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Chapter Five of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University


5. The English Rising

In the spring of 1381 a man named Thomas Brampton was sent to Essex to collect a one-shilling tax that had been levied on every adult in England. He found himself in disagreement with some villagers about what was owed, and the villagers refused to pay more than they already had. Brampton ordered his guard of two men-at-arms to arrest those who refused to pay, but soon found himself chased out of town by an angry mob of villagers. While Brampton rode for London to report the incident, the villagers talked among themselves, and then among their neighbors. The word spread to other villagers, and when the London authorities sent down a justice and several jurors to try them, the justice, his jurors, and several clerks were seized and beheaded by the indignant men of Essex. Word spread fast from village to village, and before long tens of thousands of Englishmen, led by the people of Essex and Kent, had converged on London, had taken it over, had set fire to several buildings, had opened the prisons, had murdered a large number of men, and had imprisoned the fourteen-year-old King Richard II, with his closest advisers and chivalric supporters, in the Tower of London.

What caused this state of affairs? There are no simple answers, and even the complicated answers are shrouded in the mystery that must surround many events that happened over 600 years ago. Still, some sense can be made of the events of 1381, and of the causes that lay behind them.

We must recall, first, that in England in the Middle Ages land was owned by the few but worked by the many. The "manorial system" functioned because most men, if not quite slaves, were not really free. They were bound to the land, and were, for practical purposes, essentially the property of the landowner. They were allotted certain plots of land to work for their own benefit, but they had to spend a specified number of hours each week working the land of the lord of the manor. The lord's harvest came first, then their own. When they needed flour, they were required to take their grain to the lord's mill, where the miller subtracted some grain or flour for himself. When they died, their goods were inherited by their lord. There were local variations on the pattern, and some lords were more generous and understanding than others. In addition there were subtle shifts in the system as the decades and centuries passed. The "villeins" of the fourteenth century were less oppressed than those of the twelfth. Still, many men were bound to their lords and yearned to be free. Some of them found freedom, either by running away and offering their services for hire in the next county or in one of the towns, or by managing to purchase their freedom in one of several ways that came to be known as "manumission." The freedom of some intensified the desire of others to be free.

The Black Death of 1349-50, while it robbed many villeins of their lives, nevertheless helped those who survived to hasten their movement toward freedom. Because of this plague there was suddenly a shortage of labor, and the manorial lords found their fields unattended because there were not enough men to plow, plant, cultivate, and harvest them. As a result they tended to demand even more of the time of the men who were left, thus increasing the frustration of those men. The lords found themselves needing to hire free men who would work for them for wages. This practice soon led to an uncomfortable double standard in the fields: the free man working for cash next to the unfree man working not for cash but merely for the right to go home at night and work the fields allotted for his own use. The fabric of the feudal system was already weakening before the middle of the fourteenth century, but the sudden shortage of labor following the Black Death gave the common man an unprecedented sense of his own importance and a heady awareness that, because his lord needed him at least as much as he needed his lord, he could begin to call his own shots. By 1380, 30 years after the first onslaught of the Black Death, the medieval countryman was no longer someone who would automatically say "yes" to anyone of higher rank, greater wealth, or bolder authority.

Many of these men found themselves encouraged by their parish priests to question some of the demands and pretensions of those above them. There was clearly a growing tendency among many priests to question the right of the cathedrals and monasteries to take so much from the poor and to amass so much wealth for what seemed to be their own benefit. John Ball, one of the apparent leaders of the revolt, was one such priest. One of the English chroniclers gives an account of John Ball's speech on June 12, 1381, to the people gathered outside the Tower of London that enclosed their king:

"Ah, ye good people, the matters goeth not well to pass in England, nor shall not do till everything be common, and that their be no villeins nor gentlemen, but that we may all be united together, and that the Lords be no greater masters than we be. What have we deserved, and why should we be kept thus in servage? We be all come from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve; whereby can they say or shew that they be greater Lords than we be, saving by that they cause us to win and labour for that they dispend?"

The speech went on, but this excerpt suggests the kind of support that some priests gave to men and women who desired the freedom to take charge of their own affairs.

The immediate cause of the revolt was a per-capita tax levied in 1380--the third such tax in four years. The money was needed to pay for wars and other royal expenses from which the people who had to pay the tax seemed to derive no clear benefit. The people, increasingly conscious of their collective importance and power, came to realize that if in large numbers they refused to pay such taxes, there was little that the king or his ministers could do about it. In 1381, after the Thomas Brampton incident, they seem almost to have surprised themselves. Swept along by uncertain leadership and a vague sense of purpose, they soon found themselves a mighty band of angry men who had taken London by storm with scarcely a hint of resistance from the king, whose armies were then in far-away Portugal, or from the king's supporters, who were frightened into inaction. Neither London nor any previous English king had ever seen such a revolt.

What was once called the "Peasants' Revolt" worked in part because it was not solely a revolt of the peasants. Indeed, historians now prefer the term "English Rising." The villeins were joined by many free men, merchants, and artisans. This many-faceted group did not really have to "conquer" London. Many Londoners, disliking the arrogance of the rich, the insensitivity of the aristocracy, and the oppressiveness of the tax collectors as much as did their cousins just in so noisily from the country, were pleased to welcome and support them.

