An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

January 10, 2021

Thomas: Politics in a Time of Pandemic

Politics in a Time of Pandemic: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the Storming of the Capitol by Trump Supporters in Historical Perspective


Alfred Thomas, University of Illinois at Chicago


An angry crowd of rebels, fiercely loyal to the head of state but determined to punish his subordinates as traitors, listens to his speech and, enflamed by his words, rushes to the most prominent landmark in the city where the politicians are hiding in fear. The whole thing is, to say the least, a massive security failure: the mob manages to break into the building and proceeds to ransack its interior, including government documents. In the ensuing conflict several people are killed.


This is a highly abbreviated account of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 when thousands of disaffected subjects of King Richard II, angry at the imposition of a punitive poll tax that discriminated against them and favored the rich, invaded London and demanded the abolition of feudal serfdom. The rebels, led by Wat Tyler, gathered in Mile End in the east of London where the king and his retinue came to meet and parley with them (figure 1). Encouraged by the king’s concessions, the mob returned to London and stormed the Tower of London where several of the royal ministers had taken refuge. A few of these beleaguered individuals, including Simon Sudbury, archbishop of Canterbury, who had just resigned as Lord Chancellor of England, were dragged out of the Tower and beheaded. Sudbury’s head was paraded through the streets of London with his miter nailed into his brains. In the end, the youthful king reneged on his promises, probably under pressure from his council; and many of the rebels were arrested, tried, and executed. But if the revolt had succeeded and the rebels had gained their demands, it would have transformed English society and would have anticipated the French Revolution by four hundred years.