The history of the peasants’ revolt immortalised on the walls of St Barts’ Hospital.
Many assume the Tower of London to be one of the bloodiest locations in the capital due to its history of prisoners and capital punishment. Although famous these days for its meat market, Smithfield‘s history features butchery of a different kind… of humans. The area, located in the ward of Farringdon Without in the north-west corner of the City of London, has played host to many bloody executions over the centuries, most famously Scottish patriot William Wallace (1270-1305).
While Wallace is an iconic figure in Scottish history, the name Wat Tyler doesn’t have the same recognition it deserves. Back in 1381, many Englishmen were unhappy with the state of living. In the 14th century, under the young King Richard II (1367-1400), a new kind of poll tax had been introduced, which was a fixed rate regardless of an individual’s earnings. Peasants were also tiring of the serfdom system of labour, meaning they didn’t have a choice in who they worked for.
In June 1381, thousands of workers from Kent advanced on London, led by Wat Tyler and inspired by radical cleric John Ball (1338-1381), demanding an end to serfdom and fairer taxes. The boy King, who was just a teenager at the time, retreated to the Tower of London for protection as many of his troops were abroad. On 13 June, the rebels entered London and were joined by some locals as they destroyed the Savoy Palace (home to John of Gaunt, who was widely blamed for introducing the poll tax), burned law books and buildings at Temple, killed Royal government associates and opened gaols.
On 14 June, King Richard met with the rebels at Mile End, East London, and agreed to their demands. Meanwhile, a separate group of rebels took over the Tower of London and beheaded several royal figures. Overnight, the King planned to regain control of the City. On 15 June, King Richard and around 200 men gathered in Smithfield outside St Bartholomew’s Priory, while thousands of rebels were on the western end. Tyler stepped forward to talk to the King, who wanted to know why the rebels hadn’t left London. Tyler explained he wanted their agreement drawn up in a charter and was shocked to find the King reneging on his previous promises. An argument then broke out between him and some of King Richard’s associates, with the Mayor of London, William Walworth (d.1385) stabbing Tyler. Royal squire Ralph Standish (1333-1415) then stepped in and repeatedly stabbed Tyler with his sword. resulting in the latter’s death. With the rebels’ leader dead, the King’s men were able to take control of the situation and the men dispersed. Tyler’s head was cut off and displayed on a pole on the southern end of London Bridge. Today, Walworth’s sword is preserved in a display box in Fishmongers’ Hall by London Bridge.
Over 600 years after his death, Wat and his cause have finally been commemorated with a memorial in Smithfield, in the very place he breathed his last breath. Local resident Matthew Bell commissioned a memorial by sculptor Emily Huffnung, which was unveiled by film-maker Ken Loach on 15 July 2015. Made of Caithness stone from Scotland, the triptych is mounted on a blocked window bay of St Barts’ Hospital. A few feet away are older memorials to William Wallace and 60 Protestant martyrs, killed in the 16th century under the reign of Queen Mary I (1516-1558), aka Bloody Mary.
The memorial reads: ‘At this place on 15th June 1381, Wat Tyler, John Ball and other representatives of the Great Rising met King Richard II to finalise terms for ending the Rebellion. The King had agreed to all the political reforms aimed at alleviating the plight of the people. However he and his advisors later reneged on that agreement, after killing Tyler in the process near this spot. John Ball and many others of the Revolt were also later executed.’ John Ball is then quoted: ‘Things cannot go on go on (sic) well in England nor ever will until everything shall be in common when there shall be neither vassal nor Lord, and all distinctions levelled.’
- The memorial is located on the south east corner of West Smithfield, Smithfield, EC1A. Nearest station: Farringdon. To read about Matthew Bell’s journey to have the revolt memorialised, check out his blog.
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To read about the history of the nearby St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse, click here.