The Peasants' Revolt (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: The Peasants' Revolt

Q1: Read sources 2 and 3. How do these sources help to explain why some peasants disliked the poll tax?

A1: Sources 2 and 3 both provide information that all people over the age of fifteen had to pay the same amount of poll tax. In previous years, the amount people paid depended on their income. The author of source 3 obviously thought it was unfair that the poor had to pay the same as someone with goods worth more than forty pounds.

Q2: Use the information in source 8 to explain source 7.

A2: Source 7 shows the deaths of two government ministers. Source 8 points out that a group of peasants " led these men to Tower Hill. There they cut off the heads of Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, and also Sir Robert Hales, Treasurer of England, and others."

Q3: Study sources 9 and 14. Explain why Richard II changed his mind on the subject of feudalism.

A3: Source 9 is evidence that Richard II granted some villeins their freedom. This was granted at a time when the peasants were in control of London and Richard and his officials feared for their lives. Source 14 is part of a speech made after the Peasants' Revolt had been defeated. Richard was no longer afraid of the peasants and was free to express his true feelings on the subject. Richard also argued that as punishment for rebelling against feudalism, serfs and villeins would not only remain in bondage 'but in one infinitely worse" than before.

Q4: It has been claimed that the Peasants' Revolt was an attempt to bring an end to the feudal system. Select passages from the sources in this unit that supports this view.

A4: Sources 5, 8, 9 and 13 all contain information that suggests that some peasants wanted to bring an end to the feudal system. Source 8 claims that Wat Tyler "demanded that there should be no more villeins in England". This is supported by the charters that Richard II was forced to grant to the peasants. For example, the charter issued to the peasants of Hertford (source 9) states that the villeins were to be "freed... of their old bondage". Henry Knighton (source 5) describes how peasants burnt papers that belonged to the prior of Clerkenwell. This was probably an attempt to destroy details of feudal services. Finally, William Grindcobbe, in the speech that he made before his execution, made the point that they had been fighting for freedom and liberty (source 13)

Q5: How reliable is the information in source 10. It will help you to read the other sources in this unit before answering this question.

A5: Froissart claims in source 10 that Wat Tyler and 30,000 other peasants wanted to "slay the rich people and rob their homes". However, other sources report that Wat Tyler told the peasants at Blackheath on 12 June that "we come not as thieves and robbers." This is supported by source 5 which reports that a peasant was killed by other peasants after he stole silver from Clerkenwell Priory. Source 6 also reveals that peasants were more interested in destroying wealth than stealing it. From the comments that they made, it would seem that the leaders of the Peasants' Revolt were afraid that the peasants would be corrupted by wealth. Froissart is not a very reliable source of information on the Peasants' Revolt. He was living in the Netherlands when the revolt took place. All the information about the Peasants' Revolt in his book came from interviews with foreign travellers.

Q6: The main sources of information on the Peasants' Revolt come from the writings of Henry Knighton, Thomas Walsingham and Jean Froissart. Follow the links and read about these men and then explain the point being made' by Michael Senior in source 12.

A6: In source 12, Michael Senior, a modern historian, argues that the sources suggest that Wat Tyler did not have a very pleasant character. However, he claims that one "would expect Tyler to have had a bad press" because "history is not written by peasants". Henry Knighton and Thomas Walsingham were both monks who were hostile to the Peasants Revolt. Monasteries as well as the lords of the manor would have lost financially if the peasants had been successful in destroying feudalism. Senior also makes the point that "the historian is not likely to gain from the approval of peasants". Even if they could read, they did not have the money to buy books. However, historians had every reason to want and please the rich and powerful. Jean Froissart, for example, travelled to England in order to present a copy of his Chronicles to Richard II. Froissart obviously expected some reward for his journey. It is therefore not surprising that in his book, Froissart praised Richard and criticised people such as John Ball and Wat Tyler.

Q7: Give as many reasons as you can why the peasants revolted in 1381. As well as the information in this unit you should also consider material that appeared in Peasants' Revolt, The Feudal System, The Origins of Parliament, The Black Death, Taxation in the Middle Ages, John Ball, and The Lollards. Put these reasons into the following categories: (i) economic; (ii) political; (iii) religious; (iv) individual.

A7: (i) The peasants had been upset by the passing of the Statue of Labourers Act as it restricted the wages they could earn. They were also made very angry by the 1380 poll tax. They thought the tax was unfair because they had to pay the same amount as the rich people. In the past, taxes in England had normally been progressive (the amount you paid depended on your wealth). The tax was so heavy that many peasants could only pay it by selling their possessions.

(ii) It was parliament that decided to introduce, measures such as 'The Statue of Labourers Act' and the 1380 poll-tax. These measures seemed a good idea to the people who attended parliament (lords, bishops, merchants). However, the peasants were not invited to attend parliament and were not able to express their views on taxation. Denied political rights, many peasants began to feel that the only way they could influence government was by using violence.

(iii) In the 14th century religious figures such as John Ball and John Wycliffe argued that money should be taken from the rich and given to the poor. They claimed that their views came from studying the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. In the past, the Church had always supported the inequalities of the feudal system. The teachings of people like Ball and Wycliffe meant that peasants felt they could rebel against the system without offending God.

(iv) Many villeins, encouraged by the possibility of earning high wages, ran away from their manors after the Black Death. Many of these villeins managed to obtain their freedom in this way. It boosted their confidence and made them much more willing to rebel against those in authority. Other villeins joined the revolt because they bore grudges against the Church or the lords of the manor. It was these individuals who were more likely to have wanted to destroy the property of their lords.