King Richard II

King Richard II

Richard, the second son of Edward, the Black Prince and Joan of Kent, was born on 6th January, 1367.

His elder brother, Edward of Angoulême, died in 1371 and Richard stood in the direct line of succession to the English throne, and the prospect of his succeeding while he was still a child was brought appreciably nearer by the deepening illness of his father, who died on 8th April 1376. (1)

Parliament feared that Richard's uncle, John of Gaunt, would usurp the throne and for this reason, he was quickly invested with the princedom of Wales and his father's other titles. (2)

Richard's grandfather, King Edward III, was having serious problems with what became known as the Hundred Years War. Fighting the war was very expensive and in February 1377 the government introduced a poll-tax where four pence was to be taken from every man and woman over the age of fourteen. "This was a huge shock: taxation had never before been universal, and four pence was the equivalent of three days' labour to simple farmhands at the rates set in the Statute of Labourers". (3)

King Edward died soon afterwards. Richard, his ten-year-old grandson, was crowned in July 1377. Thomas Walsingham described it as "a day of joy and gladness.... the long-awaited day of the renewal of peace and of the laws of the land, long exiled by the weakness of an aged king and the greed of his courtiers and servants." (4)

Richard's main advisers were his uncle, John of Gaunt and his younger brother Thomas of Woodstock. Other important figures included Simon de Burley and Robert de Vere, Duke of Ireland. However, the appointment of a regency council was chosen so no one person could gain permanent control of policy. (5)

John of Gaunt was closely associated with the new poll-tax and this made him very unpopular with the people. They were very angry as they considered the tax unfair as the poor had to pay the same tax as the wealthy. Despite this, the collectors of the tax seem not to have had to face more than an occasional, local disturbance. (6)

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 this 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." (7)

The peasants felt it was unfair that they should pay the same as the rich. They also did not feel that the tax was offering them any benefits. For example, the English government seemed to be unable to protect people living on the south coast from French raiders. Most peasants at this time only had an income of about one groat per week. This was especially a problem for large families. For many, the only way they could pay the tax was by selling their possessions. John Wycliffe gave a sermon where he argued: "Lords do wrong to poor men by unreasonable taxes... and they perish from hunger and thirst and cold, and their children also. And in this manner the lords eat and drink poor men's flesh and blood." (8)

John Ball toured Kent giving sermons attacking the poll tax. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, heard about this he gave orders that Ball should not be allowed to preach in church. Ball responded by giving talks on village greens. The Archbishop now gave instructions that all people found listening to Ball's sermons should be punished. When this failed to work, Ball was arrested and in April 1381 he was sent to Maidstone Prison. (9) At his trial it was claimed that Ball told the court he would be "released by twenty thousand armed men". (10)

The Peasants' Revolt in 1381

In May 1381, Thomas Bampton, the Tax Commissioner for the Essex area, reported to the king that the people of Fobbing were refusing to pay their poll tax. It was decided to send a Chief Justice and a few soldiers to the village. It was thought that if a few of the ringleaders were executed the rest of the village would be frightened into paying the tax. However, when Chief Justice Sir Robert Belknap arrived, he was attacked by the villagers. (11)

Belknap was forced to sign a document promising not to take any further part in the collection of the poll tax. According to the Anonimalle Chronicle of St Mary's: "The Commons rose against him and came before him to tell him... he was maliciously proposing to undo them... Accordingly they made him swear on the Bible that never again would he hold such sessions nor act as Justice in such inquests... And Sir Robert travelled home as quickly as possible." (12)

After releasing the Chief Justice, some of the villagers looted and set fire to the home of John Sewale, the Sheriff of Essex. Tax collectors were executed and their heads were put on poles and paraded around the neighbouring villages. The people responsible sent out messages to the villages of Essex and Kent asking for their support in the fight against the poll tax. (13)

Many peasants decided that it was time to support the ideas proposed by John Ball and his followers. It was not long before Wat Tyler, a former soldier in the Hundred Years War, emerged as the leader of the peasants. Tyler's first decision was to march to Maidstone to free John Ball from prison. "John Ball had been set free and was safe among the commons of Kent, and he was bursting to pour out the passionate words which had been bottled up for three months, words which were exactly what his audience wanted to hear." (14)

