On the morning of Friday June 14th 1381, a mob gathered outside the Tower of London. Some were citizens and apprentices from the square mile of the city. Many came from outside London, in the villages of Essex and Kent that spread out from the estuary of the River Thames. They included men and women, old and young, bakers, blacksmiths, farmhands, roofers, brewers, and churchmen. All had come to England’s capital to protest against the government that ruled in the name of the fourteen-year old King Richard II.
Inside the fortress, holed up behind inside high stone walls and the huge four-sided White Tower, were the king’s ministers. The noise they heard coming from outside was terrifying. The crowd had been rampaging through London for more than twenty-four hours. They waved rusty swords and agricultural tools. They had come for justice and they would not be dispersed until they had it.
For the first time in England’s history, the rulers of the realm were under siege by the ordinary people – and the results would be spectacular. By the end of that tumultuous, troubled Friday the chancellor and treasurer of England would be dead, their heads hacked off and paraded through the city streets on poles before being taken for display on spikes above London Bridge. England was on the brink of revolution.
The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 is badly named. Certainly it was an uprising of ‘the people’, in which England was convulsed for a whole summer by rioting against unfair taxes, an unpopular war and an unloved political elite. But to call all the people ‘peasants’ is misleading. The participants included knights and local gentry, landowners, parish priests, village constables, and wealthy inhabitants of towns from Yorkshire to Somerset. Their grievances had been growing for years and varied from region to region. This was far more than mere pitchfork-waving.
The events of 1381 now have near-legendary status in our national history. The rebellion’s motto was a piece of doggerel supposedly coined by the firebrand northern preacher John Ball, a leader of the disturbances in the south-east, who gave a sermon at Blackheath asking, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span/Who then was the gentleman?’. What bound all the disturbances of 1381 together was a sense that the government of the day was incompetent, corrupt and self-serving, and that the time was ripe for ordinary people to seize control. In that sense The Peasants’ Revolt marks the beginning of England’s popular radical tradition: the first time the people took a collective stand against their rulers. Today, in an age when politics is propelled by contempt for ‘elites’ and a wish to tear up the established order, the Peasants’ Revolt is worth studying again.
Read the full feature in issue 41 of History Revealed, on sale now in all good newsagents and supermarkets. Subscribe and save 33%