Wat Tyler: Biography, Death & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

English history has had its fair share of rebellions. In this lesson, we are going to talk about Wat Tyler and see what impact he had on the tumultuous history of English uprisings.

The Wat Tyler Rebellion

Some people are known as the heroes of the century or the heroes of a generation. Some, however, are remembered as the hero of nine days. Walter ''Wat'' Tyler was an English citizen who helped launch a brief and unsuccessful popular uprising known as the English Peasant's Rebellion in 1381. While the short revolt would ultimately fail, it was the first peasant rebellion of note in English history. It wouldn't be the last. So, long live Wat Tyler, the hero of nine days.

England in the 14th Century

Wat Tyler was born around 1320 in an England that was going through a rough time. After centuries of the traditional feudal system keeping the peasants submissive to the lords and aristocrats, the plague hit England in the 14th century. The disease hit lords and peasants alike, without care for class or wealth. At the same time, new religious ideas were appearing that began to celebrate the role of the individual, giving the peasantry an even greater sense of self-worth. Meanwhile, these same peasants worked for little money and even less respect.

Amidst the growing dissatisfaction amongst the peasantry, issues within the monarchy also started shaking the nation. King Edward III was on the throne, and his heir was his oldest son, Edward of Angouleme. Edward of Angouleme then died, and his younger brother (Edward, the Black Prince) became the heir to the throne. The Black Prince died several years later, leaving his son Richard, grandson of Edward III, as heir. Edward III died in 1377, and his 11-year old grandson was crowned as Richard II, King of England. King Richard II's early reign was dominated by powerful advisors like John of Gaunt, and people's faith in the monarchy began to waver.

Richard II
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Wat Tyler and the Poll Tax

This is the world Wat Tyler lived in. He served in King Edward III's military, became a blacksmith in Kent and rose as a community leader. This unofficial position would soon become important as working-class frustration against the government continued to escalate. Finally, the government passed a new poll tax, which taxed the peasantry in order to pay for the government's wars in France. It was the final straw for a working class that was already being stretched thin.

By 1381, all the people needed was a spark to ignite their fury. According to tradition, that spark came in Kent, when a tax collector accosted and stripped Wat Tyler's 15-year old daughter to see if she was old enough to pay the new tax. Tyler attacked and killed the tax collector. That was all that the people of Kent needed to break into open rebellion. Tyler's killing of the tax collector, a government representative, became a symbol of popular discontent against the entire government.

The Rebellion

The people of Kent immediately elected Wat Tyler to be their leader and set to work. They attacked and conquered the city of Canterbury in Kent. They then started their march towards London. By the time they reached the city, Tyler's rebellion had grown to include roughly 100,000 peasants. They entered London and started killing any government officials they could find. Their attack was sudden and massive in scale, seemingly having appeared out of nowhere. The government was caught completely off guard, and King Richard II was forced to meet with the leaders to hear their demands. According to some accounts, their demand was simple: freedom. The king is said to have promised to provide land for the working class, free trade for England, and an end to the feudal system that kept the peasantry oppressed by the lords.

The rebels kill the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had helped support the poll tax
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