Medieval serfs in Britain were peasants who worked for the Lord of the Manor and paid His Lordship for his protection together with other dues for the use of land (usually 30 acres). They also had the right to use the non-arable land of the manor. They could cut hay from it and use it to turn out their animals for grazing.
The payment was in the form of labour on his Lordship’s land or in his household and food in the form of grain, honey, eggs and other produce. They usually had to work for no payment at least three days per week on Manor land with extra days demanded during ploughing and harvesting. They were also obliged to use the Lord’s mill for grinding corn into flour for further payment.
Unlike slaves, they could not be bought or sold but were in fact tied to the land and could be sold with the land. The Lord could work and tax his serfs as hard as he liked but as times changed after the Black Death swept across Europe and Britain, (when over one third of the working serfs died), changes quickly came about whereby the serf could pay rent in cash, rather than in the form of work. He could also demand wages…
The principal of serfdom seems to have originated from the Roman Empire. Most seem to have been the descendants of Roman slaves. Others seem to have been freemen who looked upon his Lordship for protection.
The Lord of the Manor also had jurisdiction over his serfs and peasants and regularly held court in the Manor House.
As I said, the Black Death brought some freedom from serfdom, which was quickly followed by the Peasants Revolt in 1381. At least that was the position in Britain whilst other countries like Russia took much longer, in some cases well into the 19th century.
The Worm Turns…
Many of the British serfs/labourers of the 12th century were being treated worse than the lowest animals in the kingdom. Yet they were being taxed at the same rate as the rich. This is basically the reason behind the ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ in England.
After the disastrous Black Death (bubonic plague) of 1348 and 1349, the poor working classes in England were reduced by between one third and one half. This gave them power that they had never known in so far as they could now negotiate for better wages under the law of supply and demand.
The ‘elite’ did not like it. They had been used to cheap labour and in fact passed an act of Parliament called the Statute of Labourers in 1351. This act attempted to curb any form of negotiating and hold down wages. It restricted the ‘mobility’ of the labourers. Those employed by lords were exempted but for most of the others, especially those classed ‘peasants’ were liable to be fined or held in the stocks if they moved from village to village.
King Richard ll was on the throne, but as he was only aged 14, he had others acting as his regent and chancellor. They and many higher members of the Church were seen to be corrupt and trying to exploit the weakness of the King.
In order to continue to finance an overseas military campaign known as the ‘Hundred Year’s War’, in 1377, a ‘poll tax’ was levied on everyone. The rate was set at four pence per person. By 1379, the third year, it had been increased to twelve pence per person. It made no difference if you were rich or poor; the tax was the same for all.
The trouble started when the tax collectors and their guards entered the village of Brentwood in Essex to enforce the tax. The locals insisted that they had already paid and refused to pay any more. The senior collector, John Bampton tried to arrest some of the villagers but about one hundred men, under the unofficial leadership of Thomas Baker, chased Bampton and his men out of the village.
Bampton returned to London and reported what had happened. Troops were dispatched but again Baker and the villagers repelled them. Six of the accompanying tax clerks were beheaded.
News of the ‘uprising’ had by now spread throughout Essex and across the Thames into Kent. Refusals to pay the poll tax were spreading far and wide. Soon villagers from all over the nearby counties were on the move towards London in what was now becoming an armed uprising.
The leader appointed by the Kent men was Wat (Walter) Tyler. Many renegade priests and others joined them. They camped outside London on June 12, 1381, with the Essex contingent on the North side of the river and the Kent men on the south side.
The following day, they joined and marched on the City of London. On their journey, they began to torch certain properties, in particular those of the ‘elite’ and the Church. They are said to have met the young King and presented him with their demands.
They demanded the abolition of serfdom and the dismissal of some of his more unpopular ministers. At the same time, a group of the marchers stormed the Tower of London and summarily executed those hiding inside. This included the hated Lord Chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Treasurer. The Savoy Palace of the king’s uncle, John of Gaunt was destroyed. Richard agreed to reforms such as fair rents and the abolition of serfdom.
The following day, the Essex and Kent groups met at Smithfields (now the Meat Market) and further negotiations took place. Wat Tyler rode up to the King’s party to discuss the demands. It is said that he became belligerent and demanded drink. When he produced his dagger, the Mayor of London, assisted by his aide, mortally wounded Tyler with his sword. He suffered a fatal neck wound.
When the rebels saw this from afar, they began to move forward. Richard rode towards them and convinced them that all that had happened was Tyler had been knighted by laying the sword on his shoulders. They all moved off to another site where negotiations were to continue. However, a hastily organised militia of seven thousand men was mustered. The rebels were routed, chased, captured and executed. All the so-called leaders who had escaped were subsequently captured, tortured and executed.
Needless to say, all the concessions promised by the King were quickly revoked and the dreaded poll tax was re-levied.
And you think that things are bad today…