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The poor in revolt

It is surprising that the English never rebelled against Edward III. He was an expensive king at a time when many people were miserably poor and sick with plagues. At the time of the Black Death he was busy with expensive wars against France and Scotland. The demands he made on merchants and peasants were very big, but Edward III handled these people with skill.

Edward's grandson, Richard, was less successful. He became king on his grandfather's death in 1377 because his father, the Black Prince, had died a few months earlier. Richard II inherited the problems of discontent but had neither the diplomatic skill of his grandfather, nor the popularity of his father. Added to this he became king when he was only eleven, and so others governed for him. In the year he became king, these advisers introduced a tax payment for every person over the age of fifteen. Two years later, this tax was enforced again. The people paid.

But in 1381 this tax was enforced for a third time and also increased to three times the previous amount. There was an immediate revolt in East Anglia and in Kent, two of the richer parts of the country. The poorer parts of the country, the north and northwest, did not rebel. This suggests that in the richer areas ordinary people had become more aware and confident of their rights and their power.

The new tax had led to revolt, but there were also other reasons for discontent. The landlords had been trying for some time to force the peasants back into serfdom, because serf labour was cheaper than paid labour. The leader of the revolt, Wat Tyler, was the first to call for fair treatment of England's poor people. The idea that God had created all people equal called for an end to feudalism and respect for honest labour. But the Peasants' Revolt, as it was called, only lasted for four weeks. During that period the peasants took control of much of London. In fact the revolt was not only by peasants from the countryside: a number of poorer townspeople also revolted, suggesting that the discontent went beyond the question of feudal service. When Wat Tyler was killed, Richard II skilfully quietened the angry crowd. He promised to meet all the people's demands, including an end to serfdom, and the people peacefully went home.

As soon as they had gone, Richard's position changed. Although he did not try to enforce the tax, he refused to keep his promise to give the peasants their other demands. "Serfs you are," he said, "and serfs you shall remain." His officers hunted down other leading rebels and hanged them. But the danger of revolt by the angry poor was a warning to the king, the nobles and to the wealthy of the city of London.


Date: 2015-01-02; view: 1816

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