Revolt: The story of England’s first protest

In 1990, a march in protest of the government’s poll tax turned violent as police and marchers clashed. The Poll Tax Riots became one of the most infamous protests in recent British history. But this wasn’t the first time protesters rioted and set fires in London to show their anger at a poll tax. In fact, 600 years earlier, the first mass uprising in English history was prompted by a very similar situation. In this episode, we use the medieval records in our collection to uncover the real story of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

SFX credit: freesound.org

Documents from The National Archives used in this episode:
C 67/29; JUST 1/400 m.21; KB 9/166/1 m.2; KB 27/482 rex rot. 39d; KB 27/483 rot. 40; KB 27/486 rex rot. 5.

On the Record at The National Archives

What would you do to change the status quo? In our latest three-part series we’re sharing stories of protest. Using the records in our archive, we’ve pieced together stories that span 600 years of people fighting back against inequality and oppression.

History is everywhere in popular culture. But the truth is harder to find.

On the Record is a podcast by The National Archives of the UK that takes a closer look at the stories you think you know. Her at The National Archives we are the guardians of more than 11 million historical government and public records spanning a thousand years of British history. These original documents hold thousands of incredible stories…if you know where to look.

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Transcription

Television newscaster voice with sounds of rioting and yelling behind: To begin with, it’s just a day of inconvenience to visitors, a day of jams. But in Whitehall the mood turns ugly. Anxious marchers run for cover. The police bring in reinforcements.

[Music begins]

Matt Norman: This is the sound of police officers charging angry protesters in Trafalgar Square at the violent climax of the infamous 1990 Poll Tax Riot in London. It’s from footage captured by Michael Beckett for London Weekend Television.

As many as 200,000 protesters had come to voice their opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax, a proposition that would have set up a fixed head tax that many felt saved the rich money at the expense of the poor.

The protest started off peacefully. The march organisers had a permit, and police were on hand to make sure their right to free speech was protected. But the original estimates were for 60,000 protesters, not 200,000. As Trafalgar Square became increasingly packed, police started to block off side streets to contain the protest.

Mounted police were dispatched to clear key areas, but the protesters had nowhere to go. As more police continued to arrive and tried to maintain order, they inadvertently penned in the protesters, who now had no way to disperse. Soon, violence broke out as the police became aggressive with the marchers, the people pushed back, and some angry protesters started throwing bricks and debris from an open construction area. A few sparks of violence turned the whole square into a tinderbox.

In video footage of the event, you can see lines of police on foot and on horseback charging protesters, some of whom are fighting back, others who are trying to get out of the way, and some who have just curled up in place to protect themselves from flying bricks and truncheons.

As the violence escalated, protesters set fire to shops and cars in Covent Garden. By the time it was all over, nearly 12 hours after the original march began, Trafalgar Square looked like a war zone. 119 people were injured and three times that many had been arrested.

Behind this unpopular poll tax was a crisis in government, a crisis that’s detailed in cabinet papers from the time released to The National Archives in 2016.

But this episode isn’t about the 1990 poll tax riots or Margaret Thatcher.

It’s about the first time angry citizens set fires and rioted in London to protest a poll tax, the first time people in this country gathered en masse to challenge their government and demand an end to unfair taxation, the first popular uprising in English history.

This episode is about the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

[Upbeat medieval style music starts to play]

You’re listening to On the Record, a podcast by The National Archives that uncovers stories you’ve never heard before and takes a closer look at the stories you think you do know. I’m Matt Norman, and in this three-part series, I’ll be joined by my co-host Katie Fox as we examine stories of protest.

Here at The National Archives, we’re the guardians of more than 11 million historical government and public records spanning a thousand years of British history. We’re the paper trail of a nation, and our original documents have some incredible stories to tell…if you know where to look.

[Music ends]

Matt Norman: So Katie, there must be hundreds of protests from British history documented in our archives. Why are we going back over 600 years to 1381 for this story?

