Book Review: The Great Revolt of 1381 by Charles Oman

January 19, 2017 by Mercedes Rochelle | Filed under Book Reviews.

I’ve had this book on my shelves for years, waiting for the right moment to tackle it. The moment has arrived! I am doing research on Richard II, and the Peasant Revolt is a great place to start. I certainly picked up the right book; Charles Oman has given a thorough explanation of this pivotal event all the way down to the tax rolls (in the appendix, fortunately). Like most armchair historians, I knew about Wat Tyler and the London riot. What I didn’t know was that the Great Revolt extended through much of England and lasted a couple of weeks past the day Tyler was killed.

As for the revolt itself, we get a thorough description, as expected. We saw Richard’s courage in approaching the rebels: “His position had been so much changed by the fall of London, that he was now forced to take the risk of being imprisoned or even murdered by the rebels, which had seemed unnecessary on the previous day.” We saw the rioting in London and the fear of the authorities who stood helpless in the face of the insurgency. It was Richard alone who quelled the rebellion and sent many of the participants home. This was truly his greatest hour.

I always wondered about Richard’s reversal after he promised everything to the peasants: was he idealistic and later forced to recant by his uncles, or did he lie through his teeth to get out of a tight situation? Apparently, Oman thinks the king leaned toward the latter, and not without reason. Significantly, the famous line “Villeins ye are still, and villeins ye shall remain” did not come unprovoked. Richard’s proclamation was made after he marched to Waltham at the head of an army a week later to put down further insurrections; a new embassy of Essex insurgents had approached him “with a demand for the ratification of the promises made at Mile End on June 14, and a request that they might be granted the additional privilege of freedom from the duty of attending the King’s courts…” The author adds: “It is clear that the sentimental sympathy for the oppressed peasantry attributed to the young king by some modern authors had no real existence. He was incensed at the duress which he had suffered on June 14-15, and anxious to revenge himself.” To me, this interpretation of Richard’s actions goes a long way toward defining who he really was. But at the same time, Richard’s courage was irrefutable and he alone saved the day. “What might not have been hoped from a boy of fourteen capable of such an achievement, and who could have guessed that this gifted but wayward king was to wreck his own career and end as the miserable starved prisoner of Pontefract?”

What I took away from this book was the understanding that conditions leading up to the Peasant Revolt were long-term and widespread. When taking a broad look, apparently the leaders of the revolt were not in communication with each other; the participants were reacting to the situation as the opportunities presented themselves (and not all of them were peasants). In the long run, things went on the same as before: “If we had not the chronicles of Tyler’s rising, we should never have gathered from the court rolls of the manors that there had been an earth-shaking convulsion in 1381”. But there was one tangible result; now the peasants had a new ideal to strive for. They cherished the charters of freedom and amnesty that were issued by the king, and although all Richard’s promises were broken, they knew it could be done. It was a sad and enlightening event, and I found this book to be most satisfying.


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