Charles Poulsen, the author of The English Rebels (1984) has pointed out that it was very important for the peasants to be led by a religious figure: "For some twenty years he had wandered the country as a kind of Christian agitator, denouncing the rich and their exploitation of the poor, calling for social justice and freeman and a society based on fraternity and the equality of all people." John Ball was needed as their leader because alone of the rebels, he had access to the word of God. "John Ball quickly assumed his place as the theoretician of the rising and its spiritual father. Whatever the masses thought of the temporal Church, they all considered themselves to be good Catholics." (15)

On 5th June there was a revolt at Dartford and two days later Rochester Castle was taken. The peasants arrived in Canterbury on 10th June. Here they took over the archbishop's palace, destroyed legal documents and released prisoners from the town's prison. More and more peasants decided to take action. Manor houses were broken into and documents were destroyed. These records included the villeins' names, the rent they paid and the services they carried out. What had originally started as a protest against the poll tax now became an attempt to destroy the feudal system. (16)

The peasants decided to go to London to see Richard II. As the king was only fourteen-years-old, they blamed his advisers for the poll tax. The peasants hoped that once the king knew about their problems, he would do something to solve them. The rebels reached the outskirts of the city on 12 June. It has been estimated that approximately 30,000 peasants had marched to London. At Blackheath, John Ball gave one of his famous sermons on the need for "freedom and equality". (17)

Wat Tyler also spoke to the rebels. He told them: "Remember, we come not as thieves and robbers. We come seeking social justice." Henry Knighton records: "The rebels returned to the New Temple which belonged to the prior of Clerkenwell... and tore up with their axes all the church books, charters and records discovered in the chests and burnt them... One of the criminals chose a fine piece of silver and hid it in his lap; when his fellows saw him carrying it, they threw him, together with his prize, into the fire, saying they were lovers of truth and justice, not robbers and thieves." (18)

Charles Poulsen praises Wat Tyler as learning the "lessons of organisation and discipline" when in the army and in showing the "same pride in the customs and manners of his own class as the noblest baron would for his". (19) The medieval historians were less complimentary and Thomas Walsingham described him as a "cunning man, endowed with much sense if he had applied his intelligence to good purposes". (20)

Richard II gave orders for the peasants to be locked out of London. However, some Londoners who sympathised with the peasants arranged for the city gates to be left open. Jean Froissart claims that some 40,000 to 50,000 citizens, about half of the city's inhabitants, were ready to welcome the "True Commons". (21) When the rebels entered the city, the king and his advisers withdrew to the Tower of London. Many poor people living in London decided to join the rebellion. Together they began to destroy the property of the king's senior officials. They also freed the inmates of Marshalsea Prison. (22)

Part of the English Army was at sea bound for Portugal whereas the rest were with John of Gaunt in Scotland. (23) Thomas Walsingham tells us that the king was being protected in the Tower by "six hundred warlike men instructed in arms, brave men, and most experienced, and six hundred archers". Walsingham adds that they "all had so lost heart that you would have thought them more like dead men than living; the memory of their former vigour and glory was extinguished". Walsingham points out that they did not want to fight and suggests they may have been on the side of the peasants. (24)

John Ball sent a message to Richard II stating that the rising was not against his authority as the people only wished only to deliver him and his kingdom from traitors. Ball also asked the king to meet with him at Blackheath. Archbishop Simon Sudbury and Robert Hales, the treasurer, both objects of the people's hatred, warned against meeting the "shoeless ruffians", whereas others, such as William de Montagu, the Earl of Salisbury, urged that the king played for time by pretending that he desired a negotiated agreement. (25)

Richard II's biographer, Anthony Tuck, has pointed out: "Richard's own part in the discussions is almost impossible to determine, though some historians have suggested that he took the initiative in seeking to negotiate with the rebels, despite the fact that he was only fourteen when the rebellion occurred. Even before the Kentish rebels entered London, Richard had apparently suggested negotiation with their leaders at Greenwich, but the talks had broken down almost as soon as they began." (26)

