The Life & Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler

Written by Stephen Basdeo
Review by Edward James

This not a book of mediaeval history.  It begins with a brief account of what is known about Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, and then follows his legend through succeeding centuries as each generation reinvents him for its own reasons.

Basdeo wrote his doctoral thesis on the legend of Robin Hood and resolved to write a similar piece on the legend of Wat Tyler.  Unlike Robin Hood, we know Wat Tyler actually existed and when, but otherwise all we know is his dramatic death at Smithfield.  This has not prevented folktales gathering around him, such as the story of the taxman who molested his daughter.  At first Wat’s story was used as a Royalist warning to would-be rebels and then in the 18th century he became a Radical hero, in the 19th century a Chartist hero and later a hero of the Gothic revival.  Basdeo provides an interesting chapter on historical novels featuring Wat.

We have not yet finished with Wat, as shown by Melvyn Bragg’s novel Now is the Time, on which he addressed the HNS conference in 2016.