The Black Death, Economic and Social Change and the Great Rising of 1381 in Hertfordshire
By Ian White
Thesis, Birkbeck, University of London (2011)
Introduction: ‘for who would have believed that such rustics, and inferior ones at that, would have dared enter the chamber of the king and his mother with their filthy sticks; rebels who had formerly belonged to the most lowly condition of serf went in and out like lords; and swineherds set themselves above knights’ – Thomas Walsingham, Chronicon Angliae
England’s first great rebellion erupted in June 1381; a fourteen-year-old King Richard II and his nobles came within a hairsbreadth of being overthrown; Sudbury his Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury was murdered; Hales, his Treasurer suffered the same fate. Across the south east of England, ‘king’s men’ such as County Sheriffs and Escheators were captured and executed, manors were ransacked and legal documents were destroyed. Walsingham simply could not understand what had happened.
Acts of rebellion erupted right across the country, as far apart as Cornwall and northeast England but it was the people of the southeast counties and London who nearly brought the government down. Rebel leaders in East Anglia and Kent raised thousands of supporters, attacked manors and prisons, marched and rode substantial distances during the two weeks of the rising, before arriving in London and surrounding the city. Sympathisers in London opened the gates of the city allowing them to enter. The Savoy, John of Gaunt’s home, the Temple, the centre of the legal system and other property was ransacked; the Fleet prison was stormed and the Tower occupied; it was only the concessions made by the king at Mile End together with the execution of Wat Tyler at Blackheath that concluded the so-called Peasants Revolt.
What drove medieval people to such desperation that they felt they had no other course of action other than revolt? Was this a spontaneous reaction to a perceived injustice or a desperate response to years of simmering resentment? What were people trying to achieve that was so important that they were prepared to risk their lives, their belongings and those of their families? Were the rebels’ objectives really the same or did some use the rising as an opportunity to pursue their own ends? Who were these ‘peasants’, country yokels, illiterate hotheads, people with nothing to lose or people of some standing prepared to face the ultimate sanction?
Historians have different views about the reasons for the Rising and Dobson’s wry comment that ‘the Peasants Revolt remains and should remain a ‘free for all, a topic upon which every reader can come to their own conclusions…’ suggests that no definitive analysis might ever be agreed upon. Yet the Rising deserves continuing analysis particularly as historiography progresses beyond the traditional texts and chronicles of the time.
This paper examines two propositions as a contribution to this history. First that the demographic consequences of the Black Death of 1348/9 (and its successor visitations) created the conditions for the emergence of a new economic and social order and that it was a determination to achieve political freedom to secure these gains that finally drove people to rebellion. Second, that the Rising in Hertfordshire had similar characteristics and objectives to the national uprising but that it also had its own social and political dynamics that drove the rebellion in the county1381.
For some historians, the reason for the Rising was bad governance, the poor prosecution of the 100 years war and financial corruption. For some, the non-conformist teachings of Wycliffe were a significant factor; others argue that the levy of the third poll tax and the crude and oppressive work of the Poll Tax Commissioners in Essex was the spark that ignited the protest. Some argue that it was a ‘dash for freedom’, ‘the fundamental grievance being the bonds of villeinage and the lack of legal and political rights of rural people, bound by duties of servitude.’ Others argue that villeinage was a social structure, more in name than reality and that ‘the Revolt was a very mild affair.’
Modern historiography accepts that single explanations are usually not good enough to explain complex issues; this paper therefore examines the Rising from a multi disciplinary perspective, something that ‘unites the historian, the economist, the political scientist, the anthropologist, the sociologist and agriculturalist in a common interest.’ The paper considers five perspectives.
First, that the economic effects of the Black Death and its subsequent visitations in 1361/2 and 1369/70 created a ‘tipping point’ which ultimately led to the Rising. The economic changes which followed the plague allowed people to significantly improve their personal economic positions to such an extent that, a generation later, they were willing to take up arms to protect those gains.
Second, that economic change led to the emergence of a different social structure. The disease visited itself on the country for the first time in the autumn of 1348. Fifty percent or more of the population perished. The new demographic profile reflected a society that had reaped the benefits of economic change to create a new social order.
Third, that the Rising was an overt political act, a determination to achieve political changes to secure the new economic and social order.
Fourth, that the attacks on the legal profession was evidence of a determination to wreck the systems of social control which threatened their new found freedoms.The evidence from Essex and Kent in particular suggests rebels destroyed specific manorial records, (documents sealed with green wax) as a way of destroying evidence of their villeinage status. The capture and execution of Sheriffs and Escheators (as representatives of a repressive legal system) was carried out with great coordination.
Finally, that definitions of ‘peasant’ do little to describe the actual participants of the Rising and that by understanding who and what the rebels were gives its own understanding of why they were prepared to rise against the government.
Sources vary in their reliability and availability. The early chronicler’s records are arguably unreliable yet their very availability forms a starting point for assessing the events under discussion. Walsingham, Knighton, Froissart, Reville and the Anonimalle Chronicle all provide their own interpretations of the events yet significant criticism has been levelled at their accounts of the Rising. Other records offer a somewhat more accurate picture. Data on tax records is found in formal documents such as calendars of close rolls and calendars of fine rolls. Evidence of whom the rebels were and where they were from together with accounts of the damage wrought during the Rising are found in King’s Bench records, trespass records and other indictments. Records providing information about the working of the economic system, prices and wages, are found in manorial records although their availability is variable. Records from Essex and Suffolk, for example, provide a rich source of data; Stitt’s analysis of the manors of Wymondley and Tomkin’s analysis of the records of Park help set a Hertfordshire context.
Demographic, economic, social, legal, and political evidence therefore forms the framework of this analysis. The analysis is predicated on the proposition that no Rising of this scale and ferocity would happen without a series of events building pressure up to crisis proportions. The Black Death was the starting point.