Magna Carta


England likes to think of itself as a shining beacon of liberty and democracy, and not without reason. Over the course of its long history, the country has developed and enshrined many freedoms which have informed the development of other free countries across the globe. Indeed, when America rose up against British rule in the eighteenth century, it was partly because their traditionally English freedoms had been withdrawn. The founding fathers of the American Revolution – including Thomas Paine in his revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense – made constant references to English liberties. More recently, former President George Bush said that the US constitution could trace its lineage back to Magna Carta.

So the most basic freedoms you enjoy today: the right to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence, a say in where your tax money goes…all of these things have a history, and Magna Carta is a wonderful starting point.

We will discuss how Magna Carta came about and why it is so significant. As well as furthering your understanding of the history of English liberties the story has enduring relevance for all who prefer freedom to tyranny in the modern age.

King Richard

King John took the throne in 1199 after the death of his brother, Richard the Lionheart. Richard had spent most of his reign in foreign lands, crusading on behalf of Catholicism in the Holy Lands. As his name suggests, he had a reputation as a fierce military man and a stout fighter.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Kings relied on their rich and powerful barons to raise taxes and armies for them. At the time, England owned a lot of land in France and the barons possessed much of that land. Since they were making huge sums of money from their French holdings, the barons were prepared to raise taxes and send armies overseas to defend it against invasion and aggression.

It has been said of Richard that he spent a mere six months of his ten year reign in England – the rest being spent on overseas military campaigns. To Richard, England was simply a bank – a generous source of funding for his religious and military fervor.

In order to raise more money Richard was prepared to sell-off his royal holdings and positions of authority to the highest bidder. In essence, he would do anything – short of auctioning London – to raise cash.

Of course, the eventual outcome of this was that upon Richard’s death in 1199 he bequeathed England, and his brother John, with a massive national debt.

King John

It didn’t take long for King John to earn himself a reputation as a capricious, arrogant, violent, avaricious, entitled bully. He was accused of attempting to rape barons’ daughters, locking people up as and when he pleased, torturing his subjects, and levying ever increasing taxes to fund the war in France. Even before he was crowned, John had betrayed his brother Richard by siding with the French king in an attempt to overthrow him and assert his own dominance over England.

This lust for personal power was reflected in his treatment of the nascent legal system. He suspended the King’s Bench court in London along with the assize circuits, thereby forcing anybody who desired royal justice to appear before him personally, wherever he may be.

These tendencies toward evil earned him the posthumous title Bad King John, and got under the barons’ skin. It wasn’t uncommon for a king to be a lecherous ladies’ man with sparse regard for moral boundaries, but John took things to an entirely different level.

On top of these personal issues, John managed to lose vast swathes of territory in France at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214. Once again the barons, who had financial interests there, were livid.

On top of all these temporal concerns, King John posed a grave spiritual threat to the barons and the entire Catholic population of England. Having rejected the Pope’s nomination for Archibishop, he found himself excommunicated from the Catholic Church. In the modern age of atheism, agnosticism, religious plurality, and watered-down Christianity, this might look like no big deal. But in the pre-scientific thirteenth century, people were very religious. They believed in Heaven and Hell, and they needed to visit church to confess their sins and absolve their souls in order to avoid an eternity of torture in the afterlife. Since John had been excommunicated, church services were effectively banned and everybody was in grave danger. It can be difficult to grasp the gravity of this situation when we are sat at our desks in twenty-first century Europe, but perhaps it was something like an overawing fear of an imminent nuclear explosion.

The barons had had enough. They raised armies and advanced on King John, who was forced to lock himself in the Tower of London for safety.


It was not uncommon for a reigning king to have his authority challenged, but those opposing him tended to rally around an alternative heir to the throne. This was not possible when the barons opposed King John because the only other feasible heir, Arthur, had been murdered in prison – supposedly by King John himself. Put yourself in the shoes of the barons in 1215. You can’t fight for an alternative king but you need to do something to curtail King John’s evil. What would you do?


The Great Charter

The barons drew up a 61 clause charter of liberties for all freemen and forced King John to sign the charter at Runnymede. It’s important to note that the term freemen was a relatively small category and excluded large swathes of the population who were classified as serfs.

