In defence of the Peasants’ Revolt
With some comments on how not
to commemorate 1381


In six hundred years, the Peasants’ Revolt has undergone every form of opposition, from rabid hatred — with virulent defamation of its leaders — to dismissal as something best forgotten. The majority of history books tell us it was an aberration, achieving nothing. From the masses who make history there has only occasionally come a writer of it; and the masses in the fourteenth century were illiterate. There are no reports from participants in the Revolt, except for very dubious confessions, which are in records of trials of rebels. The accounts of this revolution, which were written after it, by chroniclers hostile to it, are based mainly on hearsay. These accounts were meant for an audience of feudal rulers and have formed the main sources for historians.

Thomas Walsingham, the chronicler, saw the rising as the work of Satan. He called the rebels, ‘the rustics, those doomed ribalds and whores of the devil’. He was a monk in the Abbey of St Albans and a defender of the Church, within whose estates there existed the worst forms of feudal oppression. Other writers described the rebels as ‘debauchees’ or ‘idle rascals’.

The story told to millions of us as schoolchildren, was of an uprising by a misguided rabble. They had, perhaps, been occasionally badly treated, but were misled by Wat Tyler, Jack Straw, John Ball and others. John Ball was described as a mad hedge-priest. The central figure in this script is a courageous boy king who rode boldly among his rebellious subjects and regally calmed them.

Underground, throughout the centuries, the revolt was celebrated in song and story, the common people upheld its memory and the memory of its leaders. In the seventeenth century, the Levellers knew well the old couplet that was preached upon by John Bail:
‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’ They related to the 1381 rebels as ‘ate levellers’. The enemies of the English Revolution, in their pamphlets, attacked Cromwell as a Wat Tyler, Lilburn as a Jack Straw. Nearly two centuries after the Levellers. Chartists and radicals formed a Wat Tyler brigade’ and Chartists painted a head of Wat Tyler on their banners.



This was the first revolt of peasants in England which went beyond local boundaries. It embraced the mass of the population in the most advanced and populated part of England – the south east. It was an uprising in both countryside and towns. It was directed not just against oppressive landlords and employers but also against the state, which had imposed legislation to maintain oppression. Throughout Europe in the fourteenth century there were many uprisings; but the Peasants’ Revolt is exceptional in the positive, coherent and general nature of its demands. In other words, it was not a blind, instinctive reaction to an imposition of intolerable conditions. It was the product of deep-going contradictions in society.

Its very nature — a revolt of peasants, artisans and landless labourers — meant inevitably that the accounts of the time which emerged were filled with propaganda against the rebels. In neither the literal nor metaphorical sense did it have ‘friends at court’. While a handful of knights participated in it, there were no leaders from the gentry or even the burgesses in the cities — as in other peasant insurrections in Europe at the time and in England in the following centuries.(1)

The mass of the agricultural population were vilieins or serfs. England was divided up into lords’ or churches’ ‘demesnes’, and plots worked by ‘free’ peasants or by vilieins. The villein was legally bound to the lord’s land, subject to forced labour and dues. He was compelled to work for so many days a week on the lord’s land and the welfare of the lord’s acres and livestock took priority over his own. He did not always know in the evening what he would be called to do the following morning.

Generally the peasant and the villein must fold their animals on the lord’s land (so as to manure it), grind corn at the lord’s mill, in some cases have loaves baked in the lord’s oven. For these and other things, such as brewing ale, they paid fines to the lord. The villein had to pay for his lord’s permission when he or his daughters married; a ‘heriot’, the handing over of his best possession, usually a beast, was paid when he died. He paid a fine for his inheritance and a fine when he sold a beast. The lord could impose taxes on his tenants at will.

In some cases the villeins were bought and sold with the land. The villein’s right to enter into agreements concerning his goods was limited by the lord’s right over his person and property. And the mark of humiliating, servile status — the lord or his officials had the right legally to chastise his serf, providing mutilation or death did not ensue. ‘Above all, the services he owed to the lord were in theory uncertain and could be increased or changed at the lord’s will.(2)

The lord owned not only the land, but also justice. Augmenting his income through his courts was the Lord’s right. It was a way to screw surplus out of the peasant. Similarly it was accepted by the feudal rulers that, church or government positions were ways of increasing income. The institutions of feudalism were thus notoriously corrupt. From any of the courts of feudalism, the common people could expect very little.

