This website will tell you all you need to know about the Peasants' Revolt.
How the Black Death caused the Peasants' Revolt
In 1348-1951, the Black Death spread across Europe killing around 30% of its population. If you don't know what the Black Death is, it was a major death disease back in the 14th century.
During the years that the Black Death hit England, and the number of people that died as a consequence, the labour force around England was greatly reduced. This meant that the surviving labourers were able to demand higher wages and fewer hours of work – and even their freedom in some cases. As a result they often got their requests because the Lords of the manors needed the peasants to work as labourers to farm their land and tend their animals.
In 1351 King Edward III summoned parliament to pass the Statute of Labourers in a bid to stop peasants asking for better pay around the countryside. He wanted to keep wages and all terms of employment to pre-plague levels. As a result the government introduced the Statute which stated the following:
No peasants could be paid more than the wages paid in 1346.
No lord or master should offer more wages than paid in 1346.
No peasants could leave the village they belonged to.
Despite the Statute being brought in, the resulting effect was that labourers employed by lords were effectively exempted, while labourers working for other employers, both artisans and more substantial peasants, were liable to be fined or held in the stocks.
Even though peasants knew that ignoring the Statue could and probably would lead to serious punishment, some still chose to not obey. As well as this landlords were constantly increasing rents on their land to which the peasants were now tied by the Statute of Labourers. As a result there was a lot of anger amongst the peasants and this anger eventually boiled over and in 1381, as a consequence of this anger and feelings, Peasants' Revolt took. So it could be argued that the Black Death was the main cause of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.
The other causes of the Peasants' Revolt
There were other reasons that the Peasants Revolt took place other than the Black Death and these are listed below:
Obviously there was the Statute of Labourers which was mentioned before.
Prices had also risen since the Black Death but wages had not, resulting in the peasants suffering from hunger and shortages.
The fact that during the Peasants Revolt there was a young king. England had a strong king, Edward III but his son, the Black Prince, died before him, leaving his grandson as heir to the throne. Edward III died in 1377, and his grandson, then aged 10, became king. However, the barons held the majority of the power, in particular the boy's uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. The barons were disliked by the peasants, and began to take advantage of the situation.
There was also the poll tax. The treasury was left empty after the Hundred Years War, and the barons became tired of paying for the war. John of Gaunt imposed a new tax in 1377 named the Poll (head) Tax, and this was created to cover the cost of the war. Unlike normal taxes, this was to be paid by the peasants, as well as the landowners. Although this was meant to be a "one-off" event, it was so successful that it was repeated three more times. The first tax was 4d from every adult (14+ years), then it was raised to 4d for the peasants and more for the rich, and finally in 1380, it was raised to 12d per adult. The barons acted like tax collectors and some would siphon off some of the money into their own pockets. The peasants could not afford to pay the tax especially as the tax was collected in cash and not farm produce. By 1380, many of the peasants were hiding from the collectors, and avoiding payment. As a result the amount collected dropped away, despite the fact that the tax had been increased.
John Ball and the church was another cause. The Black Death had a great effect on the Church and many of the clergy were poorly educated, and respect for the Church reduced. Being a major land owner, the Church abbots and bishops sided with the barons against the peasants. This made the church hated, as the peasants felt betrayed by an organisation that should be helping, rather than exploiting them. There were also a number of rebellious priests at this time who preached against the Church and the barons, making the situation worse. Foremost amongst these was John Ball, who coined the famous verse; "While Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?" John Ball's influence was so dangerous the Archbishop of Canterbury had him arrested, and confined in Maidstone Castle.
