By Kathryn Walton
The Great Uprising of 1381 saw a group of dissatisfied peasants and their supporters march on London with demands that the king abolish serfdom and a new poll tax. The revolt remains one of the most widespread insurrections in English history, and it was inspired, in part, by the famous medieval poem Piers Plowman.
The Great Uprising of 1381 is the most significant popular uprising to take place in medieval England. Also called the Peasants’ Revolt, the event took place in the months of May and June 1381.
The Uprising began as a resistance against a series of unpopular poll taxes that had been levied against the general populace in the preceding four years. A poll tax is a fixed tax levied against every individual simply for being alive. The monarchy in the late 14th century frequently used poll taxes to fund its various expensive wars. It collected three poll taxes between 1377 and 1381.
These taxes were extremely unpopular because every adult would be forced to pay a fixed sum without any account of their property, financial situation, or social status. So, peasants who could barely make ends meet would be forced to pay the same as wealthy landholders. The third poll tax of 1 shilling per head was particularly hard for those without much money. It was too high and felt pointless because the peasantry didn’t see any benefit from the tax; they weren’t particularly invested in supporting a series of seemingly endless wars against France.
And so, resistances against the third poll tax broke out across various parts of England in late May of 1381. These rebellions grew, and different factions came under the leadership of different individuals including Jack Straw, John Ball, and Wat Tyler. The leaders rallied followers and marched on London in June where they picked up more supporters. They broke into the city on June 13, burned administrative documents, sacked John of Gaunt’s palace (because of the wealth and corruption he represented), executed the Archbishop and the Treasurer outside the Tower of London (because of the wealth and corruption they represented) and generally created mass chaos.
The revolters refused to leave until the king met their various demands. They wanted an end to the poll tax, an end to serfdom, and an end to various other governmental injustices that made the lives of those in the lower classes difficult. They also wanted lordship to be divided amongst all men, there to be only one bishop, and the wealth of the church to be spread amongst the populace. Basically, they were looking to overturn the various social structures that made it impossible for peasants to raise their social status, and they were looking for an end to the corruption they saw in the church and monarchy.
In one of the highlights of his rather non-illustrious career, the then 14-year-old Richard II rode out to meet the rebels at Mile End. He offered them charters of freedom and pardons for their involvement in the rebellion. The rebels were willing to listen to the king over a church or government official because they saw him as young and ill-advised.
That first meeting went a long way towards dispersing their dissatisfaction, but it wasn’t until the following day that the king managed to put an end to the rebellion. In another meeting, tensions ran high and their leader, Wat Tyler, was killed. But King Richard managed to get the rebels to follow him after the loss of their leader with confidence and more promises of freedom. Then, with the help of the militia the rebellion was dispersed.
Despite the king’s promises otherwise, many of the rebels were punished and the king did not ultimately end up keeping any of his promises. He executed a number of the rebels and did nothing to abolish serfdom or change the structure of church finances. The only material success to come out of the rebellion was the there were no more poll taxes issued in the Middle Ages.
It was a really significant historical event. But was it caused just by a desire not to pay a new tax?
The Seeds of Revolt
While scholars see the newest poll tax as the major catalyst of this event, seeds of revolt had long been growing in England.
The plague pandemic of 1348-1351 had wiped out a huge percentage of the population of the country and led to a labour shortage. This meant that lords and landholders desperately needed people to work their lands. The labour of peasants therefore became something of a hot commodity, and peasants tried to take advantage of that by negotiating better deals for themselves. But most attempts of the peasantry to rise about their oppressive social positions were stopped by various court and governmental policies.
The church too was often an extreme source of contention for many in the lower and middle classes. A huge portion of the country’s wealth was held by the church and church services were more readily available to those with more money. Practices like indulgences, wherein you could (basically) pay your way out of sin, meant that salvation seemed more accessible to those with lots of money. Medieval authors like Chaucer frequently portray images of corrupt church officials who prey on the poor to gain personal wealth; the characters of the Friar and the Summoner in The Canterbury Tales reveal a bitter dislike of the emphasis placed on wealth and the resulting corruption rampant in the church.
These kinds of portrayals in literature reflect and may actually have helped to sow the growing seeds of revolt. One text in particular may have heavily influenced the leaders of the revolt. That text is Piers Plowman, the famous, wonderful, baffling allegory written in the late 14th century.
