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The Peasants‘ Revolt of 1381: The Rise of the Rebel Armies


The Peasants‘ Revolt of 1381 was a seismic event in English history. For a few weeks in June, the normal structures of society seemed to turn upside down as armies of common people marched across the country, attacked the property of the rich and powerful, and issued bold demands for freedom and equality. Although quickly suppressed, the revolt sent shockwaves through the medieval world and raised questions about class, power and resistance that would resonate for centuries to come.

The Road to Rebellion

To fully understand the Peasants‘ Revolt, we need to look at the long-term pressures and grievances that drove so many to take such a dramatic stand.

The Black Death and the Labor Market

The first and perhaps most profound factor was the Black Death – the devastating plague epidemic that swept through England in 1348-51, killing between 30-50% of the population. This massive demographic contraction had far-reaching social and economic effects:

Year Estimated Population of England
1300 4-5 million
1351 2.5-3 million
1400 2-2.5 million

Table 1: Population decline due to the Black Death (Source: Broadberry et al, 2015)

With labor now in short supply, surviving peasants found themselves in a stronger bargaining position. Wages rose and some lords had to offer better terms to attract workers. But many in the ruling class sought to resist this shift in the balance of power. The Statute of Labourers (1351) tried to peg wages at pre-plague levels and restrict the movement of workers. Unsurprisingly, this was widely resented and often resisted by the peasantry.

War and Taxes

The second major factor was the fiscal burden of the Hundred Years War with France (1337-1453). This long, expensive conflict placed unprecedented strain on England‘s finances. To fund the war effort, successive governments resorted to deeply unpopular taxes, above all the poll taxes of 1377, 1379 and 1381.

The 1381 tax was especially resented, as it was set at a flat rate of 12d per head – three times the previous level. For a typical agricultural laborer earning 1.5-4d per day, this represented a crippling imposition of several weeks‘ wages. Tax evasion was widespread, with many villages recording suspiciously few inhabitants liable for the tax.

Anticlerical Sentiment

A third underlying cause of the revolt was growing popular resentment of the wealth and power of the Church. The medieval Church was the largest landowner in England, controlling perhaps a third of the land. It also wielded enormous political influence and legal privileges.

Critics argued that this worldly power and affluence was contrary to the teachings of Christ and the example of the apostles. The radical preacher John Ball famously asked: "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" For Ball and his followers, the inequalities of feudal society were a violation of God‘s will.

Political Tensions

Finally, there was a widespread perception in 1381 that England was being badly governed by a corrupt and self-serving ruling class. The young King Richard II was widely seen as weak and manipulated by his unpopular advisors and relatives, such as John of Gaunt.

Particular anger focused on the king‘s inner circle of courtiers and officials, who were blamed for mismanaging the war, embezzling tax revenues and abusing their legal powers to exploit the Commons. The Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury, was especially hated for his role in levying the poll taxes.

The Rising Tide of Revolt

These long-term grievances came to a head in the summer of 1381. As tax collectors attempted to levy the third poll tax, they met fierce resistance in several parts of England. In May, the villagers of Fobbing in Essex chased away a tax commissioner. On June 2, radical preacher John Ball was sprung from Maidstone jail by a band of Kentish rebels.

Over the next two weeks, the rebellion spread rapidly across the southeast, with major risings in Kent, Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire. Rebels attacked government buildings, burned legal records and tax rolls, and sought out hated officials and landlords. Some of the attacks had a distinctly antifeudal character – for example, on June 11, rebels in St Albans forced the abbot to surrender the charters that granted the monastery‘s feudal privileges.

Rebel Leadership and Demands

The rising coalesced around several charismatic leaders, who articulated the rebels‘ grievances and demands. In Kent, the key figure was Wat Tyler, who emerged as the overall leader of the revolt. In Essex and London, the rebels were led by Jack Straw and John Ball.

