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Few of the really important episodes of English history are so short, sudden, and dramatic as the great insurrection of June 1381, which still bears in most histories its old and not very accurate title of ' Wat Tyler's Rebellion'. Only a short month separates the first small riot in Essex, with which the rising started, from the final petty skirmish in East Anglia at which the last surviving band of insurgents was ridden down and scattered to the winds. But within the space that intervened between May 30 and June 28, 1381, half England had been aflame, and for some days it had seemed that the old order of things was about to crash down in red ruin, and that complete anarchy would supervene. To most contemporary writers the whole rising seemed an inexplicable phenomenon—a storm that arose out of a mere nothing, an ignorant riot against a harsh and unpopular tax, such as had often been seen before. But this storm assumed vast dimensions, spread over the whole horizon, swept down on the countryside with the violence of a typhoon, threatened universal destruction, and then suddenly passed away almost as inexplicably as it had arisen. The monastic chroniclers, to whom we owe most of our descriptions of the rebellion— Walsingham and his fellows—were not the men to understand the meaning of such a phenomenon; they were annalists, not political philosophers or students of social statics. They only half comprehended the meaning of what they had seen, and were content to explain the rebellion as the work of Satan, or the result of an outbreak of sheer insanity on the part of the labouring classes. When grudges and discontents have been working for many years above or below the surface, and then suddenly flare up into a wholesale conflagration, the ordinary observer is puzzled as well as terrified. All the causes of the great insurrection, save the Poll-tax which precipitated it, had been operating for a long time. Why was the particular month of June 1381 the moment at which they passed from causes into effects, and effects of such a violent and unexpected kind? What the Poll-tax was, and why it was so unpopular, we shall soon see. But its relation to the rebellion is merely the same as that of the greased cartridges to the Indian Mutiny of 1857. It brought about the explosion, but was only one of its smaller causes. Things had been working up for trouble during many years—only a good cry, a common grievance which united all malcontents, was needed to bring matters to a head. This was what the Polltax provided...
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Copyright © 2015 by Charles Oman
Published by Perennial Press
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ENGLAND IN 1381
THE PARLIAMENT OF NORTHAMPTON AND THE POLL-TAX
THE OUTBREAK IN KENT AND ESSEX
THE REBELS IN LONDON: KING RICHARD AND WAT TYLER
THE REPRESSION OF THE REBELLION IN LONDON AND THE ADJACENT DISTRICT
THE REBELLION IN THE HOME COUNTIES AND THE SOUTH
THE REBELLION IN NORFOLK AND SUFFOLK
THE REBELLION IN CAMBRIDGESHIRE AND HUNTINGDONSHIRE
THE SUPPRESSION OF THE REVOLT IN THE EASTERN COUNTIES
TROUBLES IN THE OUTLYING COUNTIES OF THE NORTH AND WEST
THE RESULTS OF INSURRECTION. THE PARLIAMENT OF NOVEMBER 1381
FEW OF THE REALLY IMPORTANT episodes of English history are so short, sudden, and dramatic as the great insurrection of June 1381, which still bears in most histories its old and not very accurate title of ‘ Wat Tyler’s Rebellion’. Only a short month separates the first small riot in Essex, with which the rising started, from the final petty skirmish in East Anglia at which the last surviving band of insurgents was ridden down and scattered to the winds. But within the space that intervened between May 30 and June 28, 1381, half England had been aflame, and for some days it had seemed that the old order of things was about to crash down in red ruin, and that complete anarchy would supervene. To most contemporary writers the whole rising seemed an inexplicable phenomenon—a storm that arose out of a mere nothing, an ignorant riot against a harsh and unpopular tax, such as had often been seen before. But this storm assumed vast dimensions, spread over the whole horizon, swept down on the countryside with the violence of a typhoon, threatened universal destruction, and then suddenly passed away almost as inexplicably as it had arisen. The monastic chroniclers, to whom we owe most of our descriptions of the rebellion— Walsingham and his fellows—were not the men to understand the meaning of such a phenomenon; they were annalists, not political philosophers or students of social statics. They only half comprehended the meaning of what they had seen, and were content to explain the rebellion as the work of Satan, or the result of an outbreak of sheer insanity on the part of the labouring classes. When grudges and discontents have been working for many years above or below the surface, and then suddenly flare up into a wholesale conflagration, the ordinary observer is puzzled as well as terrified. All the causes of the great insurrection, save the Poll-tax which precipitated it, had been operating for a long time. Why was the particular month of June 1381 the moment at which they passed from causes into effects, and effects of such a violent and unexpected kind? What the Poll-tax was, and why it was so unpopular, we shall soon see. But its relation to the rebellion is merely the same as that of the greased cartridges to the Indian Mutiny of 1857. It brought about the explosion, but was only one of its smaller causes. Things had been working up for trouble during many years—only a good cry, a common grievance which united all malcontents, was needed to bring matters to a head. This was what the Polltax provided.
