The Peasants’ Revolt – What Caused The Uprising In 1381

After the Black Death utterly wrecked the country, destroying somewhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of the population, medieval life in England would never be the same again. Society had been torn about in two ways – life and death. The suffered losses meant that work force had dropped considerably, leaving less peasants to work the land. Although the dreadful disease crippled all walks of people, there was an advantage for the survivors; more power had been placed into their hands.

Poll taxes were levied so that the Royal Treasury wouldn’t run out

With less people about, nobles and individuals higher up in the feudal system (which was mainly introduced by William of Normandy and the Conquest of 1066) were even more dependent for their wealth and food on the few poorly folk around. 

Due to this, the small population had a sudden realisation that the ruling members, barons and authorities would be forced to hold one key weakness – they would have to agree to whatever the peasants demanded of them in return for their work. 

Unfortunately, things hadn’t turned all good for these people. King Richard II’s war campaigns in France were failing badly, and this constant conflict proved to be extremely expensive. To support the King’s fighting, poll taxes (payment that were the same for all regardless of position) were repeatedly enforced to gather more money so that the Royal Treasury wouldn’t run dry. This seemed unfair, because to the ordinary man, the war in France wasn’t relevant and wouldn’t directly affect him.

And if this wasn’t bad enough, a new law had been enforced that set a maximum wage; if you agreed to work for more than this, you faced punishment by prison.

Lastly, the poor folk had expected serfdom, the social ranking by which a family would be the possession of their Lord and would have to work solely for him, would be abolished when the Black Desth came to an end. Serfs could never marry, leave the village or achieve anything without direct permission from their master. Also, they could only be judged for crimes by their Lord. The massively diminished population hoped that, with everywhere being broken up by the disease of 1348, serfdom would come to a final end. It didn’t. 

And it was so, by the preachings of John Ball, who proclaimed that all men should be equal and all the wealth of the nation should not be held in the hands of a few, rich individuals, the rioters broke loose on the 30th of May in the year 1381 when, for the third time in four years, a tax official attempted to collect another poll tax.

The population had hoped that serfdom would become non existent. It didn’t.

So, was the young 14 year old King Richard II entirely responsible for the dramatic actions that followed that dreadful day on May 30?

Of course not. We can trace most of the law-making and bad treatment of villeins and peasants back to the much-hated King’s uncle and advisor, John of Gaunt. The stirring up of anger was also caused by a combination of grievances that resided in the lives of the people lower down in the social hierarchy, who wished to seek a better future, to escape the monotonous routine of life that most had to live by in Medieval Times.

The Late Middle Ages were changing quickly. Magna Carta had been signed. The Black Death had happened. The Uproar began. It was all part of a development in England that helped communities switch from the old Saxon and Norman ways into a revolutionised 14th century style. Because, of course, the Wars of the Roses weren’t too far off, and that would finally close a chapter in British history.

The Peasants revolt was one event that moved England towards democracy. 


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