In May of thirteen eighty one, the English
parliament announced a shilling poll tax
(poll means head, so no one was exempt).
This was easier to pay for some
and unrest simmered in the summer heat.
When a group of government officials
came to Brentwood Essex, east of London
on the north bank of the Thames, the angry
townsfolk drove them back with sticks and stones.
Matters went from bad to worse. On June
the second, Brentwood rebels seized a judge
who'd come to hang them, burned his papers,
lynched his clerks and stuck their heads on poles.
How's that for a pole tax, someone said.
In Colchester, the rebels took it out
on foreigners and Flemish merchants died.
The mob ransacked the City Treasurer's and
drank his wine. The insurrection spread
across the Thames to Kent and on the Fifth
of June, they stopped the King's Commissioner
from going into Canterb'ry and stormed
the fort at Rochester, so freeing all
the prisoners, among them quite a number
of extremely dangerous men. The swelling
tumult marched along the Medway, down
to Maidstone, sacking all the villas as
they went. By now, they had elected one,
a hardened veteran of wars in France,
to be their head: step forward, Wat Tyler!
On the Tenth of June, Wat led the mob
to Canterbury forty miles where
they hanged three agents of the government,
interrupted mass and called for the
beheading of the absent archbishop
for treason. The Eleventh witnessed towns
alight through eastern Kent, from Appledore
to Sandwich and the rampant multitude
gathering more anarchists en route.
On the Twelfth of June they made for London.
Tyler sent a message to the other
counties 'to close London round about'.
King Richard and his mother shut themselves
inside the Tower while the mob encamped
on Blackheath in the south, and Mile End Fields
in the north. Some rioters set fire
to a bawdy house in Southwark, run
by Flemish women and broke into Lambeth
Palace when they couldn't get across
the Thames. The guards had lowered the portcullis.
June the Thirteenth: Richard left the Tower
by boat and met the rebels in the Thames
by Greenwich - as he'd done with Gower once -
although he kept his distance and his boyish
voice could not be heard against the din.
On Blackheath preacher John Ball gave a sermon
on a theme which then became a slogan:
when Adam delved and Eve span,
who was then the gentleman?
That afternoon the rebels gained control
of London Bridge and raised the gate. A crowd
flowed in from Borough High Street over it
and on the north side set on fire the Savoy,
the home of Richard's uncle John of Gaunt.
The opened up the Newgate Prison and
the men that were to hang that day ran off.
The throng encamped that night on Tower Hill.
On the Fourteenth, Richard rode to meet
the mob at Mile End Fields to hear their terms.
These largely were the Essex rioters.
They told him to abolish serfdom which
was tantamount to slavery. The serfs
could not escape the land they farmed, for which
they even paid a rent and were obliged
in other ways to lords in manor houses.
The king agreed to their demands, he felt
their pain, and said he would get parliament
to act. He managed to persuade the rebels
he was on their side, this teenage sovereign.
Older monarchs lose their innocence,
but the smooth-cheeked lad was free of guilt.
Now the rebels wished to know if you
were 'with King Richard and the One True Commons?'
They strung up anyone who answered no.
Many of the rebels drifted home
although the slaughtering continued and
the archbishop-cum-chancellor Rev Simon
Sudbury, together with the Lord
High Treasurer Sir Robert Hales were taken
from the safety of their Tower of London
cells to be decapitated roughly
on a log, each head impaled and shown
on Tower Hill. On June the Fifteenth, Richard
went to pray before his ancestor Saint
Edward the Confessor at the Abbey.
After that, he met the rebels for
a second time but at a different venue,
Smithfield Market. These were largely now
the Kentish men led by Wat Tyler who
was drunk. He was a little too familiar
with His Majesty most people thought,
addressing him as 'brother', slobbering
and saying how their friendship might work out.
Tyler grew irate when Richard asked him
why he'd stayed when other counties had
dispersed. He listed other grievances.
When he appeared to lunge towards the king,
the bodyguards reacted and the mayor
Richard Walworth stabbed him in the chest.
An anxious moment followed when the rabble
almost loosed an arrow shower but downed
their weapons and the moment passed.
The guards took Tyler to the hospital
St Bart's - but not to get a bandage. When
the peasants saw his severed head, their strength
evaporated and they left for home.
Oh well. It was a start. The people spoke.
The democratic beast crushed a few ants.
And serfdom was abolished - here at least
though not till eighteen hundred in the east.