Analysing the actions of the rebels in the English Revolt of 1381: the case of Cambridgeshire

November 24, 2021 | Blog
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by Mingjie Xu (Fudan University)


This blog is based on the author’s paper published in the Economic History Review:


The Peasants’ Revolt, which erupted in England in the summer of 1381, was by far the largest and most widespread popular uprising in the nation’s history (Figure 1).


Figure 1. The death of Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, in 1381. Source:

Questions about the relative importance of the various discontents that provoked
rebellion, and the historical legacy of this momentous event, remain unanswered. Central to the enduring debate is the extent to which the rebellion should be viewed primarily as the culmination of a centuries long struggle by serfs for freedom which was accelerated by a ‘seigniorial reaction’ whereby landlords fought to preserve and even increase feudal burdens. Another major explanatory premise was the anger generated by an unpopular and corrupt government imposing a succession of new taxes to meet the costs of an unpopular war, together with the battery of innovative and divisive legal interventions in labour and commodity markets.

This article contributes to the debate by a systematic study of the uprising in Cambridgeshire. My research examines the nature and context of the violent acts perpetrated by the rebels. The investigation is facilitated by the incomparable quality and comprehensive coverage of the legal records drawn up by the commissions established in Cambridgeshire to prosecute insurgents, complemented by the rich supplementary information contained in a range of appropriate sources.

From this data the characteristics of each violent incident that occurred in the county has been identified, categorized and counted. In total, there were 81 violent incidents in the region identifiable with a date and place, and 56 named victims. The geographical range and pattern of the attacks is shown in (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Violent incidents in Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely in 1381. Source: as per article

Systematic analysis of the victims’ backgrounds and a detailed investigation of the rebels’ actions, demonstrates that the rebels were highly selective in choosing targets. A clear distinction can be drawn between attacks against landlords in their capacity as lords of manors, attacks directed toward national/local political and legal figures held responsible for devising and enforcing unpopular laws, those mishandling the war with France, and miscellaneous disorder generated by local and personal grievances. My data indicate that the targets of the Cambridgeshire rebels were overwhelmingly the state and its functionaries — both local and national — and that attacks on landlords, simply because they were landlords, were rare. The pre-eminence of political and legal targets in Cambridgeshire and the strength of antagonism towards them is further exhibited by the activities of the sizeable and well-organised rebel bands which travelled long distances to attack their targets. The routes taken by the five leading bands are shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Marching routes of some prominent rebel leaders. Source: as per article

My research demonstrates that the experience of Cambridgeshire during the Peasants’ Revolt contrasts sharply with common representations of the uprising in many other regions, which stress the pervasive presence of antagonism towards landlords. Although the uprising in Cambridgeshire was only a modest portion of the Great Revolt of 1381, systematic counting and categorising of high-quality data is an effective way of illuminating the rebels’ grievances and the targets of their anger. It is possible that a comparable analysis of rebels recorded in the judicial proceeding in other regions may dissipate the controversy that continues to surround this momentous uprising.


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