Nothing is known of Wat Tyler's early life. Born with the first name Walter, his original surname was unknown, though "Hugh" and "Helier" have been suggested. It is thought that the name "Tyler" comes from his occupation as a roof tiler. Prior to the Peasants' Revolt he lived in Kent, and has been variously represented as coming from Dartford, Deptford, and Maidstone, all within that county.
The Peasants' Revolt began in May 1381, triggered by a recently imposed poll tax of 12 pence from every adult, whether peasant or wealthy. The revolt was not only about money. The peasants also sought increased liberty and other social reforms. They demanded that each labourer be allowed to work for the employer of his choice, and sought an end to serfdom and other rigid social demarcation. There were uprisings across England, with much of the unrest focused on Essex and Kent. The uprising represented a significant part of English society in those regions, including nobility and wealthy religious establishments. Many were inspired by the teachings of John Ball, a radical priest who preached that all humans should be treated equally, as descendants of Adam and Eve.
How Wat Tyler became involved with the revolt is unknown, although a much later sixteenth-century source indicates that a man of similar name, John Tyler, was its initiator. This account suggests that a poll-tax collector had indecently assaulted John Tyler's daughter. In revenge he killed the miscreant and triggered the insurgency. Whatever the basis of that story, by June 1381, when groups of rebels from across the country began a coordinated assault on London, Wat Tyler had emerged as a leader of the Kentish forces.
On 13 June, the rebels reached the capital and crossed London Bridge. Once in the city, they attacked civil targets, destroying legal records, opening prisons, sacking homes, and killing individuals they thought were associated with the royal government. In response, the king, Richard II (then 14 years old), met with the rebels on 14 June 1381 and agreed to make many concessions and to give full pardons to all those involved in the rebellion. While some of the rebels were satisfied by the king's promises and dispersed, Tyler and his followers were not.
On 15 June 1381, Tyler and his Kentish forces met with King Richard at Smithfield, outside London. There, Tyler spoke personally with the king and put forward his demands. At first, the meeting seems to have gone well, with Tyler treating the king in a friendly, if overly-familiar, manner, and Richard agreeing the rebels "...should have all that he could fairly grant." However, tensions quickly rose. According to a contemporary chronicler, Tyler acted contemptuously, calling for a flagon of water to rinse his mouth 'because of the great heat that he was in' and when he received the water 'he rinsed his mouth in a very rude and disgusting fashion before the King's face'. Sir John Newton (a servant of the king) insulted Tyler by calling him 'the greatest thief and robber in all Kent'. Tyler attacked Newton, but was restrained and arrested by the Lord Mayor of London, William Walworth. Tyler then attempted to stab the mayor, who was saved by his armour. Walworth slashed his attacker across the neck and head with his sword, and another of the king's servants, possibly John Cavendish, stabbed Tyler again, severely wounding him. Tyler managed to ride thirty yards before he fell from his horse. In the disorder that followed, he was taken to a hospital for the poor, but was tracked down by the mayor, brought back to Smithfield, and publicly decapitated. Tyler's head was placed atop a pole and carried through the city, then displayed on London Bridge. In the wake of their leader's death, his followers were driven from London and the movement was shattered. Subsequently, Richard II revoked all the concessions he had made to the rebels, and many were hunted down and executed. This effectively ended the Revolt.
A number of works in the post medieval period have featured Wat Tyler as the main protagonist. Tyler was the main protagonist of the play Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, or, The Mob Reformers (1730) first performed at the St. Bartholomew's Fair in 1730. Wat Tyler is represented in Robert Southey's Wat Tyler, A Dramatic Poem, which was written in 1794 but not published until 1813. The first novel to feature Wat Tyler is Mrs O'Neill's The Bondman: A Story of the Days of Wat Tyler (1833). He is the principal protagonist in Pierce Egan the Younger's novel Wat Tyler, or the Rebellion of 1381 (1841), a highly radical text published at the height of the second phase of the Chartist movement that argued for republican government in England. Egan's novel was subsequently abridged and plagiarised and published as The Life and Adventures of Wat Tyler: The Good and the Brave (1851). Wat Tyler is the principal protagonist of the penny dreadful serial novel Wat Tyler; or, The King and the Apprentice which appeared in weekly parts in The Young Englishman's Journal in 1867, and appears as a main character in William Harrison Ainsworth's Merry England; or, Nobles and Serfs (1874). Wat Tyler is also mentioned in Redburn by Herman Melville and in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain. John Gower commented on him in Vox Clamantis: "The jay's voice is wild and he has only learnt the art of speaking from the classes with whom the Latin poet is identified." . Wat Tyler is the principal character in the historical novel, Now is the Time (2015) by Melvyn Bragg.
English folk singer-songwriter Frank Turner references Wat Tyler's negotiations at Smithfield in "Sons of Liberty" from the 2009 album Poetry of the Deed, and again mentions Tyler by name in "One Foot Before the Other" from 2011 album England Keep My Bones.
English folk-rock group Fairport Convention wrote a song in tribute called 'Wat Tyler' which appears on their album Gladys Leap.
In an episode of the comedy series Blackadder II, Lord Blackadder compares his servant Baldrick to Wat Tyler when he asks for the afternoon off.
In the season five premiere of Downton Abbey, Mr. Carson accuses James the footman of being a Wat Tyler for stating that he is only a footman and therefore cannot mind his surroundings.
A section of the A249 road passing through Maidstone is named "Wat Tyler Way" in his honour.
A road on the western edge of Blackheath called Wat Tyler Road.
Wat Tyler Country Park in Essex is named after him.
Swindon Borough Councils Offices are in Wat Tyler house.
A memorial commemorating Wat Tyler and The Great Rising of 1381 was unveiled on 15 July 2015 in Smithfield, London.
There is a pub in Dartford called the Wat Tyler.