The Peasant’s Revolt and The Decline of Serfdom

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The Peasant’s Revolt and The Decline of Serfdom

The Peasants Revolt is one of the most well known revolts of Medieval England, the revolt began as a local revolt in Essex in May of 1381, but it soon spread throughout the South East of England affecting many smaller towns along the way and having the biggest impact on London when the people turned their grievances towards the young King Richard II. This revolt was not a planned revolt but rather a spontaneous revolt fuelled by numerous grievances and sparked by the poll tax Parliament had introduced to help pay for the war in France.

Incidences in the villages of Fobbing and Brentwood in Essex are said to have triggered the uprising. On 30 May 1381 a tax collector attempted to collect the poll tax from the villagers of Fobbing, the villagers, lead by a local land owner refused to pay and he was forced to leave empty handed, later Robert Belknap (Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas) arrived to investigate and punish the offenders, On June 2 he was attacked in Brentwood. By this time the counties of Essex and Kent were in full revolt the peasants and artisans of Essex demanded the King to completely abolish serfdom and the commutation of the servile dues to a rent of four pence an acre, the revolt was also said to be sparked by the passage of the poll tax and many other numerous grievances the people had. These peasants marched into London led by Wat Tyler, John Ball and Jack Straw to present a petition calling for the abolition of serfdom to the King.

The peasants had strong hopes of abolishing serfdom, but the King was never able to reach them due to the crowds and so on June 13 1381 the Peasants Revolt began. Wat Tyler, was documented by Sir John Frossiart as the “chief of the three, had been a tiler of houses, a bad man and a great enemy to the nobility of the revolt, he was the one who met with the King to tell of the people’s wishes to get rid of villiens and many other things. Not much is known about Wat Tyler except that he was a bad man and an enemy to the noble, but we can make the assumption that he must have been a confident, well liked and looked up to, as it was he who the people chose to lead them in their revolt.

John Ball, was documented by Sir John Froissart, in Chronicles of England, France, Spain and the Adjoining Countries “as being a crazy priest in the county of Kent”, “who for his absurd preaching had thrice been confined in prison by the Archbishop of Canterbury”, had much to do with bringing forth the rebellious ideas. Ball gave the famous speech which was said to ignite the flames already burning deep down inside the people of Kent; “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman. 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 and 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, an recover liberty” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ball_(priest)

Some Historians believe that he urged his followers to kill those who were in the upper class. His words to the peasants said that they were equal to the upper classes (nobles, lords etc…) and that if God has wanted the class differences he would have made them upon creation of men, but God wanted each person to be the same and for each person to be free. Being a priest, people looked up to John Ball and believed in the words he spoke to them. Finally, Jack Straw, not much has been documented about him but some people believe he was a preacher, some say he was a Priest, whom was second in command of the Peasants Revolt in Bury St Edmunds and Mildenhall, while others simply say he joined due to an assault on his daughter by a tax collector.

Whatever the real story is to how he came to be a part of the revolt, people must have trusted and seen something in Straw that said he could help them, as they followed him from a Churchyard through the streets of Essex causing destruction as they moved. The Peasants Revolt was not just confined to London, it spread to many other places in England. Each town had their own reasons for the starting of the Revolt. “The Peasants of Essex (as mentioned above) demanded the abolishment of serfdom among other things.

The Peasants of Kent demanded there be no lordship in but the lordship of the king and that the goods of the church be divided among the Parishioners, and that there be no villein in England. The tenants of the Abbey of St. Albans, Hertfordshire, besieged the abbot, insisting on their rights to hunt in the woods, fish in the river, grind their own corn at home, and sell land among themselves. The tenants of Buy St. Edmunds, Suffolk, broke into the abbey and for a time extorted their liberties from the abbot. In Winchester, Hampshire and Beverly and Scarborough, Yorkshire, the unprivileged rose against the privileged.” (History of England, Page 176-177)

According to Frossiart “at Canterbury the rebels entered the Church of St Thomas where they did much damage; they also pillaged the apartments of the Archbishop, saying as they were carrying off the different articles, ‘ The Chancellor of England has had this piece of furniture very cheap; he must now give us as account of his revenues, and of the large sums which he has levied since the coronation of the King” after this they continued toward Rochester, collecting people as they went, destroying houses belonging to attorneys, Kings proctors and the archbishop. Once in Rochester they went to the castle and seized a knight called Sir John de Newton, and commanded him to do whatever they wished, when he tried to refuse they said “ Sir John, if you refuse you are a dead man” (Froissart). They continued the rampage until they got to London.