While the precise demands of the rebels varied, they can be grouped into a few main themes:

  1. The abolition of serfdom and feudal labor obligations
  2. The right to rent land at low rates and to buy and sell freely in markets
  3. The removal of the king‘s "evil counselors" and a return to good governance
  4. A more equitable distribution of wealth and power in society

Some of the more radical leaders like John Ball put forward a vision of a classless society, in which all men would be equal under God. As Ball declared in a famous sermon: "Things cannot go well in England, nor ever will, until all goods are held in common, and until there will be neither serfs nor gentlemen, and we shall be equal."

The March on London

By June 12, thousands of rebels from Kent and Essex had gathered at Blackheath, just outside London. Contemporary chroniclers put their numbers at between 20,000-60,000 men, although modern historians think 10,000-15,000 is more likely. Either way, it was an impressive display of popular mobilization.

The rebels sent a delegation to the young King Richard II, who was sheltering in the Tower of London. They demanded that the king meet with them to hear their grievances and accept their petitions. After some hesitation, Richard agreed to meet the rebels at Mile End on June 14.

The Clash in the Capital

The king‘s decision to leave the safety of the Tower and meet the rebels proved fateful. While Richard was at Mile End (where he verbally agreed to the rebels‘ demands), the Kentish men under Wat Tyler entered the city unopposed. Over the next two days, the capital was engulfed by a spree of targeted destruction and killings.

Destruction and Executions

Key rebel targets included:

  • The Savoy Palace: The lavish London residence of the king‘s unpopular uncle, John of Gaunt, was thoroughly ransacked and burned to the ground.
  • The Temple: The legal district of the city, hated as a symbol of the oppressive court system, was attacked and many lawyers killed.
  • The Tower of London: Rebels broke into the Tower and seized Simon Sudbury (the Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor) and Robert Hales (the Treasurer). Both were dragged to Tower Hill and beheaded.
  • Jails: Prisoners were released from London‘s jails, including Fleet Prison and Newgate Prison.
  • Immigrants: Flemish and Lombard merchants, resented for their privileges and wealth, were targeted. The Hanseatic League‘s London trading base was destroyed.

The violence reached a climax on June 14, when the king met Wat Tyler and the rebels again at Smithfield. During tense negotiations, Tyler was suddenly attacked and killed by one of the king‘s servants – either out of panic or as a deliberate provocation.

The Suppression of the Revolt

This could have prompted a massacre, but the 14-year-old Richard showed remarkable presence of mind. He rode out to the rebel crowds and declared: "Sirs, will you shoot your king? I am your captain, follow me!" He led them away to Clerkenwell Fields, buying time for the Mayor of London to muster armed forces.

Over the next few days, the revolt in the capital was brutally suppressed. A hastily-assembled militia and troops rushed from across England crushed the remaining rebels. Hundreds were cut down in battle or summarily executed.

Similar reprisals occurred across the country as the nobility and gentry re-established control. At least 1,500 rebels were killed in the immediate aftermath of the revolt, while many more were imprisoned or fined. John Ball was captured in Coventry, condemned as a traitor, and executed.

The Aftermath and Legacy

In the short term, the Peasants‘ Revolt was decisively crushed. King Richard II revoked all the concessions he had made under duress, while Parliament dismissed the rebels‘ demands and authorized severe retribution. The social and political order appeared to have been restored by force.

However, in the longer term, the revolt left a profound legacy. It demonstrated that the common people, when pushed to breaking point, had the capacity to rise up against their rulers and fight for change. Although serfdom and feudalism persisted in England for centuries to come, they were increasingly challenged and eroded.

The Peasants‘ Revolt was not an isolated event, but part of a wider crisis of the medieval order in the late 14th century. Similar popular uprisings occurred across Europe, such as the Jacquerie in northern France (1358) and the Ciompi Revolt in Florence (1378).

These revolts reflected deep-seated social and economic strains, as the old feudal system struggled to adapt to a world transformed by catastrophes like the Black Death and the Hundred Years‘ War. They also expressed growing popular demands for greater freedom, equality and political representation.

Although the Kentish and Essex rebels of 1381 were defeated, their vision of a more just society could not be entirely suppressed. As the poet William Morris wrote in A Dream of John Ball (1888):

"I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name…"

In this sense, the Peasants‘ Revolt stands not just as a dramatic moment in English history, but as part of the long struggle for freedom and social justice that continues to this day.