The Peasants’ Revolt: An Essex revolution

The Peasants' Revolt: Richard II met with rebels John Ball, Jack Straw and Wat Tylerin 1381

Richard II meeting with the rebels of the Peasants' Revolt, 1381 - Credit: Jean Froissart, Biblioteque nationale de France

It was one of the most pivotal moments in the history of England and the Peasant’s Revolt was very much made in Essex

‘This impatient nettle will very suddenly sting us.’ So wrote poet John Gower in the late-1370s, and he called it right. Come 1381, the south and east of England was in uproar with a rag-tag army of some 10,000 peasants taking their manifold grievances to London. They threatened to topple a government and possibly a king.

The king was the young, 14-year-old, Richard II. The rebellion was the famed Peasants’ Revolt over the May and June of 1381, and the conflagration’s heartland was the county of Essex. So, as we reflect on the 635th anniversary of these momentous events, what was it exactly that happened here and why?

The outbreak began in Essex on May 30. Thomas Bampton (also described as John of Bampton), one of the king’s new commissioners, had ridden to Brentwood to revise the taxation returns of the hundred of Barstable in the south of the county. He had three clerks and two sergeants-at-arms with him, but was not expecting trouble. Perhaps he should have.

The Peasant's Revolt: Fobbing was one of the centres of rebellion in late May 1381

Fobbing, which was one of the centres of rebellion in late May 1381 - Credit: Terry Joyce

Villeins suffered a form of slavery, bonded to their lord, who had the right to decide what services he required of them and could levy fines and restrict their movements as he saw fit.

The Black Death briefly raised hopes, as it tipped the balance in favour of agricultural workers by creating a labour shortage, thereby increasing their worth and wages. The Statue of Labourers (1351) attempted to put the genie back in its bottle by freezing wages and restricting labourers’ movement.

Ruinous wars with France led to heavy taxation, including three series of a hated poll-tax in 1377, 1379 and 1380. The final tax increased threefold from that of 1377 and was levied at a flat-rate of 1s per person over the age of 15. It would fall hardest on those least able to pay.

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Bampton came into Essex to snare his portion of tax evaders (it was reckoned some 450,000 had ‘disappeared’ from the register all told). He opened by examining three marshland villages (Fobbing, Corringham and Stanford le Hope), but the peasants and fishermen came prepared to resist. Fobbing men informed Bampton they wouldn’t pay an extra penny above what they’d already contributed (‘fobbing him off’ you might say).

Their leader, a Thomas Baker (Tom the baker), had a trade, so was no peasant. Soon there were over 100 men involved, so Bampton was up against it, trying (unsuccessfully) to arrest the spokesman, only to be beaten and stoned out of town. The rebels retreated to the forest, a traditional refuge for outlaws.

A rebellion of peasants and artisans was feared by the high and mighty. When the Magna Carta barons brought King John to book in 1215 they had their rights in mind, not those of the rabble of town and country.

The Peasant's Revolt: Richard II witnessing the death of Wat Tyler

Death of Wat Tyler, with Richard II appearing in the picture twice, witnessing Tyler's death, then conferring with the rebels - Credit: Library Royal MS

The government responded to the first signs of bother by sending in the Chief Justice of the Commons Pleas, Robert Belknap (or Belkneap), who headed for Brentwood to smoke out and punish the rioters. The Fobbing and Corringham men were a step ahead, however, having sent messages round south Essex, calling out their neighbours.

Come June 2, Belknap was in Brentwood to open his commission. He was set upon by an ‘armed multitude’ and forced to swear on the Bible that he would never hold another such session. His papers were destroyed, but he escaped with his life. He was lucky. The mob, its blood up, beat to death and beheaded three local jurors, called to present the original rioters before Belknap, also destroying their houses. Three clerks were also slain.

The Brentwood murders were followed by a general outbreak of riot and plunder, which spread through Essex in June’s first week. Letters went to other counties, asking them to rise also. The rebels’ leaders, shadowy figures to us, were literate. The Peasants’ Revolt had begun.

