historical, history, medieval, wargaming

Peasants Revolt 1381

This article was first published in Irregular Magazine Issue 2.

In 1381 one of the most dramatic events in medieval England occurred. It started as a local revolt by peasants in Essex and rapidly escalated across the South East of England.


The revolt began in Brentwood, Essex, when locals reacted to an over-zealous tax collector. This small action quickly spread to neighbouring communities and resistance to tax collectors spread. Armed bands of villagers rose in areas such as Kent, Suffolk, Hertfordshire and Norfolk. These bands of armed peasants attacked the estates of both the rich and religious communities.



Poll Tax


The root cause of the revolt was the introduction of the Statue of Labourers in 1351 by the government. This meant that wages for labourers were kept to the same amount as they did back in 1346 and that no peasant could leave his or her village. Then in 1380 a third poll tax was introduced in a four year period. Landlords were constantly increasing the rents of the land in which the peasants were tied to. With increased taxation, low wages and high rents, anger boiled over in to an open revolt in the year 1381.


In June 1381, Kentish rebels formed behind Wat Tyler and joined with rebels from Essex and marched on London. When the rebels reached Blackheath on the 12th of June, renegade priest John Ball preached a sermon, questioning the class system. The following day the rebels, motivated by the sermon, crossed over London Bridge into the city.


The men of Essex had gathered with Jack Straw at Great Baddow and marched on London arriving at Stepney. They then attacked certain properties, most of which were associated with John of Gaunt and the Hospitaller Order. On the 14th June they met with the King and presented him with a series of demands, which included the dismissal of some of the more unpopular ministers, and the abolition of serfdom.


Whilst this was going on a group of rebels stormed the Tower of London. Once inside they executed several of those persons hiding there, which included the Lord Chancellor, Simon of Sudbury and the Lord Treasurer, Robert De Halles. One of the buildings destroyed by the rioters was the Savoy Palace, home to John of Gaunt.


The next day at Smithfield, King Richard met with representatives of the rebels led by Wat Tyler. They presented a list of demands, which included all Lordships, apart from the kings should be demolished, and that church estates should be confiscated and distributed to the populace. The King agreed to these terms but Wat Tyler is said to have insulted the King. Wat supposedly drew his dagger, whereby the Mayor of London; William Wordsworth, drew his own sword and wounded Tyler. Sir Ralph de Standish, a knight, then killed Wat.



Killing of Wat Tyler


The rebel crowd were in uproar, which prompted the King to ride forth and shout, “You shall have no Captain but Me.” He promised that all was well and that Wat Tyler would be knighted and that all demands would be met. He also informed them to march to St. John’s Field where Wat Tyler would meet them.


The nobles quickly gained control of the situation and organised a militia force of 7000. This force was able to pursue, capture and execute most of the leaders including both John Ball and Jack Straw.


The revolt wasn’t just centred on the South East of England, there were isolated outbreaks of revolt in the North of England, including York, Scarborough and Beverley. Religious houses and clergymen were also targeted in St. Albans; local peasants attacked the Abbott’s properties. They drained his fish ponds, sacked houses of his officials and burnt his manorial charters. The prior of St. Edmonds was tried and beheaded. The University of Cambridge didn’t escape the wrath of the local town’s folk, as it’s archives were burnt, and a castle in Norwich was taken over by peasants.


Rebel Leaders


Wat Tyler – Knowledge of Tyler’s life before the revolt is very limited, though it is believed he was born in Essex.


John Bull – There is also little known about John’s earlier life as well, he lived in St. Alban’s and at Colchester during the Black Death, though he was living in Kent during the 1381 revolt. It is said he gained considerable fame as a travelling preacher. He was thrown in to jail on three occasions for preaching the teachings of John Wycliffe and was excommunicated in 1366.


When the uprising began he was in jail in Dartford, Kent, where he was released by rebels. He was captured in Coventry and on July 1381 he was hung, drawn and quartered. His head was stuck on a pike and placed on London Bridge.


Jack Straw – There isn’t much known about Jack, it has been suggested that he may have been a preacher, but some think he was probably a thatcher. Jack Straw was believed to be the rebel leader of a group of Essex men. He was captured after the revolt in 1381. He was found in an old house, thinking he was hidden and safe – instead, he was captured and executed.


A campaign set around the revolt could be made up of small skirmishes, with a rebel army starting small and growing as the campaign advances. This could be culminated in a large battle after the sacking of London. The player of the King’s forces would have to stop the revolt from spreading.


Scenarios could include the following;


Capture the rebel leader

Sack a small town

Destroy a Church

Ambush – a noble and his retinue, tax collector or clergyman

Town Riot

Medium sized pitched battle


The revolt in 1381 was mainly concentrated in the South East region of England, but there is nothing to stop players from expanding the revolt. If the revolt expanded to other parts, this could allow for an uprising in Wales, allow the Scots to raid the English border or even allow a corrupt noble to seize land and power. You could allow the rebels to attack and capture the king at Smithfield.


The possibilities are endless and could provide a hook into an exciting campaign that leads to an alternate history. The Peasant’s Revolt could be slotted in to any time, period or setting, and you could even drop an uprising by the peasant population into a fantasy campaign. It could be an uprising in a Roman province which needs to be brutally put down.  This could also form the basis of an alternative history, in which Britain descends in to a civil war between nobles and peasants.


Further Reading


Summer of Blood; The peasant’s revolt of 1381, Dan James

Peasant’s Revolt; England’s failed revolution of 1381 Alistair Dunn

A Summer Storm; The Peasant’s Revolt 1381 Jane Lane

The Peasant’s Revolt (DVD) Michael Leighton

Peasants Revolt

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