Societal Unrest | Great Britain

The Wat Tyler's Rebellion

Let us seek to understand the long-lasting lead-up of the revolt, why farmers demanded better working conditions and what other issues farmers had with the society at large.


   In today’s world, we witness worker-rights considerations such as strikes (against Amazon for example) and The Great Resignation. The people behind these movements often feel that they are being exploited by executives who desire silent minions. This ‘rich versus poor’ sentiment seems to be increasingly felt by society at large: in the United States there is a hot debate about taxing the rich as well as the national elite carrying out schemes such as insider trading.

Such battle between the elite and people of a lesser social standing is not unique to our modern world however. We see the same interaction when we look back at the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. As we shall explore in this article, the protestors found that the rich sought to increasingly exploit them. Let me first provide you with a background of the event and then explain how farmers’ (i.e. worker’s) rights were a main driving force behind this revolt.



  In my view, the Peasant’s Revolt, also known as the Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, is a rather intricate event. The events and phenomena that led up to this uprising are plentiful and stretch over a long period of time.

If we are to understand the background of The Peasants’ Revolt, a good starting point would be the thirteenth century. In Great Britain, this age is marked with relative prosperity. Many rural people urbanized, the climate was mild and Britain’s population grew. The urbanization meant that the urban society became more complex and, in some respects, more saturated. Some of the developments that showcase this effect are that guilds were formed and that the political climate became more complex and polarized.

The prosperity of the thirteenth century was off-set by the hardships of the fourteenth. From 1300 to 1400, there were many events that caused people to suffer. Among these events were a minor Ice Age in the 1320s, the costly hundred years’ war which started in 1337 and the Black Death, which reached its peak in the 1350s.

With regard to the Peasant’s revolt, the Black Death is of particular interest. This Bubonic Plague caused at least one-third of the British people to pass away. I reckon that it goes without saying that such a major event strongly influenced posterior times.


The aftermath of the Black Death

   In England, an estimated 33% to 60% of people died during the Black Plague. This meant that a huge void was left behind in the labour force – and this was no different on the countryside. For business- and landowners this was quite a negative development. But, because of the huge demand for their labour, the workers who were lucky enough to survive the Black Plague improved their position tremendously. They were able to negotiate better wages and – especially in the case of farmers – better in-kind compensations such as more freedom. Allow me to elaborate on that unique position of the farmers in the next sections. First, I wish to introduce the feudal system and, second, I wish to show how the farmers reacted to the increased demand for their labour.



  While the feudal system may come across as simple and straightforward, it is in fact somewhat complicated. All English land was owned by the Crown under what is known as ‘Royal demesne’ (or ‘Ancient demesne’ if you use the Domesday book interpretation). The king then grants plots of his land to his vassals in return for favours and safekeeping. Through ‘subinfeudation’ these landlords may then sublet their land to other landlords, who are known as mesne lords.

But, when it comes to our topic, the most interesting state of feudalism happens at the level of the serf and the farmer. It is at this stage that there are distinct sorts of arrangements made between the landlord and the one working the land.


Serfdom, Arrangements and Medieval market forces

   You might assume that all farmers working under the vassals were slaves of sorts. It is true that some farming hands dedicated their time completely to working the land of the manor’s lord. However, as said, there were many other sorts of arrangements between the farmers and the lord. For instance, some farmers would rent a plot of the lord’s land. They would repay him by working, say, two to three days on the landlord’s land (a personal plot of land known as 'Demesne').

Then there were farmers who had rather loose responsibilities. They would, quite simply, offer their labour on the lord’s land in return for coin. After working for one landlord, the farmer may then offer his services to the next.

The severe shortage of labour caused by the Black Death instigated many problems for the landlords. These problems were so rampant that some landlords were unable to yield the harvest sitting right on the field. This dependency on farming hands was used as leverage to demand more freedom, better arrangements and better wages. The free-market forces made it so that an unhappy farmer could quite easily wave his partnership with the manor’s lord and offer his services to the next.


Official reaction to the problems

  Politicians quickly picked up on these problems as well as the feedback loop that they were causing. It is unclear to what extent the vassals were able to use their political power to demand action, so it is best I refrain from commenting about that.

In any case, in quite an unprecedented way, a significant bill was passed to prohibit farmers from quitting their work. This bill was called the Statute of Labourers and it took away the free-market forces that had been improving the position of the farmers. That is, the farmers were not allowed to be without a job, so they could not move between landlords offering work to the highest bidder.

Needless to say, farmers were angry about such a dramatic reaction to their innocent desire for a better life. This anger led to insubordination and triggered the passing of a second bill shortly after. The prohibitions remained the same in this second statute, but the penalties increased. Revolutionary priest John Ball speaking to the rebelious peasants

An illustration from the Froissart Chronicles showing John Ball speaking to the rebels. John Ball is known as an important religious figure in the Wat Tyler's Rebellion.



   The above bills undoubtedly made farmers upset. However, there were other phenomena that made lower classes lose faith in the established order. We might estimate that these occurrences added to the fire and help us to further understand the sentiment behind the Peasants’ Revolt.

One of these occurrences were the ‘poll taxes’. They were a series of incrementally increasing and very unpopular tax laws. The economic downturn and the 100-years war were taking its toll on the treasury and the country’s elite. However, these national issues were of little concern to the farmers themselves and many sought to evade the taxes in one form or the other. The importance of this background to the farmers’ uprising is illustrated by the third poll tax being one of the direct causes of the Peasant’s revolt; the revolution started when a vassal and his farmers denied paying the tax.

Another negative occurrence was that farmers were losing faith in the church. It had become quite common for preachers to be corrupt and profit from their power. The popularity of ‘revolutionary preachers’ such as John Ball illustrate this loss of faith in the church.



   Through various angles we have explored the background of Wat Tyler’s Rebellion. It is quite remarkable how the rebellion spanned across a huge area of England and how the farmers could mobilize so easily and in such a rapid way. I reckon that the anti-establishment sentiment added a lot of fuel to the revolt. It had built up over several decades and probably constituted the feeling that the elite sought to usurp and exploit the farmers.

It is interesting how aspects of Wat Tyler’s Rebellion compare quite well to the protestant revolution and posterior farmers’ uprisings, such as those in central Europe in the 15th century. As suggested at the start of this article, I reckon that a feeling of gross exploitation and lack of care for lower classes are a recurring theme in rebellions throughout history. To me it is quite intriguing how blunt and greedy people may become when they lead a country. I find it hard to grasp what suchlike power does to one's personal dignity. Perhaps this despotist mechanism will never cede to partake in the course of history and is indeed part of human nature. However, we might use the Peasants' Revolt to draw valuable lessons about leveraging positions and, ultimately, challenging exploitation and cold-heartedness from corrupted leaders.