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Wat Tyler

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Wat Tyler
Tyler's death (left to right: Sir William Walworth, Mayor of London (wielding sword); Wat Tyler; King Richard II; and Sir John Cavendish, esquire to the king (bearing decorated sword)
Born4 January 1341 (disputed)
Died15 June 1381
London, England
Known forPeasants' Revolt
Engraving by Anker Smith

Walter "Wat" Tyler (4 January 1341 (disputed) – 15 June 1381) was a leader of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt in England. He led a group of rebels from Canterbury to London to oppose the institution of a poll tax and to demand economic and social reforms. While the brief rebellion enjoyed early success, Tyler was killed by officers loyal to King Richard II during negotiations at Smithfield, London.

Early life[edit]

Little is known of Wat Tyler's early life. Historical sources give differing accounts of his birth. One claims that he was born on 4 January 1341, while another source claims he was born around 1320. Most historians agree that he was born around 1341. He was fascinated by John Ball, his group having broken the radical priest out of jail. He was probably born in Kent or Essex. “Wat” may have been his given name (derived from the Old English name Watt), or a diminutive form of the name Walter; his original surname was unknown.[1] It is thought that the name "Tyler" came from his occupation as a roof tiler, but this is not confirmed. Prior to the Peasants' Revolt, it is probable that he lived in Kent or Essex; he has variously been represented as coming from Dartford and Maidstone in Kent, from Deptford, which was in Kent at the time, and from Colchester in Essex.[1][2]

Peasants' Revolt[edit]

The Peasants' Revolt began in May 1381, triggered by a recently imposed poll tax of 4 pence from every adult, whether peasant or wealthy. The revolt was not only about money, as the peasants also sought increased liberty and other social reforms. They demanded that each labourer be allowed to work for the employer of his choice and sought an end to serfdom and other rigid social demarcation. There were uprisings across England, with much of the unrest focused on Essex and Kent. The uprising was opposed by a significant part of English society in those regions, including nobility and wealthy religious establishments.[3] Many peasants and labourers were inspired by the teachings of John Ball, a radical priest who preached that all humans should be treated equally, as descendants of Adam and Eve, and who asked: "When Adam delved and Eve span/Who was then the gentleman?"[4]

How Tyler became involved with the revolt is unknown, although a much later 16th-century source indicates that a man of a similar name, John Tyler, was its initiator.[1] This account suggests that a poll-tax collector had indecently assaulted John Tyler's daughter. It is suggested the poll tax collector "pulled up his daughter's clothes to see if she arrived at the age of puberty".[5] In revenge he killed the miscreant and triggered the insurgency.[6] According to article "Boys of English History" from The Boy's Own Paper (1879), Tyler "slew the wretch with his hammer," presumably a tool used in his trade, after the tax collector "vilely insulted the maiden." Regardless of the basis of that story, by June 1381, when groups of rebels from across the country began a coordinated assault on London, Wat Tyler had emerged as a leader of the Kentish forces.

On 13 June, Tyler with other rebels of Kent crossed London Bridge to enter the city, as Stow recorded in his Summary and Annals. . Once in the city, they attacked civil targets, destroying legal records, opening prisons, sacking homes, and killing individuals they thought were associated with the royal government.[7][8] In response, the king, Richard II (then 14 years old), met with the rebels on 14 June 1381 and agreed to make many concessions and to give full pardons to all those involved in the rebellion. While some of the rebels were satisfied by the king's promises and dispersed, Tyler and his followers were not.


The death of Wat Tyler, illustrated in the Chronicles of Jean Froissart

On 15 June 1381, Tyler and his Kentish forces met King Richard at Smithfield, outside London. There, Tyler spoke personally with the king and put forward his demands. At first, the meeting seems to have gone well, with Tyler treating the king in a friendly, if overly familiar, manner, and Richard agreeing the rebels "should have all that he could fairly grant".[9]

However, tensions quickly rose. According to a contemporary chronicler, Tyler acted contemptuously, calling for a flagon of water to rinse his mouth "because of the great heat that he was in" and when he received the water "he rinsed his mouth in a very rude and disgusting fashion before the King's face". Sir John Newton (a servant of the king) insulted Tyler by calling him "the greatest thief and robber in all of Kent". Tyler attacked Newton, but was restrained and arrested by the Lord Mayor of London, William Walworth. Tyler then attempted to stab the mayor, who was saved by his armour. Walworth slashed Tyler across the neck and head with his sword, and another of the king's servants, possibly Ralph de Standish, stabbed Tyler again, severely wounding him. Tyler managed to ride thirty yards before he fell from his horse.

