Wat Tyler

Wat Tyler

Tyler, Wat, d. 1381, English rebel. His given name appears in full as Walter; his surname signifies the trade of a roof tiler. He came into prominence as the leader of the rebellion of 1381, known as the Peasants' Revolt. The revolt had its origins in the plague of 1348-49, which had swept away nearly a third of the population of England. The result was a scarcity of labor and a rise in wages. In 1351, Parliament passed the Statute of Labourers to hold down wages. This proved almost impossible to enforce but aroused much resentment among the peasantry. Another source of discontent was the fact that landlords were attempting to stem the new mobility of labor by asserting their ancient manorial rights. This unrest flared into rebellion when the poll tax was increased in 1380. The first outbreak came in Essex, but the trouble soon spread to Kent, where Tyler was chosen as leader. The rebels seized Canterbury and then proceeded to London, their number increasing on the way. After an unsuccessful attempt to interview Richard II, Tyler led the mob into the city, where it plundered and burned many houses (including the Savoy Palace, residence of John of Gaunt) and the Fleet and Newgate prisons. On June 14 the king met some of the rebels at Mile End and agreed to their demands to abolish serfdom, feudal service, market monopolies, and restrictions on buying and selling. At the same time, however, or immediately thereafter, Tyler and another group of rebels captured the Tower of London and killed the archbishop of Canterbury and several other officials. The following day Tyler met the king at Smithfield, where he presented new demands, including one for the confiscation of all church property. In an exchange of blows with the mayor of London, Tyler was mortally wounded and died soon afterward. The king, though a boy of 14, cowed the mob and held them at bay until the mayor brought up armed support. The rebels dispersed, and the revolt, which had raged over all England, was put down with severity. King Richard immediately revoked the Mile End grants.

See C. Oman, The Great Revolt of 1381 (1906, repr. 1969); R. B. Dobson, ed., The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 (1970); R. H. Hilton and T. H. Aston, English Rising of 1381 (1987).

Walter Tyler, commonly known as Wat Tyler (January 4, 1341June 15, 1381) was the leader of the English Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

Early life

Knowledge of Tyler's early life is very limited, and derives mostly through the records of his enemies. Historians believe he was born in Essex, but are not sure why he crossed the Thames Estuary to Kent, whence he led the revolt.

From Life and Adventures of Wat Tyler, the Brave and Good, published in 1851, historians have reconstructed his youth, prior to his appearance as a historical figure. The reconstruction is based solely on speculation and assumptions, as minimal primary documentation exists relating to Tyler outside the rebellion. For instance, one story states that, with the help of fellow-villagers, Tyler routed out a nest of robbers which had plagued his neighbourhood. Following a failed romance, Tyler joined the English army which was then preparing to leave for France. He was present at the Battle of Crécy where Edward appointed him to assist the famous Black Prince. He was cited for his bravery in the Battle of Poitiers and a number of naval engagements with Spain and France. Tyler returned to Broxley, married, and became the village smith. He settled down with the intention of spending the remainder of his life in an undistinguished fashion.

The Peasants' Revolt

With news of rebellions of the lower classes in France and Flanders, the English readied for an insurrection. John Ball, Jack Straw and others advocated for the destruction of the hierarchical feudal system. Ball, like Tyler, held egalitarian values, though the Medieval historian Jean Froissart describes Ball as insane. Other contemporaries suggest that he was involved with the Lollard movement. Such harsh, often unfounded attitudes toward the rebels are common among chroniclers as they belonged to the educated upper classes, usually the targets of rebellion and not supporters of it. Thus, is it hard to get an accurate sense of the actual aims and goals of rebels as their side of the story is not represented in historical accounts.

Richard II ascended to power after the death of Edward III; he was only 14 at the time of the rebellion. As a minor, the Dukes of Lancaster, York, and Gloucester governed in his name. These officials were the main targets of the rebels who held that they were traitors to the king and undermined his authority. There were several unsuccessful expeditions against France which added to the burden of the English working class. The government resolved on a poll tax of three groats which outraged the people.

Reacting to the poll tax, which the king had instated because not enough money had been levied the previous year, Tyler led rebels in taking Canterbury, then Blackheath outside London. This resulted in the killing of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury. They destroyed the palace and killed the king's uncle. Richard of Wallingford presented a charter to King Richard II on behalf of Tyler. The king met the rebel army at Mile End, and promised to address the peasants' grievances, which included the unpopular taxes.

Twenty thousand people assembled at Smithfield. Richard II, who was 15 years old at the time, met them there. Wat Tyler decided to go and speak to the King and went alone. What was said between Wat Tyler and the King is largely conjecture and little is known, however it would appear the Mayor took exception to Wat's attitude. Because of this the Mayor quickly drew his sword, and slashed the unarmed Wat Tyler to the ground. In the next instant, the body was stabbed by one of the King's esquires — Ralph de Standish. Whether Tyler died here or later at St. Bartholomew's hospital is unknown as is the exact nature and extent of his injuries. Immediately, the King declared that he was now the leader of the rebels and told them to return to their homes, promising them charters of freedom. He broke his promise of freedom, however, and had the rebel leaders rounded up and killed.

The rebellion ended shortly after Tyler's death and had little to do with the disappearance of serfdom. Wat Tyler's name, however, served to become a watchword and a rallying cry during public demonstrations and rebellions throughout the later medieval period.

Consequences of the Revolt

A red dagger symbol seen in the coat of arms of the City of London and the City of London Corporation is believed by some to represent the dagger of the Lord Mayor and thus celebrate the killing of Tyler. It is more likely, however, to represent the martyrdom of St Paul, London's patron saint.

There is now a country park next to the Thames Estuary in Basildon, Essex, named after him, Wat Tyler Country Park. There is also a public house in Dartford, Kent named the Wat Tyler, reputed to have been used by the eponymous rebel when the peasant army camped on East Hill, Dartford en route to Blackheath. There is also a road in Maidstone named Wat Tyler Way, and one on the western edge of Blackheath called Wat Tyler Road. The folk band Fairport Convention composed a ballad telling the story of Wat Tyler.

In modern popular culture


  • Froissart, Jean, Froissart's Chronicles, New York, J. Winchester, pp. 283–290.
  • ''Life and Adventures of Wat Tyler, the Brave and Good", London, Collins Publishing, 1851.
  • "Historical, Biography of Wat Tyler", New York Daily Times, October 28, 1852, page 3.
  • Hanawalt, Barbara A. The Middle Ages, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998, page 139.

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