Richard II agreed to meet the rebels outside the town walls at Mile End on 14th June, 1381. Most of his soldiers remained behind. Charles Oman, the author of The Great Revolt of 1381 (1906), pointed the "ride to Mile End was perilous: at any moment the crowd might have broken loose, and the King and all his party might have perished... nevertheless, though surrounded all the way by a noisy and boisterous multitude, Richard and his party ultimately reached Mile End". (27)

John Wycliffe

John Ball at Mile End from Jean Froissart, Chronicles (c. 1470)

When the king met the rebels at 8.00 a.m. he asked them what they wanted. Wat Tyler explained the demands of the rebels. This includes the end of all feudal services, the freedom to buy and sell all goods, and a free pardon for all offences committed during the rebellion. Tyler also asked for a rent limit of 4d per acre and an end to feudal fines through the manor courts. Finally, he asked that no "man should be compelled to work except by employment under a regularly reviewed contract". (28)

The king immediately granted these demands. Wat Tyler also claimed that the king's officers in charge of the poll tax were guilty of corruption and should be executed. The king replied that all people found guilty of corruption would be punished by law. The king agreed to these proposals and 30 clerks were instructed to write out charters giving peasants their freedom. After receiving their charters the vast majority of peasants went home. (29)

G. R. Kesteven, the author of The Peasants' Revolt (1965), has pointed out that the king and his officials had no intention of carrying out the promises made at this meeting, they "were merely using those promises to disperse the rebels". (30) However, Wat Tyler and John Ball were not convinced by the word given by the king and along with 30,000 of the rebels stayed in London. (31)

While the king was in Mile End discussing an agreement with the king, another group of peasants marched to the Tower of London. There were about 600 soldiers defending the Tower but they decided not to fight the rebel army. Simon Sudbury (Archbishop of Canterbury), Robert Hales (King's Treasurer) and John Legge (Tax Commissioner), were taken from the Tower and executed. Their heads were then placed on poles and paraded through the streets of cheering Londoners. (32)

John Wycliffe

The killing of Archbishop Simon Sudbury and Robert Hales
from Jean Froissart, Chronicles (c. 1470)

Rodney Hilton argues that the rebels wanted revenge on all those involved in the levying of taxes or the administrating the legal system. Roger Leggett, one of the most important government lawyers was also killed. "They attacked not only the lawyers themselves - attorneys, pleaders, clerks of the courts - but others closely associated with the judicial processes... The hostility to lawyers and to legal records was not of course peculiar to the Londoners. The widespread destruction of manorial court records is well-known" during the rebellion. (33)

The rebels also attacked foreign workers living in London. "The commons made proclamation that every one who could lay hands on Flemings or any other strangers of other nations might cut off their heads". (34) It has been claimed that "some 150 or 160 unhappy foreigners were murdered in various places - thirty-five Flemings in one batch were dragged out of the church of St. Martin in the Vintry, and beheaded on the same block... The Lombards also suffered, and their houses yielded much valuable plunder." (35)

Death of Wat Tyler and John Ball

It was agreed that another meeting should take place between Richard II and the leaders of the rebels at Smithfield on 15th June, 1381. William Walworth rode "over to the rebels and summoned Wat Tyler to meet the king, and mounted on a little pony, accompanied by only one attendant bearing the rebel banner, he obeyed". When he joined the king he put forward another list of demands that included: the removal of the lordship system, the distribution of the wealth of the church to the poor, a reduction in the number of bishops, and a guarantee that in future there would be no more villeins. (36)

Richard II said he would do what he could. Wat Tyler was not satisfied by this reply. He called for a drink of water to rinse out his mouth. This was seen as extremely rude behaviour, especially as Tyler had not removed his hood when talking to the king. One of Richard's party shouted out that Tyler was "the greatest thief and robber in Kent". The author of the Anonimalle Chronicle of St Mary's claims: "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." (37)

