Night Music: The Pretender

May 30, 2021

The Peasants’ Revolt

May 30, 2021

Today we celebrate the 640th anniversary of the beginning of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

As noted by James Crossley:

The class conflict driving the revolt had been building for decades. Labour shortage followed the devastation of the 1348-’49 Black Death, meaning that labourers could make new demands and seek new opportunities, though the lords did not cave in. 1351’s Statute of Labourers was one parliamentary response which involved trying to cap wages, restrict mobility, and keep serfs tied to the land, and this contributed further to the ongoing resentments. But the more immediate causes of the 1381 uprising included the introduction of new taxes, the most infamous of which was the 1380 poll tax and its heavy-handed collection.

On 30th May 1381, a group of Essex peasants, armed, refused attempts to collect the tax. After the protesters had raised hell in Essex, Kent, and London — and beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury among others –they even negotiated with King Richard II, demanding the end of serfdom, the pardon of criminals, and the removal of corrupt royal advisors. Richard II agreed to the demands but Tyler was killed in June at a meeting, and the King quickly raised a force that brutally suppressed the uprising over the next few months.

Historians debate the importance of the Revolt to English history. What is not in doubt is that 1381 Revolt became a touchstone for socialist thinkers in the nineteenth century. As William Morris wrote in A Dream of John Ball, people win and lose battles yet ‘the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant,’ and so others ‘have to fight for what they meant under another name.’