Page images

Grievances of the


was forced to resign the privileges conferred upon it by royal favour and to acknowledge the supremacy of the town rulers. At St. Albans and Bury St. Edmunds the pent-up hatred of the inhabitants, whose minds were stored with memories of past wrongs, broke out afresh in violent attacks upon the Abbey gates 1.

On their part the villeins, too, were by no means indifferent to the general unrest. It is necessary to try and understand as clearly as we can the character of their grievances and the nature of their demands. It is now generally held that the lords made no attempt to exact labour services from villeins who had been allowed before the Black Death to commute their obligations for payments in money. This view is a reaction against the opinion of Thorold Rogers that the fundamental cause of the Peasants' Revolt was the attempt to revive obligations which had become obsolete. But the reaction has been carried too far, and would suggest that the nature of the changes which were taking place during the first half of the fourteenth century has been imperfectly appreciated. The extent of commutation varied on each manor from year to year, but while the process was irregular many villeins must have found no difficulty in commuting most of their services, renewing their annual bargain with the lord as a matter of course. The molmen, it is true, entered into a permanent arrangement to pay rent in lieu of labour dues, and it is improbable that the lord tried to reverse the contract which he had made with them. But other villeins, who had come to regard the commutation of their services as a mere formal procedure which they repeated year after year, would suddenly find the lord no longer willing to allow commutation if he could avoid it. It is at any rate quite certain that the number of works sold upon the manor was often diminished, rather than increased, in the years which followed the Black Death 2. The lord had every motive to check the process of commutation, and villeins who had obtained practical immunity from predial service might very well find themselves once again reduced to work upon the lord's demesne. There might be no violation of legal

1 Infra, p. 184 seq.

2 Supra, p. 87, Tables C and D.

rights, but the hardship would be none the less severely felt. Everything indeed points to the conclusion that the lords were straining all possible effort to cope with the new situation, and secure the necessary amount of labour on their estates. The bishop of Winchester was lord of the manor of Wergrave in Berkshire. He arrested a bondman of the manor who was dwelling at Waltham, and sought to compel him to do service with him (1351); the bondman refused and broke the arrest1. This case was probably typical of many, and if the attempt to restore the customary system in cases where it was practically, though not technically, abrogated was at all general, it would explain one element in the disaffection which found vent in the Peasants' Revolt.

of their

On the other hand, we must not drift into the opposite Nature error, and suppose that the majority of villeins had managed demands. to emancipate themselves from serfdom before the Black Death. The tables given above 2 seem to prove that, in certain parts of England at any rate, the greater number were rendering actual labour on the eve of the pestilence. Their part in the insurrection may be explained by their desire to shake off the shackles of bondage, which appeared all the more insupportable when contrasted with the prosperity of the free labourers. The revolt afforded them a unique opportunity to make a bid for freedom, and in Cambridgeshire a leader of the revolt rode up and down the county calling upon all men to refuse their services to their lords 3. The great mass of the villeins were discontented, not because the lords had tried by coercion to make their obligations heavier, but because circumstances had rendered them less compliant and submissive. Indeed, the root of the trouble was not that the lot of the rural labourers had grown steadily worse, but that in various ways it had grown steadily better. The formidable and widespread organization of the insurgents indicates clearly enough that it was not the last despairing effort of a down-trodden peasantry; it was rather the outcome of social changes which by improving the condition of the labourer had made him more impatient of the 2 Supra, p. 84.

1 Patent Rolls, 1350-1354, P. 161.

3 Powell, Rising in East Anglia, 49.

Withdrawal of services before 1381.

antiquated survivals of a worn-out manorial régime. The Peasants' Revolt was in no sense of the term communistic, and the proposals which inspired it were practical in the extreme-the abolition of personal servitude and the commutation of labour dues for a fixed rent of fourpence an acre.

It is important to observe that even before 1381 the villeins were refusing their services and forming confederacies 1. The court rolls foreshadow the approaching storm. At Coleshill (Berkshire) 2 in 1377 the tenants were clearly ripe for insurrection; one was refusing to perform his services, another disturbed labourers at their work, a third was gone from the land, a fourth neglected his carriage duties and left the hay lying on the ground all spoilt. A statute of 1377 recites that " villeins and land - tenants in villeinage who owe services and customs to their lords ... do daily withdraw their services. . . by colour of certain exemplifications made out of the Book of Domesday", in virtue of which "they affirm them to be quite and utterly discharged of all manner servage . . . and, which more is, gather themselves together in great routs and agree by such confederacy that every one shall aid other to resist their lords with strong hand". But the attempt on the part of villeins to escape from bondage on the ground that their services were not recorded in Domesday Book was older than the Black Death. In 1346 the men of Acle contended that their manor was of Ancient Demesne, and summoned the abbot of Tinterne before the justices of the bench to answer wherefore he exacted from them customs and services other than they ought to do, or had been done by their ancestors when the manor was in the king's hands. To this the abbot rejoined that he ought not to answer since the men were his villeins. Domesday Book was therefore searched, and showed that Acle was not of Ancient Demesne on the day that King Edward was alive and dead; and the plaintiffs were therefore "in mercy " for their false claim 1.

