The Great Revolt and St Albans - how the peasants' uprising of 1381 played out across the district
- Credit: 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.
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.
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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.
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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/ execution of royal advisors. They also advocated a radical reshaping of the social hierarchy.
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 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.
Disturbances started in St Albans on June 13. 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.
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.
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.
Places in St Albans connected with the Peasants' Revolt:
- St Albans Cathedral - Contains Abbot Thomas de la Mare’s memorial brass.
- The Abbey Gatehouse - Contained the Abbot’s gaol. The rebels freed the inmates.
- The area behind the Gatehouse - Site of the Great Court where Richard II received Hertfordshire’s allegiance.
- Romeland - The rebels’ assembly point. Where they executed one of the prison’s inmates. Possibly where Ball was executed.
- The Market Place - Buildings belonging to the Abbey destroyed here. Possibly where Ball was executed.
- St Albans Museum + Gallery -The rear of the building is on the site of the Moot Hall where the leaders were tried.
- Grange Road - Named after St Peter’s Grange, a barn destroyed by the rebels.
- Eyewood (between the Abbey Station and Park Street) - Where the leaders of the town’s revolt were hung.