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The Peasants' Revolt


In 2016, James Delingpole commented that toffs hate Brexit because it's the Peasants' Revolt.

For non-British readers, the word "toff" is a shortened form of "toffee-nosed," a slang term for the rich or upper class. But more important is the reference to the Peasant Revolt of 1381, which is little-known on the western side of the Atlantic.

In fourteenth century England, the cost of ongoing warfare placed politicians in a situation in which they either had to concede the war, cut their own emoluments, or increase taxation significantly. As politicians always do, they chose the latter.

Revenue from the resultant poll tax proved to be less than anticipated, as large numbers of people found ways to evade the tax. The tax commissioners were then given wide latitude in the methods they chose to facilitate collection.

As is almost always the case, whenever authorities are given too much latitude, they use it abusively.

In May of 1381, the authorities confronted the people of Brentwood, Essex. The people were unanimous in their anger toward the authorities, as they already considered the tax to be an abuse of authority. In a confrontation attended by hundreds of citizens, a shop owner, Thomas Baker, announced to the commissioner, "All of these folk have already paid their taxes. You won't get a penny more from them."

The commissioner then ordered the arrest of one hundred people chosen at random. But outnumbered, the authorities were driven back. Reinforcements were brought in the next day. But by this time, more peasants had joined the previous day's group, and armed conflict ensued.

Six of the authorities were beheaded. At this point, there was no turning back. The peasants had a taste of freedom and would not give it up easily.

Word got round the county, and riots spread quickly across Essex and beyond. Coded messages passed from one community to another were the fourteenth century's equivalent to the internet today, in that it was the quickest way to anonymously pass information between those who resolved to rebel against the powers that be.

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