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The Peasants' Revolt - Froissart, Chroniques de France et d'Angleterre, Book II (c.1460-1480), f.165v - BL Royal MS 18 E I.jpg – Wikimedia Commons | cropped from original | CC 1.0 Public domain | Link at the bottom of article

The Peasants' Revolt - Froissart, Chroniques de France et d'Angleterre, Book II (c.1460-1480), f.165v - BL Royal MS 18 E I.jpg – Wikimedia Commons | cropped from original | CC 1.0 Public domain | Link at the bottom of article

From the 12th century to the Rising of 1381, class conflicts and revolutionary movements were a fundamental thread of English history, argues Dominic Alexander

Medieval cities were the sites of two lines of conflict, which tended to break out into outright revolt on a regular basis. The first was the tension between towns and their major feudal overlords, from counts and bishops to archbishops and kings.

The second form of struggle arose naturally from the first. An urban elite of landowners and wealthy merchants, on establishing some degree of civic independence in the form of a commune, would then find themselves in conflict with the very popular forces upon whom they had relied for support against their feudal superiors. Thus, artisans and lesser merchants, the populo minuto in later medieval Italian terminology, came to challenge the monopoly power of the populo grasso.

Communes emerged first in Italian towns in the twelfth century, and as a form of organisation, spread rapidly across Europe. London is often overlooked in the context of medieval urban social conflict, but it was not in fact very late in joining the roll-call of cities with institutions of self-government. It did so also in conditions in which the citizens clearly used their position and weight to intervene in higher politics, challenging the exclusive dominance of the feudal nobility.

The London commune

The first appearance of the London commune comes during the Anarchy, a period of civil war between the Empress Matilda, daughter of King Henry I of England, against her cousin King Stephen, the male descendent of William the Conqueror. Stephen was the weaker party in this affair, and Londoners were thus able to extract a recognition of their rights to self-government from Stephen in return for their support.

This happened in dramatic fashion. In 1141, Matilda’s forces had captured Stephen, and were set to crown her triumphantly as ruler of the kingdom at Westminster. Unexpectedly, the townspeople forced Matilda to retreat, abandoning the coronation. Stephen’s party was able to recover from there, and the civil war resumed.

In a sign of the impact of this event, one chronicler afterwards complained that the commune was ‘a tumult of the people and a terror of the realm’.[1] This disruptive presence reappeared in 1191, when the nobility’s resentment exploded against the royal government in the person of William Longchamp, Richard I’s chancellor, who had been left in charge of the kingdom while Richard was on crusade.

Longchamp was deposed at two assemblies held at London, the second in a field east of the city, attended not only by the barons, led by Prince John, but by the citizens, and also very large numbers of ordinary townspeople. It is the townspeople who, foreshadowing language used in the Rising of 1381, called the agent of royal power ‘a disturber of the land, and a traitor’, and refused to close the city gates against the rebel party. These, arriving at night, were ‘received by the joyful citizens with lanterns and torches’.

Moments when the ruling class is divided against itself are always socially dangerous, especially when popular classes are mobilised in support of one faction against the other. The genie of protest is rarely put back in the bottle easily. This rising against royal authority evidently made poor and middling Londoners more willing to assert their rights against the civic government, as only a few years later, in 1196, appears the first social-revolutionary movement in London’s history, the rebellion of William fitz Osbert or William Longbeard.

London’s revolution of 1196

Fitz Osbert was a younger son of a leading London family, and had gained a position as a magistrate of some kind, but by 1196, he was acting in an unauthorised religious role as well; a Christian ascetic or ‘hermit’, as signalled by his long beard, outside any recognised church institution or profession.

