The English Peasants’ Revolt Gave Birth to a Revolutionary Tradition

In 1381, English peasants and the urban poor rose up against feudal domination and briefly took control of London. Their revolt against the established order was crushed by brutal force, but it left behind the idea of a world without masters.

Depiction of the peasants’ revolt led by Wat Tyler in 1381. A meeting between Wat Tyler and the revolutionary priest John Ball is depicted. Detail, miniature of the fifteenth century by Jean Froissart. (Prisma / UIG / Getty Images)

The English Rising of 1381 saw peasants and townspeople rebel against the poll tax imposed to pay for the king’s wars in France. The rebels converged rapidly on London, mainly from Essex and Kent, and for a brief time were able to impose themselves on the government of the realm.

Their demands were not confined to the abolition of the tax. They wanted the end of serfdom, and effectively of the whole secular and religious aristocracy, barring the king himself. If they had won, this would have turned England into a kind of peasant confederation, with the monarchy stripped of its feudal power, reduced to the role of arbiter between autonomous local communities.

There was to be “no law within the realm save the law of Winchester,” the rebels proclaimed, apparently meaning the abolition of all but local government. This was an ambitious, not to say revolutionary, program, and one that appears to be without precedent in popular demands before this point.

Even so, the rebels and their aims did not come out of the blue sky. The movement of 1381 was rooted in the development of popular protests, and their entanglement with elite conflicts, going back for over two hundred years.

The Law of Freedom

The struggles of townspeople, particularly Londoners, are relatively visible, due to the interconnections between elite politics and the efforts of Londoners in the twelfth century to win self-government, as well as the striking social revolt of poorer Londoners under William Longbeard. The discontents of rural people appear much less clearly in the historical record.

While peasant rebellion on the scale of 1381 is largely a late-medieval phenomenon in Europe, sporadic unrest must have been a constant feature of feudal society. It is not until the thirteenth century, with the increasing survival of judicial records, that we can get a glimpse of many of these instances of unrest. As soon as we examine these records, the peasants belie their undeserved reputation for engaging in revolts that were merely spontaneous and reactive, or “elemental” in the words of some historians.

In one case, some villagers banded together to take legal action, which would have been very expensive, and alternated that tactic with the use of combined force against their lord. First, in 1242, the peasants of Brampton in Huntingdonshire obtained a letter patent to prevent their lord from increasing feudal dues. Then, when it looked as if he was going to ignore this, they armed themselves with axes and staves and chased his bailiffs all the way back to Huntingdon. Afterward, they once again took up legal action to defend themselves. For these people, there was no artificial separation between due process and militancy.

There is a widespread misconception of the Middle Ages as a period of lawless power. Yet while the monarchy did not have a monopoly on violence, law and custom were real constraints on the actions of even the most powerful.

Law is always contradictory, for while its primary purpose is to uphold and legitimate the rule of the exploiting class, its necessary drive toward universality opens up strategies for the exploited to defend themselves. When the barons were able to impose Magna Carta on King John in 1215, in order to restrain the arbitrary power of the monarchy over their own class, this also gave peasants and townspeople an avenue to struggle for more rights of their own.

For this reason, Londoners were at the fore in supporting the baronial party, in the process securing greater recognition of London’s corporate rights, as well as those of other towns, in the first version of Magna Carta. The barons only intended this charter to protect their own position against the monarchy’s power, but they needed to justify their actions and appeal for wider support. As a result, they began to use the language of the “community of the realm,” as if they stood for wider interests than their own.

The royal party responded in kind, with the result that successive iterations of Magna Carta gradually extended the rights it had enshrined beyond the nobility. In 1225, Henry III’s new version of the charter extended some important rights to unfree peasants. Feudal lords found that in limiting the ability of the king to act arbitrarily, they had also undermined their own jurisdictions, because the principles and practices that applied in royal courts tended to be taken as applying in all lesser courts as well.

Magna Carta had also established an assembly that was to provide “the common counsel of the kingdom” to give assent to taxation; this was the origin of the English parliament. It was to consist only of archbishops, bishops, abbots, and the greatest barons, who held their lands directly from the king.

Even London was excluded: if the barons prevented the king from freely taxing towns under his authority, then the lords themselves might be similarly prevented from raising revenues from the boroughs under their own jurisdictions. However, Londoners again supported the baronial party in the revolt of 1263, and by 1265 towns were being included in the kingdom’s assemblies, as a parliament of commons and lords began to take shape.

Buildup to the Rising

The persistent conflicts between king and barons were opening up spaces through which commoners could assert themselves and claim the right to participate in political life. The possibility of legalistic avenues to struggle against their lords continued to inspire peasants and townspeople into the fourteenth century.

In 1326–27, the people of St Albans claimed rights against the abbey there. This was on the basis not only of a charter from Henry I’s administration (1100–1135), but also a creative local tradition that liberties had been granted by the eighth-century King Offa of Mercia.

In 1377, at least forty villages from Sussex to Dorset formed some kind of confederation, and with legal help, obtained “exemplifications” from the eleventh-century Domesday Book as proof of their freedom from serfdom and exemption from feudal dues. This movement caused enough concern for a panicked petition to be sent to Parliament about the looming possibility of a devastating peasant revolt along the lines of the 1358 Jacquerie in France.

Both peasants and townspeople were developing concrete ideas about the rights they should have, and strategies to win them. Socially dissenting religious views were also spreading widely by the fourteenth century, best illustrated by William Langland’s long narrative poem, Piers Plowman. The name, Piers Plowman, was even used as a moniker by the rebels of 1381 themselves.

