PLAGUE AND PEASANTS

In the summer of 1348 a ship docked at the Channel port of Melcombe Regis in Dorset. In the fleas infesting the fur of the black rats on board were the deadliest plague bacillae that have ever visited mankind. The Black Death emptied towns, wiped out villages, and struck at rich and poor alike, killing the wife and three of the daughters of King Edward III, along with swathes of his poorer subjects. Spreading swiftly inland from that fatal bridgehead in Dorset, the plague reached London by the autumn of the same year. Although the capital, by today’s standards, was still tiny – it was possible to walk right across London from the Tower to the city’s western wall at Farringdon in half an hour – it was a crowded labyrinth of cheek-by-jowl dwellings; a warren of filthy, mud- and shit-strewn streets, which were an ideal breeding ground for the pestilence.

In a thousand days after that first, fatal landfall, the Black Death wiped out between a third and a half of England’s entire population. In London alone one mass burial ‘plague pit’ north of the Tower accommodated 10,000 victims. Another, at nearby Blackfriars, held 42,000. Although this first blast of the plague had blown itself out by 1350, it was to return in recurrent waves right up to the mid-seventeenth century – the Great London Plague of 1665 in which fifty-eight of the Tower garrison’s soldiers died being its last major visitation.

The Black Death left a mixed legacy for the rest of the fourteenth century. With a world population brutally slashed by up to 350 million, labour became a precious commodity. Serfs and peasants, having survived this most perilous of dangers, knew that their time and labour were a prize to be won rather than a right to be demanded by grasping landlords, greedy nobles and arrogant rulers. The reign of young King Richard II coincided with the upsurge of violent protest by his poorer subjects known to history as the Peasants’ Revolt.

The revolt erupted in ugly violence like a plague buboe bursting. A cocktail of social ills brewed in the previous reign curdled to bring the pustule to a virulent head. The legacy of the Black Death, combined with the seemingly endless wars in France, had drained manpower away from the land: a labour shortage that the ruling caste vainly attempted to stem with a series of savage laws. The Statute of Labourers of 1351 pegged wages at their 1348 pre-plague levels, despite roaring inflation. Labourers were also commanded to work where and when their lords and masters required. Serfs and villeins who left their lord’s land in search of higher wages were threatened with branding, and even giving alms to roaming beggars was banned in a bid to starve the beggars into work. In a desperate effort to raise cash for an exchequer denuded by the cost of the French wars and decreasing productivity, the government slapped tax after tax on a declining population already struggling to survive.

Such was the grim inheritance of the boy king Richard II. A delicate nine-year-old with what the chronicler Richard Holinshed called ‘an angelic face’ framed by a halo of fair curls, Richard grew into one of those inept kings periodically thrown up by the Plantagenets in marked contrast to their usual run of strong, ruthless warriors. Unlike his fierce father and grandfather, Richard of Bordeaux was a ruler in the mould of Henry III or Edward II – unwarlike, pious, effeminate, and with a strong aesthetic interest. And also like those two ill-starred monarchs, the young king had a streak of stubbornness, coupled with the unwavering conviction that, as God’s anointed, he could do no wrong.

Richard’s unhappy reign began and ended at the Tower. The day after his grandfather Edward III’s death on 22 June 1377 he was taken there in procession, and sequestered until his coronation. Three weeks later, dressed all in white, the divine-looking child king was brought to Westminster Abbey to be crowned. Richard had inherited an inherently unstable and almost bankrupt country from his grandfather. Cash strapped and at a loss, in November 1380 the Royal Council called a parliament to approve a radical new moneymaking scheme. This was a single levy – the poll tax – payable by every English adult, prince or peasant, aged over fifteen, at the same rate: three groats (one shilling). The sum represented a week’s wages for a master craftsman, and perhaps a month’s hard-earned graft for an agricultural labouring serf.

The commissioners dispatched to the countryside to raise the new tax were bitterly resented and violently resisted. The chief serjeant-at-arms, a thug named John Legge, was reputed to line up young village girls and grope under their skirts to determine whether they were virgins and exempt from the hated tax. Such abuse bred a murderous loathing among the commons. It was the third tax hike in as many years, and rather than pay, many people temporarily vanished from their villages or attacked the tax collectors, who returned to London having only succeeded in raising two thirds of the expected revenue. Foolishly, the council sent them back again in the spring of 1381. This time, grumbling turned into a spontaneous outburst of popular rage the like of which had never been seen in England before.