The England which in 1381 was ruled by the boy-king Richard II, with Archbishop Sudbury as his chancellor and prime minister, and Sir Robert Hales as his treasurer, was a thoroughly discontented country. In foreign politics alone there was material for grudging enough. The realm was at the fag-end of an inglorious and disastrous war, the evil heritage of the ambitions of Edward III. It would have puzzled a much more capable set of men than those who now served as the ministers and councillors of his grandson to draw England out of the slough into which she had sunk. Her present misfortunes were due to her own fault: as long as her one ruling idea was to brood over the memories of Crecy and Poitiers, Sluys and Espagnols-sur-Mer, and dream of winning back the boundaries of the Treaty of Bretigny, no way out of her troubles was available. The nation was obstinately besotted on the war, and failed to see that all the circumstances which had made the triumphs of Edward III possible had disappeared—that England was now too weak and France too strong to make victory possible. Ten years of constantly unsuccessful expeditions, and ever-shrinking boundaries, had not yet convinced the Commons of England that to make peace with France was the only wise course, They preferred to impute the disasters of the time to the incapacity of their governors. But it was useless to. try general after general, to change the personnel of the King’s Council every few months—it had been done thrice since King Richard’s accession—to accuse every minister of imbecility or corruption. The fault lay not in the leaders, but in the led—in the insensate desire of the nation to persevere in the struggle when all the conditions under which it was waged had ceased to be favourable.
The various ministers of Richard II had, ever since his reign began, been appearing before Parliament at short intervals to report again and again the loss of some new patch of England’s dwindling dominion beyond the seas, to confess that they could not even keep the South Coast safe from piratical descents of French corsairs, or guarantee the Northumbrian border from the raiding Scot, or even maintain law and order in the inward heart of the realm. Yet they were always forced to be asking for heavier and yet heavier taxation to support the losing game. Naturally each one of their financial expedients was criticized with acrimony. The classes who took an intelligent interest in politics demanded efficiency in return for the great sacrifices of money which the nation was making, and failed to get it. The far larger section of Englishmen who were not able to follow the course of war or politics with any real comprehension, were vaguely indignant at demands on their purse, which grew more and more inquisitorial, and penetrated deeper down as the years went on.
All nations labouring under a long series of military disasters are prone to raise the cry of ‘Treason’, and to accuse their governments either of deliberate corruption or of criminal self-seeking and negligence. The English in 1381 were no exception to this rule: they were blindly suspicious of those who were in power at the moment. John of Gaunt, the King’s eldest uncle, the most prominent figure. in the politics of the day, had not a clean record. He had, in the last years of his father’s reign, been in close alliance with the peculating clique which had surrounded the old king and battened on his follies. It was natural to suspect the ministers of 1381 of the same sins that had actually been detected in the ministers of 1377: while John of Gaunt continued to take a busy part in affairs this was inevitable. As a matter of fact, however, the suspicion seems to have been groundless. The ministers of 1381 were, so far as we can judge, honest men, though they were destitute of the foresight and the initiative necessary for dealing with the deplorable condition of the realm. Archbishop Sudbury, who had been made chancellor at the Parliament which met in January 1380— ‘whether he sought the post of his own freewill or had it thrust upon him by others only God can tell’— was a pious, well-intentioned man—almost a saint. He would probably have been enrolled among the martyrs of the English calendar if only he had been more willing to make martyrs himself. For it is his lenience to heretics which forms the main charge brought against him by the monastic chroniclers. They acknowledge that he possessed every personal virtue, but complain that he was a half- hearted persecutor of Wycliffe and his disciples, and hint that his terrible death in 1381 was a judgement from heaven for his lukewarmness in this respect. Sudbury was sometimes proved destitute of tact, and often of firmness, but he was one of the most innocent persons to whom the name of Traitor was ever applied. Of his colleague, Treasurer Hales, who went with him to the block during the insurrection, we know less—he was, we are told, ‘a magnanimous knight, though the Commons loved him not’; no proof was ever brought that he was corrupt or a self-seeker3. None of the minor ministers of state of 1380-1 had any such bad reputation as had clung about their predecessors of 1377. But the nation chafed against their unlucky administration, and vaguely ascribed to them all the ills of the time.
