What Was the Peasants’ Revolt?

What Was the Peasants’ Revolt?

England as a nation has largely escaped the era-defining revolutions of France, Germany and Russia. In 1381 however, centuries of feudal serfdom and a changed social situation lead to a widespread revolt of the downtrodden peasants across the country.

Though the revolt was defeated by the King’s forces, it was certainly the instigator of social change in Medieval England, and has been referenced by left-leaning historians and politicians ever since.

Just as the outbreak of World War One allowed the Russian revolution to happen, decades of war and plague changed the status quo in England to a degree where revolt was possible and widespread.

Aftermath of a devastating pandemic

The Black Death saw terrible waves of plague sweep Europe: England’s population was ravaged, with somewhere between 30 and 50% of the population dying.

As a result of this, the peasantry – who had previously been kept under a system of serfdom which greatly restricted their freedom – became more scarce and had more land available to them. Their labour had increased value, and they demanded higher wages. As a result, they had privileges that their fathers could never have dreamed of.

Medieval historian Dr Eleanor Janega takes us on a whistle-stop tour across London, visiting some key historical sites and shining a light on the various communities of medieval London.

Watch Now

The nobility disliked the shifting of the status quo and tried to greatly restrict the goods that peasants could buy as well as other freedoms that they now enjoyed – but they could not undo the fundamental shift in class relations.

In addition, England and France had been engaged in the Hundred Years War since 1337, and most of the financial burden of the war fell upon the peasantry in the form of the hated poll tax.

Finally, the wise and popular King Edward III died in 1377, leaving the throne to the boy-king Richard II and his despised regent John of Gaunt, who had already almost been lynched by angry crowds in London.

Tensions boil over

The revolt is judged to have broken out in Essex on 30 May, when MP John Bampton arrived to investigate non-payment of poll tax. The south-east of England had always been its wealthiest region, and as a result there were very few unpaid serfs there and the peasants enjoyed a better quality of life than elsewhere.

It was therefore the hotbed of the many radicals who had emerged following the Black Death. On 1 June Bampton gathered the headmen of several Essex villages together to explain the shortfall, and they arrived with large crowds brandishing various weapons.

Edward III had armed the peasantry and insisted on longbow practice for the fight against the French, and these men were not to be messed with. When Bampton attempted to arrest one recalcitrant village leader he and his men were set upon and though the MP escaped at least three of his entourage were killed.

By 4 June the now-lit fires of revolt were spreading across Essex, and delegations were sent to the neighbouring counties of Kent and Suffolk asking them to join in.

In Kent in particular they needed little invitation, after an escaped serf called John Belling was imprisoned the local villages had already exploded with anger and stormed Rochester Castle, where he was being held.

March to the capital

On 7 June they elected a leader called Wat Tyler at the town of Maidstone – a tough and charismatic man whose origins are mysterious but who appears to have fought in France as one of the renowned English longbowmen.

Now it had a leader with clear aims, the revolt gathered momentum and purpose. Tyler’s first move was marching on the castle-town of Canterbury, where the Archbishop was deposed, the jails emptied of prisoners and many of the King’s known supporters dragged out of their houses and murdered.

By 12 June the rebels from Kent, Essex Suffolk and Norfolk had been coordinated, and they had reached the outskirts of London in their thousands.

The rebels were loyal to the King, who had now taken refuge in the Tower of London, but demanded the abolition of serfdom and the downfall of the feudal system that kept them separated by many social rungs from their monarch.

The main targets of their hatred were the church leaders and the aristocracy, and Tyler’s friend – the radical cleric John Ball – addressed his men and coined the famous phrase

“when Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?”

The King’s options were limited at this stage. His armies were busy in Ireland, France and the Scottish border, and it would be difficult to put down the revolt by force.

What kind of England did Richard inherit? Why was John of Gaunt so influential? How significant was the 'Peasant's Revolt'? How did Richard's death contrast with his reign? Medieval historian Helen Carr answers key questions about King Richard II.

Watch Now


Richard decided that he ought to meet the rebels, but the attempted talks failed when he lost heart and refused to get out of his boat onto the bank where their men were waiting.

After this, the mob decided that negotiations were worthless and marched through the open gates of London, where many of the locals joined them. There they repeated their antics in Canterbury on a far larger scale, and the Londoners attacked the houses of Flemish immigrants who they felt were taking all the best jobs.

Soon events were badly out of hand as important buildings were burned and ransacked, and Flemings and aristocrats were murdered and left to rot in the streets. Now under siege in the tower, the King finally met the rebels face-to-face at Mile End, accompanied by only a small bodyguard to show his peaceful intentions.

There he agreed to the abolition of serfdom, and charters confirming this were distributed across the country. The Tower fell to the rebels during the negotiations, and many of John of Gaunt’s hated men were publicly beheaded, though the King’s female family members were spared.

Satisfied with the decree over serfdom, most of the rebels from Essex went home at this point, but Tyler’s die hard group of Kentishmen remained and continued to burn loot and murder their way through the city.

The Smithfield meeting

Another meeting between the rebel leader and the King took place at Smithfield on 15 June and this time Richard brought a substantial force of armoured men with him, though it was still dwarfed by the force of thousands of grim-faced rebels facing him.

At this meeting Tyler treated the King with condescension and rudeness, and an argument between him and the Richard’s men got out of hand, leading to the Kentish man’s death in a sudden brawl with the Mayor of London and the King’s Squire.

Violence almost ensued as the incensed rebel archers knocked their bows, but the fourteen-year-old King then showed exceptional personal bravery by exposing himself to their bows and demanding that they stand down. Unwilling to kill their King, the peasants backed down, and Tyler’s head was displayed on a pole in London.

The violence did not end there, but the most immediate threat did. Other revolts occurred in the east of England, the north and the west country, and though much looting (including that of Cambridge University) occurred, the King summoned an army out of loyal men in London, and the remaining die-hard rebels were defeated in a pitched battle at North Walsham in late June.

Though the decree abolishing serfdom was repealed, the revolt did change the position of the peasants. The government was now wary of squeezing them for cash, and Poll Tax was abolished.

In practice, serfdom died quickly, and many serfs were allowed to purchase freedom from their Lords for a manageable price. Peasant opinions gained more weight, and in this sense the revolt can be judged to be a success.

Timeline of the Peasants Revolt 1381

This timeline of The Peasants Revolt covers the main events of the causes and courses of the people’s rebellion. It was a popular uprising of mainly lower class labourers. The causes of the Peasants Revolt were a mixture of economic and political issues. The Revolt saw people from the South East and East Anglia rise in a spontaneous protest. They were led by Wat Tyler and John Ball. The peasants marched to London, killing several important Lords. Here they met with Richard II, In a confrontation afterwards, Wat Tyler was killed. The rebellion dissipated after Richard II led the people away from the scene.

Timeline of the Peasants Revolt 1381

Causes timeline

1348-1350 The Black Death killed a huge number of farm labourers. This created a shortage of workers driving up demand and wages.

1351 The Statute of Labourers imposed wage limits to prevent pay demands getting out of hand. It also said that people could not refuse to work for the wage set down in law.

1360 John Ball, a Lollard priest, begins preaching about the peasants rights to freedom.

1369 Things start going badly in the wars in France. Extra men, and costs, were needed. This was unpopular.

1377 Richard II, a ten year old boy, becomes King. The country is run by his Uncle. Government is unstable and unpopular.

1377 John of Gaunt introduces the first Poll Tax. This is levied to pay the costs of the war in France.

1381 The third Poll Tax in four years is imposed. It is levied on everybody aged 15 or older, no matter how much wealth they had.

The Spark

30th May 1381 A Tax Collector attempts to take tax from the people of Fobbing, Kent. The collector, Thomas Bampton, was dismissed by the villagers, led by Thomas Baker. The argument that followed became a riot. The Revolt had begun.

30th May 1381 Other villages started rioting when they heard about the incident in Fobbing.

Timeline of the Peasants Revolt

John Ball, who had been imprisoned in April 1381 was freed from prison by rebels at some point after the initial riots.

7th June 1381 Wat Tyler is appointed leader of the rebels in Kent.

7th to 12th June 1381 The Peasants Revolt was a march through Kent and from Suffolk towards London. It was not a march just of peasants though. Local priests, reeves, smaller landowners were among the rebels. Word was spread quickly throughout the South East and into East Anglia. The march was large.

12th June 1381 The Peasants arrive outside the City of London. It is believed that there were around 30000 people following Wat Tyler by this point, with riots taking place elsewhere.

13th June 1381 One entrance to London is opened by a sympathiser. Many of the Peasants enter the city. John of Gaunts house is sought out and set on fire.

14th June 1381 Richard II meets Wat Tyler at Mile End. Tyler tells Richard II what the Peasants demands are. Richard agrees and signs charters granting the peasants the freedoms that they had demanded.

14th June 1381 Most of the Peasants leave once Tyler has received the Kings charter.

14th June 1381 A group of armed Peasants enter the Tower of London. They find and execute the Kings Treasurer, The Archbishop of Canterbury and another senior official. They find the young Henry of Lancaster but spare him due to his age: he later becomes King.

15th June 1381 An army of Londoners loyal to the King has been hastily put together. Richard II sends a message to Tyler asking for a further meeting, at Smithfield. Tyler and his men meet Richard. Tyler makes more demands. The Mayor of London gets involved in an argument with Tyler. Tyler appears to wave something in the direction of the King and the Mayor stabs him, as do guards. With Tyler dead, Richard asks the rebels to leave London. He personally leads them away from the scene to diffuse the situation.

Aftermath of the Peasants Revolt

23rd June 1381 Richard II withdraws all of the charters that were agreed with Wat Tyler.

5th July 1381 The rebels from Fobbing are executed. In the weeks that follow some 1500 rebels are executed.

13th July 1381 John Ball is captured. He is tried for treason the following day. Found guilty he was hung, drawn and quartered on 15th July 1381.

The Plantagenets
Henry IIRichard IKing John
Henry IIIEdward IEdward II
Edward IIIRichard II
House of Lancaster
Henry IVHenry VHenry VI
House of York
Edward IVEdward VRichard III
Murder of Thomas BecketMagna CartaTen Facts about the Black Death
Edward I's Conquest of WalesMadog ap LlywelynCauses of the Peasants Revolt
Timeline of the Peasants Revolt
Sources and Interpretations
Paston LettersJohn Rous

External Links

British Library – Peasants and their role in Rural Life.

Spartacus Educational – Punishments given to the participants in the Peasants Revolt.

Peasants' Revolt

The Peasants' Revolt, also known as the Great Revolt, was a largely unsuccessful popular uprising in England in June 1381. The rebellion's leaders included Wat Tyler and they wanted massive social changes which included a removal of the poll tax, an end to the cap on labour wages, redistribution of the Church's wealth and the total abolition of serfdom.

The revolt began in the south-east of England and then spread to London and elsewhere. Although desiring social change, the rebels did not want to remove King Richard II of England (r. 1377-1399). It lasted only four weeks and was put down by Richard, first by negotiation and then through ruthless persecution of the ringleaders. The consequences of the revolt were, therefore, limited, but the poll tax was abandoned, restrictions on labour wages were not strictly enforced, and peasants continued the trend of buying their freedom from serfdom and becoming independent farmers.


Causes of the Revolt

The Peasant's Revolt of June 1381 was the most infamous popular uprising of the Middle Ages and it was caused by a simmering discontent in England that went as far back as the middle of Edward III of England's reign as king (1327-1377) and the arrival of the Black Death plague in 1348. It was, though, Edward's successor, Richard II of England, who had to deal with the chaos when the widespread discontent boiled over into all-out rebellion.

The principal causes of the Peasants' Revolt were:

  • a new poll tax imposed on all peasants irrespective of wealth (the third such tax since 1377).
  • the limit by law on wages after labour costs had risen dramatically following the Black Death plague.
  • unscrupulous landlords trying to turn free labourers back into serfs (aka villeins) to save money on wages.
  • a general feeling of exploitation by local authorities during a time of economic decline.

The poll tax of three groats (equivalent to a couple of days labour), was applied to anyone aged over 15 years (only beggars were exempt) and, unlike other taxes, it took no consideration of a person's ability to pay it. Just to add more woe, this third poll tax was three times higher than the two previous ones. The peasantry had been well-used to taxes, Edward III had imposed 27 of them during his reign, largely in order to pay for his hugely expensive military campaigns against the French during the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453). Richard similarly needed cash to carry on the war with France whose pirate ships were rampant in the English Channel, but now people had finally had enough. There were other problems, too.


The cost of labour had risen dramatically following a shortage of it after the Black Death struck in 1348, and this meant many serfs could now charge for their labour. Edward III had imposed laws restricting how much a labourer could earn each day, and there were strict punishments for those who did not comply. Many landlords attempted to get around the problem by making their labourers become serfs again, thus saving on their wages. The idea that one was not necessarily born into a life of servitude to another was a difficult one to quash, though, and people were well aware that large landowners, lawyers, and officials were conspiring in a system that kept the poor in their place while they themselves benefitted. There even spread a rhyme which expressed the commoner's discontent at not being treated equally as landowners:

Sign up for our free weekly email newsletter!

When Adam delved, and Eve span,

Who was then the gentleman?

Christian beliefs were thus used to support the idea that all men were equal, or at least deserved to be treated with respect. Conversely, the medieval Church as an institution was also held responsible for many of the ills of society. Many commoners felt that church officials and institutions, especially the great abbeys, had not been very accommodating when the Black Death struck and were just as rapacious in extracting their duties and tithes as any other type of landowner.

The Black Death had killed between 30 and 50% of the population in areas it had struck, which meant that some peasants had been able to buy their own small piece of land to farm as land prices plummeted and there were not enough people to work it. These landed peasants were called yeomen. In addition, the drastic fall in population had hit small businesses and artisans as their customers evaporated. These developments may explain why it was in the better-off areas of the kingdom where the revolt broke out - East Anglia and Kent - and why it was a phenomenon not limited to the countryside.


Violence Erupts

The uprising began, then, in May-June 1381 in England's south-east where royal tax inspectors were investigating why tax returns had been surprisingly low. These inspectors suddenly met with opposition for their demands for payment of the poll tax which Parliament had passed in November 1380. Officials and sheriffs were kidnapped and murdered. Bands of rebels toured the countryside on horseback, torching manors and destroying their records - a clear indicator of the peasants' desire to overturn manorialism. The public records at Maidstone, Rochester, and Canterbury all went up in flames. The ringleaders seemed to be better-off small farmers and included in their number parish priests and village constables. This was not a revolt of the absolute poor but those commoners who had something to lose. The Crown sent men-at-arms to deal with the problem areas, but these were too few in number and many were killed.

Two leaders, in particular, came to the fore. Wat Tyler of Maidstone, perhaps a former soldier but any certain details are lacking, and the demagogue priest John Ball, who radically sought for more equality in society. Ball had already seen the inside of a prison a few times for his extreme preaching. The medieval chronicler Jean Froissart, (c. 1337 – c. 1405) records that Ball noted with frustration that:


[The lords] are clad in velvet and camlet lined with squirrel and ermine, while we go dressed in coarse cloth. They have the wines, the spices, and the good bread: we have the rye, the husks, and the straw, and we drink water. They have shelter and ease in their fine manors, and we have hardship and toil, the wind and the rain in the fields. And from us must come, from our labour, the things which keep them in luxury.

