“There should be equality among all people save only the king. There should be no serfdom and all men should be free and of one condition.We will be free forever, our heirs and our lands."
Little or nothing is known about the early life of Wat Tyler. Some sources claim that in his youth he joined the English army and was cited for bravery at the battle of Poitiers as well as being present at the Battle of Crecy and various navel battles against the Spanish and French. On his return it is said he became something of a community leader and helped rid his local area of a band of robbers who had plagued them for many years.
It was not until the summer of 1381 that Wat Tyler, as leader of the so-called “Peasants” Revolt, finally stepped out of the shadows, and when he did he was to rock the establishment to its core. The term “Peasants” Revolt is somewhat misleading as many of the men who were to take up arms that summer were far from what we would today think of as peasants. Many were from the yeoman classes, skilled men and village leaders. Their fight wasn’t against misery, hunger or poverty, instead it was a call for liberty, justice and an end to the feudal system that still kept many free born Englishmen as mere slaves to the lords of the manor. It was a moral crusaded for emancipation and for what they believed to be right.
Resentment had been growing since the imposition of the Statute of Labourers, which tied the English working classes to the land and imposed on them further taxation. The outbreak of plague that had wiped out millions across Europe had brought in its wake wide ranging social upheaval and had led to a shortage of labour and skilled men. The working classes were essentially the English, who due to these shortages, were for the first time able to command higher wages and from that had seen a small rise in living standards. And the ruling classes didn’t like it one bit. The Statute of Labourers sought to reverse all this back again in favour of the ruling classes, who were of Norman stock, by firstly setting a maximum wage that could be paid to the English classes and also for the third time in four years they introduced a poll or head tax that was to be levied on every single person simply because they existed. At the same time the landlords were constantly increasing the rents on the lands that were paid by the English classes who were now tied to that very same land by the Statute of Labourers. In reality this was no “Peasants Revolt”. This was a working class English uprising against the Norman establishment and ruling classes whom, even well over 200 years since the invasion were still seen as foreign oppressors.
The torch of rebellion was first lit in Essex when locals attacked tax collectors as they came to collect the hated poll tax. The trouble soon spread to Kent where Wat Tyler was elected as leader and with other leaders in tow, such as John Ball and Jack Straw, the men of the southeast seized Rochester Castle, Maidstone, and then on 7th June Canterbury. Tyler at the head of 4000 rebels broke into the cathedral, demanding that the Arch-Bishop Simon Sudbery, who was a leading member of the government, be deposed. During the run-up to the revolt John Ball and other renegade English priests had preached radical religious thinking that had gone hand in hand with the social revolution that had sparked the current revolt. They preached social equality and that men did not need the help of a rich priest in order to find God and that the church was greedy and corrupt. With Canterbury under rebel control they marched on London, their ranks now swelled as every day more men flocked to their banner. On the road to London any symbol of what they saw as state oppression was smashed or burnt and any tax collector or landlord that they happened to come across was dragged aside and killed.
On reaching London Arch Bishop Sudbury, who had earlier fled Canterbury, was found by the rebels hiding at the Tower of London. Both he and the Kings Treasurer Sir Robert Hales were dragged out, beheaded and their heads stuck on poles. The mob swept through London plundering and burning any display of state authority including the Savoy Palace, home of John of Gaunt. They cornered the King’s mother Joan who was said to have fainted when one of the rebels asked her for a kiss. At Fleet and Newgate the prisons were stormed and the prisoners released. They attacked only the people and institutions that they deemed to be the supporters of oppressive lordship and the legislation that they saw as exploiting working people. The Chancellor and the lawyers who made the entire legal system workable, the justices and magistrates who enforced it and any other institute they saw as having gained privilege off the blood and sweat of their own forced labour.
On June 14th, with no close military support at hand that could stand in the way of the rebel army, the King agreed to meet with them at Mile End and made vast concessions including the abolition of serfdom, market monopolies and feudal service. The following day the King again met with the rebels, this time at Smithfields, and Wat Tyler bravely rode out from the rebel ranks armed only with a dagger to present their final demands. He demanded that all Englishmen should as treated as equals and that all aristocratic titles and privileges were to be abolished and only the king was to retain a superior title. Wat proclaimed:
“There should be equality among all people save only the king. There should be no serfdom and all men should be free and of one condition.” He demanded that all church property should be confiscated and divided out among the people save for a small amount to provide the clergy with “sufficient sustenance” Finally he demanded for his people “We will be free forever, our heirs and our lands."
