The South-East of England was a political tinderbox in the summer of 1381. The most economically developed part of England had seen something of a shift socially and economically in the late middle ages with at least a significant minority of the population renting land as free tenants rather than as serfs. In the countryside many people from a peasant background were developing trades, especially weaving, as a significant secondary and sometimes primary form of income. Socio-economic changes seem to have made people more open to new ideas in the spheres of politics and religion too. The plague had killed some 40-50% of the population in 1348-50. The Black Death killed indiscriminately and large sections of the clergy had fled towns and villages rather than use their medical abilities to help the sick. This fostered cynicism about both the church and the ruling class in general. The heretical Lollard movement gained a degree of popularity in some areas as a result. Perhaps more importantly though, it shifted the balance of economic power to the benefit of the peasantry against the nobility.
With the population greatly reduced there was a much greater demand for land which many peasants sought to turn to their advantage. In return for their labour they wanted a relaxation of feudal dues, lower rents and better pay. If their landlords wouldn’t grant them this many would move to a neighbouring village where they might be able to negotiate better terms. In the cities and towns artisans and labourers were also demanding pay rises. The ruling class responded quickly to this threat to their interests through the Ordinance of Labourers of 1349 and the Statute of Labourers in 1351. These laws made it an offence to offer employment to someone who wasn’t already your tenant without the permission of their lord and limited wages to pre-1346 levels. While it was impossible to enforce these laws uniformly across England, it seems that they were used more widely in areas close to major administrative centres so the more densely populated South-East, with its proximity to London, was disproportionally affected.
The other factor behind the revolt was the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between England and France. With the exception of a few naval attacks on towns on England’s south coast the war was fought entirely in France so war weariness and anger against roving bands of soldiers did not play the important role in causing the rising as was the case with the French Jacquerie of 1358; the primary link between the war and the 1381 revolt was taxation. The old form of taxation, a levy of 1/12th or 1/15th of the value of one’s movable property, was widely abused by the under-valuation of goods and the bribery of local officials. With the war going badly, money was badly needed by the crown to fund the army in order to avert a total defeat. Three poll taxes were collected in 1377, 1379 and 1381; tax was considered to be something levied in an extraordinary emergency only so to have three in five years was considered outrageous. Far more people were eligible to pay the poll tax. Amongst the adult lay population only beggars were exempt. In 1381 tax collectors were told to take an average of 12d per eligible adult, in theory to lessen the burden on poorer taxpayers, but with the rich able to use their influence in order to avoid paying in many instances many poorer people were stuck with a large sum to pay.
In many places, but especially Essex and Kent, there was a refusal to pay the poll tax and resistance to tax collectors. On 30 May in the village of Fobbing, Essex, an attempt to arrest peasants who refused to pay resulted in rioting, word was spread to other villages and within days East Anglia and the South-East of England were in open revolt. Norfolk rebels seized Norwich and in St Albans the townsfolk, in alliance with rebels from surrounding villages, forced the Abbot to accept a new town charter granting rights to citizens which had long been withheld and imposing agricultural reform. The rebels seem to have encompassed all sections of the populations below the gentry, not just peasants.
They entered Canterbury and, in the seat of English ecclesiastical power, forced the monks to swear allegiance to their cause. John Ball, a radical priest who had been excommunicated and imprisoned on several occasions, became probably the chief ideological leader of the revolt once he was freed from the Archbishop’s Palace in Maidstone. Watt Tyler excelled in the taking of Maidstone and rose to prominence as the single most important leader of the rebellion. With the principal towns of the two counties secured; the rebels in Essex and Kent marched on London. Their aims, as far as they are discernable, seem to have been for the abolition of feudalism and the execution of the advisors to the king they held to be responsible for the poll tax and the other policies which they held to be responsible for their impoverishment. Two radically different visions of Fourteenth Century England, both backed by armed force, were about to collide.