Impartially administered justice was not to be looked for in such a world. Officials from the highest to the lowest were corruptible and the people knew it. Even the judges, with their high professional qualifications, salaries, fees and pensions, were by no means above suspicion… The corruption of the sheriffs was notorious.(3)

Hatred of the courts was so intense that the rebellious peasants in 1381, in various parts of the country, attacked judges and lawyers, burnt their houses and records and put a number of them to death. Likewise they attacked the church records. Both courts and church were institutions that upheld feudal bondage. One of the demands of the 1381 revolution, as of the Levellers later, was that court proceedings should be in English. At that time they were carried on in Norman French or Latin. The Levellers demanded the abolition of this ‘badge of the Norman conquest’.

Like the villein, the landless labourer and the artisan, the ‘free’ peasant suffered under the exactions of lord, church and king. Kent, one of the strongest areas in the revolt contained a large percentage of free peasants. The land, however, was fragmented, most of the tenants were small holders, farming less land than many villeins.

If we wish to understand how the consciousness of the revolutionaries of 1381 was formed, it is important to consider the history of the peasantry in this and preceding centuries.

After the Norman Conquest there was a considerable increase in exploitation of the peasantry. Although subject to the customary estate laws of the lord, the majority of tenants at the time of the Conquest were of ‘free condition in the eyes of the public law’.(4)
William 1 aimed to keep his kingdom in a firm grasp and set about systematising feudal relations and giving them a legal framework. He centralised authority, the great estates were surveyed and villein service was defined as servile in the public courts. Feudal dues and services were codified and sanctified legally.

With feudal oppression worsening and nearly all serfs being of Saxon origin, there began the long tradition, which was carried through to the Levellers, of denunciation of the ‘Norman Yoke’.

With increased market production and circulation of money, a trickle of villein peasants transformed their services into money payments. In their struggle to increase their revenues in the thirteenth century, the feudal magnates expanded cultivation. They reorganised their domains by employing professional agents to supervise them. The new bailiffs operated on the principle that, whatever happened, the lord must not suffer a loss. ‘A production target was set for each manor and failure to reach it — whether the causes were fraud, negligence, error of judgment, or the normal hazards of agriculture — meant that the bailiff or other officer in charge of the manor had to make up the deficiency out of his own pocket.’(5)

McKisack, who qualifies any description of harsh aspects of feudal exploitation, comments: ‘Yet since there were candidates for both office of bailiff and reeve, the system may have been less harsh than it appears to us’(6)

The bailiff almost always became prosperous. But there was only one source of his wealth or of the wealth of his lord - the labour of the peasantry. To meet his deficit he would screw out more surplus. The reorganisations were accompanied with pressure to reduce all peasants to unfree villeinage. Clearly, however, the success of the feudal lord, who looked on peasant and labourer as servile animals and nothing other than a source of revenue, depended on struggle.

Peasants took action against their lords They collectively refused to do services. In 1300, villeins in Newington, Oxfordshire refused to do mowing service and decided on a collection of fourpence a head as a fighting fund.

In the fourteenth century, with the exhaustion of the land, productivity began to decline. The death rate increased. Population declined. Talking of the beginning of the century, Postan writes: ‘It is obvious that large and growing sections of the population had been reduced to a condition in which they could keep body and soul together only in years of moderately good harvest.’(7)

There were few enough of those years. There were catastrophic famines, however. In the famine years of 1315-17 it is estimated that the death rate was 10-15%. The death rate in the Black Death, 1342-50, was 40% according to some estimates. The stage was set for an uprising. On the one hand there were the growing needs of the ruling class for revenue in a period of exhausted agricultural production. On the other, there was a seething population with long memories of oppression and humiliation. It was an aggressive and confident force which, after a long period when the feudal rulers had tightened the chains of servitude, was conscious that the demand for labour gave it an advantage. A confrontation was inevitable; just as inevitable was that it should be bloody and violent.

The Black Death unbearably heightened the crisis of the feudal ruling class.



