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Wat Tyler

Walter or Wat Tyler was the leader of the peasants' revolt. His date of birth is unknown but it is believed, according to the Anonimalle chronicle he came from the Maidstone area in Kent. A contemporary chronicler, Froissart records that he was 'indeed a tiler of houses, an ungracious patron' It has been generally assumed that he came from Kent and he could have been the same individual who is mentioned in a parliamentary petition of 1383-4 describes 'Wauter Tylere del Countes de Kent'. The debate about his origins has raged for many years between historians some of whom believe he came from Colchester in Essex. Several indictments by Kentish juries state he was from Essex and this has been backed by evidence from the Eulogium historiarum which describes him as a 'tiler from Essex'. Claims that he was a member of the Kenitsh gentry, a member of the Culpepper family is highly unlikely. The association of the name of Tyler with Jack Straw, that they were one in the same, has also been suggested, but once again this is unlikely.

Wat Tyler is the most important of several individuals who led the peasants revolt in 1381. His involvement is said have begun following his murder of atax collector who assaulted his daughter. It is impossible to confirm this story that was originally quoted by the historian John Stow was taken from the St Albans chronicle that has since been lost.

The records have allowed historians to record the progress of events with some accuracy. The revolt began in Dartford on the 4th and 5th of June. There were also disturbances recorded in Maidstone and North Cray. The rebels, as they referred to by the authorities, then moved to Canterbury. A group supposedly led by Tyler seized the Sherrif of Kent outside Sittingboune and burnt his official documents. From Canterbury the increasingly large armed moved to Maidstone where they released the radical preacher John Ball on the 11th of June. Through other parts of Kent the message of the rebellion had spread. There few records surviving from this period but it is known that a proclamation from Tyler and Jack Rakestraw was made in St Johns church on Thanet urging people to attack local officials.

By the 12th of June Tyler and his followers were on Blackheath threateningly close to London. The King, Richard II, travelled to Rotherhithe on the 13th to meet Tyler but did not land. Not surprisingly there were concerns about his safety. It may be that this failure to meet resulted in the rebels moving on London. On the 14th a large group entered the city from Essex.

The rebels seem to have been well organized and it seems that Tyler exerted considerable control over the rebels urging them to obey his orders. He certainly suggested attacks on the churchmen in the city urging people, according to the Walsingham, Chronicon Angliae, to 'shave the beards of the abbot, prior and monks'.

The major target on their first day in the city was the Savoy Palace, home of the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt. The palace was attached but not looted as might be expected by an unruly mob. This discipline did not however stop several murders of unpopular individuals. The financier Richard Lyons was killed. On the 14th Tyler met the King at Mile End. There were discussions about the granting of charters of freedom, presumably between Tyler and King Richard. Quite possibly at roughly the same time, rebels stormed the Tower of London and seized the archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury, Robert Hales, the prior of the hospitallers and treasurer of England. They were taken to Tower Hill and executed.

It is not possible to be sure about the role of Tyler or to be specific about who was responsible for the raid on the Tower and the executions that follow. The chronicles of the time are contradictory but it is clear from the records that the King granted letters of manumission to a group of Kentish rebels at Mile End. Whether Tyler was one of them or whether he was leading the attack on the Tower is unclear.

At this point some of the rebels began to leave London. Tyler remained and on the 15th met the King at Smithfield. Once again the chronicles provide conflicting stories. The Anonimalle chronicle claims Tyler was summoned to meet the King who was accompanied by William Walworth, the mayor of London and Sir John Newton, the constable of Rochester Castle. According to this source Tyler rode up to the King, dismounted and spoke to him saying, 'Brother, be of good comfort and joyful, for you shall have, in the fortnight to come, forty thousand more commons than you have at present, and we shall be good comrades'

What followed according to the Anonimalle chronicle was the trading of insults, rude behaviour before the King and a deliberate series of attempts to antagonize Tyler. Tyler stabbed Walworth in the neck and in the scuffle that followed Tyler was cut down by Ralph Standish. The King quickly took the intiative and approached the rebels. It is unclear what happened next but the rebels clearly dispersed. They must have been given a pardon such that they left without a fight as there are no records of a serious clash between the Kings followers and the mob. The rebels left London and the revolt ended. It was only after this that retribution was meted out on those involved. Tyler may have died at Smithfield although one account describes him being taken to the hospital of St Bartholomew. It was from here that the account records that Walworth, finding the wounded Tyler, took him out of the hospital and executed him.

Ian Coulson


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