In 1381 peasants marched on London to end the hated poll tax. They demanded equal rights and an end to serfdom, and chanted: “When Adam delved and Eve did span [spin], Who then was the gentleman?” Their leaders were Wat Tyler, who may have been a former soldier, Jack Straw and John Ball, a radical priest from Colchester.
The uprising began in May, when angry villagers drove the tax collector out of Brentwood in Essex. The resistance spread like wild-fire throughout southern England. Tax records were burnt and prisoners freed from local jails by angry peasants who readily answered the call to take up arms by an underground movement called the ‘Great Society’.
These peasant armies, led by Wat Tyler in Kent and John Ball in Essex, were welcomed by Londoners enraged at the nobility’s moves to put the entire burden of the seemingly endless war in France on the backs of workers and tradesmen. Militant apprentices opened the gates of London on 13th June to join the rebels determined to punish the architects of the monstrous tax. John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, was top of the list but he was on the Scottish borders, so they made do with burning his Savoy Palace to the ground. The Lord High Treasurer Robert Hales and the Chancellor, Simon Sudbury, who was also the Archbishop of Canterbury, fled to the Tower of London. But the royal fortress fell without a fight to the peasants, who dragged them out and beheaded them on Tower Hill.
The frightened young king, Richard II, met most of the peasants’ demands, including the abolition of serfdom. But at a later meeting with the rebels at Smithfield, Tyler was provoked into an argument and then stabbed to death by William Walworth, the Mayor of London. Richard told the peasants, who held him in superstitious awe, that he would honour his pledges. But when they dispersed, the gentry rallied to take their revenge. The king repudiated all his promises and the rebel ring-leaders were hunted down and killed. Jack Straw was beheaded and John Ball was hanged, drawn and quartered at St Albans in the presence of the king soon after.
Perhaps this was an inevitable outcome. For as the Marxist historian AL Morton noted: “The peasants could combine for long enough to terrorise the ruling class but had no means of exercising a permanent control over the policy of government. A peasant State was impossible because the peasants were bound sooner or later to disperse to their villages leaving the landlords in control of the apparatus.”
The later emergence of capitalist production led to the rise of the bourgeoisie and the end of formal serfdom in England. Memories of the first great popular uprising in England were later subsumed by a new and violent struggle for power that began in the 17th century. The Peasants’ Revolt was consigned to the history books and, until recently, barely remembered on the streets of London.
These days re-enactors and guides hover around the Tower of London during the tourist season to tell the tale of the uprising that briefly brought the feudal class to its knees. There’s a plaque that marks the spot in the memorial gardens on Tower Hill where Sudbury and Hales got what was coming to them. A statue of William Walworth along with the dagger that he used to kill Wat Tyler are displayed in the Fishmongers’ Hall, near London Bridge.
There’s little else to see in honour of the peasants who marched to London against the hated poll tax. Nothing remains of John of Gaunt’s palace, although religious services continue at the Savoy chapel that was part of a London hospital built over its ruins in Tudor days. The gilded statue that stands above the entrance of the Savoy Hotel that now stands on the Strand is not the hated John but his ancestor Count Peter, who made Savoy Palace his London residence in 1263. Just outside the hotel a plaque records the torching of the Savoy “by rebels under the leadership of Wat Tyler” and the building of the “modern palace” in 1889.
In more recent times a green plaque was put up in Islington to mark the burning down of Robert Hales’ Highbury Manor house by the peasant army. It was unveiled by Tony Benn, the veteran Labour politician, in 2010. The site that later became known as ‘Jack Straw’s Castle’ is now part of north London’s urban sprawl. Local legend says that the rebel leader addressed his men from the top of a wagon on his way to London and later hid in the ruins of Hales’ mansion following the collapse of the revolt. It certainly was the name of the tavern that goes back to the early 1700s. The pub was rebuilt in the 1960s and finally closed in 2002, when it was converted to a number of luxury flats. But the rebel connection continues with the plaque on the wall of the Highbury Barn Tavern.
Pride of place goes to the triptych on the northern wall of St Bartholomew's Hospital, Smithfield that was unveiled by the left-wing playwright Ken Loach in July 2015. The slate panels that fill a blocked window bay of St Bart’s was commissioned by a local resident, Matthew Bell, and carved by Emily Hoffnung. The memorial marks the place where the peasant delegates led by Wat Tyler and John Ball negotiated the end of serfdom with the king as well as the spot where Tyler was later killed. A brass plate on the left records the words of a later Englishman, Thomas Paine, who went to America to join the fight for freedom in the 1700s and famously said: “If the Barons merited a monument to be erected at Runnymede, Tyler merited one in Smithfield.”
Fishmongers Hall is only open to the public on special occasions that are listed on its website. The Savoy Chapel is currently closed due to the COVID-9 emergency. It normally opens from Monday to Thursday from 9:00–16:00 and on Sunday from 9:00–13:00. The Highbury Barn Tavern, which is also closed for the duration of the pandemic, is a 15-minute walk away from Arsenal station. The Savoy Hotel is on the Strand near Temple tube station. St Bart’s Hospital is in Smithfield and the nearest tube is Barbican station.