In the half century before 1381 conflicts had been endemic in towns and countryside.(8) A petition to the Parliament of 1377 declared that, in many parts of England, villeins had refused to give customs and services to their lords and that they had ‘made confederation and alliance together to resist the lords and their officials by force, so that each will aid the other whenever they are distrained for any reason’ .(9)

Oman describes very lucidly a class struggle in these years:

The landowners grew desperately cruel as they saw wages rising and the old customs dying out despite of all the reissue of the Statute of Labourers which they obtained from Parliament. It will be remembered that branding with hot irons and outlawry were among the supplementary actions which they added to the original terrors of the law of 1351.(10)

The Statute of Labourers was passed in 1351 in an attempt to defeat the widespread attempts to break the oppressive feudal bonds. It followed the Ordinance of 1349, which forbade men to leave the manor. The Statute pegged wages at the level existing in 1348, the year when the Black Death began. Landless men of up to sixty years had to accept service with a lord and this at the compulsory rates.
‘The rural community was not one whit more discontented at this time than the urban.’(11) declares Oman. The mayors and officials in the towns no longer represented the community, but only the wealthy merchants and masters. A mass of labourers in the towns lived in appalling conditions. The guilds were splitting into great employers of labour and artisans who would never become masters.

…many apprentices who had completed their term of years were now forced to continue as hired workers, instead of becoming independent craftsmen . . . To protect themselves against their masters they formed many leagues and societies, often disguising their true purposes under religious forms, and purporting to meet for the hearing of masses and the discharge of pious duties. As early as 1305 we find a real trades union of this class formed by the journeyman shoemakers of London: it was suppressed nominally for the public benefit, really for that of the masters of trade. (12)

It was among the first of many such combinations. The cloth shearers in 1350 complained that the men ‘by covin and conspiracy’, when one man had a dispute, would refuse to work for all the masters. In London, where the population welcomed the rebels, RH. Hinton informs us:

The majority of the adult males in London were poor and were excluded from any participation in the running of the city… It has been calculated that only one Londoner in four was a freeman of the city with political rights exercised either through his guild or through the machinery of the ward in which he lived… unskilled and semi-skilled journeymen were excluded from the secrets of the trade in which they were employed. Finally, there was a large and indeterminate mass of casual labourers without any sort of industrial training. Naturally, these shaded off into a ‘Lumpenproletariat of varying degrees of destitution and criminality.(13)


The sparking point of the insurrection was the imposition in 1380 of a poll tax to carry on the French War. The tax collectors were resisted and the government sent justices into the countryside to try those accused of violence. The revolt began in Essex, where there were massive meetings of men and women, called together by emissaries who bade them be ready to offer armed resistance when the judge should appear.
When the judge came to Brentwood on June 2 he was seized and forced to swear on the Bible that he would never hold a session. His papers were destroyed and three of the local jurors who had brought the rioters before the chief justice were beheaded. Their heads were carried around other villages on poles.

In Kent, a judge and his party, travelling to Canterbury, were intercepted by an angry multitude and fled back to London. Peasants besieged the castle at Rochester, opened the dungeons and released a prisoner who had been seized a few days before and imprisoned as an escaped villein. The Kentish rebels, now ten or fifteen thousand strong, marched on Maidstone. As in other towns, they opened up the prison and released the inmates. In Canterbury, they entered the city without opposition and, joined by a large number of citizens, they sacked the palace of Sudbury the archbishop. As the country’s Chancellor, he was looked upon as having a major hand in the poll tax. He was one of the ‘traitors’ in the king’s council, whose death the rebels demanded.

In abbeys and manor houses, the rebels destroyed court rolls and records wherever they went. In Canterbury, the sheriff was forced to give up the judicial and financial records of the county, which were then burned, Lawyers, royal officials and landlords were executed.

Essex and Kent rebels met at Blackheath. Wat Tyler emerged as a leader. Although Oman says there ‘is no proof whatever’ that Wat Tyler ‘was anything more than a bold and ready demagogue’, he adds his piece to the mountain of denigration that has been piled on Tyler. He refers to him as an adventurer’ whose ‘assumption of dictatorial authority, and his ruthless exercise of the power to slay, during his two days of his domination in the city, together with his gratuitous insolence in the presence of the king, indicate that he had no intention of going home when the redress of grievance has been promised, but was intending to maintain himself as a power in the realm.”(14) McKisack attacks the ‘personal ambitions of John Ball on as little evidence.

Wat Tyler’s execution of thieves shows aims above that of immediate loot. In an age when bands of feudal lords organised together, solely for plunder and rapine, the peasants showed a higher morality than the nobility. The ‘insolence’ which roused the ire of chroniclers and historians is not the alleged rudeness of Wat Tyler (for how many centuries had peasants borne rudeness from their lords) but the fact that he boldly stood before the king and put the peasants’ demands. He expressed there the confidence of peasants who had felt the power of organisation in the previous years of guerrilla warfare against the lords and who were grasping for rights they believed had been filched from them.