(quoted in Gies, 198)

Consequently, with leadership, genuine grievances and an ideological framework to justify their actions, the disturbances developed into a full-scale rebellion with a mission: confront the King and get things changed. It is important to note, however, that the rebels did not want to topple the king and their members even swore an oath of loyalty to 'King Richard and the true Commons'. The rebels marched to London on 11 June - causing much havoc on their way - where they were joined by equally discontented townsfolk illustrating that the revolt was not simply one of feudal labourers. In London, there had long been rivalries between the rich and poor, factions of the Church, medieval guilds, native and foreign merchants, and apprentices and their masters, and all these divisions would be widened by the revolt. Some chroniclers noted the rebels now numbered over 60,000 people, and all this while the king's army was in Scotland.

The Peasants' Demands

When the mob got to London on 13 June they continued to loot, pillage, and murder. Lawyers, foreigners, and petty officials of the Crown were just some of the groups targeted as old grudges resulted in wanton acts of vengeance. Prisoners were freed while those thought to be guilty of crimes were hanged by peoples' courts. A mob burnt down the Savoy palace and murdered anyone they pleased.

Although only 14, King Richard emerged from the safety of the Tower of London and bravely promised to meet the protest leaders at Mile End, a field on the outskirts of London. There Richard listened to their demands and blithely promised to meet all of them, issue charters accordingly and even permitted Tyler to extract justice on any person he thought deserved punishment. Tyler then promptly ordered the storming of the Tower of London and had the hated Chancellor, Archbishop Simon of Sudbury, decapitated on Tower Hill. Another day of looting, murder, and mayhem followed in the capital. Meanwhile, news reached the king that rioting had spread as far north as York and there was, or would be, trouble in the counties of Cambridgeshire, Herefordshire, Suffolk and Norfolk.


To put an end to the chaos Richard once more called to meet the rebel leaders, this time at Smithfield outside London on 15 June to hear their grievances again. He also ensured troops were put on standby in case of a battle.

The participants of the Peasants' Revolt demanded the following changes:

  • the total abolition of serfdom
  • a repeal of labour laws limiting wage increases brought in after the Black Death
  • free fishing and hunting rights for all
  • more peasant participation in local government
  • the Crown should be the only authority in the counties, not local lords
  • the redistribution of the Church's riches, especially of the great abbeys

These demands were frankly ludicrous for the period but they did at least have some basis in reality. Serfdom had already been eradicated almost everywhere, but there were some pockets of the country where the practice still went on. Similarly, the redistribution of Church wealth was an idea championed by the theologian John Wycliffe (c. 1325-1384), one of the leaders of the movement whose followers became known as 'Lollards'. The movement of 'Lollardy', perhaps deriving its name from the Latin word for 'prayer' (or the derogatory Dutch word for 'mumble'), emphasised that anyone could pray in private, an idea which threatened the monopoly of the Church and its appointees as the bridge between humanity and God. Wycliffe even wanted people to be able to read the Bible for themselves, and so he made a translation from Latin into English, but he was prohibited from publishing his work in England.

Richard's successor, Henry IV of England (r. 1399-1413) was anxious to preserve the status quo and persecuted the Lollards until the movement all but disappeared. Nevertheless, there remained a strong anti-clerical feeling amongst the Peasants' Revolt protesters as the Church was seen not only as grasping but as the provider of funds to the Pope, a foreigner who supported the great enemy France. Finally, there was some truth in the idea that local lords were extracting more than they should from their estates, and there was a feeling that the king was being misled and badly served by certain officials such as the Chancellor and dukes like John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (1340-1399).

At Smithfield, after the demands were presented, things could have taken a very ugly turn when William Walworth, the Mayor of London stepped forward and killed Wat Tyler, perhaps thinking Tyler was about to do the king harm. Tyler had, in any case, been disrespectful to the king by spitting water at his feet. As the crowd surged forward, Richard stepped amongst them and boldly declared:

Sirs, would you kill your king? I am your rightful captain, and I will be your leader. Let all those who love me, follow me.

(Quoted in Jones, N., 75)

Richard then employed the much-used tactic of making a load of extravagant promises he had no intention of keeping such as giving everyone involved royal pardons. These promises were enough to stave off more rioting, and the mob disbanded, escorted out of London by the city's militia.

Consequences of the Revolt

Utterly ruthless, Richard next ensured that around 150 of the rebels were hanged, so many that new gibbets had to be built for the purpose. Wat Tyler's head was displayed on London Bridge. There were other minor outbreaks of rebellion thereafter, but these were mercilessly quashed and their ringleaders executed as traitors. As the king boldly stated: 'villeins ye are, and villeins ye shall remain'. The whole affair was perhaps the high point of Richard's reign as things went downhill from then on, the once-admired young king turning out to be a major disappointment and ending his days with a short imprisonment and a mysterious death.

Ultimately, though, there were social changes in England, as had already be seen prior to the revolt. The poll tax was abandoned, the limits on labourers' wages were not rigorously enforced, and serfs continued to buy their freedom. Significantly, the law and legal records were now used not by landowners to enforce an obligation of labour but to demonstrate a labourer had legitimately bought their freedom and could pass on their land to their descendants.


Economics Edit

The Peasants' Revolt was fed by the economic and social upheaval of the 14th century. [1] At the start of the century, the majority of English people worked in the countryside economy that fed the country's towns and cities and supported an extensive international trade. [2] Across much of England, production was organised around manors, controlled by local lords – including the gentry and the Church – and governed through a system of manorial courts. [3] Some of the population were unfree serfs, who had to work on their lords' lands for a period each year, although the balance of free and unfree varied across England, and in the south-east there were relatively few serfs. [4] Some serfs were born unfree and could not leave their manors to work elsewhere without the consent of the local lord others accepted limitations on their freedom as part of the tenure agreement for their farmland. [5] Population growth led to pressure on the available agricultural land, increasing the power of local landowners. [6]

In 1348 a plague known as the Black Death crossed from mainland Europe into England, rapidly killing an estimated 50 per cent of the population. [7] After an initial period of economic shock, England began to adapt to the changed economic situation. [8] The death rate among the peasantry meant that suddenly land was relatively plentiful and labourers in much shorter supply. [9] Labourers could charge more for their work and, in the consequent competition for labour, wages were driven sharply upwards. [10] In turn, the profits of landowners were eroded. [11] The trading, commercial and financial networks in the towns disintegrated. [12]

The authorities responded to the chaos with emergency legislation the Ordinance of Labourers was passed in 1349, and the Statute of Labourers in 1351. [13] These attempted to fix wages at pre-plague levels, making it a crime to refuse work or to break an existing contract, imposing fines on those who transgressed. [14] The system was initially enforced through special Justices of Labourers and then, from the 1360s onwards, through the normal Justices of the Peace, typically members of the local gentry. [15] Although in theory these laws applied to both labourers seeking higher wages and to employers tempted to outbid their competitors for workers, they were in practice applied only to labourers, and then in a rather arbitrary fashion. [16] The legislation was strengthened in 1361, with the penalties increased to include branding and imprisonment. [17] The royal government had not intervened in this way before, nor allied itself with the local landowners in quite such an obvious or unpopular way. [18]

Over the next few decades, economic opportunities increased for the English peasantry. [19] Some labourers took up specialist jobs that would have previously been barred to them, and others moved from employer to employer, or became servants in richer households. [20] These changes were keenly felt across the south-east of England, where the London market created a wide range of opportunities for farmers and artisans. [21] Local lords had the right to prevent serfs from leaving their manors, but when serfs found themselves blocked in the manorial courts, many simply left to work illegally on manors elsewhere. [22] Wages continued to rise, and between the 1340s and the 1380s the purchasing power of rural labourers increased by around 40 percent. [23] As the wealth of the lower classes increased, Parliament brought in fresh laws in 1363 to prevent them from consuming expensive goods formerly only affordable by the elite. These sumptuary laws proved unenforceable, but the wider labour laws continued to be firmly applied. [24]

War and finance Edit

Another factor in the revolt of 1381 was the conduct of the war with France. In 1337 Edward III of England had pressed his claims to the French throne, beginning a long-running conflict that became known as the Hundred Years' War. Edward had initial successes, but his campaigns were not decisive. Charles V of France became more active in the conflict after 1369, taking advantage of his country's greater economic strength to commence cross-Channel raids on England. [25] By the 1370s, England's armies on the continent were under huge military and financial pressure the garrisons in Calais and Brest alone, for example, were costing £36,000 a year to maintain, while military expeditions could consume £50,000 in only six months. [26] [nb 1] Edward died in 1377, leaving the throne to his grandson, Richard II, then only ten years old. [28]

Richard's government was formed around his uncles, most prominently the rich and powerful John of Gaunt, and many of his grandfather's former senior officials. They faced the challenge of financially sustaining the war in France. Taxes in the 14th century were raised on an ad hoc basis through Parliament, then comprising the Lords, the titled aristocracy and clergy and the Commons, the representatives of the knights, merchants and senior gentry from across England. [29] These taxes were typically imposed on a household's movable possessions, such as their goods or stock. [30] The raising of these taxes affected the members of the Commons much more than the Lords. [31] To complicate matters, the official statistics used to administer the taxes pre-dated the Black Death and, since the size and wealth of local communities had changed greatly since the plague, effective collection had become increasingly difficult. [32]

Just before Edward's death, Parliament introduced a new form of taxation called the poll tax, which was levied at the rate of four pence on every person over the age of 14, with a deduction for married couples. [33] [nb 2] Designed to spread the cost of the war over a broader economic base than previous tax levies, this round of taxation proved extremely unpopular but raised £22,000. [33] The war continued to go badly and, despite raising some money through forced loans, the Crown returned to Parliament in 1379 to request further funds. [35] The Commons were supportive of the young King, but had concerns about the amounts of money being sought and the way this was being spent by the King's counsellors, whom they suspected of corruption. [36] A second poll tax was approved, this time with a sliding scale of taxes against seven different classes of English society, with the upper classes paying more in absolute terms. [37] Widespread evasion proved to be a problem, and the tax only raised £18,600 — far short of the £50,000 that had been hoped for. [38]

In November 1380, Parliament was called together again in Northampton. Archbishop Simon Sudbury, the new Lord Chancellor, updated the Commons on the worsening situation in France, a collapse in international trade, and the risk of the Crown having to default on its debts. [39] The Commons were told that the colossal sum of £160,000 was now required in new taxes, and arguments ensued between the royal council and Parliament about what to do next. [40] Parliament passed a third poll tax (this time on a flat-rate basis of 12 pence on each person over 15, with no allowance made for married couples) which they estimated would raise £66,666. [41] The third poll tax was highly unpopular and many in the south-east evaded it by refusing to register. [42] The royal council appointed new commissioners in March 1381 to interrogate local village and town officials in an attempt to find those who were refusing to comply. [43] The extraordinary powers and interference of these teams of investigators in local communities, primarily in the south-east and east of England, raised still further the tensions surrounding the taxes. [44]

Protest and authority Edit

The decades running up to 1381 were a rebellious, troubled period. [45] London was a particular focus of unrest, and the activities of the city's politically active guilds and fraternities often alarmed the authorities. [46] Londoners resented the expansion of the royal legal system in the capital, in particular the increased role of the Marshalsea Court in Southwark, which had begun to compete with the city authorities for judicial power in London. [47] [nb 3] The city's population also resented the presence of foreigners, Flemish weavers in particular. [49] Londoners detested John of Gaunt because he was a supporter of the religious reformer John Wycliffe, whom the London public regarded as a heretic. [50] John of Gaunt was also engaged in a feud with the London elite and was rumoured to be planning to replace the elected mayor with a captain, appointed by the Crown. [51] The London elite were themselves fighting out a vicious, internal battle for political power. [52] As a result, in 1381 the ruling classes in London were unstable and divided. [53]

Rural communities, particularly in the south-east, were unhappy with the operation of serfdom and the use of the local manorial courts to exact traditional fines and levies, not least because the same landowners who ran these courts also often acted as enforcers of the unpopular labour laws or as royal judges. [54] Many of the village elites refused to take up positions in local government and began to frustrate the operation of the courts. [55] Animals seized by the courts began to be retaken by their owners, and legal officials were assaulted. [56] Some started to advocate the creation of independent village communities, respecting traditional laws but separate from the hated legal system centred in London. [57] As the historian Miri Rubin describes, for many, "the problem was not the country's laws, but those charged with applying and safeguarding them". [58]

Concerns were raised about these changes in society. [59] William Langland wrote the poem Piers Plowman in the years before 1380, praising peasants who respected the law and worked hard for their lords, but complaining about greedy, travelling labourers demanding higher wages. [60] The poet John Gower warned against a future revolt in both Mirour de l'Omme and Vox Clamantis. [61] There was a moral panic about the threat posed by newly arrived workers in the towns and the possibility that servants might turn against their masters. [62] New legislation was introduced in 1359 to deal with migrants, existing conspiracy laws were more widely applied and the treason laws were extended to include servants or wives who betrayed their masters and husbands. [63] By the 1370s, there were fears that if the French invaded England, the rural classes might side with the invaders. [18]

The discontent began to give way to open protest. In 1377, the "Great Rumour" occurred in south-east and south-west England. [64] Rural workers organised themselves and refused to work for their lords, arguing that, according to the Domesday Book, they were exempted from such requests. [65] The workers made unsuccessful appeals to the law courts and the King. [66] There were also widespread urban tensions, particularly in London, where John of Gaunt narrowly escaped being lynched. [67] The troubles increased again in 1380, with protests and disturbances across northern England and in the western towns of Shrewsbury and Bridgwater. [68] An uprising occurred in York, during which John de Gisborne, the city's mayor, was removed from office, and fresh tax riots followed in early 1381. [69] There was a great storm in England during May 1381, which many felt to prophesy future change and upheaval, adding further to the disturbed mood. [70]

Outbreak of revolt Edit

Essex and Kent Edit

The revolt of 1381 broke out in Essex, following the arrival of John Bampton to investigate non-payment of the poll tax on 30 May. [71] Bampton was a member of Parliament, a Justice of the Peace and well-connected with royal circles. [71] He based himself in Brentwood and summoned representatives from the neighbouring villages of Corringham, Fobbing and Stanford-le-Hope to explain and make good the shortfalls on 1 June. [71] The villagers appear to have arrived well-organised, and armed with old bows and sticks. [72] Bampton first interrogated the people of Fobbing, whose representative, Thomas Baker, declared that his village had already paid their taxes, and that no more money would be forthcoming. [72] When Bampton and two sergeants attempted to arrest Baker, violence broke out. [71] Bampton escaped and retreated to London, but three of his clerks and several of the Brentwood townsfolk who had agreed to act as jurors were killed. [73] Robert Bealknap, the Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, who was probably already holding court in the area, was empowered to arrest and deal with the perpetrators. [74]

By the next day, the revolt was rapidly growing. [75] The villagers spread the news across the region, and John Geoffrey, a local bailiff, rode between Brentwood and Chelmsford, rallying support. [75] On 4 June, the rebels gathered at Bocking, where their future plans seem to have been discussed. [76] The Essex rebels, possibly a few thousand strong, advanced towards London, some probably travelling directly and others via Kent. [75] One group, under the leadership of John Wrawe, a former chaplain, marched north towards the neighbouring county of Suffolk, with the intention of raising a revolt there. [77]

Revolt also flared in neighbouring Kent. [78] Sir Simon de Burley, a close associate of both Edward III and the young Richard, had claimed that a man in Kent, called Robert Belling, was an escaped serf from one of his estates. [78] Burley sent two sergeants to Gravesend, where Belling was living, to reclaim him. [78] Gravesend's local bailiffs and Belling tried to negotiate a solution under which Burley would accept a sum of money in return for dropping his case, but this failed and Belling was taken away to be imprisoned at Rochester Castle. [78] A furious group of local people gathered at Dartford, possibly on 5 June, to discuss the matter. [79] From there the rebels travelled to Maidstone, where they stormed the gaol, and then onto Rochester on 6 June. [80] Faced by the angry crowds, the constable in charge of Rochester Castle surrendered it without a fight and Belling was freed. [81]

