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The Black Death, Poll Tax and the Peasant Revolt

“Ring around the rosy, a pocket full of posies, a-tishoo, a-tishoo, we all… fall… down…”

Whispers could be heard on street corners, hushed tones fearful that if spoken aloud the rumours may come true. A strange illness was known to be making its way across far off lands, striking down anyone who encountered it.

In October 1347, 12 ships from the Black Sea began to sail into the Sicilian port of Messina. An eery silence befell the dock as they waited for the sailors to emerge. What met them was nothing short of horrifying. Most sailors aboard the ships were dead, and the survivors were covered in black boils that oozed pus and blood.

The Black Death had arrived in Europe and for the next 5 years would affect approximately 25 million people as it swept through the continent, leaving 30% of its population dead.

This global disease of bubonic plague is still known today as the deadliest pandemic recorded in human history.

But not only did the Black Death cause phenomenal mortality rates, it also caused a string of political events that would change the social aspects of Medieval Britain.

In 1351, at the end of the Black Death, a law was passed to prevent peasants taking advantage of the labourer shortage. The Statute of Labourers forced peasants to work for the same wage as they had before the Black Death, meaning landowners became richer as life was made much harder for the poor.

Prices rose as food became scarce, wages remained low and so the peasants suffered from hunger and shortages.

The Black Death took a terrible toll on the country sparing no one, and although over the course of the pandemic England had a strong King, Edward III, his son and heir to the throne died before him. Thus, in 1377 on Edward III’s passing, his grandson became the young King. At a mere 10 years old, he was too young to rule England and so the power lay with the Barons, in particular the boy’s uncle, John of Gaunt.

England’s involvement in The Hundred Years War had left the Treasury empty, and the Barons were tired of paying for the war. In 1377, John of Gaunt imposed a new tax; the Poll Tax. The tax was created to cover the cost of the war, and unlike most taxes, this tax would be paid by both peasants and landowners alike.

It was so successful that the Barons repeated the Poll Tax three times, significantly rising with each replication. Every single person over the age of 14 was obliged to pay and by 1380 it had risen from fourpence to a shilling per head.

However, by this time many were hiding from collectors and refusing to pay the obscene cost of the Poll Tax. On examining the Poll Tax Returns for 1380, John Gaunt and his Royal Council were outraged to find less money collected than ever before. He instructed tax collectors to obtain the full amount owed.

In Fobbing, Essex, a tax collector demanded that the entire village pay the hated tax a second time, and furthermore, the tax of anyone who had not turned up as instructed! Unsurprisingly a riot ensued. The tax collector and his men were beaten, manor houses were burnt down, and any records of labour duties, taxes and debts were destroyed.

Soon the word was out and revolt spread across the country, with two risings in Essex and Kent becoming the focus of the Peasants Revolt. The rebels attacked the rich and promised “death to all traitors” as they marched to London to demand justice from the King. The Peasants Revolt was brutal and bloody, many were killed on both sides.

The peasants wreaked havoc through the city, which was caught unawares and defenceless. They were eventually promised change if they left London and returned to their homes, but on doing so Royal forces hunted the rebels in an act of vengeance. In Essex, some 500 died without trial and in Kent, 1500 peasants were sent to the gallows.

On the surface, the peasants were defeated, demands denied and vast numbers executed. However, Parliament gave up the control of wages, the hated Poll Tax never rose again and the outdated feudal system began its slow demise.