In the disorder that followed, he was taken to a hospital for the poor, but was tracked down by the mayor, brought back to Smithfield and by judgment of the mayor publicly beheaded.[10] Tyler's head was placed atop a pole and carried through the city, then displayed on London Bridge.[9][11][12] In the wake of their leader's death, his followers were driven from London and the movement was shattered. Subsequently, Richard II revoked all the concessions he had made to the rebels and many were hunted down and executed. That effectively ended the revolt.[13]

In literature and the arts[edit]

John Gower commented on Wat Tyler in his 14th-century poem Vox Clamantis:: I:IX  "The jay's voice is wild and he has only learnt the art of speaking from the classes with whom the Latin poet is identified."[14] A number of works in the post-medieval period have featured Wat Tyler as protagonist. Tyler was the protagonist of the play Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, or, The Mob Reformers (1730) first performed at Bartholomew Fair in 1730. Wat Tyler is represented in Robert Southey's Wat Tyler, A Dramatic Poem, which was written in 1794 but not published until 1813.

The first novel to feature Wat Tyler is Mrs O'Neill's The Bondman: A Story of the Days of Wat Tyler (1833). He is the protagonist in Pierce Egan the Younger's novel Wat Tyler, or the Rebellion of 1381 (1841), a highly radical text published at the height of the second phase of the Chartist movement that argued for republican government in England.[15] Egan's novel was subsequently abridged and plagiarised and published as The Life and Adventures of Wat Tyler: The Good and the Brave (1851). Wat Tyler is the protagonist of the penny dreadful serial novel Wat Tyler; or, The King and the Apprentice which appeared in weekly parts in The Young Englishman's Journal in 1867, and appears as a main character in William Harrison Ainsworth's Merry England; or, Nobles and Serfs (1874). In Charles Dickens' Bleak House (1853), his name is invoked by Sir Leicester Dedlock as an example of what would happen if any concessions were made to "some person in the lower classes". Tyler features as a sympathetic hero in the novel A Dream of John Ball (1888) by William Morris.[16]

Wat Tyler is also mentioned in Redburn by Herman Melville[17] and in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain.[18] Tyler features briefly in the historical fiction The Mediation of Ralph Hardelot (1888) by William Minto.[19] The juvenile novel A March on London (1897) by G. A. Henty, depicts Tyler briefly as a "sullen and resentful" demagogue. Henty's book was illustrated by W.H. Margetson.[20] Long Will (1903), a novel by Florence Converse, depicts a meritorious Wat Tyler.[21]

The 1921 play Wat Tyler by Halcott Glover interprets Tyler as a sympathetic protester against feudal tyranny, who is driven into violence by John Ball's preaching.[22] Riot at Gravesend (1952), a novel by William Howard Woods, focus on the combats between the rebels and the authorities.[23] Who Then Was The Gentleman? (1963) is a novel by Charles E. Israel, that renders a courageous and charismatic Wat Tyler.[24] A Summer Storm (1976), a novel by Jane Lane, depicts Tyler as a villain.[25] The novel The Confession of Jack Straw (1991) by Simone Zelitch features Tyler as a central character.[26] The children's novel Fire, Bed, and Bone (1997) by Henrietta Branford has Wat Tyler as one of its characters.[27] Wat Tyler is the principal character in the historical novel, Now is the Time (2015) by Melvyn Bragg.[28]

English composer Alan Bush wrote an opera, Wat Tyler, about Tyler's life. Bush's opera was premiered at the Leipzig Opera in 1953.[29]

Singer-songwriter Martin Newell references Wat Tyler and the Peasant's Revolt in his song "The Jangling Man" from the 1990 album Number Thirteen, in reference to the poll tax riots.

English folk singer-songwriter Frank Turner references Wat Tyler's negotiations at Smithfield in "Sons of Liberty" from the 2009 album Poetry of the Deed, and again mentions Tyler by name in "One Foot Before the Other" from 2011 album England Keep My Bones.

Provisional IRA member and hunger striker Bobby Sands referenced "Wat the Tyler" and his poor in one of his wider-known poems written while in prison, "The Rhythm of Time".[30]

A cultural history survey of Wat Tyler's portrayals in post-medieval literature down to the modern period has been written by Stephen Basdeo who argues that most of Tyler's appropriations in popular culture appear at times of political excitement.[31]


A section of the A249 road passing through Maidstone is named "Wat Tyler Way" in his honour.[32]

"Tyler's Causeway" running from Newgatestreet Village towards the A1000 in Hertfordshire named for the route taken by some of his followers fleeing the capital following his death.

A road on the western edge of Blackheath is called Wat Tyler Road[32]

Wat Tyler Country Park in Essex is named after him.

Swindon Borough Council's Offices are in Wat Tyler House.

