Peasants’ Revolt: Wat Tyler and Richard II’s Poll Tax

June 1381 Peasants from across the south-east, led by Wat Tyler from Kent, stormed London in protest at the 15-year-old King Richard II’s shilling-per-head Poll Tax, raised to fund the war against France.

Man on horse and rebels

Priest John Ball encouraging Wat Tyler’s rebels, from Jean Froissart’s Chronicles in the British Library

On 2 June, two mass marches set off:

  • From Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk
  • From Kent and other areas south of the Thames.

The Kent rebels ransacked Rochester Castle and Canterbury before heading for London via Blackheath.

Doublecross

Entering London, the rebels destroyed tax records and beheaded tax officials before meeting the king on 14 June. The king gave in to all the peasants’ demands.

But Tyler lost control of some of the rebels, who looted and killed lawyers and priests, including Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Robert Hales, the king’s treasurer, forcing the king into hiding.

At a second meeting with the King the next morning, held at Smithfields, the Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Walworth, slashed Tyler with his dagger. Tyler was taken to St Bartholomew’s hospital, but was later beheaded.

The king talked to the crowd and dispersed them, but then reneged on his promises.

Background:

The Black Death had wiped out so many peasants 35 years earlier that the smaller pool of workers had been able to demand higher wages.

The bishops and lords in government passed laws to limit wage rises.

This was the third Poll Tax in four years and was set at a shilling for every person over the age of 15.

Non-payment started in Essex. In May 1381, a tax collector arrived at the village of Fobbing to find out why no tax had been collected but was thrown out, as were soldiers sent soon afterwards. This led to the phrase “fobbed off”.

Wat Tyler Road

Wat Tyler Road, Blackheath, south-east London

Wat Tyler has a narrow, uninhabited lane named after him on Blackheath, while Walworth has a whole district of London named after him.

Revolts:

Cornish rebellion | Jack Cade | Boston tea party | Community Charge |

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