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 These promises were then withdrawn, and the trial and punishment of the rebels set in motion.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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in