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The Peasants' Revolt: 1381

In the aftermath of the Black Death there is much unrest in the English countryside and towns. Labour is scarce and wages are rising when the government takes drastic measures to control the economy. The Statute of Labourers, in 1351, fixes wages at the levels prevailing before the plague and threatens imprisonment for any labourer refusing to accept the old scale.

To this indignity is added a poll tax, of one shilling per head, which is imposed in 1380. Civil disorder flares up in many parts of the country during the summer of 1381. It is at its worst in Essex and Kent. Rebels from both regions march on London.


The young king, the 14-year-old Richard II, shows considerable courage in meeting the Essex men on June 14 outside the city. He calms them down with some important concessions. Meanwhile on that same day a Kentish group, led by Wat Tyler, seizes the Tower of London and murders two high officials, the chancellor and the treasurer, held to be responsible for the poll tax.

On June 15 the king meets Tyler at Smithfield. An argument erupts, during which the Lord Mayor of London strikes and wounds Tyler. Tyler is executed after the crowd has dispersed. Uprisings in other parts of the country are easily put down. No more is heard of the king's concessions. But then no more is heard of a poll tax either, in Britain, until 1989.


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