I started out thinking nobody could be a worse villain than royal toady John Bampton, Minister of Parliament and Justice of the Peace. He descended on the little Essex village of Brentwood at the end of May 1381 to collect over due taxes and delivered neither justice nor peace. Within 48 hours Bampton's ministrations had set off a riot, gotten six of his own clerks and several loyal citizens beheaded by a mob and barely escaped himself, tail between his legs, back to London. Who could be a bigger villain than that?
The immediate answer was the arrogant royal toady Sir Simon de Burley. On Monday, 3 June, 1381, two sergeants dispatched by the villein de Burley entered the Thames side village of Gravesend, to arrest escaped Peasant Robert Belling. However Belling must have been more than a mere peasant because he offered to buy his own freedom. But Sir de Burely demanded his rights of lordship, and had Belling thrown into the dungeon of Rochester Castle. Three days later a mob showed up outside Rochester Castle and the warden thought it better to free Belling rather than have his tiny garrison murdered. Was this rebellion really caused by the villain Sir Simon de Burley?
Between the Black Death, which had killed over half of all English peasants during 1348-49, and the Hundred Years War with France (they were right in the middle of it) , the long suffering and few remaining peasants of England were, by 1381, fed up with having to feed and clothe and supply weapons and soldiers for their arrogant masters in the nobility In early June 60,000 peasants from Essex in the northeast, and 40,000 from Kent in the southeast, were marching on London, determined to have their complaints heard by the King himself.
The English nobility were shocked and stunned. Because of the war in France and the never ending Scottish threat, there were few soldiers left in England. And those that were, were not trustworthy, as the warden of Rochester Castle had shown.
And worse, the King, chosen to rule by divine right , was the 14 year old Plantagenet blue blood Richard II, a tall and gangly youth with a “white, rounded and feminine” face. He was a smart lad, but had a nasty stammer, and his noble “handlers” were not sure he could lead them out of this crises, whoever was to blame for starting it..
The nobility's first nomination for the responsible villain was the “mad priest of Kent” the heretical Father John Ball. He had often challenged the very foundations of feudalism, asking , “When Adam dug and Eve spun, where was then a gentleman?” Ball dared to argue “all men by nature were created alike.” It was not God who chose Kings, said Ball, but “naughty men.”
Sir Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England, had locked up Ball in Rochester Castle (above). As the Kent rebels moved west, they looted the Archbishop's properties in Canterbury, blaming him for the taxes piled upon them. But this was also where a third villain joined the rebellion, who would give his name to the entire revolt: Wat Tyler. And once having reached Rochester, he freed both Berling and Father Ball.
Here was the nobility's real villain, then, and a proper villain too, being a free resident from a village. It was said Tyler was a member of the roof tiler's guild, or a blacksmith. It was said he had served in the King's army in France. And it was said a tax collector tried to strip his 13 year old daughter, to prove she was old enough to pay the 1 shilling poll tax, the third in four years, laid on every person over 14 years of age, and that Tyler then beat the man's brains out.
Whatever the truth, it is fact that on 7 June, 1381, Tyler was elected to lead the rebels up the Old Kent Road to London. And from that day the Peasant's Revolt became Wat Tyler's rebellion. Four days later, 11 June, 1381, the crowd reached the high ground at Blackheath, 3 miles southeast of London.
This “bleak site”, named for its dark soil, was a tradition camping spot, and young King Richard II's advisers had anticipated the rebels would pause there. They loaded their royal charge onto a barge, and with four barges of soldiers as escort, set out down the Thames to overawe the “rebels” and order them to disperse. Seeing 40,000 angry peasants armed with longbows and axes, the courtiers panicked. The King did not get off the boat (above), and the royal forces did not stop rowing back up river until they were all locked safely behind the walls of the Tower of London.
Caught on the outside, the Lord Mayor William Walworth ordered the gate houses at both ends of the 900 foot long London Bridge, the only crossing over the Thames River, to be closed and its drawbridge raised. This should keep the peasants on the south bank.
On Wednesday, 12 June, 1381, when Wat Tyler and his 40,000 member “mob” approached London Bridge, Walter Sybyle, a fishmonger and city alderman, ordered the gates at both ends lifted and the drawbridge lowered. Pausing only to post their own men in the gatehouses, peasants streamed past the west door of St. Magnus-the-Matyr Cathedral and invaded the capital.
Fleet and Newgate Prisons were raided and the prisoners were freed. Legal offices were ransacked, lawyers and clerks were butchered, and thousands of contracts, property records and mortgages were burned. The mobs also ransacked the homes of recent Flemish immigrants, and many were killed. And the Savoy Palace (above), the ostentatious home of the arrogant and incompetent general John of Gaunt, was captured. “What could not be smashed or burned was thrown into the river. Jewelery was pulverized with hammers...” But a disciplined core of Tyler's force marched directly to Aldergate, in the eastern city wall. There the man entrusted by Mayor Walworth, Thomas Farington, threw that gate open as well.