Some of the Kentish crowds now dispersed, but others continued. [81] From this point, they appear to have been led by Wat Tyler, whom the Anonimalle Chronicle suggests was elected their leader at a large gathering at Maidstone on 7 June. [82] Relatively little is known about Tyler's former life chroniclers suggest that he was from Essex, had served in France as an archer and was a charismatic and capable leader. [82] Several chroniclers believe that he was responsible for shaping the political aims of the revolt. [83] Some also mention a Jack Straw as a leader among the Kentish rebels during this phase in the revolt, but it is uncertain if this was a real person, or a pseudonym for Wat Tyler or John Wrawe. [84] [nb 4]

Tyler and the Kentish men advanced to Canterbury, entering the walled city and castle without resistance on 10 June. [86] The rebels deposed the absent Archbishop of Canterbury, Sudbury, and made the cathedral monks swear loyalty to their cause. [87] They attacked properties in the city with links to the hated royal council, and searched the city for suspected enemies, dragging the suspects out of their houses and executing them. [88] The city gaol was opened and the prisoners freed. [89] Tyler then persuaded a few thousand of the rebels to leave Canterbury and advance with him on London the next morning. [90]

March on the capital Edit

The Kentish advance on London appears to have been coordinated with the movement of the rebels in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. [90] Their forces were armed with weapons including sticks, battle axes, old swords and bows. [91] [nb 5] Along their way, they encountered Lady Joan, the King's mother, who was travelling back to the capital to avoid being caught up in the revolt she was mocked but otherwise left unharmed. [90] The Kentish rebels reached Blackheath, just south-east of the capital, on 12 June. [90] [nb 6]

Word of the revolt reached the King at Windsor Castle on the night of 10 June. [90] He travelled by boat down the River Thames to London the next day, taking up residence in the powerful fortress of the Tower of London for safety, where he was joined by his mother, Archbishop Sudbury, the Lord High Treasurer Sir Robert Hales, the Earls of Arundel, Salisbury and Warwick and several other senior nobles. [94] A delegation, headed by Thomas Brinton, the Bishop of Rochester, was sent out from London to negotiate with the rebels and persuade them to return home. [90]

At Blackheath, John Ball gave a famous sermon to the assembled Kentishmen. [95] Ball was a well-known priest and radical preacher from Kent, who was by now closely associated with Tyler. [96] Chroniclers' accounts vary as to how he came to be involved in the revolt he may have been released from Maidstone gaol by the crowds, or might have been already at liberty when the revolt broke out. [97] Ball rhetorically asked the crowds "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?" and promoted the rebel slogan "With King Richard and the true commons of England". [95] The phrases emphasised the rebel opposition to the continuation of serfdom and to the hierarchies of the Church and State that separated the subject from the King, while stressing that they were loyal to the monarchy and, unlike the King's advisers, were "true" to Richard. [98] The rebels rejected proposals from the Bishop of Rochester that they should return home, and instead prepared to march on. [90]

Discussions took place in the Tower of London about how to deal with the revolt. [90] The King had only a few troops at hand, in the form of the castle's garrison, his immediate bodyguard and, at most, several hundred soldiers. [99] [nb 7] Many of the more experienced military commanders were in France, Ireland and Germany, and the nearest major military force was in the north of England, guarding against a potential Scottish invasion. [101] Resistance in the provinces was also complicated by English law, which stated that only the King could summon local militias or lawfully execute rebels and criminals, leaving many local lords unwilling to attempt to suppress the uprisings on their own authority. [102]

Since the Blackheath negotiations had failed, the decision was taken that the King himself should meet the rebels, at Greenwich, on the south side of the Thames. [103] Guarded by four barges of soldiers, Richard sailed from the Tower on the morning of 13 June, where he was met on the other side by the rebel crowds. [104] The negotiations failed, as Richard was unwilling to come ashore and the rebels refused to enter discussions until he did. [104] Richard returned across the river to the Tower. [105]

Events in London Edit

Entry to the city Edit

The rebels began to cross from Southwark onto London Bridge on the afternoon of 13 June. [105] The defences on London Bridge were opened from the inside, either in sympathy for the rebel cause or out of fear, and the rebels advanced into the city. [106] [nb 8] At the same time, the rebel force from Essex made its way towards Aldgate on the north side of the city. [108] The rebels swept west through the centre of the city, and Aldgate was opened to let the rest of the rebels in. [109]

The Kentish rebels had assembled a wide-ranging list of people whom they wanted the King to hand over for execution. [104] It included national figures, such as John of Gaunt, Archbishop Sudbury and Hales other key members of the royal council officials, such as Belknap and Bampton who had intervened in Kent and other hated members of the wider royal circle. [104] When they reached the Marshalsea Prison in Southwark, they tore it apart. [110] By now the Kent and Essex rebels had been joined by many rebellious Londoners. [111] The Fleet and Newgate Prisons were attacked by the crowds, and the rebels also targeted houses belonging to Flemish immigrants. [112]

On the north side of London, the rebels approached Smithfield and Clerkenwell Priory, the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller which was headed by Hales. [113] The priory was destroyed, along with the nearby manor. [113] Heading west along Fleet Street, the rebels attacked the Temple, a complex of legal buildings and offices owned by the Hospitallers. [114] The contents, books and paperwork were brought out and burned in the street, and the buildings systematically demolished. [114] Meanwhile, John Fordham, the Keeper of the Privy Seal and one of the men on the rebels' execution list, narrowly escaped when the crowds ransacked his accommodation but failed to notice he was still in the building. [114]

Next to be attacked along Fleet Street was the Savoy Palace, a huge, luxurious building belonging to John of Gaunt. [115] According to the chronicler Henry Knighton it contained "such quantities of vessels and silver plate, without counting the parcel-gilt and solid gold, that five carts would hardly suffice to carry them" official estimates placed the value of the contents at around £10,000. [115] The interior was systematically destroyed by the rebels, who burnt the soft furnishings, smashed the precious metal work, crushed the gems, set fire to the Duke's records and threw the remains into the Thames and the city drains. [115] Almost nothing was stolen by the rebels, who declared themselves to be "zealots for truth and justice, not thieves and robbers". [116] The remains of the building were then set alight. [117] In the evening, rebel forces gathered outside the Tower of London, from where the King watched the fires burning across the city. [118]

Taking the Tower of London Edit

On the morning of 14 June, the crowd continued west along the Thames, burning the houses of officials around Westminster and opening the Westminster gaol. [119] They then moved back into central London, setting fire to more buildings and storming Newgate Prison. [119] The hunt for Flemings continued, and those with Flemish-sounding accents were killed, including the royal adviser, Richard Lyons. [120] [nb 9] In one city ward, the bodies of 40 executed Flemings were piled up in the street, and at the Church of St Martin Vintry, popular with the Flemish, 35 of the community were killed. [122] Historian Rodney Hilton argues that these attacks may have been coordinated by the weavers' guilds of London, who were commercial competitors of the Flemish weavers. [123]

Isolated inside the Tower, the royal government was in a state of shock at the turn of events. [124] The King left the castle that morning and made his way to negotiate with the rebels at Mile End in east London, taking only a very small bodyguard with him. [125] The King left Sudbury and Hales behind in the Tower, either for their own safety or because Richard had decided it would be safer to distance himself from his unpopular ministers. [126] Along the way, several Londoners accosted the King to complain about alleged injustices. [127]

It is uncertain who spoke for the rebels at Mile End, and Wat Tyler may not have been present on this occasion, but they appear to have put forward their various demands to the King, including the surrender of the hated officials on their lists for execution the abolition of serfdom and unfree tenure "that there should be no law within the realm save the law of Winchester", and a general amnesty for the rebels. [128] It is unclear precisely what was meant by the law of Winchester, but it probably referred to the rebel ideal of self-regulating village communities. [129] [nb 10] Richard issued charters announcing the abolition of serfdom, which immediately began to be disseminated around the country. [131] He declined to hand over any of his officials, apparently instead promising that he would personally implement any justice that was required. [132]

While Richard was at Mile End, the Tower was taken by the rebels. [133] This force, separate from those operating under Tyler at Mile End, approached the castle, possibly in the late morning. [133] [nb 11] The gates were open to receive Richard on his return and a crowd of around 400 rebels entered the fortress, encountering no resistance, possibly because the guards were terrified by them. [134]

Once inside, the rebels began to hunt down their key targets, and found Archbishop Sudbury and Robert Hales in the chapel of the White Tower. [135] Along with William Appleton, John of Gaunt's physician, and John Legge, a royal sergeant, they were taken out to Tower Hill and beheaded. [135] Their heads were paraded around the city, before being affixed to London Bridge. [136] The rebels found John of Gaunt's son, the future Henry IV, and were about to execute him as well, when John Ferrour, one of the royal guards, successfully interceded on his behalf. [137] The rebels also discovered Lady Joan and Joan Holland, Richard's sister, in the castle but let them go unharmed after making fun of them. [138] The castle was thoroughly looted of armour and royal paraphernalia. [139]

The historian Sylvia Federico, translating Latin court documents from The National Archives, named Johanna Ferrour as the leader of this force that took the castle. Alongside her husband, [140] she is described as "chief perpetrator and leader of rebellious evildoers from Kent". [141] She arrested Sudbury and dragged him to the chopping block, ordering that he be beheaded as well as ordering the death of the treasurer, Robert Hales. It has been speculated that her name does not appear in the work of contemporary chroniclers as they may have felt that a female leader would be perceived as trivialising the revolt. [141] From then onwards, however, comments Marc Boone, women were more regularly accepted in contemporary literature as playing a role in societal violence. [140]

In the aftermath of the attack, Richard did not return to the Tower but instead travelled from Mile End to the Great Wardrobe, one of his royal houses in Blackfriars, part of south-west London. [142] There he appointed the military commander Richard FitzAlan, the Earl of Arundel, to replace Sudbury as Chancellor, and began to make plans to regain an advantage over the rebels the following day. [143] Many of the Essex rebels now began to disperse, content with the King's promises, leaving Tyler and the Kentish forces the most significant faction in London. [144] Tyler's men moved around the city that evening, seeking out and killing John of Gaunt's employees, foreigners and anyone associated with the legal system. [145]

Smithfield Edit

On 15 June the royal government and the remaining rebels, who were unsatisfied with the charters granted the previous day, agreed to meet at Smithfield, just outside the city walls. [146] London remained in confusion, with various bands of rebels roaming the city independently. [139] Richard prayed at Westminster Abbey, before setting out for the meeting in the late afternoon. [147] The chroniclers' accounts of the encounter all vary on matters of detail, but agree on the broad sequence of events. [148] The King and his party, at least 200 strong and including men-at-arms, positioned themselves outside St Bartholomew's Priory to the east of Smithfield, and the thousands of rebels massed along the western end. [149] [nb 12]

Richard probably called Tyler forwards from the crowd to meet him, and Tyler greeted the King with what the royal party considered excessive familiarity, terming Richard his "brother" and promising him his friendship. [151] Richard queried why Tyler and the rebels had not yet left London following the signing of the charters the previous day, but this brought an angry rebuke from Tyler, who requested that a further charter be drawn up. [152] The rebel leader rudely demanded refreshment and, once this had been provided, attempted to leave. [153]

An argument then broke out between Tyler and some of the royal servants. [153] The Mayor of London, William Walworth, stepped forward to intervene, Tyler made some motion towards the King, and the royal soldiers leapt in. [154] Either Walworth or Richard ordered Tyler to be arrested, Tyler attempted to attack the Mayor, and Walworth responded by stabbing Tyler. [153] Ralph Standish, a royal squire, then repeatedly stabbed Tyler with his sword, mortally injuring him. [155]

The situation was now precarious and violence appeared likely as the rebels prepared to unleash a volley of arrows. [155] Richard rode forward towards the crowd and persuaded them to follow him away from Smithfield, to Clerkenwell Fields, defusing the situation. [155] Walworth meanwhile began to regain control of the situation, backed by reinforcements from the city. [156] Tyler's head was cut off and displayed on a pole and, with their leader dead and the royal government now backed by the London militia, the rebel movement began to collapse. [157] Richard promptly knighted Walworth and his leading supporters for their services. [155]

Wider revolt Edit

Eastern England Edit

While the revolt was unfolding in London, John Wrawe led his force into Suffolk. [158] Wrawe had considerable influence over the development of the revolt across eastern England, where there may have been almost as many rebels as in the London revolt. [159] The authorities put up very little resistance to the revolt: the major nobles failed to organise defences, key fortifications fell easily to the rebels and the local militias were not mobilised. [160] As in London and the south-east, this was in part due to the absence of key military leaders and the nature of English law, but any locally recruited men might also have proved unreliable in the face of a popular uprising. [161]

On 12 June, Wrawe attacked Sir Richard Lyons' property at Overhall, advancing on to Cavendish and Bury St Edmunds in west Suffolk the next day, gathering further support as they went. [162] John Cambridge, the Prior of the wealthy Bury St Edmunds Abbey, was disliked in the town, and Wrawe allied himself with the townspeople and stormed the abbey. [163] The Prior escaped, but was found two days later and beheaded. [164] A small band of rebels marched north to Thetford to extort protection money from the town, and another group tracked down Sir John Cavendish, the Chief Justice of the King's Bench and Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. [165] Cavendish was caught in Lakenheath and killed. [166] John Battisford and Thomas Sampson independently led a revolt near Ipswich on 14 June. [167] They took the town without opposition and looted the properties of the archdeacon and local tax officials. [167] The violence spread out further, with attacks on many properties and the burning of the local court records. [168] One official, Edmund Lakenheath, was forced to flee from the Suffolk coast by boat. [169]

Revolt began to stir in St Albans in Hertfordshire late on 13 June, when news broke of the events in London. [170] There had been long-running disagreements in St Albans between the town and the local abbey, which had extensive privileges in the region. [171] On 14 June, protesters met with the Abbot, Thomas de la Mare, and demanded their freedom from the abbey. [170] A group of townsmen under the leadership of William Grindecobbe travelled to London, where they appealed to the King for the rights of the abbey to be abolished. [172] Wat Tyler, then still in control of the city, granted them authority in the meantime to take direct action against the abbey. [173] Grindecobbe and the rebels returned to St Albans, where they found the Prior had already fled. [174] The rebels broke open the abbey gaol, destroyed the fences marking out the abbey lands and burnt the abbey records in the town square. [175] They then forced Thomas de la Mare to surrender the abbey's rights in a charter on 16 June. [176] The revolt against the abbey spread out over the next few days, with abbey property and financial records being destroyed across the county. [177]

On 15 June, revolt broke out in Cambridgeshire, led by elements of Wrawe's Suffolk rebellion and some local men, such as John Greyston, who had been involved in the events in London and had returned to his home county to spread the revolt, and Geoffrey Cobbe and John Hanchach, members of the local gentry. [178] The University of Cambridge, staffed by priests and enjoying special royal privileges, was widely hated by the other inhabitants of the town. [178] A revolt backed by the Mayor of Cambridge broke out with the university as its main target. [178] The rebels ransacked Corpus Christi College, which had connections to John of Gaunt, and the University's church, and attempted to execute the University bedel, who escaped. [179] The university's library and archives were burnt in the centre of the town, with one Margery Starre leading the mob in a dance to the rallying cry "Away with the learning of clerks, away with it!" while the documents burned. [180] The next day, the university was forced to negotiate a new charter, giving up its royal privileges. [181] Revolt then spread north from Cambridge toward Ely, where the gaol was opened and the local Justice of the Peace executed. [182]