The denunciation of the personally ambitious, the bloodthirsty and the treacherous has, of course, been one-sided. Richard II’s treachery is wholly acceptable to those who attack John Ball and Wat Tyler. And nothing much is said about the king relying on Robert Knolles and Sir Thomas Trivett to put down the rebels. These were two notorious ‘condottieri’ or bandits, whose mercenary robber bands had left a trail of pillage and murder through Europe.

When Wat Tyler executed thieves it was in line with the general conduct of the peasants. Swift death was meted out to those who looted during the sacking of the Savoy house of John of Gaunt. He was the leading aristocratic landowner, hated by the population of London.
Oman declares that the very large crowd of insurgents who burned the Savoy went systematically to work, ‘the leaders repeatedly reminding them that they had come to destroy not to steal’. When a man tried to make off with a silver goblet he was seized and put to death. A group which swilled wine in the cellar were left there when the place was fired and were burnt to death. Walsingham, who, it will be remembered was no friend of the rebels reported of the common people of London that ‘in order that the whole community of the realm should know that they were not motivated by avarice, they made a proclamation that no one should retain for his own use any object found there under penalty of execution’.


At Blackheath, John Ball preached to two hundred thousand. He had been released by the revolutionaries from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s dungeon, where he had been confined for three months. Several times, during the past twenty years of his preaching, he had been confined to prison. He was a familiar figure in Southern England. Walsingham declares that he told the crowd that:

…from the begining all men were created equal’ by nature and that servitude had been introduced by the unjust and evil oppression of men, against the will of God, who, if it pleased Him to create serfs, surely in the begining of the world would have appointed who should be a serf and who a lord. Let them consider, therefore, that He had now appointed the time wherein, laying aside the yoke of long servitude, they might, if they wished, enjoy their liberty so long desired… So at least they would obtain peace and security, if, when the great ones had been removed, they maintained among themselves equality of liberty and nobility, as well as of dignity and power.

When the king sent a message to the peasants asking them to explain their actions they sent back saying they wanted ‘to save him from his treacherous advisers’. The rebels crossed London Bridge unopposed and were welcomed by London’s population. They demanded charters of freedom. The king met them and offered pardons and a promise to consider their grievances This they rejected The extent of the uprising and its support in London shook the rulers and in the immediacy, left them without defence. The king sacrificed his advisers, archbishop Sudbury and John Hale, the Treasurer, who were taken out of the Tower and executed. Their heads were placed on poles on London Bridge.
The royal party met the rebels at Mile End. Wat Tyler brought forward demands which were granted by the king. He agreed that serfdom should be abolished, that villeins should become free tenants paying 4d an acre.

In addition all restrictions on free buying and selling were to be swept away, and the market monopolies of all favoured places were to disappear… as a sign of the honesty of his intentions he engaged to set thirty clerks to draw up charters bestowing the freedom and amnesty on the inhabitants of such districts as came forward to claim them. A great number of such documents were issued that day, and the formulae have been preserved in more than one copy.(15)

The promises of the icing and the granting of the charters were to prove worthless, but they achieved their objective. The peasants were defeated by fraud and murder. With the granting of the charters a number of the peasants began to disperse. When the king met Wat Tyler again to discuss further demands, the mayor of London seized an opportunity to kill him. The lords and city magnates began to draw together their forces. Confused, thinking they had made substantial conquests, the rebels who were left did not give battle, but went home.

There were uprisings in a great number of areas outside London. One of the bitterest was in St Albans. The townsmen rose to demand elementary rights long enjoyed in other towns. They were supported by peasants in the abbey estates. The townsfolk drained the abbot’s fishpond, broke down the hedge of his game preserves, killed his game and cutup and divided out certain plots of his domain. The right for the common people to hunt, trap and fish had great support, for by these means they supplemented their food.
men of St Albans and tenants in the market towns, and villages on the abbey estate, obtained a number of charters abolishing a whole range of feudal oppressions. It was July 12 before the rebels were dispersed and the abbot restored to power.
In July, John Ball was captured. He was hung, drawn, quartered and beheaded. This agonising death was inflicted on a great number of other leading rebels.
By proclamation, on July 2, the king revoked all the charters. In November Parliament met and endorsed the repudiation of agreements.



