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Courage Under Fire: Richard II and the Peasants’ Revolt

By Danièle Cybulskie

In January, 1377, a throng of mummers paraded through London for the amusement of the future Richard II, then ten years old. There was drinking and dancing, and the mummers handed Richard a pair of loaded dice, which he used to win some gold trinkets as part of the performance. For a prince like Richard, it seemed the dice would always be loaded in his favour, but it was only four years later that London was burning all around him.

Born in Bordeaux, on January 6, 1367, Richard came to the throne as a child against the odds. His father was the legendary Black Prince (Edward of Woodstock), who, although 36, was expected to have years to rule when his father, Edward III, died. Richard also had an older brother, Edward of Angoulême, meant to succeed their own father to the throne of England. Life, however, had other plans. In late 1370 or early 1371, the plague carried off Richard’s five-year-old brother, leaving him an only child. Then, in 1376, the Black Prince died of dysentery after having spent nearly all of Richard’s life suffering from the illness. Finally, just under six months from the moment Richard was handed the loaded dice, his larger-than-life grandfather, Edward III, finally succumbed to death.

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The first four years of Richard’s reign were disastrous for the people at large, with French invaders ravaging the south coast, and desperate, failed attempts to regain military glory on the continent, all of which drained Richard’s coffers again and again. During this time, Richard was very much in the background of history, but he was soon to be thrust into the spotlight.

To fund these disastrous campaigns, the people had been taxed five times in four years and seen no positive returns. They were very aware that Richard was merely a child being influenced by others, so when they began to rise up against the unfairness of their bondage and unfair taxation in the late spring of 1381, they deliberately used language that excluded Richard from their ire. As Juliet Barker notes in her book 1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt, the rebels recognized each other by asking, “With whom haldes you” (“Who do you hold with?”). The correct reply was, “Wyth kynge Richarde and wyth the trew communes.”

Whether it was because he was divinely chosen as the ultimate authority, because he was yet a child and they thought they could influence him, or because he and his father had been so beloved, the people appealed directly to Richard to help them change their lot in life. They asked him to meet with them on Thursday, June 13th, 1381, outside of London and he accepted. From the royal barge on the Thames, he called out to them, but it was decided he wouldn’t be safe landing in the midst of the throng, so he was rowed back to the Tower of London where he was sheltering. Incensed, the rebels stormed London, burning the Savoy, the Hospitaller’s priory at Clerkenwell, and the homes of other hated individuals. Citing the author of one of the accounts, the Anonimalle (who may have been an eye-witness), Nigel Saul describes Richard climbing to the top of the White Tower that day and looking out to see London, the city that had been so kind to him only four years earlier, burning on all sides.

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The fourteen-year-old king gathered his courage and agreed to meet the rebels, in person, at Mile End the next day, a neutral location outside the city walls. As Saul points out, this meant he had to ride through the city with potentially hostile people all around him, close enough to accost him with their demands along the way. At Mile End, Richard listened to the demands of the rebels and agreed to each one, to the horror of his lords. One of the letters patent that he promised them was recorded in one of the chronicles:

Richard, by the grace of God, king of England and France, and lord of Ireland, to all his bailiffs and faithful men to whom these present letters come, greetings. Know that by our special grace … we have freed and quitted each of them from bondage by these letters. We also pardon our said liege men and subjects for all felonies, acts of treason, transgressions and extortions performed by them … We also withdraw sentences of outlawry declared against them or any of them because of these offences. And we hereby grant our complete peace to them and each of them. In testimony of which we order these letters to be made patent. Witnessed by myself at London on 15 June in the fourth year of my reign.

Having made these promises, Richard asked the crowd to go home under his banner, and he returned to the Tower. Overnight, however, the chaos continued, so Richard – perhaps spurred on by the welcome he’d received at Mile End – agreed to meet the rebels once again at Smithfield the next day. As Saul recounts, Richard went to Westminster Abbey for mass that Saturday, making an offering and confessing to the anchorite there. It seems Richard was preparing his soul for whatever might happen.

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At Smithfield, when Wat Tyler was killed and the situation began to erupt, it was Richard himself who rode directly into the crowd and shouted, according to one account, “you shall have no captain but me,” leading the rebels away. He asked for his letters and banners back, and sent the rebels home, now that the situation was in his control.

It’s easy to be cynical and suggest that Richard never had any intention of keeping his promises, especially in the light of how each was repealed over the months and years that followed. But it’s just as likely that meeting his people in person had a profound effect on the fourteen-year-old boy, and that he genuinely sympathized with them. After all, it’s entirely possible that this was the first time Richard had personally heard the grievances of people so far below his station, sheltered as he had been his entire life. While it would have been easy for his lordly councillors (both before and after the Peasants’ Revolt) to have convinced him that peasants were happy with, and deserving of, their lot, it would have been much harder to be dismissive of their tribulations as real people stood in front of him, en masse. No doubt the rebels were extremely persuasive, given the weight of their collective experiences, and their loyalty to Richard in leaving him unharmed and trusting him to make things right would have added to the emotional effect of their plea.

Moreover, as Saul has mentioned, Richard tried to go to the people personally following the Revolt as he heard of murmurings in Kent, but he was dissuaded by his lords. And as Barker notes, the language of Richard’s later repeal leaves the door wide open for him to free the peasants if the lords agreed (they did not). It seems that Richard really was genuine in his longing to help the people, though his power in that area was not as extensive as he wished.

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Though his experience during the Peasants’ Revolt, and the confidence inspired by riding among hostile crowds unharmed, may have made Richard blind to the ill feeling that later built up against him, it also tested his mettle in unimaginable ways. Regardless of any kind of security he may have had with him, Richard was in life-threatening danger each of the three days he faced the mob. Instead of hiding in the Tower, he went out of his own volition each time, and faced a crowd of thousands that he knew already had blood on its hands. No matter what mistakes he made during his short rule, the incredible courage of this teenaged king should be counted among the many startling and memorable aspects of the Peasants’ Revolt.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: Richard II meets the rebels on 14 June 1381 in a miniature from a 1470s copy of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles.

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