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The Peasant's Revolt: The only time the Tower of London was breached

Date: 28 September 2017

At the Tower of London, William the Conqueror’s White Tower, and the huge curtain walls of Henry III and Edward I cast a shadow of impregnable royal strength over the City.

In reality, the Tower’s fortunes as a defensive castle were somewhat mixed. It depended rather upon the loyalty and efficiency of its garrison, and the stocking of its weapon stores and food larders.

In June 1381, the Tower fell, not to a well organised army of knights, archers and engineers with siege engines, but to a force of lower class rebels. The so-called ‘Peasant’s Revolt’ was sparked by a new tax - the third in four years - that took no account of individual wealth.

The rebellion began in the south east of England, and quickly gathered momentum. A 10,000 strong force made up of yeomen, skilled craftsmen and labourers marched on London to demand the heads of those they blamed for the tax.

Oddly, they didn’t blame Richard II for their suffering, and even claimed loyalty to their king whilst calling for the death of the ‘traitors’ who governed on his behalf.

The 14-year-old Richard, his mother and royal household fled to the Tower whilst the rebels plundered and burnt the capital for two days. Eventually, the fortress came within the rebels’ sights. Jean Froissart, a contemporary, describes in his Chronicles what happened next.

The Chapel of St John the Evangelist, looking north-east.

Built late 11th century the chapel is one of the finest examples of early Anglo-Norman church architecture in the UK. The young Richard II and future Henry IV hid there during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. It was the location of the laying in state of King Henry VII's wife Elizabeth of York, and was where Mary I was betrothed to Philip II of Spain.

Image: Richard II hid in the Chapel of St John the Evangelist during the Peasants' Revolt in 1381 © Historic Royal Palaces

The king had ridden out to meet the rebels at Mile End. The Tower’s drawbridges and portcullis gates had not been raised behind him, and a mob of at least 400 men stormed the castle. The men-at-arms guarding the Tower put up no resistance, and the peasants shook their hands as brothers and stroked their beards in a friendly fashion…

Jean Froissart, a contemporary, in his Chronicles

The rebels separated into gangs, and ran searching through the towers and inner and outer wards, hunting for ‘traitors’. Froissart tells us that they “arrogantly lay and sat and joked on the king’s bed, whilst several asked the king’s mother … to kiss them.” She was the Princess Joan, the ‘Fair Maid of Kent’, and was a famous beauty. Terrified by such familiarity, the lady fainted, and was carried away to safety by her servants.

Still unchallenged, the hunters drew closer to their intended victim, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Simon Sudbury was also the king’s Chancellor, and was loathed by the rebels. He had attempted an earlier escape by river barge, but was forced to retreat to the Tower. Realising that there was little hope of escaping, he chose to spend his final hours of life preparing for an untimely death.

White Tower at the Tower of London in daylight. North East side.

Image: The White Tower. © Historic Royal Palaces

Caught praying in the chapel, the archbishop was dragged out of the castle and onto Tower Hill. There Simon was beheaded on a log of wood. It took the headsman eight strokes before the ‘traitor’s’ head could be impaled on a spike and mounted over the gate of London Bridge.

The king later agreed to meet the rebels at Smithfield. The tense situation quickly degenerated, and their leader Wat Tyler was killed in the confusion. The teenage monarch rode forward and shouted “You shall have no captain but me!”. The rebels believed their demands would be met by their new champion, and dispersed.

Richard’s ingenuity had triumphed over the Tower’s failure to protect his household. It would be a different story eighteen years later, when he returned as its prisoner, before losing his crown to the future Henry IV.

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