1381: When “Ignorant” Peasants Nearly Overthrew the English Monarchy

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that all our history books write the popular revolts out of history. Thanks to the Internet, I’m now learning that revolting against oppression is normal and natural behavior.

This documentary recounts the Peasants Revolt of 1381, a two-week period in which a band of so-called “ignorant peasants” nearly overthrew the English monarchy. In school, we’re taught that John Locke, Rousseau and other intellectuals “re-discovered” democracy (by studying ancient Greece and Rome). This is a bold faced lie. English serfs were fighting for freedom and self-governance as early as 1381.

The Tax Commissioners Who Stuck Their Hands Up Women’s Skirts

The immediate trigger for the uprising was a poll tax,* instituted by the Regent for 14 year-old Richard II, to pay for the 100 Years War against France. Rural peasants were outraged by the manner in which the tax was enforced – tax commissioners stuck their hands up women’s skirts to ascertain their marital status (they didn’t have to pay the tax if they were virgins).

The rebellion began when a band of Essex serfs successfully drove the tax collector out of their village, beheading three of the troops who accompanied them. The insurrection quickly spread to Kent, Canterbury, Cambridge and across the rest of England.

Uses cleverly coded written message, the leaders organized a march on London with a goal of demanding a meeting with the king. Peasants were joined by rebel knights who refused to be drafted to fight in France. Their march, which picked up new supporters along the way, was accompanied by a campaign of targeted violence, against castles holding tax documents, and selected landlords and clergy.

Richard II Agrees to Their Demands

Joined by disgruntled Londoners once they reached the capitol, they sacked the Court of Justice and dragged out all the lawyers and beheaded them. Because most of his army was in France, Richard II and his advisors were forced to seek refuge in the Tower of London. The King eventually met with the rebels to receive their four demands 1) an end to serfdom** 2) freedom to sell products of their labor without interference from a landlord 3) a reduction in land rents and 4) a guarantee no rebels would be punished.

When Richard II issued written decrees (later revoked) granting their demands, about half the rebels returned home to their farms.

The leader Wat Tyler and 300-400 of the more militant rebels went on to storm the Tower (when an insider conveniently let the drawbridge down). In addition to killing most of the King’s advisors they sacked most of the furnishings and confiscated 900 long bows they would use during the final confrontation with the King – at Smithfield.

There Tyler pressed the rebels additional demands for the abolition of the aristocracy (except for the King) and the church hierarchy (except for John Ball a radical priest they wanted installed as the Archbishop of Canterbury, the division of all the riches of the aristocracy and clergy among the people and the right of villagers to administer their own local courts and police force.

Richard II Outwits Them

After agreeing to all these demands, the fourteen-year-old King outwitted the well-armed rebels (by playing on their belief the King was anointed by God) – who outnumbered Richard II’s forces by two to one.

There would be similar uprisings throughout the 15th and 16th century, which have been conveniently whitewashed from history.

*A poll tax charges everyone the same amount of tax, regardless of their income or wealth. This was the first poll tax in English history.

**in 1381, a serf was a virtual slave and couldn’t move or marry or without the landlord’s permission.