It would appear axiomatic that such a widespread uprising must have been the result of a deep-seated crisis and class conflict. However, at the point where the question is posed: What were the causes of the revolt? historians generally dissolve into confusion questioning or conscious ambiguity.
Oman at least was clear. He showed the uprising as coming out of a conflict between peasants and lords; between labourers and artisans, and employers. Present historians are seeking a more superficial view of the revolt. Dobson, in his introduction to the collection of documents on the revolt, after leaving in the air a number of questions, returns to ‘political reasons’. Oman made the definitive answer to that. ‘If the political and military problems had been the only ones presenting themselves for solution in 1381,’ he wrote, ‘there would have been no outbreak of revolution in that fatal June,’ and he outlines ‘social grievances’ as the real determining cause of the rebellion. Dobson, in reality, is not looking for any determining causes. He warns us that ‘previous interpretations of the Peasants’ Revolt all need to be approached in a critical, not to say sceptical spirit.’ With true scepticism he stresses the ‘lack of certainty’ on the causes of it and calls up positivist ideas on causality. He declares; ‘In the long term it seems very likely that our understanding of the great revolt will be enhanced by the current historical reaction against undue emphasis on problems of causation, human motives and the “idol of origins”.’

We are asked now to approach the revolt with a method that is a reflection of the whole decline of capitalist society — the repudiation of causality, of lawful connection and the descent from science into irrationality and mysticism. The problem here of understanding the peasants’ revolt does not lie in the past but in the present.

The impression left by an official history such as that of McKisack, and bathed up with a more ‘leftish’ tinge, by Dobson, is of a century that saw steady Progress in Britain, the withering away of feudal bonds and the emergence of a free prosperous peasantry. M.M. Postan, for his part, finds something doesn’t fit, and leaves us scratching our heads.

What with the improved prospects of all the lower ranks of village society and the rapid withering away of servile dues and disabilities, a conventionally disposed observer, whether a contemporary witness or a modern student, might have expected the age to be one of universal and growing contentment. Yet this was a period of gathering discontent and rebellion.(16)


So we are left with an inexplicable explosion. Dobson also finds mysteries. He finds it ‘mysterious’, that the peasants could raise the end of serfdom as a central demand.

The complete abolition of villein status, to cite the most extreme and intriguing of all the rebel demands at Mile End and Smithfield, clearly held a significance within the popular imagination out of all proportion to its known economic implications.

Could it be that the fourteenth century peasant could have a better idea of his conditions than a modern historian? Life for the mass of the people was brutal and short. The class struggle dominated it — now in sullen truce, tomorrow in open conflict. The loosening of servile bonds was a tortuous process through violence, death, hardship, humiliation, retreats and advances.

McKisack sees a ‘deep seated political malaise’ from which sprang the revolt. The malaise was the outcome of an unsuccessful war. ‘An overtaxed and leaderless people was becoming ripe for revolt.”(18)

The ‘deep seated malaise’ was itself the result of fundamental contradictions in society and of class conflict. However, orthodox historians must try to keep history as the history of the politics of the rulers, with the masses appearing incidentally. Certainly the war played its role in heightening discontent generally. And the bowmen who came back from France after victory over the French cavalry would feel all the more bellicose against their own lords. The questions arise, however, why war in the first place and why did it take the course it did? The answer to both questions is in the crisis in feudal society which was the cause of the peasants’ revolt.


Like the increased exploitation of the peasantry, the war itself came out of the search for surplus which arose as productivity declined and lords’ and state consumption grew. The share of the surplus was increased by loot and robbery in war. The degree of centralisation of the state in England compared with the French; and the advantage of the English bowmen — products of the English militia system — as against the heavily armed knights — these led to the victories in battles. But in the sustained war, the English rulers could not crush the economically more advanced French.

The historians who concentrate on the ‘political malaise’ see history in terms of court and church circles. The masses occasionally break through in their histories but appear almost as interlopers, who, after a dim appearance, drop back into their appointed shadowy place.

However, explosions like 1381 are only the high point of a conflict existing all the time. It is incontrovertible that more peasant conflicts took place than ever were recorded. What advances the peasant or labourer made could only be determined by the overall struggle. They were the outcome of a clash of forces. These historians deny that clash. But the exploited masses forced themselves on to the stage not because of the political mistakes of a king or a baronial council or because of a clumsy way of collecting taxes. It was a leap in the continuous struggle of classes in the society.

For these historians there is an abstract process of history apart from human beings. Certainly, serfdom was undermined by economic development. Every step in the growth of commodity production undermined it. The development of exchange and money, of commerce and towns, the resulting land sales and movement of labour disintegrated it. But the economic developments were expressed through human relationships and human forces, in struggle. When some peasants were exchanging labour services for money payments, Dobson finds it strange there should be a demand for the end of serfdom.

