By ROBERT SOUTHEY, POET LAUREATE
THE history of Wat
Tyler has always held a distinguished place in the English records; and though some men affect to disapprove of his
conduct, all men have concurred in admiring his courage. The Nation, even at
that distant period, had began to rise above the barbarous state into which
the conquest, by William the Norman, had plunged it, and to shew strong signs of
returning life. Such is the effect which society works upon a people--such
the consequence which the human mind will produce upon itself, when left to
pursue its natural course without interruption.
wars between the English and the French Governments, which took
place in those days, were like all others, ruinous and expensive. To defray
the costs of these, a tax of
three groats was ordered to be paid by every man and woman above the age
of fifteen years: this unheard of imposition had too much in it of the nature of conquest,
and savoured too strongly of the nature of despotism, to be willingly
submitted to. It gave rise to a discussion, amongst the people, about the
right of the government to adopt such a measure, and the result of that
discussion, was resistance. Their motto was:
Adam delv'd, and Eve span,
Who was then a gentleman?
" The first disorder (says Hume,)
was raised by a blacksmith, in a village of Essex.
The tax-gatherers came to this man's shop while he was at work; and they
demanded payment for his daughter, whom he asserted to be below the age
assigned by the statute. One of these fellows offered to produce a very
indecent proof to the contrary, and at the same time laid hold of the maid,
which the father resenting, immediately knocked out the ruffian's brains
with his hammer. The by-standers applauded the action, and exclaimed that it
was full time for the people to take vengeance on their Tyrants, and to
vindicate their native liberty. They immediately flew to arms; the whole
neighbourhood joined in the sedition; the flame spread in an instant over
that county, and many others, before the government had the least warning of
The populace, amounting to one hundred thousand men, assembled on Blackheath, under their leaders, Wat Tyler and a Jack
Straw. They sent a message to the King, (who had taken shelter in
the Tower) and desired a conference with him. Richard sailed down the Thames, in a barge, for that purpose; but,
on approaching the shore, he was alarmed at the appearance of the people,
and he returned to the fortress. The people, in the mean time, had broken
into the City of London; where they cut off
the heads of those whom they disliked, and committed other acts of a
similar description. To quiet them the King promised that their grievances should be redressed; but, as it afterwards proved, these
promises were never intended to be performed.
During this transaction another body had broken into the Tower, had
murdered the Chancellor, and Treasurer, with others of the Nobles; and continued their ravages in the city. The King passing along
Smithfield, met with Wat Tyler, at the head of the populace, and
entered into a conference with him. Tyler ordered his companions to retire;
he went amongst the King's Company, and while he was conversing with
Richard, Walworth the Mayor of London drew his sword, and with the
assistance of the other persons in the King's service, he murdered him.
Richard then advanced to the populace, and promised them their freedom if they would return to their homes;
but as soon as he had reobtained the upper hand, he revoked their charters, and reduced them to the slavish condition in which they
had been before. The city of London, in commemoration of the part which
their Mayor had taken in the above transaction, wear a representation of
Walworth's dagger upon their coat of arms, to this day.
(see W.T. Sherwin, below)
At three pence, or three pennies, the play would be
affordable to most people. Sherwin's contemporary, William Cobbett, writes
about his own ground-breaking journal, the two pence edition of the
Political Register, that "'Two or three journeymen or labourers
cannot spare a shilling and a halfpenny a week; but they can spare a
halfpenny or three for things each, which is not much more than the tax
which they have to pay on a quid of tobacco'" (qtd. in Boston 71).
Follow link for biographical notes
laureateship (1813-1843) succeeded Henry James Pye's (1790-1813) and
preceded William Wordsworth's (1843-1850). J. Johnston's cartoon, released
after the publication of Wat Tyler in 1817, includes symbols of this
paid position of the royal household: Southey wears a crown of laurels and
is surrounded with occasional poems (Carnall facing pg. 162). (The
requirement of writing annual odes for New Year's and the king's birthday
was in fact abolished during his tenure) ("Poet Laureate" Princeton
Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics). Many detractors highlighted
Southey's title as a representative marker of his changed political sympathies.