Tyler's force advanced a mile outside the city walls and camped in the open fields at Mile End. And there, on the following day, Thursday, 13 June, 1381, they were met by the larger force of peasants from Essex. A hundred thousand rebels, equal to London's population, had now occupied the capital, trapped the King and his ministers in the Tower, and accepted Wat Tyler as their sole leader..
The situation was unstable. Tyler must find food and water for his massive “mob”. And so must the King's much smaller force in the tower. And with the daily markets disrupted, Mayor William Walworth must do the same for the city. The King's party panicked first, and asked for a meeting the next day, Friday 14 June 1381, at the rebel encampment at Mile End, to hear what Wat Tyler wanted.
Tyler wanted everything – the end to the slavery of serfdom, the right of peasants to buy the the land they worked, and to sell what they made and grew, the right to punish the royal advisers who had oppressed the people, and a general pardon for the peasant army. Grant these humble requests, said Tyler, and the peasant army would return to their villages. The King made a show of offering a few objections before agreeing to everything. It was the strategy Tyler expected, as he had no doubt Richard II meant to betray the promises. So Tyler had not waited for the King to betray his last promise.
While these “negotiations” were still going on, 400 rebels marched on The Tower. Again, the guards offered little more than token resistance. It was the first and last time the Tower of London fell to an invading force.
Chanting "Where is the traitor to the kingdom?” the rebels dragged their number one villain, the fat Archbishop of Canterbury, Sir Simon Sudbury, and a dozen of other royal advisers, outside to Tower Hill, where they were all beheaded.
It took 8 blows to carve through Sudbury's thick neck, as his battered skull still shows (above).. When Richard II saw his adviser's head being paraded on a pike, the King abandoned The Tower, and hurried instead to his apartments in Blackfriars, in south-west London.
That night, while the heads of the murdered royal advisers were bobbing atop the southern gatehouse of London Bridge, Mayor William Walworth came to the Richard with good news. First, a large part of the Peasant army had already started for home, trusting the King to fulfill his promises. And second, the merchants of London had raised a militia of 5,000 armed men, whose loyalty could be trusted. In the morning, Saturday 15 June, 1381, Richard sent word he wanted to meet again with Tyler, to seal their agreement. But this time, he asked, the meeting be held at at Smithfields, where he felt safer.
For 800 years Smithfields, north west of the city walls, bordered by the Fleet River and shaded by elm trees, had been the open air livestock market for the city, and occasionally an execution place for rebels like Scotsman William Wallace. But being from out of town, Wat Tyler was probably unaware of this last purpose. Late that afternoon, Wat Tyler and a few followers crossed the Fleet River, leaving his peasant mob on the eastern shore, and rode to meet the King and his 200 supporters..
Was Tyler drunk? Had he gone mad? Or did he sense, with the loss of most of his men, how this story was destined to end? Richard II asked why the peasants had not all gone home. Tyler responded they were waiting for the promised laws to be signed by the King. A valet named Ralph Standish then called Tyler a thief. At the insult the Kentish villain drew his only weapon, a knife. The Mayor drew his sword. Tyler slashed out, but the Mayor was wearing armor, as was the King. Tyler was not. Whereupon Standish ran Tyler through with his sword.
While the struggle continued the young King spurred his horse across the Fleet River, and addressed the rebels directly, calling them his friends. He invited them to follow guides to Clerkenwell Green, where they would be fed. Trusting their King, and not being able to see what was happening to Wat Tyler, the peasants followed.
It was a trap. The peasants arrived in Clerkenwell to find themselves hemmed in by run down apartment buildings and narrow streets, all escape routes guarded by the Mayor's militia. As darkness approached, the King appeared, followed by Wat Taylor's head atop a spike. It had been 9 days since Wat Tylor had been elected leader of the rebellion, and with his death the shrunken army of the poor lost heart. The peasants fell to their knees and begged forgiveness. The King granted it, but withdrew his promises to end serfdom and grant freedoms. He also knighted Mayor Wentworth and Ralph Standish. He then ordered the peasants to be escorted back across London Bridge, and allowed to return home. And then he unleashed his anger..
John Ball, whose words would inspire Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, was executed at St. Albans. His final words were, addressed not to the the King who was there to witness his agony, but to his “fellow citizens”. He advised them to “...stand firm while you may, and fear nothing for my punishment since I die in the cause of liberty.”
He was then hung until almost dead, taken down and slowly drawn and quartered. Over the next five years around England some 5000 rebels would be hung for their uprising. The increasingly tyrannical Richard would sneered at his subjects, “Rustics you were and rustics you are still. You will remain in bondage, not as before, but incomparably harsher” But there would not be another poll tax in England, until the 20th century.
Sir William Walworth, Lord Mayor of London, would die four years later, in December of 1385. In his will he left his wife all the income from his rents, including those of the whore houses he owned on the south shore of the Thames, rebuilt after Way Tyler's rebels burned them down.
Seven years after the death of Wat Tyler, the arrogant Sir Simon de Burley was impeached for treason by Parliament, and executed by beheading.
And in the 22nd year of his reign, Richard II, King of England by divine right, would be betrayed by a cousin, and would die of starvation as a prisoner in February of 1400. His death was barely noted, and he was almost completely forgotten by both the nobles and peasants of his kingdom..