The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: 14th century

From the eleventh to the thirteenth century, though prog­ress was made in technique and in utilizing waste lands, rural society and agricultural tenures remained for the most part static. During the whole of that period the bulk of cul­tivators were of villein status: they held their land “at the will of the lord”, and rendered him certain services in return for the protection he offered against neighbours and out­siders. In addition to the performance of services, the villein was under certain obligations fixed by custom. When a vil­lein died and his son took over the holding, he had to pay a fine on entry. At the same time the lord took the best beast of the dead man. In view of the mortuary fees payable to the Church, the burdens on a dead man’s family were abomina­bly heavy and often reduced it to poverty. If a villein’s daught­er married, the lord of the manor received a recompense for the loss of services which she rendered while single.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, most vil­leins acquired personal freedom. It was a gradual process, not even complete in the sixteenth century; it has been esti­mated that even underElizabethabout one per cent of the people were of villein status. No law was ever enacted eman­cipating the villeins, and the last vestiges of it disappeared under Charles II. Serfdom was never abolished, it withered away. The factors in the decay of villeinage were numerous. The most important was a change from a natural to a money economy.

From the beginning of the Norman period it was usual in many places for villeins to make some money payments to the lord as well as to work for him on the demesne. As life became more complex and the use of money increased, it was natural that some of the villein’s services should be commuted for a money rent. The lord could see advantages in a money basis for his relations with his villeins. It seemed better to have hired labourers whose whole-time occupation was working on the demesne lands.

The process of change was gradual. It became usual in the thirteenth century to attach a money value to services performed by tenants on the manorial estate. Services due in respect of each holding on a manor were indicated in the accounts, and in time villeins came to be given “copies” of that entry on the manorial roll which concerned their hold­ings. The step from being a copyholder to being a rent- paying tenant was a short one, but it was not taken abruptly. In the long run commutation, however, won a complete vic­tory. At the close of the Middle Ages rent-paying tenants were to be found all over the country.

The rising tide of capitalism which was sweeping away feudal custom in the fifteenth century often affected custom­ary tenants adversely. New landlords with a sharper eye to commercial profits oppressed their tenants as the older landlords would not have dreamt of doing. Everywhere the question of increasing profits predominated. Some copyhold­ers held their tenements for life only, and their sons were allowed to occupy these holdings only on exorbitant terms. Even where a copyhold was “by inheritance”, i.e. where it descended from father to son, the “fine” paid on entrance was raised to an extravagant figure. If the wages of labourers were considered too high, land could be put down to pas­ture and only a few men employed to look after the sheep.

There is little doubt that the plague, known as the Black Death, accelerated the disappearance of villeinage. Possibly the plague came from China, but its origin is not known for certain. Purple patches came on the skin of stricken peo­ple, and the disease generally proved fatal. It arrived in Eng­land in 1348 and was at its height the following year.

Earthquakes and violent storms were noted during the period, and it was a common belief that the end of the world was near. The bad sanitation, the use of salted meat through­out the winter, and the scanty cultivation of vegetables, which lay behind the prevalence of skin diseases, contributed, with the recurrence of periods of famine, to the spread of the plague. It was astonishingly disastrous in its effects. Statis­tics are not easy to get, but the death in monastic houses show that the percentage of mortality was very high. It is prac­tically certain that a third of the population perished, and it is likely that the proportion was much greater.

The effects on agriculture were far-reaching. Large areas fell temporarily out of cultivation. Cattle died at the same time as people. The demand of hired labourers for higher wag­es led Edward III to issue in 1349 the Ordinance of Labour­ers. The idleness and covetousness of workers was roundly condemned, and able-bodied men were ordered to accept the old rates of pay, if they were free labourers, or to per­form services due in respect of their holdings, if they were villeins. Alms were forbidden to the able-bodied. Offenders were to be placed in the stocks.

Economic factors were too powerful to make regular en­forcement possible. In practice prices rose, wages were of­ten doubled despite the fixing of maximum wages, commuta­tion went on steadily, and the attempt to check the flight of the villeins failed altogether.

Arising in part out of the discontent created by the Stat­utes of Labourers came the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. But the movement was urban as well as rural, and there were many grievances which found vent at this time. Communistic theo­ry was in vogue. The query of John Ball was quoted every­where: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”

The immediate cause of the revolt was the imposition of a poll tax. In 1381 a flat rate of a shilling a head was imposed. In view of the value of money at this time, the burden was felt to be oppressive. The tax was in many cases evaded, and the collection was corrupt.

The story goes that the Revolt started because Wat Tyl­er, one of the leaders of the revolt, killed a collector to avenge an insult to his daughter, but there is no adequate evidence for the story. Actually the county of Essex, roused by Jack Straw —whose name survives in that of a Hamp­stead Inn, “Jack Straw’s Castle”—saw the outbreak of the Peasants’ Revolt, but there was trouble in Kent shortly afterwards.

On June 12, 1381, John Ball and Wat Tyler headed a huge army of rebels, on Blackheath, while Jack Straw’s men held the roads to the north of London. The next day the kentish men were let into the city of London by discontented apprentices and craftsmen who joined the rebels. They ad­vanced towards the SavoyPalace, the residence of John of Gaunt. The palace was fired; then the gaols — the Fleet and Newgate — were opened and the prisoners set free. The next move of the rebels was to surround the Tower where King Richard II was residing.

Richard’s concessions had not satisfied the rebels. On June, 15 he rode out to meet Wat Tyler at the head of a large crowd.Tylerapproached the King and began a conver­sation; then one of the knights, who was near the King, struck at the rebel and killed him. There was soon a hubbub. Rich­ard rode across to the rebels, saying “I will be your leader”. The abolition of serfdom and the fixing of rent at fourpence on acre were promised in accordance with the peas­ants’ demands. But when Richard was again safe and the peasants had dispersed, the fair promises made to them were not observed.

Elsewhere the risings were less serious than inLondon, but the numerous flares of rebellion indicate widespread discontent. At St. Albansand Bury St. Edmunds peasants rose against tyrannical abbots. All overEast Angliawere outbursts, suppressed by the fighting Bishop of Norwich who hanged the leaders without trial. Everywhere the most grue­some punishments were inflicted. John Ball was put to death, and in him perished one of the most notable leaders of the revolt. Yet, long after 1381, spasmodic outbursts occurred in the north and west as well as in the east, though they were easily crushed.

At the close of the fifteenth century, despite the fact that an agrarian revolution had taken place, the fields would have presented much the same appearance to an onlooker of the thirteenth century as to one in the fifteenth except that more land was now under cultivation. The depopulation pro­duced by the Black Death was speedily made good. The method of cultivation had changed but little. Oxen still drew wooden ploughs, the sickle was still used to cut the corn, sheep and cattle had similar bony frames, and manor courts still settled village disputes.

But the conditions of land tenure were different. Copyhold­ers, the heirs of the old villeins, paid rents in money. If they worked for the lord at all they were paid in the same way as hired labourers. Moreover a new type of farmer had arisen, different from the free tenant and the copyholder. Many lords, finding their demesnes improfitable, supplied enterprising men with land on the leasehold principle. A tenant would be guaranteed possession of a holding for five, ten, or more years. Thus the leaseholder came into exist­ence. Here and there were relics of the old system of per­sonal service and villein obligation, but survivals were rare.

The closing years of the fifteenth century saw the vir­tual extinction of villein status as well as of villein tenure.

From Matriculation History of England by H. C. Shearman and D. H. Plaskit

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