Yet if the political and military problems had been the only ones pressing for solution in 1381 there would have been no outbreak of revolution in that fatal June. All that would have happened would have been the displacing of one incompetent ministry by another—no more capable than its predecessor of dealing with the insoluble puzzle of how to turn the French war into a successful enterprise.
The fact that the political grievances of England had come to a head at a moment when social grievances were also ripe was the real determining cause of the rebellion. Of these social grievances, the famous and oft-described dispute in the countryside between the landowner and the peasant, which had started with the Black Death and the ‘Statute of Labourers’ of 1351 was no doubt the most important, since it affected the largest section of Englishmen. But it must not be forgotten that the rural community was not a whit more discontented at this moment than was the urban. There were rife in almost every town old grudges between the rulers and the ruled, the employers and the employed, which were responsible for no small share of the turbulence of the realm, when once the rebellion had broken out. They require no less notice than the feuds of the countryside.
It was customary a few years ago to represent the rural discontent of the third quarter of the fourteenth century as arising mainly from one definite cause—the attempt of the lords of manors to rescind the agreements by which their villeins had, during the years before the Black Death, commuted their customary days of labour on the manorial demesne for a money payment1. Later research, however, would seem to show that this, although a real cause of friction, was only one among many. Such commutations had been local and partial: in the majority of English manors they had not been introduced, or had only been introduced on a small scale, before the fatal year 1348-9. It seems far from being a fact that the lords in general made a desperate attempt, after the Black Death, to rescind old bargains and restore the régime of corvées in its entirety. In many cases the number of holdings on the manor which lay vacant after the pestilence was so great, that the landowner could not get them filled up by any device. There was bound, therefore, to be a permanent deficit in the total of days of service that could be screwed out of the villeins. In sheer despair of finding hands of any sort to till their demesne—land, many lords actually introduced the custom of commuting service for rent soon after the year of the Plague—so that its result in their manors was precisely the reverse of what has been stated by Professor Thorold Rogers and his school. It is dangerous to formulate hard and fast general statements as to the way in which the landowning class faced the economic problem before them. Conditions varied from manor to manor, and from county to county, and the action of the lords was dependent on the particular case before them. It is certain that many abandoned the attempt to till the demesne either with villein-labour or with hired free labour, and let out holdings for rent, often on the ‘stock and land lease’ system—by which the tenant-farmer took over not only the soil but the animals, implements, and plant required to till it. Others threw their demesne, and even the vacant crofts of extinct families of villeins, into sheep farms, on which rural public opinion looked askance. But it would appear that in the majority of cases, where the old customary services had never been abolished or commuted before the Black Death, the landowner went on enforcing them as stringently as he could, supplementing the corvée-work of the villeins by hiring free labour, though he wished to use as little of it as he could contrive. The main design of the Statute of Labourers is to enable the employer to obtain that labour as cheaply as possible. The hirer is prohibited by it from offering, or the labourer from demanding, more than the old average rates of payment that had prevailed before 1348. Moreover, in an excess of unwise economy, the Statute estimates the old rate at its lowest instead of its highest average—at 2d.-3d. a day instead of at 3d.-4d. There would have been much more prospect of carrying out the scheme with success if something had been conceded to the labourer—but he was offered only the worst possible bargain.