By June, the temperature in the countryside was as hot as the midsummer sun. A spontaneous tax strike in the villages of northern Essex spread south like wildfire racing through a cornfield, and crossed the Thames into north Kent, where the revolt was coordinated by a popular leader Walter (or Wat) Tyler. Tyler may have been a discharged soldier from the wars in France, and/or a common highway robber. But he was clearly a charismatic, bold and determined character – the first popular revolutionary since ‘Longbeard’ Fitzosbert had rallied Londoners to the cause of social justice in the reign of Richard I. Tyler turned an inchoate mob of peasants into a focused – if undisciplined – people’s army. In early June 1381, some 20,000 strong, Wat’s horde converged on Kent’s county town of Maidstone.

They ransacked the town jail, releasing its prisoners. One of the freed men, John Ball, was an ordained priest sick of the steadily accumulating wealth and worldly ways of the established Church. Abandoning his parish in York and hitting the road, Ball had become an itinerant preacher of the sort known as Lollards. His proto-Protestant – and to the Church, heretical – doctrines were a potent mix of biblical simplicity – calling for a return to the tenets of poverty and justice preached by Christ – and an explosive social egalitarianism summed up in Ball’s oft-repeated couplet:

When Adam delved and Eve span

Who was then the gentleman?

Naturally, this inflammatory question did not go down well with Ball’s superiors in the Church, or the civil authorities struggling to keep a lid on simmering social tension. He was repeatedly jailed, and was serving out the latest sentence when Wat Tyler’s army arrived at the prison gates.

Ball’s wild oratory whipped the peasants on, but they needed little urging. When they arrived at Canterbury, chronicler Jean Froissart tells us, a substantial part of the city’s population swelled their ranks: ‘And in their going they beat down and robbed houses … and had mercy of none.’ They ordered the monks at the cathedral to elect a new archbishop, since, they threatened prophetically, the hated current incumbent, Simon Sudbury, was a dead man walking: ‘For he … is a traitor and will be beheaded for his iniquity.’ Ominously, the mob carried out their first executions, decapitating some of Canterbury’s wealthier citizens. Moving west towards London, the peasant army arrived at Rochester where they looted the castle built by Gundulf, the Tower’s architect; and took the children of the castle’s constable, Sir Richard Newton as hostages. Tyler sent Newton ahead with a personal message for King Richard. The ruffian peasant chief demanded that the boy king should meet him in three days’ time at Blackheath, a large expanse of common land south-east of the capital.

As Tyler’s ragged army trod grimly towards the city from Kent, an even larger peasant army, possibly totalling 50,000 or even 70,000, was simultaneously converging on the capital from Essex. Led by another self-appointed people’s tribune, Jack Straw, who harangued his followers from a hay wain on Hampstead Heath which became known as ‘Jack Straw’s castle’, the men of Essex were stirred by the same injustices, and fired up by the same hopes, as the men of Kent. This peasants’ pincer movement threw the unprepared royal authorities on to the back foot. The regime’s strong man – and chief target of the peasants’ wrath – the king’s uncle, John of Gaunt, was, fortunately for him, absent on a military mission against the Scots. One of his brothers, Thomas of Woodstock, Earl of Buckingham, was in Wales; while the third royal brother, Edmund of Langley, Earl of Cambridge, was embarking from Plymouth on a military expedition to Spain with the only substantial armed forces available to the administration. As the peasants converged on the fat capital bent on taking it apart, the naked city was defenceless.

Those members of the council still in London sent for King Richard from Windsor Castle, and withdrew with him and his mother Joan, ‘the Fair Maid of Kent’, behind the stout walls of the Tower, along with its garrison of around 1,000 men. England’s ruling class assembled in the fortress, astonished and fearful at the hurricane of discontent that had so suddenly blown up. The Earls of Kent, Salisbury, Warwick, Arundel, Oxford and Suffolk were there; along with Sir Robert Hales, England’s Lord Treasurer; Simon Sudbury, the hated chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury; John Legge, the loathed serjeant-at-arms and chief enforcer of the poll tax that had sparked the revolt; and William Walworth, a prosperous and hard-nosed London fishmonger who was the city’s lord mayor.