Katie Fox: Good question, Matt. When you think of protest, you might imagine that it’s a modern thing…a natural conclusion to make because the right to protest peacefully is actually relatively new. It was established by the European Convention on Human Rights, of which the UK is a member, in 1950. But the history of protest goes much further back.

The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, also called Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, was the first popular revolt in English history. The short version is that people were angry at a series of unpopular poll taxes levied by the king. So they organised into a number of factions and began to attack castles and other strongholds of the nobility in the southeast counties and East Anglia.

Rebels from Kent, led by a man named Wat Tyler, swept into London, burned down some important buildings, took the Tower of London, beheaded some of the king’s men, and ultimately forced the King to negotiate and agree to some of their demands.

Matt: And the long version of the story?
Katie: For that, we’ll need the experts in our medieval department, who can help us follow the paper trail left behind in the 14th century.
Matt: Yeah except in this case, it’s a parchment trail, right?
Katie: Right.
[Medieval music plays again for 15 seconds]
Euan Roger: I mean, for a start the term “Peasants’ Revolt” is quite deceptive because actually there are people from all layers of society involved. So there’s a kind of move at the moment to think of it as the Great Revolt, or the 1381 revolt, rather than being really focused on peasants.
Katie: This is Euan Roger. Euan is a Record Specialist on our medieval team with a particular focus on the legal and social documents we have from the middle ages. I sat down with Euan in our reading room to learn more about the Peasants’ Revolt…sorry…the Great Revolt, and see the 600 year old documents in our collection that shed light on how it all played out.
Euan: It’s the first major mass upheaval, mass social upheaval, in England really. There’s lots of causes for the Revolt, but the implications of it are massive. It had such profound changes on the English government, the English legal system, and the rise in lower status individuals.
Matt: Hold on a second, Katie. Before we let Euan tell us about the revolt and how the rebels managed to storm London and force the King to the negotiating table, we should probably set the stage. What was it like to be a commoner in the late 1300s before the revolt broke out?
Katie: Well, it wasn’t a great time to be alive if you weren’t rich and powerful. Britain was organised into the feudal system, which put a relatively few wealthy lords and barons in charge under the King while the majority of people were serfs, peasants whose duty was to farm the land and provide whatever the knights and lords needed. Serfs had very few rights….some earned a wage, but effectively they were close to being close to being slaves at the mercy of the land-owning elite.
This feudal pyramid of power and rights had been in place for almost three hundred years by the time of the Peasants’ Revolt, since William the Conqueror set it up. But things started to change when the Black Death came to England.
The bubonic plague first sweeps through Britain in 1348, killing 30-40% of people living on the British Isles. In some villages, up to 90% of inhabitants are stricken with the deadly sickness. More waves of plague hit England in 1361, 1369, 1374, and 1378, the final pestilence coming only three years before the Peasants’ Revolt. They are not all are as deadly as the first spread of plague in 1348, they further decimate the already reduced population.
If you contracted the bubonic plague, you were almost certain to die, but only after five days of sweating, vomiting, spasms, and painful pus-filled swellings in your groin and armpits.
Matt: Imagine the stress and trauma the average person would have after living through something like that.
Katie: Yeah, but there is a somewhat positive outcome for those that survive. Because the peasant labour force is so severely depleted, they can, for the first time, force land-owners to the table for negotiations on wages and better working conditions.
Euan: The mass mortality of the plague is so vast that there are fewer people that can work on the land and so they can start to, they can start to ask more for their services.
And as part of that, they become incredibly increasingly more powerful and they start to rail against higher levels of society who are doing them down essentially. It comes all comes to a head in 1381, but in reality, it’s all started before that.

Katie: As if plague wasn’t enough, by the time of the revolt in 1381, England is four decades into The Hundred Year’s War, an ongoing conflict with France that had become increasingly expensive. To finance the war, King Edward III establishes a poll tax.

Matt: A poll tax being simply an equal fee charged per person, no matter how wealthy or poor they are.

Katie: Exactly. But soon after Edward III starts collecting this tax, he dies and is succeeded by his 10 year old grandson, Richard II.

