The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 is well-known, and it is often thought that the decline of serfdom, or villeinage, began at about this time. The truth is more complex. Like most English traditions, villeinage took a long time to pass and outlived its usefulness by many decades. Indeed Queen Elizabeth I still owned serfs – by her time, they were very much an an anachronism.
The decline of villeinage was in process by the end of the 13th Century. It should be remembered that in earlier eras coins were scarce, and much trade was done by barter. It made quite reasonable sense that labour should be traded for land. As coins became more common, so did the straightforward payment of rent.
Nigel Saul’s book Knights and Esquires, which is written around 14th Century Gloucestershire, makes it clear that this process of commutation of labour services for rent was well in hand by the early part of that century. Progress was slowest on magnate estates. This makes sense, because magnates had far greater acreages of desmesne land and, crucially, they also had the resources and the bureaucracy to enforce labour services. However, Saul notes that by 1375 the Despensers had commuted labour services except at Tewkesbury – and there is evidence that even here, their most important and ‘home’ manor in the county, the services were in practice commuted even if the theoretical services were still recorded.
In many ways this change worked for everyone. The landlord received cash and could use it to hire labourers. Alternatively he might lease out the desmesne to a farmer and avoid direct involvement in agriculture. Or he could simply turn it over to sheep. The whole set-up was easier to administer and less confrontational. Meanwhile, the tenants had simply to stump up cash at intervals. Their lives were their own and they were no longer obliged to perform grudging labour services at inconvenient times. Moreover, any spare sons and daughters could readily find paid employment as labourers, certainly at the busy times of year.
To return briefly to the Peasants’ Revolt – it should be noted that, whatever else they were, the men of Kent/Kentish men were not serfs. That method of land tenure had never applied in their county.