One generalization however is permissible. The Black Death permanently raised the price of labour—despite of all statutes to the contrary—though its effects would have been much greater if they had not been checked by the legislation of Parliament. On the other hand, the price of agricultural produce had remained comparatively stationary—at times it had even shown some signs of falling. The profits of the landowner, therefore, were no larger, while his expenses were decidedly heavier, than they had been in the earlier days of Edward III. Even in manors where the old services of the villeins had never been commuted, and still remained exigible, the lord had to seek a certain amount of supplementary labour, and could not buy it so cheaply as in the years before 1348. If legislation had not intervened, the period would have been a sort of Golden Age for the labourer, more especially the free labourer. He was quite aware of the fact, chafed bitterly at the artificial restrictions which prevented him from taking full advantage of the state of the market, and set his wits to work to evade them by every possible shift and trick.
To understand the standing quarrel between employer and employed, which made bitter the whole thirty years between the passing of the Statute of Labourers and the outbreak of ‘ Tyler’s Rebellion’, we must distinguish with care between, the two classes of working-men with whom the landowner had to deal—the villein who held his strips of soil on condition of discharging all the old customary dues, and the landless man, who had no stake in the manor, and lived not on the produce of his holding, but by the sale of the work of his hands. The latter might be a mere agricultural labourer, or a handicraftsman of some sort, smith, thatcher, tiler, carpenter, mason, sawyer, and so forth. From the villein the lord wished to exact as stringently as possible his customary corvées, and the petty dues and fines incident on his tenure. From the landless labourer he wished to buy his services at the lowest possible rate—that stipulated in the Statute of 1351. Conversely we have the villein desiring to be quit of customary work and customary dues, in order that he may become a tenant at a fixed rent, and the landless labourer determined that at all costs he will get from his employer something more than the miserable pay allowed him by law.
In these simple facts lie the causes of thirty years of conflict. Both parties were extremely obstinate: each had a vague moral conviction that it was in the right. Neither was very scrupulous as to the means that it employed to obtain what it considered its due. The landowners grew desperately cruel, as they saw wages rising and old customs gradually dying out, despite of all the reissues of the Statute of Labourers which they obtained from Parliament. It will be remembered that branding with hot irons and outlawry were among the supplementary sanctions which they added to the original terrors of the law of 1351. It does not seem that such punishments were often put in practice, but their very existence was enough to madden the peasant. On the other hand the workers thought every device from petty perjury and chicane up to systematic rioting justifiable against the local tyrant.
On the whole, it would seem that the landless labourer fared better-than the villein during this age of strife. He could easily abscond, since he had no precious acres in the common-field to tether him down. If he was harried, held down to the letter of the Statute, and dragged before justices in his native district, he could always move on to another. He therefore, as it seems, enjoyed a very real if a precarious and spasmodic prosperity. He might at any moment fear the descent of a justice upon him, if neighbouring landlords grew desperate, but meanwhile he flourished, Langland’s Piers Plowman, from which so many valuable side-lights on the time can be drawn, describes: him as ‘waxing fat and kicking’. ‘The labourers that have no land and work with their hands deign no longer to dine on the stale vegetables of yesterday; penny-ale will not suit them, nor bacon, but they must have fresh meat or fish, fried or baked, and that hot- and-hotter for the chill of their maw: Unless he be highly paid he will chide, and bewail the time he was made a workman. . . . Then he curses the king and all the king’s justices for making such laws that grieve the labouret.’
So far we have been considering the condition of the landless worker: but the same economic crisis had also affected the landholding villeing. They were reluctant to abscond and throw up their share of the manorial acres, for only in extremity will the peasant who has once got a grip on the soil consent to let it go. Yet we find that, in the generation which followed the Black Death, even the villeins were beginning to sit more loosely upon the land: the position of the free labourer often seemed more tempting than their own, and those of them whose acres were few, or whose lord was harsh and unreasonable, not unfrequently abandoned all, and fled with their families to seek free service in some distant county or borough. But it would seem that flight was less frequent than attempts to combine against the lord and to worry him into coming to terms. By obstinate perseverance, the villager hoped in the end to deliver himself from work-days on the demesne, and manorial dues, and to get them commuted for a fixed rent: public opinion among his class had assessed the reasonable rate for such commutation at 4d. an acre per annum. This sum is repeatedly mentioned in many districts during the troubles of 1381; where the peasantry obtained the upper hand, they were wont to insert it in the charters which they extorted from their lords. It was undoubtedly too low to represent the real value of land: where free leasing was going on, an acre was worth twice as much.