On Wednesday 12 June 1381, Tyler’s ragtag army arrived at Blackheath and pitched camp. Sir John Newton sailed up the Thames by barge to convey Tyler’s message to the king at the Tower. On being admitted to the royal presence, he prostrated himself on the floor and begged Richard’s pardon for the insolence of the demands he brought. He asked the king to meet ‘the commons of your realm’ and hear their grievances. Newton begged the king to give an appeasing answer, for if he did not, the peasants would slaughter his hostage children. On his council’s advice, Richard agreed to meet the rebels the next day. A grateful Newton hurried back to Tyler with the good news.

A tense night in the Tower followed. From the battlements, the fearful inhabitants could just make out, in the darkness to the south-east, tiny pinpricks of light from the fires of the rebel host encamped on Blackheath. During the night the elderly Archbishop Sudbury came quaking to the king and surrendered the Great Seal – symbol of his other job, the Chancellorship of England. Word had reached him of the destruction of his see at Canterbury, and now raiding parties of peasants had swarmed into his London palace at Lambeth on the south bank, and systematically vandalised it, tearing tapestries to ribbons and smashing plates while raucously yelling, ‘A revel! A revel!’. Sudbury clearly believed that by resigning his secular office he might appease the peasants’ fury. But it was too late for such a gesture.

The next day, Thursday 13 June, the feast of Corpus Christi was celebrated by King Richard with a morning Mass. Then the royal party left the Tower in a flotilla of five barges and rowed downriver to the agreed rendezvous. Awaiting their arrival, the peasants, too, had heard a Corpus Christi Mass – a fiery sermon preached by John Ball in which he harped on his favourite egalitarian theme of the yawning chasm between rich and poor.

They [the rich] are clothed in velvet and camlet furred with grise, and we be vestured with poor cloth. They have their wine, spices and good bread, and we have the dross of the chaff and drink water. They dwell in fair houses, and we have the pain and travail, rain and wind in the fields. And by our labours … they keep and maintain their estates. We be called their bondsmen … we be beaten … and we have no sovereign to whom we may complain, nor that will hear us, nor do us right.

As Ball spoke, their sovereign was on his way to hear their complaints. The court’s intention was to disembark between Rotherhithe and Greenwich and walk to Blackheath, but on nearing the river bank they saw the vast and threatening throng gathered there. The royal party understandably hesitated. Froissart reports, ‘When they saw the king’s barge coming they [the peasants] made such a cry, as though the devils of hell had been among them … And when the king and his lords saw the mood of the people even the best assured of them were in dread.’ Famished and thirsty in the midsummer heat, with the tempting prize of London lying before them awaiting plunder, the rebels were in no mood to parley with those they blamed for their misery.

With a nervous Sudbury and Hales whispering in either ear – like the archbishop, the treasurer had had his Essex estates trashed by the rebels – Richard stayed on the safety of the river and attempted to address the mob from his barge. In his thin, piping treble the boy king asked for their demands. He was answered by a cacophony of ribald shouts and jeers, from which the clear message emerged that nothing less than the heads of his advisers trembling beside him would satisfy the rebels’ thirst for revenge. Thoroughly alarmed, the king’s counsellors insisted on turning their barges round and returning to the safety of the Tower as fast as their oars could row them. Following them along the south bank with shouts of ‘Treason!’, the thwarted peasant army moved west too, in a race which the frantic crew of the barges narrowly won, gratefully regaining the safety of the Tower. Angry, and believing that the king’s evil counsellors were stopping Richard from hearing their case, the peasants turned their frustrated fury on the prostrate city before them.

Reaching London Bridge, they found the drawbridge guarding its southern side barred. Further inflamed, the mob set fire to a nearby Southwark brothel, staffed by Flemish prostitutes and owned by Lord Mayor Walworth. Either this persuaded the guards on the bridge to change their minds, or more probably the bridge gates were opened by sympathisers from within the city. There were plenty of Londoners of the poorer sort, who burned with the same sense of injustice as their country cousins. As the men of Kent swarmed across the bridge and into the city, with blood-chilling yells of ‘Burn!’ and ‘Kill!’, their allies from Essex, approaching from Stepney, also gained access through the Aldgate, a few hundred yards north of the Tower. The two peasant armies met and mingled with their allies from within the city, perhaps 100,000 strong: a greater number than the entire population of London.

