The Dawn of British Democracy: Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt

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Wat Tyler is one of Britains half-forgotten heroes. His bravery led immediately to his summary execution, before he had barely spoken a word. But his actions taught the common people that they should be heard by their governments. He lived at the very dawn of democracy, though he could never have dreamed that people like him would ever be able to elect their countrys leaders. He went down in history as the leader of the Peasants Revolt.

Who was Wat Tyler?

Very little is known about the personal life of Wat Tyler. As Wat is a pet name for Walter, then that was probably his full name. He would have been born in or around the time of the Black Death. This was the epidemic of bubonic plague, which killed approximately 40% of the population of Britain, between 1348-1350. Whenever Tyler was born, he would have spent all or most of his life against a backdrop of the social turmoil of the post-plague era.

It is also supposed that he was born and lived in Kent or Essex. The likelihood is that he was apprenticed into a trade, as a boy, by his family. This is likely to have been whichever trade his father worked in, as was the convention for his class at the time.

Certainty about Wat Tyler only comes at the very end. On June 15th, 1381, in Smithfield, London, Tyler stepped forward from the helm of a large column of protesting peasants. As their spokesperson, he approached King Richard II. Tyler was beaten by the teenage kings retinue and injured by William Walworth, the Mayor of London. Then, with everyone watching, the kings squire took out his sword and ran it through Tylers stomach. He was dead before he had even articulated the peoples demands; and his head was displayed, on a pike in London, as a warning against anyone else ever daring to believe they had a voice.

Ripe for Social Change: Britain in the Early 14th Century

Until the eve of the Black Death, there was a very strict social hierarchy in Britain. The Lords of the Manors owned vast tracts of land, awarded to them by the monarchs or through ancestral right. This included possession of every town and village within their lands, including the people who lived in them.

This was a feudal system, whereby every major life decision for the serfs (or peasants) could be made by their overlords. Children followed their parents into their occupation, as this kept the continuity. The lords, if they so chose, could veto a marriage proposal, if they wanted their serf to marry someone else instead. Serfs needed permission to travel beyond the borders of their village. This was rarely given and, without it, the serf risked punishment as a vagrant in other places, before being returned to his/her home for more retribution.

What Led to the Peasants Revolt?

There was already discontent before the plague epidemic, but the loss of so many people provided an opportunity for change. Economic migrants started to move around the country and demand higher wages. With the workforce so depleted, landowners were forced to accept them and pay the money. As early as 1351, just a year after the end of the Black Death, the Statute of Labourers was passed into law. This attempted to freeze the level of wages which could be paid to a serf. It was unenforceable and so largely ineffective.

For nearly thirty years, this state of affairs rumbled on, with lords becoming more violent in their bid to keep serfs from moving off their manors in search of better paid employment. Wealth trickled with increasing speed from the elite at the top to the masses at the bottom, while pre-plague profits could not be matched with a smaller workforce.

Then, in 1380, the impoverished government came up with an idea. The Poll Tax would extract a fixed amount of money from every subject, regardless of their income. The wealthy could pay it with relative ease, but the serfs knew that it would plunge them straight back into dependent poverty.

What Might Wat Tyler Have Been Trying to Say?

By the time Wat Tyler stepped from the crowd, there had been a series of battles and skirmishes across the south of the country. Three days before, the peasant army of mostly Kentish and Essex men and women had streamed into the capital city itself. In their wake, manor houses were broken into and trashed, while other property was damaged. The rebels already held the Tower of London and had burned down the Savoy Palace, home to Richard IIs uncle, John of Gaunt. To all intents and purposes, the peasants now controlled the country.

It is thought that Tyler would have demanded the end to poll tax and legal freedom for people to travel without permission. An earlier list included the dismissal of unpopular ministers and the abolition of serfdom completely.

Unfortunately he never had the chance to ask, though the idea that he could ask remained. Most of what Tyler died for were rights which we now take for granted. Each was hard fought and won in the intervening centuries, until it became the democratic state that Britain is today. Maybe, as Attila the Stockbroker once sang, Tyler looks down upon it all and smiles.