On this day in 1381, the introduction of a poll tax led to the outbreak of the Peasants’ Revolt, also known as the Great Rising. It was a largely unsuccessful uprising that took place in late-medieval England. Even though it failed, it served as proof that peasants could be a potential opposition to the monarchy.
Causes of the Revolt
The Peasants’ Revolt was caused by several factors that led to social unrest. To begin with, the Black Death, a pandemic ocurring in Europe from 1346 to 1353, resulted in an economic and social shock for the country. In the United Kingdom, up to a third of the population died resulting in a shortage of labour. As a consequence, wages went up and the landowners put pressure on the government so that they would go back to the level they were before the pandemic.
On the other hand, England declared war on France in 1337, during King Edward III's reign. However, when the King passed away that same year his son King Richard II ascended to the throne and the war carried on. Since he was too young to rule England was governed by his uncle, John of Gaunt, who decided to raise Poll Taxes to be able to collect funds for the war. Still, it was the Poll Tax of 1381 that led to the Revolution. This tax was higher than the previous ones and was paid per person, not per property. As a result, people tried to avoid paying it and the social unrest rose.
This unrest was further increased when John Ball, a radical priest, started preaching sermons in which he criticised the feudal system and the Church. He argued that peasants were treated unfairly and encouraged them to demand changes. For that, he was excommunicated in 1366 and imprisoned in April 1381, even though the rebels released him in May of that same year.
The Peasants' Revolt
The outbreak of the Revolt took place in May 1381. When the King’s Commissioners arrived at Fobbing, a village in Essex, peasants refused to pay and killed them. Soon, the word spread to other villages from Kent and Essex that also joined this opposition. Large crowds started to march toward London and appointed a rebel leader, Wat Tyler. They were further encouraged by John Ball, who told them to demand freedom and greater rights. The protesters burned several buildings and freed prisoners on their way to London. At that time, King Richard's army was in Scotland and he was forced to seek refuge in the Tower of London.
The King, who by that time was only fourteen, eventually met the peasants at Mile End and agreed to their demands. However, shortly after that, they stormed the Tower of London and killed the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chancellor. Then, another meeting took place at Smithfield between the King and Wat Tyler, which resulted in the latter being captured and executed.
Afterwards, the King met the crowd of protesters and agreed to abolish serfdom. Most of the peasants left the city and the Revolt was put to an end. Nevertheless, Richard did not keep his promise and did not abolish serfdom.
Shortly after the end of the Revolt, King Richard had all the leaders of the Revolt executed, including John Ball. Even though the rising failed and the protesters didn’t get the demands they were asking for, rules on serfs were relaxed over time. Moreover, a new poll tax was not introduced again until 1990. But most importantly, the Revolt served as a warning that peasants were able to organise themselves in mass numbers and could be a potential opposition to future monarchs.