The main events of the Peasants' Revolt
In the village of Fobbing, in the county of Essex, a tax collector arrived to find out why the
people there had not paid their poll tax, but he is thrown out by the villagers. In June soldiers arrived in the same village to establish law and order, but they too were thrown out and many other local villages in Essex joined the rebels. There was one man that emerged as leader of the peasants, and his name was Wat Tyler. On 7th June of that year Tyler and his followers captured Canterbury. They then opened up Maidstone prison and freed John Ball, the arrested priest. On 10th June the rebels marched towards London and attracted followers along the way. On route they destroyed tax records registers and buildings which kept government records were burnt down. On 11th June nearly 40,000 rebels arrived in London and waited to present their demands to the king. A meeting at Rotherhithe was cancelled as the King’s advisor’s fear for his safety. On 13th June Richard II agreed to meet them at Mile End. The king listened to the rebels’ demands which included free labour contracts and the right to rent land at four pence an acre. Richard II promised them justice and gave the peasants all they asked for and told them to go home in peace. Some of them did. However others entered London and captured the Tower of London. The Archbishop of Canterbury Simon Sudbury and Sir Robert Hales, the Treasurer were killed on Tower Hill. Richard II spent the night in hiding for fear of his life. On 15th June the king met the rebels once more and Wat Tyler gave the king his list of demands, to which the king readily agreed. Suddenly after a few cross words, one of the King’s lords (Walworth or Standish) approached from behind with a sword and killed Wat Tyler. This was the signal for the king’s troops (8000 men) to attack the rebels. As a result 1500 of them were killed.
The only people to write about what happened on the 15th June were on the side of the king, so it is unsure what actually happened that day. One thing which is known – the revolt did not last very long. The death of Wat Tyler accompanied by a promise from Richard II to give the peasants what they asked for was enough to send the rebels home.
As a result the following occurred:
Poll Taxes were dropped.
Wages slowly rose. - Lords preferred to keep workers than to keep the law and within ten years the government gave up trying to control wages.
The Feudal System collapsed. Due to the shortage of workers and the Lords therefore unable to keep demanding the old feudal services. So there was no more working for no pay, paying fines to the Lord, etc. Within 100 years all the peasants’ demands about the Feudal System had come about. By 1500 all labourers were free.
So Richard II’s personal bravery calmed the rebels and he cleverly said he was giving them what they wanted, in order that they would be easily defeated when they had gone home. However, the King was later overthrown and murdered by Henry IV, partly because of the way he had ruled England and partly because of his arrogance. He truly believed he could do whatever he wanted without worrying about the consequences.
So the peasants revolt had been a failure in the short term but not so in the long term as many of it's aims were eventually achieved. In the end it helped to bring an end to the feudal system.
The Aftermath and Results of the Peasants' Revolt
Once the peasants had left London, messengers were dispatched throughout the country, summoning troops. The last members of the huge gathering of peasants were encamped at Billericay in Essex. They found themselves cut down by royal troops, vainly flourishing the pardons and charters that they had been given.
Royal forces visited the areas thath had been affected, looking for the rebels. Possession of a charter became a virtual death sentence. 500 or so died in Hertfordshire and Essex, very few with a trial of any form, as the Earl of Buckinqham carried out the King's demand for vengeance. In Kent 1500 peasants were sent to the gallows.
Another minor rebellion broke out in St. Albans, where the abbot was a hated figure amongst the townspeople. This was ruthlessly crushed on 15th July, when John Ball was hung, drawn and quartered as an example. John Ball had been one of the preachers considered to have caused the rebellion. The Peasants Revolt, although brief and not achieving its aim of ending villeinage, had a huge psychological impact. The broadness of its appeal and extent of its demands were quite exceptional. The demands of the rebels for an end to villeinage, that all land should rent at 4d. per acre, and that the higher clergy should be abolished were extremely revolutionary by the standards of the day. The attack on the poll tax was the rebels' only success. The rebels insisted that they wanted to purge the traitors around the king - but not harm the king himself. Wat Tyler and John Ball imagined a world where all were free and equal.
The peasants were broken, and their demands denied with many of them executed. But the land owners had been scared, and so in the long term several points were achieved.
Parliament gave up trying to control the wages that the landowners paid their peasants.
The poll tax was never raised again and the Lords treated the peasants with much more respect. They made more of them free men which meant they were no longer owned as part of the land. This was of great benefit in the end, as it was noted that free men always work much harder.
This marked the breakdown of the feudal system, which had worked well during the early Middle Ages, but was now becoming outdated as attitudes were beginning to change.