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Feudalism in Bedfordshire

Feudalism: Villains or Slaves?

According to Jacob’s Law Dictionary (6th edition, 1750), ‘There are no slaves in England: one may be a villein here but not a slave’. ‘Villeins’ were one of the elements of ‘feudalism’. This was a complex social structure which had been very important in the medieval period but which, by the end of the 17th century, had mostly been abandoned.

Of villeins (or ‘villains’, the spelling is interchangeable), Jacob’s records:

'Villain signifies a man of servile or base condition, a bondman or servant…there were two sorts;…a villain in gross who was immediately bound to the person of the Lord and his heirs: the other a villain regardant to a Manor being bound to his Lord as a Member belonging and annexed to a Manor whereof the Lord was Owner. And he was properly a pure villain of whom the Lord took redemption to marry his Daughter and to make him free; and whom the Lord might put out of his lands and tenements, goods and chattels at his will and chastise but not maim him.'

Some were villains by title or prescription, that is to say, that all their blood have been villains regardant to the Manor of the Lord time out of mind…some were made villains by their concession in a Court of Record…Villains were such as dwelt in villages and of that servile condition that they were usually sold with the farm to which they respectively belonged…[and] bound to do all such services as the Lord commanded or were fit for a villain to perform

Sound a bit like slavery? Effectively that’s what it was. Villeins were deprived of freedom and personal rights. They were the property of and subject to another person. The ‘tenure’ of ‘villeinage’ was an intrinsic part of the structure of society.

So what were ‘feudalism’ and ‘tenures’? Feudalism refers to the organisation of government and society on the basis of holding land (tenure) – the ‘feudal structure’. It still exists! Today in very simple terms you either own land or rent it (in which case you are a tenant to a landlord). Strictly speaking, even as a freehold owner, you are still a feudal tenant of the Crown but we don’t tend to see it that way in practice! Elements of feudalism existed before the Norman Conquest in 1066 but it was the Normans who went on to develop a highly structured society based on forms of holding land – a wide range of tenures.

In theory, the Crown was the only landowner and everyone below held land from someone else. A number of rich Barons held directly of the Crown. They parcelled their landholding out to others who did the same and so on down the structure. The result was a massive hierarchy of relationships with everyone holding land from someone else. At every level each person was tenant bound to their ‘lord’ by having to perform certain services as part of their specific  ‘tenurial’ arrangement. At the top end of the triangle, this might be military service by a Baron (a ‘tenant in chief’); at the bottom end it might be obligation to perform services such as removing dung from the Lord’s field, ‘even emptying his jakes’ (don’t ask!) and perhaps worse.

At the lower end of this social hierarchy there were people with no land holding at all or, maybe, association with land through an ‘unfree’ tenure. These people might have few or no rights and freedoms. They were chattels, things or property of their Lord. They were slaves. They could be bought and sold. There are examples of people as property in our archives. In c. 1252/4 Ralph Morin granted to his daughter Phillipa a large number of parcels of land at Harrold with ‘2 bondsmen Richard son of Stephen de Brocstrate and Ralph, son of Sale of the serf Robin of ThickthornesRichard the Reeve, with all their broods and chattels’ [Ref.TW501]. Slightly earlier in the same century, Ralph Passelewe of Bruham [Bromham] sold Thomas de Stacheden of Biddenham, ‘his naïf [a term used to denote someone born into a state of bondage or serfdom] or villain with all his brood and chattels’ [Ref.TW244]. A century later Hugh Haumund of Merston sold to Sir John Conquest ‘his serf Robin of Thikethornes with his children and their issue’ [Ref. RO5/4, below] and there are other examples of land being sold with ‘lordship of all ….serfs in the vill’ [Houghton Conquest in 1302; Ref.RO5/7].

The history of feudalism after the Norman Conquest is about the building of an elaborate and complex hierarchy of dependent relationships and then its deconstruction and simplification over time. War, economic dislocation and pandemics (such as plague) forced changes in ‘tenurial’ relationships. Dependency decreased; freedoms and  independence increased. Personal services became economic relationships. Unfree tenure turned into ‘copyhold tenure’ which over time became associated with rights similar to freehold ownership. Laws (especially the 1660 Statute of Tenures) abolished many forms of tenure. Ancient ghostly remnants of the old servile relationship lived on in some Manors in the form of ‘fealty’ on transfer of land (swearing allegiance to the Lord of the Manor) and, of course, survive in our language although often (as with villain) with meanings that have evolved and changed. In general, we moved away from thinking of a ‘right to possess’ land (the medieval concept) to a concept of ‘owning’ property outright.

According to the law, so-called ‘unfree tenants’ simply held any land and social position ‘at the will of the Lord’. How that was applied in reality varied from place to place and over time, not least because local customary laws often governed social relationships in Manors (where Lords had their own jurisdiction) and were unique to each. Certainly some would be slaves bound to the soil, effectively personal goods and chattels of their Lord and Master. When landless, they may have had ‘rights, often by local custom, to scavenge on the waste (the poorer uncultivated land in the Manor) for fallen wood for fuel for example. Their services and obligations were ‘uncertain’ (i.e. not specified or fixed), making them vulnerable to oppression, and they had no protection from the Common Law. The only legal recourse they had was through their Lord’s own court.  

However, as feudalism was broken down and deconstructed over time, these uncertainties - legal protection, security of tenure, arbitrariness of services – lessened. The bonds of the villein became significantly less than could be called enslavement. Social and economic changes saw services ‘in kind’ turned into fixed money payments or ‘quit’ rents. Concepts of equity and reasonableness came into the law to support customary tenants who often became copyholders or may have been granted their freedom by deed of ‘manumission’ such as villains of Ramsey Abbey in Shillington Manor in the 15th century [Ref.PE35-6].

When we talk about slavery we tend to focus on the slave trade and the movement for abolition in the 18th and 19th centuries. That is a subject area on which the Archives Service has many sources – some of international significance – that will be the topic covered in our next newsletter. We should not forget that enslavement was intrinsic to our own social structure in the medieval period and is another element in our national story. It should perhaps serve to remind us of the human inclination to enslave. History makes that tendency very clear. We should learn from it and use that knowledge to raise awareness about modern day examples, the exploitation of immigrant labour for instance, which has been topical in recent news.