Fuelled by copious consumption of beer and wine – looted or offered free by terrified tavern owners – the huge mob went mad with the joy of slaughter and destruction. For the first time in its history, London was ruled by an anarchic crowd, intoxicated and metaphorically drunk, too, with their sudden power. Their first target was the princely Savoy palace, riverside home of the hated John of Gaunt. The peasants were adamant that the contents of this all-too-conspicuous symbol of excess should be smashed rather than stolen. One of them, who tried to make off with a plate, was caught and burned alive.

After murdering the guards at the palace gates, the rebel commons took their bloody axes to the great vats and barrels in the Savoy’s cellars, releasing a flood of wine. Their next goal was John of Gaunt’s treasury. Again, they scorned to steal, and removed the jewels and precious stones, gold plates and silver tableware, only to throw them from the palace’s terrace into the Thames. A gorgeous jewel-encrusted padded jacket belonging to the absent duke was draped on a pole as a substitute for the hated tyrant and riddled with arrows. Then it was the turn of the ducal wardrobe to be laid waste. Shimmering silk, rich velvet, furs, plump cushions and ancient tapestries were ripped to shreds, before being piled into a gigantic pyre in the Savoy’s great hall and set ablaze. The inferno spread to the rest of the palace and soon the whole building was in flames. Many peasant lives were lost when three unopened barrels were hurled into the flames and exploded with shattering force – the ‘yokel band’ being unfamiliar with the properties of gunpowder. Scores more looters, overcome with alcohol, were trapped in the cellar when the Savoy’s roof collapsed, and slowly asphyxiated under the ruins, their ‘cries and lamentations’ horrifying all who heard them. By morning, the once proud palace was a smouldering heap of blackened stone, charred timbers and molten metal.

The mob fanned out across the city, searching for new targets. They broke into London’s jails and freed the prisoners. As so often, foreign immigrants were singled out for attack. In previous pogroms Jews would have been the chief scapegoats, but since Edward I had expelled them, the peasants turned on Italian Lombards, who had taken over the Jews’ moneylending functions, and dozens were slaughtered. Dutch Flemings, resented for their domination of the cloth trade, were another easy target. Thirty-five Flemings, who had sought sanctuary in St Martin-in-Vinery Church, were dragged out and beheaded on a single bloody block. Thirteen more were decapitated outside the St Austin’s friary. In all 150 died. A distinguished eyewitness to the savagery, the poet Geoffrey Chaucer – a future custodian of maintenance at the Tower as Clerk of the Kings’ Works who, having an apartment over the Aldgate, had seen Jack Straw’s Essex men swarm into the city – reported, ‘There was a very great massacre of Flemings, and in one heap there were laying about forty headless bodies of persons who had been dragged forth from the churches and their houses; and hardly was there a street in the City in which there were not bodies laying.’

Later, the poet put the savagery he had seen into verse:

They yelled, as fiends do in hell,

The ducks cried, as men would him quell, …

The geese, for fear, flew over the trees,

Out of the hive came the swarms of bees;

So hideous was the noise, ah Benidicte!

Certes, he Jack Straw and his men

Made never shouts half so shrill

When that they would any Fleming kill …

Any citizen who looked remotely prosperous, such as the corrupt banker Sir Richard Lyons, who was killed on sight, was at risk. To be a servant of the state involved in oppressing the poor meant immediate death, as the tax collector Roger Leggett discovered when he was hauled from his house in Southwark and beheaded at Cheapside. The frenzied mob ignored Church sanctuary, prising a terrified Richard Imeworth, hated keeper of the King’s Bench prison in Southwark, from the pillar he was desperately clinging to in Westminster Abbey, and slitting his throat.

