The villagers feared government retribution and sent word out to other rural leaders in nearby villages, they banded together at a meeting in Bocking, Essex on June 2nd, 1381, swearing to destroy the system that kept them in perpetual servitude, live according to their own laws and they formulated future plans of action. Attempts by the Chief of Justice, Robert Bealknap and soldiers sent by the 14-year-old King Richard II to arrest the perpetrators and re-establish order were also met with violence.
As the rebellion spread throughout the rest of Essex and into Kent, the dissidents appear to have been very selective in their targets amidst the violence, burning financial records of the sheriff’s and the landlord’s manorial records across both counties, which proved their claims over the rebels. As the rising spread to central Essex, the escheator was murdered, the houses of Sir Robert Hales, the king’s treasurer and Sir John Sewale, the sheriff destroyed and there were some deaths, mostly sheriffs, justices, and tax collectors, who represented the Crown and the magistracy.
It was around this point that Wat Tyler entered the affray, possibly a former soldier from Essex, perhaps a sometime highwayman, who became a rural-leader and later the effective leader of the revolt. He appears to have had a certain amount of charisma and the qualities of leadership, demonstrated in uniting the rebellion for a march on London with a set of political aims. He would be the figure who would personally set-out the grievances of the rebels with the king and demand a better deal for the serfdom. He began by attacking the castle, other properties and executing those loyal to the crown at Canterbury, in Kent, freeing prisoners there and at Rochester castle, as well as the radical, roving preacher, John Ball from Maidstone prison.
The movement was joined by other villagers from all corners of the southeast of England, including Suffolk and East Anglia, where revolts had also been raised and two bands of the rebels began their march on June, 2nd, in a well-organized and coordinated pincer movement to the outskirts of London, at Blackheath and the Mile End, respectively, armed with weapons including sticks, battle axes, old swords and bows. During their march, they had encountered the King’s mother, Lady Joan, making her way to London for safety, who was assailed by various verbal insults concerning her relatives, but not subjected to any physical harm.
Their strategy, agreed upon at Bocking, was to air their grievances with the young king and ask for a better deal, as they did not personally blame him for the unjust laws and poll-taxes, believing instead that he had been badly advised by corrupt officials, namely Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, these two being the real focus of their ire.
Word of the rebels’ march to London reached the ears of King Richard II (his reign 22 June 1377 – 29 September 1399), at Windsor Castle on the night of 10 June, a day before their arrival and for his own safety he travelled by boat down the River Thames to take up residence in the secure fortress of the Tower of London, later joined there by his mother and several desiccated advisors; Archbishop Sudbury, the Lord High Treasurer Sir Robert Hales, the Earls of Arundel, Salisbury and Warwick, the mayor of London, William Walworth and several other senior nobles. They Discussed ways to deal with and put down the revolt, but realized that they had been caught off-guard, only having several hundred troops available at home. It is the accepted opinion of historians that England was relatively ill-policed in the late 14th century.
Richard sent forth a delegation from the Tower of London, headed by Thomas Brinton, the Bishop of Rochester, to hear the demands of the rebels, negotiate with them and use his powers of persuasion to quell the rebellion, but the rebels rejected his proposals and prepared themselves to march-on. The rebels finally had their first meeting with Richard, on June 13, demanding the heads of John of Gaunt and various other “traitors”; the chancellor, the treasurer, and the chief justice. When Richard refused, the rebels became frustrated by what they saw as Richard stalling for time to gather reinforcements.
At Blackheath, on the morning of June 13th, John Ball, recently sprung from Maidstone prison, had also delivered his famous speech in opposition to serfdom and the hierarchy of the church, increasing the fervour of the crowd.
