of the Thorrington court rolls a week later.

The rising of 1381 was clearly more than a peasants’ revolt, yet peasant protest was central to it. Thomas of Walsingham sought to capture this sense of a wider movement, but one with peasants at its heart, when he headed his account of events: ‘The Misery which Happened to England in the Rebellion of the Peasants and the Other Common People, in Tumultuatione Rusticorum et Aliorum Communium’. Perhaps, however, we can still settle on ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ for short.