1 Patent Rolls, 1350-1354, p. 275-the bondmen at Henbury refused the services due to the bishop of Worcester (1352).

2 Vict. County Hist. Berkshire, ii. 189.

3 Statutes, ii. 2.

Patent Rolls, 1345–1348, p. 162. An earlier example is 1238: Bracton's Note-Book (ed. F. W. Maitland, 1887), iii. No. 1237.

of the

The concessions extorted from the government by the Effects insurgents of 1381 were revoked the moment the revolt was Peasants' at an end. A statute of 1382 enacted that "all manner Revolt. manumissions, obligations, releases and other bonds made by compulsion . . . in the time of this last rumour and riot against the laws of the land and good faith shall be wholly annulled and holden for void". The following year it was added that copies "of inrollments of deeds destroyed in the rising should be of the same force as the originals "2. But in spite of reactionary legislation, "the results of the rising" it has been said "were of marked importance", for the villeins "had struck a vital blow at villeinage. The landlords gave up the practice of demanding base ser- ‣ vices". But there are no real grounds for assuming that the insurrection accelerated the disappearance of villeinage on any large scale, or materially affected the current of economic progress. The life of the manor did not as a rule undergo any immediate transformation, and instances like the manor of Bray in Berkshire 4, where the commutation of services at once followed the Revolt, appear to be exceptional. The lords continued to exact predial services and the villeins continued to form confederacies in resistance; the former were not intimidated, and the latter were not crushed. We still continue to read in the court rolls how tenants were fined because they came not to plough their lord's lands when summoned, and would not come to reap 5. In 1385 the bondmen of Leighton in Huntingdonshire, and again in 1386 the bondmen of Haugh Little in Suffolk, withdrew their customary services, organized a union, and bound themselves by oath to resist their masters; and there are many other examples. These agricultural unions, of which we obtain fleeting and allinsufficient glimpses, were the counterpart among rural labourers of journeymen gilds, or industrial unions, in the towns. In 1394 the villeins and tenants in villeinage at 2 Ibid. ii. 27.

1 Statutes, ii. 20.

Stubbs, Constitutional History, ii. 485. Similarly Rogers, Agriculture.
and Prices, iv. 4.
4 Vict. County Hist. Berkshire, ii. 192.

5 Select Cases in the Court of Requests, 89, 90 (Abbots Ripton).
' Ibid. p. 88.

• Patent Rolls, 1385-1389, p. 88.

Balsall1 did "long and rebelliously" refuse their customs and services, and leagued together in opposition to the lord, "besides doing other intolerable evils". Nor did the struggle between the lords and the villeins pass away with the opening of the new century. It continued into the Lancastrian era, and we can trace it on manors in Essex and elsewhere at least as late as 14262. Thus the Peasants' Revolt was not an isolated episode, but only an example on a larger scale of occurrences which were taking place in many parts of the country both before and after the insurrection. It has attracted attention because it was more dramatic, more widespread, and more violent, but we need not minimize its importance to recognize that its true significance is liable to be misinterpreted. In the light of the evidence we have cited, it is clear that the struggle between the landlords and the serfs was protracted for at least two generations beyond the Peasants' Rising, and that the revolt itself was but one symptom of a malady which continued to afflict rural society until villeinage completely disappeared. The end of villeinage in England was not due, then, to the Peasants' Revolt. The system of villein tenures died out, in reality, as the result of economic changes which were already at work before 1381, and continued in operation long after the insurrection had run its course. The dislocation which followed the Black Death foiled all attempts to reconstitute on a stable and permanent basis the old manorial order, and the alienation of the demesne or its conversion into a sheep-run were the real forces which dissolved the economic fabric of mediaeval serfdom.

The abolition of villeinage as a tenure prepared the way for its abolition as a status. When servile labour ceased

1 Patent Rolls, 1391-1396, p. 525. The Patent Rolls for Richard II.'s reign show how numerous were the manors in which the villeins withdrew their services, and sometimes formed leagues. Vol. 1385-1389, pp. 178, 256, 264 (1386); 317, 319 (1387). Vol. 1388-1392, PP. 59 (1389); 217, 340 (1390). Vol. 1391–1396, pp. 294 (1393); 429, 525 (1394). Vol. 1396-1399, PP. 52 (1396); 309 (1397); 365 (1398); 509, 511 (1399).

2 Ibid. 1422-1429, pp. 174, 300, 328. Presentments of the withdrawal of nativi from the manor of Brookend continue from 1382 to 1462: Eynsham Cartulary, ii. p. xxvi. As late as 1469 an attempt was made to bring back two brothers to High Easter: Vict. County Hist. Essex, ii. 318.

« PreviousContinue »