Matt: Ok so let me get this right…the country is at war, there’s a labor shortage because so many people have died in a horrific plague, and a ten year old is now in charge?

Katie: Yep.

Matt: well, ok then. What happens next?
Euan: It starts in an Essex really. It’s a reaction to…not the poll tax, the poll tax which Richard II brings in in 1370s, in 1380…
Katie: Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that teenage Richard II, presumably prompted by his advisors, creates another two poll taxes on top of the one established by his grandfather.
Euan: People at first pay the poll tax, they might not be happy to pay the poll tax, but they do pay the poll tax. But in 1380, you see in the records that very few people actually pay. And obviously the royal officials aren’t happy with that, so they send commissioners out to find out why people aren’t paying. And that’s the real starting point for the Revolt because the poll tax is one imposition, but to actually send further commissioners out to check on what’s going on, why the money isn’t being paid, that’s what really gets it started.
And from there you have bands of rebels rising in Kent and in Essex in particular and around the rest of the country as well, more localised uprisings taking place. But they start to move on London. So the Kentish rebels who are the kind of main band, they’re led by a man called Watt Tyler. And they turn up at Blackheath on the 12th of June having gone via Canterbury and the King finds out that they’re, they’re kind of uprising, they’re close to the capital, and he goes immediately to the Tower of London, tries to negotiate with the rebels at Blackheath, but ultimately that fails.
And on the 13th of June, you have a real indication of what the King is doing, because he goes to meet with the rebels down at Greenwich. But ultimately he’s unwilling to get out of his boat because the rebels look quite menacing. So he’s happy to negotiate with them, but he refuses to leave his boat to do so. And the rebels essentially say, well, unless you come onto land, we’re not going to negotiate. So the first attempts at trying to work out a solution to this uprising ultimately fail.
But ultimately they get into London and they start trashing various places in London. They empty the jails at Aldgate and Newgate. They burned down the Savoy Palace. They burned down the Temple and they burned down Clerkenwell Priory because the head of the priory at that time is also the treasurer.
And on the 14th of June, they actually take the Tower of London, which is a major achievement by the rebels. The King at this point has already left the Tower of London, but he’s left his ministers behind. So he’s left the Archbishop of Canterbury behind and the treasurer, Robert Hales. And they get in to the tower and they storm the tower, they drag the Archbishop, the treasurer, and a number of other royal officials outside, and they execute them on the spot.
And interestingly, they also meet other members of the royal court. So they meet the future Henry the fourth in the palace. But they let him go. They also come across the King’s mother who they insult but let her go as well.
And at this point it’s all getting very serious. The King is meeting a different group of rebels– there’s multiple factions amongst the rebels. The King is meeting the other rebels at this point at Mile End. And he offers them a charter saying that we will abolish serfdom. So serfdom being the obligation to give free labor to the lord of the manor.
And actually quite a lot of the, the rebels are pleased. That’s what they, that’s what they ultimately wanted.
So having got this charter of abolishing serfdom, a lot of the rebels are quite happy to just disperse at this point. But not the Kentish rebels. They stick around. Watt Tyler in particular is not happy with the situation, and he asks to meet the King again the next day on the 15th of June, and they meet at Smithfield, and he essentially asks for a further charter.
Tyler at this point seems to be quite an argumentative chap. He’s doesn’t seem like the nicest person. He allegedly asked for refreshment and then as soon as that’s provided, he decided to leave. Ultimately he ends up getting into a fight with one of the royal servants at which point the Mayor of London steps in and kills him on the spot or gives him mortal wounds on the spot.
At this point it could have got really serious, but somehow the King manages to diffuse the situation. The Mayor of London’s knighted on the spot and behind him, the London militia kind of quell everything that’s going on, and it all disperses.
[Music plays]
Matt: At the end of the day, the common people rise up, fight their way into London, and actually gain more freedoms for themselves than they had before. That’s a good story!
Katie: Well there’s actually a lot more to the story. In fact, you could argue that what happened after the rebels disperse is even more interesting than the revolt itself.
