Why Did People Rebel in 1381?
The Black Death and the Revolt of 1381 are very popular topics because of their drama and their significance. The difficulties for students are in understanding how they were connected and what roles were played in the outbreak of the 1381 Revolt by other factors such as war and taxation. This activity uses controlled role-play to look at how tensions grew in villages and how a series of events created both the possibility of rebellion and finally the outbreak itself.
I have also built into this activity a tentative attempt at some of the principles of formative assessment or assessment for learning in the hope that students will be able to identify explicitly what and how they have learned and take these lessons forward to future investigations of rebellions in KS3, such as the Civil War, the French revolution or 19th century protests seeking the vote. However, as one of the key principles of assessment for learning is adapting teaching in response to formative assessment, the activity described can only be a broad outline and will need to be adapted to fit students’ needs.
This activity might well be used after the Black Death in Allton activity, also on this website.
I have avoided the term The Peasants’ Revolt. This is a long-standing piece of personal crabbiness but the word ‘peasant’ creates an entirely wrong impression of those involved in the revolt, especially for students aged 11-14. Many of the rebels were the leaders of local manorial communities, well-used to responsibility and decision-making and this was one of the factors why the rebels were able to communicate and move on London so quickly and smoothly. Historians such as Christopher Dyer and Alistair Dunn have pointed out the inappropriateness and misleading impact of the use of the term ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ but even Dunn has gone on to use it as the title of his book on the revolt. So, no peasants here!
By the end of the activity it is hoped that students will understand
- why the Revolt of 1381 broke out
- what they understood at the beginning of the sequence of lessons and what they understood at the end and be able to describe the difference.
- how they moved their own learning forward and therefore will be in a position to re-use this model in the future.
1. This activity assumes you have already covered the events of the Black Death. Introduce the 1381 Revolt by drawing out of students what they already understand about rebels and rebellions. This can be done in pairs or threes to facilitate discussion.
- What is a rebellion? What examples of rebellions can you think of?
- What do you think would happen in a protest or rebellion in the Middle Ages? Would it be violent? Who would it be aimed at? Who were likely to protest? Why might ordinary people be reluctant to rebel?
- Now tell students the outline story of 1381 – villagers marching on London, protests, the youth of the King, attack on Archbishop of Canterbury and other officials but leave out any reasons for the revolt. Ask students what questions they want to ask now.
- Focus on why the revolt broke out – what reasons can students think of to explain this revolt? (refer back to rebellions against the Romans or Normans or use modern protests or revolts as stimulus). If few or no ideas are forthcoming leave this open but be positive – students have a huge amount that they can learn! An alternative but less bold approach is to provide students with a list of possibilities to choose from, maybe ranking them in order of likely significance – use the key factors such as taxation, freedom and war but also add others, including anachronistic ones such as ecological concerns. Record students’ ideas about why the revolt broke out – which reason or reasons they think were most likely to be important and whether they chose one or a mix of reasons.
- Make clear the goals of this sequence of lessons – they are not just about 1381 but about understanding why rebellions take place, understanding explanations in history and about identifying students’ own learning – in all these ways this activity can be a big launchpad for further learning of these themes in Years 8 and 9.
That has all taken time but it’s important to establish what ideas students have at the outset – without that information discussed and recorded then students can’t later describe their progress in learning and gain confidence from knowing that they have progressed.
2. Divide the class into groups of 5 – one lord, two freemen and two villeins. Each group of 5 represents a village. If your class doesn’t divide neatly into 5s then add an extra villein or freeman. (In the mid-fourteenth century approximately 40% of the population were villeins – in some areas, such as Kent, villeinage had virtually disappeared – an interesting piece of information given the tendency to assume a linkage between the revolt and demands for freedom.)
3. You could add an extra frisson of role-play by representing the hierarchy in each village through use of table, chairs and floor – seat the lord on the table above the freemen on the chairs with the villains on the floor. You could also add props such as the lord’s sword and helm, farm animals etc.
4. Put up large notices in corners of the room saying Lords, Freemen, Villeins.
5. Prepare role cards such as those below for distribution in stage 2 of the Activity.
Lord of the Manor
Since the Black Death there have not been enough people to work in your fields. Therefore fewer crops are being grown and animals are straying because there is no-one to watch them. The result is that you are making less money from your lands.
