The 30th of May in 1381 saw the beginning of ‘The Peasants’ Revolt’, which can be traced to Essex, where villagers reacted violently to an over-zealous tax collector.
Of the many causes that led to the revolt, not the least was Parliament trying to control peasant wages artificially. The Black Death had decimated the population of Europe between 1347 and 1351. One of the effects of this was that there was a shortage of workers in England, and so wages began to rise. Parliament acted to combat this by passing the Statute of Labourers. This set a maximum wage and said that people would be punished with prison if they refused to work for that wage. In other words if you were poor, you stayed poor.
To compound this, John of Gaunt, acting as regent to the boy-king Richard III, introduced a Poll Tax to pay for his war against France. This Poll Tax had to be paid by everyone over the age of 15, no matter how much money they earned.
One has to remember that even though it had been three hundred years since the Norman Conquest, many peasants were still villeins who belonged to their lords under what is known as the feudal system. On the Priory of Worcester lands, some were still required to work without pay as part of their services to their lord.
In point of fact, there had been tension between the Priory and its tenants for many years before the Peasants’ Revolt, illustrated by minor infractions such as in 1318 when ‘malefactors’ helped themselves to timber in the Priory’s woods[i].
Manorial custom drew a distinction between timber [the large trees] and under-wood [the scrub and bushes]. Tenants were usually allowed to take under-wood growing on their lands but the Priory closely guarded its right to the timber.
In 1349, this simmering tension between the peasants and the Priory erupted into open conflict. The occasion was the murder within the Priory churchyard of John, the son of one of Worcester’s prominent citizens, William Carter. The Prior had claimed the right to act as coroner and the people of Worcester were incensed by this and other acts that they felt encroached on their privileges. In retaliation, they broke down the Priory gates[ii], attacked the Priory Church and ‘terribly beseiging the monasterie with fire which they brought, endeavoured to burne it’.
Not content with this vandalism, some of them ganged together and went out to Hallow and Battenhall where they raided the warren for rabbits and the fishponds for fish. When taken to court, one of the leaders claimed that ‘these places time out of minde were common to all persons of this cittie anothers to fish there and carrie away the fishe at their pleasures[iii]’
But did the Peasants’ Revolt itself spread to Worcestershire? Surely not to our peaceful city, I hear you say. Before this week I may have agreed with you, so I was surprised to find a copy of a letter in the Liber Albus[iv] where Prior Walter [de Leigh] is excusing himself from attending a General Chapter in Lincoln.
The reason given being due to the ‘great turbulence of our and our church’s tenants, both free men and serfs as well as others who support their cause.’ Apparently, the tenants had ‘risen in pride and impudence’ and were refusing to perform the customary services that they owed to the Priory. This letter was written on the 5th July 1381. So, the answer is yes, within a month, Worcestershire peasants had joined in with the Peasants’ Revolt. How long did this revolt last in Worcestershire? That I can’t answer – yet – The Liber Albus contains 497 folios over two volumes and I have yet to finish reading the first volume. So you will have to ‘watch this space’ for more!
[i] WCM/A5 Liber Albus fol. 87v
[ii] The gatehouse, now known as Edgar Tower, had been reconstructed in 1346 and 1347. For further information see Deidre McKeown’s article in the Report of the 24th Annual Symposium on Archaeology at Worcester Cathedral, March 2014.
[iii] T. Habington, ed John Amphlett, A Survey of Worcestershire, Vol.I (WHS 1895) pp. 388-393
[iv] WCM/A5 Liber Albus fol. 316v