The Story of Wat Tyler’s Insurrection

Wat Tyler is another name that frequently comes up when mention is made of English tax resisters of yore. From what I’ve been able to find out about the Tyler case, it seems to be more complicated than a case of tax resistance, though tax resistance seemed to play a part.

Here is chapter 38 from the Reverend John Adams’s textbook The Flowers of Modern History, telling one version of the Wat Tyler story:

Of the Insurrection occasioned by a Poll Tax, .

In the reign of Richard, Ⅱ. a poll tax was passed at twelve pence per head, on all above the age of sixteen. This being levied with severity, caused an insurrection in Kent and Essex.

A Blacksmith, well known by the name of Wat Tyler, was the first who excited the people to arms. The tax-gatherers coming to this man’s house, while he was at work, demanded payment for his daughter, which he refused, alledging that she was in the age mentioned in the act. One of the brutal collectors insisted on her being a full grown woman; and immediately attempted giving a very indecent proof of his assertion. This provoked the father to such a degree, that he instantly struck him dead with a blow of his hammer. The standers by applauded his spirit; and, one and all, resolved to defend his conduct. He was considered as a champion in the cause, and appointed the leader and spokesman of the people.

It is easy to imagine the disorders committed by this tumultuous rabble. The whole neighborhood rose in arms. They burnt and plundered wherever they came, and revenged upon their former masters, all those insults which they had long sustained with impunity.

As the discontent was general, the insurgents increased in proportion as they approached the capital. The flame soon propagated itself into Kent, Hertfordshire, Surry, Sussex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridge and Lincoln. They were found to amount to above an hundred thousand men, by the time they were arrived at Blackheath; from whence they sent a message to the king, who had taken shelter in the Tower, desiring a conference with him. With this message Richard was desirous of complying, but was intimidated by their fierce demeanor.

In the mean time, they had entered the city, burning and plundering the houses of such as were obnoxious from their power, or remarkable for their riches. They broke into the Savoy palace, belonging to the duke of Lancaster, and put several of his attendants to death. Their animosity was particularly levelled against the lawyers, to whom they shewed no mercy.

Such was the vehemence of their fury, that the king began to tremble for his own safety; and knowing that the Tower was not capable to stand against an assault, he went out among them, and desired to know their demands. To this they made a very humble remonstrance, requiring a general pardon, the abolition of slavery, freedom of commerce in market-towns, and a fixed rent, instead of those services required by the tenure of the villanage.

As these requests were reasonable, the king soon complied; and charters were accordingly made out, ratifying the grant. In the mean time, another body of these insurgents had broken into the Tower, and murdered the chancellor, the primate, and the treasurer, with some other officers of distinction. They then divided themselves into two parties, and took up their quarters in different parts of the city.

At the head of one of these, was Wat Tyler, who led his men into Smithfield, where he was met by the king, who invited him to a conference, under a pretense of hearing and redressing his grievances. Tyler ordering his companions to retire, till he should give them a signal, boldly ventured to meet the king in the midst of his retinue; and accordingly began the conference.

The demands of this demagogue, are censured by all the historians of the time, as insolent and extravagant; and yet nothing can be more just than those they have delivered for him. He required that all slaves should be set free; that all commonages should be open to the poor, as well as the rich; and that a general pardon be passed for the late outrages. Whilst he made these demands, he now and then lifted up his sword in a menacing manner; which insolence so raised the indignation of William Walworth, then mayor of London, attending on the king, that, without considering the danger to which he exposed his majesty, he stunned Tyler with a blow of his mace; while one of the king’s knights riding up, dispatched him with his sword.

The mutineers seeing their leader fall, prepared themselves to take revenge; and their bows were now bent for execution, when Richard, though not yet quite sixteen years of age, rode up to the rebels, and, with admirable presence of mind, cried out, “What, my people, will you then kill your king? Be not concerned for your leader, I myself will now be your general. Follow me into the field, and ye shall have whatever you desire.” The awed multitude immediately desisted. They followed the king, as if mechanically, into the fields, and there he granted them the same charter, which he had before granted to their companions.

These grants, for a short time, gained the king great popularity; and it is probable, it was his own desire to have them continued. But the nobles had long tasted the sweets of power, and were unwilling to admit any others to a participation. The parliament soon revoked these charters of enfranchisement and pardon. The low people were reduced to the same slavish condition as before, and several of the ringleaders were punished with capital severity. The insurrection of the barons against the king, are branded in history with no great air of invective; but the tumults of the people against the barons, are marked with all the virulence of reproach!

You can now see a documentary on-line about the German group Netzwerk Friedenssteuer, which is promoting some form of legal conscientious objection to military taxation in Germany. The documentary is subtitled in English: