He ruled over a troubled country. In the east and south of England there was great unrest, incited by the gross injustice, amounting to hypocrisy, of the social system. The French historian Froissart was unsurprised when word reached Paris in May that the men of Essex had risen against the government and a dangerous conflict had begun. The rebellion spread to Kent and soon the whole of the south of England was in turmoil as the rebels converged upon London in a terrifying, threatening force.
Their leader was a man from Maidstone called Wat Tyler, supported by one Jack Straw while a parson, John Bull, who came originally from York, was also involved. Froissart wrote how during one of Ball’s sermons, he incited his followers to rebel against those exploiting them.
‘What have we deserved , or why should we be kept thus in servage? We be all come from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve; whereby can they say or shew that they be greater Lords than we be, saving by that they cause us to win and labour for that they depend? They are clothed in velvet and camlet furred with grise, and we be vestured with poor cloth…they dwell in their houses, and we have pain and travail, rain and wind in the fields and by that cometh of our labours they keep and maintain their estates, we be called their bondsmen, and without we do them readily their service, we be beaten; and we have no sovereign to whom we may complain…let us go to the King , he is young, and shew him what servage we be in…and when the King seeth us, we shall have some remedy, either by fairness or otherwise.’
Richard had been at Windsor Castle when he heard that the rising had begun. Both he and his mother had then been quickly moved to the Tower of London. From there the king himself rowed down the Thames to confront Wat Tyler, who was demanding to speak to him. Approaching them he and those with him saw the protestors to be hostile, shouting incomprehensible words and putting arrows to their bows. At sight of this, Richard’s companions told the oarsmen to row back to the Tower.
But the Tower of London, most impregnable of all fortresses, was now itself under siege. The Alderman of London, Walter Sybyle, sympathising with the rebels, had raised the drawbridge, allowing the insurgents to swarm into London to burn buildings.
On the morning of 14 June 1381, the young king rode out of the Tower and with only a few men to guard him, went to meet Wat Tyler at the fields of Mile End. As he approached a spokesman came out from amongst the rebels to present him with a written petition asking that villeinage be abolished and that all feudal dues and services should be commuted for a rent of 4d. per acre and that a general pardon and amnesty be declared.
Surprisingly, the king agreed to their demands whereupon, within a short time, no less than 30 clerks were employed to write documents granting pardons and freedom bearing the king’s seal, to every manor and shire. Richard’s banner was then presented to every shire in warranty of his word.
It had seemed that everything was then settled but, on returning to London, Richard heard to his fury that the Tower had been seized. Thankfully his mother, Princess Joan, fainting with terror, had been taken to the royal office at the Wardrobe in Carter Lane. Young Henry Lancaster, son of John of Gaunt, had escaped but the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Chudbury, Chancellor of the Realm, and Sir John Hayes, the Treasurer, had been dragged to immediate execution on Tower Hill.
His mind seething with fury at the gross injustice and cruelty of the rebels, as well as with the insult to himself, King Richard, his mother’s safety secured, rode out of central London by Ludgate and Fleet Street, fury forcing the spurs as he goaded the flanks of his horse.
Knowing the danger that awaited them, both he and his escort of knights now all wore corselets of steel. A meeting was arranged with Wat Tyler to take place at Smithfield, a market just beyond the New Gate of the city. Tyler very cockily rode over on a pony to where the King sat, straight backed, on his great war horse.
‘Brother,’ began Tyler, his familiarity towards his sovereign shocking to those within hearing, ‘be of good cheer, for you now have 40,000 men at your back, and we shall all be good friends.’
Richard regarded him coldly before demanding to know why his followers refused to disperse. Tyler then became truculent, retorting that they would only do so when all their demands had been met.
‘What demands?’ Richard asked, whereupon Tyler, rudely rinsing his mouth out in front of the King, while saying he was quenching a great thirst, announced that he knew no law but the law of Winchester, no lordship but the king’s disestablishment of the Church, the recognition of only one bishop, no serfage, no villeinage, and freedom and equality for all.
One of Richard’s escort, infuriated by Tyler’s rudeness to the king, shouted over the heads around him that Tyler was the greatest thief in Kent. Tyler, mad with rage, then ordered his men to kill the man who had insulted him whereupon the king told a Major Walworth to arrest Tyler for contempt. Tyler lunged at Walworth with his dagger but the point of it merely rang against the steel of his breastplate as, in the same moment, Walworth struck Tyler a mighty blow with his sword. Tyler hauled at his pony’s reins to turn it but in doing so lost his balance and fell, his foot catching in the stirrup. Terrified, the pony dragged him across the marketplace leaving a trail of blood, while his men stood silent, watching in horror as their leader vanished in a scrimmage of men blocking him from their view.
It was then that Richard rode forward alone, even as Tyler’s men put arrows to their bows.
‘Let me be your leader!’ he yelled.
Mortally wounded by Walworth and royal squire, Ralph Standish, Tyler was beheaded and his head placed on a pole. The dumbfounded and confused crowd followed Richard to the meadow known as Clerkenwell Fields, from where they disbanded, muttering to themselves in amazement at the courage of the boy whose outstanding bravery had shown himself so fit to be their king.
By Mary McGrigor