The Equivocal End of English Peasant Serfdom

  • R. H. Hilton
Part of the Studies in Economic History book series


IN some respects then, servile villeinage in England ended up with a number of acts of banditry by lords of manors against former villein tenants, or against those whom they claimed as such. The importance of villeinage in sixteenth-century England is a very doubtful matter. It was sufficiently present in men’s minds as a condition of shame for Kett and his followers in 1549 to ask ‘that all bond men may be made free, for God made all free with his precious blood shedding’ and for a man at Ingoldmells in 1568 who called another ‘a theef, and a villayn and a blood —’ to be fined 16s, with 2s costs for trying to deprive the plaintiff of his good reputation and name. Queen Elizabeth’s famous grant to Sir H. Lee in 1575 first of 200 crown bondmen, subsequently of another 100, for compulsory manumission, shows that bondage had some important survivals, particularly since the bondmen, mostly rather wealthy tenants of not inconsiderable amounts of land, had to pay a third of the value of their lands and goods. On the other hand social analysts of the period either minimise or deny the existence of serfdom in the England of their day, as E. P. Cheyney has pointed out. Sir Thomas Smith, in the section ‘On Bondage and Bondmen’ in his De Republica Anglorum (1565), discusses the historical and legal difference between villeins of slave ancestry (‘villens in grosse’) and those whose ancestors were simply customary manorial tenants (‘villaines regardants’, equated by Smith with the Roman coloni ascripticii glebae).


Sixteenth Century Good Reputation Fifteenth Century Legal Difference Tenant Farmer 
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  1. 1.
    I. S. Leadam, op. cit. pp. 118 ff.; G. Farnham, Leicestershire Village Notes, i (1929) pp. 264–5 and v (1931) p. 374.Google Scholar
  2. 1.
    A. Everitt in Joan Thirsk (ed.), The Agrarian History of England and Wales, iv (1966) p. 400.Google Scholar
  3. 1.
    R. H. Tawney, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (1912) p. 46.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Economic History Society 1969

Authors and Affiliations

  • R. H. Hilton
    • 1
  1. 1.University of BirminghamUK

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