‘Absolution delivered by the Sword’: A local perspective on the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

Tableau vivant image of the Peasants’ Revolt by Photographer Red Saunders

Visit Cathedral Square in Peterborough first thing on a Monday morning in the 21st century, and in common with most other cities in the UK you’ll find a steady trickle of early shoppers, people on their way to work and those enjoying the morning air, against the background chimes of Peterborough Cathedral’s bells announcing a morning service.

Now imagine those bells ringing with greater urgency over screams and shouts of terror, the thunder of hooves and the sounds of combat, coupled with the acrid stench of blood and burning…

Difficult to visualise isn’t it? Yet this is precisely what happened right in the heart of Peterborough on Monday 17 June 1381 with a riot and its bloody aftermath, a local offshoot of the events we know today as the Peasants’ Revolt. Many people have half remembered memories of these events from their schooldays – Watt Tyler, John Ball, Richard II, an army of the poor marching on London and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury having his head stuck on a pike. What is less often remembered is that it was not just events in London that were the focus of this story. Throughout towns in the east of England riots ensued, including Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge and St Albans. However, some of the most dramatic events were in Peterborough.

In brief, the Peasants’ Revolt was triggered by the treatment of the labouring classes of the period. After the Black Death had ravaged England in 1348 and 1349, killing perhaps a third of the population, a profound labour shortage followed. Peasants who had been previously tied to the land found that they were now in demand and could expect higher wages, better conditions and more freedom to get these terms. Attempts to try and curb these demands with a Statute of Labourers in 1351 led to popular discontent.

The trigger for violence came with the imposition of a new Poll Tax. This tax was supposed to help fund the wars against France and was first levied in 1377, but the government got its sums wrong, calculating the likely income based on pre-Black Death population levels. As such a second Poll Tax had to be levied in 1381, at an inflated amount of 3 groats (12 pennies – about 2 weeks wages for an average farm labourer), treble what been levied before. This, coupled with what many saw as unfair exemptions and the fundamental problem that everyone paid the same tax, regardless of their ability to pay, led to riots in late May in Essex. By early June a large army from Essex and Kent marched on London, led by Watt Tyler and the Lollard priest John Ball. Many were peasants, but there also seems to have been wider support from artisans, tradesmen, merchants and even some lesser gentry.

On June 14 the Peasant army arrived and camped at Smithfield. A deputation met the 14 year old King Richard II who agreed that he would meet rebel leaders the following day. In the meantime more of the rebels stormed the Tower of London to seize weapons, where they also found Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury. As the Chancellor, Sudbury was particularly associated with the tax and as a result was brutally slain and his head stuck on a pike. The following day Watt Tyler and the rebels met the King at Smithfield. During the meeting Tyler was rude to the King and, in response, was stabbed by the Mayor of London. In the fracas that followed the King defused the situation by riding to the peasant army and announcing to them that they ‘should have no King but me’ and promising reform. Leaderless, the peasant army started to dissolve and within days royal control was re-established. The ringleaders were arrested and executed, and any terms or concessions that had been promised were quickly revoked. (1)


Peterborough at this time was a bustling market town, dominated in all ways by the great abbey at its heart. Although there has been continuous settlement in and around the modern city centre since the Middle Bronze Age, the place that would be recognisable to us today (and indeed the townsfolk in 1381) has its origins in the 12th century. In 1116 the Saxon monastic complex was destroyed in a great fire, along with the town that had sprung up to its east. A new abbey church was started in 1118, which survives today as Peterborough Cathedral. To bankroll this massive building project, Abbot Martin de Bec created a new market square to bring in revenue through rents and taxes to the west of the monastery, with a surrounding street plan. This created the townscape which still substantively survives over 800 years later. (2)