One of the rebel leaders of
the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Tyler's subsequent status as a legendary
figure of British folklore results in numerous conflicting stories
concerning the details of his life. Some accounts claim that he was from
Essex, others Maidstone, and still others maintain Tyler was from
Colchester, John Ball's town (Oman, Political History 34; Saul 62-3).
Various speculations on his profession cast him as a tiler (Dobson 18) or as
a discharged soldier (Oman, Political History 35). Regardless of
these variations, it is known that Tyler was the leader of the rebels from
Kent; he later merged his men with rebels from Essex during the march on
London (Saul 62-3).
The rebels were able to take over London and force a meeting with King
Richard. Their demands included an abolition of serfdom, a standardized
rent, and the deaths of those men whom they considered to be traitors to the
crown (Saul 68). During the second meeting with King Richard, Tyler expanded
on those conditions, asking for "an end to outlawry, the disendowment of the
Church, and equality of all men below the king" (Saul 70). During this
meeting, Walworth, the Mayor of London, stabbed Tyler to death. It is
unclear whether Tyler was the victim of a royalist plot or if he was
grandstanding in an attempt to impress his men and provoked the attack (Saul
70-2). However, as an immediate effect, King Richard was able to calm and
eventually disperse the rebels.
distinguished place in
the English records
(Link to annotated
bibliography on other tellings of Wat Tyler's legend.)
William the Norman
the Duke of Normandy, was also known as William the Conqueror. In 1066, he
invaded England, and at the Battle of Hastings, with the aid of cavalry and
superior archers, he killed the Saxon king, Harold, thus winning the English
throne and establishing a French ruling class.
The wars . . . Governments
English kings held title to the French duchy of Aquitaine, monarchs from the
two countries often argued over the extent to which the English should swear
fealty to the French crown. Finally in 1337, Edward III of England, Richard
II's grandfather, asserted that he should be the king of France on the
grounds that his mother, Isabella, was King Charles IV's sister (Saul 7).
After Charles's death, his cousin Philip IV became king, and Edward argued
that, as Charles's nephew, he had a stronger claim to the throne. The
subsequent conflicts began the Hundred Years War.
The war continued during Richard II's reign, although he was only ten years
old when he assumed the throne. After a two-year truce, the two countries
resumed conflict in 1377 (Saul 31). The English spent heavily for little
apparent gain, and when their ally the duke of Brittany made peace with the
French, the English were obliged to withdraw (Saul 55).
In 1381, due to the recurrent
conflict with France, Richard II's government faced a shortage of disposable
operating income; to remedy this, Parliament implemented a census-based tax
of three groats for every person in the kingdom, a tax very similar to that
which Edward III's Parliament had implemented in 1377. Compared to the 1377
census (poll) tax, the income generated by the 1381 tax was a great deal
lower than expected, showing a population decrease of nearly half a million
people (1,355,201 in 1377 vs. 896,481 in 1381 (Oman, Great Revolt).
Richard's government viewed this radical and seemingly inexplicable decline
in population as evidence of either widespread evasion of the tax or
negligence in its collection. As a result, the government appointed new
commissioners to audit the lists of tax-liable citizens and to focus
collection efforts on those who had avoided paying the tax. English sheriffs
were ordered to use "all manner of ways and means" to ensure the collection
of the tax. V.H.H. Green correlates the appearance of these tax collectors
with the first incidents of rebellion (217).
"The English groat
coined in 1351-2 was made equal to four pence" (OED 2).
This was actually the third
of recent poll taxes, the first being in 1377 and the second in 1379. The
first one was a tax of one groat and the second was graduated according to
income. The third, however, was a flat tax of three groats (Saul 31-2, 56).
"When Adam delv'd"
has been attributed to John Ball by sources as various as the anonymous 1654
chapbook The Idol of the Clownes (p. 8) and M.H. Keen's England in
the Later Middle Ages (268). Alongside such claims, however, has
been the equally prevalent suspicion that the couplet "seems to have been
handed down by tradition" (Burke 133). Included in the latter group is R.T.
