This section is from the book "The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation", by George Abbey. Also available from Amazon: The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation.
The outcome of the conflict between the combinations and confederacies of labourers sympathised with by John Wycliffe and his disciples - the "poor priests," as distinguished from the beneficed and landed, and the repressive and coercive measures of Parliament and the manorial lords, was the Peasants' Revolt, though the proximate cause was the poll-tax, which, levied at first with mildness, but farmed out to courtiers, was exacted with great severity, the recusants being handled very severely and un-courteously, "almost not to be spoken."
On the morning of June 14, 1381, a proclamation was issued to a multitude that crowded Tower Hill, and they were told that if they would retire quietly to Mile End the king would meet them there. King Richard III was surrounded by upwards of sixty thousand peasants, mild and respectful in demeanour, and they presented no more than four demands: (1) the total abolition of slavery for themselves and their children for ever;
(2) the reduction of the rent of good land to fourpence the acre;
(3) the full liberty of buying and selling, like other men, in all fairs and markets; (4) a general pardon for all past offences. The king, with a gracious countenance, assured them that all these demands were granted, and in returning to town he employed upwards of thirty clerks to make copies of the charter containing the four clauses. In the morning these copies were sealed and delivered, and then an immense body of the insurgents, consisting chiefly of the men of Essex and Hertfordshire, quietly withdrew from the capital, but the more dangerous men remained behind.
Wat Tyler and the leaders with him rejected the charter which the men of Essex had so gladly accepted. Another charter was drawn up, but it failed to please, and even a third, with still larger concessions, was rejected with contempt. The next morning the king went to Westminster, where he heard Mass, afterwards mounting his horse, and with a retinue of barons and knights rode along the "causeway" towards London. On coming into West Smith-field he met with Wat Tyler. In the front of the Abbey of St. Bartholomew Richard drew rein, and said he would not go thence until he had appeased the rioters. The meeting resulted in the death of Wat Tyler, and in Richard, soon after, finding himself at the head of 40,000 horse, telling the people that all the charters meant nothing, and that they must return to their old bondage. Then courts of commission were opened in different towns to condemn rather than to try the chief offenders. Jack Straw, the "riotous priest" of Essex and one of Tyler's chief lieutenants, whose intention was to get rid of the magnates and create local communes, was executed.
John Ball, the "wicked priest" of Kent, chaplain of Tyler's host, and first great propagandist for the equality of all men, abolition of the whole system of Society, based on class and social distinctions and individual ownership of land and wealth which is socially produced, now called "Socialism," was captured at Coventry, tried at St. Albans on July 13, hanged in that city on July 15, "drawn and quartered," and the parts dipped in pitch and set up in populous centres of the rising. Geoffrey Litster, leader of the revolt in Norfolk, a dyer by trade, and Westbroom, "king of the commons " of Suffolk, with several hundreds more, were executed. The whole number of executions amounted to 1,500.
While these events were passing in London and its neighbourhood, the servile war had spread over a great part of England. The nobles shut themselves up in their strong castles, but Henry Spencer, the Bishop of Norwich, armed his retainers, collected his friends, and kept the field against the insurgents of Norfolk, Cambridge and Huntingdon. He surprised several bodies of peasants and cut them to pieces; others he took prisoners, and sent straight to the gibbet or the block.
The first great effort on the part of the peasants of England to free themselves from the immediate and personal control which the lords had over them under the system of serfdom, failed through the lack of organisation and the riotous proceedings of the peasants, which evoked retaliation on the part of the upper classes of society, who showed how little they were prepared for the recognition of the rights of the poor by the Parliament annulling the charters of manumission which the king had granted, and by the way the propriety of abolishing villeinage was scouted by both lords and commons. Nevertheless, the Peasants' Revolt, 1381, marked the beginning of a great economic change in England, for the supply of workers being short of the demand, wages began to rise rapidly after the custom began to pay wages in lieu of demanding labour services for land; and of course the free labourer, who sought for employment where he could, lost his title to the land which he had as a serf in return for his labour.
The difficulties of the landowners to obtain labour cheap enough to carry on arable agriculture at a profit caused a number of landowners to turn their land into pastures for sheep-rearing, the wool being in great demand in Flanders; and from this sprang the weaving of wool in England by Flemish weavers protected by Chartered Guilds from outside labour, this trade growing tremendously in England from the thirteenth century; and the weavers, to protect themselves from unfair dealings of merchants, were the first to strike effectively in the British Islands.
In marked contrast to the weavers stand out the peasants of England to free themselves from the immediate and personal control which the lords had over them under the system of serfdom, to demand the right to sell their labour for wages, in place of paying their rents in labour services, to obtain the right to move about freely so as to find the best possible market for their labour, in place of being tied down to the lord's estate, to obtain the right to sell their produce in the markets as free men, and to procure equality before the law which had not previously recognised their right to redress for grievances of any kind in the courts of justice. Truly, these demands for which such sacrifice was made by thousands of English toilers in the Peasants' Revolt, have been won, but the means by which they have been effected, instead of being ascribed to the "riotous priest" of Essex and the "wicked priest" of Kent, whose initiatives were revolutionary, must be accorded to the "poor priests" whose doctrines were reformatory, and consisted in the right of the common people to repudiate their obligations to their lords and masters if in turn the lords did not observe their duties to those who were under them.