In Norfolk, the revolt was led by Geoffrey Litster, a weaver, and Sir Roger Bacon, a local lord with ties to the Suffolk rebels. [183] Litster began sending out messengers across the county in a call to arms on 14 June, and isolated outbreaks of violence occurred. [184] The rebels assembled on 17 June outside Norwich and killed Sir Robert Salle, who was in charge of the city defences and had attempted to negotiate a settlement. [185] The people of the town then opened the gates to let the rebels in. [185] They began looting buildings and killed Reginald Eccles, a local official. [186] William de Ufford, the Earl of Suffolk fled his estates and travelled in disguise to London. [187] The other leading members of the local gentry were captured and forced to play out the roles of a royal household, working for Litster. [187] Violence spread out across the county, as gaols were opened, Flemish immigrants killed, court records burned, and property looted and destroyed. [188]

Northern and western England Edit

Revolts also occurred across the rest of England, particularly in the cities of the north, traditionally centres of political unrest. [189] In the town of Beverley, violence broke out between the richer mercantile elite and the poorer townspeople during May. [190] By the end of the month the rebels had taken power and replaced the former town administration with their own. [191] The rebels attempted to enlist the support of Alexander Neville, the Archbishop of York, and in June forced the former town government to agree to arbitration through Neville. [192] Peace was restored in June 1382 but tensions continued to simmer for many years. [193]

Word of the troubles in the south-east spread north, slowed by the poor communication links of medieval England. [194] In Leicester, where John of Gaunt had a substantial castle, warnings arrived of a force of rebels advancing on the city from Lincolnshire, who were intent on destroying the castle and its contents. [194] The mayor and the town mobilised their defences, including a local militia, but the rebels never arrived. [195] John of Gaunt was in Berwick when word reached him on 17 June of the revolt. [196] Not knowing that Wat Tyler had by now been killed, John of Gaunt placed his castles in Yorkshire and Wales on alert. [197] Fresh rumours, many of them incorrect, continued to arrive in Berwick, suggesting widespread rebellions across the west and east of England and the looting of the ducal household in Leicester rebel units were even said to be hunting for the Duke himself. [197] Gaunt began to march to Bamburgh Castle, but then changed course and diverted north into Scotland, only returning south once the fighting was over. [198]

News of the initial events in London also reached York around 17 June, and attacks at once broke out on the properties of the Dominican friars, the Franciscan friaries and other religious institutions. [199] Violence continued over the coming weeks, and on 1 July a group of armed men, under the command of John de Gisbourne, forced their way into the city and attempted to seize control. [200] The mayor, Simon de Quixlay, gradually began to reclaim authority, but order was not properly restored until 1382. [200] The news of the southern revolt reached Scarborough where riots broke out against the ruling elite on 23 June, with the rebels dressed in white hoods with a red tail at the back. [201] Members of the local government were deposed from office, and one tax collector was nearly lynched. [202] By 1382 the elite had re-established power. [203]

In the Somerset town of Bridgwater, revolt broke out on 19 June, led by Thomas Ingleby and Adam Brugge. [204] The crowds attacked the local Augustine house and forced their master to give up his local privileges and pay a ransom. [205] The rebels then turned on the properties of John Sydenham, a local merchant and official, looting his manor and burning paperwork, before executing Walter Baron, a local man. [206] The Ilchester gaol was stormed, and one unpopular prisoner executed. [207]

Suppression Edit

The royal suppression of the revolt began shortly after the death of Wat Tyler on 15 June. [208] Sir Robert Knolles, Sir Nicholas Brembre and Sir Robert Launde were appointed to restore control in the capital. [209] A summons was put out for soldiers, probably around 4,000 men were mustered in London, and expeditions to the other troubled parts of the country soon followed. [210]

The revolt in East Anglia was independently suppressed by Henry Despenser, the Bishop of Norwich. [187] Henry was in Stamford in Lincolnshire when the revolt broke out, and when he found out about it he marched south with eight men-at-arms and a small force of archers, gathering more forces as he went. [211] He marched first to Peterborough, where he routed the local rebels and executed any he could capture, including some who had taken shelter in the local abbey. [212] He then headed south-east via Huntingdon and Ely, reached Cambridge on 19 June, and then headed further into the rebel-controlled areas of Norfolk. [213] Henry reclaimed Norwich on 24 June, before heading out with a company of men to track down the rebel leader, Geoffrey Litster. [214] The two forces met at the Battle of North Walsham on 25 or 26 June the Bishop's forces triumphed and Litster was captured and executed. [215] Henry's quick action was essential to the suppression of the revolt in East Anglia, but he was very unusual in taking matters into his own hands in this way, and his execution of the rebels without royal sanction was illegal. [216]

On 17 June, the King dispatched his half-brother Thomas Holland and Sir Thomas Trivet to Kent with a small force to restore order. [217] They held courts at Maidstone and Rochester. [217] William de Ufford, the Earl of Suffolk, returned to his county on 23 June, accompanied by a force of 500 men. [218] He quickly subdued the area and was soon holding court in Mildenhall, where many of the accused were sentenced to death. [219] He moved on into Norfolk on 6 July, holding court in Norwich, Great Yarmouth and Hacking. [217] Hugh, Lord la Zouche, led the legal proceedings against the rebels in Cambridgeshire. [217] In St Albans, the Abbot arrested William Grindecobbe and his main supporters. [220]

On 20 June, the King's uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, and Robert Tresilian, the replacement Chief Justice, were given special commissions across the whole of England. [217] Thomas oversaw court cases in Essex, backed up by a substantial military force as resistance was continuing and the county was still in a state of unrest. [221] Richard himself visited Essex, where he met with a rebel delegation seeking confirmation of the grants the King had given at Mile End. [222] Richard rejected them, allegedly telling them that "rustics you were and rustics you are still. You will remain in bondage, not as before, but incomparably harsher". [222] [nb 13] Tresilian soon joined Thomas, and carried out 31 executions in Chelmsford, then travelled to St Albans in July for further court trials, which appear to have utilised dubious techniques to ensure convictions. [224] Thomas went on to Gloucester with 200 soldiers to suppress the unrest there. [225] Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, was tasked to restore order to Yorkshire. [225]

A wide range of laws were invoked in the process of the suppression, from general treason to charges of book burning or demolishing houses, a process complicated by the relatively narrow definition of treason at the time. [226] The use of informants and denunciations became common, causing fear to spread across the country by November at least 1,500 people had been executed or killed in battle. [227] Many of those who had lost property in the revolt attempted to seek legal compensation, and John of Gaunt made particular efforts to track down those responsible for destroying his Savoy Palace. [228] Most had only limited success, as the defendants were rarely willing to attend court. [228] The last of these cases was resolved in 1387. [228]

The rebel leaders were quickly rounded up. [229] A rebel leader by the name of Jack Straw was captured in London and executed. [230] [nb 14] John Ball was caught in Coventry, tried in St Albans, and executed on 15 July. [232] Grindecobbe was also tried and executed in St Albans. [230] John Wrawe was tried in London he probably gave evidence against 24 of his colleagues in the hope of a pardon, but was sentenced to be executed by being hanged, drawn and quartered on 6 May 1382. [233] Sir Roger Bacon was probably arrested before the final battle in Norfolk, and was tried and imprisoned in the Tower of London before finally being pardoned by the Crown. [234] As of September 1381, Thomas Ingleby of Bridgwater had successfully evaded the authorities. [235]

Although women such as Johanna Ferrour played a prominent role in the revolt, no evidence has been found of women being executed or punished as harshly as their male counterparts. [141]

Aftermath Edit

The royal government and Parliament began to re-establish the normal processes of government after the revolt as the historian Michael Postan describes, the uprising was in many ways a "passing episode". [236] On 30 June, the King ordered England's serfs to return to their previous conditions of service, and on 2 July the royal charters signed under duress during the rising were formally revoked. [217] Parliament met in November to discuss the events of the year and how best to respond to their challenges. [237] The revolt was blamed on the misconduct of royal officials, who, it was argued, had been excessively greedy and overbearing. [238] The Commons stood behind the existing labour laws, but requested changes in the royal council, which Richard granted. [239] Richard also granted general pardons to those who had executed rebels without due process, to all men who had remained loyal, and to all those who had rebelled – with the exception of the men of Bury St Edmunds, any men who had been involved in the killing of the King's advisers, and those who were still on the run from prison. [240]

Despite the violence of the suppression, the government and local lords were relatively circumspect in restoring order after the revolt, and continued to be worried about fresh revolts for several decades. [241] Few lords took revenge on their peasants except through the legal processes of the courts. [242] Low-level unrest continued for several more years. [243] In September 1382 there was trouble in Norfolk, involving an apparent plot against the Bishop of Norwich, and in March the following year there was an investigation into a plot to kill the sheriff of Devon. [244] When negotiating rents with their landlords, peasants alluded to the memory of the revolt and the threat of violence. [245]

There were no further attempts by Parliament to impose a poll tax or to reform England's fiscal system. [246] The Commons instead concluded at the end of 1381 that the military effort on the Continent should be "carefully but substantially reduced". [247] Unable to raise fresh taxes, the government had to curtail its foreign policy and military expeditions and began to examine the options for peace. [248] The institution of serfdom declined after 1381, but primarily for economic rather than political reasons. [249] Rural wages continued to increase, and lords increasingly sold their serfs' freedom in exchange for cash, or converted traditional forms of tenure to new leasehold arrangements. [250] During the 15th century the institution vanished in England. [245]

Chroniclers primarily described the rebels as rural serfs, using broad, derogatory Latin terms such as serviles rustici, servile genus and rusticitas. [251] Some chroniclers, including Knighton, also noted the presence of runaway apprentices, artisans and others, sometimes terming them the "lesser commons". [251] The evidence from the court records following the revolt, albeit biased in various ways, similarly shows the involvement of a much broader community, and the earlier perception that the rebels were only constituted of unfree serfs is now rejected. [252] [nb 15]

The rural rebels came from a wide range of backgrounds, but typically they were, as the historian Christopher Dyer describes, "people well below the ranks of the gentry, but who mainly held some land and goods", and not the very poorest in society, who formed a minority of the rebel movement. [254] Many had held positions of authority in local village governance, and these seem to have provided leadership to the revolt. [255] Some were artisans, including, as the historian Rodney Hilton lists, "carpenters, sawyers, masons, cobblers, tailors, weavers, fullers, glovers, hosiers, skinners, bakers, butchers, innkeepers, cooks and a lime-burner". [256] They were predominantly male, but with some women in their ranks. [257] The rebels were typically illiterate only between 5 and 15 per cent of England could read during this period. [258] They also came from a broad range of local communities, including at least 330 south-eastern villages. [259]

Many of the rebels had urban backgrounds, and the majority of those involved in the events of London were probably local townsfolk rather than peasants. [260] In some cases, the townsfolk who joined the revolt were the urban poor, attempting to gain at the expense of the local elites. [261] In London, for example, the urban rebels appear to have largely been the poor and unskilled. [123] Other urban rebels were part of the elite, such as at York where the protesters were typically prosperous members of the local community, while in some instances, townsfolk allied themselves with the rural population, as at Bury St Edmunds. [262] In other cases, such as Canterbury, the influx of population from the villages following the Black Death made any distinction between urban and rural less meaningful. [263]

The vast majority of those involved in the revolt of 1381 were not represented in Parliament and were excluded from its decision-making. [264] In a few cases the rebels were led or joined by relatively prosperous members of the gentry, such as Sir Roger Bacon in Norfolk. [265] Some of them later claimed to have been forced to join the revolt by the rebels. [266] Clergy also formed part of the revolt as well as the more prominent leaders, such as John Ball or John Wrawe, nearly 20 are mentioned in the records of the revolt in the south-east. [267] Some were pursuing local grievances, some were disadvantaged and suffering relative poverty, and others appear to have been motivated by strong radical beliefs. [268]

Many of those involved in the revolt used pseudonyms, particularly in the letters sent around the country to encourage support and fresh uprisings. [269] They were used both to avoid incriminating particular individuals and to allude to popular values and stories. [270] One popular assumed name was Piers Plowman, taken from the main character in William Langland's poem. [271] Jack was also a widely used rebel pseudonym, and historians Steven Justice and Carter Revard suggest that this may have been because it resonated with the Jacques of the French Jacquerie revolt several decades earlier. [272]

Historiography Edit

Contemporary chroniclers of the events in the revolt have formed an important source for historians. The chroniclers were biased against the rebel cause and typically portrayed the rebels, in the words of the historian Susan Crane, as "beasts, monstrosities or misguided fools". [274] London chroniclers were also unwilling to admit the role of ordinary Londoners in the revolt, preferring to place the blame entirely on rural peasants from the south-east. [275] Among the key accounts was the anonymous Anonimalle Chronicle, whose author appears to have been part of the royal court and an eye-witness to many of the events in London. [276] The chronicler Thomas Walsingham was present for much of the revolt, but focused his account on the terror of the social unrest and was extremely biased against the rebels. [277] The events were recorded in France by Jean Froissart, the author of the Chronicles. [278] He had well-placed sources close to the revolt, but was inclined to elaborate the known facts with colourful stories. [279] No sympathetic accounts of the rebels survive. [93]

At the end of the 19th century there was a surge in historical interest in the Peasants' Revolt, spurred by the contemporary growth of the labour and socialist movements. [280] Work by Charles Oman, Edgar Powell, André Réville and G. M. Trevelyan established the course of the revolt. [281] By 1907 the accounts of the chroniclers were all widely available in print and the main public records concerning the events had been identified. [282] Réville began to use the legal indictments that had been used against suspected rebels after the revolt as a fresh source of historical information, and over the next century extensive research was carried out into the local economic and social history of the revolt, using scattered local sources across south-east England. [283]

Interpretations of the revolt have changed over the years. 17th-century historians, such as John Smyth, established the idea that the revolt had marked the end of unfree labour and serfdom in England. [273] 19th-century historians such as William Stubbs and Thorold Rogers reinforced this conclusion, Stubbs describing it as "one of the most portentous events in the whole of our history". [273] In the 20th century, this interpretation was increasingly challenged by historians such as May McKisack, Michael Postan and Richard Dobson, who revised the impact of the revolt on further political and economic events in England. [284] Mid-20th century Marxist historians were both interested in, and generally sympathetic to, the rebel cause, a trend culminating in Hilton's 1973 account of the uprising, set against the wider context of peasant revolts across Europe during the period. [285] The Peasants' Revolt has received more academic attention than any other medieval revolt, and this research has been interdisciplinary, involving historians, literary scholars and international collaboration. [286]

The name "the Peasants' Revolt" emerged in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and its first recorded use by historians was in John Richard Green's Short History of the English People in 1874. [275] Contemporary chronicles did not give the revolt a specific title, and the term "peasant" did not appear in the English language until the 15th century. [275] The title has been critiqued by modern historians such as Miri Rubin and Paul Strohm, both on the grounds that many in the movements were not peasants, and that the events more closely resemble a prolonged protest or rising, rather than a revolt or rebellion. [287]

A large slate memorial to 'The Great Rising' was commissioned by Matthew Bell and carved by Emily Hoffnung. It was unveiled by the film director Ken Loach in Smithfield on 15 July 2015. [288]

Popular culture Edit

The Peasants' Revolt became a popular literary subject. [289] The poet John Gower, who had close ties to officials involved in the suppression of the revolt, amended his famous poem Vox Clamantis after the revolt, inserting a section condemning the rebels and likening them to wild animals. [290] Geoffrey Chaucer, who lived in Aldgate and may have been in London during the revolt, used the rebel killing of Flemings as a metaphor for wider disorder in The Nun's Priest's Tale part of The Canterbury Tales, parodying Gower's poem. [291] Chaucer otherwise made no reference to the revolt in his work, possibly because as he was a client of the King it would have been politically unwise to discuss it. [292] William Langland, the author of the poem Piers Plowman, which had been widely used by the rebels, made various changes to its text after the revolt in order to distance himself from their cause. [293]