Davies, who identifies it as one of several "typically common" (331)
elements in the opening of the tentatively dated fourteenth century "The
pointless pride of man." The opening reads: "When Adam delf,/ And Eve span,
/ Spir, if thou will spede, / Whare was than / The pride of man / That now
merres his mede?" (Davies 143).
"To allure, entice, or draw
away (a person)" (OED v3).
"Scottish philosopher and
historian" who was a proponent of skepticism and empiricism. He published
A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), An Abstract of a Treatise
of Human Nature (1740), Essays Moral, Political, and Literary
(essays from 1741 to 1752), An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding
(1748), An Enquiry concerning the principles of Morals (1751), The
Natural History of Religion (1757), and History of England, a
six-volume work of English history from Roman times to 1688 (publ.
1754-1762) ("Hume, David" The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy).
The first open rebellions
of the Peasants' Revolt occurred in Essex and were soon followed by similar
outbreaks in Kent. The rebels from Kent converged with some of those from
Essex, and on June 7, 1381, they continued their march to Maidstone
(McKisack 407-408). (Most sources place Wat Tyler among the rebels from Kent.)
also gives Blackheath as the place where John Ball preached to the people
from the famous text 'When Adam dalf, and Eve span, Wo was thanne a
gentilman?" ("Ball, John" DNB).
Fleet Street in the
nineteenth century was the site of numerous periodical publishers
(Chancellor 326). Of the registered printing presses that William B. Todd
compiles from 1800 to 1840, the 81 entries at Fleet Street are second only
to those from the Strand (with 82) with the next highest concentration
located at Paternoster Row (with 40) (234).
Jack Straw is another
notable figure in the accounts of the Peasants' Revolt. His name appears in
various tellings as Rackstraw or Rakestraw (Dobson 24). People sometimes
confuse him with Wat Tyler; however, they are two distinct men. Little is
definitively known about Straw's actions except that he was Tyler's
lieutenant and that he was a leader of the men who burned Sir Roger Hales's
manor at Highbury (Dobson 40).
William the Conqueror
built the Tower of London in 1066 in order to establish firmly the Norman
presence in London after the Battle of Hastings (Wilson 2). In 1078, he
replaced the existing structure with a stone castle that remained a strong
defensive fortress (Wilson 2). In time, the Tower became a royal residence
which, although it was rarely used, remained an important holding given its
location and defensibility (Wilson 7). Due to its strength, monarchs
occasionally used the Tower to temporarily incarcerate powerful prisoners
who had offended them (Wilson 11). The castle remained a royal residence and
was not used for common prisoners. By Richard II's reign, prisoners could
establish households within the Tower, receive visitors, and enjoy all the
amenities to which they were accustomed (Wilson 10-11).
Richard II was the
son of Edward, known as the Black Prince, and Joan, the countess of Kent.
When the Black Prince died prematurely, Richard became the heir to the
throne and was invested with the title of Prince of Wales on November 20,
1376 (Saul 17). Upon the death of King Edward III, his grandfather, in 1377,
he ascended to the throne at the age of ten. Powerful royal uncles, most
notably John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster, overshadowed the early years
of Richard's reign. However, due to popular distrust of Gaunt's ambition,
Parliament did not appoint a regent for the young king, and Richard remained
nominally in power. In actuality, a series of three "continual councils" ran
the country in Richard's name (Saul 27-30).
These councils were in command during the resumption of hostilities with
France and increased taxes dramatically to pay for the costs of fielding the
armies. Nevertheless Richard remained extremely popular, as his subjects
viewed him as the best hope for change in England's political and military
fortunes. The people blamed the council for the English setbacks (Saul
Thus, during the Peasants' Revolt, the people trusted the fourteen-year-old
king but disliked and wanted to depose his advisors, especially John of
Gaunt (Saul 58). It is said that on the death of Wat Tyler, Richard
established the truce with the peasants, crying that they should have "no
captain but him" (Saul 72). Historians disagree over the extent of Richard's
role in Tyler's death and the degree to which Richard negotiated in good
faith with the rebels. It is true that throughout his reign, Richard was an
absolute monarch who possessed a firm belief in the divine right of kings
and the duty of his subjects to obey his rule.