But feudalism is not just serfdom. It is ‘seigneurial’ rights, an arbitrary power of a lord legally sanctioned. In any case serfdom did not end in the fourteenth century. It lived on for at least a century. And the peasant who had won some freedom, with increasing confidence grasped for more.

Like the manor records which they interpret, these historians ignore the struggles that make history. Writes Oman: ‘If we had not the chronicles of Tyler’s rising, we should never have gathered from the court rolls of the manor that there had been an earth shaking convulsion in 1381.(19)

‘There are a number of reasons for refusing to interpret the great revolt in terms of a crude class struggle,’ declares Dobson. What is a crude class struggle? The opposite of a good-mannered or elegant class struggle? However, the class struggle, crude and cruel as it was in accordance with the times, dominated the fourteenth century. Even after 1381, the masses were defeated but not broken. The executions of their leaders did not cow them. At the end of June a deputation of Essex men came to see the king with a demand for the ratification of the promises he had made. It was then he gave his reply:
‘Villeins ye are still and villeins ye will remain.’

Leaders of the revolt faced their accusers with courage. On July 13 John Ball declared at his trial that he had taken a leading part in the insurrection. He denied that his actions were blameworthy and refused to ask for a pardon from the king. William Grindcobbe, the chief organiser of the rebellion in St Albans, made a ringing call to his followers before he was executed. ‘Friends, who after so long an age of oppression have at last won yourself a breath of freedom, hold firm while you can and have no thought for me or what I may suffer,’ he told them, and ended: ‘For if I die for the cause of the liberty that we have won, I shall think myself happy to end my life as a martyr.’

The men of St. Albans made many copies of the charter which they had wrung from the abbot. Some time after, he accused them of using these copies ‘as evidence that they should have the said liberties and franchises in time to come’.



Oman declares that’ …all the incidents of the great rebellion can be paralleled from the century that follows. The only difference is that the troubles are once more scattered and sporadic, instead of simultaneous.’ The lords tightened the bonds, the peasants resisted, many times successfully. In many cases it was the peasants who were on the offensive, as in Norfolk in 1382, where there was accusation of a widespread plot ‘by certain men inspired by the Devil, whose minds have not been chastened by the perils of others, whom the deaths and torments of their fellows had not tamed.’

What did the Revolt achieve? Those who ask this, generally, want to show that all struggles of the oppressed accomplish nothing and the best way is the British way of compromise.

The revolt was part of a whole process of breaking up feudalism and laying the road open to capitalism. While it was violently suppressed, its strength led to the fear of further revolt and stayed the hand of the English feudal nobility. They could not carry out a repression of such a widespread and brutal nature as followed the French peasants’ insurrection in Languedoc. The peasantry, dispersed by treachery and promises, were not broken and shattered. Their basic force was intact. The Statue of Labourers was practically finished off.

In the Peasants’ Revolt we are not dealing with a frustrated outburst. Truth to tell this was not just a revolt that was defeated, but a revolution. The demands it put forward could only be realised by a complete overturn of feudal relations. When they first sent envoys to the king the rebels demanded that they ‘should have freedom equal to their lords’ and no manorial courts. At the last meeting with the king, Tyler demanded the abolition of homage and that lordship should be enjoyed by all men. No man was to serve another except voluntarily and by written contract. In itself that demand meant an effective end of feudalism. It is the classic demand of the bourgeois revolution.

The rebels rejected the existing law and demanded there should be no law but Winchester. This has been interpreted as a reference to the Statute of Winchester of 1285, which contained clauses giving the right to bear arms to all adult males, with the responsibility of policing the countryside. Wat Tyler also demanded the king’s commission to execute lawyers and all concerned in carrying out the law, so that ‘all things would henceforth be regulated by the decrees of the common people’. He proposed that no churchman should hold property and that the property of the wealthy abbeys be distributed to the commons. There would be only one bishop. He would be elected as head of the church.

It is as a revolutionary movement then, and not a movement of protest or frustrated explosion, that we commemorate the Peasants’ Revolt. We pay homage to the courage of the leaders of the first national revolutionary movement in Britain.



A number of labour leaders have decided to mention the Peasants’ Revolt in their speeches this year. As an example there is Mr Michael’ Foot and Mr Tony Benn. They stand in the line of a whole number of social democrats who have tried from time to time to cover themselves with the traditions of the struggle of the common people.