Knowing that the chief targets of their rage were out of reach with the king in the Tower, the mob took their frustrated fury out on property. The Temple, St John’s Hospital at Clerkenwell and ostentatious private houses of the wealthy were all torched because their owners were immured in the Tower. These properties shared the Savoy’s fiery fate before the mob, their fury temporarily sated by the orgy of rape, looting, arson and murder, reeled eastwards along the river. Surrounding the Tower, they collapsed on either side of the fortress, throwing themselves down on Tower Hill and St Katherine’s Square, screaming taunts, threats and obscenities at the Tower’s dumb walls. Inside the fortress, calm amidst his cowering courtiers, was young King Richard. He climbed to the roof of the White Tower to observe the raging fires and the sack of the city by his rebellious subjects.

In the heart of the Tower, the Royal Council spent the short summer night in anxious session. It was split between hawks and doves. The hardliners, led by London’s tough-minded lord mayor, William Walworth, were all for taking the Tower’s garrison out on a sortie and scattering their ill-armed besiegers while they were dead to the world. Although the peasants were numerous, Walworth argued, few had weapons, many were too drunk to stand, and the rest would be sleeping off their bloody binge. Even outnumbered by some fifty to one, the Tower’s professional soldiers would easily defeat this scum of the earth.

The doves were represented by the old Earl of Salisbury, the council’s senior member. He advised the king to appease the mob ‘with fine words’, and buy time by pretending to grant their requests. Richard, wise beyond his fourteen years, decided to adopt this course. He would ride out to confront the mob – but only to draw them out of London so that the hated ministers, quivering inside the Tower, could escape. Any promises extracted from him under duress would be empty words. The urgent thing was to get the peasant mob out of London, disperse them – then deal with them at leisure.

At daybreak on Friday 14 June, after hearing morning Mass, the king went up to a perch on the Tower’s eastern wall. Shouting over the cacophony of yells from the slowly stirring rebel host, he agreed to meet them – so long as they promised to go home afterwards. In the meantime, added Richard, he was issuing a general pardon ‘for all manner of trespasses and misprisions and felonies done up to this hour’. To match his words, Richard flourished a parchment with the promised pardon and affixed the royal seal to the document in full sight of the mob. A few minutes later, the great gates of the Tower swung open and the king, with a knot of his more courageous courtiers, rode out. It was an indisputably brave thing for the boy to have done – the desperate and still-drunken mob could have torn him to pieces on the spot. But, miraculously, they did not.

Awestruck, most of the mob followed the slight figure of the king as he rode eastwards out of the city to the fields known as Mile End. The courtiers around Richard were jeered all the way through the city wall at Aldgate to the open country beyond. But some of Tyler’s followers – probably including Wat himself, along with Ball and Straw – hung back. As the Tower’s guards attempted to close the fortress’s heavy gates after readmitting Joan, the queen mother – who had tried to accompany her son in a wagon, but turned back because of the sheer press of people in the streets – the peasants swept the sentries aside and stormed into the fortress. Their hoarse cries of triumph as they insolently ruffled the hair and tugged the beards of the bewildered sentries echoed around the ancient walls. For the first time since its construction four centuries before, London’s pre-eminent castle and royal palace was in hostile hands.

The rebels rampaged through the Tower, smashing locked doors, helping themselves to food and drink, wrecking and looting as they went. Then, on the first floor of the White Tower, ignoring the sanctuary of the church, they burst into the Romanesque splendour of St John’s Chapel. Here they found the most hated men in the kingdom huddled in prayer. Anticipating their likely fate as they heard the raucous cries of the approaching mob, Archbishop Simon Sudbury had held a short service, shriving the sins of his terrified companions. Then the chapel door burst open, and their ragged enemies, stinking of blood, sweat and drink, were upon them.

With chilling roars of vengeance, the peasants made good the threats they had uttered to Sudbury’s monks at Canterbury. The archbishop just had time to gasp the brief prayer ‘Omnes sancti orate pro nobis’ (‘All the Holy saints protest us’). Then the old man – along with the equally detested treasurer Sir John Hales, tax commissioner John Legge, and William Appleton, personal physician to John of Gaunt – was roughly dragged out of the chapel, borne in savage triumph through the Tower’s gates and up the slope of Tower Hill. Luckily for him, the detested John of Gaunt’s eldest son and heir, young Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, and a cousin and almost exact contemporary of King Richard, who was also in the Tower, was hidden by one of his father’s retainers, John Ferrour of Southwark – an act of mercy that would have momentous if unintended consequences for the future Henry IV and English history, – and dire ones for Richard himself.