John Ball, a poor priest and radical preacher, was freed from imprisonment in Canterbury by the rebel army early in the Rising. He preached a social-revolutionary sermon to the rebel host on Blackheath, outside London, with the famous line: “When Adam delved, and Eve span, who then was the Gentleman?”

An Organized Rebellion

The rising of 1381 marked a major step forward in the radicalism of popular demands. There was also a much greater degree of coordination across substantial areas of the country among peasants, artisans, and townspeople.

Although the revolt began simultaneously in Kent and Essex, the rebel hosts converged quickly upon London. The civil wars of the thirteenth century and the evolution of Parliament had made the city the clear political center of the kingdom. The rural rebels clearly understood that to effect major social and political change, it was essential to capture not only the king, but this center too.

There is a good deal of evidence, which historians rarely acknowledge, that the rising across at least the two counties of Kent and Essex was planned beforehand. The main sequence of the risings began on the very same day, June 2, at two widely separated points, and the movements of the rebel bands, first to the country towns and then to London, were synchronized and highly effective in overwhelming the ability of the authorities and landowners to respond.

If we accept the evidence for prior planning, we still need to ask how the rebels achieved this scale of organization. It seems likely that London was not merely the target of the rebels but had also served as the coordinating point for organizers. This would have been natural, as the relatively commercialized economy of the southeast already centered on the city.

In the judicial records following the revolt, there were accusations that some of the aldermen of London had been complicit in it. While these charges were probably just the result of factional quarrels within the elite, the proceedings carry with them a substantial assumption that the revolt had been organized with the involvement of Londoners.

For example, one accusation claimed that a certain Adam atte Welle, a master butcher, had

travelled into Essex fourteen days before the arrival of the rebels from that country in the city of London; there Adam incited and encouraged the rebels of Essex to come to London. . . . Afterwards . . . Adam brought the Essex men into London.

This accusation too could have been false, but it does reveal what was thought to be plausible in the aftermath of the revolt.

One of the chroniclers, Jean Froissart, is the most inclined to identify the long-term causes of the revolt in the conflicts between serfs and lords. He also foregrounds the organizational role of Londoners in making common cause with rural people in class terms:

Of [John Ball’s] words and deeds there were much people in London informed, such as had great envy at them that were rich and such as were noble; and then they began to speak among them and said how the realm of England was right evil governed, and how gold and silver was taken from them by them that were named noblemen: so thus these unhappy men of London began to rebel and assembled them together, and sent word to the foresaid countries that they should come to London and bring their people with them, promising them how they should find London open to receive them and the commons of the city to be of the same accord, saying how they would do so much to the king that there should not be one bondman in all England.

Froissart probably overestimates the degree to which the townspeople were the animating force behind the revolt, but he is the only chronicler to give a plausible context for what happened when the rebels reached London.

Storming the Gates

Whether they were coming from Essex or Kent, the rebels needed to be able to gain access through the gates to the city, as a siege would have been out of the question. The whole enterprise depended upon their ability to get those gates to open.

Froissart tell us that the mayor, William Walworth, “and divers other rich burgesses of the city,” tried to have the gates of London closed. However, there was a large number of Londoners who shared the “unhappy opinions” of the rebels — more than thirty thousand, according to Froissart.

The Anonimalle Chronicle, whose author may have been an eyewitness, reveals the cooperation between the men of Kent and the poor of the South London suburb, Southwark. First, the rebels broke into the Marshalsea prison and freed the inmates, many of whom were there for crimes related to the nonpayment of feudal dues. They then went on to destroy “all the houses of the jurors and professional informers belonging to the Marshalsea.”

Actions of this kind would have depended upon local knowledge but were accomplished at great speed, indicating that local allies were ready and waiting to give direction to the rebels. This would certainly have required prior planning and coordination.

The same chronicle recounts the taking of London Bridge. The details again suggest that there would have to have been organizing in advance to ensure the bridge could be overrun with such speed that the nobility and the city elite would not be able to respond effectively:

The mayor was ready before them and had the chain drawn up and the bridge lifted to prevent their passage. And the commons of Southwark rose with the others and cried to the keepers of the said bridge to lower it and let them enter, or otherwise they would be undone. And for fear of their lives, the keepers let them enter, greatly against their will.

Overwhelming the gates would have been impossible without this kind of support, so the rebels of Kent and Essex must have had strong assurances that allies were waiting in London and would help them to ensure the success of their very dangerous endeavor.

Legacies of 1381

Taking London was the major success of the Rising, but the rebels subsequently were less effective in maintaining their cohesion or in capturing and controlling the king. The result was that the revolt was defeated and its leaders killed or executed.

While the rebels failed to achieve their revolutionary aims of abolishing serfdom, the church hierarchy, and the nobility, serfdom itself went into an inexorable decline thereafter. There were various contributing factors behind this. But the shock of the revolt for the ruling class, and their worries that such an event could occur again, would certainly have played a major part in the willingness of lords to let feudal dues and services fall by the wayside.

As well as this social impact, there was also a legacy in terms of political ideas. The concept of the community of the realm, or commonwealth, that the barons had introduced in their conflict with the monarchy could now be conceived as one without the feudal power of either lords or king — that is, without a ruling class altogether. The revolutionary ambitions of the Rising have not been forgotten ever since.