When the peasants revolted

Medieval English peasants had a lot to be angry about. They weren’t slaves in the conventional sense of the word, but they were forced to work (without pay) for their lord in return for their small hereditary plot of land. They were not allowed to move away without their lord’s permission, which as normally not given. They were not allowed to marry without permission – and, when permission was granted, they had to pay their lord for the privilege.

They were not authorised to send their children to school without their lord’s permission – and they were not allowed to sell their own draft animals (oxen or horses) without his approval. What’s more, men could be forced by their lord to marry widows (and vice-versa) irrespective of whether they liked each other.

Medieval illustration of men harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks, on a calendar page for August. Queen Mary's Psalter

Medieval illustration of men harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks, on a calendar page for August. Queen Mary’s Psalter

The lords also strongly influenced the manorial courts – and often used them to inflict unfair as well as fair punishments on villagers. Indeed some lords used their courts as a means of levying unofficial ‘taxation’ in the form of fines. Lords were also entitled to levy official annual taxes (tallage) on their peasants and were permitted to increase it at will.

Conditions were occasionally better on some royal and other secularly controlled manors. But on many others (especially monastically and ecclesiastically controlled ones), the peasants’ lot usually remained a very harsh one.

Henry III's second coronation, 1220, from a 13th-century English manuscript

Henry III’s second coronation, 1220, from a 13th-century English manuscript

Medieval English peasants were much more politically engaged than previously thought. Historians, analysing 13th-century royal documents, are discovering substantial quantities of previously unknown data about medieval peasant politics and protest.

An examination of a million words’ worth of royal documentation from the long reign of Henry III, carried out by scholars at King’s College London and Canterbury Christ Church University, is revealing new information from dozens of English villages on how medieval serfs actively engaged in the political process. The King’s College and Canterbury investigations and other research shows how English peasants in the 13th and 14th centuries tried to persuade kings to intervene in struggles against their manorial lords.

“The research is giving us a far clearer picture of just how politically conscious England’s medieval peasantry was,” said Professor David Carpenter of King’s College’s Department of History. “Our work is revealing many examples of groups of peasants offering substantial sums of money – each often worth the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of pounds at today’s values – to Henry III in the hope that he would give them access to his courts and grant them concessions and privileges.”

Harvesting acorn to feed swine, 1310-1320

Harvesting acorn to feed swine, 1310-1320

England’s peasantry craved access to royal justice because English common law prevented them from using the king’s courts – and therefore often left them at the mercy of their lords. The investigation has also yielded new evidence showing the extent to which peasant communities tried to form corporate bodies – virtual communes – so they could largely govern themselves and only interface with their lords at a ‘corporate’ level. Peasants political initiatives usually took the form of relatively peaceful protest and litigation – but sometimes it erupted into violent action.

A key example, researched by Professor Carpenter, was a peasant protest in Brampton, Huntingdonshire in 1242. The peasants had bought a writ from the king that prevented their lord from increasing their obligations. The lord ignored it, and commanded his bailiffs to seize the villagers’ cattle in order to force the local population to cough up rent increases that they were refusing to pay. Furious, the peasants chased the bailiff and his men two miles into Huntingdon to forcibly recover their livestock.

One page from Henry III Fine Rolls

One page from Henry III Fine Rolls

The men of Brampton give the king 60 m. that they might hold their lands and tenements in the same manor by the same customs and services by which they held them at the time when that manor was in the hand of King John and King Richard, as the letters patent that they have attest. Order to the sheriff of Huntingdonshire to take security for those 60 m.

Then, in Ruislip, Middlesex in 1296, peasants seem to have accused their lord of taking their property (possibly livestock again). They protested noisily outside his residence but were all put in the stocks for their efforts.

In Badbury, Wiltshire in 1348, a group of serfs refused to hand over their best animals as death duties. In Abington, Oxfordshire in 1337, villagers rose up against their lord (the local abbot) in a struggle to take control of their local market. Several monks were killed in the incident.

And in Halesowen, west Midlands in 1279-82, peasants protested over increased labour services imposed by their lord, again a local abbot, who may then have arranged for the peasants’ leader to be murdered. Historical research is also demonstrating that people as the bottom of the social hierarchy were capable not only of local political engagement, but also of concerning themselves with national political matters.

Simon De Montfort is Killed at the Battle of Evesham  by James Doyle

Simon De Montfort is Killed at the Battle of Evesham by James Doyle

Professor Carpenter’s studies have shown, for instance, how, after the battle of Lewes in 1264 (a clash in the Second Barons’ War, fought between the forces of Simon de Monfort and Henry III), local peasants hunted down Henry’s supporters and killed them. The following year, in the aftermath of the battle of Evesham (the decisive clash in the Second Barons’ War), the peasants of Peatling Magna, Leicestershire invoked the concept of the ‘community of the realm’ to back Simon de Monfort’s politically radical barons by arresting a group of royalists.

The research project’s massive translation operation, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, was carried out by Paul Dryburgh and Beth Hartland of King’s College. The complex interactive database was digitised and placed on the web by the college’s Centre for Computing in the Humanities, and is freely available to the general public on the site www.finerollshenry3.org.uk

by David Keys, BBC History Magazine