New Plaque at Smithfields Market commemorates Wat Tyler, John Ball, and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381
by Guest Blogger Jo Manning
Smithfield Market in London
For me, as an avid student of English history, the Peasants’ Revolt of late spring/early summer of 1381, which began in Essex, was every bit as significant an event as the Magna Carta was in 1215, more than a century earlier.
Unlike those behind the Magna Carta, those revolting were poor folk, peasants who were still laboring under the harshness of serfdom and poor economic conditions. The Black Death had ended just 35 years before; the perennial war against the French was going badly, and, guess what, the poor were to have levied against them a Poll Tax.
Such behavior on the part of the French aristocrats was to turn out very badly for them centuries hence, but this was still only the 14th century…and it was England. Anger against the Poll Tax soon turned into demands that all men deserved more freedom, equal treatment under the law, and a more equitable distribution of wealth.
Kent joined with Essex and there began a march towards London, reaching the gates of the city on the 13th of June. The Kentish rebels were led by a man named Jack Straw; the Essex contingent was led by an ex-soldier named Wat (Walter) Tyler. The rebel army met with the 14-year-old King Richard II, but before demands were heard, the Lord Mayor of London, a William Walworth, attacked and killed Wat Tyler. The rebels were in disarray when the king stepped forth and made a promise to the peasants that he would abolish serfdom. Satisfied that a major demand had been met, the rebels returned home…only to meet death by hanging by the government soldiers who followed them, giving no quarter to anyone who’d participated in the revolt.
(Put not your faith in princes…ah, always so true!)
Another important individual associated with the rebellion was a Lollard preacher named John Ball, who had been imprisoned by the Archbishop of Canterbury and freed by the rebels. He was a staunch believer in the equality of all men and is famous for a sermon he preached that asked, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” That quote lived on after his execution and still lives today.
What did the rebels gain? Well, no poll tax was collected for hundreds of years after and perhaps a good deal of fear was put into the mean hearts of the rich and of the church – which protected the rights of the rich – Tyler, Straw, and the murderer mayor Walworth, were immortalized and took their place in English history and mythology. The Lollards faced at least a hundred years of persecution owing to the part the priest John Ball played in the rebellion.
New plaque at Smithfield Market…
Interpretations by historians of those who took part in this rebellion against royal authority have gone back and forth over the years. Were they the vicious mob portrayed by the aristocratic chroniclers? Or were they actually the first working-class heroes in England, fighting for the rights of all? It is estimated that about 60,000 rebels (and not all of them were necessarily peasants) took part in this revolt.
Another view of the plaque
The plaque at Smithfield Market, where the confrontation between the rebels and the king took place, is considered long overdue, and welcomed by many who would rather deem it the English Rising than the Peasants’ Revolt and trace the beginnings of democracy in England to this important event.