Death of Wat Tyler (Classroom Activity)

Wat Tyler was born in about 1340. One document suggested that as a young man he lived in Colchester. It has been suggested that during this time he became a follower of John Ball. There is some evidence that he fought in the Hundred Years War and worked for Richard Lyons, one of the sergeant-at-arms of Edward III. By the 1370s Tyler was living in Maidstone.

In 1379 Richard II called a parliament to raise money to pay for the continuing war against the French. After much debate it was decided to impose another poll tax. This time it was to be a graduated tax, which meant that the richer you were, the more tax you paid. For example, the Duke of Lancaster and the Archbishop of Canterbury had to pay £6.13s.4d., the Bishop of London, 80 shillings, wealthy merchants, 20 shillings, but peasants were only charged 4d.

The proceeds of the 1379 tax was quickly spent on the war or absorbed by corruption. In 1380, Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggested a new poll tax of three groats (one shilling) per head over the age of fifteen. "There was a maximum payment of twenty shillings from men whose families and households numbered more than twenty, thus ensuring that the rich paid less than the poor. A shilling was a considerable sum for a working man, almost a week's wages. A family might include old persons past work and other dependents, and the head of the family became liable for one shilling on each of their 'polls'. This was basically a tax on the labouring classes."

According to John Stow, Tyler's fourteen-year-old daughter, Alice, was sexually assaulted by a tax-collector, when he was checking to see if she was old enough to pay the tax: "the mother hearing her daughter screech out, and seeing how in vain she struggled against him, being therefore grievously offended, she cried out also and leaving the house ran into the street among her neighbours, clamouuring about that there was one within that would ravish her daughter".

When he heard the news, Wat Tyler hurried home and attacked the tax collector and gave him such a "knock upon the head that he broke his skull and his brains flew about the room. Tyler knew that he would be treated very harshly by the authorities. He therefore decided to become involved in the poll tax riots that were taking place all over Essex and Kent. Tyler now joined the main body of the rebels at Rochester. This rebellion became known as the Peasants' Revolt.

Primary Sources

John Wycliffe

(Source 1) The death of Wat Tyler from Jean Froissart, Chronicles (c. 1470)

(Source 2) Michael Senior, Richard II (1981)

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.

(Source 3) Anonimalle Chronicle of St Mary's (1381)

Wat Tyler, in the presence of the king, sent for a jug of water to rinse his mouth... as soon as the water was brought he rinsed out his mouth in a very rude and villainous manner before the king... At that time a certain valet from Kent... said aloud that Wat Tyler was the greatest thief and robber in all Kent... For these words Wat wanted to strike the valet with his dagger, and would have killed him in the king's presence; but because he tried to do so, the Mayor of London, William of Walworth... arrested him... Wat stabbed the mayor with his dagger in the body in great anger. But, as it pleased God, the mayor was wearing armour and took no harm.. he struck back at the said Wat, giving him a deep cut in the neck, and then a great blow on the head. And during the scuffle a valet of the king's household drew his sword, and ran Wat two or three times through the body...

Wat was carried by a group of the commons to the hospital for the poor near St Bartholomew's, and put to bed. The mayor went there and found him, and had him carried out to the middle of Smithfield, in the presence of his companions, and had him beheaded.

When the commons saw that their leader, Wat Tyler, had been killed in this way, they fell down there among the corn, like beaten men. They asked the King for pardon for their crimes and he kindly granted them mercy. Then most of them ran away.

But the King appointed two knights to lead the other Kentish men through London and over London Bridge. The rebels were not harmed, but each was allowed to go quietly to his own home.

(Source 4) Thomas Walsingham, The History of England (c. 1420)

Sir John Newton came up to him on a war horse to hear what he (Wat Tyler) proposed to say. Tyler grew angry because the knight had approached him on horseback and not on foot, and furiously declared that it was more fitting to approach his presence on foot than by riding on a horse. Newton, still not completely forgetful of his old knightly honour, replied, "As you are sitting on a horse it is not insulting for me to approach you on a horse." At this the ruffian brought out his knife and threatened to strike the knight and called him a traitor...

On this the king, although a boy and of tender age, took courage and ordered the mayor of London to arrest Tyler. The mayor, a man of spirit and bravery, arrested Tyler and struck him a blow on the head which hurt him badly. Tyler was soon surrounded by the other servants of the king and pierced by sword thrusts in several parts of his body. His death... was the first incident to restore to the English knighthood their almost extinct hope that they could resist the commons.

