“The lack of a sense of history is the damnation of the modern world.”
Robert Penn Warren
The history of the people is richer than Kings and Queens, it is bloodier than the Romans and Vikings, and of greater consequence than the Magna Carta yet why is so little of our achievements and battles taught in schools – and celebrated in our communities?
This is just one of those closed chapters of our glorious history. After the Black Death, many estates were short of workers. To encourage those who had survived to stay many Lords had given the peasants on their estates freedom, and paid them to work on their land. But now many peasants feared that they would lose these privileges and many were prepared to fight. Many peasants had to work for free on church land, and others forced to pay a tithe to the church. This meant that they could not work on their own land, or perhaps buy seed, making it difficult to grow sufficient food for their families. Peasants wanted to be free of this burden that made the church rich but them poor, and in this protest they were supported by a priest called John Ball from Kent.
“When Adam delved, and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen free from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.” John Ball
There had been a long war with France, and all wars cost money. As it remains today, this money had to come from the people through the taxes which were paid. In 1380, Richard II introduced a new tax called the Poll Tax which required everyone who was on the tax register pay 5p (the approximate value today of £430 against average earnings which would today be approximately £6000) – it was the third time in four years that such a tax had been used. By 1381, the peasants tolerance had been exhausted; they were losing money, freedom and even the ability to feed their families.
Medieval England was authoritarian by nature, many noblemen held their own garrisons behind fortified palaces and castles controlling through an unannounced martial law. The state acted with impunity and noblemen acted without fear of reprisal or indeed justice[ whereas peasants and dissenters would face immediate and harsh penalty without any protection, legal or otherwise. However in June 1381, following a period of unrest across the country an army of peasants from Kent and Essex marched on London.
In May 1381, a tax collector arrived at the Essex village of Fobbing to find out why the people there had not paid their poll tax. He was thrown out by the villagers. In June, soldiers arrived to establish law and order, and they too were thrown out. The villagers of Fobbing had organised themselves, and many other local villages in Essex joined them and they marched to London to plead with the king. They met up with peasants from Kent as they marched to London; they destroyed tax records and tax registers, and government buildings were burned down. As they approached the city of London the people there opened the gates to the city. The group were now being led by a man called Wat Tyler.
“There should be equality among all people save only the king. There should be no serfdom and all men should be free and of one condition.We will be free forever, our heirs and our lands.”
By mid-June the discipline of the peasants was being lost. Many got drunk in London and looting took place, and it is recorded that foreigners were murdered by the peasants. Wat Tyler pleaded for discipline but his words went unheeded. On June 15th, he met the rebels at Smithfield outside of the city’s walls. It is said that this was the idea of the Lord Mayor (Sir William Walworthe) who wanted to get the rebels out of the city (Medieval London was wooden and the streets were cramped; any attempt to put down the rebels in the city could have ended in a fire or escape). At this meeting, the Lord Mayor killed Wat Tyler and then the King promised to address the concerns of the peasants. Without leadership, and with their terms seemingly addressed the peasants returned home – the revolt crushed.
Events then took on apace. John Ball was hanged, as were other leaders of the movement. The King did not keep any of his promises; claiming that they were made under threat and were therefore not valid in law. The poll tax was withdrawn but the peasants were forced back into their old way of life – losing their liberties and back under the control of the noblemen. But a stand was made – ordinary folk had bravely stood against an armed totalitarian regime and forced at least a declaration.
We must commemorate their courage, and ensure that the freedoms they helped to secure are used fruitfully, for the benefit of all.
“The secret of happiness is freedom. The secret of freedom is courage.”