During a period when public confidence in the government, and nobility, was especially low, the English peasants became very discontented. Problems started in mid-1381 in the eastern counties (Norfolk south to Kent) when protests against the unpopular poll tax and the often corrupt tax collectors erupted into riots. The leaders in Kent and Essex marched on London, with the Kentish rebels plundering Rochester and Canterbury.
One of the revolt’s leaders was Wat Tyler, probably an ex-soldier, who led the Kentish contingent to Blackheath to await a meeting with the King, Richard II, while the Essex men camped at Mile End near Aldgate.
Wat Tyler’s men opened the Marshalsea Prison near Southwark and proceeded to Lambeth where they burnt Chancery records stored in the Archbishop’s Manor. Swelled by London mobs, they crossed London Bridge and headed towards Fleet Street, opening the Fleet Prison and destroying the rolls of the lawyers at New Temple.
The Londoners, assisted by the Kent contingent, ransacked the hated John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace. All over London unpopular notables were summarily beheaded, while the hospital of the Knights Hospitallers was burned. The 14-year-old Richard II courageously decided to attempt personal, conciliatory negotiations with the rebels. On Friday 14 June Richard had a meeting with some of the Essex rebels at Mile End and granted their demands and promised an amnesty. Charters confirming these concessions were drawn up. But the Kent contingent was not happy with the agreement and anarchy and bloodshed continued. Richard resumed negotiations at Smithfield with Wat Tyler. Tyler increased the rebels’ demands and was disrespectful to the authorities. An argument started and Tyler was killed after attempting to stab the Mayor.
Following the earlier successes of the London rebels, other groups of peasants started risings in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire. But by the end of June the revolt had been largely overcome with many of its local leaders dead.