By Stephen Basdeo
In the summer of 1381, the common people of England rose up against their oppressive government who had hit them with three regressive poll taxes in 1377, 1379, and of course in 1381. In the south, the people organised; the commons of Kent elected the brave Wat Tyler as their leader and, having written down their grievances in a coherent form, marched on London in a 50,000 strong army to present the following demands to the boy king, Richard II: the end of the poll tax; the abolition of serfdom (from the peasant class, a serf was the ‘lowest of the low’); the freedom to buy and sell in the marketplace; the abolition of the Statute of Labourers (1351), which kept wages artificially low; and the execution of all of the king’s treasonous advisors, who also happened to be the architects of the poll tax.
Yet it wasn’t just men who had all the fun. In records from the time, we also find that women enthusiastically took part as well. In his ground-breaking study of the revolt, Bond Men Made Free (1973), Rodney Hilton pointed to the case of one woman, named Joan Smith, from Rochester, Kent, who was indicted after the rebellion and called
The leader of a great band of rebellious evil-doers from Kent.[i]
To find out more about these ‘revolting’ women, I decided to read Sylvia Federico’s study of women’s role in the rebellion.[ii]
That women took a prominent role in the Peasants’ Revolt is attested to by several sources: Federico points out that they appear in the records of the Court of the King’s Bench and the Court of Common Pleas; the chroniclers Thomas Walsingham and Henry Knighton, from whom much of our modern understanding of the events of 1381 is taken, likewise point out that women were present during the rebellion; and the poets Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower also draw attention to some of these ‘revolting women’ in their writings.
So, let us take a look at some of these women whom Federico identified.
The rebellion began in an Essex village named Fobbing, where a man called Thomas Baker bravely took a stand against the king’s lackies and refused to pay the poll tax. The tax collectors were then attacked by the rebels and forced to leave empty-handed. The revolt spread like wildfire; Hilton shows in his book just how organised the rebels were—messages were sent to parts of Kent where the people too rose up.
Under the direction of Wat Tyler, the rebels broke into Maidstone gaol and rescued the radical preacher, John Ball, who had been imprisoned for preaching about equality, spreading around the ‘dangerous’ saying
When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?
Yet Tyler was not the only one to lead the rebels into the prison, for we find another woman goading the rebels into destroying the prison:
Julia Pouchere came to meet with men from Canterbury and the county of Essex where they had risen in rebellion … [and] persuaded the … evil-doers [to] tore down the [Maidstone] jail and destroyed it.[iii]
The events of the rebellion are well-known: when the rebels reached London, the Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury—an architect of the poll tax—was executed by the rebels; the widely-hated John of Gaunt’s palace at the Savoy was destroyed.
The rebels were out for blood.
While sometimes women in history are stereotyped as being more passive, sympathetic figures, this was not the case with one Katherin Gamen. As the rebels pursued another official, Chief Justice John Cavendish, through the streets of Lakenheath on 15 June (angry medieval villagers carrying pitchforks is not a wholly inaccurate image), the beleaguered Cavendish was chased as far as the banks of the river. He saw a boat — a means of escape from the angry mob — he would jump in it and row to safety!
But it was not to be.
Gamen was nearer to the riverbank than Cavendish and saw that he was aiming for the boat. So she untied the boat and let it float out into the lake, depriving Cavendish of the means of escape.[iv]
Cavendish was then taken by the rebels and beheaded.
One of the rebels’ aims was the abolition of serfdom and feudal dues. Back in London, lawyers were the rebels’ primary target, along with the architects of the poll tax. Several lawyers lost their lives and many legal records were burnt, so as to erase all memory of feudal obligations. We find women doing exactly this: Matilda Aleyn Sprynghald stole a full chest of legal documents from a lawyers’ while another woman, Alice Wymond, broke into her lords’ manor house in Sussex and burnt all the documents pertaining to feudal obligations. This was not mindless violence but a well-thought out strategy; in fourteenth-century court cases, if a dispute arose between a lord and a tenant, the lord had to be able to give evidence that the tenant owed him a particular service or rent-in-kind.
After Wat Tyler was killed by the treacherous fishmonger, brothel-owner and Lord Mayor, William Walworth, the other ringleaders of the revolt were rounded up and subjected to horrific punishments like hanging, drawing, and quartering. However, the government could obviously not execute over 50,000 people so they wisely declared an amnesty for those who were merely ‘led astray’ by the ringleaders.
People quickly applied for the amnesty.
All in all, in the Pardon Rolls, we can find the names of 30 women who allegedly participated in Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, and they are often listed in the rolls along with their husbands. So we have women such as
- John and Beatrice Pegge of Bantre.
- Elena, the wife of John de Wetewang of Beverley.
- Agnes, widow of John Hunter of Whittington.[v]
The names of these women appear in the Pardon Rolls only once, but some women were so notorious during the rebellion, it seems, that they needed to secure two pardons. These women were:
- Joan Taburn.
- Joan Tapister.[vi]
It is not clear exactly what these women did in the revolt. They may have marched against the government, but we know also that, like many men, some women used the disturbances to commit crime, especially against their neighbours with whom, presumably, they had had long-standing grievances. This is what we see, for example, in the records of the Court of Common Pleas: Joan Aleyn stole 2s. 6d. from her neighbour; Agnes Stevenage burgled the house of John Brode, an escheator in Kent, although an escheator was a royal official charged with, among other things, collecting taxes, so perhaps her actions were way of her getting revenge on the government and enriching herself.[vii]
Furthering the rebels’ aims while taking a little for herself is also what a woman named Johanna did while Gaunt’s palace was being attacked. Federico records that this Johanna took a chest containing over £1000 (a staggering amount in 1381 — approximately £617,000 today) from Gaunt’s palace, then took a boat to Southwark where she divided the spoils between herself and her friends.[viii] Apparently, this same Johanna returned to central London the next day where, so some records say, she convinced the rioters to behead Simon Sudbury.
These are just some of the ‘revolting women’ which Federico has found in records from medieval England and it’s unfortunate that I cannot find any contemporary images of these women.
But fair play to them—where men might have been deprived of certain political and economic rights, women were worse off because they were women and enjoyed fewer advantages than men.
[i] Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free (New York: Viking, 1973), p. 215.
[ii] Sylvia Federico, ‘The Imaginary Society: Women in 1381’, Journal of British Studies, 40: 2 (2001), 159–83.
[iii] Federico, 167.
[v] Federico, 163.
[vi] Federico, 164.
[vii] Federico, 165.
[viii] Federico, 168.