This charter became known as Magna Carta, which is a Latin phrase meaning “great charter“. It was truly revolutionary in its content and principles because it recognised that the king of England – recognised in the thirteenth century as ruling by divine right – could have his powers limited by law. Up until then, the king could wave his religious authority around like a magic wand and use his power as it suited him. Only God could judge him.

With the advent of Magna Carta, it was established that the king was limited in his powers and that a greater power – the law – ruled over him. In the twenty-first century we call this concept the rule of law, and in Magna Carta we can see its first flickering embers: the rule of law in embryonic form.

Much of the text of Magna Carta seems esoteric and irrelevant, but two clauses in particular deserve special attention:

Clause 39

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.

Clause 40

To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

Think about what this means. From this point onward, subjects of England can only be imprisoned or harmed by the state if they have received a quick and fair trial before their peers according to the law of the land. No human being can use his power arbitrarily to send you to prison, only the proper application of the law can take away your freedom.

The principle enshrined in clauses 39 and 40 is known as habeus corpus and it is one of the most fundamental guarantees of a civil and democratic society. Any democracy worthy of the name respects this right universally and does so diligently.

Magna Carta today

Like any freedom won by centuries of struggle, the rights enshrined in Magna Carta are open to abuse by those in power. Sometimes, it makes their lives easier to gradually cut down these freedoms and it usually begins by taking rights away from unpopular minorities or people designated as official enemies.

If you take a look at the above video clip from 2:38 onwards, you’ll hear one of the world’s foremost intellectuals discussing the methods used by the US government to erode or undermine the principles of Magna Carta (which informed the USA’s founding documents, including the constitution).


  • Magna Carta was an accident of history. If the barons had been able to promote the cause of an alternative king, it is likely that they would have done so and Magna Carta would never have been born.
  • The barons rebelled for a number of reasons: financial, personal, and religious.
  • Magna Carta represents the rule of law – the idea that the law is above everybody – in embryonic form.
  • It is the responsibility of citizens to defend Magna Carta rights. History tells us that those in power do not always act altruistically, and often prefer to act in their own political best interests.

Actus Reus and Mens Rea – Overview


Before we can begin to discuss specific criminal offences like murder and rape, it’s vital that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet. We need to understand the fundamental concepts of criminal law.

To be found guilty of a criminal offence carries grave consequences for one’s livelihood: criminal records, prison time, fines, community service, stigma. In the vast majority of cases, the criminal law punishes people for outrageously immoral behaviour which has an impact on society as a whole.

Think about it. Why do you think most criminal cases begin with R v ….?

The R stands for Regina, which is Latin for Queen, and in the UK the Queen is shorthand for the state as a whole. To state it tersely, when you’re hauled before a magistrate or the Crown Court for a criminal offence, you are being prosecuted by the state for an act which is so serious that everyone in society has an interest in seeing it punished. And even if the Crown Prosecution Service decides not to take you to court, any English subject can use his own money to prosecute you. That’s any English subject, even if they were not a victim of the crime or anywhere near the crime.

Once you have mastered the contents of this post, you will have the tools necessary to understand specific criminal offences.

Actus reus and mens rea

With that in mind, it’s necessary to consider what is required in order for an action to be worthy of strong moral condemnation.


Consider the following scenarios:

  1. I intentionally shoot my friend Michael in the head and kill him. Am I guilty of a crime?
  2. I’m in a secure shooting range and my friend Michael breaks in and jumps in front of my bullet. There was nothing I could do to prevent it. Am I guilty of a crime?

In both scenarios the physical elements are the same: I have pulled the trigger and launched a bullet into Michael’s head. The consequences of my act are the same in both cases: Michael has died.

What is it that makes scenario 1 criminal where scenario 2 is not? It can’t be anything physical.

The only variable is my mental state. In scenario 1 I intended to kill Michael. In scenario 2 I had no such intention: I was blamelessly inadvertent.

One of the core principles of criminal law is expressed in the Latin phrase “actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea”, which is a very ostentatious way of saying “an act does not make a man guilty of a crime unless his mind also be guilty“.

