Today (June 15) in London History – the Peasants’ Rebellion

The Peasants’ Rebellion climaxed on June 15, 1381. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

June 15th. And, yes, it is the obvious one. But you know something, not to do it – well, that’d be ignoring the elephant on the patio.

So here we go. It’s June 15th, 1381. The climax of the Peasants’ Rebellion.

Just as well for order and the authorities – and indeed for London – that events broke the way they did. That they were able to bring the thing under control.

Because my god was it ever out of control. Mob rule. Anarchy. 

The eye of the storm – where the Peasants’ rebellion climaxed – was Smithfield. Just north of St Paul’s. That’d be old St. Paul’s. Present-day St. Paul’s would have to wait until the Great Fire of London burned down the old mediaeval cathedral. Wiped the slate clean for Wren to build the St Paul’s we know and love today.

And Smithfield – well, over 40 years of guiding London I must have made this remark several thousand times to my walkers, my clients: “if you’re going to see London, you have to hear it.”

So Smithfield is not named for Captain John Smith or some other distinguished Smith. The name is a corruption of the phrase, “the smooth field.” It’s a flat, level field just outside the London wall, to the north of London. And because of its proximity to London and because of that physical characteristic, well, Smithfield’s been a crucible of London history. Has probably seen more history than any other comparable acreage in London. Knights, for example, jousted on “the smooth field.” One of the streets leading up to Smithfield is called Giltspur Street. Again, to see London, you have to hear it. At the southern end of Giltspur was Newgate – the prison and the gate. Knights would ride through the gate and ride up that track to the smooth field for a spot of jousting. They’d all be kitted out in their armour. The sun would be shining. And it would seem to gild their spurs. Ergo the name: Giltspur Street.

Anyway, if Smithfield was the eye of the storm it was all roiling and heaving all around the smooth field. Bad stuff. For example, in Cheapside – London’s High Street – it wasn’t a hundred yards from the smooth field, some lawyers and Flemings and others had been seized by the mob and summarily executed. Just north of Smithfield, right on the edge of Clerkenwell, was – and is – the Order of St John of Jerusalem. There the king’s treasurer had the bad luck – my god, how that phrase understates it – to fall into the hands of the mob. They chopped his head off. And then sacked and destroyed the buildings. You head from Smithfield down toward St Paul’s just before you get there you come – well, you did in those days – to a great church, St. Martin’s le Grand. The mob got in there, dragged a man out and beheaded him. They broke open the gates of Newgate prison and released the prisoners. The Archbishop of Canterbury had taken refuge in the Tower of London. The mob got wind that he was there. They broke into the Tower of London. Found the Archbishop. Dragged him out of the Tower and beheaded.

And those are just a few samples of the blood-dimmed tide, the anarchy that was loosed upon London.

Anyway on the 15th of June Wat Tyler and his rebels – thousands of them – were knocking on London’s door. They’d camped the night before just to the north of the City. At Smithfield they were met by the authorities, whom they greatly outnumbered.  So badly outnumbered the high and mighty didn’t seem so high and mighty. Though one of their number was the talismanic figure of the king, Richard II. The young king – he was only 14 years old. There with the royal retinue, the Lord Mayor of London, William Walworth. The two sides were maybe 40 yards apart, eyeing each warily. Supremely confident, Wat Tyler left his people and came toward the royal party. Went right up to the king. And then he committed an impertinence. He did something you didn’t do. He reached up and grabbed the bridle of the king’s horse. Walworth, the Mayor, pulled out his sword and thrust it through Tyler. Killing him on the spot. Tyler’s followers, there were thousands of them, let out a roar of anger. They were about to surge forward. Had they done so they easily would have engulfed, overrun, massacred the royal party. And at that point that boy king did a very brave thing. He spurred his horse away from his people toward the rebels. He called out, “he’s dead, let me be your leader, follow me.” Astonishingly, it worked. The mob was becalmed. They were persuaded to disperse, go home. All sorts of promises were made to them. The promises were of course lies.

Once the mob had dispersed it was an easy matter to round up the ringleaders and put them to death. And that was the end of the Peasant’s Rebellion.

There’s one other point that fascinates me about this episode. Richard II was the first king to speak English. The line was Norman, after all. Norman French. When he rode toward the peasants he was calling out to them in English. “He’s dead. Follow me. Let me be your leader.” Had he addressed them in French they would have pulled him off his horse and torn him to pieces.

And a Today in London recommendation. Follow us. Let us be your leader. In this instance in particular, Royal Shakespeare Company actor Stephen Noonan. His Sunday afternoon Shakespeare’s and Dickens’ London walk. The group goes to Smithfield. Hearing one of the finest actors of his generation give tongue to some of the great lines of English history – let alone a Shakespeare speech or two – on ground hallowed by history, that’s an experience that stays with you. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s award-winning signature walking tour company. What I normally do in this last minute of the podcast is spell things out. Why is it that London Walks is London’s only award-winning walking tour company. And mostly that has to do with the calibre of the guiding. Our being the only London walking tour company that fronts its walks with accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, archaeologists, geologists, etc.

But for this curtain call, I want to put another group in the spotlight. Our walkers. A lot of them are locals. Locals – or visitors – they know. They’re bright, they’re savvy, they’re discerning.  It’s axiomatic. Quality attracts quality. And that makes winners of us all. On every London Walk there is a richness of characters that makes time together so enjoyable. 

And on that happy note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good Londoning to you. See ya tomorrow.

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