The revolt formed the basis for the late 16th-century play, The Life and Death of Jack Straw, possibly written by George Peele and probably originally designed for production in the city's guild pageants. [294] It portrays Jack Straw as a tragic figure, being led into wrongful rebellion by John Ball, making clear political links between the instability of late-Elizabethan England and the 14th century. [295] The story of the revolt was used in pamphlets during the English Civil War of the 17th century, and formed part of John Cleveland's early history of the war. [296] It was deployed as a cautionary account in political speeches during the 18th century, and a chapbook entitled The History of Wat Tyler and Jack Strawe proved popular during the Jacobite risings and American War of Independence. [297] Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke argued over the lessons to be drawn from the revolt, Paine expressing sympathy for the rebels and Burke condemning the violence. [298] The Romantic poet Robert Southey based his 1794 play Wat Tyler on the events, taking a radical and pro-rebel perspective. [299]

As the historian Michael Postan describes, the revolt became famous "as a landmark in social development and [as] a typical instance of working-class revolt against oppression", and was widely used in 19th and 20th century socialist literature. [300] William Morris built on Chaucer in his novel A Dream of John Ball, published in 1888, creating a narrator who was openly sympathetic to the peasant cause, albeit a 19th-century persona taken back to the 14th century by a dream. [301] The story ends with a prophecy that socialist ideals will one day be successful. [302] In turn, this representation of the revolt influenced Morris's utopian socialist News from Nowhere. [303] Florence Converse used the revolt in her novel Long Will in 1903. [300] Later 20th century socialists continued to draw parallels between the revolt and contemporary political struggles, including during the arguments over the introduction of the Community Charge in the United Kingdom during the 1980s. [300]

Conspiracy theorists, including writer John Robinson, have attempted to explain alleged flaws in mainstream historical accounts of the events of 1381, such as the speed with which the rebellion was coordinated. [304] Theories include that the revolt was led by a secret, occult organisation called "the Great Society", said to be an offshoot of the order of the Knights Templar destroyed in 1312, or that the fraternity of the Freemasons was covertly involved in organising the revolt. [305] [nb 16]

Wat Tyler and the Peasants Revolt

In 1381, some 35 years after the Black Death had swept through Europe decimating over one third of the population, there was a shortage of people left to work the land. Recognising the power of ‘supply and demand’, the remaining peasants began to re-evaluate their worth and subsequently demanded higher wages and better working conditions.

Not surprisingly the government of the day, comprising mainly of the land-owning Bishops and Lords, passed a law to limit any such wage rise. In addition to this, extra revenue was required to support a long and drawn out war with the French, and so a poll tax was introduced.

It was the third time in four years that such a tax had been applied. This crippling tax meant that everyone over the age of 15 had to pay one shilling. Perhaps not a great deal of money to a Lord or a Bishop, but a significant amount to the average farm labourer! And if they could not pay in cash, they could pay in kind, such as seeds, tools etc. All of which could be vital to the survival of a farmer and his family for the coming year.

Things appear to have come to a head when in May 1381 a tax collector arrived in the Essex village of Fobbing to find out why the people there had not paid their poll tax. The villagers appear to have taken exception to his enquiries and promptly threw him out.

The following month, the 15-year-old King Richard II sent in his soldiers to re-establish law and order. But the villagers of Fobbing meted out the same unceremonious treatment to them.

Joined by other villagers from all corners of the southeast of England, the peasants decided to march on London in order to plead their case for a better deal before their young king. Not that the peasants blamed Richard for their problems, their anger was aimed instead at his advisors – Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, whom they believed to be corrupt.

In what appears to have been a well organized and coordinated popular uprising, the peasants set off for London on the 2nd June in a sort of pincer movement. The villagers from the north of the Thames, primarily from Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk, converged on London via Chelmsford. Those from the south of the Thames, comprising mainly of Kentish folk, first attacked Rochester Castle and then Sudbury’s Canterbury, before setting off for Blackheath on the outskirts of London.

More than 60,000 people are reported to have been involved in the revolt, and not all of them were peasants: soldiers and tradesmen as well as some disillusioned churchmen, including one Peasant leader known as ‘the mad priest of Kent’, John Ball.

As the peasants moved on to London, they destroyed tax records and registers, and removed the heads from several tax officials who objected to them doing so. Buildings which housed government records were burned down. It was during the march one man emerged as their natural leader – Wat Tyler (Walter the Tyler) from Kent.

The rebels entered London (as some of the locals had kindly left the city gates open to them!) and somehow the Savoy Palace of the unpopular John of Gaunt got a little scorched in the process, with much of the palace’s contents being deposited in the nearby Thames.

With all of the temptations of the ‘big city’ on offer however, Wat Tyler seems to have lost control of some of his ‘pleasure seeking’ peasants. With some falling foul to the power of the demon drink, looting and murder are reported to have taken place. In particular however, the peasants targeted their hatred at the lawyers and priests of the city.

In an attempt to prevent further trouble, the king agreed to meet the Wat Tyler at Mile End on 14th June. At this meeting, Richard II gave into all of the peasants demands and asked that they go home in peace. Satisfied with the outcome – a promised end to serfdom and feudalism – many did start the journey home.

Whilst this meeting was taking place however, some of the rebels marched on the Tower of London and murdered Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Robert Hales, the Treasurer – their heads were cut off on Tower Hill. With his armies spread throughout France, Scotland and Wales, King Richard II spent the night in hiding, fearing for his life.

The next day Richard met Wat Tyler and his hardcore of Kentish rebels again, this time at Smithfield, just outside of the city’s walls. It is thought that this was the idea of the Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Walworth, who wanted the rebels out of his city, perhaps fearing the damage that they could cause within its cramped medieval streets lined with tinder dry wooden houses.

At this tense and highly charged meeting the Lord Mayor, apparently angered by Wat Tyler’s arrogant attitude to the king and his even more radical demands, drew his dagger and slashed at Tyler. Badly injured with a knife wound in his neck, Tyler was taken to nearby St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

It is not exactly clear how the king talked his way out this little predicament with the massed crowd of rebels surrounding him, but it must have been good. One account records that the king addressed them with the cry, ‘I am your king, I will be your leader. Follow me into the fields’.

Whatever the king said or promised, it must have been sounded very convincing, as it resulted in the revolting peasants dispersing and returning home! But what of the fate of Wat Tyler? Well, he certainly didn’t receive the five-star treatment that he could expect today from St Bart’s! Thanks to Walworth’s orders, the knife wound in Tyler’s neck was extended, which had the effect of removing his head just a few inches above the shoulders!

By end of the summer of 1381, just a few weeks after it had started, the peasants’ revolt was over. Richard did not, or could not due to his limited power in Parliament, keep any of his promises. He also claimed that as these promises were made under threat, they were therefore not valid in law. The remaining rebels were dealt with by force.

The poll tax was withdrawn and the peasants were forced back into their old way of life – under the control of the lord of the manor, bishop or archbishop.

The ruling classes however did not have it all their own way. The Black Death had caused such a shortage of labour that over the next 100 years many peasants’ found that when they asked for more money the lords had to give in. Forced eventually to perhaps recognise the peasants’ power of ‘supply and demand’!

Remembering a Peasants' Movement That Went on For Nearly 50 Years

The Bijolia kisan satyagraya and its leaders deserve to be remembered.

Measuring land during the Begun peasants' movement. Photo: storytimes.co

It has been over six months since farmers from Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, among other states, began mobilising to bring the agrarian question to the doors of the same parliament that had passed three controversial farm laws last year. Over these months, they have been demanding the repeal of these laws and solutions to related farmers’.

The farmers are facing an arrogant state, unwilling to budge even an inch from its position. But this is not the first time that a peasant-led movement has gone on for a long time. In India’s history, there was another such movement which went on for almost 50 years.

This movement has been largely ignored in academia personalities at the centre of it are not known to the public except in Rajasthan, where the movement took place. A possible explanation for this negligence is that it did not take place in India as we know it, but in the erstwhile princely states of present-day Rajasthan.

Sadhu Sitaram Das. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The movement that we are talking about is known as the Bijolia peasant movement or the Bijolia kisan satyagraha, and forms an integral part of modern history of Rajasthan. It was led by iconic personalities like Vijay Singh Pathik, Manakya Lal Verma and Sadhu Sitaram Das, among others. The movement took place in three phases, first from 1897 to 1915, then from 1916 to 1923 and finally 1923 to 1941. The epicentre of the uprising was the feudal estate of Bijolia, located in the former princely state of Mewar, from where it spread to neighbouring princely states.

At the time of this movement, almost 62% of the total land of modern-day Rajasthan was controlled by jagirdars or feudal landlords. How powerful these jagirdars were can be gleaned from an observation made by James Todd in his Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan: “If sovereign [the King] goes against Jagirdars, sometimes his crown and even life may be in danger.” It was against these powerful Lords (and British forces) that peasants of Bijolia estate raised the banner of revolt, without any outside support.

Socio-economic background of Bijolia movement

The Bijolia estate was made up of 83 villages. In the late 17th century, there was no written law regarding the judiciary, police, revenues etc., and almost everything was based on age-old customs and traditions. The residents of the estate were literally at the mercy of the feudal overlord, the jagirdar. Besides the stipulated revenue, which amount to anything from one-fourth to one-half of the total produce, the peasants were supposed to pay at least 86 different types of additional taxes and perform labour. The extent of the exploitation experienced by Bijolia’s peasants in their everyday life and for their day-to-day activities can be ascertained from certain types of exorbitant taxes that were imposed upon them.

The peasants had to pay a certain amount to the jagirdar on every festive occasion, for harvesting, whenever they had a birthday or wedding ceremonies, and for collecting firewood. They were also supposed to pay for any personal ceremony that was organised by the jagirdar, the owner of the estate. Even the cost of post-death rituals of the jagirdar was extracted from the peasants. If they failed to pay any of these taxes or levies, peasants were harassed and punished publicly.

It was in the backdrop of this culture of extreme oppression that peasants of Bijolia decided to resist. The decision was taken during a public dinner event in the plateau region of Bijolia estate.

Beginning of the satyragraha

The peasants of Bijolia had gathered at Girdharpura village on the occasion of a mrityu-bhoj (dinner given on the 13th day after a death) of one elder villager. The gathered peasants talked about their daily oppression and grievances, and eventually decided to send a delegation to Maharana Fateh Singh of Mewar. After dodging the delegation for almost six months, the Maharana met the peasant leaders and decided to set up an inquiry under an assistant revenue officer. The officer stayed in Bijolia for almost six months and prepared a list of all arbitrary levies and taxes, and sent the report to the Maharana. The ruler, though, did not pay adequate attention to the report and asked his jagirdar to let go of a couple of taxes. Jagirdar Rao Krishna Singh accepted this reluctantly.

Later, Rao bribed a few peasant leaders and was able to break their unity. The two peasant leaders who succumbed to greed – Nanji Patel and Thakri Patel – were banished from Bijolia and their farms were destroyed. Emboldened by his victory, Rao introduced a new tax called chanwari – Rs 5 to be paid if any peasants’ daughter was getting married. As a mark of protest, the peasants did not arrange marriages for their daughters for the almost two years. In 1905, after a huge protest and the collective decision not to plough the jagirdar’s lands, the peasants won a momentary victory as chinawari was withdrawn and a limit placed on the share of crop revenue.

After Rao’s death in 1906, his relative Prithvi Singh became the chief. He withdrew all the previous relaxations and introduced a new tax called talwar lag (succession tax). The peasants protested against this, but the new chief did not pay heed to their demand. In response, the peasants again decided to not plough the Bijolia lands and instead work in nearby states. This created a famine situation in Bijolia, following which the new chief took severe repressive measures. The leaders of the movement were either banished or were put in jail.

The movement subsided with a few concessions, but the anger among the peasants continued to grow as new taxes were imposed on them when the First World War began. Up until now, Sadhu Sitaram was the leader of the peasants – but he was growing old and was looking for an able successor. That’s when he came in contact with a wandering young man in 1915 in Chittoor.

Enter Vijay Singh Pathik

Vijay Singh Pathik, whose original name was Bhoop Singh, was born in Bulandshahr district of present-day Uttar Pradesh in a Gurjar family. There is no information about his birth day or year. His grandfather was a commander in the army of Malagarh Riyasat and had been martyred during the 1857 revolt. He was initially schooled in a local school but soon moved to Indore after the death of his parents.

Vijay Singh Pathik. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In Indore, Bhoop came in contact with the young revolutionary Sachindranath Sanyal. Sanyal later introduced Bhoop to Rash Behari Bose and he soon became a part of the revolutionary movement, even participating in the 1912 plan to assassinate Viceroy Lord Hardinge during his ceremonial procession in Delhi. Bhoop was later deputed to Ajmer with the objective of procuring guns and bullets for the revolutionary party. For this purpose, he started to work in a railway workshop in Ajmer.

Bhoop along with Bhai Balmukund also organised and expanded the revolutionary movement in Rajasthan. During the planned Ghadar Mutiny of 1915, Bhoop was given the responsibility of capturing Ajmer, Beawar and Nasirabaad cantonments. Two days before the planned date, February 19, 1915, Bhoop was able to gather a force of thousands of soldiers and revolutionaries, and was waiting for a signal in a forest near the Kharwa railway station. However, the British got a whiff of the planned mutiny on February 19, which led to the arrest of several key people.

After this episode, Bhoop quickly disbanded the gathered force and was on the run. The British were able to corner him at Shikari Burj, Ajmer and demanded his surrender, but Bhoop refused and was ready to fight till his death. Fearing that masses might come out and join the rebels, the British Commissioner attempted to strike a truce, which was accepted by Bhoop and his associates. They were put under house arrest in the Todgarh fort.

But soon Bhoop was able to escape and was wandering in the hinterlands, since a majority of his comrades and revolutionary leaders were either arrested, on the run or in self-exile. During his underground days, Bhoop disguised himself as a wandering sadhu, formed a band of nationalist youth and opened two schools. It was during one of his days in exile that Bhoop Singh came in contact with Sadhu Sitaram Das, leader of the Bijolia peasants. Das invited Bhoop to Bijolia and requested him to assume the leadership role, which Bhoop accepted gladly. He then assumed his nom de guerre, Vijay Singh Pathik. The is name name by which he became famous and is remembered till today.

In 1916, Bhoop now known as Vijay Singh Pathik entered the Bijolia estate and gave a definitive turn to the peasant movement, which later on served as an inspiration for the Champaran satyagaraha launched by Mahatma Gandhi. In fact when Pathik met Gandhi in 1920 during the Nagpur conference of the Indian National Congress and asked him for advice, Gandhi replied, “What advice should I give you, you have done that which even I cannot do.”

The long struggle

With Pathik by his side, Das formed a Kisan Panchayat Board, which became the node for future peasant agitations. Pathik also created a Seva Samiti and started a school, and along with his fellow comrades undertook a massive study of revenue records of the Bijolia estate, toured villages during the nights, campaigned and prepared reports on the overall condition of villages. During the fall of 1916, the peasants of Bijolia refused to pay any taxes and simultaneously flooded the revenue office of Mewar with petitions against oppressive taxes and revenues. Under pressure, the Maharana of Mewar wanted to concede to the peasants’ demands but the British officials did not permit it. When the British Resident came to know about the entire affair, he persuaded the Maharana to issue an arrest warrant against Pathik – but Pathik escaped. He took residence in Umaji Khera from where he again assumed leadership of the movement.

