Put yourself in the position of an advisor to the 10-year old King Richard II shortly after his coronation in 1377. You’ve just witnessed one of the greatest population disasters in European history — the Black Death — where one third of the people of all classes died. The crown is at war with France (the Hundred Years’ War), and there’s little or no money in the treasury. You could probably come up with better policy ideas in your sleep than what Richard’s advisors did:
Fixated with outright victory in the One Hundred Years War, started by his grandfather Edward III, Richard’s government introduced hugely unpopular poll taxes in 1377 and 1379. A further tax introduced in 1381 was to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Irrespective of wealth, the tax was fixed at a rate of 12 pence per person, meaning that it was a huge burden on the poor, but a minor inconvenience to the wealthy. In addition, rumours spread of widespread corruption in the government. The peasants were ripe for revolt.
Following the expulsion of a tax collector from the town Brentwood, 30 kilometres north-east of London, a band of rebels swept through Kent and Essex, swelling their numbers with volunteers as they went. They advanced upon London in a pincer movement from the south and east. The two leaders of the rebellion emerged as Wat Tyler, of whom little was previously known, and John Ball, a radical priest who had been broken out of prison by Kentish rebels, where he had been held for his beliefs in social equality and a fair distribution of wealth within the church. Indeed, as he preached to the crowd of thousands of rebels at Blackheath, then just outside London, he cried: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men.’
Londoners willingly opened the gates of their city to the rebels who set about their task with fervour. They sacked Savoy Palace, the home of the key adviser to the now 14-year-old Richard. Guards in the Tower of London opened the gates to the rebels, who freed the inmates and executed Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Treasurer of England, who had been hiding inside. There were also several incidents of misplaced rage among the rebels, like when the crowd set their sights upon Flemish immigrants, many of whom were wealthy wool merchants, and murdered them in the streets.
Faced with a grave situation, the young king rode out to meet the rebel leaders at Blackheath. Their demands were an end to poll taxes, an immediate end to serfdom, the introduction of a more democratic form of government with local representation based on the Provisions of Oxford in 1258, and a fair distribution of wealth and power from the nobility. Richard initially gave into their demands as well as issuing pardons for all involved.
It got worse (for the peasants) after that brief high point…