By the time of the Peasants’ Revolt, the market which was held weekly on the Marketstede (today Cathedral Square) every Saturday was a major source of income for the town, as was its annual fair. Its main trades were leather working and wool, focused on the north side of the square around Cumbergate (‘wool-comber’s street’). (3) The town also functioned as an inland port, the River Nene being navigable to the coast and substantial wharves being situated adjacent to the town bridge. (4) Although a third of the town’s residents had died in the Black Death of 1349, the population had already begun to recover and by 1371 there were perhaps 1,300 inhabitants, (5) about the same size as medieval Leicester. (6)

Looming over the town was the great Abbey church of St Peter for which it was named, today the city’s Cathedral. It dominated Peterborough in every sense, having grown from being a small monastic community at its foundation in 655AD, to become a powerhouse of prayer. By the 14th century, in addition to its religious functions, the abbey was the principal landowner and landlord for the town and surrounding area, and the political power and centre of government for the old Soke of Peterborough. The Abbey controlled the markets, the tolls over the town bridge, the rents and tax collection, law and order locally and even owned many of the local pubs such as the Angel on Bridge Street. It owned substantial estates in Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire and beyond, and the Abbot maintained a lodging in Fleet Street in London. (7) The Abbey was famed for its substantial library and scriptorium (8) and maintained a significant collection of over 70 holy relics to attract pilgrims, including the miraculously preserved arm of St Oswald, six pieces of the true cross, the jaw, tooth and arm of St George, and a vial of blood and bloodstained vestments of St. Thomas Becket. (9) Although the Abbey was hit badly during the Black Death of 1349, 32 of its 64 monks having lost their lives, it quickly recovered. (10) All told it was extremely wealthy, its tax value and income in 1401 were reckoned to be £1,218 15s. 5¾d, a phenomenal sum, making it one of the ten wealthiest religious houses in England. (11)

On first sight it might appear that Peterborough Abbey had complete dominance over the town, but after the Black Death this appears to have been weakened. Relations between the townspeople and the monks became strained, particularly since the installation of Abbot Henry Overton in 1361. Overton began to enforce a lapsed local bye-law which required the permission of the Lord of the Manor prior to marriage and to demand cash rents from his tenants rather than allowing payment in kind as had been previous practice.(12) The latter would have caused particular misery on a population already struggling to find the ready coin to pay the Poll Tax, and when coupled with wage restrictions and rising prices it would have made the people of Peterborough ripe for revolt in the summer of 1381.

What the final trigger for violence was is unknown. It may have been news of events in London, or the letters and messages that were being circulated by John Ball in the days after the Smithfield meeting. It may have been news about the murder of the renowned knight Sir Robert Salle in Norfolk, rumours of other members of the nobility fleeing the country, (13) or simply that that the people of Peterborough wanted to vent their frustrations against what could be seen as their oppressor. Either way, on Monday 17th June a mob gathered in the centre of Peterborough to give vent to their grievances. Their focus was Peterborough Abbey as the key source of their frustrations and, as with other local centres of revolt, the place where court rolls and tax records were stored that the rebels wanted to destroy.

One can only imagine the monks nervousness as they sensed trouble, with what would have been tantamount to a lynch mob gathering on the market square. The square itself followed the borders of the modern Cathedral Square in Peterborough, the edges of which – and indeed some of the shops – still conform to the medieval property boundaries. At the western end of the square was Cowgate – literally the street of cattle – along which livestock was driven to market on the square, and often to slaughter in the butcher’s shops on the Shambles, today Queen Street.(14)

The eastern end of the square was fronted by the great fortified gateway into the monastic precincts which still stands today, buttressed to its left by the nave of a chapel dedicated to St Thomas Becket, which was the repository for the Abbey’s collection of holy relics and the focus for pilgrims to the city. The right of the gateway was flanked by the King’s lodging, a set of apartments for royal and other important visitors, underneath which was the Abbot’s Gaol, the main town prison, part of which still survives today. (15) It is possible that one aim of the rebels was to release any prisoners in the gaol, as had been the case in the other town risings in 1381.

