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    The late fourteenth century saw a wave of popular uprisings across Europe, including the Jacquerie in France in 1358, the Ciompi in Florence from 1378-82, and a series of revolts in Flanders. One of the largest took place in England in the summer of 1381. This rising was christened 'The Peasants' Revolt' by John Richard Green in his 1874 Short History of the English People but it was more varied in character than this term suggests. Contemporary records describe the revolt more vaguely as a 'rumour' or a 'rising in a warlike fashion'.

    In 1380, a poll tax of twelve pence per adult was imposed, the third poll tax in four years. Poll taxes were resented because the poor paid as much as the rich. There was large-scale avoidance of the tax and from March 1381 commissions were dispatched to enforce payment. In April, a clerical poll tax collector in Oxfordshire was attacked. At the end of May, justices in Essex were attacked with bows and arrows. On 2 June, a large meeting was held at Bocking in Essex where rebels swore 'to destroy divers lieges of the king and his common laws and all lordship'. The rebellion spread through Essex into Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. The Essex insurgents made contact with sympathisers across the Thames in north Kent, and, while the meeting at Bocking was taking place, Lesnes Abbey was attacked.

    Although the revolt was triggered by the collection of the poll tax, it was fed by other grievances. The fitful progress of the French war and French raids on southern England convinced many people that those advising the young King Richard II were treacherous. 'The People of 1381' project will use the Medieval Soldier database (www.medievalsoldier.org) to investigate how far rebels had military experience and the extent to which the militarisation of society contributed to the rising.

    The King's uncle John of Gaunt was particularly hated and, in the aftermath of the Good Parliament of 1377, many were convinced that royal officials were corrupt. There was also resentment against labour legislation controlling wages and terms of service of craftsmen and other workers introduced as a result of labour shortages after the Black Death, so that many artisans and townsfolk joined the rising. A major demand of the rebels was the abolition of labour and other services for holding land and their replacement by flat-rate rents. The rebels included not only poor serfs but also tenants with land and goods who held manorial offices. The involvement of better-off tenants reflects both their aspirations and their frustration at the demands made on them by landlords.

    In Essex, the first wave of disturbances culminated on 10 June in the burning of property at Cressing Temple belonging to the Hospitallers whose Prior Robert Hales was Treasurer of England. The escheator of Essex was beheaded at Coggeshall. The records of the sheriff and escheator were ceremonially burnt. In Kent, rebels attacked Rochester Castle, destroyed houses of unpopular officials and burnt administrative records. The craftsman Wat Tyler, whose origins are mysterious, emerged as leader of the Kentish rebels. There are also references to another leader named Jack Straw, but this was probably a fictitious name.

    On 10 June, Tyler led the rebels into Canterbury, where they executed prominent citizens and freed prisoners held in the castle. Tyler's men returned towards London and on 12 June camped on Blackheath, south-east of London, where they were joined by John Ball, a veteran radical priest. Priests such as John Ball and John Wraw in Suffolk played a prominent part in the disturbances, suggesting links between the rising and Lollardy. Some chronicles reproduce letters in English attributed to Ball which perhaps provide insights into rebel ideology, but equally may have been intended by the chroniclers to suggest heretical influence.

    On 13 June, the King attempted to talk to the rebels from a boat at Rotherhithe. As the rebel bands approached the city, there was a huge uprising in London. John of Gaunt's Savoy palace and the headquarters of the Hospitallers at Clerkenwell were destroyed. The King met the rebels at Mile End on 14 June and gave them letters freeing them from bondage. However, rebels entered the Tower of London and seized Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of England, Robert Hales and others, who were beheaded. There were many other massacres, particularly of Flemish merchants.

    The disturbances were equally serious in East Anglia. In Suffolk, rebels led by John Wraw beheaded the Chief Justice and entered Bury where the Prior and another monk were killed. In Cambridge, there were attacks on Barnwell Priory and the University, while in Ely a rebel leader preached from a pulpit in the abbey and a local justice was beheaded. In Norfolk, insurgents led by Geoffrey Lister, a dyer, killed the veteran soldier Sir Robert Salle and local justices, and attacked property in Norwich and Yarmouth, where they destroyed an unpopular royal grant. The disturbances spread as far as Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Somerset.

    On 15 June, at another meeting with the King at Smithfield to the north of London, Wat Tyler was killed by William Walworth, the Mayor of London. When Tyler fell, the King declared that he would lead the rebels and drew them away from Smithfield, averting any attempt to revenge Tyler. Commissions were issued against the rebels, and many were killed by judicial and military action in Essex, Norfolk and elsewhere. The letters of manumission granted at Mile End were cancelled. In November 1381, a general pardon was issued to the rebels, except those involved in the most serious incidents.

    Although no poll tax was levied again for nearly 300 years, the impact of the revolt on such trends as the decline of serfdom is unclear. Nevertheless, it is evident from the work of authors such as John Gower and William Langland that the revolt cast a long cultural and social shadow. As late as 1413, Sussex villagers were still terrified that Jack Straw might come again.