Life after the Black Death

PUBLISHED: 11:11 10 May 2007 | UPDATED: 12:28 04 May 2010

IT has been estimated that almost half the people in the country perished during the Black Death. It seems likely that the population, which had risen to approximately 4,250,000 by 1300, had fallen to about 2,500,000 by 1380. The effect of this dramatic f

IT has been estimated that almost half the people in the country perished during the Black Death. It seems likely that the population, which had risen to approximately 4,250,000 by 1300, had fallen to about 2,500,000 by 1380. The effect of this dramatic fall in the population of England accelerated far-reaching changes already noticeable in English society.

In country areas, the shortage of labour supply meant that peasants could demand greater rewards for their services and go to other manors demanding a higher wage. Richer peasant farmers extended their land holdings and their social standing in village communities.

This law of supply and demand and social mobility did not impress the Government. In 1541, the Statute of Labourers made it an offence for peasants to ask for higher wages or for the employers to pay them. Rates were laid down by the local Justices of the Peace and employers faced severe financial penalties for reaching private agreements with their workforce, this was viewed as against national interest.

A later Statute proclaimed that any labourer leaving his place of work should be branded on the forehead with the letter F for falsehood. It also became a crime for peasants to dress beyond their station as landlords or ëcommon lewd womení to dress like 'good noble dames'.

Such repressive methods caused widespread discontent and resentment of the corruption and riches enjoyed by the higher clergy. From 1377, the population were subjected to a series of taxes levied to pay for Edward IIIís overseas military campaigns.

Prices rose at an alarming rate, by 1381 the peasants situation was the same as it had been before the Black Death. John Wycliff, at the time Master of Balliol College, Oxford, called for 'disendowment of the church and a return to evangelical poverty'.

Encouraged by this, 'poor priests' wandered the country condemning ecclesiastical hierarchy and material possessions. Known as Lollards ('mumblers of prayers', a nickname given to them by the Archbishop of Canterbury), one such priest was John Ball.

In 1381, to raise funds for the war in France, the council, on behalf of the 14-year-old Richard II, imposed a Poll Tax on every adult in the country, rich and poor alike. In June 1381, a tax collector, John Bampton entered Brentwood with two armed guards and demanded payment of the poll tax. The locals insisted they had paid, so rather foolishly Bampton tried to arrest some villagers and was chased from the town. Soon the counties of Essex and Kent were in full revolt.

Peasants from these areas, led by Watt Tyler, marched to London, freeing the excommunicated priest, John Ball, from prison on the way. On June 12, the rebels arrived at Blackheath and Ball preached a sermon which included the famous question 'When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?'

The following day, fired by Ballís sermon, the rebels entered London, ransacked the Archbishop of Canterburyís Palace at Lambeth; burnt the lawyers rolls at the Temple; opened the gates of Fleet Prison; attacked foreign merchants; entered Savoy Palace, home of John of Gaunt, Richard IIís hated uncle, killing his doctor and sergeant-at-arms, ransacked the house and blew part of it up. Marching to the Tower they found the Lord Treasurer and Archbishop of Canterbury, both were beheaded on Tower Hill their severed heads paraded on spikes above the capital..

At Smithfield the next day, the rebels met the young King. In an altercation with the Lord Mayor, William Walworth, Watt Tyler was murdered. Richard II then bravely led the crowd to Clerkenwell where he agreed to demands to abolish feudal services. The surviving rebels, the leaders including Ball were hanged, returned home, only to discover the King had reneged on the deal claiming it was made under duress and that 'Villeins you are, and villeins you will remain.'

Did we learn from the Peasants Revolt? Think about the later Littleport riots! But what has the Peasants Revolt to do with Ely? Well whilst Watt was meeting his demise on the June 15, 1381, we were having our very own Peasants Revolt in Ely. Watch this space!

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