To the south east of the square was Hythegate (today Bridge Street), at this time a narrow medieval street only some 22 feet wide leading down to the River Nene, town bridge and the wharves on the riverside. Opposite Hythegate on the north eastern side of the square was (and is today) Long Causeway, a wide street providing overspill for stalls from the main square during market days. The centre of the square looked rather different in 1381 to today. Visitors nowadays see the parish church of St John the Baptist in the middle of the square, with the 17th century Guildhall next to it. Neither of these buildings existed in 1381, the original parish church being located at this time on the other side of the monastic precincts, on what is today St. John’s Street. The area covered by the buildings on Cathedral Square today would have been the commercial market space in the 14th century, whilst the modern paved area in front of the guildhall would have been covered by a roofed buttermarket and a high status stone building uncovered by archaeologists during excavations on the square in 2009. (16) Given its proximity to the gateway and the pilgrimage Chapel, this is most likely the remains of the Infirmary of St Thomas the Martyr, built around 1174, which provided care for sick pilgrims, many of whom came in hope of a miracle cure from the relics, as well as caring for local people. (17)

Quite rapidly the monks would have attempted to secure the Abbey. Panic seems to have led to many important documents being hidden by the monks inside the precincts, lest they fall into the hands of the mob who were intent on destroying any such papers. In the 1673 workmen mending the cathedral roof found behind an old plank wall a Papal bull dated to 1146, granting to the Abbey its rights, possessions and liberties, which local antiquarians ascribed to having been hidden for safe keeping due to its importance during the Peasants’ Revolt.(18)

There is only one contemporary account of what happened in Peterborough, that of Henry Knighton, Canon of the Augustinian Priory of St Mary in the Meadows at Leicester, writing in his Chronicon Henrici Knighton. Knighton describes the events thus:

‘Likewise at Burgh (Peterborough) the neighbours and tenants of the abbot rose against him and proposed to kill him – which they would have done without redress had God not laid his restraining hand upon them at the last moment. For help came in the shape of lord Henry Despenser, bishop of Norwich, who, through the agency of divine mercy, arrived with a strong force. He prevented the malefactors from carrying out their aims and scattered the mob, paying them back as they deserved. Sparing no one, he sent some to death and others to prison. Several of the rebels fled to the church for protection but fell into the pit of perdition they had dug themselves: for those who had not feared to destroy the ramparts of the church did not deserve its immunity. Some were struck down with swords and spears near the altar and others at the church walls, both inside and outside the building. Just as they had spared no one from their own furious vengeance, so now the bishop’s eye spared none of them – he repaid them in like kind and measure for measure. Because they had come to destroy the church and churchmen I dare say that they deserved to perish at the hands of an ecclesiastic. For the bishop gladly stretched his avenging hand over them and did not scruple to give them final absolution for their sins with his sword…’ (19)

The Bishop referred to by Knighton was Henry Despenser, the Bishop of Norwich. Despenser’s brother had recently died and it seems likely that he had gone to tie up his brothers affairs at his manor of Burley on the Hill near Oakham, and so happened to be in the area. (20) Despenser was one of that peculiar brand of clergy in the medieval period who seems to have been more warrior than priest. His family had a reputation for producing great soldiers and although he was educated at Oxford and ordained a priest, Despenser had served Pope Urban V in a military capacity in his war against Milan in 1369, hence his elevation to Bishop in 1370. It was said that he rather regretted his shift in career in some respects; that he ‘felt the helmet fit more comfortably on his brow than the mitre’. (21) Rumour had it that he sometimes took services whilst wearing armour under his vestments, and he has become nicknamed in more modern times as ‘The fighting Bishop of Norwich’. (22)