In the manors where the owner and the villeins could not agree, we find that the very modern phenomena of strikes and agricultural unions were common. The peasants ‘confederated themselves in conventicles, and took an oath to resist lord and bailiff, and to refuse their due custom and service’. Weak men yielded, and allowed their serfs to commute. Obstinate men called down the local justice, or even applied directly to the King’s Council, and got the strike put down by force. It was sure to break out again after an interval, when the villeins had forgotten the stocks and the heavy fines which were their part in such cases.
One of the most interesting features of these combinations of the peasantry is that in some cases they tried to raise constitutional points against their lords, in the most lawyerly fashion. It is a new thing in English history to find the agricultural classes pleading for that reversion to ancient custom which barons and burgesses had so often demanded when struggling against unpopular kings. The fact is undoubted: in the first parliament of Richard II, a special statute was passed to deal with such attempts. ‘In many lordships and parts of the realm of England’, it runs, ‘the villeins and holders of land. in villeinage refuse their customs and service due to their lords, under colour of certain exemplifications made from Domesday Book concerning the manors in which they dwell; and by virtue of the said exemplifications, and their bad interpretation of them, they affirm that they are quit and utterly discharged of all manner of serfdom due whether of their bodies or of their tenures, and will not suffer distresses to be levied on them, or justice done on them, but menace the servants of their lords in life or members, and what is more, they draw together in great bands, and bind themselves by confederation that each shall aid the others to constrain their lords by the strong hand.’ This was four years before the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, but the main feature of that revolt is already visible: it was precisely a gathering in great bands to constrain the landowners and resist by armed violence all attempts to enforce seignorial dues.
It is to be presumed that the ‘exemplifications from Domesday’ were proofs that in particular manors there were in 1085 free men and soemen, where in 1377 villeins were to be found, so that some lord in the intervening three centuries must have advanced his power to the detriment of the ancient rights of the inhabitants of the place. To find such archaeological evidence advanced by mere peasants is astonishing. One can only suppose that they must have had skilled advisers: probably the growing custom by which persons of some wealth and status had taken to buying villein-land explains the phenomenon. Some lawyer who had invested in acres held on a base tenure, must have hit on this ingenious idea of appealing to ancient evidence against the custom of the present day. The real villeins must have admired and copied him.
It is clear that not only the customary days of service to be done on the lord’s demesne, but also the other incidents of the manorial system, were very hateful to the peasants of 1381, In all the demands which they made and the charters which they won, they carefully stipulated for freedom from such things as the heriot payable at the death of a tenant, the merchet demanded from him when he married his daughter, the small but tiresome dues exacted when he sold a cow or a horse. Sometimes the monopoly of the seignorial mill is made a grieyance: sometimes there is a claim for the abolition of parks and warrens, and the grant of liberty to hunt and fish at large. The ‘freedom’ which was the villein’s ideal postulated the destruction of all these restrictions on daily life.
All over England we may trace, in the third quarter of the fourteenth century, local disputes in which one or other of the rural grievances came to the front. The only thing that was new in 1381 was that the troubles were not confined to individual manors, but suddenly spread over half the realm. It is dangerous to conclude, as some writers have done, that this simultaneous action was due to deliberate organization. We have no proof that there was any central committee of malcontents who chose their time and then issued orders for the rising. The leaders who emerged in each region seem to have been the creatures of the moment, selected almost at hazard for their audacity or their ready eloquence. The sole personage among them who had been long known to a large circle was John Ball, ‘the mad priest of Kent’, and he, so far from starting the actual insurrection, had been for some time in prison when it broke out, and had to be released by his admirers. We shall have to deal presently with his personality and his views. Here it may suffice to say that he was a visionary and a prophet rather than an organizer. He had spread discontent by twenty years of itinerant preaching, but there is not the least proof that he tried to turn it into practical shape by leaguing his hearers into secret societies. We must not be misled by the name of the ‘Great Company’ (Magna Societas), which occurs sometimes in the annals of the insurrection, and take it to have been a real league, like that of the ‘United Irishmen’ of 1798. It was a name applied in a few cases by the rebels to themselves, more especially in Norfolk, and no more. There was, of course, much communication between district and district: workmen on the tramp, dodging the ‘Statute of Labourers’, itinerant craftsmen, religious mendicants, professional vagrants, outlaws, and broken men of all sorts, were roving freely up and down England, and through them every parish had some knowledge of what was doing elsewhere. But it would be absurd to look upon these wanderers as the regular agents of a definite organization, founded for the purpose of preparing for an insurrection. There were village ‘conventicles’ and combinations, which must often have been in touch with each other, but no central directing body. The chaotic character of the rising is sufficient proof of this: every district went on its own way of tumult; and except where men of marked personality (like Wat Tyler in Kent, or Geoffrey Litster in eastern Norfolk) came to the front, there was no definite plan carried out.
