Background and causes
The Peasants' Revolt was fed by the economic and social upheaval of the 14th century. At the start of the century, the majority of English people worked in the countryside, as part of a sophisticated economy that fed the country's towns and cities and supported an extensive international trade. Across much of England, production was organised around manors, controlled by local lords – including the gentry and the Church – and governed through a system of manorial courts. Some of the population were unfree serfs, who had to work on their lords' lands for a period each year, although the balance of free and unfree varied across England, and in the south-east there were relatively few serfs. Some serfs were born unfree and could not leave their manors to work elsewhere without the consent of the local lord; others accepted limitations on their freedom as part of the tenure agreement for their farmland. Population growth led to pressure on the available agricultural land, increasing the power of local landowners.
In 1348 a plague known as the Black Death crossed from mainland Europe into England, rapidly killing an estimated 50 per cent of the population. After an initial period of economic shock, England began to adapt to the changed economic situation. The death rate among the peasantry meant that suddenly land was relatively plentiful and manpower in much shorter supply. Labourers could charge more for their work and, in the consequent competition for labour, wages were driven sharply upwards. In turn, the profits of landowners were eroded. The trading, commercial and financial networks in the towns disintegrated.
The authorities responded to the chaos with emergency legislation; the Ordinance of Labourers was passed in 1349, and the Statute of Labourers in 1351. These attempted to fix wages at pre-plague levels, making it a crime to refuse work or to break an existing contract, imposing fines on those who transgressed. The system was initially enforced through special Justices of Labourers and then, from the 1360s onwards, through the normal Justices of the Peace, typically members of the local gentry. Although in theory these laws applied to both labourers seeking higher wages and to employers tempted to outbid their competitors for workers, they were in practice applied only to labourers, and then in a rather arbitrary fashion. The legislation was strengthened in 1361, with the penalties increased to include branding and imprisonment. The royal government had not intervened in this way before, nor allied itself with the local landowners in quite such an obvious or unpopular way.
Over the next few decades, economic opportunities increased for the English peasantry. Some labourers took up specialist jobs that would have previously been barred to them, and others moved from employer to employer, or became servants in richer households. These changes were keenly felt across the south-east of England, where the London market created a wide range of opportunities for farmers and artisans. Local lords had the right to prevent serfs from leaving their manors, but when serfs found themselves blocked in the manorial courts, many simply left to work illegally on manors elsewhere. Wages continued to rise, and between the 1340s and the 1380s the purchasing power of rural labourers increased by around 40 percent. As the wealth of the lower classes increased, Parliament brought in fresh laws in 1363 to prevent them from consuming expensive goods formerly only affordable by the elite. These sumptuary laws proved unenforceable, but the wider labour laws continued to be firmly applied.
War and finance
Another factor in the revolt of 1381 was the conduct of the war with France. In 1337 Edward III of England had pressed his claims to the French throne, beginning a long-running conflict that became known as the Hundred Years' War. Edward had initial successes, but his campaigns were not decisive. Charles V of France became more active in the conflict after 1369, taking advantage of his country's greater economic strength to commence cross-Channel raids on England. By the 1370s, England's armies on the continent were under huge military and financial pressure; the garrisons in Calais and Brest alone, for example, were costing £36,000 a year to maintain, while military expeditions could consume £50,000 in only six months.[nb 1] Edward died in 1377, leaving the throne to his grandson, Richard II, then only ten years old.
Richard's government was formed around his uncles, most prominently the rich and powerful John of Gaunt, and many of his grandfather's former senior officials. They faced the challenge of financially sustaining the war in France. Taxes in the 14th century were raised on an ad hoc basis through Parliament, then comprising the Lords, the titled aristocracy and clergy; and the Commons, the representatives of the knights, merchants and senior gentry from across England. These taxes were typically imposed on a household's movable possessions, such as their goods or stock. The raising of these taxes affected the members of the Commons much more than the Lords. To complicate matters, the official statistics used to administer the taxes pre-dated the Black Death and, since the size and wealth of local communities had changed greatly since the plague, effective collection had become increasingly difficult.
