The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in England saw about one hundred thousand people march on London from the provinces. They burned manor houses, broke open prisons, and killed anybody who stood in their way. The organisation behind it has always been a mystery. We know that for several years before unhappy priests of the lower clergy preached against the riches and the corruption of the church. In the months before the uprising secret meetings took place all other England and, after the revolt was put down, the rebel leaders admitted that they were agents of an unknown Great Society based in London. Another unexplained mystery was the many and vicious attacks on the religious order of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John, now known as the Knights of Malta. Why were they singled out by the revolted people who burned and destroyed their properties, and killed many of their members? Apart from the Templars, whose properties were transferred to them, the Hospitallers had no known enemies in England. However the order of the Knights Templar had been suppressed seventy years before the Peasant Revolt. The only known important secret society alive in the fourteenth century was the organisation known at the present time as Freemasonry. But there is no obvious connection between the Peasant Revolt and Freemasonry, except the name of the leader of the eight days revolt, Walter the Tyler. As we know, the Tyler is an important officer in Freemasonry who guard the entrance of the Lodge against unwanted intruders. Is there a connection between the Peasant Revolt, the Templars, and Freemasonry? There is no real proof of it until now, but it is one of the constant legends of Freemasonry.
Many things happened in England during the hundred years before the Peasant Revolt:
. Numerous wars had ruined the people.
. Corruption was everywhere including in the church.
. The Black Death killed one third of the population.
. Famine was endemic.
The reduced labour force of Craftsmen and farmers could ask -and receive- higher wages from the landowners, mainly the nobles and the church. Laws were passed to reduce their wages to pre-plague level, taxes were increased, and serfdom and villeinage was reinforced. The fugitive Templars were in a difficult situation since they had been rejected by the Pope (and that means also by the church in general), and they had no more intermediate between them and God. The Catholic Church insisted that the only possible contact between God and the individual was through the Vicar of Christ on earth, his priests and bishops. Direct contact was assimilated to heresy. This is very similar to the situation of the Freemasons who are only required to believe in the Supreme Being with no other requirements as to how they worship, and whom they worship. Freemasonry would have been acceptable to the fugitive Templars. As a result the Old Charges of Freemasonry can be seen as the instructions for a secret society created to assist and protect brothers on the run, hiding from the secular authority and from the church. This explanation does not have any sense in the context of medieval guilds of stonemasons from whom Freemasons are generally believed to be the heirs. It makes more sense if we assume that the Freemasons are the heirs of the fugitive Templars.
In 1347 the Kipchak Mongols were besieging a Genoese trading centre on the Crimean coast. Many of the Kipchak died of a highly infectious disease. They catapulted the diseased corpses over the walls, and the Genoeses started to die too. The Black Death, as the illness came to be known, had started. The Genoeses brought it to Sicily and from there it spread to Continental Europe. Sailors landing in Dorset brought it to England. Within two years, finding a fertile ground due to famine, malnutrition, and the corresponding low lower immune defences, it killed 35 to 40% of the population of Europe and Britain. Previously, from 1315 to 1318, and again in the 1340′, mass starvation and death followed bad crops. Young children and older people were the main victims of the Black Death and there was no cure for it at that time, only superstition. It was generally seen as a punishment from God against His people who were sinning. In some places Jews were blamed for it, and many were killed in different countries. The crowded towns with their lack of sanitation were hit harder but many people died in the country too, decreasing the production of food. The wars between Scotland and England, and between England and France, went on during the plague. When the illness finally disappeared, the world was different and would never be the same again.
The Black Death had killed about one third of the work force and the remaining workers were able to ask, and receive, higher wages which caused the inflation to go up. In order to come back to the previous situation, the English Parliament passed a Statute of Labourers in 1351 that, among other things, brought back the wages of the farm workers and Craftsmen to their previous level. The authorities tried to enforce this law but it never worked because of the great unbalance between offer and demand of workers of all trades, and inflation went up again. Villeins (workers linked to their village without possibility of leaving of their own free will), serfs, and the lower clergy became poorer and poorer and starvation hit many of them. The Hundred Years’ War that started in 1337 increased the request for labour as the army started to use more modern -for that time- arms like crossbows and arrows, longbows, etc. The Nobles and the Church reacted to this state of things by reinforcing the notion of Villeins and serfs since this was the only way for them to have cheap labour in large quantity.
