History is always written by the victors. But not all history is written. Often, the history of the downcast, the defeated, and the oppressed is passed down in other forms that officialdom cannot suppress. There is an old English folk song, first committed to paper in Scotland in the 1770s, called ‘The Cutty Wren’. Some argue that this strange and unsettling tale is one of the oldest surviving folk songs in the British Isles, from the time of the first mass rebellion in English history: the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, led by Wat Tyler and others.
The Song of the Peasants’ Revolt: Hunting the Wren
The song, the Cutty Wren, tells of the hunting of a giant wren, which has to be carried on a big wagon and the shoulders of four men, and is divided up among the poor. The hunting of the wren is an ancient symbol, and we know that wrens were part of ancient Iron Age rituals conducted in England before the Roman occupation in the 1st century CE. However, they were also ascribed with a royal aspect in folklore and mythology.
The peasant revolutionaries of the 14th century could well have sung a song that, on the surface, was a nonsense tale about ancient follies but that held a deeper hidden meaning for those in the know: seizing the prize of the baronial estates and dividing them up among those who had nothing. Could the Scottish song that was written down four hundred years later be an echo of this original?
Here, we shall dive into this forgotten history, only sung in echoes of an old song: the tale of the Peasants’ Revolt. The cataclysmic uprising that signed the death warrant for its leaders — Wat Tyler, John Ball, Jack Straw, and countless other nameless captains, who are lost to history — but it also rang the death knell for the institution of serfdom in England.
The Storm Before the Storm, 1315 – 1377
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The Peasants’ Revolt did not strike from the blue yonder — it was the culmination of an entire century of misery, with a deep shift in power stemming from a multi-generational cycle of crisis and reaction. We can see the deep roots of the Peasants’ Revolt in the Great Famine of 1315-25, and the Black Death of 1347-8. The nobility’s response to these cataclysms was not generosity and forbearance, but a tightening of their grip on the social power that they felt was slipping from their grasp. At the same time, the Catholic Church was hamstrung in its traditional methods of leadership (and social control), which opened the door to dissent — or heresy.
The floodgates of revolt began to creak as the unpopular and weak regency of John of Gaunt began to levy larger and larger poll taxes: first in 1377, but then again in 1379, and in 1380. Even though these taxes became progressively “fairer”, with a more steeply graded burden placed on wealthier classes in the second and third levies, the total tax burden became greater and greater. In the 1377 tax, everyone was expected to pay four pence per head. In the 1381 tax, the tax was lessened for the poorest, but tax collectors were expected to gather an average of twelve pence per head. In practice, this meant that bailiffs became little better than thugs, making up shortfalls by taking from the poorest and least able to defend themselves.
Like an earthquake, rumblings were heard before the earth split asunder. Throughout the late 1370s, protests and tax riots erupted across England in response to this final injustice, which we can see was merely the final straw upon the back of the camel.
The Floodgates Creak, Leading to the Peasants’ Revolt, 1377 – 1380
An event known as the “Great Rumor” swept over the South of England in the summer of 1377. Peasants predominantly in the South West of England across about forty villages downed tools and refused to bring in the summer harvest. This was more than just a spontaneous stoppage — contemporary records refer to “riots” that took place across at least half a dozen estates, as peasants elected petitioners to plead their case to the Parliament that sat in October.
The petitioners asserted their rights to an ancient demesne they claimed was set out in the Domesday Book; that they were exempt from the taxes and labor rights claimed by the landowners. Although this was a backward-looking movement, based upon spurious ancient rights supposedly laid down around the time of the Norman Conquest, clearly the idea of rejecting the oppression of the landowners had significant and widespread appeal. Although the Parliament promised a resolution for the peasants’ demands, no such records survive, and it is likely that this protest was suppressed locally by punitive measures.
Amid escalating social tensions and ever-increasing taxes, in 1380 there was a rebellion in York. Cities had become major creditors of the crown, and they rarely repaid in full (in the 1370s, York lent the monarchy an eye-watering £900, and was only ever repaid £500). York’s Mayor John Gisburn was a loyal supporter of the Crown, but when the news of the Third Poll Tax reached the city in the cold winter of 1380, it set off a chain reaction of events that would kick off rebellions across the North of England.
It threw petrol onto the flames of local political rivalries, and when Gisburn awoke on the morning of 27th November, he found that his rivals had seized the Guildhall and removed him from power. Nevertheless, this new administration pledged to uphold Parliament’s decision to pass the Third Poll Tax — and they quickly found themselves battling rioters who targeted monasteries, chapels, and civil buildings they perceived were escaping taxation while the poor were wrung dry.
