Essex and the Peasants Revolt, 1381
Towards the end of June 1381, around a few hundred bodies were buried in Great Burstead Churchyard, Essex. They had all been slain in the Battle of Billericay. Everyday men, farmers and workmen, had joined an uprising which had begun a month previously in Fobbing which has gone down in history as The Peasants Revolt.
Through years of hardship, the feudal system, the plague and ever-increasing taxes on the poor by 1381 many of the common folk had had enough. The straw that broke the camel’s back in Essex came on May 30th in Brentwood. Thomas Bampton, a commissioner to the king, arrived in Essex to revise taxes for the area and to catch tax evaders. This time, however, he was informed those in the area would pay no more than what they had already paid. The heated discussion soon escalated, with Bampton initially refusing to step down and attempting to arrest the spaceman. The men responded by beating and stoning Bacon and his men until they left town.
In retaliation to this Robert Belknap, chief justice of the COmmons Pleas was sent to FObbing to instil what was felt to be “justice” but then the men of Brentwood and the surrounding area were filled by their strength and power and had decided to proceed further and had sent word to nearby villages and towns calling for aid. The mob grew and set upon Belknap and his men, attacking them and destroying papers and the local jurors’ houses. Three clerks along with said jurors were beheaded with Belknap managing to escape with his life. The episode soon grew with word spreading of the Essex men’s success, more rose in Essex and even those in Kent soon started revolting against taxes.
Several Kings officers were set upon and murdered with their houses ransacked and court tolls and documents destroyed, in effect freeing the men from their slavery. Gradually the rioters realised London was the place to go to and make their stand. Their demands were ‘all men, in the realm of England, should be free, and of free condition, and the men to blame were the king’s bad advisors, not the king himself.
Kent and Essex, who had been liaising the whole time, joined forces and marched on London. By this time they were led by three men – WAt Tyler John Ball – a priest from Colchester and Jack Straw, another man who is thought to have come from Essex. By 12th June those from Essex had set up at Mile End with those from Kent in Blackheath. Since the start of the initial uprising word had spread across the whole of England with similar uprisings occurring and people joining the Essex and Kent rioters in London. It is estimated the number in London of revolters were around 30,000.
The young king meantime had sought advice from his advisers. He received a letter from WAt Tyler and several meetings were had between the two, each time Tyler issuing his demands. Maybe Tyler and the rebels had gotten greedy with power or felt they were within their rights but when asked to leave London on the 15th by the King they issued more demands. This time the king was joined by William Walworth, mayor of London who, angry at Tyler’s demands, stabbed Tyler, killing him. Richard told the rest of the rebels to leave London, which many began to do.
After the death of Wat Tyler, the people began to disperse and regroup. This included the men mentioned at the start who had gone back to Essex. Trying to mobile more men to the cause, a call to arms was spread around Great Baddow and Rettendon. Knowing Richard II would not leave them, they set up camp adjacent to a wood northeast of Billericay (which historians today believe may be within Norsey Woods). Ditches were dug, carts chained together around their camp and men placed in defensive positions. However these men were not soldiers, with basic knowledge in fighting and their weapons were everyday items such as scythes, sickles and staves. King’s men, led by Thomas of Woodstock arrived in the early morning of 28th June and broke through the defences. It was more skirmish than battle. The Essex men were no match for the trained soldiers. Some of the chronicles tell us formed old Saxon fighting-rings and made an orderly retreat, beating off their attackers, picking up stragglers, and retiring like true soldiers’ where they fled to Colchester to make the last stand at Ramsey abbey. Others fled in fear and were cut down in the woods. Thus ending the so-called Battle of Billericay.
But what about the rest of Essex?
In the aftermath of Wat Tyler’s death, the King’s men set about rounding up any local resistance in the county. They also issued punishments to those who had done wrong with men in Colchester and Chelmsford after being sentenced to the macabre method of death – hanging, drawing and quartering.
The aftermath of the Peasants Revolt would continue down through the centuries and has made its mark in many locations in Essex, Kent and London.
Other locations in Essex with links to the Revolt include – Southchurch Hall, Cressing Temple, Waltham Abbey and the Tower of London
In my research for this post, I found Norsey Woods itself has played a part in other areas of history. It is a scheduled ancient monument and a multi-period site. Within the trees sits a bronze age barrow with iron age and roman cemeteries. During WW1 training for the trenches was undertaken there with mock trenches being dug not only for the troops going to France and Europe but for local defence forces should there be an invasion. This was common across many Essex woodlands with, unfortunately, many of the trenches being filled in and lost to time. At Norsey, however, a small stretch of the trench has been preserved and can be seen today.
Norsey Wood contains a remarkable collection of visible and documented archaeological features. It is notable not only for the presence of individual features which are of national importance in their own right (such as the Bronze Age bowl barrow, the Iron Age and Roman cemeteries and the medieval deer bank) but also for the combination of evidence for prolonged human activity which has culminated in the present appearance of the woodland. Designated 1924Historic England
Heatherson, L (2016) The Peasants Revolt of 1381. Available from; http://beyondthepoint.co.uk/the-peasants-revolt-of-1381-2/ [Accessed 03/03/03]
Historic England (2000) Multi Period Site at Norsey woods. Available from: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1019485 [Accessed 03/03/03]
Mander, j (2020) Norsey wood Trenches. Available from: http://beyondthepoint.co.uk/norsey-wood-ww1-trenches/ [Accessed 03/03/03]
Read, J (2016) The peasants’ revolt: An Essex revolution. Available from; https://www.greatbritishlife.co.uk/the-peasants-revolt-an-essex-revolution-6986068 [Accessed 03/03/03]
Simkin, J (1997) Chronology of the Peasants Revolt, 1381. Available from: https://spartacus-educational.com/YALDchronology.htm [Accessed 03/03/03]
Whybra, J (2010) Peasants Revolt – Battle of Norsey Wood 1381. Norsey Wood Society. Available from: https://web.archive.org/web/20160304033428/http://www.norseywood.org.uk/society/newsletter/130_Norsey_Wood_Newsletter_Summer_10.pdf [Accessed 03/03/03]