The Legend Of Wat Tyler And The Peasants’ Revolt

January 6, 2023


Excitement swirls in the Calgarian air every time a medieval combat sporting event or tournament is announced in the city. Lovers of historical sports and historians congregate during these events to enjoy the thrill of visualizing medieval fights almost exactly as they would have been during the medieval era.

In these events, combatants wearing approved armour and carrying blunt steel weapons immerse in a friendly, albeit not for the faint-hearted, battle to entertain their audiences.

Not only do these kinds of tournaments provide entertainment and recreational opportunities to the community, but they also help us preserve our culture and relive historical events. These events also remind and educate our children about the great sacrifices and struggles that shaped nondiscriminatory statutes and paved the way for modern democracy and decentralization of political and economic powers.

Above all, these events help us memorialize and celebrate the heroes of medieval times who fought as conquerors or valiantly embraced martyrdom for the freedom, liberty, and societal equality we relish today. Had it not been for their courageousness and selfless sacrifices, we would perhaps still be stuck in the norms of slavery and absolute power. Things like fundamental rights and liberation would have been far-fetched fantasies.

As the Historical Armored Combat Sports Association (HACSA)’s sponsoring partner and a company appreciative of the sacrifices of our predecessors, we believe the recent armour combat tournament arranged by HACSA is the perfect time to pay tribute to and cherish one of the greatest heroes of the medieval age – Wat Tyler.

Being a reputed roofing company in Calgary, it gives us great pleasure to disclose that one of the greatest leaders of this time emerged not from nobles or knights but was a commoner, or more specifically, a peasant and arguably a roofer.

In this blog post, we shall delve into history and unveil how an ordinary, illiterate and ‘unfree’ labourer led a rebellion that served as an impetus for almost all successive political and social advancements in Europe and North America and namely bringing about the Magna Carta.

The Peasants’ Rebellion (1381)

A soul that has never tasted the wrath of a dominant and oppressive ruler, unjust taxation, and slavery in the name of labour may never completely understand the sweetness of the fruit of freedom and how blessed modern society is. But going through the enduring phases of history undoubtedly aids us in at least having an appreciation for the price paid to become the civilized society we now refer to as our own.

Although the development of trade, the growth of towns, and overall discontent with the ruler of the time was already fueling and shaping capitalist ideologies, the revolution still seemed to be centuries away at that time. However, the hasty, uncompassionate and selfish decisions of the nobles and an ill-advised ruler hastened events and brought about the rebellion that was to be remembered for centuries.

Parliament’s Statute Of Labourers 1351

After an epidemic known as the Black Death swept across Europe between 1346 and 1352, killing about one-third of the population, the lords faced a severe shortage of labour. In desperation to secure labourers, the lords made the mistake of offering slightly higher wages to lure the peasants.

The labourers who were on the verge of an outburst quickly realized their worth as a result of the latter and finally saw how the economic principles of supply and demand work. In turn, they demanded a higher wage rate for their services which took the lords by surprise.

In an attempt to reverse the impacts of their haste, the noble class joined hands, and the state brought forth The King’s Ordinance of 1349 and then the Parliament’s Statute of Labourers of 1351 to forcefully fix the wages at the pre-Black Death rate.

Additionally, the Statute of Labourers also restricted a worker’s freedom to switch jobs for better pay. According to John Passant, it mandated people under the age of 60 (with no land or master) to work for anyone who demanded them to.

The Third Crippling Poll Tax

On the other side, the ongoing war with the French kept becoming expensive for the state. 15-year-old King Richard II, advised by his noblemen, sought a solution to finance the war by levying a third crippling poll tax in four years.

Outraged by the king’s advisors and their policies, Wat Tyler led thousands of peasants to resist and rebel against the unjust tax and the statutes. The rebellion started with simple tax evasions but owing to the enduringly aggressive response from the state, thousands of peasants in two different groups from Exeter and Kent marched toward London and converged as a single sea of force.

King Richard II met with Tyler and his followers on the 14th of June to reduce the tension and give in to all their demands, including:

  • Abolition of the poll tax
  • Abolition of serfdom, forced labour, and feudalism
  • Cheap land
  • Free trade
  • Some sort of self-governance and various political reforms

Unfortunately, the 15th of June 1381 was the last day of Tyler’s life as he was lured by the king’s advisors for a second meeting and thereby brutally slayed. The rest of the rebels were also hunted down and executed, eventually bringing an end to the rebellion within just a month of its commencement.

The Aftermath

So did the rebellion fail? No.

Although the rebellion ended, it yielded much-needed outcomes. It sowed a seed of fear in the hearts of the wealthy class that the oppressed could rise against the oppressors. Consequently, labourers were treated with more respect and also set free. Although King Richard II did not keep his promise of bringing the aforementioned social, economic, and political reforms, the poll tax was ultimately withdrawn.

The following events succeeded the rebellion:

  • In 1382, a new poll tax was imposed upon only the landowners
  • In 1390, the Statute of Labourers was repealed, and all attempts to hold the wage rate were abandoned
  • 50 years after the rebellion, villeinage and revolt bondage were abolished

So while the results weren’t apparent immediately, the rebellion did mark the downfall of primitive equality and absolute power. It is to Wat Tyler that the labour market owes its freedom.

As Thomas Cooper says:

For Tyler of old,
A heart-chorus bold,
Let Labour’s children sing

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