Meanwhile, while the peasants had decided not to plough the lands of Bijolia, Pathik convinced them to revise their decision. He advised the peasants to form their own panchayats, look after crops and establish small industries, and influenced by Gandhi he initiated a charkha movement. In a sense, the peasants were able to run a parallel government in Bijolia. These developments only infuriated the Maharana and the British Resident, and massive police action was launched against the agitators. As police were looking for Pathik, he left Rajasthan and moved to Kanpur where he worked closely with Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi. Pathik and Vidyarthi published a series of articles on the struggle of Bijolia peasants which caught the attention of prominent Congress leaders. Tilak and Malviya then wrote letters to the Maharana of Mewar requesting him to accept the peasants’ demands.

The struggle dragged on and a stalemate was reached by the end of 1921. The Mewar state administration had now been paralysed for almost six years and it decided to concede to the peasants’ demands. In 1922, a conference between the state administration, British officials and peasant leaders was organised, and an agreement was reached according to which many small taxes were dropped and begar was only accepted for the Maharana.

This initial success and overall energy of the Bijolia peasant movement had inspired peasants of other estates to raise their voice against similar socio-economic exploitation. Soon the peasants of Begun, Bundi, Barad, Alwar, Shekhawati, Bharatpur and other regions began their own movements in consultation with the Rajasthan Sewa Sangh, which was formed by Pathik. The peasants of Begun began their struggle in 1920 and by the end of 1922, they were able to reach a similar settlement to that of Bijolia.

However, the British Resident was miffed with the development and dubbed it as Bolshevik settlement and deputed Commissioner G.C. Trench to Begun. In July 1923, Trench reached Raita village – the centre of the Begun peasant agitation – and unleashed massive violence in which 11 villagers died, 45 were injured and over 500 were arrested. The entire village was burned to ashes. This unprovoked violence only intensified the movement and under the leadership of Pathik, a new settlement was reached by the end of December 1923, ending begar and dropping many arbitrary taxes.

While Begun was in revolt, the jagirdar of Bijolia was planning to subvert the agreement of 1922. In 1923, old taxes were re-imposed and massive violence was unleashed. From 1923 to 1927, a series of protests happened and many settlements were reached only to be violated by the jagirdars. Meanwhile, Pathik was arrested and lodged in Udaipur Jail only to be released in 1928. By the time he came out, the Rajasthan Seva Sangh, the nodal organisation of the peasant agitation, was in disarray and a divided house. Disappointed with the squabbles over petty issues, Pathik withdrew from the organisation, which itself collapsed after some time. He moved to the United Provinces, but kept in touch with many peasant leaders. Pathik’s withdrawal brought many new leaders to the forefront and the struggle continued till 1941.

The Bijolia and other peasant movements were a long-drawn affair which went on with the strategy of ‘two steps back, one step forward’, in which many peasants lost their lives and suffered huge losses. The atrocities committed by the police of the princely states upon the peasants were immense and brutal. Women were lined up and their clothes were torn, peasants were made to lie on roads and horses were run over them, men were tied to poles and whipped, houses were burned to ashes. However, their patience and courage eventually paid off.

Epilogue: A few more words on Vijay Singh Pathik

Pathik did not receive any higher education. But despite this lack of formal education, Pathik emerged as an intense intellectual force cum institution builder. He had complete command over Hindi, English, Urdu, Bangla, Marathi, Gujarati and Sanskrit. In his career as a revolutionary peasant leader, Pathik launched a number of newspapers and established many institutions.

He founded the newspaper Rajasthan Kesari with Jamlal Bajaj, which was published from Warda, Gujarat. This newspaper became the voice of oppressed people from princely states of Rajasthan but soon the revolutionary content published by Pathik became intolerable for Bajaj and he was asked to leave. Following this, Pathik moved to Ajmer where he formed the Rajasthan Sewa Sangh which became the nodal organisation of the peasants’ movement and launched its journal, Navin Rajasthan. After it was banned in the princely states, he founded another journal, Tarun Rajasthan, and later Rajasthan Sandesh. After he was banished from Ajmer, Pathik moved to Agra and launched another journal, Nav-Sandesh.

Pathik was also an accomplished poet and playwright, whose poems and songs moved and inspired the masses in their struggle against oppressive princely state-British regime combo. He also published a 1,200-page-long research work on the history of republicanism in ancient India. Even though a lot of his works were either lost or destroyed, by the end of his career, Pathik had produced 30 volumes, excluding his articles and essays in newspapers. This vast amount of literature produced by Pathik, who went to school only till the primary level, shows his immense intellectual creativity produced in interaction with society and common people.

Through his immense writings and activism, Pathik infused a progressive nationalist consciousness among vast masses of Rajasthan. He gave a definite ideological and sharp political edge to the struggle of peasants and broader segments of people in princely states against feudalism and British imperialism. He was the vice-president and chief publicist of the All India States Peoples’ Conference (AISPC) or Praja Mandal, an organisation of people from all princely states of India.

Today, there are countless statues and institutions named after Vijay Singh Pathik dotting the map of Rajasthan. He was also given the title of Rashtriya Pathik. But despite of all these memorials, Pathik, a journalist, revolutionary, poet, satirist, playwright, propagandist and agitator, remains a marginalised figure in national memory. His name and the peasant movement he built and led have been reduced to mere ‘objective-type questions’ in state civil services exams of the Rajasthan state.

Today, as the farmers’ struggle at borders of Delhi against an adamant and apathetic state and its neoliberal tenets, it can be said that they are the successors of the same fighting spirit and patience which once found expression among the peasants of Bijolia and other principle states.

Harshvardhan is a research scholar at JNU. Shivam Mogha studies sociology at JNU and is co-editor of Trolley Times.

Peasants Revolt

There were very few revolts in Medieval England and the Peasants’ Revolt in June 1381 is considered by historians to be the worst case on record.

During the Medieval period, criminals faced such harsh punishments that a warning was often enough to prevent such revolts from occurring. Many notable locations in England also had castles filled with soldiers, making it unlikely peasants would consider rebelling.

However, in 1381 a peasant army from Kent and Essex successfully made its way into London and took the Tower of London captive. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the King’s Treasurer were both killed, and a 14-year-old King Richard II went to meet with peasants at Mile End to discuss their concerns.

Medieval painting of the peasants revolt

There were a number of reasons why the peasants had decided to ride into London:

  1. Firstly, as a result of the Black Death there were far few workers in the manors. In order to encourage their workers, many lords decided to let them go free and provide them with payment for their work in exchange for continuing loyalty. However, almost 35 years later, many peasants were beginning to worry that their lords would withdraw the privileges they had become used to, and were set to fight for their new rights.
  2. Many peasants were expected to work for free on church land for up to two days each week, leaving them unable to focus on the land that would provide their families with food. The peasants wanted to be free from this agreement and were given support by a Kent-based priest called John Ball.
  3. Richard II introduced a new tax known as the Poll Tax in 1380, which required every person on the tax register to pay 5p. The king asked for this tax to be paid three times in four years, and by 1381 the peasants were beginning to resent paying such a large sum to their king. Some were even forced to give away their seeds or tools if they couldn’t pull together the 5p, which resulted in serious problems later in the year.

In May 1381, a tax collector arrived in the village of Fobbing in Essex to discover why many peasants had neglected to pay their taxes, but villagers threw him (and the soldiers who arrived a month later) out. This marked the start of a turning point for the peasants, with surrounding villages beginning to follow suit.

It wasn’t long before a large group of peasants from across the region came together to oppose the king, led by Wat Tyler from Kent. A march towards London began, with peasants taking the opportunity to destroy tax records and government buildings as they went.

By mid-June, the peasants had begun to forget their original intentions and many spent their time getting drink and looting. Some were even known to murder any foreigners they came across in the city.

On 14 June, the young king made the decision to meet with the peasants at Mile End to discuss providing them with their demands in exchange for their departure. While this appealed to some, many decided to return to London and murder the Archbishop and Treasurer, cutting off their heads on Tower Hill as the king hid.

Still desperate to reach an agreement, Richard met with the peasants once more on 15 June at Smithfield. This is believed to have been the idea of Sir William Walworth, Lord Mayor, who wanted to remove the peasants without force to avoid fire in the wood-based city.

During the meeting with the Lord Mayor, Wat Tyler was killed. Although the events of the meeting are unclear, Tyler’s demise and the repeated promises of King Richard II encouraged the peasants to return to their homes.

The revolt finally ended in the summer of 1381, marked by hanging of John Ball and a declaration from the king that his promises were made under threat and so were not lawfully valid. Although the poll tax was withdrawn, the peasants were still forced to return to their lives under the control of the lord of their manor.

However, the Black Death had still left a mark on the labour force. Over the coming century, many peasants found they were able to demand more from their lords as a result of the small supply for workers.


In the sixteenth century, many parts of Europe had common political links within the Holy Roman Empire, a decentralized entity in which the Holy Roman Emperor himself had little authority outside of his own dynastic lands, which covered only a small fraction of the whole. At the time of the Peasants' War, Charles V, King of Spain, held the position of Holy Roman Emperor (elected in 1519). Aristocratic dynasties ruled hundreds of largely independent territories (both secular and ecclesiastical) within the framework of the empire, and several dozen others operated as semi-independent city-states. The princes of these dynasties were taxed by the Roman Catholic church. The princes stood to gain economically if they broke away from the Roman church and established a German church under their own control, which would then not be able to tax them as the Roman church did. Most German princes broke with Rome using the nationalistic slogan of "German money for a German church". [4]

Roman civil law Edit

Princes often attempted to force their freer peasants into serfdom by increasing taxes and introducing Roman civil law. Roman civil law advantaged princes who sought to consolidate their power because it brought all land into their personal ownership and eliminated the feudal concept of the land as a trust between lord and peasant that conferred rights as well as obligations on the latter. By maintaining the remnants of the ancient law which legitimized their own rule, they not only elevated their wealth and position in the empire through the confiscation of all property and revenues, but increased their power over their peasant subjects.

During the Knights' Revolt the "knights", the lesser landholders of the Rhineland in western Germany, rose up in rebellion in 1522–1523. Their rhetoric was religious, and several leaders expressed Luther's ideas on the split with Rome and the new German church. However, the Knights' Revolt was not fundamentally religious. It was conservative in nature and sought to preserve the feudal order. The knights revolted against the new money order, which was squeezing them out of existence. [5]

Luther and Müntzer Edit

Martin Luther, the dominant leader of the Reformation in Germany, initially took a middle course in the Peasants' War, by criticizing both the injustices imposed on the peasants, and the rashness of the peasants in fighting back. He also tended to support the centralization and urbanization of the economy. This position alienated the lesser nobles, but shored up his position with the burghers. Luther argued that work was the chief duty on earth the duty of the peasants was farm labor and the duty of the ruling classes was upholding the peace. He could not support the Peasant War because it broke the peace, an evil he thought greater than the evils the peasants were rebelling against. At the peak of the insurrection in 1525, his position shifted completely to support of the rulers of the secular principalities and their Roman Catholic allies. In Against the Robbing Murderous Hordes of Peasants he encouraged the nobility to swiftly and violently eliminate the rebelling peasants, stating,"[the peasants] must be sliced, choked, stabbed, secretly and publicly, by those who can, like one must kill a rabid dog." [6] After the conclusion of the Peasants War, he was criticized for his writings in support of the violent actions taken by the ruling class. He responded by writing an open letter to Caspar Muller, defending his position. However, he also stated that the nobles were too severe in suppression of the insurrection, despite having called for severe violence in his previous work. [7] Luther has often been sharply criticized for his position. [8]

Thomas Müntzer was the most prominent radical reforming preacher who supported the demands of the peasantry, including political and legal rights. Müntzer's theology had been developed against a background of social upheaval and widespread religious doubt, and his call for a new world order fused with the political and social demands of the peasantry. In the final weeks of 1524 and the beginning of 1525, Müntzer travelled into south-west Germany, where the peasant armies were gathering here he would have had contact with some of their leaders, and it is argued that he also influenced the formulation of their demands. He spent several weeks in the Klettgau area, and there is some evidence to suggest that he helped the peasants to formulate their grievances. While the famous Twelve Articles of the Swabian peasants were certainly not composed by Müntzer, at least one important supporting document, the Constitutional Draft, may well have originated with him. [9] Returning to Saxony and Thuringia in early 1525, he assisted in the organisation of the various rebel groups there and ultimately led the rebel army in the ill-fated Battle of Frankenhausen on 15 May 1525. [10] Müntzer's role in the Peasant War has been the subject of considerable controversy, some arguing that he had no influence at all, others that he was the sole inspirer of the uprising. To judge from his writings of 1523 and 1524, it was by no means inevitable that Müntzer would take the road of social revolution. However, it was precisely on this same theological foundation that Müntzer's ideas briefly coincided with the aspirations of the peasants and plebeians of 1525: viewing the uprising as an apocalyptic act of God, he stepped up as 'God's Servant against the Godless' and took his position as leader of the rebels. [11]

Luther and Müntzer took every opportunity to attack each other's ideas and actions. Luther himself declared against the moderate demands of the peasantry embodied in the twelve articles. His article Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants appeared in May 1525 just as the rebels were being defeated on the fields of battle.

Social classes in the 16th century Holy Roman Empire Edit

In this era of rapid change, modernizing princes tended to align with clergy burghers against the lesser nobility and peasants.

Princes Edit

Many rulers of Germany's various principalities functioned as autocratic rulers who recognized no other authority within their territories. Princes had the right to levy taxes and borrow money as they saw fit. The growing costs of administration and military upkeep impelled them to keep raising demands on their subjects. [12] The princes also worked to centralize power in the towns and estates. [13] Accordingly, princes tended to gain economically from the ruination of the lesser nobility, by acquiring their estates. This ignited the Knights' Revolt that occurred from 1522 through 1523 in the Rhineland. The revolt was "suppressed by both Catholic and Lutheran princes who were satisfied to cooperate against a common danger". [12]

To the degree that other classes, such as the bourgeoisie, [14] might gain from the centralization of the economy and the elimination of the lesser nobles' territorial controls on manufacture and trade, [15] the princes might unite with the burghers on the issue. [12]

Lesser nobility Edit

The innovations in military technology of the Late Medieval period began to render the lesser nobility (the knights) militarily obsolete. [15] The introduction of military science and the growing importance of gunpowder and infantry lessened the importance of heavy cavalry and of castles. Their luxurious lifestyle drained what little income they had as prices kept rising. They exercised their ancient rights in order to wring income from their territories. [14]

In the north of Germany many of the lesser nobles had already been subordinated to secular and ecclesiastical lords. [15] Thus, their dominance over serfs was more restricted. However, in the south of Germany their powers were more intact. Accordingly, the harshness of the lesser nobles' treatment of the peasantry provided the immediate cause of the uprising. The fact that this treatment was worse in the south than in the north was the reason that the war began in the south. [12]

The knights became embittered as their status and income fell and they came increasingly under the jurisdiction of the princes, putting the two groups in constant conflict. The knights also regarded the clergy as arrogant and superfluous, while envying their privileges and wealth. In addition, the knights' relationships with the patricians in the towns was strained by the debts owed by the knights. [16] At odds with other classes in Germany, the lesser nobility was the least disposed to the changes. [14]

They and the clergy paid no taxes and often supported their local prince. [12]

Clergy Edit

The clergy in 1525 were the intellectuals of their time. Not only were they literate, but in the Middle Ages they had produced most books. Some clergy were supported by the nobility and the rich, while others appealed to the masses. However, the clergy was beginning to lose its overwhelming intellectual authority. The progress of printing (especially of the Bible) and the expansion of commerce, as well as the spread of renaissance humanism, raised literacy rates, according to Engels. [17] Engels held that the Catholic monopoly on higher education was accordingly reduced. However, despite the secular nature of nineteenth century humanism, three centuries earlier Renaissance humanism had still been strongly connected with the Church: its proponents had attended Church schools.

