10/08/2009

The Peasants’ Revolt

Posted in Local History at 11:39 pm by henrysgauntlet

For a very long time local people have believed that the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 began here in Essex. The refusal of the men of Fobbing late in May, 1381 to pay the poll tax approved by Parliament in the previous year was, it has often been claimed,  its starting point. The young King Richard II’s commissioner, John Bampton, was driven away from Fobbing  by force and when the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, Robert Bealknap, came down to Brentwood to punish the rioters, the men of Fobbing, Mucking, and elsewhere in Essex set upon him and expelled him and his party from the town  with bloodshed. Within a few days, the peasants of Essex and those of Kent with whom they were in touch had risen in revolt, London was partly taken and the King and his advisers threatened with violence. It took far-reaching concessions from the King to the Essex men and the death of the rebels’ most prominent leader, Wat Tyler, at Smithfield before the worst of the rebellion was over and  good order was restored. 

Many of the details, certainly as far as Essex is concerned, come from the Anonimalle Chronicle compiled by a contemporary. Sadly, careful historical research has shown that these were wrong: John Bampton, for example, was not a member of the Commission appointed to enquire into the payment of the poll tax in Essex and Chief Justice Bealknap was not at Brentwood on the date in question. Neither man could have been the victim of the events the Anonimalle Chronicle describes. However, that does not mean that people from this part of the county were not involved in the revolt. 

Two of them definitely were. Thomas Baker of Fobbing appears to have played an important role in co-ordinating local resistance to the poll tax without going to London to participate in the dramatic events that brought it to an end in the middle of June, 1381. A little bit more is known about his ally, Robert Berdon of Orsett. Berdon sent his messengers to other villagers in Essex, mainly in Rochford Hundred, to encourage them to rise in support of the revolt. His orders apparently reached Canewdon, Great Wakering, South Shoebury, Paglesham, Stambridge and, further afield, Witham. This shows quite how wide the area over which a late-fourteenth century figure might have contacts. Unfortunately, what happened to the two men in the revolt’s aftermath is not known but the authorities trod very carefully in an attempt not to provoke further uprisings.

It may be disappointing to relinquish local myths but it is better to understand what the surviving records do, in fact, tell us.

Author  –  Christopher Thompson

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