cut off the heads
The heads in this case
belonged to Archbishop Simon Sudbury, the chancellor, and Sir Roger Hales,
the treasurer, as well as 150-160 foreigners (Saul 69-70). These executions
would have seemed justified to the rebels. Nigel Saul points out that after
the first meeting between Richard and the peasants, many of the rebels
believed that they possessed carte blanche in dealing with those men whom
they called traitors (68-9). People judged guilty of treason in the Middle
Ages would be sentenced to death in an especially painful manner as well as
suffer the confiscation of all their goods (Bellamy 13).
demanded that they be allowed to deal with those men they called traitors,
the abolition of serfdom, and a standardized rent (Saul 68). At the second
meeting between the rebels and the king, Wat Tyler added further
concessions, including "an end to outlawry, the disendowment of the Church
and equality of all men below the king" (Saul 70).
Chancellor and Treasurer
Sir Simon Sudbury was the Chancellor; Sir Roger Hales, the Treasurer.
In the decades
following the Black Death of 1348-9, England suffered a 40 percent reduction
in population. As opposed to a surplus, landholding gentry now faced a labor
shortage. Lords were no longer able to hold peasants to their manors and
force them by feudal convention to work; in light of this, an increasing
number of peasant labor services were performed for monetary compensation.
During the years just before the Peasant Revolt of 1381, landlords, who
faced a loss of status and power with the rise of the peasant working class,
often sought to re-establish serfdom and demanded non-remunerative labor
services. This attempt to re-enforce an antiquated and socially unjust
system of manorial feudalism, coupled with the high taxes of the late 1370s
and early 1380s served to create an atmosphere of antagonism and antipathy
between peasants and landholders.
partly enclosed by houses outside Aldersgate, where the cattle-market was
wont to be held" (Oman, Political History 45).
was Lord Mayor of London during the reign of Edward III in 1374 and during
the reign of Richard II in 1380 ("Walworth" DNB). He loaned large
sums of money to Richard II in 1377 ("Walworth" DNB). On June 13,
1381, he held London Bridge against Wat Tyler and was present two days later
(June 15) at Tyler's confrontation with the King at Smithfield where Tyler
died ("Walworth" DNB). According to the DNB, Walworth stabbed
Tyler in the neck, then pulled him off his horse and plunged a dagger into
his chest. In other accounts (see McKisack), Walworth merely pulled Tyler
off his horse, and a squire named Standish actually killed him (413). No one
knows whether Tyler threatened the King at this meeting or if Walworth acted
of his own volition. In any case, he was knighted for his role in the
suppression of the rebels ("Walworth" DNB). Moreover, the King
rewarded Walworth with 100 pounds a year. He was also one of the
commissioners chosen to quiet the subsequent unrest in Kent in 1381-2
The actual words
attributed to Richard are "'You shall have no captain but me. Just follow me
to the fields without, and then you can have what you want'" (qtd. in Saul 72).
refers to "a written document granting privileges to, or recognizing the
rights of the people, or of certain classes of individuals" (OED 1a).
Southey's version of the peasants' charter (Act III) conveys many of their
essential grievances, including the abolition of serfdom. Historically,
Richard did accede to their demands at Mile End (Saul 68-69). However,
Parliament declared the charters of manumission void and revoked all
agreements with the peasants; the claim in Rotuli Parliamentorum
(III, 100) was that "they had never assented of their free will, nor would
they ever have done so except to live and die the same day" (In Myers
In Southey's time, concern over charters was manifested in movements like
that of the Chartists, whose central principle was to grant parliamentary
representation for all people. This charter was published on May 8, 1838
(OED "Charter 1d; "Chartist" a).
coat of arms
It was once commonly
held that the dagger in the upper left quadrant of the London coat of arms
was Walworth's. However, historian John Stow (Summarie of Englyshe
Chronicles, 1565, in DNB) claims that it represents the sword of St.
Paul ("Walworth" DNB).