The Decline of Feudalism

After the killing of Wat Tyler at the end of the Peasants' Revolt, an army, led by Thomas of Woodstock, John of Gaunt's younger brother, was sent into Essex to crush the rebels. A battle between the peasants and the King's army took place near the village of Billericay on 28th June. The king's army was experienced and well-armed and the peasants were easily defeated. It is believed that over 500 peasants were killed during the battle. The remaining rebels fled to Colchester, where they tried in vain to persuade the towns-people to support them. They then fled to Huntingdon but the towns people there chased them off to Ramsey Abbey where twenty-five were slain. (1)

King Richard II with a large army began visiting the villages that had taken part in the rebellion. At each village, the people were told that no harm would come to them if they named the people in the village who had encouraged them to join the rebellion. This they agreed to do, and instructions were given for the arrest of 145 peasants. Of these, 27 came from the village of Fobbing where the revolt started.

Those people named as ringleaders were then executed. Dan Jones, the author of Summer of Blood: The Peasants' Revolt (2009) claims that peasants were killed in "their thousands... by a number of grisly and extraordinary cruel means". This did not only happen to those who took part in the rebellion. For example, John Shirley was executed for having declared in a tavern that he thought John Ball was a true and worthy man. (2)

Apparently the king stated: "Serfs you are and serfs you will remain." Parliament met in November, 1381, and one of its first acts was to pass an act of indemnity for those men who had put people to death without due form of law. (3) A. L. Morton, the author of A People's History of England (1938) has pointed out: "The promises made by the king were repudiated and the common people of England learnt, not for the last time, how unwise it was to trust to the good faith of their rulers." (4)

The king's officials were instructed to look out for John Ball. He was eventually caught in Coventry. He was taken to St Albans to stand trial. "He denied nothing, he freely admitted all the charges without regrets or apologies. He was proud to stand before them and testify to his revolutionary faith." He was sentenced to death, but William Courtenay, the Bishop of London, granted a two-day stay of execution in the hope that he could persuade Ball to repent of his treason and so save his soul. John Ball refused and he was hanged, drawn and quartered on 15th July, 1381. (5)

John Wycliffe

Richard II by unknown artist (c. 1395)

Although initially it failed to achieve its aim, the Peasants' Revolt was an important event in English history. For the first time, peasants had joined together in order to achieve political change. The king and his advisers could no longer afford to ignore their feelings. In 1382 a new poll tax was voted in by Parliament. This time it was decided that only the richer members of society should pay the tax. (6)

After the Peasants Revolt the lords found it very difficult to retain the feudal system. Villeinage was already crumbling due to economic and demographic pressures. (7) Labour was still in short supply and villeins continued to run away to find work as freemen. In 1390 the government attempt to keep wages at the old level was abandoned when a new Statute of Labourers Act gave the Justices of the Peace the power to fix wages for their districts in accordance with the prevailing prices. (8)

Even the villeins who stayed were much more reluctant to work on the lord's demesne. In some villages the villeins joined together and refused to carry out any more labour services. Several towns and villages saw outbreaks of violence. However, as Charles Oman has pointed out, these were "scattered and sporadic, instead of simultaneous". (9)

Unable to find enough labour to work their demesne, lords found it more profitable to lease out the land. With smaller areas to farm, the lords had less need for the labour services provided by the villeins. Lords started to "commute" these labour services. This meant that in return for a cash payment, peasants no longer had to work on the lord's demesne. During this period wages increased significantly. (10)

Charles Poulsen, the author of The English Rebels (1984) argues that in the lon-term the peasants did win: "The concept of freedom was not killed in the repression. It was nurtured and grew until it became the cornerstone of the national political structure, changing as life and circumstances changed." (11) These rebellions spread throughout Europe and similar uprisings took place in Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Finland and Switzerland. (12)

The decline in the feudal system continued for the next 200 years, and by the time of Henry VIII it "had for all intents and purposes ceased to play any great part in the rural economy". However, as late as 1574 Queen Elizabeth "found some stray villeins on royal demesne to emancipate." (13)

Primary Sources

(1) Ranulf de Glanville, The Laws of England (c. 1190)

If any serf shall have lived unclaimed for a whole year and a day in any chartered town, so that he hath been received into the community of that town as a citizen, then that single fact shall free him from villeinage.

(2) John Wycliffe, sermon (c. 1380)

We must question whether the laws enforcing villeinage are conformable to the law of Christ; and it would seem that they are not: for it is written in the Bible, "The son shall not bear the injustice of the father."

Student Activities

Death of Wat Tyler (Answer Commentary)

Medieval Historians and John Ball (Answer Commentary)

The Peasants' Revolt (Answer Commentary)

Taxation in the Middle Ages (Answer Commentary)

Medieval and Modern Historians on King John (Answer Commentary)

King John and the Magna Carta (Answer Commentary)

Henry II: An Assessment (Answer Commentary)

Richard the Lionheart (Answer Commentary)

Christine de Pizan: A Feminist Historian (Answer Commentary)

The Growth of Female Literacy in the Middle Ages (Answer Commentary)

Women and Medieval Work (Answer Commentary)

The Medieval Village Economy (Answer Commentary)

Women and Medieval Farming (Answer Commentary)

Contemporary Accounts of the Black Death (Answer Commentary)

Disease in the 14th Century (Answer Commentary)

King Harold II and Stamford Bridge (Answer Commentary)

The Battle of Hastings (Answer Commentary)

William the Conqueror (Answer Commentary)

The Feudal System (Answer Commentary)

The Domesday Survey (Answer Commentary)

Thomas Becket and Henry II (Answer Commentary)

Why was Thomas Becket Murdered? (Answer Commentary)

Illuminated Manuscripts in the Middle Ages (Answer Commentary)

Yalding: Medieval Village Project (Differentiation)



(1) Ronald Webber, The Peasants' Revolt (1980) page 94

(2) Dan Jones, Summer of Blood: The Peasants' Revolt (2009) page 201

(3) Ronald Webber, The Peasants' Revolt (1980) page 100

(4) A. L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 102

(5) Charles Poulsen, The English Rebels (1984) page 41

(6) Reg Groves, The Peasants' Revolt 1381 (1950) page 171

(7) Martyn Whittock, Life in the Middle Ages (2009) page 51

(8) A. L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 102

(9) Charles Oman, The Great Revolt of 1381 (1906) page 156

(10) Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free (1973) page 232

(11) Charles Poulsen, The English Rebels (1984) page 42

(12) Dan Jones, Summer of Blood: The Peasants' Revolt (2009) page 208

(13) Charles Oman, The Great Revolt of 1381 (1906) page 157