From this very simple thought experiment, we have deduced two fundamental elements of criminal offences:

  1. Actus reus – Latin for guilty act. 
  2. Mens rea – Latin for guilty mind.

So in order for me to be guilty of murder I must kill a human being (actus reus) with intention to kill or commit grievous bodily harm (mens rea).

The prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that I carried out the actus reus and that I had the mens rea. If either of these two elements of murder cannot be proved beyond reasonable doubt, then I must be acquitted.

So if I’m defending myself against a charge of murder in the Crown Court, I could advance some evidence to suggest that I did not intend to kill Michael. That evidence might be quite tenuous and shaky but nevertheless enough to create some reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury. It is important to remember that the jury does not need to be convinced that my defence is true, merely that it might reasonably be true.


In civil law (breach of contract etc) the court must be convinced “on the balance of probabilities” that I have – for example – broken my contract. This is a much lower standard of proof than the “beyond reasonable doubt” required in criminal law. Why is there a difference?

When you think about it, the necessity of proving both actus reus and mens rea makes sense when you consider the aims of criminal law. We imprison people because they are dangerous and need to be kept away from the general public – but surely they are only dangerous if they have exercised their free will in committing a crime. We force people to perform community service or to pay a fine in order to punish them and deter further bad behaviour – but this is pointless if they didn’t behave badly in the first place.

No conviction without actus reus

If you have read George Orwell’s great masterpiece “Nineteen Eighty-Four” you will be familiar with the concept of thoughtcrime. Big Brother attempts to control people’s minds in order to prevent unspoken criticism of the ruling party.

In England, we do not punish thought crime. We recognise that some people will have dark thoughts or fantasies, and they may well require psychological attention, but human beings also possess free will. If we exercise that free will to keep our dark thoughts private and do not act upon them, then we do not draw the attention of the law.

For these reasons, we don’t punish people for mens rea alone. I might harbour a secret desire to kill my wife, but unless I carry out the actus reus of murder I am guilty of nothing more than being unpleasant.

Consider the case of R v Deller (1952). Here, the defendant attempted to mortgage his car to a finance company but he failed to fill out the paperwork correctly. He then induced his victim to purchase the car and deliberately omitted to tell him that it was – so far as he knew – mortgaged to a finance company and he had no right to sell it. The defendant was charged with fraud but was acquitted. He had the mens rea for fraud, but he hadn’t committed the actus reus because the car wasn’t mortgaged due to an error in the paperwork.

So we can see that if there is no actus reus, there is no offence.

Different forms of actus reus

Although the literal translation of actus reus is “guilty act”, the concept in fact covers more than just acts. These can be divided into the Three Cs:

  1. Conduct
  2. Circumstances
  3. Consequences

Conduct is defined as “personal behaviour”. The offence of perjury requires the delivery of false testimony before a court (or lying, in other words). It doesn’t matter whether or not your lie is believed, so it is not a consequences crime.

Circumstances is defined as a “state of affairs”. So, for example, it is an offence to be in control of a motor vehicle whilst drunk. It doesn’t matter whether or not your driving is dangerous (you might somehow manage to drive perfectly safely), so it is not a conduct crime; and you don’t have to cause any damage, so it is not a consequences crime.

Consequences is defined as “the result or outcome of an act”. The classic example of a consequences crime is murder, where the actus reus requires the unlawful killing of a human being.

It is important to remember that some crimes contain multiple forms of actus reus. Rape, for example, requires penile penetration of the vagina, anus, or mouth (conduct) without consent (circumstances).

Different forms of mens rea

Mens rea comes in many forms, and one must study the content of the law to discover what form is required. The most common are:

  1. Intention
  2. Recklessness
  3. Negligence

These are not quite as straightforward to understand as the actus reus categories, so we will just cover them in outline.

Intention can be direct or oblique. Let’s take murder as a simple example:

Direct intent means that is is your desired purpose to kill your victim. You aim the shotgun at their head and pull the trigger.

Oblique intent means that it might not have been your purpose to kill your victim, but you nevertheless foresaw that death was a virtual certainty.

The leading case on oblique intent is R v Nedrick (1986)In this case, the defendant had a grudge against his victim and he threatened to “burn her out” of her home. In a fit of rage, he poured paraffin through her letterbox and set fire to it, causing a raging inferno which killed her young child.