Holy men, and women, had tremendous social authority in the twelfth century, and were, as a result, increasingly subject to ecclesiastical regulation. As one pertinent example, in the early 1150s, Arnold of Brescia raised a major revolt in Rome against the corruption and avarice of the ruling clergy, and was put to death by the authorities, even though it was recognised by contemporaries that he was indeed living what was considered as a ‘holy life’.[2]

Longbeard therefore played a social role that was increasingly controversial in the twelfth-century. This is the speech attributed to him in one major account, by the chronicler William of Newburgh:

“I am the saviour of the poor. Oh poor, who have experienced the heaviness of rich men’s hands, drink from my wells the waters of the doctrine of salvation, and you may do this joyfully; for the time of your visitation is at hand. For I will divide the waters from the waters. The people are the waters. I will divide the humble and faithful people from the haughty and treacherous people: I will separate the elect from the reprobate, as light from darkness.”[3]

This is a remarkable statement of class struggle within medieval society, associating the rich with damnation, and the poor with spiritual election, and carrying a strong tincture of millenarian revolution.

The implication here that Longbeard claimed to be a ‘saviour’ is certainly the chronicler’s own exaggeration since, from the time, there is no record that fitz Osbert was accused of actual heresy. The chronicler’s obvious distortion in that respect is one of the reasons to think that his report otherwise broadly reflects the real import of the holy man’s preaching at the height of his ‘sedition’.

The immediate context for the revolt, which involved ‘sixty thousand’ poor and middling townspeople in Newburgh’s impossibly large estimate, was a very large tax which England had to raise in order to free King Richard from captivity. He had been seized by the German emperor while on his way back from the Third Crusade. However, it was Longbeard who warned publicly that the city elite had placed the great burden of London’s share of the tax upon ordinary citizens.

According to Newburgh, again, ‘by his secret labours and poisoned whispers, he revealed, in its blackest colours to the common people, the insolence of the rich men and the nobles by whom they were unworthily treated’.[4]

Note that Newburgh, while carrying on a relentless attempt to besmirch the reader’s perception of fitz Osbert, tacitly concedes the central charge against London’s elite. The only sympathetic chronicler, Roger of Howden, confirms that Longbeard, becoming aware that ‘the rich men, sparing their own purses, wanted the poor to pay everything,’ was ‘inflamed by zeal for justice and equity, he became the champion of the poor.’[5]

After a period of tension, during which Longbeard bound an evidently powerful alliance of Londoners together through oaths taken at unspecified assemblies, the ‘indignation’ of the ‘powerful’ prompted him to go across the channel to appeal to King Richard, at that point campaigning in France.[6]

Roger of Howden says fitz-Osbert was seeking the king’s ‘protection for himself and the people’, implying that it was the London elite that was threatening violence, at the least, during this phase.[7]

We don’t know the result of the royal meeting, but Longbeard returned full of confidence, and resumed his campaign against the rich. It seems likely that he was claiming a legitimate secular authority on the basis of recognised rights of assembly, such as London’s folkmoot for example.

The chroniclers largely did not see it that way, however, with Ralph Diceto saying that he, ‘in contempt of the king’s majesty, convoked assemblies of the people, and binding many to him by oath at their meetings’ finally ‘raised a sedition and disturbance in Saint Paul’s church.’[8] Diceto is conflating two separate stages of the conflict here, which Newburgh’s account more helpfully keeps distinct.

Radicalisation and suppression

Clearly, however, at a certain point, events went beyond the capacity of the London elite to exercise control, and so, the justiciar of England, the ruler in the absence of the king, who was also the Archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter, stepped in. According to Newburgh, Walter had hostages taken from some London families ‘for the preservation of the king’s peace and fealty.’ It could have been that these hostages were from both sides of the conflict, and that the Archbishop was at least posing as being an even-handed arbiter of civil dissension. However, Roger of Howden gives different details, which indicate much more partial and arbitrary actions on the part of Hubert Walter, who:

“…issued orders that wherever any of the common people should be found outside the city, they should be arrested as enemies to the king and his realm. Accordingly, it so happened, that at Mid-Lent some of the merchants of the number of the common people of London were arrested at the fair at Stamford, by command of the king’s justiciary.” 

This is an indication that fitz Osbert evidently had the support of some substantial people below the level of the civic elite, but if the Archbishop thought that restraining those people would end the conflict, he was evidently disappointed.

According to Newburgh’s chronology of events, Longbeard’s claim to be the ‘king or saviour of the poor’, and his millenarian-revolutionary message, appeared after the Archbishop’s intervention. Attempts to arrest the holy man were prevented as ‘he presented himself so surrounded by the populace, that his summoner being terrified, could only act with gentleness, and cautiously defer judgment for the purpose of averting danger.’

