The Black Death cut a scythe across Europe between 1348-1351, decimating the English population and leaving around thirty per cent of the people of England dead in its wake.
The death rate among the peasantry was particularly large, in the aftermath of the plague, land was plentiful and manpower in much shorter supply. The surviving peasantry found they could exploit the situation to demand larger payments for their labours. Prices had risen since the Black Death, however wages had not. In attempt to halt this practice, the government responded with emergency legislation and passed the Statute of Labourers in 1351, which forced the peasants to work for the same wages as before and gave landowners the right to insist on labour services being performed, which resulted in makiing the peasant's lot an even harder one. They deeply resented these attempts to limit their wages and had no intention of giving up their new found bargaining power.
On the death of King Edward III in 1377, his grandson Richard II, (pictured left) a boy of ten, had succeeded to the English throne. During the period of Richard's minority, the government was led by his uncle John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and a royal council. To pay for the costly continuation of the long drawn out wars with France, in 1377, Gaunt and the royal council imposed a new tax, known as the Poll Tax, each person over the age of 15 had to pay one shilling. The tax was much resented as the peasants could ill afford to pay the amounts demanded by the government and it caused severe hardship. The Poll Tax was applied three times in four years, the Poll Tax of 1380 was particularly hated, as it took no account of individual wealth and demanded the same sum from all, rich or poor. By 1380, the peasants had had enough and many were avoiding paying the tax by hiding from the government's tax collectors.
The clergy also, had been badly hit by the Black Death, and many of the new clergy were poorly educated. The Church owned vast amounts of land, and the abbots and bishops sided with the barons against the peasants. Many peasants had to labour without pay on church land, sometimes up to two days a week. A number of priests preached against the accepted heirarchy of medieval society, amongst these was John Ball, a radical preacher of Colchester, and a native of St. Albans in Hertfordshire. Ball's sermons criticising the feudal system angered his bishop and in 1366, he was removed from his post as the priest of St James' Church in Colchester. Undeterred, Ball continued preaching, in response, the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered his arrest and he was imprisoned in Maidstone Castle.
On reciept of the Poll Tax returns for 1380, the Royal Council discovered that the amount collected was less than previous years. Tax collectors were again dispatched, with orders to collect the full amounts. One of these tax collectors, Thomas Bampton, a member of Parliament and a Justice of the Peace arrived at the village of Fobbing in Essex, and summoned the peasants of Fobbing and nearby Stanford and Corningham to appear before him. The village's representative, one Thomas Baker, stated that the tax had already been paid and that no more money would be forthcoming. When Bampton tried to arrest Baker, violence broke out. The result was a riot, Bampton and his men were driven from the Fobbing. Three of Bampton's servants were killed and Bampton himself was forced to flee. Sir Robert Belknap, a Chief Justice, who was sent to calm the situation, experienced a similar fate to Bampton. News of the riot spread, the peasants of Essex rose up, banded together and turned on the landowners. Manor houses were burnt down, and the records of taxes, labour duties and debts destroyed.
On 4 June, the rebels gathered at Bocking, the Essex peasants, numbering perhaps a few thousand, marched towards London to present their complaints to the young king, the common people did not blame Richard for their grievances, their anger instead focused on John of Gaunt, Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury and others of Richard's advisors. One section of the movement led by John Wrawe, a former chaplain, proceeded into Suffolk, to raise a revolt there. The peasants of Kent followed their example, they besieged Maidstone Castle, demanding the release of the priest John Ball. The castle finally surrendered and John Ball was set free, The revolts quickly spread to other parts of England.
Wat Tyler was elected as the peasant's leader at Maidstone on 7 June. Tyler probably came from Colchester, the home of John Ball, little is known about Tyler, as his name suggests, he may have been a roof tiler by trade. The efficiency with which he led his forces suggests he may have had experience as a soldier in France. He led the peasants to Canterbury, which they entering on 10 June. Finding the hated Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor, Simon Sudbury was absent, they forced the monks of the cathedral to swear loyalty to their cause. Their anger was vented on properties in Canterbury owned by the royal council, several men who they suspected as enemies to their cause were executed and prisoners in the gaol were released to join their ranks.
The rag-tag army marched to London, their leaders, Watt Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball, demanded the abolition of serfdom and a pardon for all participants in the uprising. Discontented recruits to the cause were many and their army swelled to what is estimated at around ten thousand. On their journey, they happened upon the King's mother, Joan of Kent, the dowager Princess of Wales, who on hearing news of the revolt was travelling to the safety of the capital, although she was insulted she was not harmed.
They reached the south-east of London, on 12 June and camped at Blackheath, in all an estimated 100,000 peasants entered London. King Richard returned to London the following day, he was joined at what was considered the safe fortress of the Tower of London by his mother, Archbishop Sudbury, the Lord High Treasurer Sir Robert Hales, and several of his nobles. John Ball preached to the peasants at Blackheath in an open-air sermon, his rhetoric included the rhyme "While Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?"
