Economic Grievances and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381
Submitted to Heather Falvey, Tutor
Rioting Peasants, c. 1380 – 1650
Department for Continuing Education
Roger M. Jones Fellow Abroad, The University of Michigan
Economic Grievances and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381
The lives of average people in England in 1381 were difficult and subject to newly increasingly change. Three hundred years after the Norman conquest of England, things seemed to be getting a bit chaotic. The Black Death had struck hard, especially in 1348 and 49, wiping out around one third of the population, laying waste to the serf classes who, in various degrees of bondage or slavery, worked extracting resources from the land for the lords and higher ruling classes. The lords had grown accustomed to having plenty of labor to support their lives of leisure, and weren’t so happy to learn a lesson in supply and demand when their serfs started asking for more money and more freedom. The government, for its part, was slow to recognize the inevitability of the resulting changes to society and enacted regressive rules and taxes that angered the populace. These and other related economic issues came to a head in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
The Black Death
England in 1348 had a population estimated at around 6 million people. Following the first outbreaks of plague, beginning in Weymouth in June, 1348, and terminating in December, 1349, between one third and one half of the population was wiped out. Further outbreaks, especially 1361-1362, probably killed another 20% of those that were left. Modern studies of period manor records have shown that mortality was higher in the peasant classes than the upper classes, whose members would have had less contact with disease carriers and better access to nursing and medical resources. This left the elite classes without enough labor to work their lands, which gave the serfs leverage to demand higher wages, fewer working hours, and more freedom.
Statute of Labourers, 1351
The Statute of Labourers was a wage-capping initiative enacted by Parliament under Edward III, essentially a law that attempted to suspend or eliminate any benefit the serfs might derive from the scarcity of labor in the aftermath of the brutal Black Plague. It regulated the wages for serfs, limiting them to pre-plague levels, and demanded that able-bodied serfs under 60 years of age work regardless of financial reserves that might have formerly allowed them to pay their way out of labor. Theoretically, the Statute also guaranteed reasonable prices for food. In practice, the Statute and the Ordinance it was supposed to enforce were failures.
Also during this time period, England was involved in the Hundred Years War with France. This war was extremely costly and caused economic depression in the economy in England. Furthermore, the purposes of this long war would have been difficult to grasp for your average serf, who probably would have lead about the same difficult life no matter the outcome. Despite this, it was determined among the ruling barons that the peasants should bear a larger part of the cost of this war. In 1377 John of Gaunt, the Regent to King Richard II, levied the first poll tax, requiring that every adult pay 4d. Finding this to be a successful little money-maker for the crown, and finding that it enriched locally the tax-collectors who pocketed a little off the top, further poll taxes were enacted in 1379 and 1380/81, with the last requiring the payment of 12d by all adults. By this point many people had figured out how to avoid paying the taxes, and they were a bit fed up with the whole thing.
Examining the returns from this 1380 taxation, John of Gaunt and his cronies noticed something fishy was going on. The amount of money they had coerced out of the population wasn’t as much as they knew it should be. They sent tax collectors out to demand the people make up the difference. This lead to the first violence and protest associated with the Peasants’ Revolt, as a tax collector named Thomas Bampton rode out to Fobbing in Essex, where he demanded that the people of Fobbing, Stanford, and Corningham pay the tax again, or at any rate pay to make up the difference owed. The people rejected his demands, beat him and his men, and ran them out of the village. When additional men were sent to follow-up on this issue, they found a force of rebels waiting for them, and the Peasants’ Revolt was born.
The Church as Landowner
Additionally factored into the economic grievances involved, and spilling over into religious grievances, is the position of the Church as a major landowner in England. The labor shortages of the time strained the relations between the Church and the serf classes, as the Church leadership faced the same problems other landowners did in terms of ensuring their lands were worked productively. Rebellious priests, notably John Ball, railed against perceived moral treachery in the upper levels of church management and incited their flocks to rebel.
So it was a changing socio-economic landscape, resulting from demographic shifts due to the Black Death, and ill-advised attempts by the government to cap wages to deny the benefits of these changes to the lower classes that lead to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The consequences included revolt in Essex and Kent, an armed march on London, the storming of the Tower of London, the destruction of John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace, the burning of many tax records, and the execution of the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Treasurer. Although not particularly effective in obtaining results for the participants, this revolt echoed through history as an example of the collective power of labor workers to obtain concessions from the capital owners who employ them.