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Discontent, Death and Disturbance in the 14th century

During the fourteenth century, the feudal systemthe social system in medieval Europe whereby a vassal held land from a superior in exchange for allegiance and service. (Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 9th Edition, CD-Rom, OUP 1996) - by which the English social structure had long been ordered - began to break down. In the early part of the century, a growing movement for greater freedom led to long-lasting friction between the labouring and merchant classes and their overlords. Famine, the Black Death, and the Statute of Labourers - by which the landowners attempted to control wages - were sources of further discontent. Finally, the poll taxes, whose burden fell most heavily on the poor, triggered off the Peasants Revolt. None of these events left the Mildenhall area unscathed.

During the 13th century the population of north-west Europe increased. This led to land shortage and problems of food supply everywhere. In the 14th century the climate deteriorated and many years of heavy rainfall resulted in poor harvests and disease in beasts and humans. There was an epidemic of smallpox in 1305 and in 1315 - 1317 a widespread famine caused high mortality among cattle and people. 1324 and 1325 were years of summer drought affecting harvest yields. The peasantry was constantly battling with weather conditions which adversely affected their harvest and survival.

Under the feudal system all tenants whether free or unfree had obligations to their lord. They swore fealtythe fidelity of a vassal or tenant to his feudal superior; loyalty (The New illustrated Dictionary of the English Language, 1931) Fealty: 1 hist. a a feudal tenant's or vassal's fidelity to a lord. b an acknowledgement of this. 2 allegiance. (Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 9th Edition, CD-Rom, OUP 1996) to them and were liable for labour services. A payment was made to the lord when daughters wished to marry and when a peasant died his best beast was taken by the lord as a heriot - a sort of death duty. The peasants belonged to the manor. If they absconded the manor courts declared them to be fugitives. It is not surprising that the peasants were discontented with their lot. There is evidence in manorial documents of opposition to the feudal system which might be regarded as a hint of troubles later in the century.

An example of this is the dispute between Mildenhall manorial tenants and the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds. They were evidently arguing about the legal rights of the lord over them. The case is interesting because the Domesday Book was consulted about the legal status of the manor of Mildenhall. In 1320 Roger Hervey stated that because he was a tenant in an ancient demesne i.e. a manor that had belonged to Edward the Confessor, the abbot had the right to labour services only. Roger does not appear to have won his caseDyer, C.; Everyday Life in Mediæval England; The Hambledon Press; 1994; p.226. There were further disputes with William Everard whose cow was seized as punishment.

In 1327, a time of general political unrest during the reign of Edward II, the town of Bury St. Edmunds rose against its overlord, the Abbey of St Edmund. The discontent spread as far as Mildenhall where a barn belonging to the Abbey was burned down. In 1341 Thomas Olyve, John Gernon, Simon Chapman and William Everard were in disagreement with the Abbey alleging that their sheep folds had been broken downibid p.227.

There was worse to come. The Black Death reached Italy in 1347, having spread along the trade routes from Asia. All Europe was affected: it is estimated that a quarter of the population died. The pestilence struck East Anglia in 1349, in 1360 (when children were the main victims) and yet again in 1371. This was a time of fear and suffering, especially for the peasant families who had lasted through the famines of the early 14th century. Their numbers were so reduced by the repeated outbreaks of plague that too few survived to till the available land. As the feudal system depended upon servile tenure, it began to disintegrate for want of a workforce.

Impoverished landlords, eager to gain a return on their holdings, were pressured by ambitious tenants to rent out land. Inevitably the surviving peasants added their own pressure by demanding increased wages. In 1351 the landlords retaliated: the Statute of Labourers attempted to return pay rates to pre-plague levels and fixed a maximum wage. Consequently friction between landlords and peasants continued through the century until the government's taxation measures sparked off the Peasants' Revolt.

In 1337 Edward III's claim to the French throne began a war with France (The Hundred Years' War) which was still in progress when he died in 1377. Edward's 10-year-old grandson, Richard II succeeded. The young king's advisors continued the war. To finance the conflict, they decided to raise funds through poll taxesA poll tax demands the same amount from everyone, regardless of wealth, and so falls most heavily on those who are least able to afford it. The first was imposed in 1377, followed by a second in 1379. A third poll tax in 1381 caused great hostility and evasion of payment and led to the Peasant's Revolt.

see also Peasants' Revolt of 1381
©2000 Margery Frape

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