The defendant was charged with murder but he argued that it was not his desire to kill the child. On appeal, the Court of Appeal decided that a jury is not permitted to infer intention unless the death was a virtual certainty and the defendant realised that this was the case.

The ruling in Nedrick was later confirmed by the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court) in R v Woolin (1998).

In summary, it doesn’t matter whether or not you desire your victims death, it is enough that his death was virtually certain to occur as a result of your actions.

To be reckless is to knowingly take an unjustified risk. The courts have struggled with this concept over the years and we will consider it in more detail in later posts. For now, you need to appreciate that there are two ways of looking at recklessness: objectively and subjectively.

Objective recklessness means taking a risk which an ordinary and reasonable person would consider unjustified. Subjective recklessness means taking a risk which you personally find unjustified. There is a huge difference between the two forms. Do you think an abnormally unintelligent person would have the same opinion as a reasonable man?

As we shall see, after much prevarication English law has settled on the concept of subjective recklessness.

Negligence differs from recklessness in one key respect: recklessness requires the conscious taking of an unjustified risk, whereas negligence requires the inadvertent taking of an unjustified risk. To establish negligence, the prosecution must prove that the defendant’s conduct fell below what would be expected of a reasonable person.


Consider the following scenarios and identify the form of mens rea.

  1. Ben and Craig are builders and they are spending their lunch break on the roof of a house. Ben decides to play a game which involves throwing bricks at passers-by and attempting to hit them. He does not desire anybody to die, but he strikes an old woman on the head and kills her.
  2. Ben and Craig decide to see who can throw a brick closest to the edge of the roof. They are aware that pedestrians are walking on the pavement beneath them. One of Craig’s bricks falls off the edge, strikes George on the head and kills him.
  3. Ben and Craig have been working in a heavy wind all day, and when they go home at the end of their shifts, they leave their bricks in a pile by the edge of the roof, thinking that the wind isn’t quite strong enough to blow them over. During the night, the wind blows the bricks over the edge, resulting in the death of Liam.

Coincidence of actus reus and mens rea

Actus reus and mens rea must occur at the same time. If I intend to kill my flatmate next week by poisoning him, but he dies as a result of an accidental house fire caused by me, then I am not guilty of murder.


  • In general, criminal offences require proof beyond reasonable doubt of an actus reus and a mens rea.
  • There are different forms of actus reus and mens rea and these can be discovered by studying the law in question.
  • Actus reus and mens rea most coincide.

History of the Common Law


This is a blog about law, so why are we discussing history?

Think about another subject you’re studying: it could be politics, religion, science, or mathematics. If you’re not studying anything else because you’re studying for a law degree, think about a subject you studied at school or college.

Pretty much any subject you can think of has a history, and you can’t have a full understanding of that subject unless you understand where it came from and how it developed. In politics, you might be expected to understand the evolution of political ideas such as Marxism. In religion, you might be required to analyse the origins of Christianity and its impact on society through time.

In law, you need to know where the present legal system came from. If you look around your nearest city you will see grand and imposing Crown Courts surrounded by well-dressed lawyers and clerks. You will find that the vast majority of the laws under which you live are the same whether you live in Liverpool or London. And you will find the law relatively easy to find and to understand. But it wasn’t always this way.

In this post, we’ll be considering the development of the common law system used in the United Kingdom. We will see how systems of local justice, where decisions were reached by appealing to God, came to be replaced by a national (or common) legal system throughout the land.

What is the common law?

If you haven’t studied law before, you probably think all laws look something like this:

Equality Act

That’s the Equality Act 2010 and – as the title suggests – it’s an Act of Parliament or a statute. Laws like these are passed by the Westminster Parliament after a series of readings and debates in the House of Commons and House of Lords. They represent the will of our MPs and Lords which, in theory, reflect the views of society as a whole.

The common law is different. The Oxford Dictionary of Law provides this simple definition:

Rules of law developed by the courts as opposed to those created by statute.

The common law has the same force as a statute (although a statute can explicitly override the common law) but it has developed from unwritten customs and judicial decisions.



