History is full of revolts, conflicts, and wars. Juliet Barker in her book 1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt examines the English clash that rocked the country through all levels of society.
In 1381, a boy king, Richard II, sat on the throne after his grandfather Edward III had died after a long reign. Many feared that his rich, powerful, and hated uncle John of Gaunt would attempt to seize the throne.
England was still struggling to recover from the population loss caused by the Black Death. The land belonged to large landholders — both private individuals and ecclesiastical entities — where much of the population worked as villeins or serfs with little or no freedom or opportunity to improve their lives. The landholders held firm to their domination of the villeins and did not want the system to change.
Others who lived in urban areas such as London were craftsmen or worked in service to large houses. Smaller towns survived as market towns for the surrounding rural area. England seemed to always be at war with either Scotland or France, so the biggest issue in these urban areas became the collection of taxes and other revenue to support the wars. By 1381, three separate taxes had been collected. All men and women over a certain age had to pay. Many felt these taxes to be unfair, or they clashed with unscrupulous tax collectors, and were ready to revolt. John of Gaunt received much of the blame for the poll tax collection as it paid for him to go to war.
Wat Tyler has been considered to be a leader of the revolt which began in June of 1381. The rebels started by attacking property of royal and high level officials who had been charged with collecting the poll tax. Houses, records, and other property were destroyed throughout southern England. Many people lost their lives and the strife continued. The authorities could do little to stop the violence. The rebellion spread to London. Prisoners were set free. The rebels demanded to meet with the king to present their grievances to him. Richard II met with the insurgents and granted their demands of freedom from their landlords and pardons for their recent actions.
The meeting with the monarch failed to stop the violence, which continued to spread throughout the country. No person or institution was safe from the wrath of the rebels. The hated John of Gaunt lost much of his property during the revolt, including Savoy Palace, his London home.
The authorities were finally able to stop the rebellion, and some leaders lost their lives. The King rescinded his promises of freedom for the serfs and many went back to their former estates. The King tried during the course of his reign to bring freedom to the villeins, but Parliament disagreed. One permanent change brought by the Peasants’ Revolt was that no one tried to force another poll tax on the population.
In the end, nothing much changed for the daily life of the people of England. The aristocracy still forced peasants to work their land, but the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 shook England to its core. Once order had been restored and the leaders punished, it remained in popular history as a display of what ordinary citizens could attempt against established institutions. Their failure to achieve their goals did not matter as history cheered on what might have been.
About the Author
Judy Klamm is a reference librarian in Central Reference. She has written book reviews for Library Journal and various Presbyterian publications.