The Peasants' Revolt

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The Peasants' Revolt

There were other reasons for the discontent which finally flared up in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. The economic depression was deepened by the failure of the war in France. Cr�cy and Poitiers were glorious, but barren, victories; the treaty of Bretigny did nothing to compensate for plague and the continued depression of the wool trade. Not even the Black Prince could do anything permanently successful against Bertrand du Gueselin; and France, though disunited and torn by the Jacquerie, was more than a match for the armies of Edward III. While John of Gaunt was acting as regent for Richard II, matters grew worse, until the French were raiding our southern coasts with impunity. The war was now, whatever it may have been in the beginning, only a running sore; a perpetual drain on an already bankrupt exchequer.

The air was filled with social unrest and doubts about the established order in Church and State. Vague socialistic and communistic theories ranged through the land, preached by men like John Ball, and many of the "Lollards". Wycliffe, indeed, was a client of John of Gaunt, and a defender of the landlords; yet he too, willy-nilly, was a disturbing influence. Men who had fought abroad, and who had been more than a match for their heavily armed betters (for feudal armour was as out of date as feudal economics), could hardly be expected to be submissive. Further, there were signs, as those who know their Chaucer will appreciate, that the governing classes themselves were no longer assured, and had lost their sense of certainty. The poll-tax of 1881 was the last straw.

The course of the revolt is sufficiently familiar not to need repetition. Several facts, however, should be noticed. First the demand for the abolition of villeinage (even from the Kent rebels, who had never known it). Second, the special objects of attack; lawyers, law courts and records, supposed to be the instruments of the enforcement of villeinage; Church dignitaries, and the heads of great lay and especially ecclesiastical estates, like the Abbot of Si. Albans, and the Archbishop of Canterbury; and also foreign merchants. (Hatred of foreigners is perhaps a common by-product of economic depression in all ages.) Third, that at least one leader, Sir Roger Bacon in Norfolk, belonged to the gentry. As we have already indicated, there was no sharp line of demarcation between the wealthier peasants and the poorer gentry, some of whom at least might be expected to make common cause. We shall meet this phenomenon again in later revolts. Fourth, the abortive appeal to the young King to get rid of evil counsellors and redress the grievances of the "faithful commons ". Fifth, the prominence of the region�s most forward economically, Kent and East Anglia. This suggests that the revolt was one of prosperous persons against injustice, rather than a symptom of economic despair. The discontent in Kent appears to have been due to land-hunger (remember the acute subdivision of holdings to which customs like gavelkind give rise) and even to enclosures; for Kent, in this respect, was generations ahead of the rest of England. Finally, it is worth while noting the careful organization and timing of the revolt over various parts of England, bearing witness that communications were by no means so bad as we sometimes are led to think.

As we know, the promises of redress made by Richard II were not kept; the revolt was stamped out ruthlessly, if not cruelly by the standards of the time. It is difficult to see that it had any direct economic effect at all, though it had given the governing class a fright. Whether that fright would make them less or more disposed to make concessions is a matter difficult to decide. In short, the revolt is important as a symptom rather than as a decisive event. As before it, so after it, the strikes, the flights, the confederations, the shortage of labour continued. Before relative equilibrium was established, a generation or more had to pass away; and the remembrance of 1881 remained.

It is perhaps best to regard the Black Death and the Peasants' Revolt as factors which complicated the process of economic change, but did not vitally affect it; but all events (even those we do not know about) are links in the historical chain. It is always risky to say that any are inessential. We can, however, say this; that at the beginning of the fifteenth century and thereafter, the tendencies at work in the countryside seem to us to be a logical outcome of those at work before the Black Death.

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Economic and Political Unrest

Neither villeins nor Dourers were minded to take this reversal of fortune lying wn.

A statute of 1377 records that villeins "gather emselves together in great routs and agree by such conleracy that everyone shall aid other to resist their lords the strong hand ".

We read of strikes, of wholesale flights from one manor to another with a more accommodating lord.

Lords found it difficult to get tenants when leases fell in, or villeins died or fled.

The whole rural economy was reduced to confusion.

... see: Economic and Political Unrest

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