Wat Tyler: The Young Rebel Who Changed England’s History

Wat Tyler was a young man who grew to fame during one of the most tumultuous times in England’s history.

As the leader of the Peasant’s Revolt, he carved the way for future peasants to demand better working conditions, better pay and more respect from wealthy landowners.

By marching on London in their thousands, Tyler and those who followed him proved that the poorest members of society had a voice, and that it would be heard.


The Beginning of Rebellion

Gainsborough abandoned medieval village © Historic England Archive
Gainsborough abandoned medieval village © Historic England Archive

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On the eve of Wat Tyler’s rise to fame, England was in turmoil.

The black death had just wreaked havoc on the continent, killing a third of the population of Europe, and the rural peasantry, which made up 85% of the population of England in the Middle Ages, was left depleted, overworked and underpaid.

One firsthand account from 1350 states that:

‘there was such a shortage of servants, craftsmen, and workmen, and of agricultural workers and labourers … [that] churchmen, knights and other worthies have been forced to thresh their corn, plough the land and perform every other unskilled task if they are to make their own bread.’ (source)

Higher Wage Demands

Without sufficient numbers to work the land, the peasants who remained soon realised they had, for the first time, the power to make demands from their bosses. They began to ask for higher wages and improved working conditions.

In turn, many advanced to high positions they would otherwise not have been able to reach, causing major shifts in England’s social structures.

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However, these processes were not always this simple, or without consequence, and for many of the wealthy landowners, the shortage of manpower created a dangerous situation.

Without the peasants working the land, they would lose a considerable amount of money and the country could quite easily ground to a halt.

Despite this threat, these wealthy men declined to appease the workers and passed a law which limited wage increases.

A separate, but equally as important issue which impacted the lives of England’s workforce was the fact that England, at the time, was locked in an incredibly long and drawn-out war with France.

This was draining the country and its taxpayers of a substantial amount of money.

Wat Tyler
Wat Tyler (1341–1381) (leader of the English Peasants’ Revolt) unknown artist. Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery

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Eventually, a poll tax was introduced to fund this endeavour, the third of its kind in four years.

Everyone who was under the age of fifteen was required to pay a shilling, which was an incredible amount for the poorer farmers and for larger families.

Many were reduced to paying in kind with materials or produce which would have been vital to their own survival.

Trouble Begins

The real trouble began when, in May 1381, a tax collector was thrown out of the village of Fobbing in Essex by its villagers who refused to continue paying the extortionate rates.

When, a month later, the village was still in unrest the then 15-year-old King Richard II sent in soldiers to try and regain some control of the area. But this was unsuccessful.

The villagers were still not happy and eventually, they rallied others from the surrounding area and marched on London. Their aim was not violent, however. They simply wished to plead their case in front of the King.

The Westminster Portrait of Richard II of England (1390s)
The Westminster Portrait of Richard II of England (1390s)

In fact, historians today claim that their anger was not even directed at the King, who they recognised perhaps as young and inexperienced. Instead, they directed their anger towards his advisors who they believed to be corrupt, Simon Sudbury who was the Archbishop of Canterbury and John of Gaunt who was the Duke of Lancaster.

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The peasants were roused by religious leaders like John Wycliffe and John Ball who placed value on individual worth and inner renewal.

They preached that the plague was evidence that all humans were equal, and nobility and wealth provided no protection.

An Invasion of London

As they moved towards London, the peasants seem to have become more organised.

Those from north of London arrived via Chelmsford and those from the south headed first for Rochester Castle, then for Canterbury and finally for Blackheath.

In doing so, the peasants had converged on London in a kind of pincer movement with two attacks taking place at once.

Blackheath was a rallying point for Wat Tyler's Peasants' Revolt of 1381
Blackheath was a rallying point for Wat Tyler’s Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

Once they were inside the walls of London, they began to destroy tax records, they kicked out those in charge of the taxation of the country and important government buildings were torched.

A favourite venue of John of Gaunt, the Savoy Palace, was targeted in the uproar and consequently burned to the ground. Its furniture was then thrown into the Thames.