Feudalism Comes Apart, May – June 1381
The Peasants’ Revolt is often portrayed as a gang of unwashed yokels, taking up their pitchforks with an inchoate desire to burn down the manor. From the complex situation that birthed it, we can see that the revolutionaries were neither exclusively peasants, nor were they particularly revolting. Many participants in the Peasants’ Revolt were urban workers, artisans, and even respectable citizens fed up with perpetual civic mismanagement. As well, the revolts were not a spur-of-the-moment animus to do violence: they were organized, frequently highly democratic, and foresighted.
As riots and civil unrest broke out across Northern and South-Western England in the winter of 1380-81, they gradually spread closer and closer to London. In the spring of 1381, royal inspectors noticed that poll tax returns had been much lower in South-East England, particularly in Kent and Essex. Special commissioners were sent to investigate and collect the overdue taxes, but they were turned away by armed peasants — and those who insisted were beaten or kidnapped. The refusal of the regency under John of Gaunt to take the hint lit the spark in the South East, and the fabric of manorial feudalism began to crumble in May 1381. Peasants left the land in droves, and many manors were burned.
But, again, this was not a mere uprising of the very poorest. The bands of agricultural workers were often led by the more educated yeomen (lower-class rural landowners), and many constables joined the uprising. Local garrisons were dispatched to deal with the rioters, but they were roundly defeated. The fact that they achieved this military feat demonstrates that they were well-organized, and it seems likely that many of the peasants’ leaders were former soldiers. One such leader was likely Wat Tyler, a middle-aged man hailing from Maidstone. We know precious little of his life, but his acuity and clear strategic skills seem likely to have come from a military background. By June, Tyler was among the leaders of the rising, which had spread across the South East. But the violence was not random — it was highly targeted at institutions and representations of manorial oppression. The hated law courts and caches of land records were a prime target, and records buildings at Canterbury, Maidstone, and Rochester were all burned.
Such a consistent, coordinated, and widespread uprising would have been impossible without logistical systems involving home villages. This was not just a revolt — this was a people on the move, and though their names are lost to history, the revolt would have been impossible without the tireless organization and labor of many women. Radical rural priests gave absolution to this flock, preaching that their rising was just and righteous in the face of injustice and oppression. The radical priest John Ball found himself alongside Wat Tyler at the head of this revolution: it was he who famously proclaimed “When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?”
To the Gates of London, June 11th– June 14th, 1381
Some later historians and theoreticians (both on the Left and the Right) characterize the Peasants’ Revolt as an atheist, communist revolution aimed at both dethroning the King and God. Such a conception of total social revolution would have been hard to comprehend in the 14th century and is an imposition of our own revolutionary times. The rebels, in fact, swore an oath to the boy King Richard and sought out his aid against his evil regent, John of Gaunt, rather than seeking his overthrow.
As such, the peasant movement had gathered momentum. Under the leadership of Tyler, Ball, and others, the rebels, now numbering in the tens of thousands, set out to march the two days’ road to London. They arrived on 13th June 1381 and were given a divided greeting. There was no doubt that a large portion of the urban population joined the marchers, and historians estimate that around 60,000 people participated in this phase of the rebellion.
But the Peasants’ Revolt was also an ugly affair. Law courts, religious institutions, and manorial buildings were targeted and burned — an enormous cheer must have gone up from the peasant revolutionaries when the Savoy Palace, the residence of John of Gaunt, went up in flames and his staff were butchered. Gaunt himself was away leading an army in the North against the Scots, and so was powerless to halt the rebels as they swept into the capital.
Finally, with news reaching the city that the North and West were in flames, with his armies and his regent away in Scotland, and with the Peasants’ Revolt quite literally battering down the gates, King Richard II, aged only 14, agreed to meet the representatives of the rebels in person.
To Meet a King, June 14th, 1381
It is hard to imagine what it must have been like for the leaders of the Essex rebels when they met with the King at Mile End on 14th June. In this era, the civil religion of Catholicism taught that the King was the embodiment of divine right incarnate. Perhaps the rebels feared that they were beginning to trespass on holy ground — or perhaps some of them had begun to lose that fear in their rage against the burning injustice done to them.
If they had feared that he might condemn them all to hang, they were much mistaken. The young king promised them every one of their demands: an end to forced labor and serfdom, the abolition of restrictions on trade, even the provision of cheap land for all. Some may have been heartened, vindicated by their faith in the King — but some of the wary might have been scratching their heads at how easily the King had, in effect, promised to abolish feudalism at a stroke.
