The Flame of Freedom: Wat Tyler’s Peasant Revolt
Throughout the history of the medieval period, the voice of the peasants and the working class was always suppressed. In the difficult periods of this era, the peasant was always the oppressed party, as rulers imposed high taxes and gave no social freedoms. Such conditions always led to difficulties, to revolts and rebellions, in which the poor classes sought to fight for their rights and free themselves from the shackles of medieval feudal society. And every such revolt needed a devoted, daring leader that would stand at the helm of the revolting peasants, giving the mass a voice of reason. One such leader was Wat Tyler, a cunning and famed rebel leader that lead the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt in England, also known as Wat Tyler’s Rebellion. With their demands of social and economic reforms, these peasants expressed many decades of discontent against the English crown. What was the fate of their leader and their endeavor?
What Do We Know About Wat Tyler?
The origins of Wat Tyler are somewhat obscure within the pages of modern history. His identity and his life before the revolt are not known in detail. However, we do know that he was born sometime around 1341 AD, and that his name was Walter. His surname was never known: Tyler seemingly stems from his occupation of roof tiler. Either way, Wat Tyler was born during a crucial period in England’s history.
Pieter Bruegel depicts the social upheaval and devastation of the deadly whirlwind of the plague in medieval Europe in ‘The Triumph of Death’. (Public domain)
At the time, Europe – England included – was ravaged by the deadly whirlwind of the Black Plague, causing widespread death throughout. Over one third of the total populace of Europe was lost, causing widespread economic disruptions and above all shortages in manpower. All of these things combined meant that England found itself in a particularly strained and difficult position in the wake of the Black Death. One of the reasons for this was their long and drawn out war with France – known as the Hundred Years’ War – which they continued immediately after the Black Death had passed. The war required manpower and huge amounts of financial support, most of which was received through the taxation of the common folk.
In order to support his continued conflict with the French, the English king began raising his taxes. In a matter of just four years, the crown raised taxes three times, much to the discontent of the peasants. The rules of the tax stated that any person over 15 years of age, independent of what class they belonged to, had to pay 1 shilling. For an ordinary peasant this sum was very significant, while for a wealthier person, such as a lord or a nobleman, it was not.
Furthermore, the shortage of manpower in England became apparent in the 1380’s. As their role gained significance, the peasant class began to recognize their own worth within society. Farmers were essential for the crown, but their value was repeatedly ignored. When high taxes were imposed, the anger of the common man showed its face. Things in England finally escalated in 1381, on May 30th. A royal official, and later the Archdeacon of Lewes, John Bampton arrived in Essex in order to investigate and collect unpaid poll taxes. He based himself in the village of Brentwood and waited for chief representatives from all the neighboring villages to present themselves. They all had to present the unpaid taxes in the span of a single day.
The Battle of Agincourt was one of many battles which took place between the French and the English during the course of the Hundred Years’ War. Image from the Chronicles of Enguerrand de Monstrelet, a French 15th century chronicler. (Public Domain)
Wat Tyler’s Rebellion Spread Like Wildfire
A great number of villagers did appear, albeit not bearing taxes, but bows, sticks, and similar implements. In the ensuing conversations, one of the prominent village elders, Thomas Baker, refused to deliver any taxes and stated they were paid already. Bampton ordered his arrest, causing violence to break out. John Bampton promptly fled back to London, but some of his jurors were not so lucky and were killed on the spot.
The revolt began spreading like wildfire. Prominent men rallied support between villages and even crossed into neighboring counties spreading the news. The revolt spread to many Essex villages and flared up in Kent as well. It is at this point that Wat Tyler steps into the pages of history as the leader of the rebellion.
Just a few days after the Wat Tyler’s Rebellion began, the rebels stormed Rochester Castle in an attempt to free a wrongly imprisoned man. The constable of the castle surrendered without a fight once faced with the furious mass of people. It is said that at Madestone the next day, the people elected Wat Tyler to lead them.
Wat Tyler is mentioned in the Anonimalle Chronicle as a loved and charismatic leader, indicating that he might have been an influential and well-known person amongst the Essex villages. It also states that he was a capable leader and had served in France as an archer. While history did not record many details about him other than these, we can certainly deduce that Tyler was a shrewd leader. It is agreed that he was responsible for rapidly shaping the revolt into a political issue.
In any case, the rebels soon marched further. With Wat Tyler at their head, they marched to the walled city of Canterbury, which they managed to capture without any resistance on the 10th of June 1381. Canterbury was the base camp of Archbishop Simon Sudbury on whom the rebels laid most of their discontent. They believed that he and the Duke of Lancaster, John Gaunt, were corrupt. Luckily for the Archbishop, he was not in Canterbury at the time. The rebel army deposed him either way and forced all the clergy of the city to swear fealty to their cause.
In Canterbury, the rebels sought out establishments connected to the royal council. They combed the city for enemies of their cause, and dragged them from their homes and to be executed on the spot. They also freed all the prisoners from the city jail. Afterwards, Wat Tyler assembled several thousand men and implored them to join him and march on the capital. The next morning, he marched towards London with his Kentish men, a march that was seemingly coordinated with rebel men from neighboring Suffolk, Essex, and Norfolk. As they marched, Wat Tyler’s forces chanced upon none other than the king’s own mother, Lady Joan, Countess of Kent, fleeing towards the capital. Luckily, Tyler’s forces did not harm her and she was merely mocked.