A memorial commemorating Wat Tyler and the Great Rising of 1381 was unveiled on 15 July 2015 in Smithfield, London.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Medieval Period: Politics – Wat Tyler and the peasants' revolt". Dartford Town Archive. Kent County Council. Retrieved 23 September 2017.
  2. ^ Prescott, Andrew (2004). "Tyler, Walter [Wat] (d. 1381)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/27942. Retrieved 20 March 2013. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. ^ Hilton, Rodney (1998). Medieval England An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing. pp. 590–591. ISBN 0824057864.
  4. ^ Smith, George (1973). Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 993.
  5. ^ "The Project Gutenberg eBook of London and Its Environs Described. Vol. IV". www.gutenberg.org. Archived from the original on 8 March 2021. Retrieved 8 January 2020.
  6. ^ Smith, George (1917). Tyler, Wat. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. pp. 1347–1348.
  7. ^ "English Peasants' Revolt, 1381". Archived from the original on 16 June 2010. Retrieved 24 April 2013.
  8. ^ Smith, George (1973). The Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 1347.
  9. ^ a b "The Death of Wat Tyler: (Y55) CAC". Spartacus Educational. Archived from the original on 1 February 2016. Retrieved 26 January 2016.
  10. ^ Stow, John (1598). The Survey of London. London: J.M.Dent (published 1912). p. 24.
  11. ^ Smith, George (1973). Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 1347–1348.
  12. ^ "The Death of Wat Tyler (1381)". The History Guide. Archived from the original on 22 April 2021. Retrieved 23 September 2017.
  13. ^ van Creveld, Martin (1996). The Encyclopedia of Revolutions and Revolutionaries: From Anarchism to Zhou Enlai. Jerusalem, Israel: The Jerusalem Publishing House. p. 422.
  14. ^ David Aers (2002). "'Vox populi' and the literature of 1381". In David Wallace (ed.). The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature.
  15. ^ Basdeo, Stephen 'Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger's Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell' in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies Vol. 15: Imagining the Victorians Eds. Stephen Basdeo & Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016), pp. 48–64.
  16. ^ Charles Harvey and Jon Press, William Morris: Design and Enterprise in Victorian Britain. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1991. ISBN 9780719024191 (p. 192).
  17. ^ Melville, Herman (1849), in the fictional work Redburn, mentioned in chapter 24.
  18. ^ Mark Twain (1889), in the fictional work A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, chapter 13.
  19. ^ John Sutherland, The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction. Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press, 1990. ISBN 9780804718424 (pp. 436–437)
  20. ^ Taylor, Antony, London's Burning : Pulp Fiction, the politics of terrorism and the destruction of the capital in British popular culture, 1840–2005. London : Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. ISBN 9781472528940 (pp. 41–42)
  21. ^ Ortenberg, Veronica (1981). In Search of the Holy Grail: the Quest for the Middle Ages. London: Hambledon Continuum. ISBN 9781852853839. (p. 79).
  22. ^ "Wat Tyler and the Phoenix" by "S.O." (Review of Wat Tyler by Halcott Glover). In The English Review, London, December 1921 (pp. 514–517)
  23. ^ McGarry, Daniel D., White, Sarah Harriman, Historical Fiction Guide: Annotated Chronological, Geographical, and Topical List of Five Thousand Selected Historical Novels. Scarecrow Press, New York, 1963 (p. 81)
  24. ^ Smith, Myron J. War Story Guide: an annotated bibliography of military fiction. Scarecrow Press, 1980. ISBN 9780810812819 (p. 28)
  25. ^ Bird, Brian, Rebel Before His Time : the story of John Ball and the Peasants' Revolt. Worthing : Churchman Publ, 1987. ISBN 9781850930570 (p. 150)
  26. ^ Lynda G. Adamson, World Historical Fiction: An Annotated Guide to Novels for Adults and Young Adults. Phoenix, AZ; Oryx Press ISBN 9781573560665 (p. 173)
  27. ^ Barr, Catherine. Best books for children: preschool through grade 6. Libraries Unlimited, 2007 ISBN 1591580854 (p. 453).
  28. ^ Bragg, Melvyn (2015). Now is the Time. Great Britain: Sceptre. ISBN 9781473614536.
  29. ^ Nancy Bush. Alan Bush: Music, Politics and Life. London: Thames Publishing (2000). ISBN 9780905210834 (pp. 61–62)
  30. ^ "The Rhythm of Time – Poem by Bobby Sands". PoemHunter. 3 January 2007. Archived from the original on 5 August 2018. Retrieved 5 August 2018.
  31. ^ Basdeo, Stephen, The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018), p. 1.
  32. ^ a b "Wat Tyler, Lossenham project and Cuxton – a fascinating mix". Centre for Kent History and Heritage. 16 June 2021. Archived from the original on 24 July 2021. Retrieved 3 September 2022.

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