In England, much like in other parts of Europe affected by the Black Death, there were short-term, long-term, and extended-term effects. The major impact of the Black Death was on the system of serfdom which began to collapse almost as soon as the Black Death was past. Attempts made to reinstate serfdom only resulted in the violent Peasant’s Revolt of 1381.
Mobility of Serfs
Almost immediately after the Black Death had swept through the country, serfs who had been tied to manorial lands started pulling up stakes and looking for estates whose lords were willing to pay more for their labor. Many left agriculture altogether and headed into the cities in search of opportunities among the tradesmen and merchants there.
In 1351, King Edward III and parliament passed the Statute of Laborers. This law decreed that all wages should be frozen at pre-plague levels. Additionally, people were supposed to stay on the estate to which they belonged unless they had the permission of the lord to travel to some other place. In that case, they should wear a badge or livery of their lord to indicate that they were about official business. This did not go down well.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Increasing Economic Power
In 1361, laws were passed affirming the Statute of Laborers and adding penalties for violating it that included imprisonment and even branding. This came about in part because the justices of the peace who were supposed to enforce the statute usually only punished members of the lower classes who broke the statute. Nobles who attempted to illegally outbid other nobles in order to secure workers generally got off scot-free. This meant that there was a huge incentive for peasants to violate the statute and go wherever the pay was greater.
By one estimate, the purchasing power of the Third Estate increased by 40 percent between 1340 and 1380. They could now not only buy goods and services previously unavailable to them, but they could also buy themselves and their children an education or secure for them apprenticeships in professions that had previously been closed to them.
In fact, in 1363, legislation was passed that explicitly limited what members of the lower classes could wear or own—luxury goods and apparel were reserved for the upper classes. The existence of these so-called “sumptuary laws” proves that the lower classes were starting to look and act more like the nobility.
Learn more about the Black Death in England.
The Poll Tax of 1377 and Its Aftermath
The other major factor that contributed to political unrest at this point was England’s war with France. Because so much of the population had died off during the Black Death, there was a smaller taxable population. In 1377, Parliament levied a poll tax, which demanded that every person over the age of 14 pay four pence toward the war effort. An already angry general population—which was feeling for the first time like it had some power, given its improved economic status—was ready to revolt.
What happened in 1381 in London is sometimes called the Peasants’ Revolt, but is also known as the Uprising of 1381—it wasn’t just peasants and agricultural laborers who revolted here, but plenty of the urban bourgeoisie and the very powerful London guilds participated as well.
It came about because, once again, in the short-term the world had changed dramatically. Long-term—so in the three decades or so after the plague—the political and economic infrastructures tried to reestablish themselves according to pre-plague principles, but that clearly wasn’t going to work.
Wat Tyler’s Revolt
When a London official traveled to Kent in 1381 to investigate nonpayment of the recently decreed poll tax, a large group of people, led by a Kentish man named Wat Tyler, revolted against authorities in Kent. They also marched on London. When they got to London, they burned down the Savoy Palace, home of John of Gaunt, uncle to the young King Richard II. They then moved through the city, opening jails and freeing prisoners, and made their way to the Tower of London, where they found the Archbishop of Canterbury and several other powerful government figures. They took them out onto the tower green and beheaded them.
When the rebels and the king finally met to parley the terms put forth by Wat Tyler included the abolishment of serfdom and the demands that governance of small communities be overseen by those communities themselves, rather than by the crown; that certain hated government officials be handed over for execution; and that all the rebels be granted amnesty. Richard agreed to immediately have charters sent out officially abolishing serfdom, and it looked for a moment like the rebels had won the day. But they pushed too far. Instead of leaving the city and returning home, they made more demands a day later, and in that meeting some sort of scuffle broke out, and Wat Tyler was killed.
Learn more about the economics of the Black Death.
The New Social Pattern in England
Although the rebellion was over and Richard tried to retract most of the charters he had granted, those at the top of the political pyramid remained concerned about the threat of rebellion erupting from the lower classes. After 1381, there would be no more poll taxes to finance the war in France. With no money to support the war effort, England was forced to pull back from its continental campaigns for many years.
Although technically still a legal option, serfdom went into decline from this point onward. Many landowners were willing to take payment from their serfs and in exchange grant them their freedom. Wages for laborers continued to increase, and there continued to be social mobility of a sort that had never existed previously.
Common Questions about the Decline of Serfdom in England
Almost immediately after the Black Death had swept through the country, serfs started looking for estates whose lords were willing to pay more for their labor. Many headed into the cities in search of opportunities among the tradesmen and merchants there.
Because so much of the population had died off during the Black Death, there was a smaller taxable population. In 1377, Parliament levied a poll tax, which demanded that every person over the age of 14 pay four pence to finance the long-term war against France.
When a London official traveled to Kent in 1381 to investigate nonpayment of the recently decreed poll tax, a large group of people, led by a Kentish man named Wat Tyler, revolted against authorities in Kent, and then marched on London.