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).
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.
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.
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.