John Wycliffe

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

The peasants raised their weapons and for a moment it looked as though there was going to be fighting between the king's soldiers and the peasants. However, Richard rode over to them and said: "Will you shoot your king? I will be your chief and captain, you shall have from me that which you seek " He then spoke to them for some time and eventually they agreed to go back to their villages. (38)

Chroniclers such as Henry Knighton and Thomas Walsingham suggested that these events were unplanned and unexpected. However, modern historians have doubts about this version of events. Anthony Tuck has argued: "The rapid arrival of the militia suggests some element of advance planning, and those around the king, even perhaps the king himself, may have intended to create an opportunity to kill or capture Tyler and separate him from the main body of his followers. If this is so, it was a risky strategy, as the Mile End meeting had been, and again Richard's personal courage is not in doubt." (39)

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. (40)

John Ball

Modern portrait of Richard II by David Simkin (1981)

King Richard with a large army began visiting the villages that had taken part in the Peasants' Revolt. 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. Those people named as ringleaders were then executed. Apparently the king stated: "Serfs you are and serfs you will remain." 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." (41)

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. (42)

Richard II and Feudalism

In 1382 John Wycliffe was condemned as a heretic and was forced into retirement. (43) Archbishop William Courtenay urged Parliament to pass a Statute of the Realm against preachers such as Wycliffe: "It is openly known that there are many evil persons within the realm, going from county to county, and from town to town, in certain habits, under dissimulation of great holiness, and without the licence ... or other sufficient authority, preaching daily not only in churches and churchyards, but also in markets, fairs, and other open places, where a great congregation of people is, many sermons, containing heresies and notorious errors." (44)

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. (45)

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. (46) 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. (47)

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". (48)

As an economic means of cultivating the soil for profit, villeinage was doomed. "With such surly and mutinous labour and no police to enforce it, it proved impossible to make it pay." (49) 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. (50)

Unpopular King

Richard married 16-year-old Anne of Bohemia on 20th January 1382. She was the daughter of the late Emperor Charles IV. Anne's father had been the most powerful monarch in Europe at the time, ruling over about half of Europe's population and territory. The marriage was against the wishes of many members of his nobility and members of parliament, and occurred primarily at the instigation of Richard close associate, Michael de la Pole, 1st Earl of Suffolk. "She did not produce an heir (there are no reports of stillborn children, or children who died in infancy: in all probability she never became pregnant), but no chronicler reports any other liaisons on the king's part." (51)

At the time of his marriage he was described as being "fair-haired and self-consciously youthful, keeping his face clean-shaven when it was conventional for grown men to wear a beard". A contemporary said he was "abrupt and somewhat stammering in his speech, capricious in his manners... prodigal in his gifts, extravagantly splendid in his entertainments and dress." (52)

According to Henry Knighton, Queen Anne requested that Richard should forgive the rebels: "In the following year, 1382, at the special request of Queen Anne and other magnates of the realm, especially the pious Duke of Lancaster, the lord King gave a general pardon to all the aforesaid rebels and malefactors, their adherents, abettors and followers. He granted charters to this effect and through God's mercy the previous madness came to an end." (53)

Richard was very interested in fashion and pioneered the codpiece, worn over tight hose, embroidered doublets with padded shoulders and the houpelande (a long coloured robe with a high neck that replaced the more traditional cloak). "Such fashions were designed to display the male physique to perfection, emphasising long legs, a slim waist and powerful shoulders." (54)

Richard II was not a very successful military commander. His biographer, Peter Earle, points out: "Richard, son of the Black Prince, inherited only his father's outward appearance and none of his skills at war. Not that he was the coward or weakling of legend - on many occasions in his reign he was to display outstanding courage - but his was the courage of pride, not military prowess." (55)

This was reflected in a failed military expedition to Scotland in 1385. This encouraged the French to consider invading England. Charles VI assembled the largest force so far raised by either side during the Hundred Years War. This induced widespread panic and insecurity in England. Parliament met in October 1386, to consider the request from the chancellor, Michael de la Pole, for an unprecedented quadruple subsidy to cover the cost of defence against the threatened invasion. This was refused and the barons began to question the way Richard was ruling the country.

