The Great Revolt of June, 1381

Edmund Fryde takes a look at a major English medieval rebellion with far-reaching consequences.

E.B. Fryde | Published in History Today

The Great Revolt of 1381 began in south-west Essex sometime between late May and June 2nd. It was sudden and unpremeditated. Later, some of the higher clergy tried to attribute it to a vast conspiracy by the 'lollard' followers of the arch-heretic, John Wycliffe, but modern research has disposed of that particular explanation. Within the space of a week much of southeastern England was engulfed in a fierce revolt and by the middle of June it had spread further to East Anglia. Throughout these most populous and prosperous regions of England royal officials lawyers, landowners and their agents and other notables were everywhere in flight or in hiding. Between the early hours of June 13th and the middle of June 15th the rebels controlled the City of London. The rising influenced a succession of later popular revolts for over a century.

The rising of 1381 occurred after thirty-three years of economic and social upheaval caused by a Plague epidemic in 1348-49 followed by three more generalised epidemics in 1361, 1369 and 1374-75 and by a severe famine in 1370. In the Parliament of 1376 the Commons asserted that 'there is not a third part of the people or of other things that there used to be'. We realise today that they were exaggerating but they themselves clearly did not think so. The Commons also declared that the country was 'greatly impoverished and destroyed'. In spite of these disasters the Anglo-French conflict - which we now call The Hundred Years' War - continued between 1349 and 1360 and revived again after 1369. Its persistence was bound to produce widespread troubles in both countries. The risings in France were more numerous and terrible in their effects than the English Revolt of 1381.

Between 1369 and the revolts of 1381, despite very heavy taxation, the English suffered continuous defeats and the South-East, including the areas that later rebelled, was repeatedly ravaged by French naval raids. The population felt betrayed by its government. The fourteen-year-old King, Richard II, was not blamed personally but the rebels demanded the execution of the traitors around the King. Two of these unfortunate men, the Chancellor (Archbishop Sudbury of Canterbury) and the Treasurer were murdered by the rebels after they had broken into the Tower of London on June 14th.

The risings were precipitated by an exceptionally oppressive tax needed to finance two separate military expeditions in 1381. At a time when the daily wage of an unskilled labourer might not exceed 1 1/2d, a levy of 12d was imposed on all persons from the age of fifteen upwards. Out of some 1,300.000 taxpayers liable to pay this poll tax, over half a million were missing from the initial tax returns of its collectors. This passive resistance to taxation might be described as the first of the two Great Revolts in 1381. The evasion was highest, approaching half the population, in the poorest parts of England - the six south-western counties and the North of England. No serious disturbances occurred there, however because the government concentrated on recovering more money only from the more populous parts of England. Its commissions of enquiry into evasion precipitated the risings in the prosperous south-eastern region.

On the morning of June 12th, King Richard II travelled down the Thames in the royal barge for a meeting with the rebels of Kent and Essex, east of London. They seemed so menacing that the King's councillors persuaded Richard not to land. Instead, he sent a message offering to negotiate again at Windsor Castle on June 17th. Clearly his advisers did not expect that within a few hours rebels could be blockading the King himself within the Tower of London.

The rebels were admitted into London during the following night, not through any treachery but because Mayor Walworth and his aldermen despaired of keeping them out. The rebels were famished and desperate. Much of London's populace sympathized with them and if they had been left to storm into London, a sack of the city might have followed. Abundant food and drink was offered to them after they had entered peaceably. During the next two-and-a-half days they were able to work their will in London. The official City account conveys the horror of these days: 'Hardly was there a street in the city in which there were not bodies lying, of those who had been slain. Some of the houses also in the said city, were pulled down, and others in the suburbs destroyed, and some, too, burnt.’

At a meeting of the Royal Council in the Tower on the evening of June 13th Walworth urged a sudden night attack on the rebels. Leading Londoners had marshalled for the purpose and had concealed armed retainers within their houses. But the risks seemed too great. The only alternative was to continue parleying with the rebels. At a meeting at Mile End on June 14th Richard II granted to the men of Essex and Hertfordshire the abolition of serfdom and everything else that they had demanded and persuaded them to return to their homes. The following day Richard met the remaining rebels much depleted in numbers at Smithfield. Their leader, Wat Tyler, unwittingly played into Walworth's hands by behaving insolently. Walworth mortally wounded him and then hastened into the city to bring out the forces kept in readiness there. Leaderless terrified and poorly armed the rebels were surrounded and begged for mercy.

Edmund Fryde is Professor of History at University College of Wales, Aberystwyth.