They make for a rag-tag army. One of them is an elderly shepherd armed with nothing more deadly than his crook, another is a young boy who clings for protection to the drum with which he has bravely set the pace of their advance.
Nearby, a fierce-looking youth is spattered with blood from the severed head he carries on top of a long pole.
Others brandish the flaming torches with which they have set London ablaze, and in front of them stands a thick-set brute, his face glistening with sweat from the battles recently won and his sword drawn ready for those that lie ahead
Until now, we have had only the illustrations in history books to help us picture their struggle. But thanks to the work of British photographer Red Saunders, we can come closer than ever to appreciating their deadly determination.
Thick-set brute: Wat Tyler stands in front of the mob, his face glistening with sweat from the battles recently won and his sword drawn ready for those that lie ahead
Saunders specialises in photographing huge tableaux vivants, living pictures in which dozens of actors recreate key moments in British history.
His latest creations, showcased in a new exhibition in Bradford, include this depiction of the Peasants’ Revolt, and it offers many fascinating insights into why the uprising happened — and why it took the bloody course that it did.
The first lies in the extraordinary array of weapons featured in the photograph. Alongside the swords and pikes, whose steel glints in the fiery glow over London, we see pick-axes, pitchforks and scythes more usually wielded on farms, but put to lethal new use as implements of death.
This reminds us that the insurgents were not political saboteurs, but ordinary men and women, usually content to fight only the elements as they struggled to make a living from the land, but driven to mutiny and murder by the actions of their over-bearing and greedy rulers.
Just 30 years previously, the Black Death had killed a third of the population — which then numbered between two and three million.
Many of those depicted in the photograph will have lost family or friends to a catastrophe unimaginable by modern standards.
Though it would not have helped these peasants in their grief, there was one ‘benefit’ of this sudden cull of much of the nation’s workforce. With fewer labourers to work the land, demand for their services was all the higher.
Their wages should have risen accordingly, but in the years leading up to the Peasants’ Revolt a series of statutes were introduced imposing an ungenerous limit on the wages farm labourers could be paid.
On top of this were the frustrations of serfdom, the centuries-old practice by which some peasants were still forced to work part of the time free of charge for their rich and powerful landlords.
And then there was the introduction of a series of poll taxes to help fund the latest wars with France.
Everyone had to pay a shilling — a pittance for the ruling classes, but a significant amount for those bound to them in serfdom.
As if this was not provocative enough, the commissioners sent out to enforce these payments often abused their power, particularly when it came to investigating whether young girls in a household were over 15, the age at which the poll tax became payable.
Frightened girls were forced to lift their skirts while these officials examined them for signs of maturity and sexual experience. If a girl was no longer a virgin, she was deemed old enough to pay the poll tax, whether she had reached 15 or not.
Such outrages fomented public opinion, and matters appear to have reached a tipping point in May 1381, following the visit of a tax collector to the Essex village of Fobbing.
The residents took great umbrage at his presence and threw him out, later giving the same treatment to soldiers sent to re-establish law and order by the 14-year-old Richard II.
Unrest spread quickly throughout the South-East. The following month, a group of men marched on Rochester Castle in Kent and freed a man imprisoned for refusing to work as a serf.
They were led by Wat Tyler, a man we know little about except that, as his name suggests, he may have been a roofer by trade.
The efficiency with which he led his forces suggests he had experience as a soldier, perhaps as part of a militia raised by the local lord to join in the war against France.
Deadly: As the drunken in this part of the image suggests, some of the rebels liked a drink. A few were burnt to death when they became too inebriated to escape fire
Soon there were two great peasant armies marching on London — one led by Tyler, the other a contingent from Essex under the command of a man called Jack Straw, most likely a thatcher.
Many thousands in number, their ranks included trained soldiers, as suggested by the photograph, but there were many civilians, too, including those like the blood-smeared blacksmith seen on Wat Tyler’s right, the understandably fearful-looking shepherd next to the drummer boy, and the young farmhand placing a protective arm around his pregnant wife, who is presumably a camp follower.
In the words of medieval poet John Gower: ‘Savage hordes approached the city like waves of the sea/At their head a peasant captain urged the madmen on/With cruel eagerness for slaughter, he shouted: “Burn and Kill.” ’
En route, they destroyed many tax records and registers, and beheaded several tax officials who tried to stop them.
Their march must have been a terrifying prospect for the nation’s rulers, but it’s important to understand these people were not rising up against the young King. They were patriots, as suggested by the flag of St George on the right of the photograph.
Indeed, the Kent contingent gave instructions that no one living within ten miles of the South Coast was allowed to join them because these men were needed to repel any French invaders who might take advantage of their absence.
Their argument was with the King’s advisers and, with the help of Londoners who opened the gates of the city for them, they began their attacks on those they believed responsible for their oppression.
Along the way, their targets included many lawyers, as representatives of the judicial system that had kept peasants in serfdom and wages low — it is perhaps one of these unfortunates whose head is being paraded so proudly by the rebels in the photograph.
Soon they reached their ultimate prize, the Palace of Savoy, the official residence of John of Gaunt, the King’s uncle and the real power behind the throne.
It is this great fortress — where the Savoy hotel stands today — that can be seen burning in the picture.
Luckily for John of Gaunt, he was away at the time, dealing with border disputes in Scotland, for he would almost certainly have been executed, too.
As it was, his palace was virtually destroyed though not, it’s interesting to note, looted.
As the drunken man to the right of the photograph suggests, some of the rebels liked a drink. A few of them were burnt to death when they invaded the palace’s wine cellar and became too inebriated to escape the flames from a fire started by their fellow peasants.
But when another raider stole a piece of silver from the treasury and tried to hide it, his companions threw both it and him into the fire, saying they were lovers of truth and justice, not thieves.
The sack of the Savoy Palace must have been an electrifying moment for the rebels. Soon they went on to storm the Tower of London, seizing and beheading the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prior of St John’s, Clerkenwell.
This was not because these two unfortunates were churchmen, but because they held high political office, being the equivalent of the prime minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer today.
To avoid further trouble, the King agreed to meet Tyler in Smithfield, just outside the eastern city walls.
Whether or not this was a deliberate trap has been debated ever since, but during the meeting the Mayor of London, outraged by Tyler’s demands and his arrogant manner when talking to the King, drew his dagger and stabbed him in the neck.
The rebel leader was taken to St Barts hospital but, on the Mayor’s orders, he was dragged from his bed and beheaded.
Suddenly, the revolt was over, just a few days after it began, and 150 of the protesters were later hanged for treason.
The King reneged on virtually all the promises he had made during his brief negotiations with Tyler, including an agreement to put an end to serfdom.
Yet the revolt had not been entirely in vain. The poll tax was abolished soon afterwards and it would be another 300 years before the ministers of Charles I would attempt to reintroduce it.
Successive governments, it seemed, were haunted by the ‘people power’ demonstrated during the Peasants’ Revolt. Looking at the rather fearsome bunch of characters assembled in this photograph, it’s easy to understand why.