That is to say, that even with the more substantial of his supporters taken out of the picture, the poorer people were still sufficiently organised and active to protect their leader and defy the authorities.

We have here a situation where legitimate political authority is being claimed by two sides in a civic conflict. The popular party perhaps claimed some form of sanction from the king, but was also organised in popular assemblies, which had a recognised place within London politics. The city elite had been overwhelmed, and the higher royal authority in the person of the Archbishop had stepped in, attempting to put a quarantine around the city, and taking hostages from the people.

It may be that he was afraid the unrest would spread beyond London to ignite a more general uprising. Be that as it may, for a short time, there appears to have existed in the city what can legitimately be called a state of dual power.

The situation was resolved through actions of extraordinary ruling-class violence, that would have been very shocking to twelfth-century sensibilities. The right of sanctuary within a consecrated church was extremely important at this point in the Middle Ages, and the breaking of it was said, in any number of contemporary stories, to bring divine vengeance down upon the desecrator.

Now, what happened was that a group of armed citizens attacked Longbeard when he was with only a small band of adherents. In the melee, fitz Osbert appears to have killed one these men ‘with his own axe which he had wrested from his hand.’ Longbeard and his companions then took refuge in the Church of St. Mary, Le Bow.

Astonishingly, the Archbishop ordered the church to be set on fire, forcing the group outside, where fitz Osbert was stabbed in the stomach. The whole group was summarily condemned to death, dragged through the streets of London tied to horses, and hanged at Tyburn. The breaking of sanctuary did cause a subsequent scandal, which is known to have been taken all the way up to the papacy.

A legacy in popular politics

The popular reaction to Longbeard’s demise was a posthumous miracle cult which sprang up on the site of his execution. The instruments of his death, and the very ground beneath the gibbet, were said to perform healing miracles, as such things traditionally did for holy martyrs. The Archbishop had to use armed force, once again, to suppress this expression of popular grief and, perhaps, protest.

The miracle cult was not an unprecedented phenomenon in the medieval period, and there is considerable evidence from England, and more widely, of the perception of violent, unjust death leading to an attribution of sanctity on the part of the victim.

In this respect as in others, Longbeard’s story is an instance of the coincidence of religious dissent with economic unrest. This mixture tended always to have socially explosive results in medieval Europe, as it would later again in England in 1381.

Despite the Archbishop’s attempts to suppress the emergent cult of William Longbeard, there is evidence that it was remembered quite widely. Some fifty years later, a leading chronicler, Matthew Paris, wrote that ‘because it is believed and affirmed by many that his cause was good, he does not deserve to be cheated of the deserved prize of the martyrs.’[9]

Suppressed rebellions like that of 1196 are usually judged by historians to be mere blips in the historical record, of no great significance. Longbeard was, even in the words of the French Marxist historian, Michel Mollat, just another figure who ‘disappointed paupers in the end’.[10] This was not the case, however, as immediately after 1196, taxation on the city population appears to have been carefully graduated. Moreover, the evidence suggests that 1196 had lasting significance in the arrival of the urban poor onto the political scene of medieval England.

The context for Matthew Paris’ cautiously approving comment on Longbeard is the chronicler’s strong championing of the principles of Magna Carta against the party of the King during the political strife of the thirteenth-century.[11] In this episodic struggle, which spanned the century, the barons’ party increasingly appealed to a wider public opinion, claiming to represent a conception of nation, and not just their own aristocratic interests, against royal tyranny. Remembrance of Longbeard evidently played a role in this for Matthew Paris.

There are signs that, in the aftermath of the rebellion of 1196, the views of poorer Londoners became part of higher political calculations quite soon. King John, famously, was forced to sign the Magna Carta document in 1215, by an alliance of the barons and elite London burgesses.

It is less well known that. in 1206, King John appears to have intervened in London’s affairs in order to insist upon an equitable assessment of that year’s taxation, ordering the election of twenty-four jurors to oversee a fair collection.[12] It seems likely that the king was trying here to cultivate support amongst ordinary Londoners against the city elite.

