Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Peasants' Revolt

Our tale begins in old, merry England, shortly after about one third of the European population was swept away with that dastardly Black Death. It was really quite a dark period for all of Europe. But time went on since then. Seasons passed, children grew up, peasants worked, more meaningless wars were to be had, and so on.

c. 1310 rural scene of reeve directing serfs, from the Queen Mary Psalter

Serfdom was devastated; there were very little serfs left, and the ones who survived expected to be paid and treated by their lords like actual humans. Laws were passed to stop them from being paid, but some lords kindly and generously gave in—not all, of course, and evidently many serfs were angry about that.

Richard II
Peasants were forced to maintain the yards of churches. (I wonder why the laymen couldn't have done it. Laziness...) It was a huge annoyance to the peasants, who already had a lot of chores of their own that they needed to take care of. And to make it worse, they weren't paid—not even in the slightest form. A priest named John Ball supported these poor folk.

There was also that Hundred Years War that was going on in 1381, and they needed cash, so our good King Richard II issued a poll tax (where every living person in England over the age of fifteen has to pay one groat to the King.) It didn't help that this was the third time this happened over a period of four years. You may be thinking,“it's only a groat,” but for the poorer folk, a groat can go a long way. The peasants were annoyed, and many refused to pay. And so when the taxman came to a little village called Fobbing in Essex on the 10th of May, the villagers promptly and angrily chased him out.

The taxman was outraged. He brought this to the Court of Common Pleas. The chief justice soon arrived to reprimand the rebelling villagers, but it would take more than just that to stop them. They threw him out too! He should have known never to under-estimate the strength of a group of angry peasants. The peasants of Kent united with the peasants of Essex—about sixty-thousand men in all. The three leaders were Wat Tyler, John Ball, and Jack Straw. Soon they resolved to march all the way to London to make the youthful, fourteen-year-old King finally listen to them. John Ball riled up fellow marchers with this sermon:
“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.”

John Ball cheers the rebels on, from Froissart's Chronicles, c. 1470.

The journey to London was fun for the rebels. Along the way they merrily ripped tax records and registers to shreds. They let prisoners flee and hop with glee. Some other poor folk happily joined the rebellion, too. The King's uncle's, John of Gaunt, castle was also burned down by some sneaky peasants.

The young King, frightened at this uprising as I'm sure any King would be, finally met with the rebels at Mile End on June 14th. To him the peasants petitioned for the poll tax to be gone, serfdom to be abolished, and for certain people such as John of Gaunt to be killed. The King gladly agreed, as long as they'd all just leave London. Many left, but many also stayed just to murder the Archbishop and Lord Treasurer. They put the heads on pikes and they held them in the air while they pranced around the city. Because they got what they wanted from the King, they wanted to continue this chaotic celebration.

Wat Tyler, along with his rebels from Kent, and the King met again the next day at Smithfield. The Lord Mayor of London, William Walworth, saw this as a perfect opportunity to murder Wat. He pushed Wat off his horse and a squire of the King finished him off with a stab in the stomach. The only problem was that the murderers were surrounded by his followers. The King said to them, “I am your captain, follow me!” and he led them away from the corpse. Shortly after that, the rebels went their separate ways to home. As for the other leaders, John Ball was hanged, drawn, and quartered while Jack Straw was also executed.

Wat Tyler is killed. Froissart's Chronicles, c. 1470. (King is shown twice)

The revolt was practically over now. Turns out the King never really kept his promise. He did eliminate the poll tax, but everything else he claimed was made under threat and not valid. Serfdom slowly died out all on its own, and good lords made their remaining serfs free men. Any peasants who still rebelled were likely executed. All's well that ends well.


No comments:

Post a Comment