The Great Revolt and St Albans - the local impact of the the peasants' uprising of 1381

2021 is the 640th anniversary of the most serious popular revolt in Medieval England, popularly known as the ‘Peasants’ Revolt’. Drawing on recent research, Dr John Morewood, SAHAAS President, looks at the background to the events, how St Albans was involved in the uprising, and what places are connected with the events of June – July 1381.

A plaque inside the Abbey Gatehouse [John Morewood]

2021 is the 640th anniversary of the largest and most serious outbreak of popular unrest in England in the Middle Ages: popularly known as The Peasants’ Revolt. St Albans was greatly affected: property was destroyed and people were killed and executed. King Richard II, aged 14, arrived with an army and oversaw the execution of one of the revolt’s most notorious leaders.

Changing views of the revolt

Views of the revolt have changed over time. Contemporaries condemned it as the work of simply country folk who had revolted against the established order. Some historians consider it as an early demand for a more egalitarian society. And some claim it led to the construction of one of our best loved landmarks, The Clock Tower, as a symbol of the town’s independence from the Abbey’s autocratic rule.

The reality is complex, and a major new national research project will add a great deal to our knowledge. Certainly, the revolt’s name is misleading. Although peasants were involved, the movement was not one of the poor and downtrodden. Three-quarters of the known rebels in the south-east of England held positions of local responsibility.

The reasons for the revolt were many – social, economic, political. The catalyst seems to have been a decision to ruthlessly enforce an inequitable poll tax, causing rebellion in Essex and Kent. Officials were killed, their houses and records destroyed. The movement spread and London was captured.

The rebel leaders, including John Ball and Watt Tyler, demanded the ending of serfdom, pardoning of criminals, and the removal or execution of royal advisors. They also advocated a radical reshaping of the social hierarchy.

The priest John Ball encouraging Wat Tyler’s rebels. From a c1470 manuscript of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles in the British Library [Public domain]

Senior government officials were beheaded and unpopular foreigners killed. Government paralysis encouraged uprisings elsewhere. Opportunities were taken to settle old grievances. The revolt spread as far north as Newcastle-upon-Tyne, as far west as Bridgwater, and to St Albans.

The movement here, led by William Grindcobbe, had a different agenda to that of Ball and Tyler.

Disputes between the Abbey, the greatest landholder in western Hertfordshire, and the townspeople were not new. The Abbey had always emerged victorious due to royal support and the fact that it had its own armed force drawn from its tenants. But in June 1381 the Abbey could not rely on the Crown nor indeed on its own supporters, some of whom were sent to London to aid the Crown, and some probably had their own grievances.

The threat to authority in St Albans

Disturbances started in St Albans on 13 June 1381. The townspeople renewed their demands to be allowed to pasture their cattle, hunt, and fish on some of the Abbey’s lands and the right to grind their own corn. They obtained assurances that the Abbot would not interfere in the town’s government, but they did not repudiate his overlordship.

The Abbey Gatehouse. The abbot’s gaol was to the right of the great arch. [Peter Bourton]

This sounds harmless enough. However, to show their determination they, and local supporters, freed prisoners from the Abbot’s gaol, killing one, and destroyed houses and other monastic property. They encouraged unrest in 32 of the other abbey manors and threatened the monks with death and the Abbey with destruction. Most alarmingly, to the government, representatives from St Albans went to London to gain support from Tyler and that meant guilt by association when retribution came.

The end of the revolt in St Albans

And, of course, retribution did happen. Tyler was murdered. Support for the revolt declined. Many believed royal assurances that their concerns would be addressed and went home. Resistance was crushed. Local officials either recovered their nerve or saw which way the wind was blowing.

They arrested Grindcobbe and some of his fellow leaders. The townspeople handed back the charters they had extracted from the Abbot, promised to rebuild the destroyed property, and paid the equivalent today of £120,000 in compensation.

On July 12 Richard II arrived with over 1,000 troops. Thanks to the Abbot, Thomas de la Mare’s intercession, punishment was limited to the ringleaders. Grindcobbe and 14 others were tried, hanged, and their bodies ordered to remain hanging on gallows erected in Eywood.

The worst punishment was reserved for John Ball. He was brought to St Albans, hung and beheaded. His head was displayed on London Bridge and his body cut in four and each part sent to a different city. The execution would have been a public spectacle possibly taking place in Market Place or Romeland.

On July 20, in the great court of the monastery, Hertfordshire men swore loyalty to the King. It had all lasted six weeks.

The Abbot regained complete control of the town and suppressed some of the guilds he had previously allowed as an element of self-government. It seems unlikely that the Clock Tower, completed in about 1405, was built as a symbol of independence from the Abbey.

Perhaps we need to look upon it in the same light as the Flemish belfrois – symbols of civic pride which co-existed with church towers – for St Albans was still very much the Abbot’s town.

The tracery in the roof of the Abbey Gatehouse. There are holes in the ceiling from which objects could be dropped. Unfortunately for the abbot in the absence of his armed retainers there was no-one to defend the monastery [John Morewood]

Places in St Albans connected with the Peasants’ Revolt
St Albans CathedralContains Abbot Thomas de la Mare’s memorial brass.  
The Abbey GatehouseContained the Abbot’s gaol. The rebels freed the inmates.
The area behind the GatehouseSite of the Great Court where Richard II received Hertfordshire’s allegiance.
RomelandThe rebels’ assembly point. Where they executed one of the prison’s inmates. Possibly where Ball was executed.
The Market PlaceBuildings belonging to the Abbey destroyed here. Possibly where Ball was executed.
St Albans Museum + GalleryThe rear of the building is on the site of the Moot Hall where the leaders were tried.
Grange RoadNamed after St Peter’s Grange, a barn destroyed by the rebels.

We are grateful to Matt Adams, Group Editor, for permission to reproduce this article, which first appeared in the Herts Advertiser.