  1. Think about what you’ve just learned and try to list five differences between common law and statute law.
  2. Why do you think the UK has unwritten laws?

The law before William the Conqueror

Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (remember, King Harold was toppled by the William the Conqueror) there was no strong central government. Take a moment to think about what this means in terms of the law. Why do you abide by the law of England? You might abide by certain laws out of a sense of moral duty, but there will almost certainly be other laws that you would ignore if there was no way of enforcing them.

Since there was no central government with the power to impose its will throughout the land, England was divided into local communities known as shires. By the year 959 each individual shire had its own assembly which met twice a year to discuss important local affairs. Each assembly had its own customs and traditions. In essence, these local customs formed the local laws and they varied depending on where you lived.

These local assemblies did not operate in the same way as a modern court. Modern courts take evidence, weigh probabilities, invite expert testimony, and deliberate about their verdicts. In the tenth century, the methods used to settle disputes tended to appeal to God and removed the need to investigate the merits of each case.

One popular method, known as trial by ordeal, involved attaching a heavy object to an accused person and throwing them into a pond. If they floated, God did not want to welcome them into his kingdom and so they were guilty. Another similar method involved lashing a hot object to the hand and then waiting to see if the burn festered. Again, the same principle applied: if it festered then God had rejected them and they were guilty.

In 1215, the Roman Catholic Church banned the clergy from taking part in any more ordeals because they were “tempting God”. The assemblies had to find a new way of appealing to God, so they came up with the system of compurgation. Compurgation involved forcing the parties to a case to swear to the truth of their accusations or defences on the Bible. The parties would then have to find a certain number of local people who could back them up by swearing on the Bible. This was the birth of the system of trial by jury.



  1. Put yourself in William the Conqueror’s shoes. You’ve just invaded and taken control of England – a country riven by private warfare – and you need to solidify your control over your subjects. What would you do?

The law after 1066

In our modern legal system, the Royal Courts have a fixed location. The Supreme Court and Court of Appeal, for example, both have a permanent home in London. But in William the Conqueror’s day there were no fixed Royal Courts.

From time-to-time, the King and his household (a selection of assistants who traveled with him) would turn up in the shires and administer royal justice. It is in the sphere of criminal law that we first find reference to the King personally dealing with the law in the shires. In your answer to the previous task, you may have identified that control of the legal system would be a desirable thing for a king to have, and that’s exactly what William wanted.

William the Conqueror

The King’s travelling court was called the Curia Regis  and it originally dealt with breaches of the King’s peace (which roughly translates into what we would call criminal law today). As well as reinforcing his control over the country, King William saw that there was money to be gained by fining “criminals”.

The laws implemented by the Curia Regis came to be known as the “law and custom of the realm” – it was a common law because it was common to everybody everywhere.

Under King Henry II (1154-1189) the Curia Regis found a permanent home at the Exchequer in Westminster and it became clear that Royal Justice could not cope with demand unless the King delegated his authority to trusted members of his own court.

And so the King appointed people, known as eyres or itinerant justices, to travel from the central court and cover the length and breadth of the country delivering Royal Justice. They delivered justice in the assizes – essentially a temporary Royal Court.

When the eyres returned from their assize circuits, they would discuss the local customs and laws they found on their travels, and over time these divergent customs informed the development of a single law, or common law, administered by the royal courts. This is why we say that the common law developed from local customs and traditions.


The assize system survived until 1972 when it was abolished by the Courts Act 1971 and replaced by the permanent Crown Courts.

In the 12th century, if you wanted to have your case heard before the King under the common law, you would have to wait until the assize was in town. That is, of course, unless you were rich enough to travel to London and address the Curia Regis directly.

The development of the legal profession

Early in the 13th century, the curia regis evolved into the Common Bench and the King’s Bench. The Common Bench dealt with cases which did not involve the King, and the King’s Bench was reserved for cases concerning the King.



  1. At this point in history,  if you wanted to access the common law you had to travel to London or access the assizes. What do you think were the main problems with this?

There were two main problems with this system:

  1. The assizes visited each shire roughly twice a year. What if your case was urgent?
  2. You couldn’t just jump on the train to London in the 13th century. Travelling was costly and time consuming.