Illustration of the persecuted priest John Ball encouraging Wat Tyler’s rebels to join the Peasants' Revolt in 1381. From a 1470s manuscript of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles. (Public domain)
Marching on London: Fanning the Flame of Freedom
The rebel forces, armed with an assortment of weaponry, finally reached Blackheath on the outskirts of London on June 12th 1381. In the meantime, the young King Richard II moved to the sturdy Tower of London for safety, alongside the Archbishop Simon Sudbury and his most prominent nobles. He then assembled a delegation led by the medieval Bishop of Rochester, Thomas Brinton, with the intent to parlay with the rebel forces in hopes of dispersing them. But at the Blackheath assembly of rebels, things didn’t quite go according to King Richard’s plan.
Wat Tyler had an important ally at his side, a well-known priest named John Ball. Ball was already a name well known to the English clergy, persecuted for his preaching of John Wycliffe’s famous doctrines which the clergy considered contrary to their own. Thus, John Ball was imprisoned in Maidstone jail in 1381, and it was he that the rebel crowds freed after taking over Maidstone.
Ball now became the principal motivator of the rebel army, where he preached open air sermons. One of these is the now-famous sermon that stirred the hearts of all assembled rebels:
“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 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.”
Needless to say, the delegation led by the Bishop of Rochester had no success. The rebels refused to disperse and continued preparations to move onwards. The weight of this situation should certainly not be taken lightly: England at the time was heavily invested in military campaigns, with many of its forces and skilled commanders abroad. Thus King Richard II was placed in an unpleasant situation with only a meager force of a few hundred men at his immediate disposal.
King Richard II and his failed negotiation with rebels from his barge on the River Thames, during Wat Tyler’s Rebellion of 1381, from a 1470s copy of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles. (Public domain)
Hoping to avoid conflict with the rebels, King Richard II decided to attempt negotiations himself. This was a risky move, and so he decided to discuss the terms from the river. He sailed along the River Thames on his barge, surrounded by four boats of soldiers. He then attempted to negotiate with the rebels gathered on the shore. The latter refused to talk unless the King disembark and talk on dry land. Richard refused, and the negotiations failed. Again.
Bringing London to Its Knees
The revolt truly took shape on the following day when the rebels began their march on London. The Kentish rebels, led by Wat Tyler, entered the city from Southwark and crossed the London Bridge unopposed. From the Northeast, through the Aldgate, the rebels entered from Essex. The armed men swept through London like a massive, unstoppable wave. From the get-go the rebels presented themselves as fighters for justice and their rights, rather than a riotous looting mass. Almost nothing was stolen in their riot, but the destruction was widespread and immense. First and foremost, was their desire for justice. They sought out all prominent officials in order to seize and execute them. They were also joined by many discontent Londoners. Theirs was now a mighty and unopposed army.
First to fall during Wat Tyler’s Rebellion was the Marshalsea Prison, which they tore apart. Knights Hospitaller buildings were also attacked: their headquarters, the Clerkenwell Priory, was completely destroyed, and their legal buildings on Fleet Street, known as the Temple, were also ransacked. The rebels seized all books, paperwork, and other content and burned them all on the streets. Next in line was one of the richest – if not the richest – and most luxurious palaces in London – the Savoy Palace. This magnificent building was the residence of John of Gaunt, one of the main targets of the rebel army. The palace was notoriously rich and filled with rare luxury items and wealth. All of it was utterly destroyed by the rebels and the palace razed to the ground. Yet nothing was stolen.
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Portrait of King Richard II of England (1367-1400). (Public domain)
The rebels also had a particular enmity towards Flemish immigrants in London, most likely due to the fact that the Flemish weavers held that particular monopoly. During the riots in London, Flemish people were openly executed in the streets and their bodies piled up.
The situation had gotten terribly out of hand. On seeing the destruction caused and London in flames, the king decided to meet with the rebels personally and negotiate. Leaving his councilors in the Tower of London, he met the rebels at Mile End with only his bodyguard for protection. He was not harmed and was able to negotiate. Apparently, Wat Tyler was not present, but even so the needs of the rebels were declared. Meanwhile the rebels stormed the Tower of London, completely ransacking it and capturing both Archbishop Sudbury and Robert Hales, the Lord High Treasurer. They promptly beheaded them.
The Decapitation of Wat Tyler and the End of His Rebellion
The course of the Peasants’ Revolt changed dramatically on June 15th 1381. King Richard agreed to meet once more with the rebels. The rebels were not satisfied with the charters the king had delivered. This time Wat Tyler was present, and the plan was to renegotiate the terms. The negotiations were carried out at Smithfield, outside the city walls, and were conducted in a peaceful manner. However, things soon turned sour.
It is said that Wat Tyler became noticeably rude and arrogant during the negotiations. Things further escalated when one of the king’s close servants insulted Tyler. The latter responded to the insult physically, and the London’s mayor, William Walworth, attempted to intervene and arrest Wat Tyler. Tyler attempted to stab Walworth, without success, and was in turn slashed with a sword across the head and neck, while another of the king’s servants then stabbed Wat Tyler once more. Tyler attempted to escape the scene but fell from his horse after only thirty yards. He was later publicly decapitated at Smithfield, and his head paraded through town before being displayed on the London Bridge. With the death of Wat Tyler, the rebel army slowly dissipated and ran. The revolt was essentially over, and many of the key figures in the revolt were arrested and executed.
Engraving by Anker Smith showing the death of Wat Tyler in Smithfield 1381. (Public domain)
Voices Lost in Time
Even though we know that Wat Tyler was an instrumental figure of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, we still know next to nothing about his life or other deeds. What is certain is that this man gave a much needed voice to the oppressed peasants of the time, bringing a spark to the country that needed a flame for the fight for freedom against injustice and exploitation.
Top image: Wat Tyler on June 15th, being stabbed by William Walworth, the mayor of London, with King Richard II looking on. He was later decapitated and his head displayed on London Bridge for his involvement in what became known as Wat Tyler’s Rebellion. Source: Public domain
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