Year
1381

Peasant army marches into London

During the Peasants’ Revolt, a large mob of English peasants led by Wat Tyler marches into London and begins burning and looting the city. Several government buildings were destroyed, prisoners were released, and a judge was beheaded along with several dozen other leading citizens.

The Peasants’ Revolt had its origins in a severe manifestation of bubonic plague in the late 1340s, which killed nearly a third of the population of England. The scarcity of labor brought on by the Black Death led to higher wages and a more mobile peasantry. Parliament, however, resisted these changes to its traditional feudal system and passed laws to hold down wages while encouraging landlords to reassert their ancient manorial rights. In 1380, peasant discontent reached a breaking point when Parliament restricted voting rights through an increase of the poll tax, and the Peasants’ Revolt began.

In Kent, a county in southeast England, the rebels chose Wat Tyler as their leader, and he led his growing “army” toward London, capturing the towns of Maidstone, Rochester, and Canterbury along the way. After he was denied a meeting with King Richard II, he led the rebels into London on June 13, 1381, burning and plundering the city. The next day, the 14-year-old king met with peasant leaders at Mile End and agreed to their demands to abolish serfdom and restrictions on the marketplace. However, fighting continued elsewhere at the same time, and Tyler led a peasant force against the Tower of London, capturing the fortress and executing the archbishop of Canterbury.

On June 15, the king met Tyler at Smithfield, and Tyler presented new demands, including one calling for the abolishment of church property. During the meeting, the mayor of London, angered at Tyler’s arrogance in the presence of the king, lunged at the rebel leader with a sword, fatally wounding him. As Tyler lay dying on the ground, Richard managed to keep the peasant mob calm until the mayor returned with armed troops. Hundreds of rebels were executed and the rest dispersed. During the next few days, the Peasant Revolt was put down with severity all across England, and Richard revoked all the concessions he had made to the peasants at Mile End. For several weeks, Wat Tyler’s head was displayed on a pole in a London field.

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