The villeins have to work two days each week on your land. They spend the rest of the week farming their own strips of land.
The freemen are paid two pence a day to work on your land but they also have land of their own to farm.
What do you want the villeins to do in the future?
What do you want the freemen to do in the future?
Since the Black Death the landowner has been short of workers in his fields.
You are paid two pence a day to work on his land.
You pay £3 a year rent to the lord for your own land.
What would you like to happen to your daily pay for working on the lord’s land?
What would you like to happen to the rent you pay to the lord for your land?
How has the Black Death helped your chances of getting what you want?
Since the Black Death the landowner has been short of workers in his fields.
You are not free but, if you were free, you could rent more land and you would have time to farm it instead of having to working for two days every week on the lord’s land.
If you were free you could make money for yourself and your family.
What do you want to happen in the future?
How has the Black Death helped your chances of getting what you want?
6. Create a Rebellion Counter on your board or interactive whiteboard. It could look like this. At different stages of the activity the villagers will have to decide which statement they will choose.
I won’t rebel. I’d like things to be better but at least they’re not getting worse.
I won’t rebel. I’d like things to be better but the King and lords are too powerful.
I won’t rebel. Things are bad but my village isn’t too badly affected.
I will rebel. There’s no alternative. I’m going to be punished or my life will get far worse anyway.
1. Recap the events of 1348-9 – the shock and particularly the death-rate of 50% nationally. The villagers are the survivors but there are many fewer people in each village than there were two years earlier.
2. Call the villagers out to meet in status groups i.e. all the lords meet under the notice headed Lords etc. Give each student a role-card explaining the situation of their group and ask each group to discuss the questions under the heading ‘The future?’ They have to agree answers to each question i.e. the lords want the villeins to do more work for them and the freemen to take a pay cut, the freemen want higher wages and lower rent and the villeins want freedom or to spend less time working for the lord. Make sure you have a clear time limit for discussion.
3. Now send the groups back to their villages and get them to discuss what will happen in their village in the future. It will help if they have a clear order – the freemen must state their demands and the lord respond, then the villeins say what they want and the lords respond. Again give them a time limit.
4. As the time limit runs out make an announcement. The King has passed a law called the Statute of Labourers. He says that there must be no wage rises, nobody must leave their villages and no villeins can be given their freedom. Give students a minute to think about this, then ask the lords what they think of the Statute, then the Freemen, then the Villeins.
5. Now ask the freemen and villeins if they will rebel against the King and lords. Which statement on the Rebellion Counter do they agree with? What are the reasons for and against rebellion – note on your board reasons such as the military reputation of the King, who has the best weapons, the recent chaos of the Black Death, would they get help from other villages, the villagers’ situation hasn’t got worse – it’s simply not improving as it might. Ask each village to take a vote on whether the people would rebel.
6. Move forward in time – count out the years to get a sense of time passing – a villager grows from 20 to 30 to 40 but now the war with France is going badly. Explain how King Edward III was a great soldier. In the 1340s and 1350s he won great victories over France at the battles of Crecy and Poitiers. However Edward III grew old and died in 1377. The new king is his 9 year-old grandson, Richard II.
The French fought back. They attacked English towns, burning Hastings, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Southampton and others. As a result the government has decided to collect a tax and spend the money on soldiers to defend England. People did not pay taxes every year and they paid different amounts, depending upon how rich or poor they were. In 1377 everyone paid the same amount, four pence, a whole day’s pay for a skilled worker. This new tax was called the Poll Tax (poll means a head).
Now ask the freemen and villeins if they will rebel against the King and lords. Which statement on the Rebellion Counter do they agree with? What would be the reasons for and against rebellion? How desperate are they?
7. The French attacks continued and so did the taxes. Everyone had to pay another Poll Tax in 1379 and again in 1380. This time the tax was twelve pence, three times higher than in 1377. Now ask the freemen and villeins if they will a) rebel, b) pay the tax or c) leave the village and hide when the tax collectors visit their village?
Give plenty of time to discuss the options – emphasise the danger of rebellion and that hiding is less risky.
What happened was that many people hid. There were nearly half a million people fewer in the tax lists in 1381 than in 1377 – 30%-50% fewer in some villages.