Just before Edward's death, Parliament introduced a new form of taxation called the poll tax, which was levied at the rate of four pence on every person over the age of 14, with a deduction for married couples.[nb 2] Designed to spread the cost of the war over a broader economic base than previous tax levies, this round of taxation proved extremely unpopular but raised £22,000. The war continued to go badly and, despite raising some money through forced loans, the Crown returned to Parliament in 1379 to request further funds. The Commons were supportive of the young King, but had concerns about the amounts of money being sought and the way this was being spent by the King's counsellors, whom they suspected of corruption. A second poll tax was approved, this time with a sliding scale of taxes against seven different classes of English society, with the upper classes paying more in absolute terms. Widespread evasion proved to be a problem, and the tax only raised £18,600 — far short of the £50,000 that had been hoped for.
In November 1380, Parliament was called together again in Northampton. Archbishop Simon Sudbury, the new Lord Chancellor, updated the Commons on the worsening situation in France, a collapse in international trade, and the risk of the Crown having to default on its debts. The Commons were told that the colossal sum of £160,000 was now required in new taxes, and arguments ensued between the royal council and Parliament about what to do next. Parliament passed a third poll tax (this time on a flat-rate basis of 12 pence on each person over 15, with no allowance made for married couples) which they estimated would raise £66,666. The third poll tax was highly unpopular and many in the south-east evaded it by refusing to register. The royal council appointed new commissioners in March 1381 to interrogate local village and town officials in an attempt to find those who were refusing to comply. The extraordinary powers and interference of these teams of investigators in local communities, primarily in the south-east and east of England, raised still further the tensions surrounding the taxes.
The decades running up to 1381 were a rebellious, troubled period. London was a particular locus of unrest, and the activities of the city's politically active guilds and fraternities often alarmed the authorities. Londoners resented the expansion of the royal legal system in the capital, in particular the increased role of the Marshalsea Court in Southwark, which had begun to compete with the city authorities for judicial power in London.[nb 3] The city's population also resented the presence of foreigners, Flemish weavers in particular. Londoners detested John of Gaunt because he was a supporter of the religious reformer John Wycliffe, whom the London public regarded as a heretic. John of Gaunt was also engaged in a feud with the London elite and was rumoured to be planning to replace the elected mayor with a captain, appointed by the Crown. The London elite were themselves fighting out a vicious, internal battle for political power. As a result, in 1381 the ruling classes in London were unstable and divided.
Rural communities, particularly in the south-east, were unhappy with the operation of serfdom and the use of the local manorial courts to exact traditional fines and levies, not least because the same landowners who ran these courts also often acted as enforcers of the unpopular labour laws or as royal judges. Many of the village elites refused to take up positions in local government and began to frustrate the operation of the courts. Animals seized by the courts began to be retaken by their owners, and legal officials were assaulted. Some started to advocate the creation of independent village communities, respecting traditional laws but separate from the hated legal system centred in London. As the historian Miri Rubin describes, for many, "the problem was not the country's laws, but those charged with applying and safeguarding them".
Concerns were raised about these changes in society. William Langland wrote the poem Piers Plowman in the years before 1380, praising peasants who respected the law and worked hard for their lords, but complaining about greedy, travelling labourers demanding higher wages. The poet John Gower feared England might see an uprising similar to the French Jacquerie revolt of 1358, in which the peasants had risen up against their masters. There was a moral panic about the threat posed by newly arrived workers in the towns and the possibility that servants might turn against their masters. New legislation was introduced in 1359 to deal with migrants, existing conspiracy laws were more widely applied and the treason laws were extended to include servants or wives who betrayed their masters and husbands. By the 1370s, there were fears that if the French invaded England, the rural classes might side with the invaders.
The discontent began to give way to open protest. In 1377, the "Great Rumour" occurred in south-east and south-west England. Rural workers organised themselves and refused to work for their lords, arguing that, according to the Domesday Book, they were exempted from such requests. The workers made unsuccessful appeals to the law courts and the King. There were also widespread urban tensions, particularly in London, where John of Gaunt narrowly escaped being lynched. The troubles increased again in 1380, with protests and disturbances across northern England and in the western towns of Shrewsbury and Bridgwater. An uprising occurred in York, during which John de Gisborne, the city's mayor, was removed from office, and fresh tax riots followed in early 1381. There was a great storm in England during May 1381, which many felt to prophesy future change and upheaval, adding further to the disturbed mood.