Therefore, for two centuries before the English Rising of 1381, social struggles were an embedded part of higher politics, taking us far beyond the stereotypical view of medieval history as being about the deeds of a narrow circle of royalty and aristocrats. At least in the course of the thirteenth-century a kingdom-wide political language about justice, with clear roots in such episodes as Longbeard’s revolt, developed. Quite ordinary people, even peasants, can be shown to have taken part in this.[13]

Socially dissenting religious views were also spreading widely by the fourteenth century, best exemplified by Langland’s long narrative poem, Piers Ploughman. The name, Piers Ploughman, was even used as a moniker by the rebels of 1381 themselves. John Ball, a poor priest and radical preacher, was freed from imprisonment in Canterbury by the rebel army early in the Rising. He famously asked the social-revolutionary question, preaching to the rebel host on Blackheath, outside London: ‘When Adam delved, and Eve span, who then was the Gentleman?’

London and the Rising of 1381

Historians now prefer the term ‘English Rising’ to ‘Peasant’s Revolt’, in recognition that the rebels were a highly mixed group of peasants and artisans, rural and townspeople. Despite this useful revision, the role of Londoners in the revolt is often somewhat overlooked. The story of the revolt tends to start with the initial outbreaks in Essex and Kent, and follow the progress of the rebel forces to London, where they gained access to the city, and proceeded to dominate for a few days, before the main leader, Wat Tyler, was killed in a planned ambush while meeting King Richard II on the fields at Mile End.

The chronicles all acknowledge, and historians agree, that poor Londoners joined in with the rebels, but they appear entirely secondary to the genesis, leadership and progress of the revolt.

However, a full appreciation of London’s role in the revolt of 1381 requires stepping back a bit. Too often, pre-modern rural rebellions have been represented as spontaneous outbursts of primitive fury. While analysis of their causes and nature has improved over the years, there is still an interpretative hangover that generally leaves the question of organisation untouched.

It has long been accepted that the rebel hosts were no mere rabble, being composed of many who would have had military experience in the wars in France, for example. However, London itself clearly is important not just as the destination of the rebels on account of the king’s presence there, but as the reason why the rebellion began in the counties of Kent and Essex, and remained strongest there. London had long been growing as a major market for agricultural produce, as well as a centre for trade in a whole range of products.

Kent and Essex, in particular, were areas where the economy increasingly turned on production for the London market, rather than on subsistence and rent paying. This economic background to the rebellion has been well explored elsewhere, but it also has significance for the organisational role London played in the revolt. Just as many leaders of the revolt would have had military experience, so many of the rebels would have been familiar with the journey to the capital for reasons of trade.

Rebel organisation

At this point, another under-appreciated aspect of the revolt needs some exploration. This is the evidence of prior organisation that the medievalist, Nicholas Brooks, uncovered through a detailed examination of the geography of the rising, using the subsequent court records.[14] He pointed out that it only took two weeks for the insurgents to enter London after the main initial outbreaks, which took place in both Kent and Essex on the same day, and unfolded rapidly, comparing favourably with ‘that of the most highly trained infantry armies of later times’:

“The synchronised assembly and movement of the insurgent forces in the two counties did not fit by chance into so neat a pattern. Decisions had to be taken and orders sent about meeting places, about dates and about targets; these decisions had to take account of the distances to be covered by each band on each day and of the time that would be needed to open gaols and to break into properties and destroy [tax] records. Every vill that sent men to the assembly-points had to be contacted in advance … the fundamental plan for bringing out the two shires simultaneously and moving next day to the county towns and to London on the following day must have been planned in advance by some form of central high command.”[15]

Brooks bears out this analysis with painstaking attention to the timing, geography and choice of targets in all the key events in both counties. Importantly, Brooks also notes that there is good evidence that the radical demands for the abolition of serfdom, and the effective annihilation of aristocratic government, existed right from the start of the rebellion.

This analysis seems to me to be empirically unanswerable, and I am not aware of any challenges to the argument, although I am also aware that it has been largely ignored in substance.