At first Parliament blamed Richard's advisors and his chancellor was impeached by the House of Commons on charges arising out of his conduct in office. De la Pole was found guilty and condemned to imprisonment, but Richard set aside the penalty and he retained his freedom. "Parliament then established a commission which was to hold office for a year and which was to conduct a thorough review of royal finances. It was to have control of the exchequer and the great and privy seals, and Richard was required to take an oath to abide by any ordinances it made." (56)

Richard raised an army against Parliament. Led by Robert de Vere, Duke of Ireland it was said to contained no more than 4,000 men. Rumours began to circulate that Richard had agreed to accept military support from France, and that he would place England under French military occupation. Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, and several other nobles, including Henry of Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham, mobilized an army of their retainers numbering 4,500 and marched on de Vere's army. The king's army was defeated at the Battle of Radcot Bridge on 19th December 1387. (57)

Richard was arrested and Woodstock threatened to have him executed because of his dealings with France. They eventually decided against it and instead forcing him to call a session of Parliament. Henry Knighton described it as the Merciless Parliament as it resulted in several of Richard's leading advisors, including Sir Nicholas Brembre, Simon de Burley and Robert Tresilian were executed. Alexander Neville, Archbishop of York, Robert de Vere and Michael de la Pole, all managed to escape to France where they died in exile. (58)

John Wycliffe

Richard II by unknown artist (c. 1395)

On 3rd May 1389 Richard was allowed back on the throne. This time he made no attempt to revive the style of government which had brought about the crisis of 1387 and for the time being no new inner circle of courtiers emerged to enjoy Richard's favour and patronage. John of Gaunt returned to England in November 1389 and pledged his support to Richard. The atmosphere of peace was to last for six years. During this period he had some diplomatic success. This included a settlement in Ireland in 1394 and two years later negotiated a truce with France. (59)

As soon as he felt strongly enough, Richard fought back against those who were responsible for ousting him from power in 1387. He ordered the arrest of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, Richard FitzAlan, 11th Earl of Arundel and Thomas de Beauchamp, 12th Earl of Warwick. Gloucester was murdered soon afterwards and Arundel was executed on 21st September, 1397. Warwick made a full confession to attempting to overthrow the king, was banished for life to the Isle of Man. (60)

In June 1399, Henry of Bolingbroke landed at Ravenspurn in Yorkshire. As his army moved across the middle of England, all resistance disappeared. Richard and most of his household knights and the loyal members of his nobility were in Ireland and did not land in Wales until 24th July. Outnumbered, the King surrendered to Henry at Flint Castle, promising to abdicate if his life were spared. Richard was taken to London and imprisoned in the Tower of London. (61)

An assembly opened on 30th September to discuss what was to happen to Richard. His abdication was formally accepted; thirty-nine accusations against him were then read out, and it was agreed that they formed sufficient grounds for his deposition. It was argued that by his actions between 1397 and 1399 Richard had broken his oath and thus broken the legal bond between himself and his people. Article 16 claimed that the king did not "uphold or dispense the rightful laws and customs of the realm, but preferred to act according to his own arbitrary will and do whatever he wished". (62)

Henry was crowned as King Henry IV on 13 October, 1399. Richard remained in the Tower until he was taken to Pontefract Castle in December. It has been suggested that Henry initially intended for Richard to live. However, when he heard from Edward of Norwich, 1st Earl of Rutland, that there was a plot organized by John Montagu, 3rd Earl of Salisbury, John Holland, 1st Earl of Huntingdon, Thomas Holland, 3rd Earl of Kent and Thomas le Despenser, 1st Earl of Gloucester, to overthrow Henry and put Richard back on the throne, he arranged for him to be murdered. This took place in February, 1400. (63)

Primary Sources

(1) Anonimalle Chronicle of St Mary's (1381)

Richard II said to Wat Tyler: "Why will you not go back to your own county?" Wat Tyler answered that neither he nor his fellows would leave until they had got their charter as they wished to have it... And he demanded that there should be only one bishop in England... and all the lands and possessions (of the church) should be taken from them and divided among the commons... And he demanded that there should be no more villeins in England, and no serfdom... that all men should be free.