(Source 5) Hyman Fagan, Nine Days That Shook England (1938)

Walworth strikes, once, twice, and Tyler falls back on his horse, wounded in the neck and head. Now the whole royal mob runs amok.... He who had been so strong, so alive, so vital... he who had felt... the pain and agony of the branding, the hunger and poverty of his comrades and the tears of their families; he who had devoted his life to revolution so that all might live in peace and happiness. They were murderers, murdering in cold blood the man who had approached them in good faith.

(Source 6) Henry Knighton, Chronicles (c. 1390)

Tyler stayed close to the king and spoke on behalf of the other rebels. He had drawn his knife, commonly called a dagger, and kept throwing it from hand to hand like a boy playing a game. It was believed that he would take the opportunity to stab the king suddenly if the latter refused what he demanded; those who stood near the king certainly feared what would happen. The rebels asked the king that all water, parks and woods should be made common to all: so that throughout the kingdom the poor as well as the rich should be free to take game in water, fish ponds, woods and forests... When the king paused to consider these demands, Wat Tyler approached the king and spoke threateningly to him. When John de Walworth, mayor of London, noticed this, he feared the king was about to be killed and knocked Wat Tyler into the gutter with his sword. Thereupon another squire called Ralph Standish pierced his side with another sword... When Tyler was dead, he was dragged by his hands and feet like a vile thing into the nearby church of St Bartholomew.

(Source 7) John Trevisa, World History (c. 1390)

John the tiler, leader of the peasants... did not show due honour to his royal majesty. Rather he addressed the king's person with his head covered and with a threatening expression. The mayor... resenting the lack of reverence due to a king from his subject, addressed John in these words: "Why do you show no reverence to your king?" The rebel leader replied, "No honour will be shown by the king to me." To which the mayor responded, "Then I arrest you." The tiler drew his knife and tried to strike the mayor. The mayor then rushed to him and wounded him with a sword, while another squire who was present seized the head of the leader and threw him from his horse to the ground... When the whole mob shouted out, "Our chief is killed", the king replied, "Be still: I am your king, your leader and your chief."

(Source 8) Jean Froissart, Chronicles (c. 1395)

When Wat Tyler saw the King, he said to the rebels, 'Sirs, there is the King: I'll go and speak to him. Stay here unless I give you a sign - in which case kill all the knights, but not the King, He is young and we can lead him around England and act like lords.'

Then he spurred his horse and came so close to the King that their horses touched. Then he said, 'Sir king, do you see all those people? I can order them and all the ones in London to do what I want - and do you think we will go home without getting signed guarantees from you?' The King said, 'You shall have them: I have ordered them to be made out and you will each get one. So now you must all go quietly home, including your men in London.'

Then Tyler saw a squire who was carrying the King's sword, and said, 'Give me that sword.' The squire said, 'No, it is the King's sword and you are not worthy to have it because you are a common man.' Tyler replied, 'I'll kill you - or never eat again.'

At that moment the mayor of London appeared with twelve knights on armoured horses who pushed through the crowd. He said to Tyler, 'How dare you speak like that in the King's presence? You are a lying, stinking criminal and by my life you'll pay for those words.'

The mayor then drew out his sword and hit Tyler such a blow on the head that he fell to the ground at his horse's feet. Then the knights gathered round Tyler, so the rebels couldn't see him. One of the King's squires, called John Standish, dismounted from his horse and stuck his sword into Tyler's stomach, killing him.

Then the unruly mob saw that their leader was killed, so they began to mutter and said., 'Our leader is dead. Let's go and kill them all.' And they got themselves in battle order, with the bowmen in front.

The King then rode alone up to this mob who were determined to revenge their leader's death. He said, 'What is wrong? You will have no leader but me: I am your King. Keep calm.'

Most of the rebels who heard the King speak were ashamed of themselves: they began to go quietly away. But some were evil and would not move: instead they looked as if they meant to make trouble.

(Source 9) Thomas Walsingham, The History of England (c. 1420)

When the commons saw that their leader, Wat Tyler, had been killed in this way, they fell down there among the corn, like beaten men. They asked the King for pardon for their crimes and he kindly granted them mercy. Then most of them ran away.

But the King appointed two knights to lead the other Kentish men through London and over London Bridge. The rebels were not harmed, but each was allowed to go quietly to his own home.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Study source 2. Select examples from this source where the author expresses (i) a fact (ii) an opinion.

Question 2: Use information from the sources in this unit to illustrate a mistake made by John Trevisa in source 7.

Question 3: 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.

Question 4: 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?

Question 5: 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?

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.