It is hard today to know exactly how many people were involved in this move on London, some estimates stand as high as 100,000.

Furthermore, not all of them were dissatisfied rural labourers. Among the ranks of the rioters were tradesmen and even soldiers.

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They all shared the same demand “We will be free forever, our heirs and our lands.” The scene was described (rather unfavourably) in the Chronicles of Jean Froissart (1322-1400) where he states:

‘Never was any land or realm in such great danger as England at that time. It was because of the abundance and prosperity in which the common people then lived that this rebellion broke out … The evil-disposed in these districts began to rise, saying, they were too severely oppressed; … [that their lords] treated them as beasts. This they would not longer bear, but had determined to be free, and if they laboured or did any other works for their lords, they would be paid for it.’ (source)

A Leader Emerges

It was during all this chaos that a leader emerged – a man from Kent named Wat Tyler.

He emerged rather early in the riot, however his power slipped when many of his people became distracted by drink, looting and murder.

In order to put an end to the chaos and gain the demands they desired, Wat Tyler petitioned the King to meet him at Mile End on 14th June 1381, to which he agreed.

With the desire to end the violence and disorder in the quickest manner possible, the young Richard II agreed to all of Tyler’s demands and in return asked that the peasants return home and leave London in peace.

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Many were satisfied with this outcome and left the city believing serfdom was finally at its end.

However, for some this was not enough. While this very meeting was taking place, some rebels stormed the Tower of London where they murdered both Simon Sudbury and Robert Hales (the Treasurer).


Because of this, the peace did not last. Richard II was forced to spend the night in hiding for all his armies were across the sea in France or spread throughout Scotland and Wales, unable to offer him protection.

Tyler and the King met for a second time, outside of the city walls.

Some historians argued that the place was chosen by the Mayor of London, Sir William Walworth who was preoccupied with getting the rebels out of his city for good.

Richard II meeting with the rebels of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

This meeting was not as simple as the one prior. There was tension in the air and Walworth was said to have been angered by Tyler’s attitude and arrogance.

Tyler used the opportunity to make even more ludicrous demands as he recognised that the peasants potentially had the upper hand.

At some point, Walworth decided he would not listen to Tyler any longer and violently slashed him across the neck with his dagger.


Tyler was left with a nasty wound and was transported to St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Understandably, the large crowd of rebels, who had converged to witness this second meeting, were not happy.

The Battle of Billericay broke out and around 500 peasants fled into Norsey Wood. They were then slaughtered by the King’s men.

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Tyler died from his wound and only a few weeks after it had begun the Peasants’ Revolt was put to an end.

Richard II did not keep any of the promises he had made at his meetings with Tyler. He justified this by claiming that they had been made under duress and thus were not valid in the eyes of the law.

Map of London in 1381: A – Clerkenwell B – Priory of St. John C – Smithfield D – Newgate and Fleet Prisons E – The Savoy Palace F – The Temple G – Black Friars H – Aldgate I – Mile End J – Westminster K – Southwark L – Marshalsea Prison M – London Bridge N – Tower of London

Despite Tyler’s death, the rebellion continued for several weeks before eventually being crushed by the government forces. Many of the rebels were executed, and the demands for reform were not met.

Any rebels that remained in the area were dealt with forcibly and those who had returned to their homes were forced back into their old way of life.

However, the Peasants’ Revolt had a lasting impact on English society, and it is seen as an early example of popular resistance against oppressive rulers.


Despite its perceived failings and the gruesome death of its leader, the Peasants’ Revolt set a precedent for the coming century.

It proved, for the first time, that the rural workers of England could, and would, stand up for themselves.

It made the wealthy landowners and lords more conscious of how they treated their workers, for who was to say that these events would never repeat themselves?

The poll tax was eventually withdrawn and because of the continued shortage of labour over the next century, peasants were increasingly able to make demands of their lords.

Despite his death, Tyler had managed to leave a legacy among the peasants of England and a sense of fear in the minds of many of its later rulers.

Wat Tyler has been remembered as a hero of the working class and a symbol of resistance against unjust authority. He has been the subject of many literary works and has been portrayed in film and television.

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