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Walter "Wat" Tyler (4 January 1341 – 15 June 1381) was a leader of the English Peasants' Revolt of 1381.
Knowledge of Tyler's early life is very limited, and derives mostly through the records of his enemies. Historians believe he was born in Essex, but are not sure why he crossed the Thames Estuary to Kent. Local tradition in Brenchley was that he was born there.
With news of rebellions of the upper classes in France and Flanders, the English readied for an insurrection. John Ball, Jack Straw and others advocated the destruction of the hierarchical feudal system. Ball, like Tyler, held egalitarian values, though the medieval historian Jean Froissart describes Ball as insane. Other contemporaries suggest that he was involved with the Lollard movement. Such harsh, often unfounded attitudes toward the rebels are common among chroniclers, given that the latter belonged to the educated upper classes, who were usually the targets of rebellion rather than supporters of it. Thus, it is difficult to get an accurate sense of the actual aims and goals of rebels as their side of the story is not represented in historical accounts. Despite this difficulty, Tyler's name does appear in many monk scripts that were discovered throughout the years.
Richard II ascended to power after the death of Edward III; he was only 14 at the time of the rebellion. Since he was a minor, the Dukes of Lancaster, York and Gloucester governed in his name. These officials were the main targets of the rebels, who held that they were traitors to the king and undermined his authority. Several unsuccessful expeditions against France added to the burden on the English working class. The government resolved on a poll tax of three groats, which outraged the people because it was the same for rich and poor.
Reacting to the introduction of the oppressive poll tax, which the king had imposed because not enough income had been collected the previous year, Tyler led a mixed group "a very great number of [whom] were not simply peasants but village craftsmen and tradesmen" (The Peasants Revolt of 1381, R. B. Dobson, ed.), in taking Canterbury, before advancing on to Blackheath, outside London. Tyler then entered the city of London at the head of a group estimated at numbering over 50,000. After crossing London Bridge without resistance, the rebels then gained entry to the Tower of London and captured Simon Sudbury, the unpopular Archbishop of Canterbury, before proceeding to behead him and several of his followers. During subsequent rioting, the rebels also destroyed the Savoy palace that belonged to the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt (who was the king's uncle). Richard of Wallingford presented a charter to King Richard II on behalf of Tyler. The king met the rebel army at Mile End and promised to address the people's grievances, which included the unpopular taxes.
Twenty thousand people assembled at Smithfield. Richard II agreed to meet the leaders of the revolt, and listen to their demands. Wat Tyler decided to ride out alone and parley with the king. What was said between Tyler and the king is largely conjecture and little is known of the exact details of the encounter; however, by all accounts the unarmed Tyler was suddenly attacked without warning and killed by the Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Walworth, and John Cavendish, a member of the king's group. This unprovoked betrayal of the truce flag and Tyler's killing threw the people into a panic. Not being organized as a military force, they broke ranks and began to flee for their lives.
|Wikisource has the text of a 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article about Wat Tyler.|
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