Euan: That’s not the end of the story because obviously you’ve had a major uprising, and a lot of the documents that we have in our collections are other results of inquisitions following the dispersal. So actually the royal officials were trying to take control of the situation, work out what on earth happened, who’s a traitor, who’s a rebel, what actually constitutes treason in this case, it’s quite interesting because the law of treason is not really designed with mass popular insurrection in mind. It’s acts against the King in particular, but riding in an armed band is specifically not treason. It’s all to do with raising a banners on royal battle, on battlefields.
The inquisition was done by a jury of local men who would tell the royal officials what had happened in their area.
So it’s quite hard to get to grips of what happens. And you see a lot of cases kind of frittering away into nothingness because they can’t, people can’t prove what has happened.
Matt: Ok so they’ve launched an official inquiry, almost like you might have today after a big scandal in government or a wartime mission gone wrong. They need to know what happened so they can prosecute those responsible, make sure no one gets away with crimes committed under the cover of the revolt, and make laws to prevent and punish this kind of uprising in the future.
Katie: Because of this official inquisition into the revolt by the King and the royal court, a lot of records were created detailing what happened, and because The National Archives is responsible for keeping official government records, we hold a number of incredible documents from that inquisition here in our repositories in Kew. Euan brought a few particularly interesting ones to our interview.
Matt: And we should probably note that these aren’t the pieces of paper that you might think of when you hear National Archives documents.
Katie: Right, we’re talking about the Middle Ages, so Euan actually brought four rolls of parchment for me to look at.
Euan: So they’re primarily parchment roles. We have the pardon roll, rolls out of Chancery, which is rolled end on end. And then we have the records of the Court of King’s Bench, which are primarily parchment roles and bound at one end. And we have four of them at least for a year going back to the 13th century and beyond.
Matt: I’m not very familiar with what Medieval governments typically documented on parchment rolls…what kinds of information are on the ones we have?
Katie: These are the administrative records of the men conducting the inquiry into the revolt. So we have a lot of individual’s stories of certain events and trial proceedings.
Matt: This is the kind of thing that makes our collections so exciting…anyone can come look at these parchment rolls describing a 14th century revolt and see what was of interest to the inquisition jury.
Katie: Speaking of which, Euan explained to me what these rolls tell us about what it was like to live through this revolt and the confusion that followed.
Euan: They tell us the little stories I think amongst the wider uprising, they tell us the individual stories, the individual relationships that are still going on at the heart of the uprising.
In all of these documents, you have lots of records for private cases. So you have people breaking into other people’s houses and destroying their documents about their landholdings, their property deeds essentially. You have stories of…loads of stories of extortion. So people are going and saying, well, pay me 20 pounds or I’m going to kill you. It’s, it’s a breakdown of the, the social, the legal order at the time. Which means people can get away with this, and you see it in the records. You have also the major royal inquisitions of the murder of Chief Justice for example. But then you also have lots of cases where people are saying, so and so stole my, stole my clothes during a raid on my house. We don’t, in any case, in any of the cases, really get an understanding of the problems, the arguments that were there before. All we really see is the aftermath, the inquisition into what had happened.
Matt: So there’s a breakdown of social order and of course people are using it to get away with things…or at least trying to make the most of the chaos.
Katie: My favourite example of this is an account we have of a woman who was clearly on a mission to make sure someone paid for the death of her husband, but she doesn’t seem to have been particularly interested in the facts about who was actually responsible.
Euan: And this is a case of a woman who’s clearly taking advantage of the situation to avenge the murder of her husband. She’s recorded accusing these men of having murdered her husband during the Peasants’ Revolt. But actually if we look at one of the earlier rolls, she’s already tried to accuse different people and has given a different date. So the original date, the original time, she tried to bring this to the court, she said her husband died in the previous year.
But now she’s taking them to court again and claiming that it took place during the revolt and therefore they should be tried as part of that.
Katie: And do we know what happened? Was she successful?
Euan: Er no. The, the men all go free because she’s changed the, her facts along the way. So she’s clearly taking advantage of the system by changing the facts of what had happened to try and get justice for her murdered husband.
