It was to defray the heavy expenses of the war that the Parliament of 1380 renewed a grant made three years before, to be raised by means of a poll-tax on every person in the realm. The tax brought under contribution a class which had hitherto escaped, men such as the labourer, the village smith, the village tiler; it goaded into action precisely the class which was already seething with discontent, and its exaction set England on fire from sea to sea. As spring went on quaint rimes passed through the country, and served as summons to the revolt which soon extended from the eastern and midland counties over all England south of the Thames. "John Ball," ran one, "greeteth you all, and doth for to understand he hath rung your bell. Now right and might, will and skill, God speed every dele." " Help truth," ran another, " and truth shall help you! Now reigneth pride in price, and covetise is counted wise, and lechery withouten shame, and gluttony withouten blame. Envy reigneth with treason, and sloth is take in great season. God do bote, for now is tyme!" We recognise Ball's hand in the yet more stirring missives of "Jack the Miller" and "Jack the Carter." "Jack Miller asketh help to turn his mill aright. He hath grounden small, small: the King's Son of Heaven he shall pay for all.
Look thy mill go aright with the four sailes, and the post stand with steadfastness. With right and with might, with skill and with will; let might help right, and skill go before will, and right before might, so goeth our mill aright." "Jack Carter," ran the companion missive, "prays you all that ye make a good end of that ye have begun, and do well, and aye better and better: for at the even men heareth the day." "Falseness and guile," sang Jack Trewman, " have reigned too long, and truth hath been set under a lock, and falseness and guile reigneth in every stock. No man may come truth to, but if he sing 'si dedero.' True love is away that was so good, and clerks for wealth work them woe. God do bote, for now is tyme." In the rude jingle of these lines began for England the literature of political controversy: they are the first predecessors of the pamphlets of Milton and of Burke. Rough as they are, they express clearly enough the mingled passions which met in the revolt of the peasants: their longing for a right rule, for plain and simple justice; their scorn of the immorality of the nobles and the infamy of the court; their resentment at the perversion of the law to the cause of oppression.
The revolt spread like wildfire over the country; Norfolk and Suffolk, Cambridge and Hertfordshire rose in arms; from Sussex and Surrey the insurrection extended as far as Devon. But the actual outbreak began in Kent, where a tiler killed a tax-collector in vengeance for an outrage on his daughter. The county rose in arms. Canterbury, where "the whole town was of their mind," threw open its gates to the insurgents, who plundered the Archbishop's palace and dragged John Ball from its prison, while a hundred thousand Kentish-men gathered round Wat Tyler of Essex and John Hales of Mailing. In the eastern counties the levy of the poll-tax had already gathered crowds of peasants together, armed with clubs, rusty swords, and bows, and the royal commissioners sent to repress the tumult were driven from the field. While the Essex-men marched upon London on one side of the river, the Kentish-men marched on the other. Their grievance was mainly political, for villeinage was unknown in Kent; but as they poured on to Blackheath, every lawyer who fell into their hands was put to death; "not till all these were killed would the land enjoy its old freedom again," the peasants shouted as they fired the houses of the stewards and flung the records of the manor-courts into the flames.
The whole population joined them as they marched along, while the nobles were paralyzed with fear. The young King - he was but a boy of fifteen - addressed them from a boat on the river; but the refusal of his Council under the guidance of Archbishop Sudbury to allow him to land kindled the peasants to fury, and with cries of " Treason" the great mass rushed on London. Its gates were flung open by the poorer artizans within the city, and the stately palace of John of Gaunt at the Savoy, the new inn of the lawyers at the Temple, the houses of the foreign merchants, were soon in a blaze. But the insurgents, as they proudly boasted, were "seekers of truth and justice, not thieves or robbers," and a plunderer found carrying off a silver vessel from the sack of the Savoy was flung with his spoil into the flames. The general terror was shown ludicrously enough on the following day, when a daring band of peasants, under Tyler him self, forced their way into the Tower, and taking the panic-stricken knights of the royal household in rough horse-play by the beard, promised to be their equals and good comrades in the time to come.
But the horse-play changed into dreadful earnest when they found the King had escaped their grasp, and when Archbishop Sudbury and the Prior of St. John were discovered in the chapel; the primate was dragged from his sanctuary and beheaded, and the same vengeance was wreaked on the Treasurer and the Chief Commissioner for the levy of the hated poll-tax. Meanwhile the King had ridden from the Tower to meet the mass of the Essex-men, who had encamped without the city at Mile-end, while the men of Hertfordshire and St. Albans occupied Highbury. " I am your King and Lord, good people," the boy began with a fearlessness which marked his bearing throughout the crisis; "what will ye?" "We will that you free us for ever," shouted the peasants, " us and our lands; and that we be never named nor held for serfs." " I grant it," replied Richard; and he bade them go home, pledging himself at once to issue charters of freedom and amnesty. A shout of joy welcomed the promise. Throughout the day more than thirty clerks were busied writing letters of pardon and emancipation, and with these the mass of the Essex and Hertfordshire men withdrew quietly to their homes.