If, however, we accept that there had to have been some intensive prior planning of the revolt, where is the most likely place that peasants and artisans from Kent and Essex would have occasion to formulate plans for revolt? London, of course, would have been the natural place for people to meet, find they have complaints in common, then begin to arrange further meetings, then plan and organise.

After the revolt, accusations were made against a group of aldermen for complicity with the rebels. These have been dismissed as factional quarrels within the city elite, but for disputants to smear opponents in this way must mean that it was plausible at the time for some in London to have been directly involved in the revolt. The London Sheriffs’ Inquisition of 1382 acts, in its own words, according to a royal writ that ‘directed them to inquire through whose agency the commons of Kent and Essex … had been incited to enter the city of London and its suburbs … where they committed acts of treason.’[16]

Furthermore, the sheriffs in describing the origins of the rising in the counties refer to the ‘evil aims’ of the rebels which ‘they had long planned’. This picture of long-planned organisation could be dismissed as just part of the framing of the aldermen, but it was not actually necessary to those accusations. Rather, it looks like the idea is introduced precisely because everyone involved in the hearing knew that the revolt had been planned.

Moreover, the aldermen were not the only ones accused of complicity. A certain Adam atte Welle, a master butcher, ‘travelled into Essex fourteen days before the arrival of the rebels from that country in the city of London; there Adam incited and encouraged the rebels of Essex to come to London … Afterwards … Adam brought the Essex men into London, and led them in a great crowd to the manor of the said duke [of Lancaster], the Savoy, where (as their chief leader and councillor) he provoked them to burn and plunder the manor.’[17]

Again, perhaps these charges were also trumped up, and certainly Adam was not the chief leader of the Essex rebels – that was Jack Straw. Nonetheless, whether these specific charges were true or not, they do reveal that it was plausible that artisans in London travelled into the country as part of the organisation of the revolt.

The narratives in the chronicles of 1381 largely treat the rebels contemptuously as a rustic rabble. Some present the early disturbance in Essex, at the town of Fobbing, explicitly as a spontaneous reaction to the actions of Poll Tax officials. There is one exception, however, which is the French chronicler Froissart, who attributes events to the class conflicts between serfs and lords. His view adds to the evidence that rebels in county and city were working together:

“Of [John Ball’s] words and deeds there were much people in London informed, such as had great envy at them that were rich and such as were noble; and then they began to speak among them and said how the realm of England was right evil governed, and how gold and silver was taken from them by them that were named noblemen: so thus these unhappy men of London began to rebel and assembled them together, and sent word to the foresaid countries that they should come to London and bring their people with them, promising them how they should find London open to receive them and the commons of the city to be of the same accord, saying how they would do so much to the king that there should not be one bondman in all England.”[18]

Gaining the gates

Froissart may not be correct in seeing Londoners as the primary movers here, but that still leaves intact his underlying assumption that, of course, the revolt had to have been organised in advance, and that Londoners were likely to have been a part of that organising process.

He also brings up a very important practical point, about which the rebels would have been well aware. Whether they were coming from Essex or Kent, they would need to be able to gain access through the gates to the city. None of the rebels would have had any illusion that they could have laid siege to London. If they were to capture the king, the great lords, and the government, they would need to be able to dominate the city through swift action. The whole enterprise would have depended upon their ability to get those gates to open.

Froissart tell us that the mayor, William Walworth, ‘and divers other rich burgesses of the city,’ tried to have the gates closed, but ‘there were in London of [the rebels’] unhappy opinions more than thirty thousand.’[19] There is also an account of the arrival of the commons of Kent in Southwark on the south side of the Thames, from the Anonimalle Chronicle, whose author may have been an eyewitness. This gives interesting details about the collusion of the Kent forces and the poor of Southwark.

First, the rebels broke into the Marshalsea prison and freed all the prisoners who were there for debt or felony. They then went on to destroy ‘all the houses of the jurors and professional informers belonging to the Marshalsea.’[20]

These and other such actions would have needed considerable local knowledge and discrimination, but were accomplished with great speed, as if local allies were ready and waiting to give direction to the rebels. This would certainly have required prior planning and co-ordination.