Matt: And what happens to all the people who are convicted of crimes committed during the revolt?
When I was getting ready for this podcast I was looking up what crimes you might be convicted of relating to protesting today, and the Code for Crown Prosecutors has a lot of details on what types of offences happen during protests and how to categorise and prosecute them.
But the 1381 revolt was the first of its kind, so I’m guessing the existing law books wouldn’t have been too helpful in many of the cases.
Katie: It appears that way, and their answer, apparently, was just to offer blanket pardons to people committing lower level offences. We know this because we have registries of these pardons in our archives.
Euan: So the first document is a pardon roll. At the end of the Peasants’ Revolt, people could request Royal pardons, which would pardon them from any crimes they committed apart from the major crimes of murder, for example. So this is the record of all the people that purchased one of those pardons at the end of the revolt.
Katie: And what does it show?
Euan: So for each person it has their name, it has their alias, it has their job and where they live. And anyone could purchase one of these pardons. So it might….when I say it’s a pardon roll, that sounds like these people are being specifically pardoned for individual crimes, but actually it’s a kind of cover all document you could purchase to get you out of any trouble you committed.
Katie: It’s almost like in Monopoly…that get out of jail free card. You could use it at any point?
Euan: Exactly. Exactly. Provided, you hadn’t murdered anyone, it’s exactly the same as a Monopoly get out of jail free card.
Katie: Because of how detailed these reports are, we get a pretty nuanced picture of how people may have participated in the revolt and a broader picture of what kind of people were involved than the typical history book accounts give us.
Euan: These documents about female involvement…it’s a really on understudied side of the uprising. There’s been one article on it, but there’s a lot more that could be done. And to try to trace these people’s stories.
And this document is another investigation in the central law courts. But this is one that actually names one of the leaders of the Kentish rebels in particular, Watt Tyler. So he’s named here as raiding Canterbury Castle and breaking out the prisoners within, including two women, Agnes Jekyn and Joan Hampcok It describes them as being manacled and chained up in the prison. He breaks in with a gang of rebels and breaks them out from the prison.
Matt: I would really love to know what those women did to be locked up in chains and why they were important enough that the rebel leader Wat Tyler risked a castle jail break.
Katie: Maybe someone will hear this podcast, decide to look for the answer, and uncover the record of their arrest and imprisonment…but until then, their criminal activities are a mystery.
Euan: This document is a document from a Suffolk. So a lot of the details and the analysis of the revolt has been focused around London, but it’s actually across the country, including in the north and in Suffolk and Norfolk. And this is the story of a woman who aids the rebels, but not in an explicit way.
Essentially the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, John Cavendish, is in his house in Suffolk, and the rebels attack the house and drive him out. She doesn’t do anything violent. She just lets the boat go free. So he can’t escape. And she’s being accused of not so much killing John Cavendish, but stopping him from escaping death by getting in his boat and sailing away. It’s not really a crime as such. But the implications are so profound that she’s being named in this list of people who involved in the death.
Katie: So sort of an accessory to murder essentially.
Euan: Yes. Yeah. Essentially.
Matt: I heard we might have a record of a woman leading a wing of the revolt?
Katie: Yes and no. We do have a pretty wild account, but we’re not sure it’s 100% factual.
Euan: So this is a really interesting document about the Revolt because it has it names a woman, Johanna Ferrour as being one of the lead rebels in the storming of the Tower of London and the execution of the, the Chancellor and the Treasurer at the time. So it describes her as being the chief perpetrator and leader of a great society of rebels from Kent. They first of all, they go to the Savoy which is the, the townhouse of John of Gaunt, one of the leading nobles. And they burn down the Savoy Manor and they seize a chest containing a thousand pounds. And she gets in a boat on the Thames with that chest and sails off to Southwark where she apparently divides the gold up. But then on the next day she apparently goes into the Tower of London, lays violent hands on the Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and on Brother Robert Hails who’s the Treasurer. And she drags them out of the tower allegedly and orders that they should be beheaded outside.
Unfortunately, we have no idea what happens to her. She’s allowed to go free essentially on bail on the condition that she comes back to court, and we never see her again in the legal records.