First let us recognise that, however much verbal internationalism they may have, they have both feet planted firmly on British nationalism. They really want to show the ‘Britishness’ of socialism; to show that, while Marx made a contribution, socialism here is based on British, really English, exceptionalism. It is based on the long English progress to liberty from Redbeard the Saxon, through Simon de Montford, the Peasants’ Revolt, the Levellers, Tom Paine etc. etc.

Thus Mr Tony Benn, in Arguments for Socialism, tells us that the foundations of the Labour Party, which he says is a coalition of forces for socialism, are to be found in the Bible, the Levellers, Karl Marx and the Party’s constitution. In the Bible you had the struggle of the prophets against the kings. The Levellers, who based themselves on God’s law, carried forward the struggle for rights against privilege. His glimpses of history, to which he has now added the Peasants’ Revolt, are in the good old Whig tradition of steady upward progress It is the progress of what Mr Benn calls enlargement of the area of actual decision making’, the evolution of democracy.

Likewise Mr Foot, who also celebrates 1381 in line with ‘English’ traditions. In 1973 Michael Foot wrote an introduction to a collection of articles (20) which had appeared in Tribune. They were articles on British history and included one op the Peasants’ Revolt. He summed up the dominant lesson of history from Saxon times to the 1920s. ‘The theme of consent [his emphasis] weaves through our history,’ he wrote. According to him in ancient Britain ‘Alfredian (!) revolutionaries were convinced that matters could be better settled that way than by clash of arms’ and we should not dismiss ‘too wholeheartedly’ the ‘moral force’ claims of William Lovett, the Chartist. The lesson of all these traditions meant for him that agitation outside the House of Commons’ must be combined with ‘intelligent action within it’.

Benn and Foot are thoroughly steeped in the conception of history, which developed on the foundation of expanding British capitalism— the idea of steady progress in the past, which came in with the perspective of boundless advance in the future. It thoroughly permeated petty-bourgeois radicalism in Britain. British history was a history of steady evolution, a ‘broadening down from precedent to precedent change passing through stable British institutions. It was the movement of government by ‘assent’ or Foot’s ‘consent’; the British way where ‘rights and liberties have grown out of a continuous dialogue between sovereign and subjects.(21)

This whole ideology has its roots not in 1400 years of British history as its practitioners would declare. It is rooted in a small proportion British history — the short period when Britain was the ‘workshop the world’. Out of this comes this interpretation of history and British insular arrogance inside the Labour movement.

These lefts seek to transform the revolutionary traditions, on which the working class of today must build, into British peaceful progress. They seek to use this British socialism against Marxism. Real commemoration of 1381 cannot be the worship of spontaneity, the vague conception that somehow, the British common people found a road. The traditions of British struggle are misused when they are built up as a unique British democratic way. It is from that platform that Ben and Foot recall the Peasants’ Revolt.

Foot, who advocates ‘consent’ as against a clash of arms, and Ben who ‘consented’ or ‘assented’ in two Labour Cabinets, have not the slightest right to commemorate the Peasants’ Revolt.

These peasants of the fourteenth century showed their determination to regain rights which they declared had been taken by the lords. They thus expressed the retention in the minds of men and women, of a reflection of the old relations of primitive communism. It was expressed in the conceptions that were carried around the country by priests such as John Ball. They talked of a ‘golden age’ before the ‘age of iron’. Throughout the Middle Ages in all the peasant struggle there were the heretics who preached a medieval communism.(22)

The official church still showed its origins in its tradition of attacking the rich and powerful and warning that the Day of Judgement was to be a day of vengeance. But this went with an acceptance of the existing class divisions. The lord was called on to protect his underlings who would sweat and toil for him. John Ball, and other preachers who brought together the discontent, followed the traditions of early Christian communism on this earth. However, the conception of equal rights in society was not just a harking back to the Golden Age or tribal relations of the past. The demand of the peasants for freedom was concrete. It was given its driving content by the relationships of the time. There were collective relations existing among the peasantry. They took collective decisions as to sowing, ploughing, harvesting and other aspects of cultivation and operated a collective discipline through their meetings.


In a chapter on ‘Democracy and the Common Good’ in her book on Tom Mann and his Times, Dona Torr analysed the dialectic of the struggle under feudalism for equal rights.
In feudal society, she writes, ‘the right of the individual was bound up with his membership of a community, with his status in that community. Equality had a material basis.’ A deep gulf separates primitive from modem democracy.