John Wycliffe, an Oxford priest and scholar, began to preach church reforms, disgusted as he was by the church corruption and its constant battle for more power. He preached that everybody could have a direct contact with God without the services of a priest. He also said that the king was responsible to God and not to the Pope, that the priests being sinners themselves the sacraments that they dispensed had no value, and he translated the Vulgate Bible into English so that everyone could read it. He was, of course, accused of heresy, removed from his post, and sent to live in his parish of Lutterworth but he went on preaching to the people. At the same time another priest from Kent, John Ball, was also preaching against class and privileges, out and in the church. He also asked for agrarian reforms. According to him the land should be taken from the Nobles and the Church and distributed to the people. He toured the country to preach his ideas to as many people as possible in England, and he was sent to prison many times before being excommunicated. When the Peasant Rebellion started in 1381 he was in prison in Kent.
The return of Pope Gregory XI to Rome in 1377 did not change anything. When he died, an Italian Pope was elected in Rome and the French cardinals nominated a French one who chose to live in Avignon. This is remembered as the Great Schism in the Church, but it also soon became a political schism as well. A poll tax of four pence was imposed on everybody in England in 1377, and more taxes were introduced in 1379 and 1380 to pay for the war with France while corruption was running wild.
The Peasant Rebellion has generally been described as “spontaneous”, but there is little doubt that it was well planned and organised. For instance, John Ball, although in prison, was able to send letters to fellow priests that contained a signal to start the rebellion. The rebellion started in Essex where the authorities tried to levy a third Poll Tax, soon followed by Kent for similar reasons. Walter the Tyler, whose previous life is unknown, was soon recognised as the leader of the rebellion. He freed John Ball from his prison in Kent. Tyler’s forces first took Canterbury on 10 June 1381 and, on the same day, the people from Essex sacked and burned a commandery of the Knights Hospitallers called Cressing Temple. This commandery had been given to the Templars in 1138 by Mathilda, the wife of King Stephen, and transferred to the Hospitallers after the suppression of the Templars. This is only an example of the destruction inflicted to the Knights Hospitallers during the Peasant Rebellion. On 11 June 1381 the rebels of both Essex and Kent, one hundred thousand men at least, turned towards London in good order.
For safety reason the young king, Richard II, moved from Windsor to the Tower of London with Sir Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and chancellor; Sir Robert Hales, the King’s Treasurer and the prior of the order of the Knights Hospitallers; Henry Bolingbroke who would later depose Richard and reigns as Henry IV; the Earls of Oxford, Kent, Arundel, Warwick, Suffolk and Salisbury and many other lesser officials among them the Chief Justice, Sir Robert Bealknap, the tax collector John de Bamptoun and the hated Franciscan sergeant-at-arm, John Legge. The Essex men arrived at Mile End near Aldgate on 12 June 1381 and the people from Kent arrived the same day at Southwark, at the south end of London Bridge. Many Londoner joined them. The men from Kent arrived at Lambeth and sacked the archbishop palace; the archbishop resigned as chancellor. Many prisons were attacked and the prisoners liberated.
The king agreed to meet the rebels at Blackheath on the Thames on 13 June 1381 but, at the last moment, the king was persuaded not to go to the meeting. The Essex men walked into London through Aldgate and the people of Kent crossed London Bridge. There, they attacked the Fleet, the Newgate and Westminster prisons whose prisoners they set free; they also destroyed two forges and many other properties of the Hospitallers including their grand priory at Clerkenwell. They also attacked the lawyers’ buildings and the Savoy Palace. The old Temple of the Templars that had been given to the Hospitallers was not touched.
The rebels laid siege to the Tower of London after that the king refused to see them. Members of the Chancery and Exchequer, lawyers, and educated people in general -and that meant mainly administrative clerics- were beheaded if found. The king let it be known that he was prepared to meet the rebels on Friday 14 June at Mile End, outside the City beyond the Aldgate. Most rebels went to the appointment but Wat Tyler, his chief Lieutenant Jack Strawe, and the priest John Ball remained in London with several hundred men. The king went to Mile End but Sir Simon Sudbury, the archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of the realm, and the prior of the Hospitallers and King’s Treasurer did not leave the Tower. The rebels asked in priority that serfdom and villeinage be eliminated making every Englishmen a free man. The king agreed.
In the king’s absence, Tyler, Strawe, and Ball attacked the Tower and were able to enter into it with their men. Archbishop Sir Simon Sudbury, the prior of the Hospitallers, Sir Robert Hales, the Franciscan sergeant-at-arms, and tax collector John Legge and some others were first arrested then beheaded. The orgy of violence went on in London and about 160 people were beheaded. A group headed by Jack Strawe and Thomas Farndon went six miles out of London to destroy the Hospitaller manor at Highbury. Having been told what was going on in London, the King and his party left Mile End and returned to London although he agreed to meet again the rebels the next day, Saturday 15 June 1381 at Smithfield. Here the king invited Wat Tyler to come and talk directly to him. Tyler asked the king to repeal the laws of serfdom and the game laws, the end of men being declared out-law (outside the protection of the law), the seizure of church properties and their distribution to the people who worked it. At that point Mayor Walworth and Ralph Standish, a king’s squire, mortally wounded Tyler. The rebels did not react and the king invited them at another meeting at Clerkenwell, near the remains of the burned Hospitaller priory. The resistance to the rebellion was finally under way and the rebels were dispersed. Wat Tyler was found in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital by Mayor William Walworth and beheaded. The rebellion was over.