To cope with these problems, a legal profession began to develop: the King’s subjects could send an attorney to the central courts to argue on their behalf. Of course, if the advocates in court are trained experts in the common law then the people hearing the cases – the judges – would have to be able to match their skill.

By the end of the 13th century it was a general rule that the judges of the two royal courts should be selected from the professional bar.

The common law today

Many of England’s laws are found in the common law rather than the more modern statute law.

Take, for example, the law prohibiting murder: it’s a common law offence and to find the content of the law you need to study judicial decisions in specific cases. You won’t find an Act of Parliament explicitly criminalising the intentional killing of a human being.

The same goes for most of the criminal law defences: insanity, automatism, intoxication, mistake, duress, necessity. None of these are to be found on the statute books, but they have the force of law nonetheless.

Modern judges have decided that it is no longer their job to make new common law offences (see Jones et al (2006)). Think about why this might be. What’s the difference between a judge and the Houses of Parliament?


  • The Judicature Act 1873 merged the two separate courts: King’s Bench and Common Bench into a single High Court and Court of Appeal.
  • As previously noted, the assize system was ended by the Courts Act 1971 and replaced by a series of fixed, local Crown Courts.
  • The system of local justice died out as royal justice took its place, but local customs and traditions informed the new common law.
  • The legal profession evolved out of the necessity to have a professional lawyer representing clients in court.

The Peasants’ Revolt

What happened during the Peasants’ Revolt?

Thousands of England’s peasants, along with a few from the upper classes, rose-up against the ruling elites. They assembled rebel armies using makeshift weaponry and marched  to London, where they confronted the young King Richard II.

How did it all begin? Why did they fight?

After William the Conqueror successfully invaded England to take the crown from King Harold II in 1066, he decided to abolish slavery.  William came from Normandy, where slavery was already a thing of the past, and he disapproved of it. Of course, if you were a land owner who grew fat and wealthy off the backs of unpaid slaves, this would have been a huge threat to your comfortable way of life. So instead of keeping unpaid labour, land owners decided to give the poor small places to live in return for unpaid work as ploughmen and shepherds. This was called serfdom.

But the institute of serfdom was much, much worse than we can imagine. It wasn’t just that you had to work long, back-breaking hours to keep a roof over your head; it was a system of ownership. The land owners essentially owned their serfs’ freedoms and it was hereditarywhich meant that your forced decision to become a serf bound you, your children, your grandchildren and so on. If you wanted your daughter to get married, you’d need the landowner’s permission, and you’d have to pay for it.

In modern England, you’re free to work wherever you like just as long as you have the right qualifications and circumstances. In the England of 1361, if you were a serf, you were forced to work for one person and you were deliberately kept poor and overworked. If you tried to escape you’d have your back whipped, your ears cropped, or your face branded.

Would you stand for it?

Of course, not everybody in 1381 was a serf. Some people were rich enough to work wherever they pleased and some paid their rents to lords with cash, rather than forced labour. So why did these people rebel?

As with all uprisings, right up to the present-day Arab Spring, there are usually several reasons why ordinary people to stand up for themselves. Serfdom was one reason for the Peasants’ Revolt, but there were several others.

The Black Death struck England in 1348 and wiped out almost 50% of the English population. The plague was so deadly that the Italian author Boccaccio said that its victims: “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise”.

Consider your current workplace. What could you do if 50% of its workforce was suddenly killed?

Well, you’d be able to demand higher wages, and that’s exactly what England’s peasants did. But, of course, the land owners and the lords of England didn’t like this. In those days, it knocked them sick to see people at the ‘lower end’ of society walking around in nice shoes and clothes. It was a threat to the established social order in which they were able to prance around like show ponies whilst everybody else bore the marks of the mud and soil from which they earned their living.

In response, the government introduced the Statute of Labourers in 1351, which banned workers from charging anything above pre-plague rates for their labour. Then, to add insult to injury, they introduced a law in 1363 to ban the lower orders from wearing flashy clothes or eating nice food.

In other words: get back in your box. The Royal Law was being used to repress people rather than to care for them.

The poll tax

In 1380 King Richard II, who had taken the throne at age nine, went to Parliament to ask for money. England was at war with France and it was going badly – everyone was afraid that a French invasion was imminent.