(Pictured above, John Ball delivers his rousing speech)
Across London bridge they marched on 13th June to lay siege to the town, passing through the gates unchallenged, as Wat Tyler seems to have lost control of discipline, having always urged restraint, the situation reportedly made worse by the temptations of the ale houses. Shouting “burn and kill” they attacked the prisons at Southwark, Newgate, the Fleet and the Marshalsea, releasing the prisoners and rousing them to their cause, their numbers swelling to an estimated 60-70 thousand in some sources. On Fleet Street, they attacked the Temple, legal buildings and offices, destroying the tax and legal records inside, beheading any official that dared to stop them. The streets of the Square Mile were soon to be littered with corpses, as they beheaded lawyers and clergymen and murdered 150-160 foreigners, notably the Flemish and Italians. Lambeth Palace, home of the Archbishop of Canterbury was set-on fire, but their main focus of disquiet would be the Savoy Palace, home to John of Gaunt, the architect of the hated poll-tax, which was ransacked and burnt to the ground. The Savoy is documented to have contained such quantities of silver and gold vessels and solid gold, that five carts would barely suffice to carry them, estimated to have valued about £10,000, in the late 14th century.
At Mile End, on June 14th, King Richard met with the rebels again and acceded to their demands for the beheading of traitors and the abolition of serfdom and for a standard rent, but whilst this meeting was taking place about 400 rebels breached the Tower of London, as the drawbridges and portcullis gates had not been raised after the king’s departure, finding Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Robert Hales, the Treasurer, William Appleton, John of Gaunt’s physician, and John Legge, a royal sergeant. The rebels murdered them before summarily beheading them on Tower Hill and placing their heads on spikes on London Bridge. The rebels continued to rove around the city until nightfall, seeking-out and beheading anyone else associated with John of Gaunt, or the legal system. King Richard did not return to the Tower of London that night, spending the night in hiding for fear of his life.
(Pictured above, the skull of Simon Sudbury, taken down from a spike on London Bridge and now displayed at St Gregory Church, in Suffolk)
On June 15th, Richard and his 200-strong bodyguard of lords and knights rode out to Smithfield to meet the rebels, having spent the night praying at Westminster Abbey and after Wat Tyler was called-out from the crowd, Richard rode-out to meet him with a small retinue. Tyler seems to have demanded more from than previous agreements made by the king at Mile End; there was to be a complete abolition of serfdom and any forms of lordship, a disendowment of the church and its hierarchy. The king conceded on these points and the satisfied peasants were urged to disperse and return home, but there are conflicting accounts as to what happened next. An account suggests that the king’s company objected to Tyler’s lack of deference by the rude and blunt manner in which Tyler addressed the king and the rough and uncouth display of taking a deep draught from a flagon of ale in the king’s sight and requesting a recharge and that this provoked their attack on him, or rather Tyler’s menacing the king with a knife; others that the king and his ministers had planned to kill Tyler beforehand anyway. Tyler was killed by the Mayor of London, Walworth, in some accounts, others name a squire Ralph Standish, but Tyler was struck twice with a sword and run-through three-times by the king’s bodyguard, the king riding towards the rebels shouting, “You shall have no captain but me. Just follow me to the fields without, and then you can have what you want”
(Pictured above, a depiction of Wat Tyler being killed at Smithfield)
With the killing of Wat Tyler the rebellion was over, the rebels had lost their leader, the royal forces regained the initiative, as order in London was restored and the wider rebellion was suppressed. The peasants assumed their former conditions of service and some historians view the Peasant’s Revolt as a passing episode, although foreign excursions were scaled-back and the tax levy alleviated. The authorities were also put on notice that excessive and overbearing measures by royal officials could lead to further unrest. Other than a handful of legal proceedings, there was little appetite for retribution against those who would played a part in the rebellion. The conditions of serfdom were to decline shortly after the revolt, but for economic reasons rather then any political conversions on the road to Damascus.
The reign of Richard II was to end on a rather sour note. He was opposed and overthrown as a result of his tyranny and misgovernment. He is thought to have starved to death, or been reduced to a shambling beggar, afflicted by mental-illness.