The rebels were also active outside London. In Liston, Suffolk, the priest John Wrawe and his followers first destroyed a manor belonging to Richard Lyons and then moved to Bury St. Edmunds. This town was run by the local monastery, which gave very little freedom to the local workers. It was sacked and they beheaded the prior. Next, Sir John Cavendish, chief Justice and chancellor of Cambridge University was caught and beheaded too. They also took Nottingham castle.
In the county of Norfolk, Geoffrey Litster captured Norwich and its castle as well as Great Yarmouth. A rebel band attacked the property of the Hospitallers at Watton, and they obliged the preceptor to cancel all the debts to the order. In Cambridgeshire, on 14 June, the rebels attacked a manor of the Hospitallers at Chippenham, followed the next day by an explosion of the rebellion in a dozen places. Rebels announced that serfdom had ended and that nobody should obey any lord, or perform any services for him unless ordered by the Great Society. Tax collectors, Justices of the Peace and religious landowners suffered most. Other Hospitallers’ manors were attacked at Duxford and Shinggay. The Cambridge University was attacked on 15 June and some churches the next day.
There were also some riots in Yorkshire; they involved primarily Craftsmen and other town people and practically no so-called “peasants”. However it was part of the same Peasant Rebellion as in the south of England. Historians have played down the participation of Craftsmen and town people but a large number participated together with rural people. The riots started in York on 17 June 1381. Some armed people on horseback participated in the battles; they wore a “livery” or uniform and a white woollen hood. They used the same livery in Beverly and Scarborough. Altogether fifteen hundred people wore that distinctive uniform. This is a further proof that the rebellion was well organised in advance. Church properties were attacked as well as those belonging to ruling families and rich merchants.
On 15 June 1381, rebels in St.Albans attacked the local Benedictine abbey that had held autocratic power over the town and countryside for over two hundred years, using all their prerogatives to collect as much money as possible from the local people. As usual most prisoners were released, but the rebellion came to a close when the news of Wat Tyler’s death reached St.Albans. The rebels were dispersed and their leaders arrested.
The new chief justice, Lord Henry Knighton, spared no rebels, and most accused were put to death. As an example, he judged the priest John Ball in St.Albans on 13 July 1381. He was condemned to be hanged, drawn, disembowelled, beheaded, and quartered. Lord Henry le Despenser, bishop of Norwich, defeated the rebels at Peterborough, Ramsey, Cambridge, North Walsham, and Norwich. In all these places he ordered the killing of many rebels. The Parliament met on 4 November 1381. Although it recognised that there had been general corruption, fraud and bad management in the country, the rebels were still seen as responsible for most of these problems. Some changes were made, the Poll Tax was abandoned and no new tax was imposed but, above all, the Parliament won more power and refused to abolish serfdom and villeinage. It also refused to pass stronger laws against heresy. From this it can be thought that the shadowy Great Society that organised and led the rebellion included members of the Parliament. The Parliament recommended a general amnesty for all the rebels with the exception of the citizens of Canterbury, Bury St.Edmunds, Bridgewater, Cambridge, Beverly, and Scarborough as well as some designated individual (for a total of 287), mainly those involved in the death of important persons. This exclusion of towns was soon limited to Bury St.Edmunds. The amnesty put a stop to judicial vengeance but, all the same, 120 rebels were executed. This number is smaller that those beheaded by the rebels in London on a single day. From the individuals excluded from the amnesty many were pardoned.
The London Sheriffs’ inquisitions of 4 and 20 November 1381 showed that the rebel march on London was not spontaneous but, on the contrary, was well organised by residents of London. Some important and less important people were indicted, and a few admitted to have been the agents of a Great Society that has never been identified with certainty.