Piers Plowman and the Celebration of Peasants
Piers Plowman is (in my opinion) one of the most complex poems of the Middle English period. I have studied it, researched it, written on it, taught it, and still, every time I return to it, I am baffled anew by its complexity. It’s baffling. But it’s great.
Piers Plowman was written by the poet William Langland sometime in the late 14th century. It survives in three (maybe four) different versions of varying length and content. It depicts a sequence of dream visions had by the narrator Will in which (to put it very basically) he learns what it means to lead a good Christian life. In his visions he encounters various allegorical figures, and through their depictions Langland not only expresses his ideas about medieval Christianity, but also critiques medieval church, governmental, and social practices.
He critiques church practices like pardons by having the main character rip one up. He critiques abuse of wealth through his depiction of characters like Mede (monetary reward) who is put on trial for her relationship with False. He critiques those in positions of power by allegorizing aspects of their personality.
He also celebrates those without much money and peasants especially. During the trial of Mede, the character of Conscience tells the king that while the Clergy and Barons can raise their status in life through access to wealth and resources, “poor men have no power to express their needs even though they are hurting” (Passus III, line 168). In the same sequence Langland also celebrates the image of labourers as good and honourable. He says that labourers and “lowe folk” never take more reward from their masters than that which is an appropriate wage (Passus III, line 255-6). In both cases those without wealth – peasants and other members of the lower classes – are praised for their honesty. The poet also laments the impoverished position into which corrupt governing officials often put them.
This celebration of the peasantry is enhanced by the fact that one of the holiest/righteous characters in the entire text is a plowman – a poor labourer. Piers Plowman appears in Passus V of the text and is the image of a good Christian soul. He is described simply as a plowman who knows much of religious life. He dismisses any of the wealth and unnecessary ceremony of the church and focuses on living a good Christian life and finding truth.
That good Christian life is bound up in the lives lived by members of the lower classes and peasants especially. As part of a pilgrimage to find truth, he insists his followers plow his half-acre of land. That labour becomes representative of and an act of faith. Those who will not help or who waste time are critiqued; those who work hard for what they have like Piers are praised. The physical work of peasants and those of little means is celebrated and they are made out to be holy figures.
This, as you can imagine, was appealing to the revolters of 1381 who themselves (or some of them at least), had little means and disliked the importance that the church and the government placed on wealth.
The Revolt and Piers Plowman
John Ball, one of the leaders of the revolt, seems to have been particularly influenced by Piers Plowman. A letter survives written by Ball to the peasants of Essex in 1381 that calls on Piers Plowman to go to his work and chastise the corrupt officials. He tells the peasants to “stondeth togidre in Godes name, and biddeth Peres ploughman go to his werk, and chastise wel Hobbe the Robbere,” [stand together in God’s name and ask Piers the Plowman to go to his work and chastise Hobbe the Robber]. You can read the complete letter here. Hobbe the Robber has not been definitively identified but it is thought to perhaps refer to the treasurer or another unpopular church or governmental official.
Now, it is uncertain the extent to which Ball refers to the poem specifically or to Piers as a kind of standalone hero. But there is no question that the peasant hero held popular appeal at the time and probably to those involved in the Rising. Langland changed the text after the Rising to try to distance it and himself from the atrocities that had occurred there. That he did suggests he saw the power and potential disruption that his text could cause and so decided to tone down some of the extremely critical parts of it. There are other indications as well of the influence of Piers Plowman on the Rising which Steven Justice discusses in his chapter “Piers Plowman and the Rising” in Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381.
The influence of the text, or even just of the character, shows the power of literature to inspire people to fight for change. Literature that critiques dominant structures encourages people to push back against what they see as unjust social structures. Langland’s overt critique of corrupt church and governmental officials and celebration of hard-working and religious peasants provided one source of inspiration for medieval peasants and those with few monetary resources to change their position in life. It put a face and a name to the fight for some degree of fairness.
Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.
Top Image: An illustration of the priest John Ball on a horse encouraging Wat Tyler’s rebels of 1381, from a ca. 1470 manuscript of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles – British Library MS Royal 18 E. I fol. 165v