Thomas Brinton, the Bishop of Rochester, was dispatched to speak to the rebels in the hope he might be able to persuade them to return home but his proposals were rejected outright. The decision was reached that the fourteen year old King himself should ride out to meet the rebels at Greenwich. Richard left the Tower by boat on the morning of 13 June, and was met on the Thames by the rebels. An impasse was reached, as the king would not come ashore and the rebels refused to enter discussions until he did.
The rebels crossed from Southwark onto London Bridge on the afternoon of 13 June and entered the city. The rebel force from Essex simultaneously made its way towards Aldgate on the north side of the city, their forces were swelled by many Londoners. The Kentish rebels produced a list of those whom they wanted handed over for execution. It included the King's uncle, John of Gaunt, Archbishop Sudbury and Hales; other members of the royal council; and officials, such as Bampton. Clerkenwell Priory, the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller, was destroyed, as were a legal buildings and offices owned by the Hospitallers in Fleet Street, books and paperwork were burned in the street. The Savoy Palace on the Strand, owned by the deeply unpopular John of Gaunt was also ransacked and burnt with many of the palace's costly contents being dthrown into in the River Thames.
On the morning of 14 June, Richard left the Tower again to negotiate with the leaders of the uprising rebels at Mile End in east London, leaving Sudbury and Robert Hales, the Treasurer, behind in the Tower. Hales, who was hated by the people as 'Hob the Robber', was responsible for the Poll Tax. The rebels put forward their demands, which included the surrender of those on their lists for execution; the abolition of serfdom and unfree tenure and a general amnesty for all the rebels. The young King's position was precarious and having little choice, Richard responded by issuing orders that 3o clerks to draw up charters abolishing serfdom.
While the king was at Mile End, the rebels stormed the Tower, after the king's departure, nobody raised the drawbridge. Shouting "Where is the traitor to the kingdom? Where is the spoiler of the commons?" they found Archbishop Simon Sudbury and Robert Hales at prayer in St John's Chapel in the White Tower, they were dragged out to Tower Hill and promptly beheaded. The king's young cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, (later Henry IV) escaped a similar fate by hiding in a cupboard. The heads of Sudbury and Hales were paraded around the London streets and later displayed on pikes on the gatehouse of London Bridge.
On 15 June, arrangement was reached to meet the rebels at Smithfield, just outside the city walls. Tyler, who was alone apart from an attendant who carried a banner, greeted the King by addressing him as "brother" and shaking his hand. Richard asked why the rebels had not withdrawn from London following the signing of the charters, to which Tyler read out his further demands "Let no law but the law of Winchester prevail, and let no man be declared outlaw by the decree of judges and lawyers. No lord shall exercise lordship over the commons and since we are opposed by a vast horde of bishops and clerks, let there be but one bishop in England. The property and goods of the holy church should be taken and divided according to the needs of the people in each parish, after making provision for the existing clergy and monks and finally, let there be no more villeins in England and all free and of one condition." Richard agreed to all his requests and again asked that the commons now return to their homes.
It being a hot day, Tyler asked for a flagon of water to rinse his mouth and on receiving the water 'he rinsed his mouth in a very rude and disgusting fashion before the King" and spat on the ground. One of the king's servants insulted Tyler, stating he was one of the greatest thieves in Kent, who retaliated and drew his dagger, William Walworth, Mayor of London, then intervened and tried to arrest him at which Tyler lashed out with his dagger, Walworth then stabbed Tyler in the head and neck at which Tyler fell back on his horse but was attacked by some of Richard's servants.
. Richard rode toward the assembled crowd, who had been unable to see what had occured and persuaded them to follow him away from Smithfields to Clerkenwell Fields, defusing the situation, he convinced them to disperse to their homes. Tyler was taken to tthe nearby St. Batholomew's hospital, where his head was cut off and displayed on a pole. With their leader dead and the royal government now backed by the London militia, the rebel movement began to collapse. A force led by the king's uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester was dispatched into Essex to crush the rebels. A battle between Gloucester and the rebels was fought near the village of Billericay on 28th June, during which the peasants were defeated, over 500 of them were slain in the battle.
By the summer of 1381, the revolt was over. The priest John Ball was drawn and quartered on 15th July, 1381, at Coventry, as were the peasant's leaders from Kent and Essex . Richard failed keep any of his promises claiming that they were made under duress. Although the hated poll tax was withdrawn, the peasants were forced back into their old way of life.
The part-mummified skull of Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was executed by the rebels, was kept at St Gregory's Church at Sudbury in Suffolk for more than six centuries, but was recently taken fot CT scans to West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmund, which were used by forensic artist Adrienne Barker to reconstruct the face.