Kent swiftly followed Essex. Some men took a boat across the Thames to confer with their Essex cousins in villages about Barking, returning on June 4 with a band of around 100 auxiliaries from beyond the river. The insurgents of the two counties remained in close touch, acting in concert.

The Essex troubles were more agrarian and less political than Kent’s. Essex was more rural and grievances more feudal. There was nevertheless a systematic attack on the king’s officers. John Ewell (Escheator of the County) was murdered at Langdon Hills, John Sewall (Sheriff) had his manor ransacked at Coggeshall and Sir Robert Hales (Treasurer) had his dwelling destroyed at Cressing Temple.

The Peasants' Revolt: John Ball, a rebel leader, was a priest in Colchester

John Ball, one of the rebel leaders, is on the horse. Ball was a priest in Colchester. Here he is encouraging Tyler's rebels. Tyler himself is on the left - Credit: Unknown medieval artist, illustrating Froissart's 'Chronicles', detail of British Library MS

Admiral Edmund de la Mare’s manor at Peldon was also sacked. Destruction of court rolls, leases and charters occurred as bondmen burnt documents that enslaved them. Religious houses were not exempt, Waltham Abbey having every document consigned to the flames.

Colchester fell into rebel hands without resistance and its capture was ‘celebrated’ by the massacre of several Fleming merchants, another of their number meeting the same fate at Manningtree. A peasant revolt appears to have been ‘bandwagoned’ by an urban mob, which had its own agenda, including sorting out some foreigners.

As the Essex bands moved towards London on June 11, their demands became clearer, that, ‘all men, in the realm of England, should be free, and of free condition,’ and that the men to blame were the king’s bad advisors, not the king himself.

The revolt’s high water mark came when the two groups joined forces and entered London on June 13. The following day a shaken Richard II agreed to the demands of the Essex men at Mile End (a general pardon, the abolition of villeinage, liberty to trade and fixing of rent at 4d per acre). It was short-lived.

The following day saw a second meeting with the king at Smithfield, when rebel leader, Wat Tyler, was slain. Ironically, the date was June 15, the anniversary of Magna Carta. The Essex men had already dispersed with their hard-won charters, no doubt wondering if they were worth the parchment they were written on. They’d soon find out.

It was always assumed that Tyler was a Kent man, but some documents of the time refer to Essex and Colchester. If he had a link with Colchester, then he could have been a compatriot of another rebel leader, John Ball, who it is known was a priest in the town. Essex appears to have claimed Wat Tyler as its own anyway, with Wat Tyler Country Park in the heart of the south Essex marshes.

The other prominent leader, Jack Straw, has been referred to as the leader of the Essex men and information in the Church of St Mary in Great Baddow states that he led a crowd from the churchyard here to the risings. Local Essex leaders are hard to find. There was a Henry Baker of Manningtree indicating that local bread men had a lot of gripes.

Having won concessions from the king on June 14, Essex proved to be the county where the uprising was least inclined to die down. Come June 23, the king was at Waltham, where he proclaimed them ‘treasonous rebels’ and declared any concessions he’d granted invalid, having been extorted by force.

‘Villeins ye are still, and villeins ye shall remain,’ was his famed broadside. The king was incensed at the duress he had suffered and was intent on revenge. Some Essex men went to the gallows, including John Starling, who it was said had executed the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Amazingly, a hardcore of Essex rebels continued to resist, eventually stockading themselves into a strong position on the edge of a wood, near Billericay, flanks and rear covered by ditches and carts chained together. The rebels had learnt from the tactics of the Hundred Years War, suggesting they had old soldiers among them.

On June 28 came the final denouement for the Essex rebels, their entrenchments carried at the first charge, as many as 500 of their number cut down, if chroniclers can be believed. Rebel leaders fled to Suffolk and Huntingdon, where they tried to continue the fight, before being overcome.

The final paragraph in the Great Revolt was writ on July 2, when the king reached Chelmsford. Here he declared that all charters issued at Mile End were revoked. It was back to business as usual, for now.

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