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.

Medieval History: A Useful Fiction

Medieval Lives

Terry Jones (2004)

Film Review

In this BBC series from 2004, Monty Python comic and amateur historian Terry Jones gives us a brief overview of what medieval life was really like. He also explores the political purpose of teaching fictitious medieval history in our schools.

The series, divided into seven segments of 29 minutes each, covers peasant life (The Peasant), the power of the Catholic Church (The Monk), the status of women (The Damsel), the origin of modern music, poetry and satire (The Minstrel), medieval science, alchemy and medicine (The Philosopher), the medieval legal system (The Outlaw), and 13th and 14th century monarchs (The King).

The Peasant – Jones uses the 1381 Peasant Revolt (in which tens of thousands of peasants beheaded the Royal Treasurer and the Archbishop of Canterbury), as his point of departure. Because the barons who oversaw the serfs spent most of their time fighting foreign wars for the king, serfs, who were largely self-governing, developed a highly sophisticated form of direct democracy. They retained more of the product of their labor than modern workers and enjoyed more holidays (80, as opposed to the 8 modern workers enjoy.

The Monk – Jones explores how the Catholic Church became enormously rich by commoditizing prayer, ie praying for the salvation of returning barons who risked eternal damnation for all the souls they slaughtered in military conflict. During the Middle Ages, the Pope presided over the greatest accumulation of land in the western world.

The Damsel – Jones explores how a 50% reduction in the 14th century workforce (due to plague) elevated the status of women when they were forced to assume men’s roles. As the population began to recover, the witch burning campaign launched by the Catholic Church systematically demonized women and forced them out of these roles (see Witch Burning and Women’s Opression ).

The Minstrel – here Jones explores the mysterious disappearances of the renowned medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer, possibly relating to his biting satire about the commercialization of the Church.

The Philosopher – here Jones explores the work of 13th century monk Roger Bacon, who discovered light refraction, lenses, the mathematical basis of science and the spherical nature of the Earth 400 years before Isaac Newton. Jones also exposes the total fiction invented by Washington Irving in his biography of Columbus, which falsely portrays the Catholic Church as promoting flat Earth dogma.

The Outlaw – explores the myth of Robin Hood and the early struggle between the local direct democracy practiced by Anglo Saxons and their Norman conquerors. The Anglo Saxons ultimately won out when Henry II instutionalized trial by jury in the 12th century. Contrary to the Robin Hood myth, most outlaws were landless gentry who engaged in robbery, kidnapping and looting for their own enrichment. Most received royal pardons in return for military service.

The King – here Jones rehabilitates Richard II and Richard III (whose portrayal in Shakespeare’s Richard III is a total fiction). Both were systematically demonized by successors who illegally usurped them. Jones also discusses the 12 month British reign (in 1217) of the French king Louis I, who isn’t even acknowledged in English textbooks.