June 14 1381,King Richard II met the rebels in London and granted a charter that would abolish villeinage and commute labour services to rent On at four pence an acre, however the King would not honour this charter, he just wanted England to regain peace again. Some of the rebels went home, many carried creating as much havoc as possible, in hopes of getting serfdom abolished. At the time of the revolt King Richard II was only 14 years old, but despite his age the revolt showed the determination and courage this young King had. At the age of 14, Richard was considered a minor therefore the Dukes of Lancaster (John of Gaunt), York (Edmund of Langley) and Gloucester (Thomas of Woodstock) were appointed as governors of England in the King’s name. It has been said that these Dukes were the main target of the revolt, not the King.

The poll tax which was brought in to act as a means to pay for the costly war, by John of Gaunt under the name of the king was what is commonly said to have fuelled the revolt, which fuelled the revolt, which in turn led to the people’s hatred for the governors. Aside from the governors there were a few other advisers who each played their own key role in the Peasant’s Revolt. Sir Robert Hales, the Lord/Grand Prior of the Knights Hospittallers of England, became Richard’s high treasurer. Robert was responsible for collecting the Poll Tax. On June 14, 1381 he was beheaded for his role in the hated Poll Tax. Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England, was the supporter of John of Gaunt. For this he met his death on June 14, 1381, by being beheading by the rebels outside the Tower of London. John of Gaunt escaped death at the hands of the rebels as he was away from London during the revolt.

“There leaders, John Ball, Jack Straw and Wat Tyler then marched through London, attended by more than 20,000 men, to the Palace of Savoy, which is a handsome building belonging to the Duke of Lancaster, situated on the banks of the Thames on the road to Westminster: here they immediately killed the porter, pushed into the house and set it on fire” Froissart “When the gates of the Tower were thrown open and the King attended by his two brothers and other nobles had passed through, Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball, with upward of 400 others, rushed in by force, and running from chamber to chamber, found the Archbishop of Canterbury, by name Simon a valiant and wise man, whom the rascals seized and beheaded” Froissart The heads of these four persons the rebels fixed on long spikes and had them carried before them through the streets of London; and when they made sufficient mockery of them, they caused them to be placed on London Bridge, as if they had been traitors to their King and country” Froissart Throughout the revolt, the determination of Richard to stop the revolt was shown as he met the revellers twice to come to an agreement; however the rebels continued to destroy London and surrounding areas.

The king met with the leaders of the revolt at Smithfield, which was a horse market and it was there that Wat Tyler was killed. Supposedly Tyler drew his dagger and William Waldworth, Lord Mayor of London, drew his sword and mortally wounded Tyler in the neck. It wasn’t until the death of Wat Tyler that the rebels started to listen, and King Richard dispersed them away from the scene of Tyler’s death with “I am your captain, follow me.” He promised the rebels that all was well and their demands would be met and that Tyler had been knighted, if they march to St John’s Field Tyler would meet them there, which they did. With the help of militia the nobles gained control and hunted down the remaining leaders executing them, including Jack Straw and John Ball. John Ball and Jack Straw were found hidden in an old ruin, where they had secreted themselves, thinking to steal away when things were quiet; but this they were prevented doing, for their own men betrayed them.

With this capture the King and his barons were much pleased, and had their heads cut off, as was that of Tyler, and fixed on London Bridge, in the room of these wretches themselves had placed there News of this total defeat of the rebels in London was sent throughout the neighboring counties, in order that all those who were on their way to London might hear of it; and as soon as they did so, they instantly returned to their homes, without daring to advance further” Froissart Once the revolt had come to its end, King Richard II quickly asserted his power over the affected towns by revoking the charters of freedom and pardon he granted those involved. Although the King was young he quickly made sure that he was not to be messed with, and that he was to be treated with respect and like any other King. The decision was brave of Richard, as it could have easily backfired and he could have ended up with a bigger and more destructive revolt on his hands.

There are said to be three main consequences of the Peasant’s Revolt, the first being the beheading of the leaders. Many believe Richard wanted these people dead in fear that if they lived they may just start a bigger rebellion against him. This also let the other people involved know that even though he (King Richard) was not much older than 14, he was to be listened to and respected. The people feared that if they were to cross the King again they may also be beheaded. A second consequence was the end of the Poll Tax. Following the revolt Richard stopped the charging of the poll tax, possibly once again out of fear of another rebellion. The tax was also not needed so much anymore, as it was a tax to recover from wars and many wars around the world had come to a halt because of their own revolts, the country was now richer than before. The third consequence and probably the best for the peasants, was the rise in their wages. As many had been killed during the revolt, the peasants’ left had to work twice as hard for their lords of the manors, therefore in return for their hard work the peasants gained a little extra money.

