Interpretations of the Peasants' Revolt

The chroniclers who witnessed the revolt were either rich people or monks, so they had a bias and did not sympathise with the rebels. Both groups did not want to increase the cost of peasants by paying them more money. Both the Church and the lords relied on peasants to farm for them: the biggest source of wealth in the middle ages. They portrayed them as a vicious mob – 'the maddest of mad dogs' – and Wat Tyler as an arrogant and rude man.

How important was the Peasants' Revolt?

The Whig historians portrayed the revolt as the start of the English people's fight for freedom – as the beginning of the end of the feudal system. Similarly, socialist historians have always seen the rebels as the first working-class heroes, fighting for ordinary people.

Gradually, however, historians began to question these ideas. They said the feudal system was coming to an end anyway because the Black Death had made labour so expensive. In 1970, the historian R B Dobson described the revolt as 'unnecessary' and its effect as 'negligible'.

Modern thinking

Since 1981, historians have had new thoughts about the rebels:

  • They were not a mad rabble – they were disciplined and organised.
  • They were not only peasants – some historians refuse to call it the 'Peasants' Revolt', and call it the 'English Rising' instead.
  • After studying letters produced by the rebels, the historian Steven Justice (1994) concluded that poor people had well-defined political beliefs in the 14th century, and that these ideas survived – the Peasants' Revolt was the beginning of English ideas about freedom.

What do you think?

What is your interpretation of the Peasants' Revolt?

  • Disorganised rampage or disciplined campaign?
  • Do you agree that they were the first 'working-class heroes'?
  • What would you say to someone who argued that it was the Peasants' Revolt, not Magna Carta, which laid the foundation of English freedom?

Where next?

You may also wish to compare the Peasants' Revolt to the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 - 1537 covered in Protest through time. Although the two events were similar in some ways, the Pilgrimage of Grace was basically inspired by religion. By contrast, the Peasants' Revolt was a political rebellion.

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