Hearing of the riot in Peterborough, Despenser headed in to deal with the trouble with his retinue of eight knights and a number of archers, gathering other troops from the local gentry as he went. (23) Upon the arrival of this warband the reaction of the mob in Peterborough, which would have included women and children, can only be imagined. Even though the mob is likely to have outnumbered the bishop and his entourage several times over, they would have stood little chance as poorly armed civilians against heavily armed and armoured professional soldiers. Panic ensued as people fled in all directions, trying to escape the carnage as the bishop gave orders to his troops to give no quarter. One can imagine the stampede away from the horses’ hooves with many people being hacked down from horseback or trampled underfoot. Many people may have sought shelter in the surrounding houses, shops and taverns, as well as the pilgrim infirmary on the square. This would be to no avail as the questing soldiers would have likely despatched summary justice or dragged anyone suspected of any involvement with the rising out onto the square for later trial.

Knighton’s description colourfully describes many of the rebels being cut down around or even at the altar of ‘the church’, the traditional right of sanctuary on church property being waived on this occasion, presumably as the revolt was a direct offence against the church and its authority. As such most historians naturally ascribe this violence as having taken place in the monastic church, today Peterborough Cathedral. However, it is unclear from Knighton’s description if this was indeed the case and in practical terms this seems unlikely, not least as it would have involved the mob forcing the Abbey’s not insubstantial defences. The great gateway that still stands today between the precincts and main square was built for defence, with a licence to crenelate given for its fortifications in July 1308. (24) It was complete with the great gates that still survive today and a portcullis, complemented by a ditch crossed by a stone bridge. With flanking fire from the equally fortified King’s Lodging, it would seem unlikely that a mob could storm the precincts unless by another entrance or some form of subterfuge.

The reference to a church as the site of violence could instead refer to the nave of the pilgrimage chapel of Thomas Becket, which stood at this time and could have been accessed from the square. W.T. Mellows thought it more likely that it was here in which the rioters might have sought sanctuary in vain. (25) This would tally with the deconsecration of this building within a few years of the revolt, whilst the chancel of the Becket Chapel survives inside the precincts, the nave was demolished and the stone reused for building the new parish church of St John the Baptist on the main square from 1402, that was consecrated in 1407. (26) It is tempting to suggest that this development came about because of the violence in 1381; few would want to worship in a chapel that had been the scene of a massacre.

Despenser then continued on his tour of local rebellions, putting down revolts in Ramsey, Cambridge and in his home county of Norfolk. A group of peasants was famously defeated by his forces at the ‘battle’ of North Walsham at the end of June. (27) The ‘fighting Bishop’ continued to have a colourful career after the Peasants’ Revolt, even leading a disastrous crusade into France. (28)

One local historian has challenged the notion of the revolt in 1381 taking place in Peterborough at all, arguing that Knighton’s account of the revolt in ‘Burgh’ actually refers to Bury St Edmunds, not least as there is no corroborating local documentation or accounts regarding the rising. This challenge can easily be discounted on a number of grounds. Firstly, Knighton is accounted by most medieval historians as a reliable chronicler (in as far as any such thing exists) and is used as a key source for both the Peasants’ Revolt and the Black Death. The naming of the town as ‘Burgh’ is not surprising as Peterborough was still commonly referred to as that or ‘Burgh St Peter’ in the late 1300s. The lack of any local contemporary sources is not surprising, as the substantial part of Peterborough Abbey’s library, records and archive was destroyed by Parliamentary troops in April 1643. Anything relating to the 1381 Peterborough rising is most likely to have been destroyed by Cromwell’s soldiers. (29) Secondly, the ‘Burgh’ narrative in Knighton bears no resemblance to the events of the Bury St Edmunds rising, which is well documented in contemporary accounts such as the Anonimalle Chronnicle. At Bury the rebels were led by a priest called John Wrawe and succeeded in storming the abbey, before beheading the prior and one of his monks on June 15 – two days prior to the ‘Burgh’ rising. The rebellion was suppressed and Wrawe hung, drawn and quartered. (30) Tellingly, the Bury St Edmunds accounts mention no involvement from Bishop Despenser, whose movements have been carefully mapped from chronicle accounts by R.B. Dobson and Dan Jones. (31) Given that the Bishop was near Stamford on June 16 and at Ramsey on June 18 on his progression through Cambridgeshire suppressing revolts, the dates also fit with Peterborough being ‘Burgh’. We can therefore be confident that the events described took place here.