At the time of the Peasant Rebellion Richard II was King of England. He became king in 1377 when he was ten years old. A Council was appointed to govern the country and the young king while a minor. It is obvious that King Richard II did not intervene personally in the rebellion, but the Council did. He, in fact, did not start to reign personally until he was twenty-three years old. All the stories about his own intervention in the rebellion are pure fiction, as are the chronicles of many events. For instance it is said that the meeting at Miles End was organised by the king to get the rebels out of London. However most leaders remained in the city. It is more probable that the meeting was organised, not to get the rebel leaders out of the city, but to get the King out of the Tower of London instead, while the archbishop of Canterbury and the prior of the Hospitallers remained there, by their own choice or ordered to stay. Tyler and his men were then able to enter in it without fighting, the doors having been left open. When the executions were over the rebels left. After the meeting in Miles End the king was escorted to another castle. This looks more like as if he was send there by his counsellors to assure his safety. The rebels had many opportunities to kill him but they chose not to touch him.
There is no doubt that the young king, who was not reigning yet, was manipulated, and that there was a sort of co-operation between the rebels and some members of the court. This lasted even after the rebellion was suppressed. For instance, the Parliament decided to exclude from the general amnesty a few towns, but an “order from the King” extended this amnesty to all towns, with the exception of Bury St. Edmunds. In addition, men in high position pardoned many individuals excluded of the amnesty and many others simply disappeared. These disappearances were very similar to the disappearance of the Knights Templar seventy years before. Members of both groups were already condemned, wanted by the church and the secular authorities, and in needs of assistance to avoid capture. None were captured, and this can be easily explained if there was a Great Society ready to help them.
The church seemed to disinterest itself completely of the aftermath of the rebellion, being more interested in fighting the critic of the church, John Wycliffe, an Oxford don and priest, and his followers. No request was made by the church to punish the rebels who had devastated many of their properties. Instead, the church asked stronger laws against heresy. Wycliff’s remains were burned for heresy thirty-five years after his death! The church was in fact convinced that the aim of the rebellion was not the King, but the church itself. In other words it was the first sign of the emergence of the Protestant Reformation.
What was astonishing with the Peasant Rebellion was the organisation and planning that lay behind it. Was it put in place for the rebellion only, or was it a more permanent organisation that existed before and after it? Nothing is known about it, but there is little doubt that a secret organisation existed. It was efficient and, as it covered most of the national territory and remained secret, the necessarily standardised means of recognition and identification must have been well thought off, and imposed by an autocratic leadership. In other words, there was a Great Secret Society with cells and chapter through the country. Moreover, to be obeyed, the top leaders must have been people of recognised authority. At local level the leaders must have been able to communicate easily the decision taken to the illiterate peasants. Could have they been the local priests? Obviously the Great Society did not “create” the Peasant Rebellion, as it did not bring the Black Death or the corruption at the top level of the church. But they used all these factors of distress and frustration to their end. Unfortunately their leader, War Tyler, was murdered too soon and, if only for this reason, we do not know what the aims of the Great Society were, and who were the leaders.
The only important secret society operating in England has been the Ancient Order of Free and Accepted Masons however. It is not known if it was active at the time of the rebellion. It has been said that this organisation dates from the time of Adam and Eve or, more modestly, from the time of the construction of Solomon’s Temple. The truth is that we only have historical evidences of this society since 1717 when it became public. The only link between Freemasonry and the Peasant Rebellion is the name of the rebels’ leader, Walter the Tyler. The Tyler is the senior officer in charge of security in every Masonic Lodge and, if there is a connection between Freemasonry and the Peasant Rebellion, the Tyler is the obvious officer to be put in charge of the military operations. The livery used by some rebels in Yorkshire is another possible connection. The masons at York have always claimed to be the oldest in the country, dating back to the seventh century when the York cathedral was built. One of the aims of the Rebellion was to free the people from bondage in all its forms. To become a Freemason a candidate must be a “man born free of a free mother”. By the end of the fifteenth century practically every man in England was free. All this does not prove that the Great Society was Freemasonry, or its precursor.
One should not forget that the rebels were especially keen to destroy the Knights Hospitaller’s properties; they even killed their prior, Sir Robert Hales. On the other hand, the “Temple” in London was left untouched. The uniforms wore by the Yorkshire rebels were red and white, and these were the Knights Templar colours, a red cross on a white mantle. The only organisation, which could have really hated the Knights Hospitallers, was of course the Templars, whose properties were taken over by the former. It is not believable that the Great Society was organised by the Templars with the sole aim to lead the Peasant Rebellion and seek revenge against the Hospitallers. The Templars order had been abolished seventy years before and there were only a few surviving original Templars by that time. On the other hand, the notion of a secret society created by the original Templars that went on for two or three generations of their descendants is more believable. There is little doubt that an organisation helped the fugitive Templars when the Pope ordered Edward II to arrest them. This organisation could have survived as a secret society for many generations if it had a clear aim. The revenge against the Knights Hospitallers could be the reason for this longevity. If this is true then this organisation, known as the Great Society, used the Peasant Rebellion to further its objective.