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Peasants' Revolt

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The Peasants' Revolt of 1381, led by Wat Tyler, was the beginning of the end of serfdom in medieval England. The rebellion was the most extensive violent insurrection in English history, and was the best documented popular rebellion of medieval times. It was precipitated by attempts to enforce a poll tax, levied to finance military campaigns overseas. At the time, the King, Richard II, was only 14, and England was ruled by men linked to what many saw as a corrupt Church. Repeated outbreaks of the Black Death from 1348 had greatly reduced the labour force. With too few workers and much empty land, rural labourers demanded higher wages, shorter working hours, and more personal freedoms. These demands were resisted by the Government, leading to swelling discontent.

The uprising was triggered by incidents in the Essex villages of Fobbing and Brentwood. The villagers of Fobbing refused to pay the new poll tax, and Robert Belknap (Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas) was sent to enforce it and punish dissenters. Violent discontent spread rapidly throughout Essex and Kent, and soon armed rebels marched on London led by Wat Tyler, destroying tax records on their way. When they arrived in Blackheath on June 12, the renegade Lollard priest, John Ball, preached a sermon, including a question that has echoed down the centuries: "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"

On June 14th, the rebels met the young king at Mile End to present their demands, including the dismissal of some of his more unpopular ministers and the effective abolition of serfdom. At the same time, other rebels stormed the Tower of London and killed those hiding there, including the Lord Chancellor (Simon of Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was particularly associated with the poll tax), and the Lord Treasurer (Robert de Hales, the Grand Prior of the Knights Hospitallers of England).