In the streets, however, the masses were little mollified by this apparent display of magnanimity. While the King was away from his fortress, the Tower of London, the rebels forced its surrender and took its inhabitants prisoner. They executed two of the nobles most clearly responsible for their current misery: Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the King’s Treasurer Sir Robert Hales — both chief architects of the Poll Taxes. Perhaps Richard realized that he would have to go even further to appease the peasants.
Wat Tyler Betrayed at Smithfield, June 15th, 1381
Thus, Wat Tyler and the leaders of the Kentish delegation met the King at Smithfield the following day. They presented the King with a set of demands even more radical than those at Mile End: as well as those from the Essex delegation, they added the demand to abolish the Statute of Labourers and the Ordinance of Labourers, which restricted wages to their pre-Black Death levels (the bane of urban workers in particular). They demanded the abolition of all seigneurial rights for hunting and fishing, and an opening up of manorial domains to the free subsistence of the rural poor. They proposed the complete abolition of the county courts, which they felt were totally in the pocket of wealthy local landowners and which were used arbitrarily and unjustly. Finally, they even demanded the break-up of the large monasteries and abbeys, and the distribution of their wealth — a demand of the most radical religious reformers like John Wycliffe. And the King acquiesced to all of it.
For he had no intention of doing any of it.
Wat Tyler, by all accounts, treated the King with little respect. He even spat water at the King’s feet, and a scuffle broke out. This insult against the rightful monarch was too much for the Mayor of London — and he drew his sword against the defenseless Tyler and slew him on the spot. Yet this was no honor-killing. The Mayor of London must have known that Wat Tyler was by far the ablest leader of the rebellion. It much more closely resembled a political assassination.
The crowd surged forward as if to tear the king and the royal delegation apart — but, according to all sources, the king swore pardons for all those present, and reaffirmed his commitment to carrying out the program of the rebels. And so, unwilling to take the blasphemous, precipitous step of regicide, the crowd withdrew, escorted from the City by the few soldiers that Richard had available.
Without Tyler’s leadership, the movement was disoriented and vulnerable. Richard moved quickly and ruthlessly, dispatching the City militia to seize the remaining leaders of the Revolt before they could regroup. 150 of them were executed at Tyburn Hill under the King’s orders — including the radical priest John Ball. Tyler’s head was displayed on a pike. The uprisings in the North and in Devon and the South West were isolated and crushed by local forces, leaving Kent and Essex alone. Outmaneuvered, leaderless, and bereft of momentum, the peasants, urban workers, and poor dispersed. Without a shred of conscience, Richard reneged on every single promise that he had made to the rebels, declaring “villeins ye are, and villeins ye shall remain”.
The Peasants’ Revolt: The Price of Victory, July 1381 – Present Day
On the surface of it, Wat Tyler’s Peasants’ Revolt was a failure, in that its program as presented to the King at Smithfield, was not achieved. The Parliament at the end of the year blamed the events on corrupt royal officials who had been personally overbearing but saw no formal change of course. But the price of victory was a heavy one for England’s feudal elites. The peasants had had both London and the king momentarily within their power — and if their leaders had not been so easily swayed by grand words and empty promises, it may have even turned out significantly worse for the noble elite. Even in that knife-edge meeting at Smithfield, it was only the quick thinking of the boy King Richard that prevented the Peasants’ Revolt from becoming the Peasants’ Revolution.
After the Peasants’ Revolt, no further poll taxes were attempted. Although they were not repealed, Edward III’s post-Black Death regulations aimed at suppressing wages were no longer rigorously enforced. It does not seem like a coincidence that the Peasants’ Revolt completely took the enthusiasm for war out of the nobility, and 1381 saw a significant scaling-back of military activity on the Continent, which ended the “Edwardian” phase of the Hundred Years War.
Although the hated institution of serfdom was already disappearing in the 14th century, after 1381 it entered a terminal decline, with landowners permitting serfs to buy their freedom, or converting their property arrangements into leaseholds.
Perhaps the Peasants Revolt’s most significant contribution to history is its symbolic content. The Smithfield manifesto remains a staggeringly far-sighted and radical document, a clear statement of intent for the abolition of aristocratic privilege which would remain dominant in Britain until at least the 19th century (if, indeed, it has ever disappeared). Far beyond its impact in its time, it provided a shibboleth for future rebels, those who have also lived through trying times. It showed, ultimately, that we can all hunt the wren together.