The Peasants' Revolt (May/June 1381) was the first serious popular uprising in British history. Whilst the imposition of a poll tax the previous year – the third of recent times, and being a flat tax, more of a burden on the poor - is frequently cited as the catalyst for the rebellion, a mixed bag of grievances went towards the sudden explosion of violence. The disappointing state of the war in France at that time, perceived failures in the government and church, the changing economy because of the recurring plague, hatred of the autocratic John of Gaunt all added to the anger.
In late May, 1381, the men of the village of Fobbing, Essex and others attacked a pair of tax commissioners in nearby Brentwood. Within a fortnight around 10.000 men from Kent, across the River Thames, stirred up by Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball (the only three names still known), had begun converging on London. For two days they burnt and looted (their destruction of John of Gaunt’s Savoy palace was especially brutal) until on 14 June the young King Richard II agreed to meet them. The king was conciliatory and the agreement satisfied most of the men who began returning to their villages. Wat Tyler and a hard core of rebels remained, and during the night took and killed the Archbishop of Canterbury and others.
The king met them again the next day (15 June). Wat Tyler made impossible demands; including the end of serfdom, disestablishment of the Church, and the sharing of “nobility” amongst all men. (It is possible that the Peasants' Revolt is the first known instance of a political slogan - in this case: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”) Tyler was belligerent and rude. At one stage he drew his dagger and was struck down by one of Richard’s retinue, the Mayor of London. Richard immediately rode away from his supporters, faced the angry mob and declared: “Thou shalt have no leader but me!” He told them that if they went home there would be no repercussions.
There were of course. The leaders were chased down and executed. There was no widespread retribution, however, and in December, the king issued a general pardon. Whilst there had been other outbreaks, notably in Bury St Edmunds and St. Albans and at Norwich Castle, they were as short lived as in London.
The revolt was a failure in that all the king’s promises were rescinded immediately, and the glacial pace of social and political change returned. However, the next government to levy a poll tax on the English was Margaret Thatcher’s in 1990!
Reference: The Plantagenet Encyclopedia.