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Why did serfdom gradually die out in England? Why was its abolition not the locus of explosive and acute social conflict, like in Russia or France?

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Serfs in England were known as "villeins". By the mid-16th century villeinage had more or less died out because the courts generally refused to enforce the right of return on various grounds, starting around 1500. These legal changes occurred gradually. The last significant notice of villeinage was a formal commission by the crown of Queen Elizabeth in 1574 ordering various ministers of the crown to fully free all remaining villeins on crown lands by wage compensation. By this time villeins were a rarity and were more or less completely absent on the private manors. The wage compensation method was the standard process of freedom. Typically what would happen is the villein would bargain with the lord to work for less money for some fixed period of time in return for freedom. Any lord that refused such deals was liable to be faced with runaways or strikes, so over time the lords gradually freed all their villeins, usually by this method.

The book The Origins of Modern Freedom in the West by Richard W. Davis discusses villeinage.

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  • 1
    Thank you. What was 'right of return'?
    – Ne Mo
    Nov 20 '14 at 23:27
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    By that I just mean the legal process by which a lord could demand the return of a villein, in other words the right of lord to claim a villein be arrested and returned to him, in the event the villein fled. Nov 21 '14 at 0:18
  • Was The black death ad the scarify of labour afterwards the last nail in coffin? over what sort of period was the decline of villeinage?
    – pugsville
    Nov 21 '14 at 4:40
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    What caused such presumably unusual for contemporary Europe public policy?
    – Michael
    Nov 21 '14 at 6:58
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    This isn't quite correct. Villeins were tied to specific land (the word is connected with ville (=town)). They could not be transferred to different land without their consent and if the landowner sold the land then their allegiance would transfer to the owner. They did have some rights to protection and to farm but they also had obligations to the landowner. Serfs were worse off with little to no rights and could be evicted at will. May 18 '15 at 12:25
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There are a few reasons for why this happened so early in England. Following the Black Death, there was an increase in surplus labor which could demand more rights and better treatment for their work, including better payment making them soon less dependent on their lords.

The Black Death also decreased the people's faith in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church owned half the land in England in the early Middle Ages. Many serfs worked on the lands owned by the Catholic Church. New Protestant religious ideas began to spread in the 14th century. Henry XVIII officially declared England a Protestant country and dissolved Catholic monasteries.

Serfs and other peasants took part in a tax revolt following the Hundred Years War, known as Wat Tyler's Rebellion.

Wat Tyler's Rebellion or the Great Rising, was a major uprising across large parts of England in 1381. The revolt had various causes, including the socio-economic and political tensions generated by the Black Death in the 1340s, the high taxes resulting from the conflict with France during the Hundred Years War, and instability within the local leadership of London. The final trigger for the revolt was the intervention of a royal official, John Bampton, in Essex on 30 May 1381. His attempts to collect unpaid poll taxes in the town of Brentwood ended in a violent confrontation, which rapidly spread across the south-east of the country. A wide spectrum of rural society, including many local artisans and village officials, rose up in protest, burning court records and opening the local gaols. The rebels sought a reduction in taxation, an end to the system of unfree labour known as serfdom and the removal of the King's senior officials and law courts.

The rebellion was put down, but serfdom was on the out. Lords looked for ways to replace serfs that might rebel or continue to strike for higher wages. They did this by investing in sheep or burgeoning industries, such as coal extraction.

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