Over time, some Catholic institutions had slipped into corruption. Clerical ignorance and the abuses of simony and pluralism (holding several offices at once) were rampant. Some bishops, archbishops, abbots and priors were as ruthless in exploiting their subjects as the regional princes. [18] In addition to the sale of indulgences, they set up prayer houses and directly taxed the people. Increased indignation over church corruption had led the monk Martin Luther to post his 95 Theses on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517, as well as impelling other reformers to radically re-think church doctrine and organization. [19] [20] The clergy who did not follow Luther tended to be the aristocratic clergy, who opposed all change, including any break with the Roman Church. [21]

The poorer clergy, rural and urban itinerant preachers who were not well positioned in the church, were more likely to join the Reformation. [22] Some of the poorer clergy sought to extend Luther's equalizing ideas to society at large.

Patricians Edit

Many towns had privileges that exempted them from taxes, so that the bulk of taxation fell on the peasants. As the guilds grew and urban populations rose, the town patricians faced increasing opposition. The patricians consisted of wealthy families who sat alone in the town councils and held all the administrative offices. Like the princes, they sought to secure revenues from their peasants by any possible means. Arbitrary road, bridge, and gate tolls were instituted at will. They gradually usurped the common lands and made it illegal for peasants to fish or to log wood from these lands. Guild taxes were exacted. No revenues collected were subject to formal administration, and civic accounts were neglected. Thus embezzlement and fraud became common, and the patrician class, bound by family ties, became wealthier and more powerful.

Burghers Edit

The town patricians were increasingly criticized by the growing burgher class, which consisted of well-to-do middle-class citizens who held administrative guild positions or worked as merchants. They demanded town assemblies made up of both patricians and burghers, or at least a restriction on simony and the allocation of council seats to burghers. The burghers also opposed the clergy, whom they felt had overstepped and failed to uphold their principles. They demanded an end to the clergy's special privileges such as their exemption from taxation, as well as a reduction in their numbers. The burgher-master (guild master, or artisan) now owned both his workshop and its tools, which he allowed his apprentices to use, and provided the materials that his workers needed. [23] F. Engels cites: "To the call of Luther of rebellion against the Church, two political uprisings responded, first, the one of lower nobility, headed by Franz von Sickingen in 1523, and then, the great peasant's war, in 1525 both were crushed, because, mainly, of the indecisiveness of the party having most interest in the fight, the urban bourgeoisie". (Foreword to the English edition of: 'From Utopy Socialism to Scientific Socialism', 1892)

Plebeians Edit

The plebeians comprised the new class of urban workers, journeymen, and peddlers. Ruined burghers also joined their ranks. Although technically potential burghers, most journeymen were barred from higher positions by the wealthy families who ran the guilds. [15] Thus their "temporary" position devoid of civic rights tended to become permanent. The plebeians did not have property like ruined burghers or peasants.

Peasants Edit

The heavily taxed peasantry continued to occupy the lowest stratum of society. In the early 16th century, no peasant could hunt, fish, or chop wood freely, as they previously had, because the lords had recently taken control of common lands. The lord had the right to use his peasants' land as he wished the peasant could do nothing but watch as his crops were destroyed by wild game and by nobles galloping across his fields in the course of chivalric hunts. When a peasant wished to marry, he not only needed the lord's permission but had to pay a tax. When the peasant died, the lord was entitled to his best cattle, his best garments and his best tools. The justice system, operated by the clergy or wealthy burgher and patrician jurists, gave the peasant no redress. Generations of traditional servitude and the autonomous nature of the provinces limited peasant insurrections to local areas. [ citation needed ]

Military organizations Edit

Army of the Swabian League Edit

The Swabian League fielded an army commanded by Georg, Truchsess von Waldburg, later known as "Bauernjörg" for his role in the suppression of the revolt. [24] He was also known as the "Scourge of the Peasants". [a] The league headquarters was in Ulm, and command was exercised through a war council which decided the troop contingents to be levied from each member. Depending on their capability, members contributed a specific number of mounted knights and foot soldiers, called a contingent, to the league's army. The Bishop of Augsburg, for example, had to contribute 10 horse (mounted) and 62 foot soldiers, which would be the equivalent of a half-company. At the beginning of the revolt the league members had trouble recruiting soldiers from among their own populations (particularly among peasant class) due to fear of them joining the rebels. As the rebellion expanded many nobles had trouble sending troops to the league armies because they had to combat rebel groups in their own lands. Another common problem regarding raising armies was that while nobles were obligated to provide troops to a member of the league, they also had other obligations to other lords. These conditions created problems and confusion for the nobles as they tried to gather together forces large enough to put down the revolts. [25]

Foot soldiers were drawn from the ranks of the landsknechte. These were mercenaries, usually paid a monthly wage of four guilders, and organized into regiments (haufen) and companies (fähnlein or little flag) of 120–300 men, which distinguished it from others. Each company, in turn, was composed of smaller units of 10 to 12 men, known as rotte. The landsknechte clothed, armed and fed themselves, and were accompanied by a sizable train of sutlers, bakers, washerwomen, prostitutes and sundry individuals with occupations needed to sustain the force. Trains (tross) were sometimes larger than the fighting force, but they required organization and discipline. Each landsknecht maintained its own structure, called the gemein, or community assembly, which was symbolized by a ring. The gemein had its own leader (schultheiss), and a provost officer who policed the ranks and maintained order. [24] The use of the landsknechte in the German Peasants' War reflects a period of change between traditional noble roles or responsibilities towards warfare and practice of buying mercenary armies, which became the norm throughout the 16th century. [26]

The league relied on the armored cavalry of the nobility for the bulk of its strength the league had both heavy cavalry and light cavalry, (rennfahne), which served as a vanguard. Typically, the rehnnfahne were the second and third sons of poor knights, the lower and sometimes impoverished nobility with small land-holdings, or, in the case of second and third sons, no inheritance or social role. These men could often be found roaming the countryside looking for work or engaging in highway robbery. [27]

To be effective the cavalry needed to be mobile, and to avoid hostile forces armed with pikes.

Peasant armies Edit

The peasant armies were organized in bands (haufen), similar to the landsknecht. Each haufen was organized into unterhaufen, or fähnlein and rotten. The bands varied in size, depending on the number of insurgents available in the locality. Peasant haufen divided along territorial lines, whereas those of the landsknecht drew men from a variety of territories. Some bands could number about 4,000 others, such as the peasant force at Frankenhausen, could gather 8,000. The Alsatian peasants who took to the field at the Battle of Zabern (now Saverne) numbered 18,000. [28]

Haufen were formed from companies, typically 500 men per company, subdivided into platoons of 10 to 15 peasants each. Like the landsknechts, the peasant bands used similar titles: Oberster feldhauptmann, or supreme commander, similar to a colonel, and lieutenants, or leutinger. Each company was commanded by a captain and had its own fähnrich, or ensign, who carried the company's standard (its ensign). The companies also had a sergeant or feldweibel, and squadron leaders called rottmeister, or masters of the rotte. Officers were usually elected, particularly the supreme commander and the leutinger. [28]

The peasant army was governed by a so-called ring, in which peasants gathered in a circle to debate tactics, troop movements, alliances, and the distribution of spoils. The ring was the decision-making body. In addition to this democratic construct, each band had a hierarchy of leaders including a supreme commander and a marshal (schultheiss), who maintained law and order. Other roles included lieutenants, captains, standard-bearers, master gunner, wagon-fort master, train master, four watch-masters, four sergeant-majors to arrange the order of battle, a weibel (sergeant) for each company, two quartermasters, farriers, quartermasters for the horses, a communications officer and a pillage master. [29]

Peasant resources Edit

The peasants possessed an important resource, the skills to build and maintain field works. They used the wagon fort effectively, a tactic that had been mastered in the Hussite Wars of the previous century. [30] Wagons were chained together in a suitable defensive location, with cavalry and draft animals placed in the center. Peasants dug ditches around the outer edge of the fort and used timber to close gaps between and underneath the wagons. In the Hussite Wars, artillery was usually placed in the center on raised mounds of earth that allowed them to fire over the wagons. Wagon forts could be erected and dismantled quickly. They were quite mobile, but they also had drawbacks: they required a fairly large area of flat terrain and they were not ideal for offense. Since their earlier use, artillery had increased in range and power. [31]

Peasants served in rotation, sometimes for one week in four, and returned to their villages after service. While the men served, others absorbed their workload. This sometimes meant producing supplies for their opponents, such as in the Archbishopric of Salzburg, where men worked to extract silver, which was used to hire fresh contingents of landsknechts for the Swabian League. [29]

However, the peasants lacked the Swabian League's cavalry, having few horses and little armour. They seem to have used their mounted men for reconnaissance. The lack of cavalry with which to protect their flanks, and with which to penetrate massed landsknecht squares, proved to be a long-term tactical and strategic problem. [32]

Historians disagree on the nature of the revolt and its causes, whether it grew out of the emerging religious controversy centered on Luther whether a wealthy tier of peasants saw their own wealth and rights slipping away, and sought to weave them into the legal, social and religious fabric of society or whether peasants objected to the emergence of a modernizing, centralizing nation state.

Threat to prosperity Edit

One view is that the origins of the German Peasants' War lay partly in the unusual power dynamic caused by the agricultural and economic dynamism of the previous decades. Labor shortages in the last half of the 14th century had allowed peasants to sell their labor for a higher price food and goods shortages had allowed them to sell their products for a higher price as well. Consequently, some peasants, particularly those who had limited allodial requirements, were able to accrue significant economic, social, and legal advantages. [33] Peasants were more concerned to protect the social, economic and legal gains they had made than about seeking further gains. [34]

Serfdom Edit

Their attempt to break new ground was primarily seeking to increase their liberty by changing their status from serfs, [35] such as the infamous moment when the peasants of Mühlhausen refused to collect snail shells around which their lady could wind her thread. The renewal of the signeurial system had weakened in the previous half century, and peasants were unwilling to see it restored. [36]

Luther's Reformation Edit

People in all layers of the social hierarchy—serfs or city dwellers, guildsmen or farmers, knights and aristocrats—started to question the established hierarchy. The so-called Book of One Hundred Chapters, for example, written between 1501 and 1513, promoted religious and economic freedom, attacking the governing establishment and displaying pride in the virtuous peasant. [37] The Bundschuh revolts of the first 20 years of the century offered another avenue for the expression of anti-authoritarian ideas, and for the spread of these ideas from one geographic region to another.

Luther's revolution may have added intensity to these movements, but did not create them the two events, Luther's Protestant Reformation and the German Peasants' War, were separate, sharing the same years but occurring independently. [38] However, Luther's doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers" could be interpreted as proposing greater social equality than Luther intended. Luther vehemently opposed the revolts, writing the pamphlet Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, in which he remarks "Let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly . nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as one must kill a mad dog if you do not strike him he will strike you."

Historian Roland Bainton saw the revolt as a struggle that began as an upheaval immersed in the rhetoric of Luther's Protestant Reformation against the Catholic Church but which really was impelled far beyond the narrow religious confines by the underlying economic tensions of the time. [39] [40]

Class struggle Edit

Friedrich Engels interpreted the war as a case in which an emerging proletariat (the urban class) failed to assert a sense of its own autonomy in the face of princely power and left the rural classes to their fate. [41]

During the 1524 harvest, in Stühlingen, south of the Black Forest, the Countess of Lupfen ordered serfs to collect snail shells for use as thread spools after a series of difficult harvests. Within days, 1,200 peasants had gathered, created a list of grievances, elected officers, and raised a banner. [42] Within a few weeks most of southwestern Germany was in open revolt. [42] The uprising stretched from the Black Forest, along the Rhine river, to Lake Constance, into the Swabian highlands, along the upper Danube river, and into Bavaria [43] and the Tyrol. [44]

Insurgency expands Edit

On 16 February 1525, 25 villages belonging to the city of Memmingen rebelled, demanding of the magistrates (city council) improvements in their economic condition and the general political situation. They complained of peonage, land use, easements on the woods and the commons, as well as ecclesiastical requirements of service and payment.

The city set up a committee of villagers to discuss their issues, expecting to see a checklist of specific and trivial demands. Unexpectedly, the peasants delivered a uniform declaration that struck at the pillars of the peasant-magisterial relationship. Twelve articles clearly and consistently outlined their grievances. The council rejected many of the demands. Historians have generally concluded that the articles of Memmingen became the basis for the Twelve Articles agreed on by the Upper Swabian Peasants Confederation of 20 March 1525.

A single Swabian contingent, close to 200 horse and 1,000-foot soldiers, however, could not deal with the size of the disturbance. By 1525, the uprisings in the Black Forest, the Breisgau, Hegau, Sundgau, and Alsace alone required a substantial muster of 3,000-foot and 300 horse soldiers. [24]

Twelve Articles (statement of principles) Edit

On 6 March 1525, some 50 representatives of the Upper Swabian Peasants Haufen (troops)—the Baltringer Haufen, the Allgäuer Haufen, and the Lake Constance Haufen (Seehaufen)—met in Memmingen to agree to a common cause against the Swabian League. [45] One day later, after difficult negotiations, they proclaimed the establishment of the Christian Association, an Upper Swabian Peasants' Confederation. [46] The peasants met again on 15 and 20 March in Memmingen and, after some additional deliberation, adopted the Twelve Articles and the Federal Order (Bundesordnung). [46] Their banner, the Bundschuh, or a laced boot, served as the emblem of their agreement. [46] The Twelve Articles were printed over 25,000 times in the next two months, and quickly spread throughout Germany, an example of how modernization came to the aid of the rebels. [46]

The Twelve Articles demanded the right for communities to elect and depose clergymen and demanded the utilization of the "great tithe" for public purposes after subtraction of a reasonable pastor's salary. [47] (The "great tithe" was assessed by the Catholic Church against the peasant's wheat crop and the peasant's vine crops. The great tithe often amounted to more than 10% of the peasant's income. [48] ) The Twelve Articles also demanded the abolition of the "small tithe" which was assessed against the peasant's other crops. Other demands of the Twelve Articles included the abolition of serfdom, death tolls, and the exclusion from fishing and hunting rights restoration of the forests, pastures, and privileges withdrawn from the community and individual peasants by the nobility and a restriction on excessive statute labor, taxes and rents. Finally, the Twelve Articles demanded an end to arbitrary justice and administration. [47]

Kempten Insurrection Edit

Kempten im Allgäu was an important city in the Allgäu, a region in what became Bavaria, near the borders with Württemberg and Austria. In the early eighth century, Celtic monks established a monastery there, Kempten Abbey. In 1213, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II declared the abbots members of the Reichsstand, or imperial estate, and granted the abbot the title of duke. In 1289, King Rudolf of Habsburg granted special privileges to the urban settlement in the river valley, making it a free imperial city. In 1525 the last property rights of the abbots in the Imperial City were sold in the so-called "Great Purchase", marking the start of the co-existence of two independent cities bearing the same name next to each other. In this multi-layered authority, during the Peasants' War, the abbey-peasants revolted, plundering the abbey and moving on the town. [b]

Battle of Leipheim Edit

On 4 April 1525, 5,000 peasants, the Leipheimer Haufen (literally: the Leipheim Bunch), gathered near Leipheim to rise against the city of Ulm. A band of five companies, plus approximately 25 citizens of Leipheim, assumed positions west of the town. League reconnaissance reported to the Truchsess that the peasants were well-armed. They had cannons with powder and shot and they numbered 3,000–4,000. They took an advantageous position on the east bank of the Biber. On the left stood a wood, and on their right, a stream and marshland behind them, they had erected a wagon fortress, and they were armed with arquebuses and some light artillery pieces. [49]

