Roots of Radicalism

Six hundredth anniversary of the Peasants' Revolt

THE Peasants' Revolt of 1381 was not only a social but a Nationalist uprising. Opposition to taxation and demands for the abolition of Feudalism were coupled with opposition to the presence of foreigners who had been allowed to settle in England. The revolt was thus directed both against the ruling Establishment of the day and against foreign immigrants.

Both town and country had long been smouldering with discontent owing to a multiplicity of reasons.

One of the major causes of rural discontent can be traced to the high mortality rate brought about by the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) between 1348 and 1375. This put severe strains on the cultivation of domanial estates, and resulted in a sharp clash between the interests of lords and labourers.

There were two classes of labourer ― the villein who held strips of land in return for discharging certain customary obligations, and the landless labourer who worked for wages. The aim of the landlord was to extract the customary dues from the former as stringently as possible, and to pay the latter as little as possible.

The villein, on the other hand, wanted to escape these customary obligations in favour of paying a fixed rent as a tenant, while the wage labourer's obvious aim was to earn as much as possible.

Tied to the land, the villein was in a weak bargaining position, but the wage labourer could move around in response to the offer of better wages as employers competed for a scarce commodity. A constantly rising wage level was thus inevitable under the circumstances, though the landlords attempted to suppress it through the Statute of Labourers ― a statutory incomes policy used to ensure a cheap supply of labour at a fixed price.

Townsmen, suffering under ecclesiastical domination or corrupt oligarchies, took advantage of the rural discontent to raise their own grievances. One of their main grievances was the way in which the independent craftsman was being replaced by incipient Capitalism. Growth in the scale of production had created a class of large employers and a class of artisans who found it impossible to start up in business for themselves.

Added to this was resentment against foreign merchants and manufacturers. Richard II's grandfather, Edward III, had been responsible for encouraging foreign immigration in order to help expand the English woollen industry. This influx was naturally opposed by the unemployed who saw the swelling of the labour pool depressing the demand for native hands.

These Flemish weavers did not contrast racially with the native population, but like many later immigrants their presence was socially disruptive.

Finally there was the suspicion that corruption and treason were the cause of the failure to win the expensive and disastrous war against France.

Poll Tax

The spark that ignited the powder keg was a new Poll Tax which the government, bankrupted by the war, had been forced to levy. All over England the peasants made false returns by suppressing knowledge of the existence of female dependents. The attempt was so obvious that the government despatched new commissioners. After a month of friction the explosion occurred.

The revolt triggered by the new tax inspection first broke out at Brentwood in Essex and spread quickly across that county and the neighbouring county of Kent. It was also to affect Cambridgeshire and the rest of East Anglia, but we shall concentrate on the events which centred on London and the south-east.

In practical military terms the rebels enjoyed certain advantages which few if any revolutionaries possess today. It was the ordinary people who provided the backbone of the army. Bows and bills were in every home in the land, and almost the entire male population was trained as well as armed.

Wat Tyler

The Kent rebels gathered in large numbers at Dartford on 5 June. They were not opposed to the war with France, but only to the government's incapacity to pursue it to a successful conclusion. Their concern for national defence led them to order all those living within twelve leagues of the sea to remain at home to guard the coast from invasion.

Under the leadership of Wat Tyler, who was probably a military veteran, the rebels moved on Canterbury where they gained the services of a religious crank ― John Ball. On 11 June they began their march on London, covering the seventy miles from Canterbury to Blackheath in two days.

The Essex rebels, meanwhile, were moving on London along the north bank of the Thames and by 12 June were encamped at Mile End.

Probably because of widespread sympathy for the rebel cause amongst Londoners, the government placed its hope in conciliation.

On 13 June the young king, Richard II, took barge down the Thames from the Tower to Greenwich to meet the Kent rebels, who were assembled under two large banners bearing the cross of St. George. Judging it unwise to land the Royal party began to row away. The archers amongst the rebels could at this point have showered them with a fatal visitation of cloth-yard shafts. The fact that they did not underlines their claim to have been operating not against the king, but only against his ministers.

Unlike Cromwell ― three centuries later ― they still thought in terms of loyalty to the Crown.

Rebels seize London

Frustrated by failure to meet the King and running short of supplies, Tyler led the rebels up to Southwark and then on to Lambeth. They surged across London Bridge and then turned west to attack the New Temple. Oman explains:

"Of all the classes obnoxious to the insurgents the legal profession was the most hated; it was they who were the tools of the manorial lords in binding the chains of the serf..." (Oman, p. 58).

