When the poll tax is levied the people revolt – a true history

In 1381 the imposition of a third poll tax in quick succession on England’s population led directly to the rising known as the Peasants’ Revolt. This is the subject of Juliet Barker’s history of the period England, Arise.

Of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as that so the author starts her book by outlining how society at the time worked, what status groups of people had and what taxes were levied on the people to pay for foreign wars. She then shows how the landowners, including the church, and aristocracy abused the rights that people had and how powerless the general population was to do anything about it. When the arrangements for the poll tax are examined we can see that the largest impact of these taxes fell upon the least well off.

The revolt, or uprising, however, didn’t just consist of peasants but included lots of other people who had grievances with the format of society and the abuses of the powerful. It was also true that many used the uprising to settle other scores. Documents were burned, houses were looted and people were killed. Events took place mainly in East Anglia and Kent with some rioters marching on London. It appears that the king made concessions to those he met but he didn’t have the political capital to maintain them, and following the revolt there were repercussions and executions.

This is a pretty detailed overview of the revolt and those involved in it. The author uses plenty of examples to prove her point and challenges some of the myths that have grown up about events and personalities. This is really not my period and so I found the background very useful and the whole book informative. I did find that, on occasion, it went into more detail than I actually wanted but that is hardly a flaw in such a well-researched and clearly written history. There are copious footnotes and a comprehensive bibliography too.

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