The Peasants Revolt
n 1377, at the age of only ten years old, Richard II became the King of England. At such a young age he was unable to rule and so the country was led by his uncle, John of Gaunt, the Earl of Lancaster, and William Wykeham, the Bishop of Winchester. Enemies were attacking England from both the south and north. In the south the French were attacking the coast and in the north the Scots had captured Berwick Castle. To counter the attacks Wykeham asked Parliament for money to renew the war with France. Between 1379 and 1381 the money was raised by enforcing a series of poll-taxes on the country. The third poll-tax raised was the hardest and even the poorest were expected to contribute. In an effort to prevent the workers avoiding paying the taxes, judges were sent out to ensure the taxes were paid.
The relationship between the land owners and villeins (the ordinary people) had changed after the terrible loss of life caused by the Black Death just thirty years earlier. After the pestilence had receded the labourers realised that they could demand more money for their services. The death toll had been greatest amongst the poorer workers and now their employers were willing to pay more to attract workers to their land. In response Parliament passed the Statute of Labourers, by which employers were only allowed to pay the same amount of money in wages as before the Black Death.
It is not unreasonable to assume that given the problems people had faced over the previous thirty years that a poll-tax was deeply unpopular. The exact spark that lit the revolt is hard to find. The tax had to be paid by those over a certain age and traditionally it is thought that the revolt started in Dartford when a tax-collector indecently searched the daughter of a tiler to determine how old she was. The tiler killed the tax-collector and the revolt began.
In the summer of 1381 several bands of rebels from Kent and Essex combined under the leadership of two men, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw. They freed a priest from prison called John Ball in Maidstone who had been wandering from village to village preaching equality and had been arrested for his beliefs. John Ball preached to the crowds of supporters that followed them and they marched together to London to confront the King Richard.
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