Joining forces with Londoners the Kent rebels sacked the palace of the Savoy which belonged to John of Gaunt ― a particularly unpopular member of the government.

Although bent on an orgy of destruction the rebels were at first well disciplined in respect of resisting the temptation to loot. One rebel, caught looting from the Savoy, was summarily executed by his companions.

In Cheapside a number of unpopular people, including lawyers and Flemings, were beheaded. Popular tradition records that the Flemings were identified by their failure to pronounce "bread and cheese" which they allegedly rendered as "brod and case."

On 14 June the king finally met the Essex rebels at Mile End. The rebels presented a petition for the abolition of villeinage, a free market in labour, and the right to rent land at a fixed price, to which the king agreed. Clerks wrote out charters in accordance with his promises, and the Essex men began to disperse.

On 15 June the King met the Kent rebels at Smithfield, where they were drawn up in orderly military units. A heated slanging match developed in the course of which Tyler was killed by William Walworth, the Mayor of London.

Walworth was also the owner of the famous Southwark brothels which were leased to Flemish prostitutes. (Immigrants and Minorities in British Society edited by Colin Holmes, George Allen and Unwin, 1978).

An imaginative interpretation of the death of Wat Tyler

Before the rebels could respond, Richard rode forward shouting: "Sirs, will you shoot your king? I am your captain, follow me." Trading on their genuine loyalty and respect, the King succeeded in persuading the rebels to follow him.

Walworth, meanwhile, rode off to raise the London wards. The anarchy and common criminality into which the revolt had degenerated in the days immediately preceding had alienated the sympathy of London's population who now turned out to surround the rebels.

Although in a position to attack the rebels, the King forebore to do so, and instead sent them home.

The King then took the initiative and visiting Essex issued a proclamation denying that the rebels had enjoyed his approval. When a deputation of Essex men demanded ratification of the promises made at Mile End he told them: "Villeins ye are still and villeins ye shall remain."

Rebels' last stand

The rebels did not give up but mustered a large force which prepared to make a stand in a strong position on the edge of a wood near Billericay. They chained rows of carts together and reinforced them with ditches. The Royal forces attacked on 28 June and, overcoming the defenders' trenches, cut down some five hundred of them, and put the rest to flight.

The revolt had been strongest where the bonds of Feudalism were already weakened, and weakest where they were strong. It was a movement of men making a grasp for objectives just out of reach: "There is general agreement that the Revolt of 1381 owed much of its impetus to men who were rising in the world and striving to be free from archaic restrictions." (McKisack, pg. 342).

The rising had no traceable effect on the social order. The long-term perspective shows that Feudalism was already in decline before the revolt and that it continued to decline afterwards. This was happening for purely economic reasons ― not as a result of the rebellion. According to Oman and others, the immediate result of the revolt was in fact an increase in Feudal oppression in opposition to the general historical trend.

It is pointless to debate what might have happened if the revolutionaries had been successful, because they could not have been successful.

It is only rarely that determined political movements can change the course of history, and the Peasants' Revolt had none of the criteria necessary for success.

It was a spontaneous expression of discontent, not an organised revolution. The rebels acted merely as a pressure group, appealing to the ruling Establishment to do this, that and the other, instead of aiming to exercise power in their own right.

Its motives were varied: it had no coherent worldview. It was not based on a developed ideology capable of providing a raison d'être.

Its leaders, by all accounts an ego-tripping opportunist and a religious crank, were thrown up in the heat of the moment. They did not form an organised and educated cadre capable of ruling the country.

Its followers, likewise, did not form a disciplined revolutionary organisation, and were politically ignorant and naïve.

These factors could not have been any different. As a social revolution it was in every way premature.

How, then, is its history of any value to us today?

First, it belies the ridiculous myth spread by the exponents of multiracialism that the English have traditionally been tolerant towards foreign immigrants.

Secondly, it belies the other myth that England has no revolutionary tradition and serves as an object lesson for those interested in a successful revolution...

Thirdly, and of most importance, it is a symbol of national revolution. Despite its inadequacies and its failure, one is inevitably stirred by the emotive image of an armed host, gathered under the banners and emblems of their nationhood, and ranged against the treachery of their pro-immigrant rulers.


The Great Revolt of 1381 - Sir Charles Oman. Oxford University Press, 1906. Second Edition 1969.

The Fourteenth Century ― May McKisack. Oxford University Press, 1959.