A log was laid on Tower Hill – and the luckless quartet from the chapel became the first of 125 people to be executed in the Tower’s shadow over the next 400 years. Archbishop Sudbury was first to suffer. With Christian charity he forgave the amateur executioner before stretching his neck on the block. Nervous and inexperienced, his killer bungled the blow. ‘Aha!’ cried the stricken archbishop, his hand rising instinctively to the gaping wound on his neck. ‘It is the hand of God.’ Without waiting for the cleric to remove his hand, the swordsman struck again, severing Sudbury’s fingers. Still the archbishop lived, collapsing on the ground. It took a total of eight clumsy strokes delivered to his head, neck and shoulders before death mercifully ensued and the archbishop’s head rolled free. Their bloodlust unslaked, the murderers took the mangled head, nailed it inside his clerical mitre, stuck it on a pole and set it up on London Bridge – the traditional display case for traitors’ skulls. After watching this horrifying spectacle, Hales, Legge and Appleton were brutally dispatched in their turn.

Meanwhile, similar scenes of horror continued inside the Tower. In the royal palace, the king’s bedchamber was vandalised and then, in an inner sanctum, the mob discovered the king’s mother: Joan, the first Princess of Wales, once a beauty so alluring that she was known as the Fair Maid of Kent, but now grown so obese that she waddled rather than walked. Reputed to be the damsel whose dropped garter inspired her father-in-law Edward III to found the noblest order of chivalry, Joan at fifty-one, despite her corpulence, was still the embodiment of refinement and female delicacy.

Not that this deterred Wat’s army of drunken peasants. They crowded into the chamber where Joan lay in bed surrounded by her terrified and weeping ladies. Tapestries were torn from the walls, coverlets were stripped from the queen mother’s bed, and lewd threats were uttered. One of Joan’s ladies was raped, and the same fate appeared to await Joan herself. The peasants, however, contented themselves with a few forced snatched kisses. Their beery breath and rough embraces made the queen mother faint away, before they trailed out of the room. For fear that they would return, Joan, still swooning, was disguised in rough commoners’ clothes, hustled out of the Tower and into a barge which rowed her upriver to the safety of Baynard’s Castle.

Knowing nothing of these bloody events unfolding back at the Tower, Richard spent the day haggling with the peasants, granting demand after demand for an amelioration of their conditions – a freeze on rents, an end to court fines for rent arrears, properly negotiated work contracts – with a show of reluctance, stringing out the negotiations in the hope that the crowds would weary and go home. Finally, some 40,000 rebels – mainly Essex men – turned homewards, some carrying the pardons which the king had granted them. A weary but relieved Richard and his courtiers headed back towards the Tower. They were halfway there when they were met by a herald who blurted out the terrible news of the murders and mayhem that had taken place in their absence. The messenger did not know what had become of the king’s mother, but it was clear that the Tower was an unsafe destination. They made instead for the Royal Wardrobe office at Blackfriars which was still in loyal hands.

Arriving there, Richard was relieved to learn that his mother was alive. Hearing the details of her near-death experience, and the confirmation that his senior ministers had been brutally murdered, he hardened his resolve to deal with their murderers in the only language they understood. Having seen that his appeasement had merely led to more bloody anarchy, the young king was now ready to listen to the hard-line William Walworth. Richard’s attempts to kill the revolt by kindness had failed, Walworth argued. More concessions would merely whet the rebels’ thirst for blood. If they carried on like this, they too would share the fate of the victims at the Tower. It was time for resolute action.

Richard and his courtiers again agreed to parley with Tyler the next day. This time the meeting place was to be Smithfield, the open space north of London where horses were traded and cattle penned and slaughtered. Smithfield had also witnessed the bloody evisceration of ‘traitors’ like William Wallace: it was an appropriate setting for the climactic act of violence in the Peasants’ Revolt. Saturday 15 June dawned hot and sultry. The king waited until the heat of the day had passed at 5 p.m. before riding out again to meet the mob, pausing en route to say his prayers at Westminster Abbey. He was accompanied by a retinue of around 200 knights, pages and foot soldiers, led by a grimly determined Walworth. Richard, his slight figure disappearing inside a long gown trimmed with ermine, arrived at Smithfield where Tyler and around 20,000 followers awaited him.

