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According to one account, the tax collector stripped the 15-year-old daughter of Wat Tyler naked, in order to prove whether she was old enough to owe the king’s poll tax. Upon hearing the screams of his wife and daughter, Tyler came running and set upon the taxman, fatally wounding him. The incident is said to have sparked the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, culminating in the siege of London.
By some accounts, as many as 100,000 peasants stormed across London Bridge, seizing the Tower of London and executing the Archbishop of Canterbury. Outraged by a poll tax that was far too high for the poor to pay, the countryside united behind Tyler, a former soldier who had retired from military service to become a village blacksmith. The population of England had been decimated by the Black Death, leaving far too few peasants to fund the excesses of nobility, crown and church.
Reformer John Wycliffe had translated the Bible into the common tongue, adding impetus to a growing “Lollard” movement among the poor, who demanded an end to excessive church wealth and the opulent and dissolute lifestyles of the priests and high churchmen. Indeed, the conditions could not have been riper for rebellion.
As the peasants moved through London, executing government and church officials, their leaders enforced a bizarre discipline amidst the chaos, ordering that no one should loot or enrich themselves.
When at the very doorstep of 14-year-old King Richard II, their sovereign rode out to meet them. The rebels were in full battle array, but Tyler rode forth to meet the king alone.
What happened at that point has been the subject of endless conjecture. Whether Tyler took offense at a personal slight spoken by one of the king’s men and pulled his knife, or whether he was simply struck down by one of the king’s entourage, all we know for certain is that an altercation ensued and Tyler lay mortally wounded. It was reported by those present that Tyler had demanded an end to church wealth and that all Englishmen would henceforth be of one station. To these demands, Richard initially agreed.
Leaderless, the rebel army began to disperse. Richard allowed most to return to their homes and farms, but many of the leaders were systematically hunted down and swung from the gallows. The campaign of terror continued for years until the newly married king hearkened to the pleas of his queen and issued pardons to the remaining rebels.