Richard II meets the rebels on 13 June 1381 in a miniature from a 1470s copy of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles
A few days later Richard revoked the charter of emancipation he had granted to the crowd at Mile End, on the ground that it had been extorted from him by violence. He travelled to Essex in order to observe the aftermath of the now extinguished revolt. A group of villagers there asked him to remain faithful to the pledges he had made to them a few days before. His retort, as described by one contemporary chronicler, is worth recording for the insight it shows into the temperament of the king. ‘You wretches’, he said, ‘are detestable both on land and on sea. You seek equality with the lords, but you are unworthy to live. Give this message to your fellows: rustics you are, and rustics you will always be. You will remain in bondage, not as before, but incomparably harsher. For as long as we live we will strive to suppress you, and your misery will be an example to posterity.’ A parliament was called later in the year, where it was proposed that the state of bondage known as villeinage should be abolished. The Lords and the Commons, their vital interests as landlords at stake, unanimously voted against any such action. This marked the essential conclusion of the rebellion.
In some areas, such as the recalcitrant county of Essex, the punishments were harsh. The leaders of the rebels were beheaded. John Ball was arrested in St Albans, where he was hanged, drawn and quartered. Wat Tyler had gone before him. After their deaths, they were enshrined as heroes in folk memory. Yet in other regions the reaction of the authorities was more moderate than might have been expected. It is clear that they did not wish to inflame a still dangerous situation.
The unsuccessful rebellion has been called in retrospect ‘the peasants’ revolt’, suggesting that the rebels came from the lowest agricultural class. But the court records show that the participants were generally the leaders of village life, and acted as bailiffs, constables and jurors in their neighbourhoods. It can be argued that these men, far from being accidental or opportunistic rebels, were in fact enunciating real and important grievances. They were of course protesting against the judicial commissions set up to claim the poll tax, but they were also objecting to the corruption of justice by the local magnates. The ordinances and statutes concerning labour, after the Black Death, had materially changed the role of law. It was no longer an instrument of communal justice; it had instead become the machinery of exaction designed to control and discipline the lower classes. The rebels were also protesting against an increasingly futile war, for which they had to pay. They were denouncing greedy landlords. They were violently opposed to a noble class that had shown little interest in the condition of the countryside.
And, as their claims and demands came together, a more general sense of protest was being enunciated against the conditions of life in the fourteenth century. ‘Ah, good people,’ John Ball declared in a sermon to the rebels on Blackheath, ‘matters will not go well in England until everything is held in common and there are neither villeins nor gentlemen. These gentlemen dwell in fair houses, and we have the pain and labour, the rain and wind in the fields. Let us go to the king. He is young. Let us show him in what servitude we live.’
Other wandering preachers dwelled on the age-long theme of equality and justice, going from parish to parish and calling to the villagers just as they were leaving church; their theme was that all things under heaven should be held ‘in common’. The day of 13 June – the day when the king’s barge turned back to the Tower in the face of the rebels – was Corpus Christi, the feast of the body of Christ in which the whole community was deemed to be a token of that holy body. It was a day of village celebrations and processions, in which the eucharist was carried in triumph around the streets and lanes of each community. So the rebels had, in a sense, pronounced themselves to be holy by marching or riding in a host. They were pronouncing the sacredness of fellowship. The holy bread is made up of many grains. Christ is the miller.
It was claimed at the time that Ball was a follower of Wycliffe, and that Lollardy itself was one of the causes of sedition. Since the Lollards were in no sense a popular movement, the connection is in many respects implausible. But ideas of change and renovation were in the air. Wycliffe had taught that the right of property was founded in grace and that no sinful man was entitled to the services of others; the theories of the scholar could easily be translated into the slogans of the people. So Ball, in his sermon at Blackheath, taught that all men were created equal, and that the ranks and stations of the social hierarchy were the inventions of their oppressors. God wished them to recover their original liberty.
Songs and sayings flew out of the rebellion like sparks from a fire. ‘Jack Trueman would have you know that falseness and guile have reigned too long. Truth has been put under a lock. Falseness reigns in every flock . . . Sin spreads like the wild flood, true love, that was good, is fled, and the clergy work us woe for gain . . . Whoever does wrong, in whatever place it fall, does a wrong to us all . . . With right and with might, with skill and with will; let might help right, and skill go before will, and right before might, so goes our mill aright . . . The commons is the fairest flower that ever God set on an earthly crown.’
The consequence of the revolt was unease and even dread. A chronicler, recording troubles eleven years after the events here related, remarked that ‘men all over England were sure that another general insurrection was at hand’. For more than two centuries the fear most expressed by the authorities was that of local rebellion. A revolt of the masses could trigger disaster for the state. Sporadic revolts after 1381 did indeed take place, often in the form of ‘rent strikes’ against oppressive landlords. In the face of unbearable tensions, however, attempts were made to appease and accommodate the demands of the peasants. No further poll tax was ever exacted, not at least in the medieval period. The slow abolition of serfdom, and the rising prosperity of those in work, created a sense of freedom that had found one manifestation in the revolt. It also encouraged a greater relaxation of the old feudal order.
The living standards of the agricultural workers improved perceptibly over a generation. Real wages grew, despite the attempts at legislation prohibiting any such rise, and a poem such as ‘How the Ploughman learned the Paternoster’ reveals the profusion of meat, fish and dairy products in the households of the labourers:
November: At Martinmas I kill my swine
December: And at Christmas I drink red wine.
Life expectancy also rose. The historians of dress have noted that clothing became brighter, and more luxurious, and jewellery more evident, in the latter years of the fourteenth century.
The king himself had passed a test of fire. He had confronted, and defeated, the first and last popular rebellion in English history. His later behaviour suggests that his belief in himself, and in the essential divinity of kingship, was thereby redoubled. At the age of fifteen he was truly a king whose presence alone was enough to command large crowds of people into obeying his will. He was 6 feet (1.8 metres) in height, with blond hair and a round, somewhat feminine face; he had flared nostrils, prominent cheekbones and heavy eyelids. John Gower, at the beginning of the king’s reign, described him as ‘the most beautiful of kings’ and the ‘flower of boys’. He may have been indulging in a little flattery, but the chroniclers of the period were at one in emphasizing Richard’s beauty. He looked the part.