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The English Peasants' Revolt
by Froissart

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
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Jean Froissart (c1337-c1410) was a poet, scholar and author from northeastern France (Valenciennes, in the county of Hainault, near the mouth of the Rhine River). He came from a family of businessmen and moneylenders, but he developed a talent for poetry that enabled him to find employment with European nobility. In 1361, he went to work for the wife of England's King Edward III, Queen Philippa (who was also from Hainault), as her poet and chronicleer (i.e. storyteller and historian). After she died in 1369, he went to the Netherlands where he remained for the rest of his life. He also he began to write The Chronicles, a history of the Hundred Years War and other major events that occurred just before and during his lifetime, using his own observations plus interviews with eyewitnesses. Historians value his work for its detail and effort to describe the "big picture" surrounding events, but they also recognize that Froissart's love of the nobility and preoccupation with telling a good story reduce the accuracy of his history. This reading describes the revolt of the English peasants in 1381, but it also reveals Froissart's opinion of the king, nobles, and peasants.

Definitions

Background

The English Peasants' Revolt of 1381 took place at a time when the English monarchy was weakened by both foreign war (with France) and disputes within the royal family over who should be in charge. In the episode covered by this reading, Richard II was king, but the first reference note mentions a noble named John of Gaunt was away negotiating with the Scots at the time of the revolt. The importance of the task -- the Scots were on-again, off-again allies of the French against the English -- suggests that John of Gaunt was an important figure. In fact, John of Gaunt was the fourth son of the previous King Edward III (ruled 1327-1377). John spent most of his life trying to become king instead of his older brothers, but never succeeded. Instead, he became the "power behind the throne" when his nephew Richard II became the King of England at the age of ten in 1377. Although John never became king himself, he managed to get his illegitmate son recognized as Richard's successor, Henry IV.

When the peasants' revolt began in 1381, England and France were about halfway through a series of wars that became known as the Hundred Years War. The main cause of the war was due to the fact that both the French and English kings had claims to the province of Aquitaine in southwest France. The rival claims were the resulted of the principle of primogeniture, plus the death of several French kings in rapid succession. By the time the war began in 1337, France and England were both ruled by descendants of a French King from the previous century, Philip III, and thus both claimed Aquitaine.

 

Map of English Peasants' Revolt Genealogy of
English and French Kings in the 100 Years War
Sites associated with the English Peasants' Revolt Genealogy of English and French Kings in the 100 Years War

 

In 1337, the French king Philip VI was a grandson of King Philip III, but only the nephew (not the son) of King Philip III's successor, Philip IV. The English king Edward III inherited that throne from his father, Edward II, but he also became the heir to the French throne through his mother Isabel, after her three brothers all died early. However, since the French version of primogeniture did not allow a woman to inherit land or power, after a power struggle the French nobility chose Isabel's cousin to become the King Philip VI of France in 1328. That meant England was ruled by a great-grandson of Philip III, and Frence was ruled by his grandson. Both claimed control over land in France. (See chart, above right). Church and noble courts each tried to resolve the dispute -- church courts by deciding who was the rightful king of France, and noble courts by deciding to whom the land of Aquitaine belonged -- but neither type of court was able to produce a peaceful settlement. Instead, the two kings and their followers went to war.

Because each king needed nobles to raise armies and pay for them, the nobles were able to use the dispute between kings as a way to strengthen themselves by making demands before choosing sides. Although Philip IV's noble relatives supported him, in general, other local nobles on the continent feared a strong French king more than a strong English king. Many French barons supported the English in order to keep the French king weak, while Flemish nobles (from the region around the mouth of the Rhine River, including the area where Froissart was born) supported the English for business reasons.

The war lasted roughly from 1337 to 1429. During this period, English archers defeated French knights at the Battle of Crecy on August 26, 1346 and for most of the war, the French remained at a disadvantage. After the Black Death struck both sides (and the rest of Europe) in 1348-1349, enthusiasm for the war declined and they signed a peace treaty in 1360 (Peace of Bretigny). It failed to last, however, and the fighting resumed for another half century. The French continued to get the worst of the fighting until 1428-29, when a peasant girl with a reputation as a religious mystic (Jeanne d'Arc, a.k.a. Joan of Arc) rallied the French forces. Although she was betrayed to the English and burned as a witch, the French were able to regain much of their territory from the English. The Hundred Years War finally petered out in the 1450s when the English became involved in a civil war (known as the War of the Roses, 1455-1485).

The French won control over the province of Aquitaine and other English territory along the North Sea coast. They also stabilized the French monarchy under the Valois family. In contrast, English kings lost power with respect to their nobility because each time they needed more money for the war, the nobles (acting as a group called Parliament) demanded more control over the right to raise taxes to pay for warfare. When Richard II first became became King of England in 1377, he was only ten years old and thus easily manipulated by his nobles and his uncle, John of Gaunt. Later, when Richard tried to assert his authority over Parliament, he was overthrown by Gaunt's son Henry IV in 1399.

Effects of war: War created social unrest. The nobles who fought in the Hundred Years War passed the cost on to their peasants in the form of higher taxes and military requisitions. That produced, among other effects, the 1381 peasant revolt in England. It also provided fertile territory for the spread of John Wyclif's (alternate spelling: Wycliffe, Wycliff) ideas about reforming the Catholic Church.

Edward III, who ruled for fifty years from 1327 to 1377, became king at a very young age. Normally, his son Edward (the "Black Prince") would have become the next king, but after he spent years fighting in France, his health was so bad that he died in 1376. The Black Prince's younger brother John (of Gaunt) tried to take over, but he was unpopular with members of his own family and with most of the other nobles, who feared that he would try to reassert royal authority. So everyone backed the Black Prince's son Richard II (ruled 1377-1399) even though he was only ten years old at the time.

By this period in English history, kings employed a number of lesser officials to run jails, collect taxes and lead local town governments. Froissart mentioned a man named John Newton who was taken hostage by the peasants. John Newton was the king's governor of the town of Rochester (also spelled "Rotherthithe"), and captain of the royal prison in that town. As such, he was the representative of royal authority in the town, so the mob threatened him until he agreed to go with them to London and present their message to the king. To make sure he did not change his mind, allies of the rebels held Newton's children hostage.

One of the results of the Hundred Years War, was the first feelings of "nationalism" by people of both England and France -- in other words, loyalty to the idea of a group rather than simple loyalty to the person or position of the king. Militarily, the successful use of the longbow against armored knights ended the noble monopoly on military power by making it possible to create armies out of peasants. Finally, the first challenge to the idea of absolute rule by a king developed when English kings granted their nobles (acting as "parliament") the right to confirm non-feudal taxes in exchange for financial support.

 

Armored knights on horseback were
the dominant form of miliary technology in Europe from about 700
to 1400
Armored knights were unstoppable until archers and guns became common in the 14-15th centuries.
[Source: Jim Jones photo, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City]

Detail of European horse armor manufactured
in Germany about 1300
Detail of German horse armor manufactured about 1300. Only the wealthy could afford such things.
[Source: Jim Jones photo, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City]

Questions

  1. Why did the peasants revolt?
  2. How did the leaders of the peasant revolt justify their demand to end serfdom?
  3. What strategy did the peasants use to put pressure on the nobles?
  4. What made a peasant "good" according to Froissart?
  5. How long did the English peasant revolt last?
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