Primitive democracy was directly linked to the producer’s rights and duties. Work, production and ownership were all communal, and in these spheres what concerned all was discussed by all. Modern democracy is the opposite of primitive democracy in that the franchise is completely divorced from the material hue. The rights of man are quite different from the rights of members of a community. The franchise gives no control over production. It was through groups with a material base of equality underlying the inequalities of actual life that notions of equality survived among the inferiors, the dispossessed, coupled even up to the nineteenth century with a theory of lost rights. It is not through some memory of a former state of complete equality and equal share that the tradition of equality with a material base subsists, but through the conjunction of equal rights and unequal shares operating within a class society, in which inequality increases with wealth.

Here is a rich dialectic. Primitive communism is negated by the exploitation of man by man. There exist the theories expressed in religious terms which refer back to this Golden Age’. But it is not from the memory that the ideas expressed by John Ball gain their force. They gain their force out of the concrete democracy of the day, the actual existing contradiction between the operation of communities and the extension of class inequalities. The lost rights were the rights of communities of producers. Bourgeois democracy separates the individual and his democratic rights from the means of life. Foot’s conception of ‘consent’ has nothing in common with the demands for rights of the fourteenth century peasantry.

We cannot resist giving another quotation from Dona Ton:

By the 1880s the ideas of the feudal epoch had gone forever. Bourgeois individualism triumphed. Its assumption affected even the radicals, the bourgeois democrats, those who still clung to the conceptions of the common good, the common weal, which had lost any basis of economic reality. Hence the contradictoriness of radical thought, reflecting the class position of the petty bourgeoisie, veering between bourgeoisie and workers.


Who does this describe but Benn and Foot?

The first national revolutionary uprising of the English masses is degraded by being fitted into the ideas of bourgeois radicalism and British exceptionalism. The leaders of our forefathers at their execution spoke proudly for their cause. They were in the beginning of a revolutionary tradition that we are heir to. Their demands were not the abstract slogans of bourgeois labour radicalism but demands for revolutionary change of the relations under which they laboured. Today, we can only fulfil their traditions by building a leadership to take the working class to power and bringing about a complete change of property relations in our society.



1. '…the composition of the rebel armies seems to have been a fair cross section of rural society, but, apart from a few exceptions, below the ranks of the nobility, the gentry, the lawyers and the benificed ecclesiastics… There is not the slightest sign of even the beginnings of an alliance between the rebels and any group which had a part to play in the accepted political game: in other words, no friends, no apologies even, either in Parliament or in the Convocations of the clergy.' (R. Hilton, Bond Men Made Free, p.221).

2. M.M. Postan The Medieval Economy and Society, Pelican p.161.

3. May McKisack The Fourteenth Century 1307-1399, Oxford History of England series, p.205.

4. Hilton, Ibid, p.38.

5. McKisack, ibid, p.318.

6. ibid.

7. ibid, p.38

8. ‘The years immediately preceding the revolt of 1381 were…a time of unusual tension in the relations between landlords and peasants.’ E.B. Fryde in his introduction to the 1969 edition of The Great Revolt of 1381 by Charles Oman. First published 1906.

9. ‘Commons petition against rebellious villeins, 1377’ in The Peasants Revolt of 1381, edited by R.B. Dobson. MacMillan, 1970.

10. Oman, ibid, p.8

11. Oman, ibid, p.5

12. Oman, ibid, pp.15,16.

13. Hilton, ibid, p.187.

14. Oman, ibid, p.38.

15. Oman ibid, p.64.

16. Postan, Ibid.

17. Dobson ibid, p.19

18. McKisack, ibid. p.422. Dobson agrees. ‘Granted the difficulties of over understanding the economic conditions and social aspirations of the medieval peasant and townsman it is hardly surprising that nearly all the most recent discussions of the great revolt have tended to stress the political causes. To some extent an admission of defeat, this change of emphasis is absolutely justifiable.’

19. Oman, ibid, p.154.

20. People for the People, Ithaca Press.

21. Henry Marsh, Documents of Liberty. David and Charles.

22. ‘Medieval Communism may theoretically be traced back to the traditions & primitive Christianity, the millennium hopes... regardless of the communistic theories to which theoretical homage was still being paid in Catholic literature, with the unfolding of medieval life, the tendency to legalise private property and to regard it as the only tolerable basis of associated human effort emerged ever more distinctly . . . those sections of Christianity which were unable to accept the transformation and, whether for traditional reasons or for ethical motives or by reason of the economic interests of life, adhered to Communism, sought their salvation either in monasticism or heresy.’ M. Beer Social Struggles in the Middle Ages, p.13-14.

June 1981