Young Richard was in a desperate situation. What was he to do? The men around him, several of whom were being demanded by the mob at the Tower gates for immediate execution, had few useful suggestions. The answer was obvious enough to anyone bold enough to suggest it: Richard must ride out among the people, hear their demands, offer to grant them anything they wanted, and send them on their way. History does not record who suggested this plan, but someone did. Richard tried it, and it worked.

It worked primarily for two reasons. First, the people were not against Richard himself. They repeatedly insisted, through whatever leaders would be listened to, that they were loyal to their king. They felt that those who advised the king, however, consistently ignored the needs of the people. The people wanted an audience with the king so that they could express their views directly to the only man who might help them. They knew that the king was too young to be responsible for the oppression they felt, but he was old enough that he could help them if he could be made to understand their plight. That was the first reason the plan worked: the people respected their king and needed him to help them. The second reason was that the boy-king was man enough, brave enough, and resourceful enough to make it work.

Richard sent out word that he would meet the rebels. When he got to the meeting with a group of his retainers, one of the rebels stepped forward and presented the king with their demands: the abolition of villeinage, the commutation of feudal dues, and a general amnesty and pardon for all those who had rebelled. The king readily agreed to these demands and urged the men to go home. Some of them did, but many, distrusting the king, waited to make sure they received written and signed proof of their king's good faith. While the documents were being prepared, rebels broke into the Tower, seized Archbishop Sudbury and a number of other hated people, and executed them. By the end of the day, their thirst for revenge satisfied and their demands apparently met, some more of the rebels had begun the long trudge home, and Richard returned to the Tower.

The next day Richard again went out to meet with the rebels. This time one of their leaders named Wat Tyler greeted the king as "brother." Richard asked for Tyler's demands and was told that the rebels demanded the end of all lordship except the king's, equality for all, the end of villeinage, the confiscation of church property so that it could be dedicated to the good of the people, and other similarly revolutionary demands. Richard replied that he would grant all that he could if the rebels would go home.

It is not certain just what happened next. Apparently Wat Tyler did or said something rude in the king's presence. Someone in the king's retinue called Tyler a wretched thief. Tyler ordered his men to attack the king's man, and the king ordered the mayor to arrest Tyler. Tyler struck at the mayor with his sword, and the mayor thrust back, badly wounding Tyler, who then retreated on his horse. The king rode after him. When the people understood what had happened, and that they had King Richard surrounded in the market place, they drew their bows and took aim at him. In the pause before they let fly their arrows, Richard boldly shouted to them: "Let me be your leader." Apparently impressed at such bravery in one so young, they lowered their arrows and let Richard lead them to the edge of town.

As soon as the mob had followed Richard out of the market place, the mayor and others in the king's retinue gathered together the loyalists and captured the rebels who still remained. They found Wat Tyler, beheaded him, put his head on a spear, and rushed with it to the edge of town where some of the rebels still hesitated. When the rebels saw that Tyler was dead and that they were surrounded by the king's men, they surrendered. The king pardoned them and told them to go home. This time they did, and the English Rising was over.

Richard, of course, never planned to keep all of the promises he had made, though the general amnesty and pardon was for the most part observed. As for declaring an end to villeinage, confiscating the property of the church, and declaring all men free and equal, well, those promises were made under duress, the king later said, and so were void. Things went on after the English Rising pretty much as they had before it, and the people of England found that they had to wait decades or even centuries for their demands to be met in fact.

Disorganized, unfocused, and chaotic as it was, the revolt was a clear signal to the lords and to the king that there were forces to be reckoned with out there, and that they would do well to pay attention not simply to affairs across the channel, but to domestic affairs as well. Those three days in which the mob ruled London, held in check only by the desperate hope that their king would listen to them, cannot have failed to make an impression on a ruling class who before 1381 had doubted the power of common people to accomplish anything. Although it is misleading to see in the English Rising an effective precursor to the rise of the proletariat, the poll tax was abandoned and the ruling classes must have sensed that the voice of the common people could never again be ignored in politics.

Chaucer, who was probably in London during the siege, was just entering his most productive artistic phase in the early 1380s. He makes only one direct allusion to the English Rising. It comes near the end of the Nun's Priest's Tale, when the farmers are noisily chasing the fox:

So hydous was the noyse--a, benedicitee!--
Certes, he Jakke Straw and his meynee
Ne made nevere shoutes half so shrille
Whan that they wolden any Flemyng kille,
As thilke day was maad upon the fox.

(VII 3393-97) 

More important than the mention of Jack Straw, one of the leaders of the English Rising, or the reference to the mob's beheading of some 35 Flemish people in London, is the fact that Chaucer shows us, earlier in the Canterbury Tales, a common miller demanding the right to answer the tale of a highborn knight. For a lowly miller to challenge a mighty knight seems ordinary enough, perhaps, to a twentieth-century audience. It must have seemed quite extraordinary to a fourteenth-century one. Whatever Chaucer thought about such boldness, his poetic portrayal of such an event shows that the voice of the common people could never again be ignored in literature.

  • Primary source: Harold F. Hutchinson, The Hollow Crown: A Life of Richard II (London: Methuen, 1961).

Chapter Five of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University

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The contents of this page are copyright 2001 Peter G. Beidler.