The sporadic nature of the insurrection was made still more marked by the fact that it affected many cities and towns, in which the manorial grievances had no part in causing the outburst. We may set in one class places like St. Albans, Dunstable, Bury St. Edmunds, or Lynn, where the insurrection was that of townsmen discontented with their feudal superior, and desirous of wringing a charter out of him, or of adding new clauses to a charter already in existence. We shall have to deal in detail with several of these risings on behalf of municipal liberty: it will be noticed that they all took place in towns where the lord was a churchman: abbots and bishops were notoriously slow in conceding to their vassals the privileges which kings and lay proprietorsi had been freely granting for the last two centuries. The church was comparatively unaffected by the personal motives which had moved the secular lords to sell civic freedom: a corporation does not suffer so much as an individual from temporary stress of war or dearth, and can carry out a continuous policy in a way that is impossible to a succession of life-tenants of a lordship. Hence there were, in 1381, towns in ecclesiastical lands which had never yet achieved the common municipal liberties, or only enjoyed them in a very restricted form. Such places took advantage of the rising in the country-side to press their own grievances: when anarchy was afoot it was the favourable moment to squeeze charters out of the reluctant monasteries. But there was no logical connexion between such movements and the Peasants’ Revolt; troublous times of any sort suited the townsmen; Bury had attacked its abbot during Montfort’s rebellion, and St. Albans had tried to snatch freedom in the midst of the political chaos that attended the deposition of Edward II; their chance lay in seizing the opportunity when the laws of the land were in abeyance and violence at a premium.
From risings of this sort we must carefully distinguish another kind of municipal disorders—the numerous cases where insurrections broke out within the towns, not with the object of attacking the external authority of a lord, but with that of overthrowing the power of an oligarchy within the body corporate. Many of the places which had obtained the greatest amount of freedom from the oppressors without, had now new grievances against the oppressors within. The history of the majority of English towns in the fourteenth century, just like that of Italian or German towns during that same period, is in a great measure composed of the struggles of the inferiores against the potentlores, of the mass of poor inhabitants (whether freemen or unenfranchised aliens) against the small number of wealthy families which had got possession of the corporation or the guild merchant, and ruled for their own profit. When the towns had won their charters under the early Plantagenet kings their population had been comparatively homogeneous, and differences of wealth had been small. But, by the time of Richard II, there was a clear division between the oligarchy and the democracy, the privileged and the common herd. The old theory that the mayor and other officials of the town were the elected representatives of the whole community, and that their resolves ought to be referred, in the last instance, to the approval of the general body of freemen had not been forgotten. But in practice the governing ring often coopted and re-elected itself, without the least regard to the rights of the majority. They raised taxation, undertook public works, contracted debts, as they pleased and laughed the commons to scorn. When they went too far there were disputes, riots, and ruinous lawsuits before the royal courts. Nothing was more natural than that in 1381, when the rural districts were aflame, the lower classes of the towns should seize the opportunity of falling upon their local oligarchies. The numerous cases in which we find the houses of rich townsmen destroyed, and the lesser number of instances in which the owner perished with his tenement, were undoubtedly the results of the desire to pay off old municipal grudges. Wherever the government had been corrupt and unrepresentative, the governing few were attacked in the day of wrath. In some instances the commons of towns far remote from the regions to which the peasant revolt extended, rose upon their rulers, without waiting for the area of general revolt to extend in their direction. This was the case at Winchester, Beverley, and Scarborough.
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