She turns up in a property transaction a few years later. So we know she’s still alive. And her husband, who she’s named as being in league with, he does come back and he’s acquitted of the crimes. So we don’t know how factually correct this all is. But it’s really interesting that she’s being described as one of the lead rebels.
Part of the problem with some of our medieval collections is that women are very hard to find in the records. So we don’t really know much about her or her husband at all. The only possible connection is that one of the royal officials, one of the guards at the tower, has the same name as her husband. Are they the same person? We don’t really know. But unfortunately we don’t know much more about her background beyond this sole reference in the record.
The documents in many cases may not be an exact record of what took place, but the fact that the stories were seen to be viable by juries presenting them…they had to be believable stories because otherwise they wouldn’t have been recorded in any case.
So, while Johanna Ferrour, for example, may not have been the lead rebel going into the Tower of London, the fact that it was believable, that a jury could present that story as believable shows that a woman could conceivably have been a leader their value at this time, which is not something that we usually hear in the stories of medieval revolutions.
[Medieval music plays briefly]
Matt: This may be a cheesy question, but what can we learn from the story of the Peasants’ Revolt? Why is it worth looking so closely at a protest that happened over 600 years ago?
Katie: I actually asked Euan the same question…
Euan: It’s the first mass uprising in England, and it’s a real change in the status of working class people in this country.
I think the main thing that strikes me about the Peasants’ Revolt is that the ideas, the ideas expressed by the rebels, the incidents recorded in the legal records still have real resonance today. They’re arguing about questions over royal imposition in their lives, over-management of their lives…
And in the aftermath of the revolt, not a lot changes in the short term, apart from a lot of rebels get executed. But in the longer term, this kind of social uprising has a major impact on the country as a whole, on the legal system, and royal governance going forward. And those involved in the uprising really do have a major impact on society moving forward.
[Music plays]
Matt: It’s easy to think of this revolt as something so historic that it’s almost foreign. After all, life was drastically different in 1381 than it is today.
Katie: But I think what some of these stories of individuals show us is that, despite everything that’s changed in the last 638 years since the Peasants’ Revolt, there’s a lot that hasn’t changed.
Matt: These people wanted a better quality of life, more freedom to determine their own fate…
Katie: …and they wanted their government to tax them fairly with consideration for their ability to pay.
Matt: Isn’t that last demand one of the complaints of the 1990 protesters?
Katie: It is. Except the rebels of 1381 didn’t have the option to get a permit and try to peacefully show their opposition to government policy. I don’t think marching unarmed through the streets would have turned out very well for them.
Matt: So maybe the 1990 Poll Tax riots actually show how far we’ve come. Those protests got violent and the injuries and arrests are definitely not a best case scenario; but consider the lengths the rebels of 1381 and those in centuries following had to go to in order to secure more rights for themselves. They really didn’t have an option to lobby peacefully for their rights. Their best case scenario involved violence and death on both sides.
Katie: So, moral of the story?

Matt: How about don’t underestimate the power of everyday people to challenge oppressive power structures and don’t take our right to protest peacefully for granted.

Katie: And don’t forget that women have always been involved in protest and rebellion, even if their stories aren’t always told.

Matt: Thanks for listening to On the Record, a production of The National Archives at Kew.

In the next episode of On the Record we’re going to share another story of protest, this one about the fight for suffrage and how the suffragettes turned to militant tactics to get their message across.

If you like this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review. To find out more about this story, the documents we used to uncover it, and The National Archives, follow the link from the episode description in your podcast listening app or visit nationalarchives.gov.uk. All of the documents discussed in this episode are available for any member of the public to view in our reading rooms.

Thank you to all the experts who contributed to this episode. This episode was written, edited, and produced by Hannah Hethmon.

This podcast is copyright to The National Archives, all rights reserved. It is available for reuse under the terms of the Open Government Licence.

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