The lords and landowners were fed-up with having to pay-out for the war as well as cope with the backlash from the Black Death and it was decided that money would be raised via a poll tax. This meant that everyone over a certain age would pay a set amount, no matter how rich or poor they were. In essence, the tax was going to cripple the poor, who would be forced to pay 2/3 of the overall amount.

Again, the law was being used to repress and bully:

If you take a look at the Arab Spring, you’ll discover that people don’t like to be publicly humiliated. When dictators build themselves opulent palaces and cruise around in Jaguars while the poor are humiliated, society tends to crack.

And that’s the mistake the poll tax collectors made in 1381. The authorities noticed that evasion of the poll tax was widespread and sent out special commissioners to the counties of England to investigate. Their methods were brutal and included acts of humiliating depravity, such as sticking hands up women’s skirts to find out whether or not they were married (virgins).

The spark that set off the Peasants’ revolt occurred in Brentwood, Essex on 30 May 1381. One of the King’s commissioners, John Bampton, called forward a local baker by the name of Thomas Baker. Baker approached Bampton and told him that his village owed nothing and that they would refuse to deal with him. Bampton threatened him, but the village united behind Baker and chased him and his guards away.

What happened during the revolt?

Men were sent on horseback to spread the word of the revolt that had occurred in Baker’s village. People began to join the revolt all over Essex and swore an oath to “ensure no laws in England except those they themselves move to be ordained“. In other words, they were fed-up with the bullying tone of royal justice and wanted it to reflect the interests of the common folk in society, not just the rich and powerful.

The rebellion soon spread to nearby Kent under the leadership of Abel Ker. Ker and his men crossed the Thames river to Dartford, where the Lord Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas was holding his assizes. When they arrived, they forced him to swear an oath that he would never again act as a judge in poll tax inquests and chased him away. Importantly, they called him a “traitor to the King”. This is a recurring theme throughout the Peasants’ Revolt and underlines an important concept: the divine right of kings. It was believed that the Kings of England were chosen by God and were subject to no Earthly authority. According to this belief, only God could judge a King of England.

Although the peasants were on a mission against their wealthy oppressors, it never would have occurred to them to take up their arms against the King himself. Instead, they focused their anger on those around the young King who they accused of corrupting him and misleading him.

By 6 June the whole of Essex and Kent was in uproar and, with the military away on campaigns on the Scottish border or in France, the rebels were able to burst open the prisons (remember, they were making a stand against the power of the law), burn down the homes of their oppressors, and murder their enemies.

Imagine how crazy the world seemed to have gone during the London riots, and then try to imagine what it must have been like in 1381 with blood flowing in the streets and lordly homes pouring black smoke into the sky.

Pretty soon, a military man by the name of Wat Tyler came to lead the Kent side of the rebellion. One of his first acts was to break the prison at Maidstone and free a radical preacher called John Ball. Ball was a familiar enemy to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury, who had imprisoned him multiple times for preaching radical equality and railing against the ruling classes. So with the combination of Wat Tyler and John Ball, the rebellion now had a strong military leader and a strong speaker who could motivate the peasants (a bit like the Martin Luther King of the Peasants’ Revolt).

By this time, King Richard II had received word of the revolt and sent Tyler a message stating that he would meet him the following day in Blackheath on the outskirts of London.

And so the groups from Kent and Essex – as many as 60,000 men – marched on Blackheath, which was separated from London by the River Thames. The King, who had locked himself and his councilors in the Tower of London for security, assured the rebels that he would come and meet them the following day. With a whole night to spend camped-out beneath the stars on the bank of the river, the rebels caused havoc in Archbishop Sudbury’s Lambeth Palace and opened up some more prisons before settling down for the night.