At some point according to an eyewitness (on the King’s side), Tyler behaves disrespectfully towards young King Richard, he shook the Kings hand roughly and after calling for water, he rinsed his mouth "in a very rude and disgusting fashion”. Wat Tyler, alone and far ahead of the ranks of the rebel army was set upon by the Kings retinue and murdered.
On seeing the death of their leader the rebel ranks joined battle formation and began to string their bows until the King rode out in front of them declaring “I will be your Captain” He called for further negotiations and re-affirmed the concessions he had previously made the rebels. Leaderless and with their aims apparently achieved the rebel army gradually faded away.
With the rebels dispersed the King acted swiftly. He immediately rescinded every concession he had made and he sent Royal troops out into the country where the remains of the rebellion was mercies crushed. One chronicler tells us that over 500 leaders of the rebellion were sent to the gallows, including John Ball and Jack Straw who were hanged, drawn and quartered.
On a later tour of Essex the King would sneer at his English subjects,
“Rustics you were and rustics you are still. You will remain in bondage, not as before, but incomparably harsher”
Both Wat Tyler and his rebellion were dead but his name lived on to become a watchword and a rallying cry during public demonstrations and rebellions that his actions inspired throughout the later medieval period and even up to this present day.
Wat Tyler and his kinsmen were brave and courageous Englishmen who refused to be intimidated by a political elite who wished to dominate them and refused to have their ideals curbed by the social constraints of the day. What we see in their cry for social justice is the manifestation of an idea that was years ahead of its time. It is an Anglo-Saxon libertarian instinct, an inherent sense of justice that stretches right back to those first boatloads of warriors who splashed up our beaches all those years ago, a seed of the very idea of personal freedom that has since been planted in every single country that draws its culture and tradition from those very same Anglo-Saxon people. Wat Tyler epitomised something that we very often forget about the English and that is our tradition for radical thought and action – in short people just like Wat Tyler and John Ball who were prepared to think the unthinkable no matter what the consequences. Continetal commentators frequently noted the political volatility of the English and ambassadors from abroad were often fearful of setting foot on English soil. Some writers put this English radicalism down to “the natural aggression of the natives”
When Wat Tyler shook the Kings hand and John Ball preached to the crowds "When Adam delved and Eve span.Who was then the gentleman." They were making a point about equality but they were also taking their place among a long line of English radicals – the Lollards and the Levellers, the Diggers to the Suffragettes, the slavery abolitionists to the Trade Union Movement. We as English people should be proud that these movements first saw the light of day not in Scotland, Wales or Ireland, not in France, Germany or any where else but here in England – our homeland.
Sometimes it is only a thin veil that separates us from events that happened many hundreds of years ago. Then as now members of the ruling establishment were far removed from the wider population who they saw as inferior and crude. In 1381 popular action was condemned, as well as “the laziness of working people, their pernicious demands for rights and higher wages” In 2007 popular English sentiment on many issues is condemned as un-PC or racist. In echoes of words spoken all those years ago the supermarket chain Sainsburys told the House of Lords economic affairs select committee that their growing Eastern European workforce “tend to be more willing to work flexibly, and be satisfied with their duties, terms and conditions and productivity requirements.” than the indigenous population. The Statute of Labourers as a method of control has simply been replaced by the mass immigration of people who will work for less money and save the moneymen fortunes in wages – the same moneymen who prop up the establishment and the political status quo. In modern day England we find a single politically correct uniformity of thought, that encompasses our modern society, and it flies directly in the face of our radical and free thinking tradition that stretches back well over 1000 years. We have a political elite that thinks it knows best and holds the views of ordinary Englishmen and women in contempt. To them we are mere rustics. Whether it is Europe, immigration, GM foods or the all-encompassing political correctness, they know we don’t like it but they plough on regardless. We have, once so called hot beds of radicalism, such as the University campuses or the Trade Unionists who have been reduced to nothing more than robotically repeating the PC mantra spoon-fed to them by the political establishment. We have a collusion of the political classes, no matter what their affiliations, who regularly close ranks to ensure that their dominance is never challenged. It results in a culture of disseat and dishonesty, where the people at the top serve only themselves to maintain their own privilege position, where no one is ever held to account and the politically classes are only ever investigated by the political classes.
Wat Tyler was a man who fought and died in order to make things better for his own people. If only he were to see the way in which his English people have been intimidated and cowed into silence, the way in which they look over their shoulder when they speak of their community while others shout it from the roof tops. If only he could see the establishment that he so despised all but ignore his own working class English people while it falls over itself to attend to the needs of others.
He would be thrown into a fit of anger, he would not be intimidated and he would simply not accept the way things are - but then he was a wolf while all we have is so many sheep. He was a man of spirit, courage and conviction – oh how I wish he were here now.