Today Peterborough is a diverse, busy and modern city with an ancient and remarkable story that lies just below the surface – often literally. The site of the nave of the Chapel of St Thomas Becket is now occupied by a branch of Starbucks, next to the surviving medieval gateway to the precincts which the rebels attempted to storm (below). One wonders how many people enjoying their lattes and cappuccinos in this cafe are aware that they are sitting on the site of where such dramatic and bloody events took place over 600 years ago!


(1) For a full account of the Peasants’ Revolt, read Charles Oman (1906), The Great Revolt of 1381, Dan Jones (2009), Summer of Blood: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 or Alastair Dunn (2004), The Peasant’s Revolt: England’s Failed Revolution of 1381, passim.
(2) For a summary of the development of Peterborough, see H.F. Tebbs (1979), Peterborough, Chapters 1-3, and Denis Bracey (1985), The Book of Peterborough, Chapters 1-4.
(3) Archaeological work on Cumbergate has uncovered physical remains of these trades. See Paul Spoerry and Mark Hinman (1998), The Still, Peterborough: Medieval Remains between Cumbergate and Westgate, p.14-40.
(4) Peterborough Historic Environment Record no. 51274 records the wharf finds and construction.
(5) Tebbs, p.118. A good idea of the pre-Black Death population in terms of heads of households and trades can be found in the 1301 tax assessment, which can be accessed at: http://www.medievalgenealogy.org.uk/subsidies/transcripts/nassaburgh1301.shtml#368
(6) Matthew Morris, Richard Buckley and Mike Codd (2011), Visions of Ancient Leicester: reconstructing life in the Roman and medieval town from the archaeology of the Highcross Leicester excavations.
(7)) Victoria County History (1906), A History of the County of Northamptonshire, Volume 2, p.83-95.
(8) For full listings of the library and its holdings see M.R. James (1901) Lists of Manuscripts Formerly in Peterborough Abbey Library.
(9) A full list of relics can be found in Symon Gunton (1686), A History of the Church of Peterburgh, p.13
(10) Tebbs, p.118.
(11) Victoria County History, p. 90.
(12) Bracey, p.25.
(13) Jones, p.172.
(14) For details on Peterborough street names and their origins and commercial purposes see Neil Mitchell (2007), The Streets of Peterborough.
(15) W.T. Mellows (1934), The King’s Lodging at Peterborough in Journal of the Peterborough Natural History, Scientific and Archaeological Society, p.29-30.
(16) Peterborough Historic Environment Record no. 51788 has details.
(17) Victoria County History, p. 162.
(18) Symon Patrick (1686), A Supplement to the History of the Church in Peterburgh, p.280.
(19) Chronicon Henrici Knighton, translated in R.B. Dobson (Ed) (1983), The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, a Source Book, p.238.
(20) Richard Allington-Smith (2003), Henry Despenser: the Fighting Bishop, p.41.
(21) Oman, p.90.
(22) See Allington-Smith for a comprehensive biography of Despenser.
(23) Oman, p.90.
(24) Mellows, p.30
(25) Ibid, p.30.
(26) June and Vernon Bull, (2007) A History of Peterborough Parish Church
(27) For a full account of Despenser’s movements and actions, see Dobson, p.42-43 and Jones, chapters 19-22.
(28) See Allington-Smith for the Bishop’s later career.
(29) Gunton, p.337.
(30) Dobson, p.235-236.
(31) For a full account of Despenser’s movements and actions, see Dobson, p.42-43 and Jones, chapters 19-22.

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