As he had done in earlier encounters with the peasants, the Truchsess negotiated while he continued to move his troops into advantageous positions. Keeping the bulk of his army facing Leipheim, he dispatched detachments of horse from Hesse and Ulm across the Danube to Elchingen. The detached troops encountered a separate group of 1,200 peasants engaged in local requisitions, and entered into combat, dispersing them and taking 250 prisoners. At the same time, the Truchsess broke off his negotiations, and received a volley of fire from the main group of peasants. He dispatched a guard of light horse and a small group of foot soldiers against the fortified peasant position. This was followed by his main force when the peasants saw the size of his main force—his entire force was 1,500 horse, 7,000-foot, and 18 field guns—they began an orderly retreat. Of the 4,000 or so peasants who had manned the fortified position, 2,000 were able to reach the town of Leipheim itself, taking their wounded with them in carts. Others sought to escape across the Danube, and 400 drowned there. The Truchsess' horse units cut down an additional 500. This was the first important battle of the war. [c]

Weinsberg Massacre Edit

An element of the conflict drew on resentment toward some of the nobility. The peasants of Odenwald had already taken the Cistercian Monastery at Schöntal, and were joined by peasant bands from Limpurg (near Schwäbisch Hall) and Hohenlohe. A large band of peasants from the Neckar valley, under the leadership of Jakob Rohrbach, joined them and from Neckarsulm, this expanded band, called the "Bright Band" (in German, Heller Haufen), marched to the town of Weinsberg, where the Count of Helfenstein, then the Austrian Governor of Württemberg, was present. [d] Here, the peasants achieved a major victory. The peasants assaulted and captured the castle of Weinsberg most of its own soldiers were on duty in Italy, and it had little protection. Having taken the count as their prisoner, the peasants took their revenge a step further: They forced him, and approximately 70 other nobles who had taken refuge with him, to run the gauntlet of pikes, a popular form of execution among the landsknechts. Rohrbach ordered the band's piper to play during the running of the gauntlet. [50] [51]

This was too much for many of the peasant leaders of other bands they repudiated Rohrbach's actions. He was deposed and replaced by a knight, Götz von Berlichingen, who was subsequently elected as supreme commander of the band. At the end of April, the band marched to Amorbach, joined on the way by some radical Odenwald peasants out for Berlichingen's blood. Berlichingen had been involved in the suppression of the Poor Conrad uprising 10 years earlier, and these peasants sought vengeance. In the course of their march, they burned down the Wildenburg castle, a contravention of the Articles of War to which the band had agreed. [52]

The massacre at Weinsberg was also too much for Luther this is the deed that drew his ire in Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants in which he castigated peasants for unspeakable crimes, not only for the murder of the nobles at Weinsberg, but also for the impertinence of their revolt. [53]

Massacre at Frankenhausen Edit

On 29 April the peasant protests in Thuringia culminated in open revolt. Large sections of the town populations joined the uprising. Together they marched around the countryside and stormed the castle of the Counts of Schwarzburg. In the following days, a larger number of insurgents gathered in the fields around the town. When Müntzer arrived with 300 fighters from Mühlhausen on 11 May, several thousand more peasants of the surrounding estates camped on the fields and pastures: the final strength of the peasant and town force was estimated at 6,000. The Landgrave, Philip of Hesse and Duke George of Saxony were on Müntzer's trail and directed their Landsknecht troops toward Frankenhausen. On 15 May joint troops of Landgraf Philipp I of Hesse and George, Duke of Saxony defeated the peasants under Müntzer near Frankenhausen in the County of Schwarzburg. [54]

The Princes' troops included close to 6,000 mercenaries, the Landsknechte. As such they were experienced, well-equipped, well-trained and of good morale. The peasants, on the other hand, had poor, if any, equipment, and many had neither experience nor training. Many of the peasants disagreed over whether to fight or negotiate. On 14 May, they warded off smaller feints of the Hesse and Brunswick troops, but failed to reap the benefits from their success. Instead the insurgents arranged a ceasefire and withdrew into a wagon fort.

The next day Philip's troops united with the Saxon army of Duke George and immediately broke the truce, starting a heavy combined infantry, cavalry and artillery attack. The peasants were caught off-guard and fled in panic to the town, followed and continuously attacked by the public forces. Most of the insurgents were slain in what turned out to be a massacre. Casualty figures are unreliable but estimates range from 3,000 to 10,000 while the Landsknecht casualties were as few as six (two of whom were only wounded). Müntzer was captured, tortured and executed at Mühlhausen on 27 May.

Battle of Böblingen Edit

The Battle of Böblingen (12 May 1525) perhaps resulted in the greatest casualties of the war. When the peasants learned that the Truchsess (Seneschal) of Waldburg had pitched camp at Rottenburg, they marched towards him and took the city of Herrenberg on 10 May. Avoiding the advances of the Swabian League to retake Herrenberg, the Württemberg band set up three camps between Böblingen and Sindelfingen. There they formed four units, standing upon the slopes between the cities. Their 18 artillery pieces stood on a hill called Galgenberg, facing the hostile armies. The peasants were overtaken by the League's horse, which encircled and pursued them for kilometres. [55] While the Württemberg band lost approximately 3,000 peasants (estimates range from 2,000 to 9,000), the League lost no more than 40 soldiers. [56]

Battle of Königshofen Edit

At Königshofen, on 2 June, peasant commanders Wendel Hipfler and Georg Metzler had set camp outside of town. Upon identifying two squadrons of League and Alliance horse approaching on each flank, now recognized as a dangerous Truchsess strategy, they redeployed the wagon-fort and guns to the hill above the town. Having learned how to protect themselves from a mounted assault, peasants assembled in four massed ranks behind their cannon, but in front of their wagon-fort, intended to protect them from a rear attack. The peasant gunnery fired a salvo at the League advanced horse, which attacked them on the left. The Truchsess' infantry made a frontal assault, but without waiting for his foot soldiers to engage, he also ordered an attack on the peasants from the rear. As the knights hit the rear ranks, panic erupted among the peasants. Hipler and Metzler fled with the master gunners. Two thousand reached the nearby woods, where they re-assembled and mounted some resistance. In the chaos that followed, the peasants and the mounted knights and infantry conducted a pitched battle. By nightfall only 600 peasants remained. The Truchsess ordered his army to search the battlefield, and the soldiers discovered approximately 500 peasants who had feigned death. The battle is also called the Battle of the Turmberg, for a watch-tower on the field. [57]

Siege of Freiburg im Breisgau Edit

Freiburg, which was a Habsburg territory, had considerable trouble raising enough conscripts to fight the peasants, and when the city did manage to put a column together and march out to meet them, the peasants simply melted into the forest. After the refusal by the Duke of Baden, Margrave Ernst, to accept the 12 Articles, peasants attacked abbeys in the Black Forest. The Knights Hospitallers at Heitersheim fell to them on 2 May Haufen to the north also sacked abbeys at Tennenbach and Ettenheimmünster. In early May, Hans Müller arrived with over 8,000 men at Kirzenach, near Freiburg. Several other bands arrived, bringing the total to 18,000, and within a matter of days, the city was encircled and the peasants made plans to lay a siege. [58]

Second Battle of Würzburg (1525) Edit

After the peasants took control of Freiburg in Breisgau, Hans Müller took some of the group to assist in the siege at Radolfzell. The rest of the peasants returned to their farms. On 4 June, near Würzburg, Müller and his small group of peasant-soldiers joined with the Franconian farmers of the Hellen Lichten Haufen. Despite this union, the strength of their force was relatively small. At Waldburg-Zeil near Würzburg they met the army of Götz von Berlichingen ("Götz of the Iron Hand"). An imperial knight and experienced soldier, although he had a relatively small force himself, he easily defeated the peasants. In approximately two hours, more than 8,000 peasants were killed.

Closing stages Edit

Several smaller uprisings were also put down. For example, on 23/24 June 1525 in the Battle of Pfeddersheim the rebellious haufens in the Palatine Peasants' War were decisively defeated. By September 1525 all fighting and punitive action had ended. Emperor Charles V and Pope Clemens VII thanked the Swabian League for its intervention.

The peasant movement ultimately failed, with cities and nobles making a separate peace with the princely armies that restored the old order in a frequently harsher form, under the nominal control of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, represented in German affairs by his younger brother Ferdinand. The main causes of the failure of the rebellion was the lack of communication between the peasant bands because of territorial divisions, and because of their military inferiority. [59] While Landsknechts, professional soldiers and knights joined the peasants in their efforts (albeit in fewer numbers), the Swabian League had a better grasp of military technology, strategy and experience.

The aftermath of the German Peasants' War led to an overall reduction of rights and freedoms of the peasant class, effectively pushing them out of political life. Certain territories in upper Swabia such as Kempton, Weissenau, and Tyrol saw peasants create territorial assemblies (Landschaft), sit on territorial committees as well as other bodies which dealt with issues that directly affected the peasants like taxation. [59] However the overall goals of change for these peasants, particularly looking through the lens of the Twelve Articles, had failed to come to pass and would remain stagnant, real change coming centuries later.

Marx and Engels Edit

Friedrich Engels wrote The Peasant War in Germany (1850), which opened up the issue of the early stages of German capitalism on later bourgeois "civil society" at the level of peasant economies. Engels' analysis was picked up in the middle 20th century by the French Annales School, and Marxist historians in East Germany and Britain. [60] Using Karl Marx's concept of historical materialism, Engels portrayed the events of 1524–1525 as prefiguring the 1848 Revolution. He wrote, "Three centuries have passed and many a thing has changed still the Peasant War is not so impossibly far removed from our present struggle, and the opponents who have to be fought are essentially the same. We shall see the classes and fractions of classes which everywhere betrayed 1848 and 1849 in the role of traitors, though on a lower level of development, already in 1525." [61] Engels ascribed the failure of the revolt to its fundamental conservatism. [62] This led both Marx and Engels to conclude that the communist revolution, when it occurred, would be led not by a peasant army but by an urban proletariat.

Later historiography Edit

Historians disagree on the nature of the revolt and its causes, whether it grew out of the emerging religious controversy centered on Martin Luther whether a wealthy tier of peasants saw their wealth and rights slipping away, and sought to re-inscribe them in the fabric of society or whether it was peasant resistance to the emergence of a modernizing, centralizing political state. Historians have tended to categorize it either as an expression of economic problems, or as a theological/political statement against the constraints of feudal society. [63]

After the 1930s, Günter Franz's work on the peasant war dominated interpretations of the uprising. Franz understood the Peasants' War as a political struggle in which social and economic aspects played a minor role. Key to Franz's interpretation is the understanding that peasants had benefited from the economic recovery of the early 16th century and that their grievances, as expressed in such documents as the Twelve Articles, had little or no economic basis. He interpreted the uprising's causes as essentially political, and secondarily economic: the assertions by princely landlords of control over the peasantry through new taxes and the modification of old ones, and the creation of servitude backed up by princely law. For Franz, the defeat thrust the peasants from view for centuries. [64]

The national aspect of the Peasants' Revolt was also utilised by the Nazis. For example, an SS cavalry division (the 8th SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer) was named after Florian Geyer, a knight who led a peasant unit known as the Black Company.

A new economic interpretation arose in the 1950s and 1960s. This interpretation was informed by economic data on harvests, wages and general financial conditions. It suggested that in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, peasants saw newly achieved economic advantages slipping away, to the benefit of the landed nobility and military groups. The war was thus an effort to wrest these social, economic and political advantages back. [64]

Meanwhile, historians in East Germany engaged in major research projects to support the Marxist viewpoint. [65]

Starting in the 1970s, research benefited from the interest of social and cultural historians. Using sources such as letters, journals, religious tracts, city and town records, demographic information, family and kinship developments, historians challenged long-held assumptions about German peasants and the authoritarian tradition.

This view held that peasant resistance took two forms. The first, spontaneous (or popular) and localized revolt drew on traditional liberties and old law for its legitimacy. In this way, it could be explained as a conservative and traditional effort to recover lost ground. The second was an organized inter-regional revolt that claimed its legitimacy from divine law and found its ideological basis in the Reformation.

Later historians refuted both Franz's view of the origins of the war, and the Marxist view of the course of the war, and both views on the outcome and consequences. One of the most important was Peter Blickle's emphasis on communalism. Although Blickle sees a crisis of feudalism in the latter Middle Ages in southern Germany, he highlighted political, social and economic features that originated in efforts by peasants and their landlords to cope with long term climate, technological, labor and crop changes, particularly the extended agrarian crisis and its drawn-out recovery. [15] For Blickle, the rebellion required a parliamentary tradition in southwestern Germany and the coincidence of a group with significant political, social and economic interest in agricultural production and distribution. These individuals had a great deal to lose. [66]

This view, which asserted that the uprising grew out of the participation of agricultural groups in the economic recovery, was in turn challenged by Scribner, Stalmetz and Bernecke. They claimed that Blickle's analysis was based on a dubious form of the Malthusian principle, and that the peasant economic recovery was significantly limited, both regionally and in its depth, allowing only a few peasants to participate. Blickle and his students later modified their ideas about peasant wealth. A variety of local studies showed that participation was not as broad based as formerly thought. [67] [68]

The new studies of localities and social relationships through the lens of gender and class showed that peasants were able to recover, or even in some cases expand, many of their rights and traditional liberties, to negotiate these in writing, and force their lords to guarantee them. [69]

The course of the war also demonstrated the importance of a congruence of events: the new liberation ideology, the appearance within peasant ranks of charismatic and military-trained men like Müntzer and Gaismair, a set of grievances with specific economic and social origins, a challenged set of political relationships and a communal tradition of political and social discourse.

Peasants&rsquo Revolt?

The popular term for the events of 1381 is terribly misleading. It is because of this name that one of the greatest myths about the revolt exists: that it was simply an uprising of ale-drenched oafs brandishing rusty agricultural implements. Nothing could be further from the truth: the revolt was neither an exclusively rural phenomenon, nor a rebellion of just peasants. For the ripples of discontent passed through the inhabitants of the great towns and cities of 14 th -century England, and the mob itself included members of the aristocracy and knightly class. Historians thus prefer to call it ‘The Great Revolt&rsquo.

It was not just peasants who were furious about the social and economic conditions in 1381. The eastern county of Norfolk is a case in point. Actively participating in the rebellion there was one Sir Roger Bacon, a knight from the manor of Baconsthorpe. As well as generally participating in the orgy of violence, he even took command of a battalion of rebels, and led them on a brutal assault against the city of Norwich. Another member of the knightly class involved was Thomas Gyssing, son of Sir Thomas, who had served as MP for Norfolk in 1380.

Although plenty of peasants were involved in the Great Revolt, they found many allies in the cities. In London, for example, the complicity and participation of the urban population was crucial to the uprising&rsquos success. In the early stages of the rebellion, when small protests were taking place in Essex and Kent, two London Butchers, Adam Attewell and Roger Harry, rode out to the counties to inform the rebels that they could count on support from the capital if they came to London. When they did come, Londoners were crucial in leading the way to important targets and providing intelligence.

Though closer economically to peasants than aristocrats, professionals such as Attewell and Harry were most certainly not serfs legally tied to a lord&rsquos estate. These men, whilst hardly wealthy, had a much greater degree of economic and political freedom than the peasants. Yet whilst they would have taken being called ‘peasants&rsquo as an insult, they were as much involved in the revolt as their poorer allies. As we will see over the coming items on the list, it is absolutely vital that images of the bumbling peasant-gang be purged from our minds when thinking of The Great Revolt of 1381.

Watch the video: Peasants Revolt. 3 Minute History