As the 13th of June morning sun crept above the horizon, the preacher John Ball delivered a radical sermon to the rebels in which he compared 14th century society to a field of wheat being choked by weeds. The weeds represented the ruling classes, and they had to be culled. To get an idea of how the rebels must have felt after this powerful speech, see how you feel after watching a more modern preacher deliver a fabulous piece of oratory:

With all that excitement and certainty built up inside them, the rebels watched as the King’s barge appeared on the Thames, and stayed on the Thames. The King, or perhaps the people around him (remember, he was only a young boy) were too afraid to face the rebels on Blackheath and instead asked for their demands to be delivered via messenger. They demanded the heads of their enemies on spikes, including the head of Archbishop Sudbury who was on the barge with King Richard that day. Fearing for their lives, the King’s company rowed back ashore and retreated to the Tower of London.

The anger whipped up by John Ball burst out, and the rebels made for London. London Bridge was laid out for them – probably because they had friends and sympathisers inside London itself.

What happened once the rebels reached London?

Again, the rebels opened-up the prisons and released the inmates. They bore in on New Temple (a home for London’s lawyers and trainee lawyers) and burned all the legal records and legal books. They made their way to the Savoy Palace – home to one of the King’s closest advisers, John Gaunt – and burned it to the ground.

Then they laid siege to the Tower of London, where the King was secured along with his councilors.

Terrified, the King sent a message to the rebels asking for their demands, and again they demanded the heads of their enemies on poles and an end to serfdom.

In response, the King offered them a complete pardon for all the havoc they had caused, and politely asked them to go home: a tactic which was never going to work given the amount of momentum and fervor behind the rebels’ cause. And so, in response, the rebels went back on the rampage and called for all lawyers and anyone capable of writing a legal writ to be beheaded in the streets.

On 14 June, the King managed to divide the rebels. He asked them to march out and meet him at Mile End, just outside London, where he would listen to their demands and try to reach an agreement. Since he was leaving the rebels’ enemies – such as Archbishop Sudbury – inside the tower, Tyler decided to remain at the siege while others agreed to the meeting.

At Mile End, King Richard asked the rebels what they wanted, and they demanded an end to serfdom and the oppression of the Royal Law. The King agreed – he had little choice – and he added that the rebels could round-up anyone they considered a traitor and bring them before him for justice. About 50% of the rebels were happy with what they had achieved, and went home,

The rest – what we might call the hardcore group – stayed behind and beheaded their enemies, including the Archbishop. Things got out of hand and rebels started murdering foreign traders and anyone against whom they had a personal grudge. A rumor began to spread that Wat Tyler was planning to start fires in the four corners of London and burn-down the entire city.

Fearing for his crown and his city, the King switched tactics. He agreed to form a small army from the contacts of his councilors and asked to meet Tyler at Smithfield for a final negotiation.

The final showdown at Smithfield

King Richard managed to assemble around 200 knights, all clad in heavy armor, for his final showdown with Wat Tyler at Smithfield.

Tyler was asked to approach the King on his horse and deliver his demands, which turned out to be much more revolutionary than the demands of the last meeting. Here’s what Tyler wanted:

  1. An end to the lawyer and landowner dominated state, and a return to Shire rule (local customs and local justice instead of the common law).
  2. An end to lordship.
  3. Complete abolition of the church hierarchy.
  4. Clerical lands to be divided among the common people.
  5. Freedom for all men.

In truth, Tyler wasn’t really expecting the King to give in to these huge demands. He wanted the rebellion to continue, perhaps in the hope that his men would come to view him as a sort of King. But to his surprise, the King gave-in to all of his demands and told him to go home.

Tyler spat at his feet and began to ride back to his peasant army. Outraged by the lack of respect Tyler had shown to the King, the King’s men began to mock him as he rode away, and one called him a ‘common thief’. In response, Tyler squared up to the man who had insulted him so woundingly. He swung at the man with his dagger, but it bounced off his armor and the man swung back, stabbing Tyler twice in the neck.

The rebels were now leaderless and hemmed in on all sides by a better equipped force. The odds suddenly turned against them, they were forced to surrender while Tyler’s head was proudly displayed atop a pole for all to see.


Once the rebels had gone home, the King drew up new commissions giving his men the power to go out into the counties and search out traitors. They were to be mutilated, hung, or beheaded in the streets without trial. All it took to condemn a man as a rebel was the word of one local person.

The King’s promise to end serfdom was never carried through, and the law continued to be used to brutally repress the lower classes. But from that point on, the rulers of England would always be weary of the effects of people power.