(2) Charter issued by Richard II in 1381 to the peasants of Hertford.

Subjects and others of the county of Hertford, freed each and all of their old bondage... pardoned them all felonies, treasons, and extortions committed by any and all of them.

(3) Jean Froissart, Chronicles (c. 1395)

Then the king ordered thirty clerks to write letters, sealed with his seal. And when the people received the letters, they went back home. But Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball said they would not leave. More than 30,000 stayed with them. They were in no hurry to have the King's letters. They meant to slay all the rich people of London and rob their homes.

(4) 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.

(5) 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.

(6) 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.

(7) 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.

(8) 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."

(9) 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.

(10) 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.


Student Activities

Medieval Historians and John Ball (Answer Commentary)

The Peasants' Revolt (Answer Commentary)

Death of Wat Tyler (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) Anthony Tuck, Richard II : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Nigel Saul, Richard II (1997) page 17

(3) Dan Jones, Summer of Blood: The Peasants' Revolt (2009) page 21

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

(5) Peter Earle, The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England (1975) page 84

(6) G. R. Kesteven, The Peasants' Revolt (1965) page 27

(7) Charles Poulsen, The English Rebels (1984) page 10

(8) John Wycliffe, sermon (1380)

(9) Andrew Prescott, John Ball : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(10) Reg Groves, The Peasants' Revolt 1381 (1950) page 70

(11) Bonamy Dobrée, English Revolts (1937) page 46

(12) Anonimalle Chronicle of St Mary's (1381)

(13) J. F. C. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 88

(14) Mary R. Price, The Peasants' Revolt (1980) page 35

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

(16) A. L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 101

(17) Ronald Webber, The Peasants' Revolt (1980) pages 58-59

(18) Henry Knighton, Chronicles (c. 1390)

(19) Charles Poulsen, The English Rebels (1984) page 14

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

(21) Jean Froissart, Chronicles (c. 1395)

(22) Bonamy Dobrée, English Revolts (1937) page 49

(23) Charles Poulsen, The English Rebels (1984) page 17

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

(25) Reg Groves, The Peasants' Revolt 1381 (1950) page 101

(26) Anthony Tuck, Richard II : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(27) Charles Oman, The Great Revolt of 1381 (1906) page 63

(28) Dan Jones, Summer of Blood: The Peasants' Revolt (2009) page 115

(29) Anthony Tuck, Richard II : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(30) G. R. Kesteven, The Peasants' Revolt (1965) page 54

(31) Jean Froissart, Chronicles (c. 1395)

(32) Mary R. Price, The Peasants' Revolt (1980) page 35

(33) Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free (1973) page 195

(34) Anonimalle Chronicle of St Mary's (1381)

(35) Charles Oman, The Great Revolt of 1381 (1906) page 69

(36) Reg Groves, The Peasants' Revolt 1381 (1950) pages 128-129

(37) Anonimalle Chronicle of St Mary's (1381)

(38) J. F. C. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 94

(39) Anthony Tuck, Richard II : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

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

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

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

(43) John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563) page 48 of 2014 edition.

(44) Christopher Hampton, A Radical Reader: The Struggle for Change in England (1984) page 71

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

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

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

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

(49) Arthur Bryant, The Fire & the Rose (1965) page 64

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

(51) Anthony Tuck, Richard II : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(52) Lisa Hilton, Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens (2008) page 322

(53) Henry Knighton, Chronicles (c. 1390)

(54) Lisa Hilton, Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens (2008) page 322

(55) Peter Earle, The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England (1975) page 84

(56) Anthony Tuck, Richard II : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(57) Jonathan Sumption, The Hundred Years War: Divided Houses (2009) page 635

(58) Henry Knighton, Chronicles (c. 1390)

(59) Peter Earle, The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England (1975) page 87

(60) Gerald Harriss, Shaping the Nation: England, 1360–1461 (2005) page 479

(61) Nigel Saul, Richard II (1997) page 417

(62) Anthony Tuck, Richard II : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

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