As we saw in Part 1, by the Parliament of 1380, the Commons were up against the wall. The government under the new Chancellor Sudbury was desperate for money. In France, the earl of Buckingham had squandered the money raised from the last Poll Tax; the army was a half year in arrears; Gaunt needed money in Scotland; the coast needed to be protected against invasion; and the wool subsidy was not producing any funds because of a riot in Flanders. They needed £160,000 to make ends meet, including—unknown to the Commons—about £60,000 for Gaunt’s proposed Castile campaign. Impossible! After much discussion, the commons agreed to grant £100,000 if the rest was raised by the clergy, and it was decided a third poll tax would be put in place.
Unlike the second Poll Tax, which didn’t raise enough money, this one would demand three groats per person (the first poll tax was one groat), again on a sliding scale, though this time no specifics were outlined: “the sufficient shall (according to their means) aid the lesser…” (RB Dobson). This may have worked in the towns where a great landowner happened to reside (as long as the landowner helped out), but in the areas where there were no wealthy residents, the poorest households faced the most onerous burden. No one was happy. Since the tax was collected based on the population of a town or shire, here is where the infamous evasion was practiced all over the country: the population numbers between 1377 and 1381 suddenly dropped—on paper. For instance, Kent went from 56,557 to 43,838; Somerset fell from 54,604 to 30,384. Try Cumberland, that went from 11,841 to 4,748 and Devon, that fell from 45,635 to 20,656. Taken as a whole, “the adult population of the realm has ostensibly fallen from 1,355,201 to 896,481 persons” (Oman, The Great Revolt of 1381). It seems that many quit counting unmarried daughters, widowed mothers, etc. Or who knows? It soon became obvious that all was not as it should be!
So the government appointed new commissioners in March, 1381 to investigate the widespread tax evasion. Commissioners were hard to find, for this was a task bound for trouble. But they were reportedly allowed to keep the profits raised above and beyond their quota, so ambitious men came forward, each accompanied by two sergeants-at-arms to provide additional persuasion. Not only were they bitterly resented, for the people declared they had already paid their taxes, but ugly rumors abounded about their methods. It was even said that one commissioner lifted girls’ skirts to test whether they were virgins or not! Huh? Maybe he was looking for pubic hair? By the end of May, resentment had reached the boiling point.
It wasn’t an accident that when Sir John de Bampton came to Brentwood to start his commission in Essex, there was a crowd of about 100 waiting for him from the surrounding towns. They were angry, rudely armed, and ready for resistance. Bampton ordered his sergeants to make some arrests, the mob promptly attacked, stoning and beating the offenders until they headed back to London, their proverbial tail between their legs. And so started the Great Revolt.