8. Announce that the government is angry with all the people who avoided paying the tax. It is sending out new tax collectors to find all the missing taxpayers and force them to pay up. They may have to pay more as a punishment.
Now ask the freemen and villeins if they will rebel against the King and lords. Which statement on the Rebellion Counter do they agree with? What would be the reasons for and against rebellion? How desperate are they? Why are they more likely to rebel now than before?
This is the point at which the 1381 Revolt broke out, when people who had avoided the latest poll Tax realized that they were likely to be found and punished for evading the tax. This is where the activity ends.
Go back to the issues raised in Setting Up (1d) and re-use students’ initial ideas about why rebellions occur. The key point now is for students to reflect on what they have learned – about the specific situation in 1381, about rebellions in general and about explaining why things happen. It is vital that students have the chance to talk about what they have learned even if their thoughts are uncertain and tentative – for many this will be new and tricky but first steps usually are. One way into this would be to ask – later in your History you are going to investigate why people rebelled against the King Charles 1 in 1642. What have you learned from the 1381 revolt that would be useful to remember when you make that investigation? Students could work in pairs and threes. In whole class discussions don’t leap in to fill silences – allow students time to think and try out ideas.
Possible questions for stimulus include
Why did it take so long for the people to rebel?
Why did the rebellion break out when it did when it had been a possibility for so long?
If we explain why the rebellion broke out do we just write out a list of reasons or do we do something different? (This can be exemplified by getting students to explain to each other why the revolt began – they will be doing something other than creating a verbal list)
What have you learned from this activity that you didn’t know before?
What have you learned from this activity that will be helpful next time you investigate a rebellion?
Another approach would be to ask students to work in pairs to devise their own explanation of why the Revolt broke out. Having done so, put pairs into fours and each pair has a couple of minutes to explain to the other why the revolt broke out and develop a joint answer. Now open out to the whole class and ask a couple of groups to give their explanations to the whole class – the final stage is to ask the class as a whole to pick out what is good about these explanations i.e. to reflect explicitly on what makes a good explanation.
Answers to these debriefing questions need to be recorded and kept for use later in KS3, for example when investigating the Civil War, French Revolution or the Suffragettes’ use of violence.
Steve Jolly, who teaches in Rochdale, provided the following notes:
I am currently adapting the 1381 Rebellion activity for my Year 7. Basically I have put into a PowerPoint format so that students have a big screen access to some resources. Moreover, I have produced role cards in colour. My colleague Matt was observing the activity and he noted how the youngsters were engaged. The stage where youngsters were in the role of freemen, villeins and Lords got them going. My nobles were keen on being tough with all and the freemen sensed an opportunity.
A lovely moment arose when one of my Lords wanted to justify the Poll Tax to the peasants. None would listen to him. He was shouted down. The rebels were clearly up for rebelling and some of my Lords remained determined to show who was in charge. The activity was superb for encouraging discussion. I had one child whose learning style clearly enabled her to access History. Involved and active - most unusual for the girl concerned
My school is currently engaged in developing active learning across the school. Scientists and others seem excited by the Development yet we History teachers have been teaching in this meaningful for some time. A case of History teaching being at the cutting edge of curriculum development.
- How did tackling this topic through this role-play affect students’ learning? e.g. was understanding of the patterns of events deeper?
- What did students learn about power, protest and rebellions as well as about the specifics of 1381?
- What explicitly did pupils learn about cause and consequence from this activity?
- When and how will you refer back to this session later in your course? Will this reference back be more effective because of the use of the role-play?
Assessment for Learning: putting it into practice by Paul Black et al.
A very helpful guide to assessment for learning, building on the same authors' pamphlets 'Inside the Black Box' and 'Working inside the Black Box'.
Lost in Time by Ian Dawson.
This is a development study for KS3 that follows the story of social and working lives from the Middle Ages to the Victorian period.
It looks at life in a village before the Black Death through the eyes of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, his family and villagers and also includes an exercise on why the 1381 Revolt broke out.
The Peasants' Revolt: England's Failed Revolution of 1381 by Alistair Dunn.
A summary of the latest research on 1381, available in paperback.
Fire, Bed & Bone by Henrietta Branford.
The story of the 1381 revolt told through the ‘eyes, ears and nose of a dog’. Much better than that sounds – winner of several prestigious children’s book awards.