The people of the Revolt hoped to abolish serfdom, but they were only successful in bringing to the attention of the upper class that they were unsatisfied with how things were. Serfdom was to carry on for some time after. Serfdom is the status of a peasant under the feudal law. In the Middle Ages serfdom was the enforced labour by landowners in return for the protection of the serf and right to work on the landowner’s property. Serfs were said to be bound by the land and were the lowest social class in the feudal society. Serfdom was introduced to England during Feudalism (1066-end of 1300) and lasted up to as late as the 1600s, there were three types of serfs: The Villein; the most common during the middle ages, who usually rented small houses with or without land, which they were tied to until their lord gave them permission to move. They were expected to farm their lord’s fields as well as their own.

The Cottagers; usually they didn’t posses any land, but spent their days working their lord’s fields in return for shelter and food. The Slaves; they had the least rights of all peasants. They had no land and worked exclusively for a lord to prove their existence was worthy. Although many of the peasants were against serfdom, it did have some benefits for them. Serf’s did have some freedom, they could still accumulate property as well as wealth to a certain extent, and a well-to-do serf could even buy their own freedom. A serf could also rise what they wanted on the land they would oversee for the Lord of the Manor, of within reason. Finally, a landlord could not dispose of his serf without a reasonable cause and they were to protect their serfs from depredations of outlaws and other lords. They were also expected to support their serf during hard times of famine. During the Black Death which hit England in 1348, saw the beginning of the decline of serfdom.

The Black Death ripped through England when infectious rats came into contact with people. It wiped many places and people out in England leaving many Lord’s struggling to find peasants to tend their fields. Even though the Black Death was devastating plague, it helped the peasants (serfs) greatly; it gave them bargaining power against the gentry. They could now demand higher wages due to the lack of labourers, Lords were now encouraging peasants to leave their villages and work for them instead of their current Lords. Finally, serfdom was slowly declining and peasants were gaining more rights through the Lords needing them more than what they now needed them. In 1351 the government introduced the Statute of Labourers, in hopes of curbing the serfs behaving and bringing them back under the feudal law. The Statute of Labourers stated: ‘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.’

The statue enforced the law that was instilled upon them when they were declared serfs under the Feudal Law. The statue enraged the peasants and thus became one of the reasons for the Peasants Revolt of 1381. The Revolt would go on to gain them nothing, mainly as the peasants had no support from the gentry and nobility but it did give then the satisfaction of knowing that the Upper Class now knew how unhappy they were and how much damage they could cause. During Henry VII reign villienge was almost extinct by the 1500s; peasants were starting to accumulate land for themselves, while others were driven to the cities as labourers. By 1500, Serfdom had died out as a personal status, but lived on as a legal one until 1600.

However the land that serf tenure held went on to be held by a copyhold – tenure of land according to the custom of the manor (owned by a Lord) – up until it was abolished in the 1900s. The Peasants Revolt, the most well known revolt of medieval England, may have started as a backlash against the Poll Tax and it may have been unsuccessful to some extent, but it did bring to light the hatred for Serfdom throughout England and it did rid England of the word Poll Tax for many years to come. Although Serfdom died out as the times changes and new Kings took over with new ideas, the Black Death saw the beginning of this decline along with the help of The Revolt of 1381. After these two big events the less fortunate started to negotiate more with their Lord of the Manor, the peasants started to branch out more into the towns where the wages and quality of life were much better.

Bibliography

Author Unknown. Jack Straw. Wikipedia, n.d. Web. December 8, 2011 Author Unknown. John Ball. Wikipedia, n.d. Web. December 8, 2011 Author Unknown. Peasants’ Revolt. Wikipedia, n.d. Web. November 25, 2011 Author Unknown. Serfdom. Wikipedia, n.d. Web. November 14, 2011 Author Unknown. Wat Tyler.
Wikipedia, n.d. Web. December 8, 2011 Author Unknown. The Peasants Revolt, Chronicle of the Revolt, 1381. Marxists Internet Archive, n.d. Web. November 15, 2011 Froissart, Sir Jean (John). Chronicles of England, France, Spain and the Adjoining Countries, From the Latter Part of the Reign of Edward II to the Coronation of Henry IV. Translated from the French by Thomas Johnes, (rev. ed., vol 1). New York: The Colonial Press, 1901. Roberts, Clayton. Roberts, David. Bisson, Douglas, R. A History of England Volume I Prehistory to 1714, Fifth Edition. Upper Saddle, New Jersey: Pearson, 2009. Trueman, Chris. Peasants Revolt. History Learning Site, 2000-2001. Web. November 25, 2011

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