Today, June 15, marks the 640th anniversary of the culmination of the Peasants Revolt in London in 1381 and the decisive meeting at Smithfield between King Richard II and Wat Tyler the leader of the Kentish rebels who had swarmed into the City two days before on the Feast of Corpus Christi. The death of Tyler led to the collapse of the morale of this group of rebels when the fourteen year old King seized the initiative and diffused the tension.
Earlier this evening I was able to join through Zoom a seminar given by the members of a group drawn from the universities of Southampton, Reading, Oxford and Glasgow and led by Prof Anne Curry, who is also the Master of the Worshipful Company of Fletchers in the City of London who are celebrating their 650th anniversary. Prof. Curry always radiates an enthusiasm and zest for her research, and her colleagues were similarly committed to this in their narratives of those tumultuous days.
Even now, not withstanding so many changes over the centuries the scenes of so many of these violent and terrifying events can still be not merely identified but visited and the drama of events conjured up.
This group project is combing archives for the names, lives and careers of those in any way involved in the events of June 1381, and aiming to see what such a prosopological analysis can reveal. So far they have 6.654 individuals on their files and some very interesting things are emerging as well as new discoveries of archive sources.
One point made was the number of men involved who had some military experience - disgruntled ex-soldiers - and this can be tied in with the database Prof. Curry has previously set up and developed on late medieval soldiers: www.medievalsoldier.org
The extent to which events were preplanned by the rebels looked highly likely - the idea of there being a “Great Conspiracy” that so alarmed the established order does look rather more credible, in some form or another, than a mere conspiracy theory.
Similarly the response of the Lord Mayor and his colleagues and the loyal troops commanded by Sir Robert Knollys in the City suggests planning on that Saturday as the King and others received petitions at the Warderobe and before the monarch made his prayerful visit and vow to Our Lady at Westminster.
This seems to be in contrast to the seeming paralysis of the King’s councillors on June 13th, which may have led to the Tower being left open the next day and the resulting deaths of the Archbishops of Canterbury and of the Prior of the Hospitallers, and the rampage of the peasants through the royal fortress,
The speed with which news travelled as well as did some of the people released from the London prisons by the peasants and who then returned to their home areas and fermented uprisings was brought out.
Interesting also was the evidence of the involvement on the rebel side of some who were financially successful and in one case a former MP for Rochester.
Family and hometown connections were also seen to play a bigger part than had hitherto been identified.
A point which had been previously but was perhaps brought out more was the extent to which the rebels could articulate political arguments. These were not yokels with pitchforks but in many cases men, and women. with agendas, bound by oaths and quite often with military experience. That their discipline collapsed should not probably surprise us, but their coherence in getting to and into London, their sense of purpose and of specific grievances suggests a more articulate and informed motivation that might once have been thought.
The early stages of the revolts may have been
marked by the burning of court rolls and later on of legal documents in London, yet equally the peasants were careful of documents that recorded grants and concessions to them - this was a far from illiterate society, but was one that could be carefully selective as to what it wished to keep and what to destroy.
Long-standing grievances against figures such as Duke John of Lancaster ( fortunately for him he was away campaigning on the Scottish Borders ) or the Knights Hospitallers, or in London dislike of particular officials, lawyers, religious houses or the unfortunate Flemish community were given full vent in those heady and disorderly days. Not only was there violence, but the violence was targeted,
Tensions within London itself, and in other cities and towns, between different sections of the population played no small part in these events. So too, afterwards, in rural areas were people trying to extricate themselves from their own involvement by becoming approved and denouncing their neighbours for what they had done. Pardons were distributed quite widely, but for the leaders and prominent rebels that was not to be. Parliament the following November might hear some talk of the fact that misgovernment had led to the uprising, yet clearly it was important to restore order and cohesiyto a society that had been profoundly shocked by what it had witnessed.
The memory of the noise and clamour in the City that accompanied the slayings lived on in the minds and memories of writers such as Chaucer and Gower, and in popular perception as late as 1413 in distant Sussex.
The idea that the peasants saw themselves as loyal to the King anc to a sense of the ‘nation’ is not new, but was again brought out - they were there to reform, to cleanse the King of evil councillors …. Indeed one speaker drew a parallel with the events in the storming of the Capitol in Washington last January.
This was a fascinating “work in progress” report on a project that will run until 2023. I look forward very much to seeing more results of this project in book form or online.