In 1349 an Irish monk named Brother Clynn wrote, “I am waiting among the dead for death to come… and I leave parchment for continuing my work should anyone be alive in the future.” Every other monk in his monastery had died at the hands of the Black Death and he believed that the end of the world was nigh.
This deadly pandemic resulted in approximately one third of the European population losing their lives, a number possibly as large as 70 million. But as Brother Clynn foresaw an ending, in fact quite the opposite was to happen. The death of so many led to the beginning of a new era of prosperity, freedom and rights for peasants. Unsurprisingly those in positions of power were unwilling to loosen their shackles on the poor of Europe.
The basic principle of supply and demand placed peasants in a position of being able to leave their lord’s demesne and charge a fair wage for their labour. However immediately after the Black Death the government of Edward III passed two key laws in an attempt to freeze wages at pre-plague levels. The unforgiving and unpredictable lottery of monarchy placed the war-hungry Richard II at the helm of England in 1377. Fixated with outright victory in the One Hundred Years War, started by his predecessor and grandfather Edward III, he introduced hugely unpopular Poll Taxes in 1377 and 1379. The one placed the following year was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Disproportionate to wealth at a fixed rate of 12 pence per person, this tax in particular was a huge burden on the poor but a minor inconvenience to the wealthy. In addition to suspicion of corruption in the government, the peasants were ripe for revolt.
Following the expulsion of a tax collector from Fobbing the rebels swept through Kent and Essex swelling their numbers with volunteers as they went. They advanced upon London in a pincer movement from the south and east. The two leaders of the rebellion emerged as Wat Tyler, of whom little is previously known, and John Ball, an imprisoned priest who firmly believed in a fair distribution of wealth within the church. Indeed, as he preached to the crowd of thousands he cried, “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.”
Londoners willingly opened the gates of their city to the rebels who set about their task with feverish fervour. They sacked Savoy Palace, the home of the key advisor to the 14 year old Richard II, John of Gaunt then executed Simon Sudbury the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Treasurer at the Tower of London before opening the prisons. The crowd finally set their sights upon Flemish immigrants, many of whom were wealthy wool merchants, who were murdered in the streets.
Faced with a grave situation the young king rode out to meet the rebel leaders at Blackheath. Their demands were an end to Poll Taxes, an immediate end to serfdom, the introduction of a more democratic form of government with local representation based on the Provisions of Oxford in 1258 and a fair distribution of wealth and power from the nobility. Richard initially gave in to their demands as well as issuing pardons for all involved, however he refrained from punishing those in positions of influence and prosperity such as bishops and members of the nobility.
Most of the rebels dispersed and made their way home, flattered with what they perceived as an unlikely victory. Their leaders however were not to be so easily won over. The following day they demanded another meeting with the king beyond the city walls at Smithfield. It is here that the waters of history become murky. Taken aback by a slight towards the king which some claim was gurgling water in his presence and others going as far as verbally insulting the young monarch, a king’s advisor stabbed Wat Tyler in the back. The other leaders were promptly rounded up, executed, and their heads put on pikes overlooking the city which they had controlled, if only for the briefest of moments.
In the weeks and months that followed the Peasant’s Revolt it could not be seen as anything other than failure. Richard broke his promises made to the rebels at Blackheath and service continued as normal; but not for long. No king would introduce a Poll Tax for almost 300 years (And the next to do it was the ill-fated Charles I months before the outbreak of the Civil War) and serfdom was gradually giving way to a supply and demand economy. Employers were finding that voluntary, paid labour was more efficient and effective than forced tenure by service and the peasants had shown that they could be a powerful force for change in society.
This article was originally published for ‘History-Makers’ on http://www.spiked-online.com