Death of Wat Tyler (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Death of Wat Tyler

Q1: Study source 2. Select examples from this source where the author expresses (i) a fact (ii) an opinion.

A1: (i) Examples of the author expressing facts include: "Wat Tyler... sent for a jug of water", "William of Walworth arrested him" and "the mayor was wearing armour". (ii) Examples of opinions being expressed include: "very rude and villainous manner", "the greatest thief and robber in all Kent" and "it pleased God".

Q2: Use information from the sources in this unit to illustrate a mistake made by John Trevisa in source 7.

A2: John Trevisa claims that John the tiler was the leader of the Peasants' Revolt. All the others claim his name was Wat Tyler. Records show that a John Tyler was involved in the Peasants' Revolt. John Tyler came from Dartford in Kent. It was claimed that John Tyler's daughter was indecently assaulted by the poll tax collectors. This incident encouraged many peasants in the area to join the revolt. From the evidence that we have, Wat Tyler came from Maidstone and not Dartford and that John and Wat Tyler were two different men.

Q3: Read source 6. Why did Henry Knighton believe Wat Tyler was killed? What other reasons did the king's men have for killing Wat Tyler? Select the reason that you think is the most important.

A3: Henry Knighton argues that Wat Tyler was killed because John de Walworth feared that he was about to stab the king. Other sources in this unit suggest that it was because Tyler tried to kill the mayor (sources 3 and 7). Some historians have argued that Walworth killed Tyler because he knew the peasants would be easier to control once they had lost their leader. However, there is no evidence that Wat Tyler's death was planned by the king's party. It is argued that this is an example of historians using hindsight (an interpretation of a situation after the event has occurred). For example, we know that the king benefited from the death of Wat Tyler. Therefore, it is claimed that the death of Wat Tyler must have been planned.

Q4: Study all the sources in this unit. Compare the different versions of the death of Wat Tyler. Take into consideration the following issues: (i) Why Wat Tyler took out his knife? (ii) Who was the first to strike Wat Tyler? (iii) Where did Wat Tyler die?

A4: Source 3 claims that Tyler took out his knife because a valet from Kent said he "was the greatest thief and robber in all Kent". Source 4 disagrees claiming that the reason Tyler drew his knife was because Sir John Newton approached him on horseback. Henry Knighton in source D claims that Tyler drew the knife because he intended to stab the king, whereas John Trevisa (source 7) claims that he intended to use it against the mayor.

(ii) Sources 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 all agree that the mayor of London, was the first one to strike Wat Tyler. However, they do not all agree on his name. The author of source A calls him William of Walworth whereas Knighton claims it was John de Walworth.

(iii) Sources 4, 5, 6 and 7 all argue that Tyler was killed straight away. However, source 3 argues that the wounded Tyler was taken to Bartholomew's hospital. According to this writer, Tyler was later taken from the hospital and killed by William of. Walworth in Smithfield.

Source 1 does not help us answer these three questions. One of the interesting things about this picture is that it contains two pictures of the king. The reason for this is that the artist has merged two incidents. On the left the king watches Wat Tyler being attacked. On the right the king addresses the peasants after the attack has taken place.

Q5: Select a source from this unit that appears to be sympathetic to Wat Tyler. Can you give any reason why the author might have been so sympathetic?

A5: The author of source 5 is sympathetic to Wat Tyler. He claims that Tyler "had devoted his life to revolution so that all might live in peace and happiness". The author is also critical of the king's men: "They were murderers, every one of them, murdering in cold blood the man who had approached them in good faith."

Historians writing soon after the Peasants' Revolt nearly always took the side of the king and his lords. This is understandable as it was the kings and lords who purchased the books. Historians in the twentieth century are writing for a much larger audience. Many of those modern readers would support Wat Tyler's attempts to remove the inequalities of the feudal system.

As Michael Senior (source 2) has pointed out: "It (Wat Tyler's character) is not a pleasant sight, and Richard undoubtedly benefits by comparison. But history is not written by peasants... One would expect Tyler to have had a bad press... but those reports, however partial, are all we have to go on."

To a certain extent, the freedom we enjoy today, was won by people like Wat Tyler who were willing to challenge those in power. However, many would argue that left-wing historians such as Hyman Fagan are too sympathetic to Wat Tyler. For example, there is no evidence to support Fagan's view that Tyler "had devoted his life to revolution so that all might live in peace and happiness".