Tyler’s two days as uncrowned king of London had swelled him to foolish arrogance. In his sweaty pomp he rode up alone to confront Richard. Brandishing a dagger, he grabbed the monarch’s hand, insolently addressing him as ‘Brother King’. Tyler reeled off a list of new demands, each more outrageous than the last. They included the abolition of all ranks of nobility; the stripping from the former lords of their lands and goods; the confiscation of Church land and property, and the reduction of bishops from princes of the Church to the status of poor, wandering priests like John Ball. It was a redprint for social revolution. In Tyler’s primitive communist state, only Richard would be left as titular king, while real power would lie with Wat and his men. Richard replied quietly that all reasonable demands would be granted – providing the peasants now returned to their villages.

There followed a tense pause, as brooding as the torrid afternoon. Tyler demanded a jug of beer. He quaffed a mouthful, before coarsely spitting it on the ground in front of the king – itself an act of unpardonable lese-majesty in the eyes of the horrified courtiers. Then the tension suddenly snapped. Turning to the king’s personal page, the peasant leader demanded that he hand over the ceremonial Great Sword of State that he carried, since in future he, Wat Tyler, would be wielding the state’s power. Boldly, the page indignantly refused: the sword was the king’s property, he declared, and Tyler was not fit to hold it since he was ‘only a villein’. Enraged, Tyler stood in his stirrups and, waving his dagger over his head, vowed that he would not eat until he had the page’s head on a platter. This was the moment that the lord mayor had been waiting for. Walworth spurred his horse forward.

Wat Tyler’s death (left to right: Sir William Walworth, Mayor of London (wielding sword); Wat Tyler; King Richard II; and Sir John Cavendish, esquire to the King (bearing lance)

Shouting that Tyler was a ‘stinking wretch’, Walworth pushed between the peasant chief and the king. Tyler aimed his dagger at the mayor’s chest. The blow was deflected with a clang, since under his robes Walworth had taken the precaution of donning a breastplate. Now it was his turn to strike. Drawing his short sword, the mayor hit Tyler full in the forehead with the pommel, following up with a slashing blow across the rebel’s neck. Dropping his dagger, Tyler reeled back, grabbing instinctively at his bleeding neck. Seizing the moment, another courtier, Sir Ralph Standish, rode up and drove his sword deep into Tyler’s guts. Groaning, the peasant lord slid from his horse and collapsed in a bloody heap.

This was the moment of supreme danger for Richard. At the sight of their leader writhing on the ground, the peasants started forward with a collective roar of rage, clearly intent on killing the king and all who rode with him. Richard was equal to the peril. He fearlessly forced his horse forward, piping out, ‘Sirs, would you kill your king? I am your rightful captain, and I will be your leader. Let all those who love me, follow me.’ Quite alone, Richard rode up to and through the mob, which parted like the biblical Red Sea before the small figure in his royal robe. The king led them north into the open countryside called Clerkenwell Fields, and there, after again promising to pardon their rebellion and address their grievances, he left them – returning to the Tower where Walworth was already rallying a small contingent of troops and frightened Londoners. Returning to Smithfield with this armed following, Walworth’s first concern was to ensure that Tyler was dead. To his horror, he learned that the ruffian still lived. Tyler had been taken to the hospital of the nearby Priory of St Bartholemew. Mercilessly, Walworth had the dying man dragged from his bed, taken out to Smithfield, and beheaded.

Miraculously, this bloody climax marked the end of the uprising. Wat Tyler’s dream of a peasants’ paradise died with him. Without their charismatic leader, the fearsome host of peasants meekly returned to their homes and villages to await the inevitable royal retribution. It was not long in coming. In contrast to his honeyed words and the promises made at Mile End and Smithfield, Richard now proclaimed to the peasants, ‘Serfs ye are, and serfs ye shall remain.’ Tyler’s head replaced that of Sudbury on the spikes topping London Bridge. Some 150 other rebels, including Ball and Straw, were hunted down and paid the full penalty for their revolt. The social order of king, lords and commons which had been so briefly and brutally turned topsy-turvy was restored. But the fallibility of monarchy – in the form of the frail young monarch himself – had been rudely paraded for all to see, and neither peasant nor king would ever forget it.

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