Then, again according to the Anonimalle Chronicle, as the rebel army approached London bridge:

“the mayor was ready before them and had the chain drawn up and the bridge lifted to prevent their passage. And the commons of Southwark rose with the others and cried to the keepers of the said bridge to lower it and let them enter, or otherwise they would be undone. And for fear of their lives, the keepers let them enter, greatly against their will.”[21]

Again, this episode highlights how vital it would have been for the rebels to have reliable contacts in and around the city of London, in order to ensure it could be overrun with such speed that the nobility and the city elite would not be able to respond effectively.

And that is precisely how events played out. If, as Nicholas Brooks argued, the rural rebellion was co-ordinated and planned, there is considerable suggestive evidence that the preparation for the revolt must have involved some of the commoners of London. Londoners must themselves have laid the ground for the highly targeted and effective aid they gave to the country rebels upon their arrival. The rebels of Kent and Essex must equally have felt strong assurance that allies were waiting in London to ensure the success of their very dangerous endeavour.

The fourteenth-century poet John Gower warned, only a few years before 1381 it seems, that:

“There are three things of such a sort that they produce merciless destruction when they get the upper hand: one is a flood of water, another is a raging fire and the third is the lesser people, the common multitude; for they will not be stopped by either reason or by discipline.”

The Rising of the commoners in 1381 was not, in fact, an unpredictable natural disaster like a flood or fire, but one that had its roots in many generations of political and social struggle in medieval England. Londoners’ efforts to secure self-government in the twelfth century opened the way for artisans, labourers and the commons in general to assert their interests against that of the city elite and the aristocracy.

William Longbeard’s rebellion of 1196, which, up until the end of the nineteenth century, was as well known a story as that of the fictional Robin Hood, shares with the revolt of 1381 some essential characteristics. Neither were the mere elemental reactions of a rabble, but were both consciously organised mass struggles.

In both cases, the commoners saw themselves as asserting principles of justice against exploitative, self-interested and tyrannical elites. Both had secular grievances, but articulated these within a framework where religion provided the language of social struggle. In these respects, social struggles in London reflect the very same characteristics as the better acknowledged revolutionary movements in other medieval European towns and cities.


[1] The Chronicle of Richard of Devizes, ed. John T. Appleby (London 1963), p.49.

[2] For what follows on Longbeard, see Dominic Alexander, ‘William Longbeard: A Rebel Holy Man of Twelfth-Century England’, Viator 48 (2017), pp. 125-149.

[3] The History of William of Newburgh, trans. J. Stephenson (London 1856), pp.652-6.

[4] William of Newburgh, p.653.

[5] The Annals of Roger De Hovedon, trans. Henry T. Riley, vol. 2, part 2, (Llanerch 1853/1994-7). p.388.

[6] William of Newburgh History, p.653.

[7] Howden, Annals, trans. p.388.

[8] Ralph Diceto, Ymagines, p.143; cited in Alexander, ‘William Longbeard’, p.133.

[9] Matthew Paris, Historia, p.58; Alexander, ‘Longbeard’, p.134.

[10] Michel Mollat, The Poor in the Middle Ages, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New Haven 1986), p.84.

[11] Michael Clasby and Gail Thomas, Matthew Paris: Monk and Chronicler of St Albans Abbey (St Albans 2014), p.7.

[12] Magna Carta, ed. David Carpenter (London: Penguin 2015) 118.

[13] See David Carpenter, ‘English Peasants in Politics 1258-1267’, Past and Present 136 (1992), and Dominic Alexander, ‘Magna Carta: A Tradition of Rebellion’ (Counterfire 2015).

[14] Nicholas Brooks, ‘The Organisation and Achievements of the Peasants of Kent and Essex in 1381’ in Studies in Medieval History Presented to R.H.C. Davis, eds. H. Mayr-Harting and R.I. Moore (London 1985)

[15] Ibid. p.260.

[16] R. B. Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, p.221.

[17] Ibid. p.226.

[18] Dobson, Froissart, pp.137-8.

[19] Ibid; Froissart, p.141.

[20] Dobson, Anonimalle, p.155.

[21] Ibid, Anonimalle, p.156.

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Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).